You’re the one that won’t tell. You’ll pull on your boots and button your chin strap. You’ll salute and say, sir yes sir. Thirty hours later, you’ll be racing across baked desert in a retrofitted Humvee surrounded by sixty million people who hate you, and then you’ll start to re-learn what it means to be sorry.
“I’ve got no choice,” you said. “My nation needs me. This is what soldiers do.”
No choice? Bullshit. Let me draw you a roadmap, sweetheart. There’s your commanding officer. (Let’s call him West Point.) There is West Point’s office. There is his Odyssey minivan parked outside. There on the office wall are photos of West Point’s blond-haired, blue-eyed, cookie-cutter, mass-produced children die-cast in some Shanghai sweatshop.
Knock on his open door. Enter when bidden. Salute. Then announce (repeat after me), “Sir, I am a cocksucking homosexual faggot. Sir.”
Eight simple words. The path to happiness was never so easy. The Commander in Chief himself—that bastard Yale-based so-called Texan with a voice like a high wind through telephone wire—would want you to stay home.
“This some kind of joke?”
“Tulsa’s not Tikrit,” my business partner Sonja said. She flourished the Request For Proposal (RFP) for the Base Beautiful Project (BBP) at Camp Fuck-Me-Hard. “No reason a military base can’t look like the Daughters of the American Revolution Semiannual Flower Show.”
I figured we had as much chance of landing the winning bid as I had of bedding down Marky Mark in the Calvin Klein underwear days. RFP, BBP, STD, whatever. No doubt West Point and the rest of the commanders at Camp Fuck-Me-Hard would be more security conscious than to award a landscaping contract to a firm owned by an uppity homosexual and a woman whose armpits hadn’t seen the working end of a razor since the Gulf War.
But praise the Lord for minority preferences. Thanks to Sonja’s presumptive womanhood, Camp Fuck-Me-Hard is now our firm’s biggest client. Talk about Base Beautiful: three days a week, we rake leaves, plant shrubs, mulch the beds, and spell out “Welcome” in pink and white geraniums by the camp gate.
I stick out like a sore thumb. It must be the Capri pants, the straw sunhat, and the man-bag slung over my shoulder. The grunts are always joking that the pansies planted around the chow hall aren’t the only ones on the base.
But that’s how we met. Fifteen months ago, you saw me on your very first day back from your second tour. Remember? You were coming out of chow with a handful of your men. You had a blouse full of colored pins, a ramrod spine, and a voice made hoarse from barking orders. You were a barrel-chested, square-jawed, upright monster who could bench press me twenty-five times and not break a sweat.
I was taking a break from whacking weeds. I was cursing Sonja for ever having gotten us into the Base Beautiful Project. I was cursing God for sending down this hundred-five-degree heat. Then our eyes met and the clock in my heart gave an extra tick. You seemed as big as a mountain, an enduring idea. I jotted my cell phone number on a packet of matches. I swore I would reform all my bad habits and go to church Sundays if only you asked for it.
You said, “Catch you later, assholes.”
Your men said, “Sir, fuck you, sir,” and grinned.
I sipped from the strawberry mojito I had mixed in my thermos and rolled my eyes and prayed aloud for the good Lord to save me from their preposterous shows of schoolyard masculinity.
“Hey there,” you said.
“Hello, handsome.” I rattled the ice cubes in my thermos as if they were dice in a cup.
“Saw you workin’ the flower beds.”
“You should see me in my own bed.”
Your men laughed and slapped each other’s backs. One of them joked that I was sweet on you. You just smiled on one side of your face.
You remarked, “You’ve got no fear, partner. I like that.”
Okay. So no one was going to jot those words on a Hallmark card. But for you—a closed-mouthed, bound-up, tight-lipped, stoic son-of-a-bitch if there ever was one—this was the goddamn Gettysburg Address. Every soldier I ever slept with made a point of telling me that femmes didn’t turn him on, that he liked real men, that if he wanted someone girly he would date a woman. Not you. You just kissed me.
Yesterday, I was planting petunias in the command-post perimeter. West Point showed up with his well-pressed butt, his military bearing, his freshly cut hair, his mirror-glances and tie adjustments, his booming voice, and his too-young-for-him skateboarder sunglasses.
He dry-fired his sidearm into a barrel of sand to make sure the chambers were empty. He tossed off a compliment on the plantings. He joked that I had to have a militarily correct thirty inches between rootstocks.
“Not twenty-nine,” he said. “Not thirty-one.”
I could have followed him inside. I could have gone up to his desk and rhapsodized about your felching technique. I could have cataloged your tattoos, right down to that one just below your underwear band that says “Devil.”
But West Point wouldn’t have believed me. He would have figured (correctly) that I was just another bitter, lefty, unreliable, unrepentant homosexual who never had a chance of passing in the world of real men.
You, on the other hand, can pass. There’s not a soul alive that would think for a second you would let yourself be any man’s bitch. You are all soldier. You never had any other aspiration your whole life, no thought when you were growing up of being, say, a life insurance salesman or a ballerina or a high-wire act. You were raised single-handedly by a traditionalist Catholic (USMC, Khe Sanh, 1969–71) who rejected the voodoo of Vatican II and blamed your doting, diabetic mother for leaking substandard genes into his bloodline.
And there is no doubt you are a bad motherfucker. You are wound tight. One time in a bar in downtown Tulsa, some jarhead-cowhand with a firm grasp of the obvious called me a faggot. We could have walked away. We could have not spoiled the starry night. Instead, you pummeled the poor bastard silly, and I didn’t speak to you for days.
“It was no more than necessary,” you argued. “I could have done worse. I could have kicked him in the nads.”
A week later, you showed up at my door. Your peace offering was a dead rabbit you had hunted down and killed on the prairie outside of town.
“You brought a murdered rabbit?” I asked.
“I thought you might like to make a stew.”
I guess I should thank my lucky stars that at least you left the poor bunny’s nads largely intact.
About two weeks before you were due to ship out, we were lying in my bed. Our bare limbs were tangled in swaddling. The television blared. The anchor was faking solemnity. He told us that they had sent home more of your military brothers in body bags. The screen showed stills of grieving relatives clutching at neatly folded flags.
“God hates flags,” I muttered.
But you resolutely refused to be drawn into the politics of this war. You refused to acknowledge fuckups, mismanagement, deception, and incompetence. You preferred to speak only about acts of personal courage that transform ordinary men and women into beautiful warriors.
“Resentment is poisonous,” you said. “And opinions are for citizens and other people who don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. You see Ali Baba looking down a scope at you, you don’t have time for opinions. Is an opinion going to absorb a round from an AK-47 and leave nothing but a bruise on your sternum?”
“An opinion might help keep you from ever getting in Ali Baba’s range. You ever think of that, soldier?”
You chuckled. You said, “I should know better than to argue. Your brain is bigger than mine.”
You made yourself sound like a dinosaur, a Brontosaurus with the walnut brain in his head and another in his tail. But between the two of us, I’m the dinosaur. I want things that are old-fashioned and simple. I talk about kids and I leave the real estate section open on the table and a bridal magazine on your pillow. But if you’re ever destined to discover paradise, you stubborn bastard, it’s going to be in Heaven the way you think the good Lord meant it to be.
Honor and glory and duty have become my sworn enemies. I’d like to pick them off like a sniper, one by one.
“Been there, done that,” I said impatiently. “You have a pass, you have an out. So to speak.”
“You don’t understand.”
“You’ve already been to the goddamn desert. You’ve already proved yourself a man.”
I have always thought of you as my complete opposite. But the moment I uttered these words, I realized how much you are like me, at least in one way: we never stop having to prove ourselves. We do not get the free pass to manhood that straight men get.
“What I mean is,” I clarified, “no one will think you are less a man if you tell the truth.”
I stared at you a long moment: that pocked face, those deep-set eyes, that forehead that could stop a tank. It was all so crazy.
“I will, I do, let’s get married,” I said. “Let’s go to Massachusetts.”
I grabbed your hands, yanked you out of bed, and danced a pirouette under your outstretched arms. Your feet were shoulder-wide. You were dead serious. You looked at me as if I had spoken the secret code aloud in front of the enemy.
“Tell West Point the truth, soldier,” I said.
“There are other truths,” you said. “Who I sleep with is not everything.”
“Since when did you become a philosopher?”
“Other imperatives. ‘Imperatives’ might be a better word than truth.”
“Other excuses,” I corrected. “Christ. You run these crazy notions of yours up a flag and expect me to salute them? No. No, I want you to choose between this war and me, soldier.” I dropped your hands and stepped away. “And I want the choice to be the right one.”
“Hey,” you said, “it’s okay to hate me because I’m going.”
“I don’t hate you.”
I stuck out my tongue.
“Sometimes I hate you too,” you said cheerfully. You swiped at me with one of your bear paws. The force of your affection used to unnerve me. It used to leave bruises, but my skin has toughened up. I shoved you back on to the bed. I traced the shape of your body as if I could lay armor on it. I would lick you all over if there were a way I could protect you from harm.
But this game was dangerous. If I ever missed a place, I would never forgive myself. Your Achilles’s heel would be my fault, as good as if I killed you. I renewed my attentions with greater fervor, in your ass, under your balls, between your toes, behind your ear. Pardon my French (you hate it when I talk dirty), but if my tongue had the power to bestow protective armor, your dick would come home unscathed, that much is for sure.
I know something about poison and resentment. When we’re not carpet-bombing military bases with marigolds, Sonja and I specialize in poisonous and carnivorous plants. This is a purely mail-order business. It’s not the kind of thing you advertise to your regular customers, particularly the inspectors from the GAO. We stock pitcher plants and sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts, and other specimens that sound like something I might have caught because I didn’t wear a condom that one time.
A few days after you told me that you were headed back to Anbar Province, Sonja and I were working side-by-side in the locked hothouse where the dangerous specimens grow. Naturally, I was complaining about you.
“He’s a good Catholic boy,” I said. “He always goes to the first pew like his father did. He makes sure whoever comes with him sits first, inside, and he takes the aisle.”
“You go to church with him?”
“Come to think of it,” I said, “in bed, he also insists on the place nearest the door. He says it’s to protect me, but I worry it’s to flee. I worry his going to war is a flight. I worry his going to war is to die. On purpose. To avoid what we have here together.”
I clutched a choking weed in one hand and a misting bottle in the other, and I looked Sonja in the eye.
I said, “I worry that deep down inside he is a chicken. A pussy. A scaredy-cat.”
“You don’t believe that for a minute.”
Sonja plucked and bent and stooped and tended. We worked our way through the greenhouse giving love to these unlovable killers: Daphne shrub berries, Strychnine tree, the bleeding hearts, the rosary peas, jasmine berries, castor beans, hemlock, sandbox tree, the bean-like capsule of the Golden Chain Tree, and deadly nightshade, whose red berry is not only attractive but also tastes sweet. I pinched a berry between my fingers.
“I could trick him,” I suggested. “Get him to write me a love letter or email. I could print it up and bring it to West Point. It would be undisputable evidence. I’d love to wipe the smug look off that bastard’s face.”
“Don’t you think West Point already knows? He’s made his peace with it.”
“A fat lot he knows about peace!”
“If you put it in his face, he’ll have to do something. He’ll have to take action.”
“My point exactly,” I said, even though I knew taking the military from your life would be like extracting a live organ. I described holding that glistening, pulsing mass to the light, disgusted by its ugliness but awed by God’s inventiveness, the miracle that this lump of dark flesh could perform such complex, intricate functions.
Sonja sat back on a stool. She was uncharacteristically quiet.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I wanted her to join in the fun. She rarely lost an opportunity to needle our most lucrative clients at Camp Fuck-Me-Hard and here she was getting fidgety about putting West Point on the spot and dissecting your personality with a set of garden shears.
“I think we should go all organic,” she said. “Forget the pesticides.”
“Are you nuts? Half the yield and three times the work?!”
“For the baby,” she said. She patted her belly. She tested a smile. I felt strangely betrayed. Maybe even jilted. I looked at her as if the only poisonous thing growing in a ten-mile radius was in her belly.
“You let him get you pregnant?” I said, referring to her sometimes buddy-fuck.
“I didn’t let him do anything to me,” Sonja snapped. “I made a choice.”
Your head was full of sacred places like land mines, IEDs on the roadside of our conversation. Every once in a blue moon, you lapsed into a moment of particular silence (as opposed to your garden variety clamped-mouthedness) while some procession in your head passed that only you saw or heard. You woke me up at midnight with a knife at my throat and demanded in Arabic to see my pass.
You talked about the first tour exactly once. Your tone was so reverential that we were instantly in a chapel full of incense and sweat and raw knees and desperation. You said that Iraqi hospitals were overrun by the limbless, and filthy. You said how strange it was to hear the ka-chunk of chambered rounds in this place where civilization began. You mentioned the twenty-year-old soldier under your command who took some shrapnel and begged you to just not let him die. You held his hand and pretended that a grown man had not pissed himself. You helped him die.
I knew it was wrong, but some puny, twisted black part of my soul was jealous of the dying soldier. Jealous of every man and woman you met on that first tour, because they are in some inviolate place in your head I must not go, a mausoleum.
Though I knew I shouldn’t and I knew it drove you crazy, I could not help myself. I asked over and over, “Do you really want to go back to that?”
You kept saying, “This is what soldiers do.”
I seized you. I shook you. At first, you let me have my way. Then you grew bored, pried me loose, threw me to the bed, and took a position by the window. You scanned the perimeter. You seemed to need an imaginary sniper out there on West Twelfth Street that you could take out. Nothing else would calm your nerves.
“Do you really want to go back to that?” I asked again.
“Do you really want—?”
You jumped across the room and pushed me to the wall and drew back your fist. Now, you grew up in a home where your Daddy hit you and hit your mother. You fought back from time to time, and you lost and got bloodied, and yet made your Daddy proud that he had a son who was full of spunk and going to make him proud and grow up into a real man one day. You swore you would never be such a man yourself. But we often swear to go in one direction and the next moment chart a course toward another end entirely. So you bulked up on protein and lifted your weights and joined the service and learned martial arts. You filled yourself with flint and fire, piss and vinegar, stoking a hair-trigger temper with too many days of mortar fire and too many nights on patrol.
“Ever consider taking yoga?” I asked. “That might make it simpler to avoid becoming your Dad.”
Good and evil warred in your face. I was on the front lines. You struck the wall next to my head. You released me on the brink of being the kind of man you did not want to be.
“I love you,” I said.
“More dangerous than Ali Baba set loose in the souk with a bomb strapped to his chest.”
“I love you.”
“You’re saying that to make me stay.”
“No. I really love you.”
“Yes. Just to make me stay.”
“OK. Yes,” I snapped. “Will you stay?”
You looked away. You muttered, “My country needs me.”
When you and I first met those fifteen months ago outside the chow hall, I prepared myself for a short life on the down low. I figured secrecy was another one of these inevitable humiliations of homosexuality, the price one pays for finding a good man. Someday no doubt, I told myself, I’d stalk away in disgust, crushed and proud, full of dignity, and lonely as hell.
But the down low was not your m.o. From that very first day when you dared to speak to me in front of your men, you never shied away from me. You introduced me only by name. You did not explain me. You did not label me. You did not encourage questions. Your quiet was ominous. Your medals were a dare. Ditto your stars and bars, your aviator glasses. They all mutely challenged each soldier in the platoon to utter a goddamn word of objection.
Conversations dried up. Tongues went still. Words failed. You were as ramrod straight as you ever were. You nodded, saluted, and asked, “Isn’t this a fine day, gentlemen?”
Their faces became blank and unreadable. Their eyes searched beyond me. They were looking at a tomorrow without me, a day when your betrayal could be forgotten and your sins forgiven. They were like a squad of soldiers who agreed to pretend that a pitched battle in the fog of war that leaves blood on your hands and men you loved splitting open a child’s head with a gun stock or shooting a mother point-blank never happened. They were looking toward a simpler and more moral time, when men could be expected to act according to the laws that God had made.
Not that the men ever looked down on you. They still jumped when you barked, which gave me a thrill, a delight in your power and a laugh at their expense. But you took it dead serious. You expected nothing less. Your men owed you this obedience, just as you owed them the obligation of leadership.
Maybe I should have been proud of your stubborn refusal to pretend I did not exist. But this middle ground, somewhere between coming and going, between sunshine and shade, between closet and freedom, ultimately proved intolerable. My delight was always short-lived. Every road leads to war.
You are good at everything you set your hand to. You spent less than ten minutes at the nursery, and—swear to God—shit began to bloom. Plants grew toward you like they grow toward the sun. You quashed beetles between your fingers, plucked mites and weeds. You were intent, as if you were trying to hear what the plants had to say, to heed them, learn from them, and apply their wisdom in other settings. You reminded me how an oasis grows in the desert after a hard rain, and how quickly thereafter it dries to dust.
I deciphered a cryptic message; you were trying to tell me something. Something you wanted to tell, but must not. A military secret. A confession of sins. Was there at long last something in you that wanted to yield?
“Some people talk to their plants, at least,” I encouraged.
You gave me an inscrutable look. I thought for a moment you might utter those killing, cowardly words, “It’s not my fault.”
Then you leaned close to a pitcher plant. You started to talk. The conversation was intimate, beyond my hearing. Your lips moved faintly as if you were saying a rosary. And all the while your gaze was locked on my face.
“Never seen you talk so much,” boomed Sonja. She was coming into the nursery loaded down with a bag of organic mulch.
You leapt up and relieved her of her burden. You smiled shyly.
“It’s a special audience,” you said.
You were respectful and shy. You called Sonja “Ma’am,” though she was at least three years younger than you. At her direction, you spread mulch. She told you the four common names (ground cherry, Jerusalem cherry, Chinese lantern, and strawberry tomato) for the poisonous plants of the genus Physalis. She warned that even raindrops falling from a Manchineel tree could cause serious skin damage and might even kill you. She pointed out all the natural critters we had brought in to replace the pesticides and make a better world. “We aren’t going to poison our kids,” she said proudly.
You admired the critters’ precision, teamwork, dedication to the task at hand, their selflessness. You said, “What I could do with a platoon of men like these!”
You also exhibited a creepy fascination with the child in Sonja’s belly.
“I’m a farmer,” she said, brushing you aside. “Pregnant, not fragile.”
You didn’t listen to a word she said. You were listening to the child, to the echoes of war far in the future in battles that child would have to fight, and you had a perverse urge to arm him well.
I wanted to be that child. I wanted to be safe. I wanted to be in that womb, under the roof of a greenhouse that looked fragile but was filled with a jungle of plants that could easily kill you.
West Point summoned you to a farewell dinner. You brought me along. His wife put the children to bed early. She did not address a word to me all night.
She addressed you: “Does your friend want a drink? More sweet potatoes? How about your friend?”
You did not resist this label “friend.” You said, “Yes, Ma’am. A Diet Coke, Ma’am.” You said, “He likes his sweet potatoes.”
I sat mute at West Point’s table. I fought a war with the label his wife gave me. I interrogated the word “friend,” teased it, argued with it all evening long in the increasingly hollow confines of my head while you and West Point recited a sacred litany: IEDs. Snipers. RPGs. Car bombs. Mortars.
The science of death fascinated both of you. Not its biology, but the engineering, the ingenuity, the mechanization. You talked in pounds-per-square-inch and velocities and how a .50 caliber machine gun had the ability to reduce a running man to bloody mist in three seconds.
West Point said that he had just taken a turn on the training grounds with an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon.
“That SAW can fire 750 rounds per minute and strike targets more than six football fields away,” he said.
The tough-guy talk drove me crazy, but I had no right to object. After all, I had discovered something pathetic in me that wanted you to be the tough guy that you are, friend. I am invested in it. This war was my fault.
Afterward, in the car on the way home, I said, “West Point’s wife seems more shy than hostile, more sorry than antagonistic, more grateful for what she has than resentful of who we are. It would be easier to hate her if she were different.”
“It would be easier to hate Ali Baba if he didn’t have a wife and kids. . . .”
“Or three wives,” I joked.
“And a pecker between his legs and hopes and dreams and a serious desire to get a wall-mount HDTV and see Shakira shake her ass as she crawled through the mud. You know what I mean?”
“What I mean is—”
“She’s good people,” you said.
“Run your mouth off about everything else. Not this. Please.”
The next day, your second to last, you came to my parents’ place, and you helped my grandmother snap peas. You tipped your cap, and she fell in love with you. You were adorably uncomfortable with her grandchildren, but you let my nephews play with your weapon (unloaded) and my nieces see their reflection in your shoes.
“I’m not good with children,” you admitted to my grandmother. “I was born for battle. It’s a good thing I turned out this way.”
“Which way is that?” I asked.
You shot me a glance that was like a gunshot, as if I made you cuss in front of my grandmother.
“Gay,” you said. The word stuck in your throat.
“Keep practicing,” I said. “Repeat after me: gay. Gay. Gay. Gay.”
My grandmother scolded. You were silent. Then you smoothed down your tie and you chuckled wryly. Sometimes I think you’re an army all by yourself. Sometimes I think you’ve got many people inside you. But—God knows—if I am right, every single one of them is a tight-lipped bastard.
That night I did some very, very serious drinking, the kind of drinking that had a real point to it, that made me feel mortal and made me realize that I was a true son of Gaia. It was the kind of drinking that afforded a new and rich appreciation for the powers of gravity and the virtues of sitting down and that could easily have resulted in my waking up in a gutter in a foreign city wearing nothing but a tu-tu and a cock ring and carrying an illegible phone number crimped in one hand.
Your canvas duffel yawned in the corner. Your clothes were in neat piles on the bed: perfectly creased Skivvies, T-shirts, and camo pants, laid out like body parts. The display reminded me of those Orthodox Jews that go around Israel with tweezers and teaspoons after a bombing to make sure every last bit of Jewish flesh is recovered. How do they discern Jewish flesh from Arab? After a bombing, it must look all the same. Explosives are a great equalizer, I realized, essentially democratic in nature.
I dressed up in your things: the ill-fitting chapeau and oversized cravat, the shirt cuffs past my fingertips. I stood in front of the mirror and gave a smart salute, like some World War II boy whose Daddy was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Then I scattered everything. I tossed a pair of rolled socks against the wall. They made a soft, unsatisfying sound. I wanted to throw bricks through the plate-glass window. You didn’t stop me, though I could see how desperately you wanted to put everything right.
“How could you do this to me?” I shouted. “Do this fucking war to me? You think I will be here when you get back, you complacent arrogant shit? Think again.”
I staggered to the bathroom and vomited. I escaped to the front lawn. When you captured me, I gave you a sloppy public smooch that you were unable to fend off.
“How do you expect to stop Ali Baba,” I shouted, “if you can’t stop me?”
I swear to God: West Point was not on my mind. I just happened to be at the camp PX, minding my own business, and there was West Point, presented to me in all his proper, picture-perfect glory like a gift from the Almighty.
“When the enemy is present,” you always say, “there’s no time for thought. The real soldier is all instinct, born of years of training, and you only have one chance to show your stuff. Otherwise you end up dead.”
Amen. Praise Jesus and break out the pepper spray. You’d have been proud of me. I went in for the kill. I told West Point I had something on my mind.
He said, “Well, shoot.”
“It’s a personal matter,” I said. “Could we talk in private?”
He gave me a ride back to his office. His Odyssey reeked of diaper and half-sucked hard candy embedded in carpet. He sat me down with a side table between us. Two crossed flags on plastic sticks had been planted in a glass jar on his desk.
“Do you want coffee?” West Point asked. The question contained the implicit suggestion that maybe I had had too much to drink. This conversation was going to be the third world war. The war to end war. In my corner, one-hundred-thirty-five pounds of desperate, bleach-blond, green-thumbed, lovesick tattletale. In the other, West Point in all his military glory.
I reached over and plucked one of the flags, twiddled it in my hands, and began to talk. Not three words escaped from my lips, before West Point slid to the edge of his seat and leaned toward me. He looked like he was straining against a strong wind.
“He wouldn’t want you to be here with me,” West Point said. “Did he ask you to come?”
“Hell no. You know as well as I he’d sooner shit razor blades.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
“Let’s keep it that way.”
He plucked the flag from my hands and leaned back in the chair. One knee trip-hammered the linoleum. I opened my mouth to argue, to ask West Point how he could have the gall to ask anything of me, anything whatsoever of a secondhand citizen in what amounted to a foreign land. But all of a sudden, though there was not a molecule of you in the room (and I had to look twice), I sensed your presence, looming, disapproving, filled with doom and disappointment.
At that moment, I made a choice: I shut my trap and sat silently in honor of that fallen soldier.
West Point stared at me a long time. Finally, he promised to think about what I had said. And what I had not. I realized that even if I hadn’t bit my tongue, West Point would never have betrayed your secret. He couldn’t afford to go to war without you or to think any less of you. There was nothing to do but go home and kill you in your sleep.
I built a private temple, a shrine of your missing socks, your St. Anthony medal, and your chin strap. You don’t know how hard these things were to purloin from you. You are an obsessively tidy and organized man capable of living out of a small canvas sack for weeks on end. You notice when things go missing. You ask questions.
“The sock fairy,” I claimed. “The leprechauns.”
“Uh-huh,” you replied. “Well, if you happen to run across that sock fairy, you be sure to tell him that I want my goods delivered back to me by 0600 hours, you hear, or I am going to take the price of a pair of socks out of his hide.”
Then, suddenly, after I met with West Point, there were no more objections. I knew you knew what I had done. I knew you forgave me. I knew you knew all my sins, all the betrayals. There was nothing left to explain. There were, however, brand new socks from the PX. I could have stolen the roof from over your head and the shirt off your back and you would not have said a word. I destroyed my temple, and then immediately regretted it. I burst into tears as if something irrevocable had happened. I wanted to live in a world where gestures could be taken back, bad works undone, sins forgiven.
This was not your world.
“You’ve left me already,” I accused.
“It’s natural,” you said, “to experience some separation in the home before you actually go. It’s adaptive. It helps you survive. They taught us that in training.”
You should know whether it was true. You are a survivor. I don’t mean that in the sense of one who adapts at the cost of his integrity, a moral chameleon. I mean a person who blunt-forces his way through the world and kills all the bad guys, whose graces are luck, a steady hand, a good eye.
You said, “Buck up.”
You gave me a poem you said was by the late wife of the preacher Billy Graham.
Love without clinging. Cry—
If you must—
But privately cry
The heart will adjust
To being the heart,
Not the forefront
I tore it up. I pressed you to admit what we both know now: you are not coming back from this tour. Not alive, anyhow. You’ll come in a box, and I will never know, because it is your sister’s door they will knock on; she will get that folded flag, and the casualty officer will walk her through the paperwork and hold her hand.
I feel like a real man for facing this truth.
What exactly do you need from me before you go? What does any man marching off to war need? To know I love you? To know that I’ll be here when you return, that I will remember you if you should die, that I will remember you as you are now if you should come back in broken pieces, your balls shot off, limbs lost, face scarred?
Your mouth is closed up. Your tongue has cleaved to your jaw. Your vocal cords shrivel like a raisin on a vine. They are all useless artifacts of an ancient civilization. Speech, language, thought: they all disappear. You and I are just noise and mute longing. The evangelicals are right: we are no better than animals.
The evening before you shipped out, I ran amok in the greenhouse. I shattered glass and tore up bucketfuls of beautiful things. Cats worried, grubs scurried, and the yanked plants refused to stop looking beautiful, even torn to shreds, roots over petals, and everything littered with a layer of night soil.
All a man wants is to be taken seriously. Since I came out, I never had that. Tolerance, indifference, everything in between, but to be taken morally seriously, to be taken seriously as a man, as a potential threat or competitor or best friend, fellow traveler or warrior or lover, that almost never happens.
I brushed your eyelids with a stalk of spurge plant, a tropical exotic with a haunting lavender flower. If its sap leaked out, it would be transported almost instantly to the nervous system through the blood vessels in your eyes. It would paralyze your lungs. You would drown in your own fluids in less than a minute. Less time perhaps than it takes to say, I’m going back to war.
Your reflexes were so finely honed that you snatched at my wrist before your eyes even opened.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
I smiled. I said, “Hey, sleeping beauty.”
“Nothing,” I said. I meant everything. “Just passing some spurge over you for luck. Old wives’ tale.”
You subsided into the bed like a surfaced whale dropping back into the deep. You mumbled, “Well, old wife of mine, don’t fuck with my luck. Don’t jinx it. It’s done me just fine until now. Don’t throw off the balance, hmmm?”
“How are you lucky?”
“I met you, of course,” you said. And you rolled over and crushed the breath out of me. The green spurge leaves fell to the sheets, where I could see them pressed like a flower on a laminated page.
Leave it to you to sleep well on your last night. I wanted to wound you while you slept. I wanted to steal your driver’s license. I wanted to feed you ground glass.
On the morning you left, I could not be like all the other wives, who clung like vines to their men, growing straight out of the airport tarmac like willful, stressed vines, taprooted into something nourishing, a mainline. Tiny children stood at attention like at the JFK funeral until West Point scooped them up and ruined their dignity. Babies were passed around for a whisper of father’s breath. Sonja and the father of her child shouted and waved from beyond the fence.
You and I were different. We were dignity itself. We were make-believe. We were stiff upper lips, unkissed. We were faces starched so tight, you could bounce a quarter on them.
This dignity was not mine. It was an exotic species that poisoned the heart.
Me, I wanted to be like a child and salute. I wanted to be a spouse and cling. I wanted to grow roots in the tarmac. I wanted to stare after the C-17 long after it had taken flight, so as not to snap this long tether, this alchemical mix of will and luck and prayer and longing, that you would return to me, and this world return to something approaching normal.
Photo: Beverly & Pack