I can’t be what you’re asking me to be.
I can’t be your home.
You’re a strange man, Jeffrey N Davis, but you’re not the only one.
By now, you’ll have realize that.
You will find a home. Of that I am sure.
Betty T Ross was a wonder of girl, always talking as he used to and he learned to keep quiet around her. She would come for tea at his father’s farm, every week on Sunday. She smiled brightly, laughed loudly and loved fully.
Jeffrey was wounded. He walked around town with his limp, receiving pitying stares more than he did greetings until he did not go out anymore. His parents let him be, because he was twenty-two and they were worried about him ever since he had come back from the war, and they thought he needed this.
He did, in a way, and Betty would stop by more and more often until she came every day to sit with him and he would listen to her talk. His heart ached of the memories of his younger self, the one that talked too fast and thought too slow, that Betty reminded him of. Now, all he ever did was think.
He wrote a good deal, too, deciding, despite himself, to put in writing his memories of the war. He knew, from having read a lot in his youth, how important a first-hand testimony could be and though he could not believe himself to be the only one to have taken to write about the Civil War, he knew his story was not just his – but Billy’s, whose parents Jeff saw every Sunday at church, with whom he had sat only a few days after he had returned, and told them how their son had died, he would tell Walter’s story too, whose father if he had been alive and if Jeff had known where to find him, would have been so proud of him, he would tell about Sergeant Collins and all the boys of the 95th Illinois regiment. He would tell about Albert DJ Cashier.
It was painstaking process, one that implied reliving his memories often more vividly than when he had lived them, and facing the fact he could not, sometimes, put in words the reality of things. He soon came to realize that simplicity is best, and so he wrote simple sentences, with simple and short words to describe long and hard events. He started talking like he wrote – simple and short, none of his blabbering and rambling that had made his comrades laugh and slap him on the back ask him if he was going to make a point anytime soon with smiles in their eyes.
But Betty talked and talked and filled all the silences he left, all that he wrote down but never talked about, and for a while Jeff thought he would marry her. He thought: one I’m done with my manuscript, and she’s still here. He thought, because he was not stupid, that he would marry her because folks expected him to and because she seemed to complete him. She did not call him strange, or think he was a nitwit or a bumpkin. So he smiled sweetly at her when she came for tea in his room and he hid his notebook in his desk drawer, pretending he had been reading, or looking out the window, or thinking.
When he was almost done and came the moment he had learnt the war was over, however, he knew he could not marry her. He knew she did not complete him nor did he complete her. She deserved someone who would listen to her and care for her, not smile at her while his mind was elsewhere, lost sometime between 1862 and 1865. She deserved much, much more than he could give her. And so he told her, and she listened to him talk, and if he rambled a bit before cutting himself short, eyes going glassy and unfocused and he whispered “You can’t be my home” when he should have said “I can’t be yours,” they did not talk about it because Betty left and they never saw each other again.
Jeff finished his manuscript and he did not leave out a single detail until he had heard the South had surrendered and he had boarded that train. He wrote it all, in long, drawn out sentences where he put more of his present self than he had ever allowed in previous pages.
He had loved Betty, of that he was sure. And he had loved Albert too, he knew, long before he had found out – found out what, exactly? He had not found anything, only contributed to cloud his mind with confusion as he refused, even as he thought that he finally did, to see what was right in front of him. Jeff realized that now, just like he realized he had been a fool, in love, yes, but too caught up in himself to see past his own discomfort and reluctance and see Albert.
Albert, to whom he had asked to be his wife and Jeff felt a cold pain twisting in his guts at the word. He had seen the woman and refused to understand, to see, to listen that there was no woman and there had never been and there would never be. No, he had seen Albert and refused, in his selfish relief, to see the man. But he saw him now, oh, how he saw Albert and never had he hated his excitement, his rambling on, his nervousness, what had made folks always call him strange and perturbed, and made Albert laugh and tell him “You thinking you’re strange,” with his smile of his which had seemed so out-of-place and pained, no, Jeff had never hated himself more.
He finished his manuscript and put the pen down. He thought he could never let anyone read it or he would- Albert would- he could not. So he opened his drawer and took everything out and he pushed at the fake bottom he had installed in the very first days of his returning to Belvidere. He grabbed the letter he had hidden here, turning it over in his hands, staring at the messy Jeffrey N Davis, Belvidere, IL that had been scribbled on one side. He did not open it, he knew what it said by heart already. Instead, he placed it inside his notebook, closing it with the intent of never opening it again. He put it in the drawer, and turned the key. He pocketed it, running his fingers over the small lump it formed in his pants.
He went out.
He became a politician. He never could have predicted it, his parents neither, they never had had much hope for him. But then again, maybe it just about figured. For the first time in his life, Jeffrey was thinking too fast and talking too slow but he knew how to do with a pen and he rose quickly.
He was not even thirty and his parents had finally let go of his never marrying. They had asked him about Betty and he had told them that she was not the one. He never let any other woman get this close to him. He knew he had hurt her, had been told so by her sister who had barged in their home one day and seethed at him. He deserved it, but he knew he had been right. He could never have been satisfied with her, then how could he have satisfied her? He heard she had married a man, a farmer, and they had then moved to the South, and that was the last he heard of her.
Not being married had its perks, one of which being he had not had to worry about rent or even buying a house until he decided he had enough of his parents’ house and settled in a small two-room home on the outskirts of town. He liked it here, and he liked his life as it was.
He was not thirty, then, when he walked out of church one Sunday morning and he saw him. He could not tell for sure if it was really him, because he was far and he was facing away from him, but it could only have been him.
“Albert!” he cried out.
The man seemed to start, look around and with that he was gone. Jeff almost could convince himself he had imagined him.
The second time he saw him, there was no doubt anymore. He was sitting on a bench at the far side of the church and Jeff wanted to go to him but mass was about to start and his mother pulled on his sleeves, having him sit next to her. There was no indication Albert had even seen him.
When he came out that Sunday, though, he was waiting for him.
“Albert DJ Cashier. I’ll be damned.”
He extended a hand but he did not take it.
“I left you at the train station,” he said instead. “I’m sorry.”
Jeff smiled bittersweet. He glanced around, noticed his mother staring at him with piercing eyes. He grabbed Albert by the arm, gently steering him away. “Come.”
He tried to ignore the fluttering inside of him at Albert’s wide surprised eyes. He invited him in his home, despite the awkwardness that resulted. He brewed him some tea and they sat on the porch, staring at the empty fields, thighs almost touching.
“I thought about it, you know,” Albert said, and Jeff was thinking that they had not seen each other in close to a decade and he was prettier than ever. “If I could have been satisfied. With what you offered me.”
Jeff scoffed and he thought of Betty, he thought of the tiny key he now wore on a string around his neck, and of the drawer it opened, and he thought of what he had offered Albert all those years ago, joy and guilty relief bubbling inside of him.
“Sometimes, I still wonder if I would have been,” Albert said.
“No you wouldn’t.”
And there they were again, Albert’s wide blue eyes, fixed on him.
“I asked something of you that you couldn’t possibly have given me. That I’m not even sure even I wanted. This wasn’t you. This wasn’t us.”
Albert stared at him in wonder. “Never thought I’d hear you say that.”
They laughed and it was easy. They talked all of Sunday until the evening and Albert said “I have to light the streets” and so he went. He said a lot of other things, “I resented you” and “I’m pretty sure I loved you” but none of it mattered because ten years down the line and they were still arm in arm like nothing had happened, no proposal, no train station, no ten lonely years.
They met every Sunday after that, even though his mother glared at him with reproachful eyes when he skipped the Sunday lunch, but really, he didn’t care. He was a man on a mission.
It was late one Sunday and they sat on the porch watching the stars when Jeff panicked about lighting the streets.
“I quit,” Albert said, and under Jeff’s inquisitive gaze: “I want to work for a farmer. I’m good with my hands.”
“My dad’s looking for-“
“I can’t work for you dad, God, Jeff.”
He sounded so much like when he was younger that they were both shocked into silence.
“I’m leaving town.”
Jeff simply nodded. “Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere no one knows me, I guess.”
That would be a lot of places, Jeff knew, but he did not say it.
“Could I go with you?” Jeff asked and he held on to the question even as Albert tried to get around it.
“No, you couldn’t, Jeff, what about your career?”
“To hell with my career!” he ended up saying, and he was being honest. “I don’t care for it. I was never supposed to be anything more than a farm boy anyway.”
“So now you’ve achieved all this, you’d want to throw it all away?”
“Nothing wrong with a farm boy.”
“But for what?”
Jeff’s breath hitched. “For you.”
It might have been the first time either of them had acknowledged feelings for each other than weren’t past but present. It knocked the breath out of Albert and he had to remember how to breathe after long minutes.
“I’m not going to ask you to marry me, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I’m well aware that’s not possible. But living with me, letting me care for you in a home that’d be ours, being my possum…”
Albert stayed silent, staring at his feet.
“I’m not a foolish boy, anymore, Al.”
He sighed. “And where d’you think two grown men living together would be acceptable, Jeff?”
“Anywhere!” he said. “Anywhere if you’d let it. Anywhere if you’d fight for it!”
Albert stared at him, face expressing all the exhaustion and pain he felt. To live as Jeff wanted was a sacrifice, but hadn’t all his life been a sacrifice?
“Just try,” Jeff told him.
They had to try.
They got a small house down in Kentucky and they worked as farm hands in a large estate ten miles from it. Too many people worked there for anyone to know them and they lived too far for anyone to recognize them. Them living together had raised some questions in the nearest village but they said something about being brothers who had fought in the war together, which wasn’t technically a lie, and that seemed to do the trick.
They did not need much so they had little: a kitchen, a table, two beds and a porch to sit down on at night and look at the stars. It was all they had ever dreamt for, as boys, lying awake at night in a camp surrounded by brothers who were not there anymore. It was enough.
More than enough, really, when they had each other, even when they still tiptoed around each other and slept in separate beds, despite the few first hesitant kisses they had exchanged, late at night, and then those which weren’t hesitant at all anymore. They had not undressed each other yet because despite the very intimacy they now lived in, Albert still felt nervous and Jeff did too and so, they didn’t talk about it, figuring it would get brought up when it would, and that was it.
Jeff talked, a lot, mostly because he could not while working on the farm and because he liked Albert’s face when he was listening intently to him. Albert talked too, albeit less and slower but his voice would be poised and soothing and Jeff could not count how many Sunday mornings he had fallen right back to sleep at the sound of that voice, his head on Albert’s lap and Albert’s hand in his hair. It was times like these he truly felt loved.
Love. They did not talk about it, half because they didn’t think they had to and half because they were scared. They talked about everything surrounding it, though, and everything it entails. They talked about their relationship and couldn’t reach an agreement except that they were here, right now, together, and they were happy. Jeff insisted on calling him his possum buddy and Albert protested with a smile. He didn’t mind so much.
They did not go to church anymore. Firstly, because they did not like both going to the village at the same time for fear it remind someone they were two men living together, and also because they did not see the point. They both believed in God but not in the same way, and Albert could never feel comfortable in an American church.
Jeff wrote his mom every week, sometimes just a few lines, sometimes he rambled on and on for pages, but it didn’t change anything because he never got any answer anyway. They were Davis in town and he had given her the address of the postal service because he didn’t want anyone coming up to their house. He knew his mom had not approved his giving up his politic career to become a farm boy somewhere far away from his father’s farm, but he also knew that alone might not have stopped her from writing him. No, she had always had her doubts, and when he had come to collect a few things and his notebook he had kept locked up all those years, and announced them his departure, she had had a sad look in her eyes.
“It’s that boy, isn’t it?”
Jeff would have been damned if he had tried to deny it.
Jeff did not care if he was a nance or a ninny, or a galboy, for that matter, or whatever other names the kids at his school used to call him to make him feel like less than a man, feel like he was strange and stupid. He did not care because Albert said he was not dumb, and Albert was special.
Albert was his home.