Albert never got to be a little boy, and that was something that bothered him.
He got to be a man, yes, but never a child. Growing up, he had never gotten to go outside and play, he had never been permitted to scrape up his knees and come home at suppertime covered in mud. His childhood had been dresses and embroidery and avoiding his older brothers, but he didn’t like dresses and he was bad at embroidery and he’d rather play with his brothers than avoid them.
His mother often yelled at him about it. “Boys are animals,” she’d say, picking him up and placing him on the plush fainting couch. “Stay away from them, my darling Jennie, they’ll only do you harm.”
But Albert never listened. He’d talk and play with his brothers when his mother was busy doing laundry or entertaining guests and suffer through her lectures on being ladylike later. It was worth it, in the mind of twelve-year-old Albert.
His birthdays came and went and he still didn’t know what was wrong with him. He was interested in boys, yes, in fact very much so. There was even a time when he thought about getting married to a nice Irish boy, having children, and living the nice, calm life his mother had planned for her only daughter.
He was fifteen when he first tried on his brothers’ clothes. He liked the ability to move properly, comfortably. He liked the way they hid the swell of his breasts instead of accentuating them, he liked the way the shirt sat so as not to display the curve of his hips. He liked looking like a boy.
A year later his mother died. He attended her funeral in typical mourning garb, the dress bulky, restrictive, and hard to walk in. It made him uncomfortable in more ways than one.
Two years later he boarded a ship with his stepdad and two older brothers, with plans to never lay eyes on Ireland again. It carried a few memories, quite a bit of pain, and entirely too many dresses for his liking.
And then he was in America. America, the land of the free. America, the land where no one knew what he had between his legs. He told his stepdad that the boys’ clothes were just for work, just so he could get a job and help support his family. He was lying.
He worked like that for two years, until the war started. He signed up in July, along with the elder of his two brothers. He chose the first name Albert because it meant “bright” and that’s how he liked to imagine his future, he chose the last name Cashier because that’s what he was and had been for the past two years.
Albert wasn’t supposed to fall in love. It was supposed to be him and only him until the end of time. He couldn’t trust anyone with his secret, he could barely trust himself. But Jeffrey, Jeffrey must have known, to some extent. He even asked him to marry him at one point, to go back to Belvidere and be his wife. When Albert declined, his face had fallen but he hadn’t pressed further.
After the war his sleep was filled with nightmares of blood, screaming, and battlecries of freedom. But for him it wasn’t freedom. For him it was Hell.
It was his own private Hell that he couldn’t escape, inhabited only by him and all the men he’d seen die. There was no sunshine there, no Jeffrey, no smiling or laughing or anything remotely happy or calm or peaceful. It was all screaming and crying and last breaths, replayed over and over and over until Albert woke up shaking and covered in sweat.
These nights he’d want nothing more than for Jeffrey to be there with him. To hold him, to kiss him, to comfort him. To just exist with him. But Albert didn’t know where Jeffrey was, or maybe it was the other way around.
Slowly but surely, the nightmares stopped. He got a job, he supported himself with extra money to spare. He liked to work with children, in hopes that somehow he could help a child like himself. When asked why he hadn’t married, he simply said he hadn’t found the right girl yet. In reality, he was waiting for Jeffrey.
He didn’t know what would happen if he saw Jeffrey again, if they started an actual relationship with kisses and caresses and living together. He didn’t know what he would do if Jeffrey saw him naked, how he would explain himself. What he didn’t know is that he wouldn’t have to.
Because Jeffrey still loved him, and he didn’t care. He had finally accepted that he’d fallen in love with a boy. A boy, not a pretty country girl like his mother had wanted him to. Betty was kind, and smart, but she wasn’t who Jeffrey longed to share his bed with.
Albert had always longed to have had a boyhood filled with scraped knees and play fighting and pickpocketing unsuspecting neighbors. But he hadn’t, and he was finally learning to accept that. His childhood had been dresses and embroidery and avoiding his brothers, but that wasn’t who he was. He was whatever he wanted to be, whoever he wanted to be, and Jennie Hodgers wasn’t that person. He wasn’t Jeffrey’s wife, he wasn’t the mother of six squabbling children that made him feel uncomfortable in his own body.
He was Albert Cashier, a man just like all the rest of them.