Is the clarity, the simplicity, an arriving
or an emptying out? If the heart persists
in waiting, does it begin to lessen?
If we are always good does God lose track
of us? When I wake at night, there is
something important there. Like the humming
of giant turbines in the high-ceilinged stations
in the slums. There is a silence in me,
absolute and inconvenient. I am haunted
by the day I walked through the Greek village
where everyone was asleep and somebody began
playing Chopin, slowly, faintly, inside
the upper floor of a plain white stone house.
The Answer by Jack Gilbert
Nate compares himself to the narrative of the soldier returned home. He looks for the differences to chase a fleeting sense of relief.
He doesn’t jump at backfiring cars, and gunpowder poppers thrown in the streets by children on the 4th don’t fray his nerves. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t sleep on the floor - he loves his bed, could sink in to his mattress and become one with the pillow top; appreciates sleep now in a way his college-aged self never did. He doesn’t keep a go-pack in the hall closet. That shit’s for the other guys, not a Reconnaissance Marine. He doesn’t jump. Doesn’t hide. Every ounce of self-preservation was drowned by the end of OCS, against his nature. It was what made them good. He ran towards the noise.
He walks around his neighborhood at night, wishing for violence. For the cresting wave of a fight to spill out of a bar’s door and wash him away. For someone to follow him, shout at him - assume, maybe, that he’s a college student, that he’s soft, someone to be intimidated. He gets cut off in heavy traffic on the highway on a Thursday afternoon and imagines his ka-bar pressed to a tender, tense throat. Pulls off the side of the highway, hazard blinkers on, and breathes until he stops craving it.
“Have you thought about what you want to do?” his mother asks politely over a sweating glass of ice water and a slice of lemon meringue pie. The meringue is too sweet and feels sand-gritty against his teeth, so he separates the filling from the graham cracker and eats the crust in small jagged pieces.
“I was thinking of going back to school.”
The look on her face says, finally. A goal, a choice, something other than ‘I don’t know’ and living off his combat pay and not answering the phone.
She doesn’t reach out and grab his hand, or touch his arm. She might have, once.
“That’s good, Nate. You’re only twenty-six, you’ve got so much time. You’d make a great teacher, you could go for an education degree to go with the classics…”
Nate smashes pieces of pie crust with the prongs of his fork, as if he were pinching away the guilt of drowning out his mother’s grasp on to something, anything, to talk about with her son. A line of condensation rolls down the side of his untouched water, wasted on him. He’s grown accustomed to thirst.
He keeps his hair short for longer than necessary, a pair of clippers shoved in a drawer in the bathroom. He waits longer to cut it than he would have before, toeing the line of grooming defiance before falling back within it.
He sets two alarms for the morning, twenty minutes apart (one to ignore and one to motivate, waking in layers) and lays out his running gear the night before. He runs twice, three times, then starts hitting snooze. He changes the alarm after a few weeks yet wakes up at five a.m. anyway. Lays there for a while, goes back to sleep.
For lunch, he picks at food in gray, recycled pulp-patterned cardboard containers and reheats what’s left for dinner later, and when he misjudges the time necessary to warm it all the way through, he eats it anyway - hot, cold, lukewarm in the middle. It tastes the same; of dried-out rice, or salt, or peanut butter on crackers.
He lives. Whatever that means.
The family Fick plans dinner for the third night Nate is back in his childhood bedroom, giving him a little time to get accustomed - to what, he isn’t sure, but they keep saying it, offering it, so he nods.
The house is full and loud, and Nate’s movements become tighter and more controlled the more he drinks as the night goes on. He focuses on the precision of his hands, the steady flow of water in to a glass with the faucet only half-cranked so it goes slower, with his back to the cabinets so he can’t be approached without being aware of it first. He plants his feet firmly like the ground is something he is trying to pin down. It’s not as noticeable to everyone else, but he knows he does it and even then, is unable to stop. He is trying not to be seen. His brother-in-law claps his shoulder in a familiar and friendly way. It feels like something Wynn or Patterson would do, something he craves to lean in to. Nate wants to buckle under the touch for a myriad of reasons.
The drink he has with his older sister Stephanie at lunch, visiting Baltimore that weekend, is carefully watched. She looks apprehensive as he picks up the glass, like she wants to caution him about alcohol addiction rates among active service and veterans, like she wants to say, “should you be…” and is holding back for fear of his reaction.
Everything Nate does comes with an air of hesitant scrutiny, now. Of concern. He has to pretend that he eats enough, sleeps enough, socializes regularly, shits regularly, smiles and laughs and inhales, exhales in a way that reads as okay.
He goes to the movies alone on a Tuesday morning while his parents are at work, and when he hears, “and now, before your featured film, a special message from the United States Marines” during the previews, he stands up and leaves.
It’s easy to hate the desert - unrelenting and harsh, seemingly intolerable. Everyone does, a sense of solidarity uniting the platoon against another perceived enemy, as inanimate as it may be. There wasn’t much to like about the grit and burn of sand, a runny nose and inflamed eyes from constant dust. No one thinks of Afghanistan or Iraq and imagines the plush lands, the mountains. The green blanket of shrubs that curls across the land and ends in frost and soft snow in the higher altitude. Juniper and wild pear trees in the foothills, and small herbs in clumps and bundles along the banks of the Euphrates. Thyme that Nate pinches and rolls between his fingers before inhaling the aroma.
One of the men in Charlie had a small book that he carried with him in the breast pocket of his flak jacket, where he pressed smaller leaves and flowers, and sketched the larger flora. A drawing of willow trees shaking in the slight breeze snaked across a two page spread and Nate smiled, complimented the captured movement. The marine resisted beaming, “I wanted to go to art school, but I wasn’t enough of a pussy. Also, dreams are expensive, sir.”
“It wouldn’t have been wasted, Corporal.”
There should be no part of Baltimore that reminds Nate of Baghdad. The qishla buildings that hug the curves of the Tigris, sparse, short trees dotted along in between them that never grew tall due to flooding. The endless warmth and heat, white buildings to keep the interiors cool, and the religious bright blue and turquoise of turrets in the distance.
When Nate dreams of Baghdad, guilt squeezes his stomach. Thousands of dark windows were his focus during the invasion of the city center - looking for flashes and glints, the shadow of bodies in white linen coming forward in to the light to shoot. It takes him a long while to realize he’s watching the face of every building with good vantage points as if expecting the sudden firework of a gunshot. He tries to walk through the city with his head down, after that. The part of Baghdad that reminds Nate the most of Baltimore is the tall stacks of smoke plumes from air strikes, a terrifying forest, a gray skyline.
One of Person’s more memorable rants, for Nate, is the conspiracy of the USMC trying to replicate and reproduce the specific adrenaline spike that allows a mother to lift a car over her wayward, crying infant child, without giving Marines a heart attack and killing them. He thinks command is doing it by announcing SCUD attacks every forty-five minutes and observing the nine second countdown of everyone putting on their MOPP suits and diving in to ranger graves and larger pits, huddled together. Command, he says, is angry that they’re all calm as shit, unbothered. “They shouldn’t have beat the self-preservation out of us, man. We don’t give a shit, we’re cool as fucking cucumbers. America’s dumbshit pitbulls. This is just one more trick we gotta do before they’ll give us a big juicy bone. Shake, roll over, die from gas attacks, what the fuck ever.”
Brad leans in and just stares until Person shrugs and goes back to licking radio wires until the frequency quality improves. Nate is making his rounds as he pauses at the lead humvee and finds himself drawn in, like a fugue-state moth to the loud flame, to Person’s rant, and he has to suppress the snort of laughter in his throat. He compares it to slowing down to watch a wreck on the side of the interstate, later, and Gunny Mike Wynn laughs low around a wad of tobacco.
Mike is ten years older, and is more suited to leadership than Nate feels most days. The men respect his reputation and his experience, but he distances himself in a way that Nate is certain he is unable to do. In the spare few seconds before falling asleep on fifty percent watch, he feels inadequate. Time at Pendelton and then Camp Mathilda was spent making sure he deferred to his team leads, exposing his soft spots to the pack. That he didn’t know as much as they did, but was willing to learn. Trust given is trust earned, his father had once told him, overly-serious advice for what was surely some earnest and world-consuming issue when he was a teenager that he no longer remembers. The inadequacy is fleeting and faintly embarrassing as he falls asleep as if by command.
The group emails Nate finds himself involved in after his exit from the Marine Corps reminds him of an erratic version of the telephone tree his mother maintained for his class when he was in 3rd grade. Much more graphic and sporadic than weather updates and event reminders for the clans of eight year olds, the emails are grouped together with the date in the subject line - and the organization stops there. A small part of Nate is grateful he’s still included until he sees that it is nearly impossible to be removed once added; Doc Bryan tries every time a message is sent.
It’s through this newsletter sent out in May that Nate learns Brent Morel - his replacement - was killed in action a month before, once the details of the mission are declassified.
It sparks a hot and ugly twist of emotion in Nate’s gut; nausea, anger, remorse, and, the blackest of them, selfish relief. He grabs his keys off the table by the door but sits in his car in the garage, unable to shift out of park.
The truth of it was that it could have been any man. Any man with his foot in that particular spot, turned a certain way. Nate thinks of the hole in Reyes’ windshield, of the back of his skull exploded. Person had ducked up and down, cackling about close calls, but it wasn’t anything special about Reyes that meant he was spared, or anything special about Morel that meant he wasn’t. Flesh and bone in the path of a bullet, mathematics and the luck of trajectory, and it makes his hands shake where they’re wrapped around the steering wheel and the gear shift. Maybe it wouldn’t have been him, maybe Nate would have leaned to one side differently than Brent, carried his weight differently, stepped with his left foot instead of the right. Just because it was his replacement doesn’t mean it would have been him, but Nate’s gut knots like a navy rope anyway.
Twenty minutes later he gets out of the car and goes back inside the house.
When she gets home later, his mother asks him how his day was. Nate shrugs. No one wants to hear the truth about it - any of it, let alone Brent Morel, and even if they did, Nate isn’t sure he could explain it. Make it understandable and bite-sized and consumable. He isn’t sure he could even get the words out, in the right order, and the urgency of getting it right would frustrate him. So he shrugs.
The most exhausting part of being home, of being a civilian, is all the speaking. The expectation of, the excess of, the inability to. It’s exhausting.
His younger sister, Maureen, had given him a book, after dinner that first weekend, wrapped with a sweater of his she’d stolen before he left (he saw her leave his room with it, when she’d come to help him pack his belongings in to storage, because her boyfriend had a truck, and she’d wanted to) and he read half of it in boredom the first week until he bookmarked the page he’d left and been unable to pick it back up. He finds it in his hands, several times, and thumbs through the pages to the start of the chapter he’d abandoned. He’s reread it a dozen times and can never move past it.
“Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point?”
Nate returns to the book again that night, and rereads the same ten or twelve pages again. When he sets it on his bedside table, he picks up his laptop from the floor and starts an email to Mike Wynn. It’s full of shit, the things that every one of them repeats ad nauseum, like that he’s doing fine, he’s grateful to be sleeping in his own bed, and that he hopes Mike’s doing well. They’re not exactly lies, but it isn’t accurate, like the war stories that may or may not have happened but ring with bright, blinding flashes of truth anyway. He sends it, the last few lines the only thing that really matter. ‘I’ve been writing a bit lately. To keep track of it all, to keep it in order. To exonerate us later, maybe. Or just me. Might make a good book someday.’
After, he starts an email to Brad Colbert. The problem with that, he finds, is that so much of talking to Brad was not talking, on his end. Brad had a way of saying true and honest things, regardless of their impact, things that leveled him if he dwelled on them too much. Nate relinquished that raw honesty when he became an officer, found that he couldn’t shrug off the verbal impact of truth with his superiors or his subordinates. So much of being in a leadership role was finding a pretty way to cover up what he really wanted to say; it hurt his teeth to suppress. He should have been NJPed by the end of it all for how defiant he was. Maybe so much of their easy communication had been Brad’s ability to anticipate needs, to be a good team leader. To do what was necessary, what Nate needed from him. No more and no less. Nate doesn’t quite want to believe that, though. He remembers the cracks over the last few weeks in-country, the uncomfortable shifting of the parts of himself that he couldn’t hold together anymore, and Brad’s faith in those crumbling pieces.
Nate saves the draft but doesn’t hit send, slaps shut the lid of his laptop and picks up his phone instead. Texting is easier, maybe, than the formal expectations of an email. Anything that doesn’t feel like it requires punctuation has to be easier. He wants to say something about Brent, about Iraq, about something that he can’t articulate but that he knows he could convey by looking at Brad. Something about how he can’t talk to anyone he knows about any of this, but he knows (hopes) that Brad would understand. That small talk feels like having his teeth pulled from his skull but the inability to say anything feels worse.
‘Thinking of sending a care package. Peanut butter crackers sound good?’
It’s nearly 2 a.m. in England. Nate puts his phone on mute and places it face-down on his dresser on the other side of the room so he doesn’t have to think about it.
The next morning: ‘Fuck no, sir. No offense, but I’d rather starve. How’s civilian life?’
It’s the first week of June and Nate decides, one morning, that he severely needs to unfuck himself. He moves out of his parents’ house so he’s no longer a ghost haunting the hallways and kitchen while everyone else is gone or asleep; his mother puts on a good show of tearful goodbyes, but Nate’s sure that she’s secretly relieved. His father as much as says so, clapping him on the shoulder, and it wrings a laugh out of Nate like the last drops of water in a twisted rag. His first night in the apartment is his twenty-seventh birthday, and Maureen goes grocery shopping with him to stock the fridge, even though she voices her intention to order pizza as soon as they get back.
“It’s tradition,” she explains.
“This isn’t my first time living on my own.”
“It’s still tradition.”
“Large Supreme. Breadsticks. Extra dipping sauce.”
“It’s freaky, when you read my mind like that.”
They sit on the floor together in front of the couch like the day they moved Maureen in to her college apartment, boxes stacked against the wall, with beers wrapped in wet paper towels stashed in the freezer so they’d be cold enough, and napkin plates folded on their knees. It’s nice, and Maureen says as much around half a breadstick crammed in her mouth. Nate feels guilty, suddenly, watching Maureen throw her head back and laugh, and the bite in his mouth feels like chewing clay. He tosses his crust back in the box (Maureen grabs it immediately with a look of disbelief at his wasting “the best part of the whole pizza, Nate”) and leans his head back on the edge of the cushion behind him. A drink of beer clears his mouth of the clay.
“Sorry I haven’t been the best company, lately.”
“You haven’t been any sort of company, dude.” Maureen winces, and knocks the back of her hand in to Nate’s thigh. “Sorry. Didn’t mean it like that.”
“Well. You’re not wrong.”
“Yeah, I know I’m not wrong, but I could’ve been nicer. It’s not like it’s been easy, and everyone wants you to be the person you were when you left, but you’re not, so I’m pretty sure hiding in your room is, like, the easiest option.”
Nate blinks. “Yeah. I mean. Yeah.”
Maureen reaches out and grabs another wrapped beer, peeling the stiff, frozen paper towel off the label and flinging it in Nate’s general direction. He catches it easily and throws it against the wall where the TV will go in the next few days, and it slides down with a wet thump.
“I’m just having a harder time than I thought I would. Figuring out…” He blows air out of his mouth in a sigh and Maureen turns her body so she’s facing him, now, attentive. “A lot of shit. If I made the right decision, if I’m gonna make the right decisions.”
“Did you like being a marine?”
The question is direct and to the point. It reminds him of Brad. Direct and to the point, but the answer is immediate. “More than anything.”
“Then why did you leave?”
Because I liked it too much. Because I don’t think I was a good leader. Because I wasn’t allowed to be a good leader. Because if I stayed, I wouldn’t be a good person. Nate picks up his beer for something to do with his hands. “I lost faith.”
“Should I pray for your immortal soul at church this week?”
Nate tries to laugh, but it’s strangled, abortive, drowns in his throat and dies on the beach of his tongue. “I don’t think it’d help that much.” Maureen frowns, but turns back, slightly, and bends to rest her head on his shoulder. It’s uncomfortable for both of them but they don’t dare move. Nate feels something in his stomach settle in place, calmer than he’s been in a few months.
“I think...it can’t have been all that bad, if you went over there and did what you needed to do, and brought all your guys back home. You helped some people, right?”
The smell of sewage leaking in to streets and soaking the ground, and all the children Doc cradled to his chest like he could do something, anything, more than what he was already doing. The idea of statues of G.W. erected in every city center. “I think maybe the bad outweighs the good.”
Nate’s apartment is close enough to Maureen’s work that he insists she stays the night, but she eyes his bed in the other room and without a word he tosses his pillow and blanket on the sofa.
He wakes to the sun through the naked windows in the living room, stands and stretches upward. He’s slept (or not-slept) in worse places before. Maureen left the coffee pot on in the kitchen, the only appliance they dug out before going to sleep, and his second favorite mug in the rack beside the sink. There’s a note on the corner of the counter.
‘I’ll bring your mug back. NOW GO GET A JOB. Love you. - M’
He’s not sentimental enough to stick it on the fridge with a local insurance agency magnet, but it’s near enough.
‘Spending two days in the ocean trying to keep these kids from drowning almost makes me miss sand.’
‘Liar. Nothing would make you miss the sand. Personally, beaches are ruined for me.’
Nate wakes to messages from Brad more often than not. Occasionally, threads of conversations from the previous day are picked up, but most of them are piecemeal thoughts, shared as though they came in to Brad’s mind and he wants nothing more than to say them aloud to Nate. Almost like he enjoys talking to Nate. Over breakfast and after a morning run, Nate reads through the six hour headstart Brad’s gotten, and then after showering, he responds in bulk. It’s become part of the routine he’s constructed for himself, the rigid schedule to fight the emptiness, to ward off the introspective guilt that wraps around him like a cat twisting about his ankles.
His day now looks like this: he sets two alarms, still, and allows himself an indulgent five minutes to stare at the ceiling before getting up. He runs six miles on an empty stomach like it’s atonement for wasting those five minutes, then eats breakfast and reads his email. He skims all of them, pretends he’s getting a head start on work, but looks for the ones from Brad, specifically. When Brad is on a mission, when he doesn’t have contact to the outside world, Nate eats his toast in four large bites, gulps down his coffee, and doesn’t bother opening his email. He isn’t sure what that means. His commute to Piper Security Solutions is twenty-five minutes, and most mornings he walks through security and in to the elevators with headphones in so he doesn’t have to speak to anyone. Sometimes there’s music playing through them. Most evenings he gets off his train a stop early and walks the rest of the way, his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened. He writes, some evenings, and edits others when writing is too difficult, and sends chunks of it to Mike, to Brad, asks for their help with his timelines as a way to make conversation. He calls his parents three times a week and makes polite, perfunctory conversation, and it makes his mother happy, so he tries. He tries, whatever that means.
He read that having a schedule was supposed to help. A goal in sight to keep focus, a way out of the heavy fog that settled around him once they rolled back in to Kuwait. A lot of that reading is “wake up and thank the universe for another day of existence” bullshit that makes Brad laugh (and the transatlantic phone bill charges and slight embarrassment is worth it, to hear that sound alone) but Nate admits that most of it makes sense. The Corps gave his life a defined structure for years, lines inside which he was allowed to color. The sudden release from that left him off-balance, like missing the last stair at the bottom.
“That makes sense. Most of us wouldn’t know when to shit if an officer didn’t tell us when,” Brad says with suspicious sincerity. Nate holds his phone closer to his cheek, pressed painfully tight to his collar as he makes dinner.
“Sorry,” he breathes when he realizes he’s been silent for too long. “Trying to make something to eat.”
“Mac and cheese is not a complete meal.”
Nate drops the cheese packet in his hand. “There’s a meat and a vegetable in the mix, thank you,” he says defensively. Brad laughs, solid and warm, and Nate holds the phone even closer.
“My fifteen are almost up,” Brad says after a beat.
“Hey, you’re not - “ Nate’s mouth works on the words for a minute, numb. “You’re not wasting your time on me, are you?”
Brad doesn’t hear him, pulls the receiver away and shouts something to someone else in the background. “Sorry, I have to go, sir.” The line crackles, just a bit, as Nate turns in his kitchen and presses his lower back against the counter. “Later.”
“Bye, later,” Nate says in a mangled rush, but Brad has already hung up.
More than a routine to keep him straight, more than running and cycling to wear his body out, more than the Harvard acceptance letter he presents to his mother as amends, the writing helps. He carries a notebook with him back and forth to work every day, sets it on the coffee table, the counter, the bedside table, but sometimes is unable to pick it up and write. Most days, he’s scribbled out the same idea in different sentences over and over and over, hot and embarrassed and frustrated with the feeling. One morning, he nearly misses a meeting he’s supposed to be sitting in on, unable to break pen from page. Sections of it he types up and sends to Mike, asks for feedback, for fact-checking, for honesty. He emails Brad more than the parts Mike sees, usually at night before bed, before he can think about it too much. He doesn’t ask Brad for feedback, or fact-checking. It feels more like a slow opening.
Brad doesn’t often respond to those emails. He provides clarification on events, or quotes from others, but there are almost no comments on the content of it. It’s easier for Nate to offer the intimate parts if he believes it’s being skimmed over. That it counts as the opening up that his sister insists he does. In October, Brad’s reply is a line of Nate’s, copied and pasted. His only note: I like this part. Nate’s stomach jerks a bit as he reads that, and he attributes it to the jolt of the train taking off, pocketing his phone quickly.
He dreams that night of the dark holding its breath around them at the roadblock, the way he could see everything in the moonlight in sharp relief, and the car that kept coming even after Espera fired his warning shot. He hears Meech telling them that Muslims grieve differently, but Nate’s sure that there can be nothing that lessens the devastation of cradling your daughter’s body to your own, blood warmer than the body spilling it in a slow puddle, thick and viscous like oil.
Nate remembers learning that at night, the eye doesn’t perceive the color of moonlit objects, that the memory and suggestion of color shades in the rest, but he’s still certain he knows the exact shade of red across the back seat of the civilian car, dark rust red smeared in to a lighter, metallic orange. He’s certain it couldn’t possibly have been black and gray as he walked toward it.
He jumps at someone rapping their knuckles across the corner of his desk, then recoils in slight embarrassment that he let himself be startled.
“There’s coffee in the break room, Fick. You look like you could use it.”
“Thanks, that’s nice of you,” he jokes wryly, and stands for lack of anything better to do, closing his jaw around a yawn. He sits back down with a cup of coffee and the national security stats report he’s supposed to be checking over, but leaves the folder open and abandoned on his desk and reaches for his phone instead.
‘Would it be irresponsible to use all my paid holiday time as soon as it kicks in to sleep on my couch and order Thai food?’
‘All of it? I thought you joined up to travel and see the world.’
‘That’s the navy. Better to fall asleep on a beach and risk the sunburn?’
‘Not a beach, too much sand.’ Then, ‘England’s alright, they tell me.’
Nate sets his phone down, still open on the last message, and sits back in his chair. He leans forward again, and rereads the message. He doesn’t respond immediately, and then he’s being called, but the non, semi, sort-of invitation sits at the back of his mind the rest of his day. He stares at it intently on the train that evening, trying to formulate something impressive and casual and clever. Nothing clever comes, so he goes for directness: ‘Is than an invitation?’
Nate hits send and has no signal on the train, puts away his phone after staring at the error message and trying not to read in to the symbolism. It takes him another two hours after getting home, cooking dinner, and failing not to dwell on it, before he gathers the courage to type and send it again. In Dorset it’s past midnight, but the logic of not expecting a response due to timezones is lost to Nate’s anxiety - so he snatches his phone off the coffee table immediately when it buzzes less than a minute later.
‘It’s an invitation.’ Then, ‘Can’t let that holiday time go to waste.’
Nate leaves his phone in the living room when he goes to bed that night. He doesn’t message Brad in any capacity for the next two days, and when he does, Brad says nothing about it. Nate imagines some forgiveness, some benevolence folded in gently with what Brad doesn’t mention, prays for some understanding that he’s not ready, but something deeper and larger in him tells him that it wasn’t meant to be an offer of anything. He is slow to respond, over the coming days, and leaves the conversation to dry out between them.
He notices days that are harder than others. Nothing about them are different than the other days - he wakes on time, runs, goes to work, and deals with no more than the usual stress - but he’s off-balance from the start. A car swerving too close to him, or the rolling bumps of being jostled on the train to work, and the weary knocks and groans of the HVAC above his desk, all conduct an orchestra of frustration and irritation. When Maureen was young and threw fits with no discernible cause, their mother would call it being “bungly” - unsettled for no particular reason. Nate recalls Maureen, seven years old and sitting on the ground, crying at nothing more than her dress twisting around her body in a weird way when she moved and one of her shoes laced tighter than the other. A mood where the machinations of the day were just too much for the moment.
It starts as a discomfort in his own skin, the way his arms rest at his side or the pinch of skin at his knee as he folds a leg under his body on the couch, and goes from there. The drape of a t-shirt across his back or the digging of the waist of his jeans in to his stomach. He runs along the river in October and likes the way the cool air stings his face, fights his lungs, he runs harder and farther than usual in hopes that it distracts him. It doesn’t last long enough. On the way home, he stops and picks up a six pack of beer and starts drinking before dinner. It helps about as much as the running does, the buzz on an empty stomach making him sit down too heavily on the couch. He thinks about calling Maureen, or Stephanie, or the beautiful woman on his Cybersecurity Foreign Policy team at work, who smiles at him and brings him coffee in the morning and asks where he’s going for lunch like she wants him to invite her along.
He taps at the screen of his phone, slowly, like each click takes making a weighted decision, and twists the seam of his jeans around on his thigh as the phone rings.
It goes to voicemail.
“Hey, Brad, it’s me. Nate. I’m, uh. Having a weird day, I guess, nothing’s wrong, just - weird. Tired, but I’m getting enough sleep, can’t decide what I want for dinner. I guess I’m not that hungry. I’ve got this proposal I need to work on, suggestions on securing federal networks and holding...people accountable, holding departments and agencies accountable, making sure communication is open and, and all I can think about is being in a firefight and different companies not even being on the same fucking radio frequency. Marines fifteen klicks apart and they can’t even decrypt each others’ signals. It’s uh.” The sound chokes in his throat on an aborted laugh. “It’s hilarious. Ridiculous. Anyway, sorry, I was just thinking about that. If you’d remember that. I think you said you’re on a training mission this week, so...have fun. Godspeed, ‘oorah. Yeah.”
He hangs up before a second wave of embarrassment hits him, but it’s the most he’s spoken all day and he feels slightly better for the unburdening. The house felt too small, too stuffy with the heat going, despite the start of a snowfall beyond the windows, and the beer warms his chest. He cracks the windows in his bedroom but falls asleep, and wakes with a red nose and aching lungs. When Brad calls back a few days, Nate blames the voicemail on being sick and dosing himself with cold medicine, and Brad lets him.
It’s Christmastime, and Nate has been out of the Corps for nearly a year. He begs out of staying the whole week at his parents’ house with excuses of work to be done and promises of Christmas Eve and dinner the following day. Nate instead takes a few days off of work, bakes break-apart cookies and watches Die Hard and falls asleep on the couch.
On day two, Maureen wakes him from dozing on and off lightly by banging on the door, and is grinning sheepishly with snow spotting the shoulders of her coat when he opens it.
“Sure, loud sudden noises are a good idea,” says Nate, standing to the side to let her inside. She shrugs.
“I was told to make you feel guilty for shirking your familial obligations this holiday season,” Maureen says by way of greeting.
“Tell mom I say hello to her too.” Nate kicks aside the blanket he’d been twisted up in so she can sit, and picks up the half empty bottle of bourbon and slides it on to the counter. “What’re you doing here? I’ll be there Friday and Saturday. Like she’d let me skip Midnight Mass.”
Maureen busies herself with removing her coat and scarf, leaving a ring of melting snow around her in front of the door. She unlaces her boots and kicks off the chunks of ice on the bottom, which answers Nate’s next question about how long she’s planning on staying.
“Mom and dad’s can be overwhelming.” Maureen looks at Nate expectantly, like she wants him to understand this clemency. What’s unsaid: overwhelming this time of year, overwhelming for you, overwhelming for you right now. Nate is hyper-aware of his sour breath, his two day old pajama pants and USMC sweatshirt, the fever-warmth of his skin from the bourbon and bundling under his blanket since the morning, and he drags his hands across his hair as though it will look presentable with such minimal effort. He tilts his head down and his cheeks would be pink if he weren’t already drinking.
“I just thought, maybe, it’d be better this year. To get - give them a break.” He waves his hand at himself to encompass the whole of a Fick Christmas and the cinematic atmosphere of it all that he’s sure he would ruin. His mother deconstructs the Christmas tree the day before her grandchildren arrive so they can decorate it together, and that strikes him, suddenly, the profound kindness of it. Maureen chews on the inside of her lower lip, watching Nate move around the kitchen, putting away the dishes in the drain and tossing a crumpled bag of nearly empty coffee in the cabinet, as though Maureen’s presence requires a certain amount of cleanliness. Or as though he is suddenly ashamed of the state she’s found him in. He’s not sure he can find a way to say that the idea of a loud, full house, and sitting shoulder to shoulder around a too-small dining room table for most meals, and no privacy, and the creak of floorboards all night long makes his pulse quicken and his mouth dry. He’s not sure he can explain why.
Maureen doesn’t respond to that. Possibly because there is no adequate response, and instead she shuffles as he sits back down so that they’re closer, her legs folded under her and the cap of her knee touching his thigh. She grabs his remote and flips through his DVR, and Nate is grateful for the dropped subject. He pulls the blanket up off the floor and untangles a corner to pull up over his shoulders. Maureen settles on The Year Without a Santa Claus, the one with the Heat Miser and Cold Miser that one Nate loved and furiously defended as the best ABC stop-motion special year after year as a kid. After a few minutes and one musical number, she reaches down in to the bag she set on the coffee table and pulls out a greeting card envelope, flinging it in to Nate’s blanket. It catches on the knit of his blanket and he snakes a hand out to grab it.
“My therapist told me it was a bad idea, but she was also laughing when she said it, so there you go.”
Nate slides a finger under the envelope flap and tears it open, and from inside a generic non-denominational snowscape holiday card falls a piece of paper as large as the fake religious million dollar bills the local church sticks in his mailbox. He turns over a hand-made coupon for “One (1) Free (or highly discounted) Therapy Session with the Professional of Your Choice, Courtesy of M.C. Fick.” There’s glitter paint on the border, and a snowman sticker in the bottom left corner. He starts to laugh.
Maureen steals the blanket from Nate to cover both of their laps, and they watch Rankin-Bass stopmotion holiday movies for the rest of the evening, skipping Rudolph’s Shiny New Year at her insistence (“What’s more festive than Ben Franklin and a baby-eating vulture?” “These movies are so fucked up, I can’t believe dad let us watch these.”). She draws the line at ordering Chinese, though, so they bundle in wool and walk together to the grocery store in the snow. They throw whatever they want in the hand basket, and Nate picks up a card embossed in silver and navy with a dreidel on the front. He scratches “Hanukkah Sameach. Nate.” inside and Brad’s barrack address on the front, and drops it in the mailbox the next morning on the way to his parents’ house.
Nate gets his Harvard Business School Student Handbook in the mail and spends the entire evening poring over it with more excitement than he’s done anything with in a while. He dog-ears certain pages, then scribbles notes on a sticky pad and bookmarks other pages with them. He marks courses of studies that seem interesting (most of them), and their requirements (a lot), and the enrollment statistics (intimidating) for each. When he tells Brad this, Brad laughs. Nate’s starting to admit that he enjoys the sound more and more, warm and crackling across the distance. Brad is on leave, and hiking his way up Helvellyn, a mountain in the north of England near the coast that he says has been on his bucket list for years. Nate can close his eyes and imagine Brad next to a bonfire with other hikers near the summit shelter, stretched out parallel to the flames, leaning on his pack. Not far from the shore, the sky reflected back mirror-smooth in the waters of a lake, the moon swathed in slow moving clouds. It’s a calming image. Nate is sitting on the floor with his back to the sofa, handbook balancing on one bent knee. His head is tilted back on the cushion, eyes closed.
“What are the choices, again? I don’t think you’ve told me what you wanna major in,” Brad says, and Nate is pulled away from a lake in England and the stifling heat of a fire on his face.
“I don’t know. Should I know?” He confesses to Brad in small measures, these things that he’s not sure he could have ever said before. It feels easier in a way that Nate attributes to the privacy of his phone screen, his email, his apartment - in his pocket, behind a password, a locked door. Only now does he think that maybe the ease is because it’s Brad.
Brad’s voice on speaker moves closer, then further away; he shifts, and Nate does the same by drawing his knees up and letting his arms fall loose to the side. “Not necessarily, sir. Nate. What were the choices?”
Pulling his head forward and opening his eyes, Nate flips open to the first bookmark, and goes through all his options, sticky note bullet point by sticky note bullet point. Brad ‘hmm’s thoughtfully at certain points, clicks his tongue at others, and laughs at Nate when he confesses that the enrollment statistics make him want to go for a course of study harder than the others. “That sounds like you.” Nate wonders, suddenly, what else sounds like him. What image of himself did Brad hold currently, the way he pictured the lake and the fire and the tent pitched yards away, the sprawl of Brad’s long limbs.
“I feel like I should know what I want to do, and the only question should be how to get there. But. I don’t know. My five year plan is a little shot to shit.” Brad is twenty-nine now, and still enlisted even though he seems to have the same wavering, flickering faith in the whole thing that Nate did, even back then. A small child wrapped in a dusty bloody blanket, and Brad crying, asking what he could possibly do. The same hot embarrassment that flared in him when he thought of Gunny Wynn and his experience, his assuredness, started to crackle inside his throat. “How did you know - how do you know you still want to do this? The Corps, I mean. You’re good, Brad, you’re fucking good, and you could do anything, you could. Do a lot of things, with the time you put in, and your skill. So...” His mangled question, why?, hangs there. Nate draws his limbs in toward his body and bites on the inside of his cheek where a small, warm sore has made its home.
“Yeah. I guess. Because I’m good at it. Because I know I’m fucking good at it. It’s nice, to know what you excel at, and to see how it’s applied. To have it actually applied, instead of...being good at something, theoretically. I don’t question my place in it.”
It’s not accusatory, like Nate questioned his place in it all and found himself wanting. Nate wants to ask if he feels better, this way. Less accountable. If you’re never home, if you never have to decide to get up and run and shower and catch the 7:15 train of your own accord, if you have to live day by day with orders from on high, how do you do it? Is it easier, after long enough? How long? Would it have gotten easier for him?
“Nate,” Brad says, and he inhales sharply, brought back by the sound of his name. “I’m pretty sure you’re gonna fucking excel at whatever you want to. So whatever Ivy League collegiate social studies bullshit you put your mind to, you’ll be good.”
“Your faith in me is reaffirming,” and it’s meant to be a joke, he tries to force the intonation, but it comes out too shaky, too truthful.
“Good. I still have it.”
The silence has its own pulse that beats in Nate’s throat, around his eye socket. He opens his mouth, slightly, and his jaw pops in his ears from clenching too tightly. “I’ve completely ruined the illusion of NCOs for you, haven’t I?” This time, Nate is able to force out a small laugh, and Brad takes the out, laughs at the weak joke, and it pulls then tugs apart the knot in Nate’s stomach.
“Can’t be let down if there are no expectations to fail, sir.”
Three weeks later, Nate finds a postcard in the fold of weekly sales papers in his mailbox. Striding Edge, an arête leading up to Helvellyn, is painted on the front in wide swaths of blue and white and gray. On the back, in Brad’s sharp and precise all-block lettering, is written, “Charles Gough was an unknown Romantic artist who died here. Reports are conflicting, but it’s said either his dog ate him and his clothes, or he fell to death and was picked clean by ravens.” On a new line, “Class enrollment ends the 27th.”
Nate puts the postcard on the fridge, next to Maureen’s note from the first morning in his apartment, and below his glittery therapy coupon.
Brad is deployed to Afghanistan, and Nate struggles to space out the emails he sends - he is so used to a stream of thought sort of communication, of open comfort, and the silence in his life is deafening. Nate shaves his head and throws away the shorter guards that cut so low the freckles on his scalp are visible. A fresh start. He sets his alarm earlier, and runs farther, and goes out with his coworkers when they invite him, says ‘yes’ every time for nearly a month - before, he had said no so many times the Loyola intern, Andrew, stopped asking and assumed Nate hated him. He tries, and knowing that he’ll be moving soon makes it easier to. He emails Brad two, three times a week, but makes notes in his journal of the important things he wants to say, writes three times as much as ever makes it to the keyboard.
The summer in Baltimore is sweltering, less heat but more humidity than the desert, but it feels familiar, almost comfortable now in civilian clothing. On his way home, walking from a train stop further away, he takes his suit jacket off and drapes it over his forearm and breathes deeply. Inhaling doesn’t feel impossible with a hundred pounds strapped to his chest. The days are longer and he goes to sleep later, eats lighter, and he decides, after a while, that he likes trying.
He goes with his sister Stephanie and her husband to look at apartments in Boston and Cambridge in late June, and then goes back the next weekend with Maureen to find the apartments that their parents would worry about - coincidentally, centrally located to bars and restaurants and train stations. (“I know I’m your favorite, you don’t have to say it,” Maureen says magnanimously.) He signs a lease for a one-bedroom and, two weeks later, puts down his first and last month.
“I’m trying,” Nate tells his mother, his sisters, Brad, as June bleeds in to July and Brad returns from the middle east, from his fourth deployment, and he really means it.
“So,” Brad says, and he sounds hesitant. It’s so strange to hear the vein of it in Brad’s voice, usually solid and self-assured, and Nate thumbs the volume button up on the side of his phone, presses in as if to physically bring Brad closer.
“I have libo in two weeks. I can leave the country.”
His heartbeat thumps harder, in his wrist, the crook of his neck. He thinks of vacation days, sunburns, beaches and open invitations.
“See the world, join the navy?” The joke sounds pretty bad to his ear, too close to bringing up the offer Brad put out there months and months ago, but Brad laughs.
“I thought you might need someone to help you move.”
“Normally you have to twist an arm and offer beer and pizza to get someone to help you move.” He doesn’t know why he’s arguing the opposition, like he’s trying to make Brad see his error. He doesn’t know why he never said anything before, the last (only) time Brad offered - he never pushed, but looked at flights that took off on a Friday afternoon, a Saturday, a Tuesday, pretended to consider the difference in prices, the layovers. And now, because he’s trying (trying to what, what are you doing, he asks himself), he says, “I mean. Yes. Yeah. I wouldn’t mind that. You seem less likely to complain than my sister, and would probably be more grateful for the beer.”
There’s a beat, an eternity for the anxiousness pressing up against Nate’s ribs, and Brad asks, “Yeah?”
Nate nods, then, realizing he can’t be seen, says softly, “Yeah. Sure.”
Brad emails him less than an hour after they get off the phone with his flight information in to Logan International. Nate wants to reply with humor and a quick joke, but can’t think of anything that doesn’t betray his eagerness, his nervousness, so instead he prints the itinerary, and sticks it on the fridge.
Brad looks good. It strikes Nate as the only thought he can hold on to, when he makes out Brad straightening from the cab in front of the new apartment building in Boston, and he cuts the wheel of the moving van he’s rented a little too sharply in his distraction. Nate parallel parks without grace, slightly crooked and sticking out in to the street, and he can see Brad from several car lengths up the entire time. Nate’s vaguely aware of thinking that Brad has always looked good, but they were all prairie dog lean when they’d rolled back in to Kuwait, stretching MRE packets further than they were intended to last and dehydrated despite command’s frequent reminders to visit the Company’s water buffalo truck any time they’d stopped. England and the end of another deployment, six months this time, did the body well, though. Brad wore board shorts and a black t-shirt despite having departed straight from the Royal Navy, and Nate is reminded of Corporal Person sitting on his rucksack waiting for transport to the airport in Germany, head in his hands, ranting about people giving their seats to servicemen. “What if I was a fucking, geriatric, pregnant, paraplegic Armyman? Their head would explode trying to figure out which one they’re offering their goddamn seat to.”
Nate jogs up to him as he’s tugging his luggage from the cab, slightly breathless in a way he’s going to blame on the distance from the van, or the heat of July. “I thought you were going to call,” he says as a greeting.
Brad stuffs his wallet back in his pocket after paying the driver, taps the trunk lid twice with his fist before it pulls away. “The flight was fine, mother, thank you.” With a slight turn, they’re suddenly standing facing each other, and the moment stretches. What Nate was afraid would feel awkward, or wrong, is comfortable, expectation or assumption. The same as Iraq. Brad smiles, and Nate steps forward to clap his shoulder or pat his back, but he finds his arms raising up instead. There’s no aborted movement, or slotting and re-sorting of arms and chins on shoulders, shuffling of feet, just solid warmth. Nate pulls back first and runs a hand across his growing hair. It’s a lot longer than the last time Brad saw him.
Brad laughs. “It’s good to see you, Nate.”
Nate hasn’t visited any of his men since moving back to the east coast. He hasn’t had anyone stay. Mike brought it up, once, that he would be in DC, but Nate backed out at the last minute. He could tell by Mike’s voice that Mike knew he was lying, but was kind enough not to mention it. Brad is the first he’s seen of Second Battalion in over a year and under his gaze now, Nate realizes he’s been hiding.
He feels like someone else moves his arm to pick up Brad’s second bag, tugs his fingers up to unlock the door, drags his feet inside the new apartment. Someone else’s voice, going on about Brad’s flight, and the heat, and that there’s beer in the fridge.
Brad sits down on the sofa, lone in the midst of the larger living room without the coffee and side tables, the television on the floor propped against the farthest wall, a dark mirror for the space. He’s still, watching Nate move around the bare kitchen, hands laying flat against his thighs. He looks at place with a physical ease that runs throughout Nate’s memory of him, and Nate is all too aware of the movement of his own limbs, and he snaps the cap off a beer bottle and takes a long drink to hide it. It makes him feel drunk all of the sudden, how hyper-aware he is of his own body and its place in orbit to Brad’s.
“It’s good to see you, Nate.”
It’s not the casual nicety that it echoes, not exactly, but it has the hesitancy and possibility of being twisted back in to such if necessary. Brad stands from the couch, moves effortlessly, and takes the room and its worn parquet floor in several strides to lean against the island counter with his hands in his pocket. His large, matte black diver’s watch catches against the fabric and bunches it up, and twists the band up to reveal a golden tan line that Nate stares at for a distraction.
Everything that felt safe to say with the expectation of no response, or a delayed reaction miles and hours away, bubbles up in Nate’s throat but doesn’t pop. Instead, he says, “thank you,” and he means for helping him to move, and for showing up, and for a dozen other things that are too twisted up in his gut to untangle and put word to. He smiles at Brad, and it feels as easy as Brad’s own smile looks.
“I’m fucking starving. Do they serve any real food in this liberal hippie neighborhood? I have a nut allergy, so I’m not eating this bullshit vegan food.”
“The modern Achilles. A Recon Marine who can only be taken down by a peanut.”
Like with Mike, Nate had always deferred to Brad for his experience and command. It wasn’t entirely for show, during OIF. Brad exuded a sort of confidence and self-assurance that looked effortless; Nate felt like his own confidence was hard-won and difficult to grasp. So much of his leadership was bravado, theater. Positivity and cheeriness was the best way to get the job done, he had learned. (He thinks of Staff Sergeant Brinks in the dark, grinning and lit from above by tracers, like he was walking around camp, saying hello to everyone.) Now, slightly too drunk on the heat and an empty stomach, Nate scarfs down his dinner to catch up with the beer and he can feel the shift of that person, of the lieutenant, sliding around his shoulders like a too-large jacket. He hears himself and the deeper register of his voice, trying to sound more in control, the way he did when he was only twenty-four and in command.
One of the boxes in the moving truck is full of his command logbooks and personal letters he sent his family and ex-girlfriend, collected months ago and shoved in the back of his closet to avoid until now. All the different strings of narratives and the knot they made somewhere in the middle. Not for the first time, he wonders what Brad remembers, and how different it is from what Nate does.
Sitting under the outside awning of a bar in Boston with the sun simmering behind the buildings and sweat beading on his forehead, Brad is watching his movements low over the mouth of his bottle. Nate thinks maybe they remember some things - from the desert, from their phone calls - in the same way.
“You remember looking at the maps, after, of Al Gharraf? I thought we rolled four thousand meters after the turn, but it was more like fifteen hundred. Ray swore there was a bridge, but there wasn’t, to me. Or maybe there was, and none of the rest of us saw it, believed it, until proven wrong by the map.” Nate is gesturing with a glass of water as he speaks, narrowly avoiding sloshing it over on to the table, and he sets it down. He’s working toward a point, but it’s slightly muddled and lost. Brad still looks like he’s following along, though. “Everyone remembers it differently, I guess because we focus on different parts to get through it. I have my accepted truth of what happened. My memory of...following orders, or issuing a command, or a firefight, or. Anything. Someone else’s memories, though, it’s like. Having to find the middle ground of it all. If what I felt - what I thought - was true.” He thinks about Brad, crossing an entire ocean to help him drive a U-Haul twelve hours roundtrip. That maybe some memories, like his memories of Brad, were more solid than others.
“So how’s the book going?”
Nate smile is small and slightly embarrassed, looking down at his hands pulling apart the last few bites of his hamburger bun. “It’s hard to decide how honest I want to be about everything. If I want to...admit it all.”
“If you’re going to admit it matters, then it matters how you tell it.” Brad doesn’t fidget, or twitch, or pick at the label on his beer as he watches Nate. He’s still, and it’s less unnerving than it is comforting.
“When I first started sending parts to you, and to Mike, I told him I started writing to keep track and to maybe exonerate myself later. The difference between an act of honor and a war crime is how the story’s told after.”
Brad leans forward, bracing his forearms against the table, and the movement presses their knees together. He’s still watching Nate - Wright described marines as glorified birdwatchers, at some point, and remembering it makes Nate want to laugh now, but he’s still fighting the muscles of his throat to swallow, not to back down first under Brad’s gaze.
After a minute, Brad breaks, looks to the side. Their knees are still touching. “I think part of the difference, too, is how you carry it home with you.”
They walk back to the apartment in dusk, the air cool but still thick along the Charles. Brad talks about his men in the Royal Navy with the same brisk fondness he does their platoon; Nate asks for him to elaborate, pokes and prods in one slight direction or the other to keep Brad speaking, so he can listen. The difference between this, in front of him, and transatlantic phone calls and voicemails, is startling in a way that makes him feel stupid to realize. Of course there’s a difference, a huge one, but it’s more that he’s startled to feel so comfortable - with Brad there, but more than that, with anyone there, near him.
Brad goes for two beers out of the nearly empty refrigerator but Nate can see the exhaustion that curls around his shoulders, and digs through several boxes to find sheets and a pillow for the couch. Nate pauses with his hand on the handle of his bedroom door, listening to Brad shifting and stretching, then leaves it cracked open and lies down on top of the bare mattress, falling asleep to the white noise of the air conditioners in both rooms. He can’t hear Brad’s breathing, but he imagines he does.
The alarm clock sits on the carpet in the far corner of the stark bedroom, and flashes twenty past one when Nate wakes, fuzzy-mouthed and overly warm, and tries to stumble quietly in to the kitchen. He turns the faucet on low and lets it slowly fill one of the three glasses in the cabinet, and he isn’t sure when he’s aware he’s being watched, or if he knew since leaving his room, but he turns away from the sink and faces the living room and Brad on the couch. His bag is in the floor, his shoes on top. Nate can’t see Brad’s face or his eyes, but feels them all the same. The way the light floods in from outside illuminates sections of the kitchen, cutting him in to strips, and he ripples as he takes slow steps forward.
Nate doesn’t know what it is, but he knows something will break if he says something, if he speaks. It’s not an unusual feeling from his time back home, even the tension that settles in has a familiar pull on his muscles. He stops at the arm of the couch, still holding his glass at his side, and he can just make out Brad’s shape in the dark, the way he ripples too as he sits up.
Brad openly watches Nate as he reaches forward and tugs the glass out of Nate’s grip, setting it on the floor so lightly it doesn’t make more than a dull thunk, and then slides his hand in Nate’s gapped fingers. He doesn’t tug, or tighten his grip, or even give a slight squeeze. Nate is frozen by the movement, but doesn’t look down at their hands. He stands there for so long that he’s sure he’s dreaming, or sleepwalking, or that someone else’s legs have carried him here - it must be an hour, or ten minutes, or five seconds - then Brad lets go. Nate’s fingers twitch closed immediately, as though they meant to do so earlier but were too late. Brad slides back down on to the couch and settles on to his pillow, and someone else guides Nate’s body back to his bedroom, to fall on the mattress on the floor and tug the crisp sheets up around his shoulders.
In the morning, when Nate wakes, Brad has already showered and dressed and sits in the floor with his back to the couch, a newspaper spread out in his lap. It’s a quarter to seven, and the sun has already cracked across the floor of the apartment.
Out of equal parts curiosity and cowardice, Nate doesn’t speak. He takes the coffee mug that Brad slides over to him, and pulls the financial section out of the paper, but waits for Brad to go first. A game of silent chicken between two recon marines is possibly not his best idea.
Brad, unaware of the challenge Nate has issued in his head, looks up and smiles. It steals the air from Nate’s lungs.
“If we leave by 7:10, we can get out of the city and miss a lot of the traffic. If we stay on course, we’ll get to Baltimore by 1:30, and be back by night. How copy?”
Nate pretends to look at the road map of the Northeastern United States that Brad flips open in the middle of the spread newspaper, intently following the small blue twist of I-395 as though it would draw a line to the correct thing for Nate to say. “I assume you’re taking the first leg, then?”
They don’t talk about it. Nate locks the apartment behind them, and lets Brad navigate their way out of the city, and changes the radio station just before the end of every song because it seems to annoy Brad but he won’t say so, and they don’t mention it. As he watches the skyline flatten in to train rail yards and warehouses, Nate realizes he left his glass in the floor where Brad set it last night. He shifts, moves his legs and stretches them out further than he could in a humvee, though the map crinkling on his lap is a familiar, sharp sound. He breathes in, deeply, and his chest hurts with it. New Order comes on the radio and he goes to turn it, but Brad’s hand catches his fingers on the dial and tugs them away. He means to let go, to drop his elbow to the middle console and pull his arm back to his imaginary half of the truck, but he doesn’t - Brad doesn’t either. Now, in the light of day, Nate can see the length of Brad’s fingers, the way they bend slightly but don’t tighten around his. Just like standing in the kitchen yesterday, and standing frozen by the couch in the early hours of the morning, it’s an out. It’s an open-ended answer to a question Nate isn’t sure he knows how to ask.
He knows he wants to ask, though, so he squeezes his fingers ever so slightly, and nervously straightens out the map with his other hand. Brad doesn’t blink, or turn his head, and it’s possible Nate imagines it but the very corner of his mouth pulls like a string tugging his lip.
His day now looks like this: Nate sets his alarm early and wakes before it goes off. Some mornings he runs, others he cooks breakfast and reads the newspaper. Nate wakes to messages from Brad more often than not. He reads them first thing in the morning, and waits until after breakfast to reply. He showers. He takes the train to work, but walks to his classes most days despite the weather. After a few months, and with Maureen’s help, he finds a therapist he doesn’t mind seeing, although he skips a few sessions a month. He writes, a lot, and edits more, and emails it to Mike and Brad. He feels like he can breathe. His mother calls, sparingly at first until the guilt gets to Nate, then he calls her more frequently until she stops sounding relieved. When Brad calls, Nate doesn’t say that he misses him, but it’s woven in to every word. There are a few more postcards on the fridge as the semester goes on, and there’s a small pocket calendar in Nate’s bedside table that he scratches in every night before bed. Midterms, major papers due, the end of semester, the holidays, days until Brad’s next leave all marked in plain black pen. Inhaling doesn’t feel as impossible as his lungs straining underwater, his muscles tensed, arms restrained. He tries, and he likes trying. He lives, whatever that means.