by Hanni Rebo
It's funny how everyone has their own view of what it's like coming home from time in the service. Soldiers in my town were cheered upon, always had been since back in the Civil War some two hundred years ago. Soldiers were seen as protectors, brave young men and women willing to risk their lives for the sake of others, preserving the good ol' American lifestyle and spreading freedom and justice across the world—whatever that meant.
As children, young men were groomed to be men of service, and if not soldiers, doctors, lawyers, or strong, strapping young men to take over their daddies' farms. Their parents obviously had high expectations of them, always deemed them full of such good potential and intelligence. When it came to their teen years though—and many have recognized this pattern, no matter the family—that same young man seen as a future war hero, a future doctor or lawyer or successor, is seen as a hooligan. No more are there any praises of 'you're such a good boy' or 'we're so proud of you', no, those are always left for the boys that really were worthy of such praise. These boys really did get good grades, really were football captains or perfect gentlemen. Was there no place for mediocrity?
Maybe heading off to war wasn't to go out and bring home the glory anymore. Maybe spending months overseas protecting the good of the people from the bad of the attackers wasn't the point. People needed to start seeing the trend, and what made it worse was the soldiers that came home themselves never made a move to change it. Leaving wasn't about serving; leaving was about getting away from it all, getting away from the high expectations. Leaving meant keeping others safe, sure, but there was something to be said about mental health as well.
That's what we tell ourselves all through basic training, that it's for the good of the people, but it really isn't. Basic training is like a safe haven for some, kept away from the mental and physical abuse fathers (and even some mothers) put forth on their children in an attempt to better them, to mold them into what they believe is the perfect individual. This doesn't go to say that disciplining a child isn't necessary, or saying that it's wrong, but there's a point were enough is enough, and sometimes internalizing that fear of one's father's hand and the harshness to his words goes more than just a lesson learned.
It teaches boys to want to escape. It teaches young women to cower in fear, sometimes even vice versa.
From personal experience, I can tell you that this is all true. Father wanted a soldier; Mother wanted a doctor—because how sweet would it be for me to deliver my own sons? Leaving home was more than just starting my own adventure. Leaving home meant leaving everything, and everyone, behind for something better. I was able to clear my head, get away from Father's wicked hand and Mother's guilt-tripping gaze.
I was able to be me.
I was ready to follow orders, to become a soldier and possibly a field medic when I graduated high school, but life has its ways of changing everything, doesn't it? It's downright frustrating for people to think one thing, and then be clawed into the next. Perhaps that wasn't what was going through my mind that spring day when I was walking over to my new friend Ryan's house. He was a nice guy, someone that was easy to talk to and had a nice, welcoming smile. I felt relaxed around him. We'd met in our biology class earlier in the term; his mother had invited me over for dinner.
"Ben!" I heard my name before I could look up from stepping over the Barbie dolls in the front yard, giving me indication that Ryan had a little sister. I looked up to offer a smile, seeing a tall, well-muscled blond standing on the front porch. The screen door slammed shut behind him, the summer heat obvious in the way his shirt stuck to him, his hair lifeless and damp. There was a smile on his face, hands being jammed into his pockets. "Thought I told you five, you geek."
"Yeah well...Mother had some stuff for me to do," I lied, licking my lips as I climbed up onto the porch and gave him a soft smirk. Ryan was always so happy to see me, always so careful when it came to everything—like now, as a gentle hand came out to rest on my shoulder. I flinched a bit, but I held his gaze and played it off with a laugh. I could see the concern there, but I let him change the subject.
"Yeah? Well my mom has been begging to meet this Ben kid I won't shut up about, so let's go inside," Ryan offered nodding towards the door.
Over the course of the summer (us being fifteen, then), I found myself spending more and more time with Ryan. It was odd, because I actually found myself telling my other friends no all the time. Of course I had other friends, rough jock guys I played baseball with—but I didn't like how they treated Ryan. Ryan was tender, calmer and well, easy to be around.
"You're scaring me." It was some two weeks after we'd gotten out of school. Ryan and I had gone down to the creek behind his house, some hundred yards from the back porch. There was a hammock, a nice swimming hole there and plenty of room to lie out in the sun—given that the time of day was correct for said laying. Ryan had insisted on going swimming, the Oregon heat reaching near 100 degrees already. That's what we got for living in the center of the state. But that wasn't the point, seeing as Ryan was already in the water and I was hesitating to take off my shirt. I swallowed, looking up from where I was carefully untying my shoes to him.
If anyone tried to make fun of how sweet Ryan's face was, theirs would personally meet my knuckles. I didn't know why I was so fiercely protective over the kid; I just knew…he meant a lot to me. But looking to Ryan's face now, worry etched into that fair skin already dusted with freckles, his brows pulled together and worry in blue eyes—my heart ached. I didn't know why, and I didn't want to know why, because it didn't fucking matter. Therapy was supposed to be working. Ryan was worried about me, and it scared me a little.
"Why don't you ever take off your shirt around me?" Well.
"Don't you worry your pretty little head." That just brought more confusion, more fear to Ryan's face—but he didn't push. I loved that about him, I gave him a no, and that was that. He respected me, as I respected him, and I hoped he knew that I'd do anything for him. I let my gaze drop back down to my shoes, tugging off the Converse and setting them aside. I heard a bit of splashing, some wet feet on packed dirt, and then there was a six foot something spindly blond squatting in front of me, his eyes still shining with worry. "'m fine. Told you that. I can take care of myself."
"Guess so," Ryan's gaze dropped to mine, but I could tell he wasn't done fidgeting. That was another thing—he could touch me. I'd grown more and more accustomed to it, but sometimes I still felt cornered, sometimes I still had to run, but it was never far. I'd always find myself being pulled back in by something Ryan said, or even something he didn't say. Which probably meant something, but I was too scared to delve into it. He wasn't looking at me anymore, rather my hair, long fingers coming up to start carding through it. I didn't know why he had such affection for the mud-colored, spindly locks, but I was sort of glad he did. My eyes shut, focusing on his fingers. "When you're ready to tell me what's going on, tell me. I'll be right here until you are."
Maybe that was what I needed. That was what I'd been searching for—someone as understanding and caring as Ryan was. I felt…safe around him, and for the longest time when we'd first met, it was a foreign feeling for me. I found myself leaning into those fingers, drawing in a deep breath of freshly cut grass hay, Ryan's deodorant, and the smell of the creek water. I finally opened my eyes after a few moments, licking my lips and letting a hand come up to wrap about one of Ryan's wrists. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
I'd come out to my parents when I was about thirteen. It had been a lazy Sunday right after church—but it wasn't them I'd told first. Hell, it hadn't even been my choice. I'd told the minister during confession (because seriously, what would a thirteen year old boy have to confess other than jerking off a few times?). I'd known for a while, was sort of terrified of the feelings and the dreams I'd been having—but I'd begged him not to tell my parents, that I would be good.
I jumped when the phone rang. I was upstairs reading a book for school when I heard it, the shrill bells calling throughout the house. My eyes shut, praying that it wasn't Pastor Righton. Of course he wouldn't keep something like this secret, of course Mother and Father were going to know—
"Hello?" There was a long pause, a few assurances that Mother was listening. She was using her Sunday voice, the one Sarah and I teased and giggled about that she would use only at church when talking with the other older ladies. I listened further, but the house had gone deathly silent. My heart was in my ears, and the phone could be heard clattering to the floor like a gunshot all the way upstairs in my room. This was how I would die.
The worst I thought they could do to me was disownment. The worst I thought Father would do was just be upset like he always was. Maybe his belt would come off the peg a bit more, maybe he would remind me where my place was every time he got it into his head to go after me or my sister. I could take it, I had been for Sarah since we were little, and I would be damned if a finger was ever laid on her. But things did get worse.
My first trip to therapy had been awful. The psychiatrist had claimed he could 'cure' me of the devils that lived inside of me, that he could 'teach' me what love was. I was supposed to love a woman, to have children and be married in the eyes of God. For the longest time that was all I wanted, I wanted to do well, to be what Mother and Father wanted, but it was hard. I'd had it all, shock treatments, prescription drugs—all just to make me someone who I wasn't.
So I surrounded myself in the most 'heterosexual' things I could—as per recommendation by the doctor. I played as many sports as I could, I quit painting and I focused on my classes. I hardly gave myself any leisure so I would fall into bed exhausted each night, too tired for the dreams, too beaten to think about anything other than sleep. It was my father's job to take in all the 'ill thoughts' I had about men throughout the day, and it was three lashes for each one. Was it working? Was I going to be okay? I wanted so bad to please, but I had just been a kid.
When Ryan found me, it'd near turned me bitter, and it took him a long time to tear down those walls I hadn't known I'd built.
My mother looked appalled one evening, the same summer I'd met Ryan, seeing my kiss swollen lips and the finger marks about my wrists. It was my father's .3030 that I'd been on the wrong end of, he having thought I was a burglar the way I hopped over the back fence and jogged up our pasture. I was late for curfew, again, and neither Mother nor Father had been too pleased. She looked to me as I stood in the kitchen, the yellow light flickering subtly above my head. I could touch it if I really wanted to—the ceilings of the house were low, Father and I were tall.
"Have you been raped?" The question made my cheeks burn and shock to slap me right in the face. The initial thing I wanted to snap back was no, you think a guy my size would just roll over and take it? But those weren't the words that came out of my mouth; nothing really came out of my mouth. I could still taste Ryan's smile, remembered him murmuring something about wanting to be a paleontologist earlier this evening. I shook my head no, a frown on my lips.
What scared me the most was, I wasn't even ashamed.
"You were supposed to be at Ryan's," Father cut in with a frown, his brow furrowing and his grip on the gun tightening a bit. I didn't look up from where my eyes were on the table. "Where were you? Christ, can't we trust you with anything, boy?" My eyes flicked up at that, gritting my teeth and brow furrowing.
"I was at Ryan's." The tears in my eyes weren't because of my confession, but because of the look of shock and horror that immediately wrote its way across my mother's face, then my father's. Mother shook her head.
"No, no no—Benjamin Easton Wingstone, I will not have you lying to me!" Mother replied; her tone more anxious now. My gaze flicked to her, scrubbing a hand across my face. That was a mistake, because I was met with a backhand from my father stinging across my cheek. Father looked to me, stepping close and holding his finger just centimeters from my face. Realization seemed to click behind those cold green eyes, his teeth grit.
"Mary, we raised a fuckin' queer is what we did."
Ryan was gentle that night, a touch of a hand that was so familiar, yet so foreign. He was quickly undoing everything I'd learned over the past two years, and I didn't know if I liked it or not. I wanted to resist, I wanted to tell him that it was wrong, that I wasn't supposed to have feelings for him, rather a woman, but I couldn't bring myself to speak. Not when we were lying out on a blanket under the stars some six hours after we'd been swimming. I hadn't taken my shirt off like I'd promised, but Ryan was still there. His solid presence was still notable, and I was surprised when I didn't even flinch at the warm hand lacing its fingers with mine.
"I want you to trust me," he whispered quietly, and he must've taken the lack of response as me listening (which he usually did, and he was usually right). I stayed still, just shutting my eyes. So wrong, my mind tried to chastise me, but I didn't move, not when Ryan rolled onto his side to look at me. His head was propped up with his elbow and forearm, his other hand bringing mine up to brush his lips across the back of it. A shadow of electricity fluttered down my spine, but not the good kind. The kind I got during my visits to the doctor. I was proud of myself I chose to ignore it—but I was even more shocked he was there beside me after telling him all about my 'doctor's visits'.
"I don't want you to run screaming if I do," I muttered dryly, eyes flicking open to see a ghost of a smile on his face, even in the darkness. Was it corny as hell to say he did light up the darkness? Because he did, he so fucking did. The only other person in the world besides my family that knew about the shock therapy, the therapy in general, and I was surprised how…comforted I was to have him. Ryan soon leaned down, brushing our lips together.
"I couldn't turn away if I tried."
That was how I found myself in the best and the worst situation of my life throughout high school. I loved Ryan. I loved him more than I knew what to do with and I'd soon grown accustomed to juggling my 'heterosexuality' and my 'sinner's life.' It was a pretty damn good act, to say the least. The therapist finally deemed me 'cured,' there had been a party, and well...my life was a huge lie after that. Ryan was the 'best friend', even if his house had turned into a sanctuary of sorts for the next three years.
I hated lying. I hated not being able to show who I was, to show off the man I loved and tell him as often as I wanted. Ryan was damn near everything, and I wanted for him desperately to know that.
"I just don't understand why you need to leave," came Sarah's sigh as she stretched out on the grass at my feet—it being some two weeks before I would take my leave from home, just three after I'd graduated from high school when Sarah and I found ourselves in this situation. The warmth of the sunshine that showered down upon us between the leaves of the tree was welcomed, a contented shiver running down my spine as I tilted my head back. My eyes remained open though, a soft noise coming from deep within my chest as I looked up to the branches of the great oak tree that grew in Mother's yard. "I know it's the whole 'keep up the tradition' shtick, but that's all old stuff. They don't need any more soldiers, let alone a nerd like you."
My lips hitched into a smile at that, a bare foot going out to shove at my sister's hip and send her rolling onto her back. She made a noise of complaint, grabbing my bare ankle. I jerked back with another squawk, feigning close to a 'no' as two delicate little fingers moved to pluck at a small bundle of my leg hair. She laughed as I reached down and grabbed her wrists, our identical hazel eyes looking back at one another.
"It's what Pops wants, isn't it?" I said with a wrinkled nose, putting her own hands over her face and pushing the mop head she called hair back into the soft grass. Sarah laughed; a noise I'd grown accustomed to over the years. I was older than her by four years, though it didn't really show most days. We were brother and sister, and despite the usual rivalries between us, we were inseparable since the day Sarah could say my name. We were best friends since I could remember, even if that sometimes did entail me sitting on her to shut her up.
"Pops can want all he wants. You're you, Benny," Sarah murmured, looking up to me with a kind smile.
Ryan's warm as he brushes soft kisses across my forehead, his arms locked around my waist from where we're curled up in his mother's hammock by the creek. I pretend it doesn't hurt the bruises there. The clear water runs directly behind his house, low with the summer heat and lack of mountain runoff. I can hear Sarah laughing as she shoves Ryan's little sister into the water, only to be tugged in by the blond girl. They both tumble into the cool spray laughing, splashing and screaming at the temperature.
I'd fallen asleep against Ryan, his warmth and secure grip something I always craved. My head had made a pillow out of his chest, one of my arms already fuzzy with lack of blood beneath his back. The other was curled loosely across his chest, my hand on his bicep. I'd miss this, I'd miss this like hell—but we had it all planned out. Ryan would be going to Oregon State, and eventually I'd follow him. It'd be a long goodbye, but a well needed one if we ever wanted to get out of this shithole.
My eyes flickered open sleepily, sniffing before looking up to those intelligent blue eyes and a shit eating grin. "Told you, you need to get more sleep at night." My nose wrinkled and I nuzzled back into his throat.
He seemed to know I was soaking up as much of this as I possibly could before I left for the army, and I was thankful that he didn't push or prod about it. Ryan was good at that; he was good at respecting my boundaries, waiting until I was ready to talk. But for now? I just wanted to be held a while, get lost in his presence in a place where I was content to stay for a while. The ring in my back pocket had something to say about that, too.
"Shut. Up," I complained tiredly, feeling Ryan's chuckle reverberate through his chest as he pressed another kiss to my hair. He knew I had trouble sleeping, knew I woke up with nightmares in fear of my father beating me all over again, but it wasn't that he was teasing me. It was light chastising, because I needed to at least try to sleep. "You're just easier to hang around when I'm unconscious."
Or, y'know, maybe we both knew we were going to have a hard time saying goodbye.
Following orders is easy when you're in the service. You don't have to do them exactly depending on your commanding officer's mood that day, you don't have to worry about who's going to get hit, or if you're going to get hit. You sleep easy at night knowing your little sister is under the protection of your fiancé's family. Getting away from the toxic cesspool that was that shithole little town was a breath of fresh air, it made me realize just how big the world was, but it was time to go home. I was definitely ready to go home.
Of course there was the several weeks I had off here and there to go and visit, to see those I loved and go on little mini vacations, but home wasn't really what I'd expected it. Home wasn't going back to that two story house with the red shutters and the big oak tree out front. Home wasn't sitting in a sterile family room with your mother's disapproving gaze falling over you (yeah, even after I completed the 'therapy', they still had a hunch). But no, home was wrapped up in that big dumb blond I'd chosen to spend the rest of my life with. Home was Ryan's stupid smile I caught myself thinking about for too long, or the way I could make him laugh so effortlessly. God, I missed the hell out of him.
They were standing in the terminal when I exited the plane, the long flight from South Korea really taking its toll on me, but I barely felt it. I expected to feel guilt, shame, or something else for 'running' away from my problems, but those feelings were easily squashed when my boots hit that carpet, my eyes zeroing in on a petit brunette and a tall blond. I was home.