1. Tell your friends and relatives how you’d like to celebrate.
A week before flying home to North Dakota from Kosovo, tell your mother what you’d like when you return. Tell her that you’d like a nice meal, someplace casual and not too fancy, and dessert, a decadent cake or crème brûlée, stuff you can’t get in the chow halls. Tell her you’d like to see her and your father, but that in the evening you’d like to spend time with your friends, reconnecting after being away for seven months. Tell her that you’re ready to come home. To get back to your old life. Even though you recognize that something has changed. You feel like someone else, someone different from the man who left on the peacekeeping mission. You feel like someone waiting to be born anew.
On the bus from airport to armory, where all the friends and family are waiting, shift nervously in your seat. Fiddle with the sleeve of your battle dress uniform, which you’ve rolled up over your new biceps because it is August in North Dakota. Here, Fly says, as he reaches over and smooths out the rolled fabric. While he does this, close your eyes. Feel his fingers graze your arm and remember what it felt like lifting weights with him in the makeshift gym at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, how he made you recognize your own desires when you watched him and felt something inside of you stir. He helped you change into something new. If anyone gets credit for making this new you, it is he.
When you open your eyes, smile back at him as he pats you on your shoulder, then quickly look away. Don’t reveal too much.
When the crowd of friends and family comes into view and you see your mother holding a sign that reads HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BRONSON, don’t say anything. It’s your twentieth birthday, but you don’t want to make a big deal of it. Sink down in your seat a little bit and hope no one else notices the sign. The other men and women on the bus—the ones you have spent the entire mission with—will notice. They will slap you on the back and wish you a happy birthday and laugh when you give them your best embarrassed smile.
Hug your mother. Shake your father’s hand. Answer questions about the flight, the deployment, the feeling of being home. Squint into the sun as you look around at everyone else standing in little clumps surrounded by loved ones. Fathers holding children. Husbands kissing wives. Mothers hanging off their sons. Look for Fly in the crowd, but give up after a few minutes. You’ll see him again at the next drill in a couple of months.
When your parents ask if you are hungry, nod because you are. Follow them back to their car and watch from the passenger’s side as the long line of vehicles leaves the parking lot and makes its way back out into the world.
2. Try not to overbook yourself.
After your welcome-back dinner, drop your parents off at their hotel, then take their car and pick up your best friend, Beka. She is the only person you want to see.
When she climbs into the passenger’s seat, ask her where she wants to go. When she shrugs, just drive.
Ask Beka about the summer. Ask her about the town. Ask her about everything you’ve missed. Notice the silence when you stop talking. Look at her and see this strange expression on her face. Ask her what is wrong. Notice the tears. Ask her again: What’s wrong? Listen when she tells you that she is in love with you.
Grip the steering wheel a little tighter.
Pull into a Burger King.
Look at the tan and blue and red restaurant sign. Look at the parking lot. Look up at the fading sunlight. Finally, look over at her.
Then tell her the thing you’ve been holding in, the thing you realized while watching Fly lift weights in Kosovo.
Tell her that you are gay.
You will be inclined to look away after saying this, to let your mind wander off and think about anything else. Try to resist this inclination. Try to look at Beka. Just for a few seconds. Resist the urge to fling open the car door and run away.
3. Allow yourself to feel all kinds of feelings.
The next week, tell more friends. Tell Niki while watching a movie at her apartment. Tell Ann when she gets off work. With each reveal, feel the weightlessness of saying what you’ve kept hidden for so long. Take a few deep breaths and cherish not having that secret down in the pit of your stomach anymore. Then, feel the regret of not doing it sooner and the creeping dread of having to tell your parents and siblings next.
During your sophomore year of college, go to your first queer student group meeting. Introduce yourself. Smile awkwardly at everyone around you. Watch them for a bit and feel what it’s like to be seen and recognized and heard. Feel tense and anxious, but also so fucking good. Light as air.
Go to the beginning-of-the-school-year picnic. Flirt. Or try to. When you notice a guy staring at you, stare back at him. Recognize that feeling again, the one you’d felt watching Fly lift weights in Kosovo. Feel it rumble around in your chest. Feel it sending electrical charges through your body. Remember those sensations when you call the guy and invite him out on a date.
Go to monthly drill and act like nothing has changed. Wear that uniform. Roll up the sleeves to show off your biceps. Polish your boots. Clean your rifle. During briefings, look at Fly and remember the man you used to be, a man just figuring out what he wanted, a man still holding so much in.
Stand in formation.
4. Talk about how you’re feeling.
Go out with the man from the picnic. Get lost looking for a corn maze. Find a restaurant instead. Talk about your favorite movies and your siblings. Laugh when he knocks over his water glass. Smile when you notice that he is just as nervous as you.
When he invites you back to his dorm room, accept his invitation.
In his room, ask him about his posters. Ask him about his photographs. Ask him about his job as a resident assistant. Tell him about your family. Your hometown. Don’t mention the military or Fly or how you feel like you’re being torn in two directions.
When you both stop talking, lean forward and kiss him.
5. Be patient.
Let the years pass. Toggle between your new life out of the closet and the one where you put on camo and pretend you are someone else. Date other men. Break up with boyfriends. Once a month and two weeks in summer, return to your place in second squad, second platoon. Move on from Fly. Develop crushes on other guys in the military. Fantasize, but never act on them. You know where to draw the line.
Recognize when aspects of one world cross over into the other. When you see a woman from your unit at the only gay bar in town, don’t hide because you fear she’ll out you to everyone in your platoon. Instead, sit down next to her and strike up a conversation. She is in a different platoon, but you recognize her from weekend drills and assume she recognizes you. Once you’ve had a few beers, ask her if she knows who you are. Smile when she says no.
Two and a half years after returning from Kosovo, one semester away from graduating college, don’t answer your phone when your squad leader calls. Let it go to voicemail. Try to resist cursing loudly when you hear the message that your unit has been deployed to Iraq.
6. Focus on the positive.
There isn’t much, but in Iraq think about all the little ways you’ve found joy. Watching the sun rise over the reeds and radiate across the hazy sky. Throwing candy to children along the roads. Savoring the rose-flavored popsicles you find in the chow-hall coolers. Chatting with a university student—your Iraqi counterpart—about Walt Whitman and Flannery O’Connor while on a mission in Baghdad. Buying Will & Grace DVDs at the PX and watching them at your bunk, unafraid of being outed. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—which will eventually be repealed—protects you.
Go to the makeshift gym on base. Lift weights with Fly. Feel that strange charge pulse through your body again and pretend, just for a moment, that you are that man from Kosovo again, the one who felt his gut flutter while watching Fly lift weights. When Fly reaches up and squeezes your shoulder after a good workout in that gym in Iraq, turn and look him in the eyes, but then quickly look away, like you’ve been conditioned to do, even though every part of you wants to grab him by the waist and pull him toward you.
7. Tell your friends and relatives how you’d like to celebrate.
At the airport, returning from Iraq, feel a wave of déjà vu wash over you as you escalator down to the mob of family and friends. Remember returning from Kosovo with your secret, how you were this fragile egg cracking open, ready to become something else. Wonder if this man returning from Iraq feels the same. Shake away that wonder, the answer being obvious.
Stand at the bottom of the escalator and look for your mother’s sign. Breathe a sigh of relief when you see her and realize that she doesn’t have one this time.
Hug your mother. Shake your father’s hand. Answer their questions about the flight, about the deployment, the feeling of being home. Look around at everyone else standing in little clumps. Notice the welcome back banners held overhead, the flowers handed between couples. Feel the relief of being home, surrounded by loved ones, on familiar ground again. Your enlistment is up, you will no longer be returning to drill in a couple of months, so scan the crowd for Fly, because you have to see him one last time. When you can’t find him, take it as a sign that it’s time to move on. Then grab your duffle and follow your parents back out into the world.
8. Limit your use of alcohol.
At a party, when a guy asks what you did in Iraq, tell him you killed twenty-seven Iraqis. Wait a beat to see if he believes you. Then chuckle to yourself and look at your hands. Don’t tell him that it’s only a joke to break the tension. Don’t tell him what you really did in Iraq, that you poured cement, framed walls, and stood guard, that you stared at all the ashy sand and thought about your first boyfriend. You never fired your weapon or chambered a round or even aimed your rifle at another human being. But he doesn’t need to know that. Let him believe you to be a killer.
Later, half-drunk, lie on your bed and feel regret at letting the guy think you did more than just pour concrete and stand guard in Iraq. Think about all the names for people who “steal valor” by fabricating or embellishing their service—military posers, fake warriors, medal cheats, Walts (after Walter Mitty, in James Thurber’s 1939 story, who daydreamed about being a war hero). Wonder about the ways in which you have felt like an imposter in the military, a spy moving between two worlds, and how this last lie was the worst and the most necessary. You needed to tell it to make yourself feel better about being a veteran, to make you feel like you actually earned this new title by killing someone over there.
In the morning, brush off the joke as the gesture of a young person not having the right words to talk about how he feels. Tell yourself that one day you will have the right words. One day you’ll be ready.
9. Talk about how you’re feeling.
When Tuna emails three months after returning from Iraq, saying he’ll be in town and inviting you to dinner, say yes. Drive with anxious excitement to the restaurant. Remember how convivial it felt to serve and live with these men and how relieved you are to finally have someone to talk to about reintegrating into civilian life. Think about everything you have to say to him.
At the restaurant, shake hands with Tuna and several other men from your platoon. When they ask what you are doing, tell them about finishing college and applying to graduate school. Say how good it feels to not have to go to weekend drill. Ask them about the platoon: who left, who else has moved on. Ask them about new people and summer camp and future trainings. Don’t even bring up Iraq. Don’t tell them that you feel somewhat lost now that you aren’t in the military. Don’t tell them that the man you thought you were after the Kosovo deployment—the one who came out to his closest friends and cycled through a series of boyfriends, yet hadn’t yet come out to his family—was thinking about re-enlisting because it just felt easier than trying to figure out who he was all over again. Don’t tell them that you just wish you had someone to say all of this to.
Instead, silently watch the men from your former unit as they cut up their steaks and swig their beers, and let the conversation fall into awkward silence. In the parking lot, vow to stay in touch, even though you know you’ll never see these men again.
10. Know when to seek help.
Dream about returning to Iraq. Recognize the smoke and the sand as definitively Iraq. Acknowledge that your biggest fear is having to go back. Instead of checking for accuracy, let your subconscious rewrite the narrative of your time in Iraq. Recreate the soldier you were. Replace the lazy, unmotivated, jaded man with someone more welcoming and accepting and grateful for what he did and did not do in Iraq. March this new soldier out of those dreams so he can help you cope with the feeling of being an undeserving veteran.
In the morning, construct imaginary emails to all the men and women you served with, asking if they have these dreams, if they still think about Iraq. Realize, again, that you have very few people to talk to about your time over there, and, now that you are ready to talk about Iraq, you have no one to do it with.
Wonder what Fly thinks. Look him up on Facebook but don’t send a friend request.
On the ten-year anniversary of returning from Iraq, write a real email to Leaf, one of only a few people from your platoon you are still in contact with. Ask if he wants to get a drink. Don’t mention your dreams. Try not to come off as needy. When he accepts, arrange a time to meet at a bar in a city you used to live in. Spend the entire drive to that city thinking about what you want to say, what words to use, and how many beers you will need to help you talk.
When you arrive, belly up to the bar. Text your boyfriend. Listen to the jukebox playing the Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” and “Hold My Hand” by Hootie & the Blowfish. Cherish the way the jukebox’s ’90s music makes you feel, like you are young and free and good. Finish your beer, order another. Check your phone. Text your boyfriend to say you think you are being stood up. Another beer. More ’90s music. Remember how it felt to want to become someone else. To want to be seen and heard and understood. To connect with someone on a real, genuine level. This has become harder and harder the older you get. Look at all the other men and women sitting by themselves at the bar and wonder if you’ll ever find someone who truly sees you and understands how you feel. That is all you really want from this world.
Order another beer. Text your boyfriend again. Wait and wait and wait for a man who never arrives.