Wilder insisted that I stay in his apartment until I was settled enough to get my own place. He insisted, and much like him taking me to his little oasis earlier that day, he wouldn’t really take no for an answer. Anyway, I felt like I could use the company. He insisted that I take the bedroom and he would sleep in the living room.
On his final, hurried sweep back to me, he passed a dresser that had a single lonely frame on its surface. He stared at it with great affection before he turned it face-down to conceal its picture.
He came into the place hurriedly, leaving me in the doorway while he picked up bits of clothing from the floor, moved furniture from places where me and my awkward crutches could trip.
He was holding back something. There was a restraint in him that I was beginning to dislike. I remembered Wilder, the one from a year ago, who would slap me against a wall and his hands frantically finding the curves of my body before having to force himself away from me.
He was tepid now, like a sun-shiny day. He was like Charles.
I had wanted him this way once; caring, sweet, and nurturing like a darling sweetheart that could love me for more than the fire and passion of a physical relationship. I remember craving him, his heat, his fire, his body as I lay in Balad, waiting to shoot a burned out car. I remember it clearly, I think.
I didn’t want that. I didn’t want Charles. I hated him.
I wanted the Wilder that had always been so passionate, so different, and always feverish like a wild horse refusing to be broken.
I stepped towards him as he was at the door. I looked into his eyes willing the Wilder I knew to come back.
I gripped the nape of his neck, running my fingernails down his skin, his lips came to me in a hurry as he moaned in lust. I gasped, reminded of the few interactions we had before. I wanted to pull him down to me, to have him close to me, to taste everything of him that had been forbidden before. I began to tug at the belt loop of his jeans, wanting him between my thighs.
He pushed himself away.
He took several paces away, like a man that was backing away from the sight of a trip wire. Something in me began to broil over in anger. There’s just so much rejection that a girl can take. “What?” I said defensively, “What’s the problem?”
His expression was one of complete shock, terror, and anger. His face flashed into a million different little expressions that all blurred as he processed the conversation he was about to have.
“For God’s sake, Edwards,” he said, “In your state, this is the last thing you need to be doing.”
“What are you talking about?” I screamed at him. I knew what it was about. It was the hideousness of the little scars on my face, the disgustingness of the misshapen thigh, the awkward gait, the blasted deformities that now covered my body like a million signs of how my life had changed. I wasn’t good looking. I was misshapen and disgusting.
I clamped my hand down over my knees, covering where the scars lay under the thin layer of denim. Could he see the deformities from where he was? Could he see them? Maybe he didn’t, but he saw the speckles of craters that lined my face, the way the skin didn’t heal quite evenly and how the little pink and blue lines of torn flesh still peppered my visage like so many terrible pox marks.
“You don’t need this,” he said. “The last thing you need is this.”
I turned my eyes away. No, what he was saying was that he didn’t want this.
“You don’t know what’s triggering your flashbacks, and until you know, you shouldn’t do anything that could excite you.”
“I’m not having flashbacks,” I said definitively. He tilted his head to the side, his expression snide.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, “Whatever you say.”
“What the fuck are you, now? A shrink?” I asked.
“No, Edwards,” he said, “I thought I was a friend, but it wouldn’t hurt to get you a shrink.”
“I don’t need help.” I looked him straight in the eyes and waited for him to contradict me. I knew that he wanted to. I knew that there was nothing in him that didn’t feel like telling me how wrong I was. I wanted it. I wanted conflict. I wanted some kind of control that would exert exactly how combative I was feeling.
“Okay,” he said, “You don’t need help.”
He nodded in affirmation but he was dripping with condescension.
I didn’t think I was done. I was unsatisfied with it. I wanted to blow up. I was waiting to get angry. I needed to feel like I had something to be righteously indignant about. I was still up in arms and he had laid his down. I’m not ready to accept a surrender. I’m not ready. Something bitter is in my mouth, something is coursing through my veins, and by God, I had to strike at something. He was wrong, and I had to make him feel it.
“God, go fuck yourself,” I finally said.
He had no reaction, his face the perfect mask of composure. He was so handsome, so perfect! I had to blemish it in some way. I had to tarnish it the way I was tarnished.
I had to destroy him somehow.
“What are you?” I reached into the depths of what I was. Tears started streaming from my eyes, my fists clenched and unclenched. I had to figure out something that would force him to react, to lash out, to hate me the way I hated him. “A fucking fag?”
At that, he became oddly perplexed.
“You know that’s not true,” he said, a small hint of understanding coming up behind his eyes.
“Then you just don’t want me.” I was welling up with some sort of emotion, a fear of rejection, a loss of pride. I had been rejected so much; by the Army, by Charles, and now by Wilder. It was the natural order of things.
“You know that’s not true,” he said, his eyes insistent.
“It’s one or the fucking other,” I had no restraint.
“You know that’s not true,” he said again, this time slower, more deliberate, and he flashed his powerful eyes at me in anger.
“You’re either a fag or you just don’t fucking want me, which is it?” I insisted.
I willed myself to look at him. I will not break his gaze until he answers. I will not allow him to answer anything else. I was determined. I would win over this, no matter if the win ended in rejection again.
“Stop it,” he was sad, defeated, disappointed but I refused to relent. I refused to be less angry. I refused to let it go.
“I’m not Charles,” he said, “And you shouldn’t talk about him that way.”
I don’t know what it was that moved me. I persisted. I wanted to hate him. I wanted to hate somebody. I wanted to be angry. I wanted it because I didn’t want to have anything that revealed a truth I already knew; that I was no longer capable of feeling joy.
I stared at the culprit; Wilder, who still stood with his hands in his pockets like a reprimanded child.
“I can’t imagine how you feel,” he said to me, coming out from the recesses of his own mind, “but he was a good man. He’s also a dead man. Whatever lies he might have told you, you have to at least realize that he wasn’t allowed to tell you. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would have made it illegal for him to tell you.”
I stood in silence. He had so much to say, I knew it. I could see the restraint in the way he would not lean closer to me, though his posture indicated that he wanted to do nothing else.
“You can hate the fact that he lied to you,” he said, his eyes pleading for me to understand, “but don’t hate him. He can’t make amends for it now, and I’m sure he would want to.”
He looked away for a moment, his brows furrowed with dark shadows.
“Jesus Christ, Lorelei,” he finally released the pressure that was bubbling beneath him like hot water in a kettle, his voice rising, “the guy did the same job as you, taking apart bombs, and you said yourself he was good at it. At what point did him fucking men change that? He’s a war hero that died. Show him some fucking respect. You once accused me of being homophobic, but Jesus, have you listened to yourself?”
I looked down in shame.
I remembered every gay joke that I had ever said in front of Charles – Is it only gay if you enjoy it? Is it only gay if you push back? Is it only gay if you reach around? – and I wracked my brain to see if I had, at any point, offended him with it. I couldn’t find a single clue. Then again, I hadn’t been looking for it at the time.
I had once thought that I knew Charles; he and I were a pair, we were battle buddies. I wonder now if he regarded me the same way.
What about Wilder? Did he look at me with the same trust and affection that I looked at him? Or was I sadly mistaken again?
I looked at Wilder, and wanted to kiss him, to beg him to tell me if I was special, to lay it all down on the line and let me know exactly where I stood. I wanted to fall into his arms and weep. I wanted to be with him because it was all I had.
I had no one else.
He was all that I had before me, and how fortunate it was that he found me. How fortunate it was that he still held me and touched me and spoke to me. There were so many voices in my mind, so many erratic sounds and the horrible ringing that I had begun to wonder if I would ever tell the difference between the truth and the appearance of truth.
“I know what you are going through,” he said, his voice insisting.
He hadn’t stopped pouring into me with his static gaze. I didn’t know what secrets he had come back from Afghanistan with. I didn’t know if he had come from a shaken reality the way I had. I was almost ashamed to realize that this guy who I had kissed a million times over might be more than what I had thought he was.
I had a vision of him that was clean and clear.