If anyone had suggested Jonah and Jeff would split up over career choices, Jonah, the three-sport high school letterman would have given them one of his billion-dollar smiles and said “no way.” He and Jeff had been together since Junior High. They were going to share an apartment and go to Iowa State. Then Jeff fell in love with filmmaking and left for U.C.L.A. Jonah went to Indiana State on a baseball scholarship. Sometimes love affairs start with friendship and end in passion, his father told him. Sometimes they start with passion and end with friendship. Sometimes they just end. What his father didn’t tell him was that falling in love was a bad bargain, and Jonah made up his mind to discard the word love from his vocabulary. He sidestepped anything that even resembled commitment and discovered he relished being handsome, educated, and available. Then he met Mike Snyder.
“I’m lookin’ for 859 Wilcox, but somebody moved it,” Mike said, newspaper in hand. In his sleeves-rolled-up stenciled-name BDU’s, he looked like an overgrown boy scout.
Jonah had been sunning and answered the door in shorts and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. “The numbers are hidden by Mrs. Holloway’s bougainvillea. Jonah leaned against the door and looked into blue eyes and long black lashes. And below a crooked nose was a crooked smile with a chipped tooth. The forearms and biceps said barbarian boxer, maybe.
“The studio’s supposed to be open.”
“Follow me,” Jonah said and led the young man down the hall to a corner apartment bursting with afternoon sun flooding through a row of windows that overlooked the backyard.
“It’s bigger than I expected. If I got a screen, I could make a bedroom about here…” He was thinking out loud as he moved to the kitchen area that was once built-in bookshelves.
“Check out the bathroom. Newly tiled,” Jonah said. “Holloway has a thing for tile.” Holloway also said she’d take ten dollars off his rent the month he rented the place. Mike peeked his head inside and nodded approvingly.
“Squeaky. Is it just you?” Jonah said. Holloway said two max, no kids.
“Yeah. Business graduate program compliments of Uncle Sam. Guess he feels bad about that IED thing.” That explained the pronounced limp. “You a college man?”
“Junior. Compliments of a scholarship from St. Leo’s High. Guess the Pope feels bad about that inquisition thing.” Mike laughed.
“Scholarships are earned,” Mike said. “You smart or athletic?”
“Both,” Jonah said. “I play baseball and maintain a 3.6 GPA.” Mike smiled. Was it admiration or was he being patronized?
“Careful. I’m studying marketing so I can sell the Army to guys like you.” He walked to the windows, the evening sun outlining his silhouette in a soft glowing light. He talked for a few minutes, then returned the phone to his pocket. “Mrs. Holloway says I give you the check, you give me the key. You allergic to cats?”
“Holloway doesn’t allow pets.”
“She said okay. It’s a companion pet.”
Mike shifted his weight and shrugged. “Army orders.”
Great, a psycho barbarian. “Oooooh-kay.”
Two gorillas in gray sweats helped unload the Ryder truck. Jonah offered to help, but was told, “We got it.” Fifteen minutes later the three of them were sharing a six-pack of Bud Lite, and talking about deploying to Afghanistan, their voices drifting through Jonah’s screen door. They laughed a few times, but then got quiet. Mike said he wished he was going and told them to watch their backsides a dozen times. If you need anything, call VA, they said. Mike said thanks a million. Jonah saw Mike wave good-bye as the truck backed out of the driveway.
The next day Miss Manners arrived and snagged a field mouse among Holloway’s hydrangeas as Mike sat at the patio table perusing a stack of textbooks. “Good girl,” he said as Manners dumped the plump little carcass at his feet. Mike stroked her head, picked up the mouse with a trowel, and dumped it in the trashcan.
“She’s great,” Jonah said. Carrying tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa, he joined Mike at the table.
“The shrink told me she’d ease the pain of being left behind. It’s bullshit.” Jonah nodded. Teammates were as close as family. “I’m makin’ spaghetti tonight if you want to drop by.”
“Maybe, but only if you promise no mouse meatballs and you won’t tell me what a wonderful officer I’d make,” Jonah said.
“I promise. You aren’t officer material anyway.”
Jonah hadn’t expected that. “Why not?” Mike was inspecting him like he was an animal at auction. “You don’t think I’d look good in a uniform?” He knew summer practice had made him as lean and tight as Mike’s haircut.
“You’d do a uniform justice, but it takes more than good looks to lead. You gott’a be bold. You ever captain a team?”
Shit, he wants an answer. “No. So what?”
“I only mean…”
“You mean I’m not stupid enough to get myself shot up so people like you can drive gas guzzlers?” The resentment was front and center. Nobody wanted brainwashed robots on campus, strutting around in their starched shirts and pressed pants. He meant his words to wound, but Mike didn’t flinch.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean,” Mike said before bending to give Miss Manners another pat on the head.
That’s what he sounds like when he says put down your weapon - no argument, no second chance. “Being nice to a cat doesn’t make up for killing people.”
“Sometimes I don’t agree with my orders, but I do my job. I’m right about that officer thing. It’s not for you.” Mike limped past him. No argument allowed. “You’re still welcome to dinner.” But he did give second chances.
What did he expect, Jonah wondered, that he’d be awestruck? He was headed for the Major Leagues, if he was lucky. A good tech job as consolation if he wasn’t. Yet, even after he finished his calculus homework and tried to invent a topic for his Western Civ class, the memory of Mike’s eyes traveling up and down his body nagged at him. It made him hard too. I’ll show you bold, you son-of-a-bitch. On the other hand, insult was a lousy way to say welcome to the neighborhood. Where had his anger come from? Mike’s not Jeff, for Christ’s sake.
Avoiding Mike was easy⸺early classes, practice in the afternoon, and evenings spent studying in the library⸺Jonah was only aware he had a next-door neighbor when he heard Mike’s uneven footfalls. Once he came home for a forgotten History paper and heard muffled voices coming from Mike’s room. Army buddies probably. Let it go, he kept reminding himself, but two months into the fall term he was still distracted by the bad blood, yes, he created. He’d been a dick. It wasn’t the officer remark. It was those eyes looking at him – through him. I’m a good lookin’ guy, he told himself, then admitted that on a college campus there were hundreds of good lookin’ guys – young and healthy - who roamed the sports fields and haunted the gyms. He hoped Mike wouldn’t notice them. Fuck, he was jealous.
He started searching the commons for anyone wearing camouflage, listening for the rustle of stiff material as he studied midst the business journals in the library, and scanning the bleachers before practice, just in case, so he could apologize. The day before Thanksgiving break he was desperate. He put on a pair of slacks and a dress shirt and went to the ROTC office.
“I’m interested in the program,” he lied to the black woman at the desk. She straightened the papers in front of her before putting them in a manila folder.
“I’m Captain Fortesque.” Folder in hand, she led him into a bigger office and sat behind a bigger desk. The room was blue, one entire wall covered with pictures of autographed tank crews and battalion standards. “You are…Mr.…?’
“Jonah Beltran, Sir…M’aam. ”
“Mr. Beltran, have you been through basic?”
“Basic training? No. Athletic scholarship. Baseball.” His boldness seemed a little silly now. She must have been forty. Next to her left lapel were small squares of colorful striped ribbons, and Jonah felt he should salute.
“How did you find out about us? The table in the commons?”
“Sergeant Snyder.” he said.
“A referral from Mike?” She said it like it was something special.
“He’s my neighbor.” Thirty minutes into her explanation of what a military career could offer him, Jonah asked her the big question. “Do you think I’d make a good officer?”
“There’s only one way to find out. If you want to be a coach, you have to be a player first.” Sometimes he ignored his professors, but some people got all his attention. She was one of those people. “Our army is the best in the world because all our teammates are expected to be players and coaches on the battlefield if necessary. Adaptability. Initiative. Consistent performance. Are you up to the challenge?”
“I’ll get back with you on that, “Jonah said. Fortesque shook his hand and gave him a handful of brochures.
“I’ll tell Mike you stopped by,” she said.
“Thanks, do that.” Sure, they’re friendly till you swear in. Then they treat you like crap. He dumped the brochures in gym’s trashcan and got ready for practice. Coach Crenshaw said he was playing like a man on a mission. Crenshaw said he should play every day as though scouts were in the bleachers because they just might be, often coming to practices unannounced and unnoticed. Now he played in case Mike was in the bleachers.
When it was Jonah’s turn, he said he was thankful he’d made it home safely and on time for turkey. His sister Mary told him Jeff had made it home too and wanted to see him. The best revenge is lookin’ good, she said when Jonah said ‘no way’. He heard Mike’s voice telling him to be bold. Mike wouldn’t avoid confrontation. He probably wouldn’t have had sex with an old lover in the Motel 6 either. When jock and artist took off their clothes, they were just two beautiful bodies that had nothing more in common than desire. Jeff was probably thinking of someone else too.
“My professor tells me I have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Jeff said. “You want a hit of this weed?” They’d agreed to meet on the neutral territory so the families wouldn’t mistake a tryst for a reconciliation.
“No thanks. The coach always piss-tests us after holidays.”
“You’re still no fun.” Jeff would get chatty soon, asking questions about the guys, who was cute, who had the biggest cock, and then he’d start babbling about Hollywood. “There’s this club…there’s this guy…you gott’a experience the world before you can film it…it’s thrilling.”
Jonah wondered if Jeff could imagine the thrill of pitching no-hitter. It wasn’t what other people did, but what he did that counted. That’s what Mike would say. That’s what Fortesque would say. “It sounds like you’re having a great time,” is what Jonah said. It sounded like, ‘yeah that’s exactly what I meant’. Goddamn Mike.
“It sounds like you’re a real butt-head.” Jeff said as Jonah headed for the shower. Jeff joined him. There was a time they’d go a second round as they lathered up, slippery and sweet smelling. Now they just got clean and dressed, parting without a wave as Jonah said, “Have a good trip back”.
“How’d he look, Jonah?” Mary whispered to him as he headed for his old room that was now the den.
“Glitzy. He wears earrings and has blue hair.”
“Bullshit,” Mary said, elbowing him. “Really?”
“No. He’s still George Clooney handsome. I’d love to fuck George Clooney.” He galloped up the stairs and flung himself on the rented bed, staring at the ceiling. He needed the get some sleep for the drive back to Indiana, he told his mother, and could she wrap up some turkey meat for Miss Manners.
My neighbor’s cat. She brought me a field mouse the other day. One good catch deserves another.”
At first practice, Mike was sitting behind home plate, one leg propped up on the chair in front of him, his arms resting on the backs of chairs next to him. God, he’s hot, Jonah thought and blushed with excitement. Keep your shit together, he told himself as he faced a left-handed pitcher. Don’t blow it. The ball sailed into center field. Not the homer he wanted, but a base hit. He dashed to first and slid into it, took off his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Act manly. Concentrate, goofball. When Crenshaw called, “Showers!” Mike would be waiting for him.
“You’re really good,” Mike said. They walked towards the commons. Not too close but Jonah could smell the musky scent of his aftershave. “You do look good in a uniform.”
“Only I take mine off when I’m not playin’. But thanks,” Jonah said.
“Fortesque thinks you have potential.” Mike had a textbook tucked under his arm and carried a laptop in a black leather bag.
“How’re your classes?” Jonah said.
“I’ll make it through.”
“I never see you on campus. I wondered if you dropped out.”
“I’m TA-ing for a Business 101 class. Forty students. Then there’s physical therapy.”
“The Army doesn’t expect you to run a hundred miles a day still, does it?”
Mike laughed. “No, thank God. And it’s more like thee miles a day.”
“Does your leg still hurt?”
“It’s ugly mostly,” Mike said. “A big ugly secret you hide under your
clothes because you don’t want to watch peoples’ faces turn to pity and then relief that it’s you that has the big ugly scar, not them.”
Jonah swore, if he ever saw Mike’s leg, he wouldn’t let his face change to pity. They’d stopped in front of the business building, and Mike nodded towards the stairs. “I got a class.”
“Sure…I meant to ask, how your holiday was. I have enough leftovers to feed an army… I’m sorry about that officer remark. It was fucked up,” Jonah said.
“Okay. It was okay. Flying was a nightmare, but I fly military transport so I know I won’t be bumped for a movie star or a congressman. I couldn’t stay long. Can’t leave Miss Manners. Gott’a go.”
“See ya’ round,” Jonah said, fighting the urge to say ‘stay and let me tell you I missed you’. He’d go to the commons and have a double shot of caffeine to calm down.
“Wait,” Mike said. “I’m making spaghetti, if you’re into some carbs.”
A rush of pleasure turned him red again. Jonah walked a few more steps before turning around. “I’ll be there!’ he said and Mike gave him a wave, precious as a child’s. George Clooney wouldn’t have waved to him like that. Jeff wouldn’t have waved to him like that. But Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart? Yes. It’s a wonderful life.
Jonah heard voices in the hall, Mike’s and a deeper one that said something about signing papers. It was possible Mike had invited someone else to dinner too. He waited fifteen minutes, then took his curiosity next door. Mike answered the door, ashen and shaking.
“You Okay?” Jonah said.
“Let’s take a rain check on that dinner.”
“Like hell I will. You want me to call the cops?” Jonah looked past Mike at the middle-aged soldier digging in his briefcase. “Who’s that?”
“He’s from the AG’s office,” Mike whispered. “Please, Jonah, it’s military business.”
Jonah backed away. “Make it short, I’ll be back in a half hour.” And in exactly a half an hour, he was back at Mike’s.
“Come in,” Mike said. The bogey man was gone. He took Miss Manners from the sill and opened the window to the night air. “Feel that? Winter. The Taliban’ll be getting’ ready for the spring offensive. Stockpiling weapons. Building bombs.”
“Can the weather report, what the hell’s goin’ on?” There was an open suitcase on the bed filled with uniforms and military issue shirts and ties. “You leavin’?”
Mike took off his army-green t-shirt exposing the left side of his rib cage that was missing the bottom bone. His chest was dotted with the raised white flesh of scar tissue. He slipped into a white t-shirt, then lowered himself to a chair where he pulled off his pants. He stood up, and Jonah saw the red raw scar that ran down from the groin the entire length of his withered-looking leg. A strip of muscle and been removed, and the knee was gnarled. Large purple and red pits polka-dotted his thighs and a leg brace held his foot in place. Mike pulled on a pair of shorts, folded his BDU’s and placed them in the suitcase. “I’m not leavin’, the Army’s leavin’ me…with this.”
Mike tossed him a small velvet case. Inside was a purple heart attached to a gold ribbon. He’d never seen a real medal or a battered body except in the movies.
“I don’t understand, I thought they reassigned you…”
“I still get my GI. benefits. I’ll have my MBA and an honorable discharge.” He was looking at Jonah, waiting to see friendship turn to pity. It didn’t happen.
“Were you brave or just dumb?” Jonah said.
“We were escorting a bus of young girls to school. Nine, ten, and eleven-year-olds. The Taliban doesn’t allow female education. They grazed the bus with an RPG – they’re rotten shots. The back exploded, but there were survivors. Half of my unit chased terrorists. My guys and I radioed for medical assistance and ran to the kids. I had one of the girls in my arms when the IED blew. With her and body armor, I survived. She didn’t.
“Jesus Christ.” Jonah struggled to breathe. Where did this information belong⸺ reality, insanity, fairy tale? He had to choke back tears. Man up. “They give you a medal and then cut you lose? I don’t get it.”
“Get this. Somebody with bars and stars asked and somebody told. Now, if I don’t tell anyone that one of their officers made a pass at me first, the Army won’t ask me to give up my benefits.”
“Uh-uh. Tomorrow tell your coach you want to play baseball with a football. See what he tells you. I knew the rules going in. It’s just at seventeen, I didn’t know I’d fall in love with a Captain from Amarillo Texas.” Mike slumped to the bed and Jonah heard the loneliest sob he’d ever heard. Just one. Followed by a stream tears that fell on sinewy hands. “It’s my fault I’m not a soldier anymore. Me, the bastard who learned the national anthem when he was five.”
The fog of war. That’s how Jonah’s dad explained the friendly fire that killed his grandfather in Vietnam. War isn’t orderly like the silent drill teams they watched the History Channel. It’s a chaotic slog fest where everyone tries to stay alive. His dad took him to the Wall in D.C. and traced his grandfather’s name on a piece of notebook paper that he keeps in his wallet. Jonah never understood why his father’s grief never turned to hate.
“You want me to call Mr. Amarillo for you?” Jonah said
“No,” Mike whispered. “He’s married. I wrote love letters. He didn’t. It’s called plausible deniability. The goofy part is, he never would have told if he hadn’t been accused of sexual harassment. Yeah, even gay people can be harassed, you know? Some girl makes herself available to him, and he winds up using the ‘I didn’t do it because I’m gay excuse.’ Prove it, they say, and he shows them my six-year-old letters.”
Mike’s lieutenant was a switch hitter – but adulterous no matter how you looked at it. “The army needs to change the rules, Mike. My teammates don’t give a fuck who I go to bed with to get my jollies as long as I’m at the top of my game on the playing field.”
“Agreed. But until they do change the rules… You really call it jollies?” Mike was smiling.
“That’s what my mom calls sex. Dad calls it getting’ his rock off. Ain’t old folks a hoot?” It was time to be bold again. Mike was boring into him again with those blue-blue eyes and Jonah knew why. It was the way he read enemy terrain, identifying hiding places and vulnerabilities. He sat down on the bed, put an arm around Mike’s shoulder, and pulled him close.
“Who will I be now that I’m not me anymore?” Mike said softly, fearfully.
Jonah gave out a long hmmmm. “Is that a country western lyric or a real question?” He felt Mike chuckle. “How about cat owner extraordinaire? Business teacher or Chef Snyder.” His parents wouldn’t care that he’d fallen in love with an ex-soldier, but his teammates wouldn’t understand at first. He’d tell ‘em, boldy, to fuck off. But, there were tough days ahead. Mike would never be able to run a hundred miles a day again or be asked to. He’d never get to wear his uniform again. And he’d always have shrapnel in his heart.
“Add this to your list of love affair truths, Dad.” he said when he called to tell the family he’d be bringing a friend home for Christmas, “Sometimes love affairs begin when your five years old.”
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and on-line journals. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color. Her novels and short story collections can be found on Amazon and Lulu.com.