Between the bombs and the bullets, the goats, the bodies, the fuck-ups and the failures, the small spurts of competence before rank and orders interfere, Nate cannot mark the moment looking at Brad became an exercise in wonder. He was just a soldier, attractive due to the facts of his sarcastic mouth, cocky grin, and blue, blue eyes. Nate knew it and moved himself along because lust had no place in this war. But now whenever Nate looks at Brad, he sees him stateside. Nate can hardly imagine himself in clean clothes anymore, but he can see Brad on his motorcycle and he can see Brad at a kitchen table, entrenched in the art of deconstruction, computer pieces puzzled around him. Brad sits on a grey couch and reads books in low light. Nate knows he surfs and imagines he likes dogs. He stares and he knows it, but these are the only images of home he can see clearly.
He discovers a deep curiosity of what conversation is like with Brad when no one is holding a gun. One-on-one, with pizza and beer and maybe the TV on mute in the background, sitting on the couch with the dog asleep at Brad’s feet, Nate would listen to whatever he wanted to say. He wants to see a picture of Brad when he is seventeen and hear the stories. Not the trumped up selections–the high gloss, chrome finish which are told to the company and Wright–but the soft-bellied truths and Nate’ll talk too, if Brad doesn’t mind. About what war did to him. How he joined to stop feeling lost and now he couldn’t find north if he was pointed and pushed. How it is disappointing and surprising and everything and nothing like what he signed up for. Pen to paper he wrote his name in fancy letters–his education on display–and thought it would help. It makes him calm, to look at Brad. He makes it possible for Nate to believe in sitting on couches, after another home is leveled and they run over bodies in the streets.
They have a night recon on a hill, watching the firefights and the haze. The city glows and it’s like a horror movie. Nate is thinking about Brad on his motorcycle as he comments on the cars traveling in and out. When he refuses to go on foot patrols, he knows he will be reprimanded, but his breaths are deeper, even as he fumes to the night.
“I trust your judgment, sir,” Brad says and it is shattering in a way he hadn’t known was possible. Agreement should feel good, but it feels terrible and Nate doesn’t know how to classify this, with Brad’s face turned to his, open and true and believing so firmly and easily in his words. He backtracks, but Brad stands his ground and Nate wants to ask him everything, feels like Brad would answer too, but Wright is lying at Brad’s side and Baghdad is still being destroyed below them.
In the morning, Captain Schwetje addresses his “lack of obedience to orders” and Nate fights the urge to burst into laughter. He has had this conversation so many times and the text never changes. There are always these men who think rank outweighs knowledge. This is not how anything should be run and when Griego tells him “The Corps won’t forget” Nate thinks, and neither will I.
In the afternoon, they roll into another residential area. Nate is looking around for Meesh when there is an explosion to his left. When he asks for the cause, there is an answer involving bombs and Brad and if Nate has to see him as a fine mist on the shrubbery he will fucking kill him.
In the garden of dust and bombed out space, he wants to leap into the hole and pull Brad out with his own hands. He has to use his words instead. Stand at the edge and order that motherfucker to stop playing hero. They are there to help, yes, but after last night Nate thought they had come to an agreement about unnecessary danger. When he says, “We’re done here Brad,” he knows he isn’t just talking about the garden and he knows he doesn’t mean it.
In what passes for the mess hall, Brad is eating crackers and peanut butter while they talk about killing. He says, “All religious stuff aside, the fact is, people who can’t kill will always be subject to those who can.”
Nate thinks about the power he has and doesn’t move when Lilley introduces his video. He doesn’t need to see those images again. He doesn’t need to see anything else, except Brad and the easy concentration in putting peanut butter on crackers.
Nate sees a late afternoon: sleeping in and not wanting to cook. He can see himself there, too. He swipes peanut butter from Brad and is expecting it when Brad captures his hand and reclaims the peanut butter with his tongue.
He looks at Brad–the man is glowing in the sun–and Brad looks back. Nate nods, still thinking about the kitchen. The rhythm of his chewing slows for a beat and his eyes are the same kind of open as on the hill.
Nate looks away as his stomach drops and his fingers go a little numb. His mouth moves into a tight smile and when he lifts himself from the table, his head is tilted towards the video. Mike follows him and he doesn’t look back.
He tells Mike he wants to be alone and strikes out to the top of the complex, the highest ledge he can find.
Throughout the war, Nate has been certain of some things: he knows Captain McGraw is dangerous, he knows Captain Schwetje is an idiot, he knows responsibility was pushed onto the wrong people, he knows it was too much like a race, he knows he lied sometimes, and he knows he’s met Brad’s eyes in a stare. He knows what he would like it to mean, but this road is more dangerous than one in Baghdad.
Everything he’s locked inside his ranger grave–when Brad is no longer sitting on the couch, because he’s stretched out on top of him with one hand down his pants and the other at the back of his neck and it’s not the booze and it’s not the pain and it’s not the loneliness and it’s not that other people can’t understand them–is escaping. He knows the warrior. He knows the Iceman. He wants so much to wake to Brad’s voice, meet his eyes, and know the man. It is almost over, this war, and something else he knows is that he doesn’t want another one.
“I know it’s the same sun, setting, but it’s not the same here,” Nate says when he hears boots on the concrete.
“There’s no water, sir,” Brad replies, “The sun should set over water. I hope the utter debauchery born of that cheap fucking gin isn’t what drove you up here.”
“They should have the night.”
He can sense Brad approaching the edge, but keeps his eyes on the horizon. They watch the sun flood the desert with red-gold light. A racket rises from the camp, but there are also the sounds of the country, shifting under the weight of invasion. There are cars and cities and houses and rooms and dinners and dogs and laughter and it exists outside of them. It came before and it will stay after. The Fertile Crescent and Humanity. The sun is approaching a thin line when Nate turns from it.
“Did you ever have any pets?”
“I had a dog, sir. He ran away when I was nine.”
Nate laughs in broken notes. “There’s a dog. When I think about life after this.”
Brad tilts his head and raises his eyebrows. “You think about life after this, sir?”
“I think about--” he begins with some fury, because this is not how the conversation should be going, but stops because it is absurd to expect anything different and for him to still be standing here.
“I think about a lot of things,” he finishes and steps away from the edge. There is a burst of drunken song.
“I’m going to help calm that down.”
Brad is still standing at the edge and Nate can’t see the details of his face when he reaches the rough stairs.
“Yes, sir,” Brad nods.
Nate stops walking, but can’t stop moving.
“As an officer, I should. As an officer it is my responsibility. As an officer, I thought about...”
There is no one waiting to write this down. There is no one yelling orders in his ear. He understands the theory of this being easier stateside. With beer and clean clothes, and no one shooting at them, it might be nothing more than shoving him against a wall. Nate knows this wasn’t meant to live in war, but Brad stands right there.
“I thought about how wrong my actions were and how much I fucked up. I thought about the shitty choices I made and how I don’t know if I can clean this from my soul. I wonder what I’ve done here and what I can do in the future because this is all so futile and full of horrors we couldn’t identify or stop and it’s not my dog I think about. It’s yours.”
“I don’t have a dog, sir.”
He is looking where he knows Brad’s eyes are. Nate hates the dark and the quiet. He loses Brad’s breathing pattern to the country air.
“Goodnight, Brad,” he says and finally turns away.
“What do I name her?”
Nate turns his head until he can see Brad’s silhouette. He has never thought about it, but knows what he would choose.
“Classical bullshit. I would never do that.”
“She’s the goddess of the hunt.”
“Is she the one who climbed out of Zeus’s skull?”
“No, that’s Athenea.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing’s wrong with–actually, she’s the goddess of warfare, so if you like it...”
“I can name my theoretical dog it?”
“Both are very honorable names.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t name her after war.”
Nate chokes on his own breath. When he clears his throat, Brad is a foot away, still more shadow than shape. Nate turns his head back towards the stairs.
“Maybe you shouldn’t.”
“Sir, I don’t think this is really about that stupid fucking dog.”
Nate takes a step away, a step down. He needs to pack it back up: the thoughts he shouldn’t think and the words he shouldn’t say. He imagines the other chances they will have to say this. When it will be real and calm and lit and quiet; when he will be braver. This is the worst idea he has ever had and he has made some bad fucking calls.
“We can forget this.”
“Nate,” Brad says with force and Nate turns to yell about rank and respect, but Brad has never said his name before. He needs to keep concentrating on the expansion and contraction of his lungs or he will surely die right here.
Brad is even taller now and it is so soft when he says it.
“I’m sorry about that, sir.”
“The dog was...extra. I was thinking about you.”
He hears Brad breathe, swallow, breathe. He steps back onto the ledge.
“Brad,” he starts, but then there is the ghost of a touch, a hand on his shoulder, wishing for his neck and his face, but staying put because they are still in Iraq and no matter how alone they feel, they aren’t.
He can see Brad nod, and feel it too, and he walks down the steps first.
They have been back in the states for a week, compiling reports and winding down, and this is the first night of their leave. Like many other things, it is a long time coming. In the weeks between there and here–such stasis, in the middle of that roving, teeming country–Nate thought about two things: Brad and leaving the Marines. He ignored the places where the two met with sharp corners.
Normally, he would have hesitated to go to a bar with his men, but he is sick of the Corps telling him what he can and cannot do and another “fuck you” to the establishment sounded nice. He buys the first round. And the fourth.
He wants to talk to Brad about how this happens, so he catches his eyes–Brad is sprawled at the other end of the table–and then excuses himself to the bathroom. Nate can feel him watching as he walks away, eyes cool and calm. He reads the graffiti around the mirror (which is filthy and probably belongs in part to Ray) for five minutes before cursing whatever synapses Brad is missing.
Ray and Poke have started an argument about who had a shittier childhood (no doubt why the rest of the table is now at the bar or the dart board), but Brad isn’t in either place.
Ray asks if he washed his hands, but Nate just stares at the empty chair.
“He called us ‘pathetic whiskey-tango motherfuckers,’ announced his intention to go get laid, and left.”
“It’s true, dawg,” Poke smiles, “I bet he has prostitutes on his speed-dial.”
Nate bites the inside of this lip. Really, it was twenty minutes on a roof talking in stupid metaphors and breathing the same air. It was like complaining about the flight delay with someone on an airplane and then calling that a relationship.
“It’s been a pleasure, gentlemen. I hope to see you tomorrow before you leave.”
He walks away even as both men call out.
It’s still humid outside and he knows it is June, but fuck, what he wouldn’t give for an East Coast winter. He misses how sharp even the air becomes. His head is a little light and his heart is a little broken and he considers kicking the tires of the nearest car before he notices Brad leaning on the hood.
“I was starting to worry you had been taken by enemy forces, sir.”
“Fuck you. That was a signal I wanted to talk in the bathroom.”
Brad looks at the car with both eyebrows raised.
“Yes, I now see how this is better. I’m sure you’re interested to know Ray and Poke both think you’re going to see a prostitute.”
“And what makes you think I’m not?”
“Shut the fuck up and unlock the car.”
“And stop calling me sir.”
“Don’t do it.”
Nate rolls the window all the way down and hangs an arm against the car door. Brad seems to know where he is going and Nate watches him drive, eyes darting between his profile and his hands at ten and two.
It’s a nice hotel (what else is their money for if not liquor and sex?) and Brad already has a key card. Nate sits in the lobby for five minutes, which feels almost foolish, but can’t hurt. His ears are pounding. He expected so much for this not to happen. For cosmic misunderstandings to fuck it up, but now he is outside room 214.
There is no hesitation in his knock or Brad’s answer.
Nate leans on the wall just inside the door and looks at Brad.
“Hi,” he says.
Brad steps into his space like the expert he is and slides his palm up Nate’s chest. There is almost a clash of teeth, before Brad’s tongue is in his mouth and his hands are on either side of Nate’s face. They are not soft about it. Nate drags his fingers up Brad’s back, pulling, as Brad presses him to the wall. Brad breaks the kiss and moves to Nate’s neck. Nate twists and closes his eyes. He feels, feels, feels for the first time since he went to Iraq what he could classify as happy.
When their lips meet again, it is with no less force. Nate’s shirt is hiked halfway up his chest and he has unbuttoned Brad’s jeans when Brad suddenly backs away and presses his forehead solidly to Nate’s. Nate’s hand stops low on Brad’s stomach and he leans off the wall and onto Brad, but Brad tilts his face up and breathes in arching gasps.
“I don’t like dogs. Not like Trombley doesn’t like dogs–none of that psycho need-to-kill them shit,” he stops and inhales in bursts, “He ran away, Nate. They’re supposed to be loyal.”
Nate slides a hand up the back of Brad’s skull and tilts his face down.
“You don’t have to get a dog. Fuck, it mostly sat there while we made out on the couch.”
Brad’s fingers slide between the digits of the hand Nate still has pressed to his stomach. He pulls Nate further into the room.
“Would you look at that? They were kind enough to provide us with a bed.”
Nate’s response is to tackle him onto it.
With a hand across his chest and Brad breathing onto the back of his neck, he will stay here forever–except there are 29 days until the United States government reclaims its investments and makes demands of every last inch. They trained to live without, but this will be a whole different monster.
They live apart for so long that when Brad tells him he’s done invading other countries, it takes Nate a moment to understand what this means.
“Why?” he asks, instinctively.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Brad says and even though Nate is certain he isn’t talking about them, he can’t stop his stomach from falling three floors to the sidewalk to die with a splatter.
“I’ve heard the politicians congregate in Washington. I’ve spent so much of my time with dumb-fucks, I think I’ll fit right in.”
He clears his throat.
“California doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
And he pauses, like he’ll say it, and even though he doesn’t, Nate understands.
Brad arrives in the middle of the night, a week before he says he will.
Nate yells, “This better be fucking important,” before throwing open the door and stopping so short he almost falls forward.
“Your recon skills are lacking.”
“Your asshole skills aren’t.”
“Cranky this evening?”
“It’s morning,” Nate says and drags him inside.
The next afternoon, Nate makes him a PB&J. Brad sniffs at the sandwich and tells him peanut butter still tastes like sand. He doubles up on raspberry jam instead.
Nate quickly learns Brad believes electronics and kitchen tables don’t mix. He takes his machines apart in front of the TV and Nate’s feet are attracted to the sharpest pieces like magnets.
Once Brad learns the surfing around D.C. sucks, Nate knows no matter how many trips they take, he will never hear the end of it.
Nate admits one night he always imagined Brad’s bike looked like the ones from Easy Rider. Brad does not stop laughing until he almost chokes. He buys Nate the DVD for Christmas and insists they watch it right away.
He asks Brad’s mother for pictures as Brad doesn’t keep photographs. Brad yells at her for sending them and Nate for asking. A week later, Nate hands him a stack of pictures from his own childhood and tells all the connected stories. Brad works through his own pictures slowly and finally stops taking them down when Nate frames a few.
When Brad reads in the low light of the floor lamp, Nate likes to stand at the edge of the room and watch. Brad likes to pretend he doesn’t notice. Nate’ll lean on the balls of his feet and when he’s looked long enough, he’ll step forward with beer or cold pizza. Most days, he doesn’t remember when he didn’t know this Brad. He can still remember the flashes and the shots, the dead air and the wonder, but this comes first. This buries the rest in the sand.