War is in the Hearts of Men

On an early morning in late March—when it had, surprisingly, not rained or snowed—I rose to a day I could not begin to contemplate. John, the late riser of the two of us, remained in bed, unaware that I had departed to face the day emotionally alone.
As usual, I made my way into the kitchen and started breakfast. Today, eggs, bacon, and moderately-burnt toast would greet our plates. It would be no different from normal days.
Of course.
Chuckling, I greased the pan, cracked the eggs, and started the oven, sighing when the sharp sizzle of yolk started up. It would only serve testament to how the rest of the day would go.
“Hey.”
I looked up. John stood in the threshold, hands braced against both sides of the wall. His dark hair matted to his face, his nearly-silver eyes watching me from behind a mess of fringe, he waited for me to respond, eyes trailing to the egg.
“Hey,” I smiled.
One thing he’d always been able to do, despite my mood or the circumstances of my day, was make me smile. I’d learned over the years that, if you’re with a good person, and that person can read you without even opening your cover, a man can make you smile with his very presence.
“I didn’t know you were getting up this early.”
“Why not?” I asked, flipping an egg. “Why wouldn’t I get up?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I—”
“It’s your special day, John.”
He said nothing, just like I’d expected him to. Instead of standing there, waiting for me to possibly say something further, he crossed the short distance from the arch that led from the living room to the bar, where he took his place, rubbed his eyes, and waited for breakfast.
You could at least try to talk to me, I thought, sighing as I turned to replace the eggs with bacon. It’s not like I’m trying to shut you out.
If anything, I tried to do the opposite. What was the point of having a partner who didn’t talk to you, or couldn’t communicate? John knew I’d talk; he knew I’d listen.
“Here’s the eggs,” I said, dumping them out onto a plate large enough to feed both of us. “Eat as much as you want.”
“Thanks, Markus.”
 I nodded. The bacon—sizzling worse than the eggs—taunted me. Like John, it would burn if I didn’t treat it carefully, so I made sure to pay extra attention to it between quick glances at the man who sat at the table, gingerly spearing eggs on the tip of his fork as though they would jump up and bite him.
“You ok this morning?” I decided to ask.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Thanks for asking.”
“You don’t want to talk about this?”
“Please, don’t badger me, Markus.”
“I’m not badgering you,” I said. “I—”
He let his fork fall from his hand, storming off before it could clang against the plate. I swore, turned the oven off, and tossed the underdone bacon into a tray, running out into the hall to find the bathroom door open only a sliver.
He never shuts the door, I thought, even if we’ve had a fight.
Steam rolled from its opening, wafting into the hallway like water from a broken sink. It pooled at my feet when I stepped up to the door, then constricted my ankles when I stood in front of it, like an anaconda waiting to swallow me whole. I entertained myself with this bizarre—if somewhat morbid—fantasy for a few short minutes, then leaned against the door, raising my hand to knock.
“John?” I asked, gently rapping my knuckles against the oak wood. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah.”
I pushed the door open and stepped into the room, grimacing at the heat that rolled from the shower and against my skin. Like it usually did after a fight or troubling disagreement, it forced droplets of water from under my skin—particularly my eyebrows, which liked to collect it before dropping it into my eyes at choice moments.
“I know you’re not going to talk to me about this,” I sighed, leaning against the wall, “but please, don’t shut me out.”
“I’m not shutting you out.” He parted the shower curtain, watching with me solemn eyes. “You have to understand something, Markus—I’m not doing this because I want to, I’m doing this because I have to.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“Yeah, I do.”
He stared at me, waiting to see if I would reply, then closed the curtain. I crossed my arms over my chest, fighting off the thought of whether or not to undress and step into the hot water with him. I didn’t think it would matter if I did or not, because showering with him wouldn’t fix the fight.
“Are you getting in?” John asked, pulling my eyes from the floor.
“Do you want me to?”
“I’d prefer if you were in here than out there.”
Sighing, I stepped out of my underwear and slid into the shower. I leaned against the wall—as I usually did—allowing what water that didn’t hit John to coast down my back and off my tailbone. John set a hand on my shoulder once he felt he could.
“Hey,” he said, lifting his other hand and tilting my chin up with two fingers. “Don’t bum out on me, please.”
“I’m trying not to.”
“No you’re not. You’re going to let this eat and eat at you until you’re so depressed you won’t even talk to me. I’m not stupid, Mark—I know you.”
“I…” I shook my head. “It’s not worth it anyway.”
I wrapped my arms around his waist and leaned against him, kissing his shoulder. He reached out and ran a bar of soap across his chest and under his arms. He warned me when he put shampoo in his hair, just like he always did.
“I won’t be gone for more than an hour, two tops,” he said, tilting his head back to let the water wash the shampoo off his face.
“I have to work until three anyway. I won’t see you until I get home.”
“I forgot.”
Of course, I thought, but didn’t say anything.
I ran my hand down his spine, shivering as I felt the bones that connected to each other. I’d always been afraid of human mortality, especially John’s. While hardened by life, his body seemed fragile, held together by only a canvas of skin, and despite the muscle that lay beneath the surface—solidifying the structure of his work of art—it would do nothing to stop the things he would eventually face.
“John,” I said, setting a hand on his arm.
“Yeah?”
“Don’t do anything you won’t regret.”
“I won’t,” he whispered. “Don’t worry.”
He laced our fingers together.
Our rings touched.

We ate breakfast and parted our ways—John for his day, I for mine. From roughly eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, I stocked shelves, ran the register, and dealt with unhappy customers in a local supermarket. The drive itself took about a half hour—depending on the traffic that coagulated the streets from the morning, lunch or night drive—but I enjoyed it.
Despite the reassurance I had that morning, after the shower and during breakfast, I spent the first part of the day dwelling on John and the business office he would be at, talking to a man that he didn’t know, but would remember for the rest of his life. I imagined that man asking him questions—who he was and what he stood for. And John, being his usual, polite self, would say his name was John, and that he stood for the goodwill of the American man. I married him for that reason—or ‘joined,’ as the legal system liked to point out. I couldn’t refer to John as my husband in a legal sense, like at a bank or when filling out an account the both of us planned to use. I’d have to say ‘partner,’ because if I didn’t, I’d be corrected and shamed with other people present.
That afternoon, after spending most of the morning groveling, being as pleasant as I possibly could, and cleaning the disgusting employee restroom, I worked the register, cashing people’s items, asking them how their day had been, and wishing them to have a good afternoon. I took an overpriced, twenty-dollar DVD from an elderly woman, desperately wanting to tell her that she could get it at the video store for at least half the cost, but unable to for fear that I would lose my job.
“Thanks,” I smiled, accepting the twenty-one odd dollars and change, after tax. “Have a nice day.”
“You too,” the woman said. She turned to grab her purchase, but stopped. Her eyes lingered from the bag to my face, where she stared at me for a long moment. “Is something wrong, dear?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“You look troubled.”
Of course I look troubled, ma’am—the man I love is going to war.
“I’m all right,” I said, pushing her bag forward so she wouldn’t have to stretch over the counter to take it. “Thank you for your concern though. I appreciate it.”
“Everything will be fine,” she said, taking the DVD in hand. “Don’t worry.”
“I,” I began, but paused soon after. “Thank you.”
With that, the woman turned and walked away, leaving me to think about life, war, and how John fit in with all of it.

At lunch, I returned home after a ten minute trek and slid into the kitchen, where I reached into the fridge and pulled out sandwich ingredients. With knife in hand, I cut fresh ham, cheese and tomatoes, then arranged them between two slabs of bread. I cut the sandwich into two neat halves before arranging three pickles between them on the plate.
Why not just put them on the sandwich? John had laughed, when we’d first started dating. Or, better yet, why not eat chips?
I don’t like chips, I’d said. They’re too salty.
The memory made me smile, and—most importantly—lit a place in my heart that only John could. Before, when I’d dated, lived and slept with other men, that place had never lit, nor had it burned so long it sometimes hurt. At times during those relationships, I’d questioned why I didn’t feel those things, the things that the romance writers and the love movies talked about. I’d wondered why I never shivered when his finger traced my back or smiled when he stepped into a room. And even now—standing at the kitchen counter, remembering something that had happened fifteen years ago—I still wondered why it took me so long to realize that what I’d felt had been true love.
Lifting one half of the sandwich, I took a bite out of it, then bit the head off a pickle. I rolled the two in my mouth—glad that the vegetable hadn’t bittered the taste of the sandwich—and repeated the process until the first half disappeared. I ate the second pickle by itself, then started on the third.
I half expected John to come in the door that very moment, laughing and teasing me like only he could.
John, I sighed.
If he left—if he really, truly decided to get on a plane and depart for a desert land far, far away—I didn’t know what I would do. Half the time, I depended on him to hold me together; to calm me down after a particularly-frustrating day, or ease my spirits when something troubled me. I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at his side, showered, went to bed and woke up in the morning with him, repeating the process daily. I couldn’t imagine how his absence would feel.
I don’t know what I’ll do if you leave, I thought, somehow feeling guilty that I was eating without him. Please, John—
Markus—
Just listen to me, please!
I’ve already decided—I’m going.
You don’t have to go though!
Yes I do. My father—
Your father wouldn’t want you to be away from me.
My father doesn’t know I’m with you.
That’s my point exactly! What would he think about you leaving if he knew you were with someone? Huh? What would he think if he knew you had a man at home—a husband, one you never told him about—that didn’t want you to leave? If you enlist, you’ll be gone for months, maybe even years.
It doesn’t matter. I’m going to enlist, and you’re not going to stop me.
I stopped fighting with him after that. Of course, I’d tried to persuade him to stay, but I never actually fought. Before, I’d bore claw and tooth, armed to the core with emotions only a husband could have, but the strain it put on the both of us forced me to realize something—fighting, especially about something as complicated as enlisting in the military, would only break our stability and, most likely, destroy our relationship in the long run.
With the guilty thought out of my conscience, I finished my sandwich and remaining pickle, then crossed the short distance to the sink. I turned the water on, but snapped my hands back as scalding liquid bit into my skin.
“John,” I chuckled, casting a glance at my reddened hands.
He always had a bad habit of leaving the hot water on after he washed something. He liked to ‘kill the germs’ before he put anything in the dishwasher, or drank a soda he’d bought from the store. To think that he put so much effort into making sure the both of us were safe, then to enlist in the military and put himself in even more danger.
Quit.
I grabbed a dishtowel, dried my hands and yawned, fighting a wave of drowsiness that threatened to bring back thoughts of last night. Sleep hadn’t come until the knots in John’s back had loosened, not until his shoulders had slumped in rest.
A quick glance at the clock brought a grimace to my face. I’d taken five minutes too long for my lunch break.
Turning, I slid my hands into my pockets to make sure I hadn’t dumped my keys off somewhere, then left the house.
As always, I locked the door behind me.
There was no reason to let the neighbors in.

The remainder of my shift rolled on smoothly, secured by both the old woman and the fact that I would see John later that night. I left work feeling as though tonight—regardless of how tense it could be—would turn out all right.
Traffic, as usual, jammed the roads, congealing them with rust and metal. And, much to my displeasure, the streetlights seemed to turn green only once every ten minutes. I could move no more than a few feet before I had to stop to avoid rear-ending the person in front of me.
It’s all right, I thought, drumming my fingers against the steering wheel.
John would be at home by now, eating a TV or microwaveable dinner he’d heated up himself. Or, maybe, he made dinner for the both of us, so I wouldn’t have to worry about doing it myself.
Not that it matters.
Releasing my hold on the break when the traffic inched forward, I fumbled for the radio, grimacing as blare of static, electronica and voices exploded out the side speakers. My ears rang for the next half minute before I finally got the radio situated. A man with a deep, pleasant voice spoke to someone else, though I could only catch his tone, not his exact words.
“There’s something I don’t understand,” he said. My ears perked in response.
“What’s that?” another man—this one light-voiced—asked.
“We’ve got these gays, right?” Deep Voice said. “They want marriage, they want adoption, they want to be able to walk into a hospital and see their partner. That’s fine—because as far as I’m concerned, people should get those rights, regardless of whether you’re black, brown, or the color of the freakin’ rainbow—but I don’t see why they have to serve in our military.”
“They can’t, remember? Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“Yeah, I remember that. But there’s a big deal going on about that war. War… hell, if you could get out of it by saying you’re gay, why not do it?”
“Isn’t that like faking a medical condition?” light-voice asked.
“I thought the Pentagon had homosexuality listed as a medication condition?”
Both men burst out laughing. I couldn’t help but growl and swipe at the tuner. It scraped my hand, spun, and landed on a static channel before it went completely dead.
Assholes, I huffed, pushing the car forward another few feet. Why do you care if a person’s gay and wants to go into the Army?
As far as I’d been concerned since the day I could understand the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, if a gay man—or woman—wanted to serve their country, why couldn’t they? Were people so afraid of being flirted with in the showers or propositioned in the barracks? Any self-respecting gay man wouldn’t offer his straight companion a blowjob, and he sure as hell wouldn’t try to flirt with him.
“Straight men aren’t game,” I sighed.
But it’d sure as hell make the world a whole lot easier if they were.
Closing my eyes, I thought of John and what he’d gotten himself into.
Would he lie about his background if they want to check his marriage license? And if they did, what would they say when they found Jonathan Alexander Markinson to be ‘joined’ with Markus Peter Burrows, who’d held a ceremony over the border in order to avoid discrimination?
At that particular moment, I didn’t know what he’d do. I simply took a deep breath, lifted my foot off the gas, and continued down the street, stopping every so often in order to avoid hitting the vehicle in front of me.
All’s fair in love and war, I thought.
What bitter humor we all knew.

Home stood its ground on the outer edges of town, bordered by neighboring houses just like it. During the summer, I maintained a garden to keep in the spirit of things, while John mowed every Sunday, glad for the peace Mass offered. At night, the lilies that skirted the edge of the stepping-stone path leading from the driveway to the door glowed like irradiated mushrooms, brought to Earth by some foreign, alien race.
I disengaged the engine, made sure I hadn’t forgotten anything important in the passenger seat, and crawled out of the vehicle, locking it with a simple click of the touchpad. From there, I made my way up to the door, where I knocked before entering.
“John?” I asked, closing the door behind me. “You here?”
He didn’t respond. Odd, considering his car rested in the driveway right beside mine. I figured that, if he wasn’t home, he’d be at one of the neighbor’s houses or a friend’s, talking about something or other.
After locking the door, I slid my shoes off my feet and stepped into the kitchen, where I immediately went for the fridge to see if he’d made dinner. Sadly, only a few cinnamon rolls remained from several days back.
Better than nothing.
I plucked one off the plate and bit into it, sighing when orange flavoring exploded in my mouth. John always enjoyed sweets, but in moderation. He once said that, as a teenager, he suffered from childhood obesity and had to diet for around three years to get all the weight off. Along with exercise, he said it nearly killed him—both emotionally and physically. I could imagine being fat, but then again, I couldn’t imagine John ever being heavier either. He had bulging muscles and a slim, lean torso devoid of any kind of stretch marks.
Just goes to show you what you should be thankful for, I thought, sliding a hand under my shirt.
“John!” I called, shoving the last of the cinnamon roll in my mouth. “Are you here?”
“I’m here.”
I jumped, startled at his sudden appearance. He slid into a bar stool and rested his elbows on the counter, cupping his face in his hands.
“You ok?” I frowned, turning to wash the grease off my fingers.
“I’ll live,” he sighed.
Ok. I swallowed a lump in my throat, drying my hands with a dishtowel. Something happened.
“Did the interview go ok?” I asked.
“Oh, it went fine,” he said, “until the guy who interviewed me pulled out my ‘marriage’ certificate.”
If you could get out of it by saying you’re gay, why not do it?
“What did he say, John?” I frowned, not sure whether or not to reach out and touch him or just leave him be.
“He said, ‘The United States does not accept gays or lesbians in their military.’”
“Did he say why?”
“No,” John growled. “I don’t see why you care anyway. You were the one who wanted me to stay here.”
“I wanted you to. I didn’t say you had to.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Me wanting you to stay home means that I’d rather you not go to Iraq and get your head blown off. Me saying you didn’t have to means that I would’ve supported you no matter where you went.”
John said nothing. Instead, he chose to bow his face into his hands and take slow, deep breaths. Every part of me willed to reach out and touch him—to tell him that everything would be fine and that he didn’t have to worry about anything—but something stopped me. My hand, which had almost passed the top of the cupboard, jolted against my side, subconsciously telling me to leave him be.
“It doesn’t matter,” he finally said, looking up at me with moisture in his eyes. “I failed Dad.”
“You didn’t fail anyone, John. Don’t say that.”
“You don’t understand, Markus. He… he wanted me to enlist so bad. It… it was his last wish.”
Markus, John said, what seemed like so long ago. Can I talk to you about something?
Yeah. Of course you can.
Dad’s in the hospital. He… his heart disease finally got the best to him. The doctors said he wouldn’t live if he had another heart attack. I have to go to Maine, to say goodbye one last time.
The sight of John crying spurred the memory to mind faster than I could have ever imagined. The image of him standing in the doorway to our bedroom—crying, phone dangling from his hand by only the cord—summoned emotions that I hadn’t felt since that fateful night four years ago, when John’s life had forever changed. He’d idolized his father since he saw him leave in his Army uniform the day he turned twelve years old. The man’s death nearly destroyed him.
“No, John.” I leaned forward and took his face in my hands, tilting his head up so we could look one another in the eyes. “His last wish wasn’t for you to leave the man you love for a war we’re not supposed to fight.”
“But Markus… he—”
“What would he have said if he knew you loved someone? What would he say if he knew you loved that man enough to travel thousands of miles to Canada so we would know in our hearts that we really, truly got married? John… your dad knows you tried. Don’t you think that’s what he’d want to know? That you tried?”
I… I don’t know.” John swallowed the lump in his throat. He released a wail that had to have been festering in his chest for hours, days, maybe even years, then buried his face in my neck and clawed at my shirt, desperate to attach himself to the one and only thing that seemed real in this world. “Yes, Markus. Yes. That… that’s all he’d care about.”
“You can’t help what they did,” I whispered, running my hands through his hair. “You can’t help they tried to use you as a weapon.”
“But they didn’t,” he said.
“I know,” I sighed, closing my eyes. “And that’s all that matters.”
I rested my face in his hair, took a deep breath, and realized for the first time that war meant more than just bearing arms and traveling to countries where the sand always blew and the sun always seemed to shine.
At that moment, I realized that war could exist in the hearts of men.
John’s war had just ended.
I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

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