The flight attendant’s voice calls out over the loud speaker, and like everyone else on the plane, I put my tray in its upright position. The wheels touch down on the runway, jolting the plane more than I’m comfortable with. A mixture of exhaustion and anxiety spreads through me as I reach for my bag in the overhead compartment. As I sling it over my shoulder, I look up the aisle and see no one else is moving. An older gentleman from the row next to me salutes me, his crooked and work-worn hands shaking at his brow.
“Thank you for your service, son.” His voice is about as shaky as his hand, but I can tell from the way he clicks his heels together, straightens his spine, and looks me square in the eyes, that he was a service man, too. My eyes travel up to the beaten and tattered hat he’s wearing. “Marines. World War Two,” he answers my unasked question and I salute him back. My crew-cut hair and camo T-shirt must have given me away.
He extends his hand, allowing me to step out first as the rest of the passengers stay in their seats. A loud wave of applause accompanies me as I walk through the center aisle. Trying my best to hide it, I cringe at the volume of it.
What a loser! My thoughts of self-loathing and panic are well-hidden behind my public smile. But the honest truth is that every single sound of what should be a harmless clap bounces around in my head like thunder.
Like bombs and gunfire.
Vomit rises in my throat as a few passengers drop a hand on my shoulder in thanks as I pass them. The urge to spin around, grab their arms, and knock them down to the ground is there, but I hold it in check.
Somehow. Figuring the more emotional part of coming home was over and done with when I was out-processed, I hadn’t expected this at all. The first leg of the journey back home was easier. There were a few other troops with me, traveling from our home base after being out-processed and I slept for most of the flight. But for this last part, a short two-hour flight into Colorado Springs Airport, I was alone.
Stepping off the plane isn’t any quieter than the cabin had been and some kind of weird domino effect takes place. I can only assume that somehow word traveled from the plane that there was a soldier on board. One person salutes and cheers for me and it’s as if everyone else in the place falls in line. A loud raucous celebration takes place in the small airport just for me.
They romanticize these scenes on television, you know. Budweiser and Coca-Cola want you to believe when a soldier comes home, he’s ecstatic to be greeted by everyone’s jubilance. And while it’s somewhat true, it’s also mostly false.
Having everyone jump up around me reminds of the life I’ve missed out on in the years I’ve given in service. It reminds me of how I don’t have control over my surroundings, of how I feel like I’ll never be in control again.
Would I give it up? Go back and change the last four years of my life?
No, I know I wouldn’t. They make me who I am. And even though there are days I wish it was me in the ground instead of my comrades, I know I could never change the decisions I’ve made.
Except that one.
With that thought in my brain, I catch sight of my mom in the distance holding up a sign with my name plastered on it.
Welcome Home, SPC Jacob “Dax” Daxton. We love you!
A proud smile splits Mom’s face as tears stream down her cheeks. Dropping her bags and the sign, she runs into my arms.
“Oh, Jake. You’re home. You’re really home.” Her words are muffled as she hugs me close. Dad walks up behind us, clapping a hand on my shoulder.
“We’re real proud of you, Son.” A soldier himself, his words carry less emotion, but I see it in his eyes – the emotion, the understanding, and the gravity of it all. Extending a hand to him, while holding Mom to my side, he surprises me by pulling me into a hug. “It’s so good to have you home,” his tone softens.
After breaking the brief hug, Mom holds me at arm’s length and adds, “For good, this time. You’re home for good this time.” There’s an air of a question in her words, as if she can’t really believe they’re true.
“Yes, Mom. For good,” I assure her as Dad pulls the bag from my shoulder.
“Come on. Let’s get you home,” Mom announces proudly, looping her arm around my waist.
More cheers of appreciation follow the three of us out of the airport, but the anger, sadness, and depression that bubble in my chest drown out the noise.
Mom’s words replay in a vicious cycle in my head as we drive home.
You’re home. For good.
Yes, this time for good, but not for the better. Oddly, those sentences feel more like a prison sentence than anything else.
I’ve spent the last four years of my life in the Army, fighting this war. It’s defined me as a man, and now, without it, I’m nothing. I enrolled to avoid the truth, to avoid having to be a part of the real world where I felt I had no place. And now I’m out, back on the block as we soldiers call it, and I still feel like I have a battle to fight. One that, in the end, I hope I’ll finally win, and be happy with my life.
The ten-minute ride from the airport is an odd combination of Mom crying with happiness and Dad asking questions I don’t feel much like answering. Luckily, most of them are of the yes or no variety, so I make it out pretty much unaffected.
When we pull into the driveway, I’m not surprised to see banners and balloons decorating the front of the house.
“I told you I didn’t need a big homecoming, Mom,” I say, lifting my bag out of the backseat.
Looping her arm through mine, she reaches up on her tiptoes and pecks me on the cheek. “Nonsense. You’re home. We’re having a party. That’s it,” her tone carries an air of finality and playfulness that I’ve missed. Okay, fine. Maybe a party might not be a bad idea.
That’s when my older brother, Lance and his wife, Carmen, choose to step out on to the front porch. The five year age gap between us always kept us at very different spots in our lives. He was done with college and on to grad school while I was graduating high school. When I signed up for the Army after my first year of college, he was proposing to Carmen. As I was crawling out of the wreck that once was my tank after it was hit by a roadside bomb, his wife was giving birth.
He’s everything I’m not, and everything I’ll never be.
Greeting me at the bottom of the front porch, he’s holding a tiny bundle in his arms. “Hey, man. Meet your niece,” he whispers as he pulls the pink blanket away from her face. “This is Isabel.” His words are proud, as is the smile on his face. “Isabel, this is your Uncle Jake,” he completes the introductions as I drop my bag to the ground. Carefully, he hands me Isabel and she squirms in the transfer.
“Hey, little girl.” I keep my voice low, brushing my fingers over her plump cheek. She squirms some more before a loud wail squeals from her tiny mouth.
“Oh, here. Let me take her.” Carmen reaches for Isabel, who’s now crying bloody murder. “She must be hungry,” Carmen explains, cuddling the baby close. With her free hand, she reaches out to greet me. “It’s so nice to finally meet you, Jake.” We shake hands quickly before she walks away to feed Isabel. Of course I couldn’t be at the wedding. War was definitely the more desirable option. Having what you’ll never have, watching who you’ll never be, paraded around in front of you isn’t exactly my idea of a good day.
With Carmen and Isabel gone, it leaves just the four of us on the front porch. It shouldn’t be stilted and awkward, but it is. I guess that’s what happens when you throw together a group of people who barely know each other, despite the fact that they’re family.
It’s scary how sometimes the people with whom you spend most of your life, know you the least.
That’s why best friends were created and mine has perfect timing, because just as Lance is about to open his mouth to start what I’m sure would be a forced conversation, Chloe comes barreling down the stairs.
Crashing into me, she nearly knocks me down, but she’d have to be more than the hundred-and-ten pound little pixie that she is in order to be able to do that. “You’re home!” she yells out as I swirl her around. As I place her on the ground, she looks me over, afraid I’m really just some kind of mirage.
Her tiny hands are in a death grip on my forearms as if she’s worried that if she lets me go, I’ll vanish before her eyes. Draping an arm over her shoulder, I pull her to my side. “Sure am. But what the hell are you doing here?”
That question warrants a slap upside the head. “Is that any way to greet me?”
“Ow!” I feign injury, rubbing over the spot she just slapped.
“I knew you were coming home, so I made plans to spend the weekend here. It’s not Cali, but I’ll brave the cold for you,” Chloe explains as we walk around the side of the house to the backyard.
“Well, thank you.”
She eyes me suspiciously at the awkwardness of my tone, but luckily some other family members interrupt the conversation. As they pull me away to be reunited with the rest of my family, Chloe shoots me a look that screams, “We’ll talk later.”
In the five years I’ve known Chloe, she’s never been anything but selfless and loving. We were paired up during some college freshman team-building activity. Feeling awkward and out of place, I was reluctant to even take part, but since it was a dorm-wide thing, I kind of had to. Chloe picked me out of the crowd to be on her team and we were inseparable for the rest of the year.
Until I left.
But even after I enrolled, we kept in touch. She’s the only one who knows who I really am. Sadly, I think she might even know me better than I know myself.
She also has this uncanny ability to see through my bullshit. Which is exactly what she does when she calls me out on my strangeness from earlier.
“Dude, what the hell was all that ‘well, thank you’ crap about before?” Chloe slides next to me on the couch in the family room after the party is all cleared out. After cracking open a beer, she hands me one and takes a generous gulp from hers.
Shrugging, I’m not sure I really want to get into it, but if there’s anyone who’s going to get the truth out of me, it’s going to be Chloe.
“Dax, please,” she implores, nudging me in the side with her elbow. No one around here calls me Dax. It’s a name my comrades gave me. Once I told Chloe about it, she latched on to it and refused to let it go. Using it now, I can tell she means business, and I’m not going to get off the hook unless I open up.
“No one here knows,” I explain, keeping my voice low. My parents headed off to bed an hour ago, and everyone has already left, but I still feel the need to whisper.
Chloe’s eyes widen, surprise washing over her pretty face. “You mean…they don’t know about –” I cut her off mid-sentence.
“No, they don’t know I’m gay.” My voice is barely above a whisper. Chugging back a huge sip of beer makes me feel lightheaded. I haven’t had alcohol in so long, and to feel the effects after just a few sips reminds me of how much I don’t like losing control.
“Still? Even after all these years? Why?” Her questions aren’t accusatory or judgmental ones. They’re born out of pure concern. It’s written all over her face.
“I wanted to, you know that. But I couldn’t, not after what happened at school. And then I enlisted, thinking I could avoid everything. Shitload of good that did me, huh?” I huff sarcastically, swallowing back more beer despite the fuzziness already clouding my head. “And now I’m back here, the place that made me feel claustrophobic in the first place. I can’t spend the rest of my life in the closet, but I feel like I don’t even know who I am. I’ve spent the last five years of my life trying to figure out who I am and what I want, but all it’s done is land me back in the place I wanted to escape.”
I don’t bother mentioning that I’ll never measure up to Lance and his picture-perfect family. Seems obvious enough, to me anyway.
Chloe drops a hand to my knee and squeezes gently. “Dax, you need to do what’s best for you. You haven’t even been home a full day. Maybe give it some time –”
“No.” The volume of my declaration makes her jump. Hell, it even surprises me. “I can’t do that” I say, my voice calmer now. “Time isn’t what I need. Space, I need space. I need to clear my head, figure out who the hell I am.” The last words come out covered in sadness.
We sit in silence for a few minutes, letting the weight of my fuckedupness settle around us as the evening news plays on the old television.
On a commercial break, Chloe turns to me with a smug look and sly smile spreading across her features. “Move in with me,” she says, as straight faced as ever.
“Say what?” I twist in my seat, dumbfounded and not entirely sure I’ve heard her correctly.
“You heard me, you jerk.” Her face crinkles as she playfully slaps me on the arm. For a reason that eludes me now, her movements don’t cause me to jump. I try to place that reason and the only one that seems to carry any merit is that she knows me. The real me, the one I’ve tried for too long to hide from my family, from myself. Thinking over what she’s just suggested, I realize that moving in with her would be the best possible opportunity I’d ever have for a fresh start.
“I don’t know.” Uncertainty hangs on my words. Scrubbing a hand through my cropped hair reminds me of how I’ve spent the last four years of my life living by someone else’s rules. They were rules I accepted willingly, and lived by daily – rules I’m not so sure I know how to give up just yet.
But when my eyes fall to the large family portrait hanging above the fire place – the one that has to be about fifteen years old now – I know I have no other choice.
Chloe’s big, brown eyes stare up at me, puppy-dog style. She adds the pouty lip for good measure and there’s no way I can stifle the laughter.
“You’re too much.” I nudge her arm and she laughs with me.
“Is that a yes?” she asks hopefully.
With one last swig, I finish my beer and put it down on the side table. Folding my arms behind my head, I make her think I’m still contemplating her idea. So when I say, “Yes,” she all but launches herself off the couch, clapping her hands together like some giddy cheerleader.
“This is going to be epic, Dax. I promise,” her words are rushed together as her excitement takes over.
“Shh.” Flicking my thumb over my shoulder, I point to the stairs leading to my parents’ bedroom. Chloe puts her finger over her lips and sits back down on the couch next to me.
Over the next hour, we talk about all the details, and work out a timeline.
“What are your parents going to think?” Chloe asks with concern in her voice.
Shrugging, I answer honestly, “I don’t know. But I do know I need this. I need to find me.”
“Dax, just be sure to tell them that and there’s no way they can argue.”
Her words help relax me somewhat, but they create an anxiety in me I wasn’t ready to deal with.
What if I don’t like the me I find?
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