Swagger

I know you. You’re a swagger. A badass. Someone who went and got his mettle tested and returned stateside to the tea drinkers and powderpuffs with a chip on his shoulder and ribbons pinned to your chest. The world had got a whole lot smaller while you were at war: one day walking proud, the next asking permission. Duck your head. Keep your hands to yourself. Stay within the lines.

Now you’re on the barstool across from me. You’re mouthing off about re-enlisting. You can hardly sit still until you go off and get tested again. Dumb fuck. Doesn’t even occur to you that the second test is but another chance to fail.

My first bid was a hold back. It’s my go-to game. Don’t approach the crush, don’t tell him he’s beautiful. Look away. God forbid eyes should lock and a cool fire of embarrassment stiffen my jaw. Too young, too cocksure, too likely to break a heart. That’s you. Delighted with yourself. Each move a flexed muscle. You knew people were watching.

But subtlety was lost on you, and the night got shorter, and the drinks stronger, and praise God, we mortals need the fierce foot soldiers so fucking bad. Taking my cue, I matched you shot for shot over a game of pool that was all straight lines and sharp cracks.

I murmured, “Badass, tell me stories of war. Remind me of how it used to be.”

“You serve?” you asked. Your eyes sparked. Your skin gave off a whiff of burnt cordite.

“My father,” I explained. “Vietnam.”

New respect opened a spigot. Closest thing to a comrade you had in weeks, and you talked until you set down your pool stick.

“What are you doing later?” I asked.

You looked at me like I was plain stupid.

“Fucking,” you said.

“I’ve still got his medals. My father’s. Back at my apartment. You want to see ‘em?”

You nodded, we left, and as I put the key in the lock, I asked, “What are you into?”

“Bareback,” you said.

I didn’t refuse.

Sure, there was a moment of clench and fear, but having won your attention, I couldn’t not go through with it. Instead, I made a mental note to put a reminder in the calendar: on this date six weeks hence, get tested. (For whose sake?)

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

Then I wondered: was six weeks the state of the science? For antibodies to arise, it sounded long and yet short at the same time. Younger people would know, butI’m told, not personal experiencethe young go ahead barebacking on the least assurances of purity, and fuck the bug that took down my generation.

Gratifyingly indifferent, you grunted and came in my ass. I licked my wounds and brought myself to completion, proud you’d done nothing to get me off. I was beside the point. I owed you no debts.

In the morning, you did calisthenics in my kitchen. You trolled the ‘Net to see what else there was to conquer. You traced the spines of certain books on my shelf (Calvino, Heaney, Solzhenitsyn) and delivered an ad hominem coffee-fueled disquisition on the efficacy of microloans in the economies of sub-Saharan Africa the likes of which that I would never would have thought to hear from your filthy mouth. Your erudition briefly shrank you to the size of twice-a-man, almost accessible, before you again resumed being a goddamn hero going home to Mom to tell her you’re heading back to war.

“How old are you anyhow?” I asked.

“What’s it matter?”

“Are you afraid to know how old I am?”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

You prowled the apartment. Observed sightlines from the windows. Measured distance to places where the enemy might take shelter. You opened cupboards. Tried on my clothes. Snacked on raw oats and yoghurt and wolfed down an entire cold chicken.

For an hour, you stared at the cyclids in their tank, their dodge and weave, their fucking, their eating their young. I never knew a man could sit so still. Could cease breathing. The cyclids rushed to and fro and forgot you were there. I never forgot. Not for a second.

You set a mobile in perpetual motion. You flipped an hourglass and let the sand run out. You tested the weight of a cast iron trivet and the hardness of the tile and the looseness of the one floorboard near the stairs. You fixed what needed an extra screw. You drew the shades. You folded blankets with precise corners as if they were a flag from a vet’s casket.

I snuggled deeper in bed. Confident you had secured the perimeter. My house had never been so safe. You can see in the dark. Hear like a dog. You were at the peak of your game. You were born yesterday.

Me? 1968 and glad of it. A decade earlier, and I’d have been the good boy, the closet kill-myself of a prior age. A priest, maybe. A schemer. Maybe not so much predator on little boys or the seminarian in my charge, but who knows? I’ve abandoned all pretensions to superiority, which makes it harder to condemn.

Born after 1968, then what? I might have forgotten I’m controversial. I might have forgotten I’m fierce. Still standing. A warrior like you. A defiant queen of a persecution, backhanding jizz dangling from my chin.

No, complacency won’t do. We gays must always remember to be cock-angry and vicious, gun-toting and axe-wielding. Never forget. I may well have skirted the HIV that cut down my generation, but I pay the price in foreshortened gestures of tenderness like an angry T-Rex with half-sized forelimbs. This is me in San Juan with my former lover. This is me in Miami with a trick. We only ever held hands for these pics after scoping the scene for safety, and by then, the romantic impulse is DOA.

A crash shattered my comfort.

I padded to the living room where you had smashed a side table you had used as a stool to access the top shelf.

You laughed at what you’d done. You blamed the side table for its weakness. The world had unfolded no doubt exactly as it ought to. The strong are strong. The weak, weak.

“Now you’re up,” you said, “get on your shoes/shorts.”

You challenged me to a race to Worcestor Park and gave me two blocks lead.

“Loser bottoms,” you said.

You kicked my ass.

Taken prisoner, I was bodysore and content. Grateful. Overrun. Ransacked. Embarrassed by my fascination with your swagger.

Is there anything worse or more sinful than being obvious? The former most popular kid in the class, the once-upon-a-time rising star, the king of the world in another lifetime, I always wanted to be different.

“You never showed me his medals,” you accused.

“That was just a gambit to get you in the sack,” I admitted.

“Show me his medals.”

I delivered the case of medals and ribbons into your hands as if I was handing you my head on a platter. You scooted down under the covers, pointed at each decoration in turn, and explained what type of service or valor each indicated.

Hope sank. Fear gripped. From the start, your destiny had been to ask exactly the set of unholy questions that would estrange us. There was no such thing as happiness. You were going to war. I never had a chance.

“Tell me about your father,” you urged. “What kind of man was he?”

“Man of habits,” I said mechanically. “Home precisely at 5:20 p.m. Sat at table alone. My mother didn’t presume to ask how his day was. She didn’t presume to ask his needs. We assumed she read his mind. He ate his fill while the rest of us waited. When done, he nodded, and my sister and I scrambled to our places at the table, at attention, wide-eyed, trembling, stiff as pencils.

“Mother served and sat. We all bowed our heads. He never prayed, but instead looked on benevolently as if he were prayer’s object. Before we were done, he retired to the porch for a smoke. We knew better to join him until summoned. When summoned, we roughhoused, indoors or out, according to the season.

“Later still, he’d eye my mother and they’d disappear behind closed doors.”

“You must have loved him.”

“I was afraid of him.”

Your brow furrowed. You couldn’t imagine disobeying the fifth commandment. You wanted unicorns and heroes.

“Don’t you miss him?” you asked. “Aren’t you proud of him? Did he ever tell you stories about how he won these?”

“He hated the word won. He said he didn’t win shit. He said he earned them.”

“Earned, of course, earned,” you acknowledged impatiently.

You looked expectant. I resisted your bullying. I knew how to wait until the table’s cleared.

You wrapped me in an affectionate, intolerable headlock.

“Don’t fuck with me,” you said. “Come on. Never? Really? You never once sat down and ate at the same time as him and talked about what happened over…?”

“The man of the family gets his fill first, because the others depend on him,” I said stiffly, acutely aware I wasn’t the man and you and I were no family.

We were twenty-four into this solitary confinement I ought to have known would be a mistake. Should have gone home and jerked off alone.

“He sounds like a tough old bastard.”

“I never once spoke to him in all my thirty-five years about being gay, but he left me his army duds from Vietnam.”

You said, “He must have thought you earned them.”

You meant it.

Your earnestness was as unsexy as your erudition. I wanted to destroy it.

“When I was a boy,” I said, “I wanted to feel heroic, so I accompanied girls to the dance. I did what I was supposed to. I danced. I told them they were beautiful, but I never could give them what they wanted: to be desired, not just treated with kindness. To be mortified, not simply loved. To be defiled. I could only file their nails and help them choose matching pumps. I was kindness itself.”

I looked you in the eye.

“My father hated me,” I said.

My words punched a hole in that easy confidence. Kicked the stool from beneath you. Struggling for breath and words like a hanged man, you slipped from bed as quickly if I was infected.

I snatched at your wrist, seeking salvation.

“He did say, once, if ever someone knocks on your door and he’s got a black helmet and says he’s from SpecOps Delta, give him a place to sleep. Promise me this.”

“That’s my unit,” you murmured as if in a dream.

“Promise me this,” I said.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more.

“Why would you lie about a thing like that?” you asked. You, who had seen everything. The absolute worst. The nerve of asking me about lies, as if I’d killed Bambi.

You looked as if you’d be happier back in the theater of war, where you knew what was up.

You dressed swiftly in the clothes you came in. I offered you a loan of mine, because I knew they’d fit and this fact seemed like a triumph, an important parting shot.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more. Just name, rank, serial number. Maybe blood type.

What an amazing husband you would have made if you’d just come back to the living and measured your mettle in alternative ways! But then you’d be something other than what you were: undomesticated, savage, a bully, a stiff.

Me? I’m a warm mouth. I swallow them all. I’m capacious. I’m generosity itself.

Your leave is short. Anything is possible. I love you. Warriors like us play by different rules. Test our blood.

Scott David HeadshotScott David has published novels, a memoir, a guide to wine and cocktails, and numerous short stories under various pseudonyms, most recently in Evening Street Review, Apple Valley Review, Ampersand Review, Entasis, Ray’s Roadhouse Review, St. Sebastian Review, Glitterwolf, Blue Penny Quarterly, and Fiction Fix. He lives in Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.