True love is the capability of releasing the beloved.
I knew I loved him at first glance. He wasn’t like the other soldiers. Sure, he had the same buzz cut, shaped closely around his ears, but it was in his lingering look – it was under his gray guise and submissive smile. Brent and I were stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey. He started a few months before I arrived. The Clinton administration hadn’t yet enforced the “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” bullshit. It’s not that I hid what my mother called my “transgression against Christ,” but I didn’t advertise it.
I stumbled onto the camp ground, bewildered and scared. My first day. Brent was standing guard at the entrance. We made eye contact as I followed the endless line of new recruits. He stared back, passionately, continuingly. I smirked. It wasn’t reciprocated. I didn’t turn back around, but could feel the fiery gaze on my back. I asked around coyly. His name was Brent. I chose him then.
After that, it was his face I saw in my dreams, his face I prayed for. At night, in my bunk, I’d pretend that his arms were the warm blankets. He never left my mind for a minute. I’d push myself physically hoping that he’d see, that he’d want me too. It made the stay bearable.
Medicine was always my calling. Watching all those family members of mine crippled by arthritis, leukemia, and spastic colons imbibed in me a sense of wonder. I needed to fix those things so that no one else would have to suffer. It seemed too-good-to-be-true that the military would shoulder the brunt of my college tuition if I offered them a few years of enlistment. What were a few years to hundreds of thousands of dollars? Besides, I always had a thing for military men.
I would pray that Brent would walk into the clinic for a cut, a bruise, a physical; who knew being surrounded by hundreds of men and a select group of women would be so isolating, so lonely? Maybe the hundreds of thousands of dollars weren’t worth it. Too late.
It happened, though. Honest to God, it did. He blew out his shoulder, popped it out of its socket. It was divine intercession.
“What happened?” I asked, peeling back the linen drape, expecting another outbreak of herpes – a particularly potent and contagious strand was spreading. I swallowed hard at the sight. It was him. Him! Bare chest, rippled muscles, skin smooth like alabaster smiled back. My breath abandoned me.
“Fell off the humvee, blew it out.” He didn’t recognize me, or at least, didn’t let on that he did.
“How do you fall off one of those?” I remember touching his bronze skin, my touch lingering. The sun did him good. I reached for his chart, if only to reaffirm. Brent.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Why didn’t you just pop it back in yourself? It seems as though you’ve done this before.” I was bullshitting completely. My fingers maneuvered the two separated entities: ball and socket. All those medical books and coloring charts were finally paying off.
“I thought this one needed a doctor’s opinion.” The shoulder throbbed with swollen redness. It reeked of discomfort and pulsating nerve endings.
“I’m sure.” I rolled my eyes. “On three, ready? One, two.” I snapped it back in. He groaned loudly, only inches from my ear.
“You said three!” He bellowed, letting the pain subside.
“Rule of thumb: do the unexpected.” I smiled.
Maybe I had made him out to be more than he could possibly become. He was just another moron in a khaki get-up. I dismissed my idolization.
“Thanks Doc.” He returned the smile, if only begrudgingly.
“Thanks, Geoff.” He struggled to return his shirt to his sinewy chest. I took a mental photograph. I would need it later, idol or not.
He left as quickly as he arrived, his shoulder cured until his next careless accident. I accepted defeat and turned my attention to an imaginary soulmate after I fulfilled my service. It fueled my hope. He still looked like Brent, had the same voice as Brent, but he was more talkative, kind, and assuredly more enamored of me.
I saw him again early one morning, a few weeks later. The real Brent, not my imaginary Brent. It was my habit to wake up before the others and jog around the premises. The silence, creepy stillness of the camp soothed me as if a lullaby – assuring me that there was life beyond these borders. He was leaving his barrack; we made brief eye contact as he sleepily sauntered to the showers, the towel gently dangling from his hips. I quickly returned my gaze to the running path, blushing, and pushed farther, harder, unconsciously showing off – attempting to dismiss the thought of him.
Soon it appeared as though we were stalking one another, some form of kismet. I would see Brent in the mess hall, in the showers, during my morning run, relentlessly in my dreams. He would tilt his head politely to acknowledge me. I’d return the greeting with a cold smile – the offspring of my insecurity and blatant obsession.
He came into the clinic a few minutes before closing; it was a sweltering summer evening. Closing duty was my responsibility. I typically ran a bleached rag, lazily, over the overused examination tables, organized the desk, and doodled pictures of stick figures holding hands – anything to postpone a lonely bed with even lonelier thoughts.
The door swung open. I looked up from my juvenile sketching. The vision of Brent in the doorway, perhaps a mirage, jarred my thoughts, sending my pulse into a throbbing fit.
“Are you guys closed?” The gray eyes navigated the barren clinic.
“Geoff, right?” He asked.
“Yep. What can I help you with?” I swallowed my nervousness as fantasies played in the back of my mind.
“Maybe.” He peeled his shirt off as a means of explanation.
“Have a seat.” I escorted him to the first examining room. I prodded his skin with my fingers, running each phalange over his contoured muscle fiber. He looked up at me. I averted eye contact. “Just some swollenness. Has it popped out recently?”
I darted a look at him focusing on his chiseled chin under thin lips. His pupils dilated. “Shouldn’t you know?”
“I guess.” His ambivalence about his own well-being frustrated me.
“Not sure what to tell you, I’ll give you some tiger balm which will ease the soreness.” I transitioned to the medicinal drawers.
“I already have some.”
I stopped in my steps and turned around. I cocked an eyebrow. “Then, what did you need?”
He bowed his head obediently, saying nothing. I stood waiting, impatient, eager to return to my lonely bunk – at least in my dreams he’s more talkative, less enigmatic.
“Ibuprofen? Because that’s about the limitation of my drug referrals.”
His head still hung low. I noticed a bald spot emerging.
“Brent?” I called his name, even though never formally introduced. I immediately wished the words back into my mouth.
He glanced up. Big eyes, strong face, kind look.
“What do you need?” I softened my tone, repeating myself.
Six months later, the army tacitly released me of my position. I was allegedly too open for some people. I know, for a fact, it was an envious nurse with bad pock-like acne and ugly buckled teeth. I was convinced that she knew about me and Brent – she sent the anonymous letter. The government had to intervene then. I knew from a reputable source that she wanted Brent; she would never tell on him, just me. Get rid of the competition.
Oddly enough, I kept Brent’s secret too. It was our burden to bear, not his alone. He finished his tour months later and returned to me in Monterey. They were lonely, scary months. I almost retreated to my conservative roots at the behest of my mother to “turn away from my wayward path.” Instead, medical school occupied me. It was all a façade; I stayed for him. I waited for him, patiently, wishfully, longingly.
He was nothing like my fantasies. He didn’t show up unannounced with gifts and fawn over me, like all those clichéd straight couples. That wasn’t Brent. Instead, he was a literalist. He did everything by the book, nothing out of the ordinary. He never brought anything not explicitly mentioned on the grocery list. He never read into situations too much, never was offended by homophobic slurs, never sought a life beyond his. The army had prepared him for combat and accounting – those two things alone. He was perfectly happy settled into his ways; we were happy. We were an excellent contrast – it worked for us. He wasn’t my imaginary Brent, but he was my Brent.
“Hello?” I call. Every light is on. I can hear the din of a well-worn Elvis record playing in the background – his favorite album.
“In here.” His voice is flat, not excited, not unexcited.
“How are you?” I throw my white scrub jacket on the couch.
“Well.” His reading glasses rest calmly on the bridge of his nose. He is flipping through the Wall Street Journal. It is his regimented ritual: wake up, coffee, shower, office, gym, Wall Street Journal, dinner, shit, bed. I have it memorized by now.
“What did you want to do for dinner?” I shout from the bedroom.
“I already phoned in sushi.”
“Great.” I smile, joining him on the couch. His face still beams with youth and undeniable handsomeness. I still get transfixed sometimes. “Did you look at those cruise links that I sent you today?”
“Uh huh.” He doesn’t look up.
“A few patients I talked to told me that the Caribbean one is great but I’d love to do the Mediterranean one.” I draw closer to him. “How does your schedule look in May? I know April is your busy month, so I figured we could escape in May. It won’t be too hot or too cool.” I continue to move closer until my face rests on his shoulder – his good one.
“Geoff.” He drops the newspaper in his lap.
I pull my chin from his body. “Yeah?”
He reaches over to the coffee table and pushed an opened letter into my palms. They immediately perspire. I recognize the letterhead. The envelope has been greedily torn open. The black typeface punctuate a sheet of bleached white paper. His name is addressed at the top. I glance over the intrusive print, only a quarter of a page. Something so horrible shouldn’t be written on something so clean.
My mouth makes a perfect O shape. My voice trembles. “You’re being deployed.” The past few years come to a screeching halt.
His eyes peer at me over the black frames of his reading glasses. They explain his trepidation, his uncertainty, his heartache, but also his call to duty – his sense of painful obedience.
“I went to the base today. They will not deploy me until my shoulder is fixed.” Brent fingers his bandaged shoulder. He smells of mint and heat. “I need you to do the surgery next week.”
The hollow circular shape of my mouth persists. Never should have pursued surgery.
“It will give me the few weeks to heal before they send me…” He doesn’t finish.
A heaviness blankets my head, I fall back on the sable leather couch. I could puked. I can’t swallow. I might choke on my spit and die. At least me before him.
“Geoff.” He pulls himself on top of me. His muscular weight forces more air from my lungs. Suffocation, another way to go. “We both knew this time would come. You can’t escape reality.”
“No.” Tears fumble from the corners of my eyes onto the couch. They puddle near my ear. Liquid builds inside my nostrils, drowning me.
“You need to schedule the surgery for me. You’re the only doctor I trust to operate on me. You’re the only doctor I trust, period. You have to.” He brushes away my tears.
Obligation. My duty. This can’t be right. They kicked me out. I got out.
“Geoff, please.” He pleads.
The doorbell rings. Sushi’s here. He kisses my top lip before buzzing in the delivery, leaving me alone on the couch. All is cold and scary.
I look down at my schedule for next week, the bright light from the computer screen blinds me. I close out the cacophony of the hospital hallways by placing my hands around my ears, lacing my fingertips behind my head, if only for a moment. I write down a name, a name I’ve written a million times in cursive, in doodles, on pieces of paper, into an empty green slot. It turns red: scheduled.
“It’s me, I begin after running my fingers over the mesmerizing buttons on the phone.
“Did you schedule it?”
“Next Wednesday at 9 a.m. Correcting the sublaxation of the left subclavicular.” I willed the words back into my mouth.
“First case of the morning?”
“The most important one.” I try to grin without screaming, pounding my fists, or throwing the telephone against the sterile walls.
“Thank you.” He pauses. “I know this took a lot from you.”
I nodded, imagining it to transfer across the telephone line.
“I’ll see you at home.”
I nod again.
“See you then?”
That evening, I lie in bed and stare blankly at the ceiling, waiting for him to emerge from the bathroom. Before he returns to bed, he ensures the lock is fastened, removed his t-shirt, lathers an anti-inflammatory topical cream against his bad shoulder, and twists the lamp dial to off. His stillness disrupts my stillness – my concentration, my anger.
He watches me stare at the ceiling for a few moments before he reaches his arm around my chest and forces me nearer to him. I can feel the palpable warmth from his bare chest against mine.
“Please don’t do this.” He breaks the silence.
I turn my head towards him, pressing my narrow nose to the tip of his. “I waited my whole…” I can’t continue.
“Me too.” He answers, massaging my arm. “But you have to realize that this isn’t good bye.”
“Every movie I’ve ever seen…” I stop again. Even I am surprised by the mawkishness of the comment.
He snickers. I can smell the bittersweet tinge of his toothpaste; maybe it is the shoulder balm. “This isn’t a movie. This is real life.”
“Too real for me.”
“It’s only nine months. I’ll be back before you know it.”
More tears. My tear ducts are weak like me and they break like flooded dams.
Brent pulls me nearer, our bare skin touching. Suction pulls his chiseled core to mine. We are literally stuck together.
“No more crying. This is my job. This is our life. Nothing will change. I promise.”
My tears vehemently disobey my orders to stop. “Please don’t leave me.” Desperation unveils its ugly face.
“I will never leave you.” I can feel his smile in the darkness. He breathes the bittersweet breath against my lips.
I didn’t believe him.
“See you when you wake up.” I press my hand into his as he was carted away to the operating table.
A million and one thoughts flutter inside my brain as I violently scrub my hands from dirt, guilt, and fear.
“Ready doctor?” the anesthesiologist asks. “He’s under.”
“Scalpel.” I nod and command.
I peel the perfect shoulder skin away from the contused muscles.
“Gauze.” Tears cloud my vision.
An hour later, I force myself from the operating table and convene with the staff.
“It’s not your fault. It must have been from all the scar tissue.” The medical staff pats me on the shoulder. I know better though.
“He’ll never use the arm again.” I mutter softly.
The others bowed their heads in agreement, releasing me from any blame.
I remain perched at Brent’s bedside. I embrace his fingers against mine. A hand I know all too well. I run my fingers over the bandaged sutures.
Some say that if you really love something, you have to let it go. I disagree. If you really love something, you keep it, you nurse it, you refuse to release it – otherwise, scars persist.
Brent stirs from the anesthesia.
“I believe you,” I whisper.