As I stepped into the side entrance to the naval hospital pharmacy in Jacksonville, Florida, Petty Officer Ganaga1 approached me to fill me in on situations that arose during my absence.
“Glad you’re back. I’m ready to take a break myself." He sighed heavily, but his face was as animated as ever. "We had two special orders come in,” he said, holding his fingers up for emphasis. “We also had this hilarious lady pull her daddy’s rank to try and make me fill a scrip for something we don’t and have never carried. I told her, even if she was Chelsea Clinton, I still couldn’t make the drug magically appear on the formulary. I’m saying, it must be a full moon because the ER has been crazy with—”
He stopped mid-sentence, apparently startled by what he saw. Within a few seconds, I watched his expression shift from surprise to confusion to protective anger. He whispered through clenched teeth and peered closely at my face. “What the hell happened out there? Do you want me to call security? He can’t get away with this.” I don’t know what I said in response, but his tone shifted to something more gentle. “But first we need to get you some Bacitracin,” he said. He tugged the bottom of my smock to pull me between the shelves, to the rear of the pharmacy. His body was a shield from our curious coworkers who, undoubtedly, were wondering why we hadn’t yet come back to help them.
As he attended to the scratches on my cheek, we went back and forth about how things should be handled. “Tell the truth, and let it set you free,” he pleaded. “As long as you hold it in, he’s got the power over you.”
I tried to placate him by saying I was sure my boyfriend and I had broken up for good. Abusers should be held accountable, he insisted, no matter what. When I said I didn’t want something like this in my service record, he caved a bit and encouraged me to take pictures while the physical evidence was fresh, just in case I changed my mind. Finally, we found our compromise: I promised to keep some evidence for myself and tell someone in my family, and he gave his word that he wouldn’t report my injuries to our department chief.
What my coworker, or shipmate as we say in Navy culture, didn’t know was, institutional help was not what was called for. Claiming my truth would have set me free, alright; freer than I could afford to be at age twenty-five. Being active duty, I was bound by a sworn oath to support and defend the very laws that would upend my life, should I seek protection from them. Drawing attention to myself would only get me fired.
I'd seen it happen several times to other people over the course of my enlistment, and I knew anything I might say in a moment of vulnerability or desperation to a chaplain, therapist, or the police would absolutely be used to discharge me. Plus, under no circumstances did I want to return to the dead-end jobs and prying eyes of my rural Texas hometown 800 miles away. So, the Uniform Code of Military Justice was the proverbial rock, and my violently dysfunctional relationship with my girlfriend was the hard place.
As is the case for many young people from small towns, joining the Navy had been an impulsive decision. For me, it came after failing my first year of college, which led to the loss of academic scholarships and need-based grants. Academic failure came as a shock to me because school had always been a place in my life where I could achieve. This blow to my confidence led to depression and a bit of an identity crisis: Where was I going without a college degree plan as my map? If I wasn’t a journalist in the making, who was I?
The one thing I could see clearly was that I didn’t want to just get by as my mother had all my life. For a low-skilled laborer, the best employment options in our town were the poultry plant, dairy plant and candy factory. That left the military—it would tell me who, where and what it needed me to be.
Fast forward six years. By 1996 I was, by necessity, a seasoned player in the game of secrets and lies. At work, I was a garden-variety hospital corpsman who worked rotating day and evening shifts in the pharmacy. In the evenings or on weekends, I took college courses toward an English degree when I could fit them into my schedule, often one class per semester.
The rest of my time was filled by a clandestine network within the ranks: a vibrant gay and bisexual underworld. I knew Navy wives who took women lovers while their husbands were deployed overseas, and folks who only indulged their homoerotic desires when they themselves were deployed. There were legally married active duty couples who served as each other’s deterrents from suspicion while they lived separate sexual lives. Often, roommates who lived off base hosted socials for folks who still resided under the watchful roof of the barracks.
We had plenty of good times, but, for the sake of our livelihoods, caution always had to be taken. Talks of investigations, moments of near-exposure, and the dreaded captain’s mast2 suffused many a dinner conversation. We indulged in much deception and obfuscation. Compartmentalized. Watched our pronouns. And everyone knew the cardinal rule of self-preservation under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Do not date civilians; if you must, be very selective. I had broken both parts of that rule with my girlfriend, Tam, and as I said before, our relationship had become the hard place in my life.
It had been three weeks since she threatened to “pull an O.J.” on me, when I said we needed to separate. Three weeks since I had left our apartment, while she was at work, to live in hiding from her. Yet I had let Tam convince me to meet with her on my lunch break, just to talk. The meeting was symptomatic of my problem of always trying to have it both ways. Trying to be removed while still showing up. I told myself she would understand that, although I was changing our relationship, I was not abandoning her.
Since she did not have the phone number to where I was staying, she had been communicating by paging me. She was constantly sending me coded messages that meant “I love you,” or “I miss you.” Often they would end with 9-1-1, which was the code for an urgent situation. After three such “emergency” pages, I called her, and agreed to sponsor her access to the base. When I saw her face, the feelings I had been hiding from suddenly found me.
“I just had to see you today.” Tam purred as I slid into the passenger seat of her black Honda Civic. We leaned into a kiss, the way we had every day for more than two years. Our bodies folded naturally into each other, easily erasing weeks of separation. I thought back to my decision to move out…sitting close to her again was nice. I felt the warmth flowing beneath my uniform pants. Intuitively it seemed, her slim brown hand came to rest on my thigh, anticipating any signal, inviting any invitation. I cleared my throat and reminded her that my break had to be quick because we were shorthanded. Since I was the most senior among the workers that evening, I was also the shift supervisor by default.
She and I were careful with each other at first, chatting about meaningless things, but I felt a twinge when she mentioned some our mutual friends whom I hadn’t spoken to since the cookout a month or so ago. I don’t remember why, but Tam had sat fuming in a corner until I made an awkward excuse for us to leave. It was awkward because my feelings at that time were conflicted. I was tired of their looks. One of them had witnessed Tam snatching me up by the collar in the bathroom at a club. While the physical part was over when she walked in, she had heard enough to tell everyone that Tam didn't like my responses to a flirty bartender. A few of them were there the time Tam pushed me against the car at a houseparty because she thought I knew or should have known that my ex was going to be inside. And the time before the time before….
At the same time, I admired the seeming ease of their relationships. They didn't have public spats or look for reasons to spoil anybody’s fun like Tam did. They just wanted to enjoy themselves away from straight people. And even though I had met most of them through Tam, they didn't treat me like an outsider. In fact, I was now living with a friend-of-a-friend from this particular circle. Jeannie, who was counting down the last sixty days of her twenty-year enlistment, let me stay on the condition that I never "brought my drama” to her home. She didn’t even charge me rent because I was still responsible for—and was the main breadwinner in—my living arrangement with Tam.
After a few minutes of chit-chat, I ventured into the deep end of the conversational water. “I don’t like how things are between us right now, and I do hope they get better.” The words came out just the way I’d hoped. A pinch of sadness mixed with a dash of resolve.
I adjusted my leg and her hand slid from my thigh onto the seat. “In the meantime, I’ll pay my part till the end of the lease," I continued. "But I’m not coming back. I...I can’t come back.”
In a blink, the air changed.
“I knew it. You think you too good for me since you started college, don’t you?” Tam spat the question at me. With squinted eyes and venomous tongue, the monster that once held a pillow over my face came quickly out of hiding. “What? Your nerdy friends got you thinking you better than me now? So fuckin’ smart, but y’all at the goddam community college." She laughed sarcastically.
My newly formed college crew was made up of three very different black women: a thirty-something Muslim sister and navy wife, who wore the first hijab I'd ever seen up close; a late-twenties Puerto Rican sister who was using the GI bill while in the Navy reserves; and a pageant-winning, diva-type sister in her early twenties who constantly reminded us that she would be returning to Savannah State eventually. These dynamic women indulged parts of me that had no role in my relationship with Tam. We bonded over books, and like me, they had favorite authors, favorite lines from favorite poems, and fond memories of adolescent literary obsessions.
Fictional characters had been my playmates for most of my life, but they weren’t Tam’s thing. No genre of literature, magazine or comic book had ever appealed to her, so we had no common entry point to the joy of reading. To deal with this, I shrank my foremost intellectual pleasure into the-thing-I-could-do-when-she-had-to-work. Meanwhile, more and more of my plans revolved around the campus crew: we connected after class and hung out in the student lounge; we met at book talks and fairs; and we started gifting each other the latest bestsellers. At the same time, at home with Tam, we had less and less to say to each other. When she blamed our breakup on my new friendships, she was partially correct.
"Oh and I'm curious, are you fuckin’ that old bitch yet? The one you been staying with?” I guess my face registered my surprise, because she responded as if I’d asked a question. “Yeah I heard all about her. She got rank and a house and is way older than you. So don’t come here talking ‘friendship,’ when you just really ain’t got no more time for my restaurant-cooking ass. You ‘can't come back’ cause your backwater bama ass done found a better financial situation. Always knew you were a trickass bitch.”
“Oh, so we’re going there now?” I asked with raised eyebrows. My time with her had changed me. Where I used to meet her rage with softness and reason, I now deflected accusations and took aim at her wounded places. “You wanna talk about the light-skinned girl everybody knows is fresh off the pole and fresh off somebody’s dick?” Although I heard it from a gossipy drag queen, I pretended to have a reliable inside source. “Yeah,” I bragged, “the people you're showing her off to find it quite amusing that you suddenly don’t mind being on the down low with a straight girl.”
I went on pelting her soft spots, like reminding her that I had to pay for the library books she destroyed in one of her fits of jealousy. “We both know there’s no point in waiting for you to scrape up enough money to take care of it,” I said and sucked my teeth. She tried to interject but I kept going. “Oh, and that ‘old ass bitch’ knows her way around my body like a cab driver, honey. And stop trying to count her money: you will get lost in the piles,” I taunted.
At that, Tam demanded the return of all the jewelry she had ever given me. “I’ll have to look for it,” was my intentionally callous response. Then she went back to raving about how all of this was about me cheating and leaving her for someone else, and because her paycheck was smaller than mine. Then, the argument became a screaming match and, at some point, I tossed the word stupid into the verbal crossfire.
“Oh, I know you think I’m stupid.” She looked down at her fingernails. “But you ain’t seen stupid yet!”
The next thing I knew, her fists were pummeling my face so rapidly that I didn’t have time to get my hands up. She tried to climb on top of me in my seat, and I pushed her back over the stick shift. When she fell, the back of her head hit the driver-side window, her body lay sort of sideways, and the bottoms of her feet pointed toward me. Furiously, she spewed curses and kicked wildly at my thigh as I fumbled for the lever on the door behind me. As I slid backward, she gave me one last kick to send me hard onto the blacktop pavement.
“Get ready to lose your job, cause I’m calling them3 on your dyke ass!” She yelled down at me through tears and snot from the open door.
“And you will go to jail for assaulting me!” Was all I could manage, as I stood and found my balance.
She pulled the passenger door closed and the Civic screeched out of the lot. I figured we were at a stalemate because she had a history with the police that made her as afraid of them as I was of the phone call she could make to report me.
As I walked back toward the hospital from the parking lot, I was appalled by my image in the silver tinted windows. Still, even as my hair was completely disheveled and my white pants were filthy with shoe prints and tar smears from my fall, a different path was forming before me, one paved with different possibilities. I could finally admit to myself that taking a new direction, by definition, could not include a life with her.
As I tried to flatten my wrinkled pharmacy smock, I hurried inside and stumbled into the bathroom.
Even though the beating had forced me to surrender to reality, the woman staring back at me in the mirror affirmed the decision because the woman in the mirror scared me. This was the worst it had ever been. One of her eyes was beginning to swell. Various places on her face were badly scratched. Her bottom lip was bleeding. The woman in the mirror smoothed my hair with her fingers and splashed my face with cold water. This is the way forward, she was saying, as she caught my tears in a paper towel. Now let’s regain that military bearing and get back in there. We still have three hours left on this shift.
Heavy blankets layered over my body; it is hard to move. So I don’t move much. Still, motionless on my mattress for hours except when bursts of heaving redden my face, dampen my shirt. Minutes after each episode, in the wake of wild emotion, I am cold. And tired from effort.
Stomach tightens from curling into itself, arms weak from squeezing, from holding legs for fear of what would happen if I didn’t hold grief in. I wonder what the untethered blazing power that rumbles through would look like if I didn’t try to tame it. Sometimes I wish I could unleash it, let recklessness drive for a bit. But the responsibility of another son, stepchildren, and a husband keeps it in the passenger’s seat, home. Safe. I stumble toward...