It was late afternoon at my parents' house in Dandridge. I was sealing a packing box with tape when I suddenly got the feeling of someone watching me. I looked up and saw my mother. Mom was standing in the bedroom doorway, arms crossed on her chest, looking at me.
“I'm not dwelling on the past,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “You wouldn't be moving if you were.”
“I'm putting it all behind me,” I said.
She said nothing.
“What else could I do?” I asked.
“Avoid pretending that it never happened,” Mom said. “Which you've been very good about. Ever since you came back from Afghanistan and the U.S. Marine Corps discharged you.”
“Nothing to talk about,” I said.
Her left eyebrow rose.
I laid the taped-up packing box next to the other boxes on the floor. “If you'd ever served in a war zone you'd understand that there are things you just don't talk about. Except maybe with your military buddies.”
And even then sometimes you still didn't talk about it.
They had all sorts of terms for it: Shell shock. Battle fatigue. Operational Exhaustion. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Did it really matter what it was called? Short-and-sweet or long-winded or anywhere in between. I'd seen my share of injuries and death on the battlefield and back at base. To the point where it was just easier for my brain to go numb and block the memories. Except for one person: Isaac.
“Is that what they said when you were debriefed?” she asked.
“They didn't ask about it,” I lied. And I wish you would just drop it. I would hate to say something that we'd both regret.
“But it was something that bothered you enough that you've avoided discussing it for the last year,” Mom said.
“Nicky --” she began.
I turned away from her. “Please don't call me that.”
“It's your name,” she said.
“It was --” I said, stopped, then went on, feeling as if there was a heavy weight on my shoulders. “It's what Isaac used to call me.”
Isaac the tall, dark, and handsome. Isaac the cheerful. Isaac who could turn a day of heavy rain into a day of happiness. Isaac who'd managed to keep our relationship going despite everything and everyone that tried to tear us apart. “Don't ask, don't tell” barely registered. It became a joke to us. “Fine,” he'd say. “If they don't want us to ask or tell anyone, we won't. There. That was easy to do.” I'd laugh and say, “Easy for you, maybe, but for me?” “If we live through all this, let's find somewhere back in America where they don't care that we're a gay couple,” he'd say. “Maybe San Francisco or Seattle.” “Definitely,” I'd say. “I love you, Isaac.” “And I love you, Nicky,” he'd say. We'd hear the meal call coming from loudspeakers all over the base. “Hungry?” he'd ask. “For food?” I'd ask. “Sort of. For you? Always.” He'd laugh and tweak my nose. “Don't ever change, Nicky,” he'd say. “Never,” I'd say.
It was the day before we were transferred back Stateside. I could still see Isaac as he ran to a nearby helicopter. He waved his hand, I waved back. He climbed into the helicopter. It rose into the air just as a rocket slammed into its side. The helicopter exploded. I ducked for cover behind a small wall of sandbags as different-sized shards of metal, glass, flesh, and bone scatter across the landing pad. When I stood up again, I looked at what used to be a helicopter and several soldiers.
It still didn't feel real to me. It felt like a bad dream. Any moment now I'll wake up and Isaac will rush into my arms and kiss me. But the nightmare is real. Isaac . . . is gone. There is a big crater inside of me that I don't think anyone else could ever fill.
Isaac . . . how I still miss you . . . so very much. Life . . . just isn't the same without you. How could you die . . . and leave me behind. Leave me so very alone.
Someone was waving their hand in front of my face, trying to get my attention. It wasn't one of my Army buddies or the Army psychologist; it was Mom.
“But it still hurts,” she said.
She gave me a hug. “I probably can't ease your pain. But maybe you can tell me what you'd rather I called you? After all, I can't exactly call you 'Nicholas'. Not anymore.”
It was rare that my mother and I agreed about anything. But in that one moment we did.
“This is true,” I said.
“Have you thought about a new name yet?” she asked.
I nodded. “What about 'Ariana'? That's the name I wrote on my discharge form.”
She looked thoughtful, then nodded. “That was my grandmother's name. All right. 'Ariana' it is. I've lost a son and gained a daughter. It's easier than explaining it to your father.”
I looked at the clock above my dresser. “His flight from Germany arrives in about two hours.”
“Do you want to meet him at the airbase or here at home?” Mom asked.
I thought about it. “There. It might be easier that way. I won't wear a skirt or dress. Shirt and jeans should be okay. Something like I wore back when I was 'Nicholas'. Besides, once he sees my face and longer hair and hears my voice, he'll know something's changed.”
She grabbed a nearby washcloth and wiped my tears away; I wasn't aware that I'd been crying. Then she brushed my hair back into some semblance of order.
“Don't worry about what might happen, Ariana,” she said. “After all, it might not happen at all.”
I hugged her. “I wish I was more like you. Maybe then I would've stayed 'Nicholas'.”
“Maybe,” Mom said. “But no matter what I'm just glad you're you. No matter what gender you are.”
I smiled. “Thanks. I'll be ready in a few minutes. Meet you at the car?”
She nodded and looked out of my bedroom window. “Bring an umbrella. It's getting dark early outside and might rain soon.”
We mostly didn't speak during the trip to the Army base's airfield. There didn't seem to be much to say that we hadn't already said.
It began to rain when we arrived. Giggling like schoolgirls, we ran to the arrival terminal. We had our umbrellas with us but forgot to use them. I don't think we minded getting wet, though.
We walked over to a roped-off area near large double-doors with EXIT painted in white on them. It didn't seem to matter that we were all early. The buzz of conversations rose and fell while we waited. Then buzz became excited and increased in volume when the plane arrived. Minutes later, the double-doors slid aside and the first soldiers walked through the doorway. They were carrying camouflage-colored backpacks and duffle bags. The crowd surged toward the soldiers and we did the same.
“Do you see Dad?” I asked Mom.
She shook her head. “Not yet.”
Then we both saw Dad at the same moment. We waved as high and as much as we could. He smiled and waved back. When he reached us, he dropped both backpack and duffle bag and hugged us.
“Oh, it's so wonderful to be with you both again,” he said. Then he looked at me, his expression slightly puzzled. “Your hair's longer, Nicholas. And is that makeup I see?”
I didn't correct the name error. Instead, I said, “Some things have changed since I came back from Afghanistan, Dad.”
“Think we could talk about it after we get home?” he asked.
“That would be fine with me,” I said and Mom nodded agreement.
At home, we sat down in the living room. Dad looked at me.
“Have you heard from Isaac lately?” he asked.
I shook my head. “He . . . he was killed in a rocket attack at Bagram. He was leaving in a helicopter and a rocket hit it. The . . . the helicopter exploded. There . . . there weren't any survivors.”
Dad looked shocked. “Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I've tried to keep an eye on the list of daily casualties, but maybe not that day. I was probably too busy.”
“I thought about going to see his parents and telling them,” I said, “but they probably already know.” If I hadn't been assigned to another mission, I would've been on that helicopter with him and we'd both be dead, not just him.
Mom said, “Change of topic. How about some hot chocolate?”
Dad and I both nodded and said, “Yes, please.”
Mom stood up and went to the kitchen.
While she made hot chocolate, Dad and I kept talking.
“What's it been like now that you're discharged and all?” he asked me.
“At first, it took some time to adjust to being a civilian again,” I said. “I stayed here and spent most of my time job-hunting. It wasn't until last week that I found a new job.”
“In this area?” he asked.
I shook my head. “It's why I've been filling and taping-shut box after box. I want to bring there as much as I can. The apartment is in Ellington.”
He whistled. “That's a long way from here. At least a few hours each way.”
I nodded. “I know but it's the closest and least expensive place I could find. Even though it's a small town, they have public transit and the town square is within walking distance. Plenty of places to go to.” Places that hopefully wouldn't remind me of Isaac. “It's a beautiful town, Dad. You and Mom should come visit sometimes so that I can show you around.”
“Do they know?” he asked. “The people in Ellington, I mean.”
“About?” I replied.
“Your new identity,” he said.
“I don't think so,” I said. “The rental office knows me as Ariana. I didn't change my last name. They said it's easy to make friends there. It'll feel good to leave 'Nicholas' behind in Afghanistan and start a new life as 'Ariana' in Ellington.”
“But you'll still remember who and what you used to be,” Dad said.
I nodded. “Just because I'm 'Ariana' now doesn't mean I've forgotten I used to be 'Nicholas'. I want to be reborn. Like the Renaissance in Europe or like a newly born baby.” I found myself smiling. “It's going to be exciting to see what I can do in Ellington and person I'll become. I think I can be happy again there. And who knows? Maybe I'll even meet someone new.”
Mom took that moment to re-enter the living room, carrying a tray of steaming mugs. She gave one mug to me, one to Dad, and laid the tray on a nearby table.
She picked up the last mug and said, “A toast. To Ariana's future.”
I echoed her and sipped from my mug. She sipped from her own mug. Dad paused for a moment, then repeated the toast and sipped from his mug.
I thought that maybe Dad wouldn't want to get involved with my move to Ellington. But he surprised me when he asked if he could help. Mom and I both said, “Yes. Absolutely.” Actually I was glad for his assistance. Having both their car and mine meant that I could bring more to my new apartment on Oak Street than I'd originally planned to.
Since we would arrive in the evening, Mom and Dad decided to spend the night at my apartment and head back the next morning. Which was fine by me. It would be nice having company, rather than being alone.
When we unloaded both cars, the new apartment looked a bit crowded here and there. Mom walked around the boxes in the small living room and went to the living room's only window.
Looking outside, she said, “It's a beautiful area, Ariana. I envy you. I really do.”
“Maybe you could both move here,” I suggested. “The landlady said there isn't a hot housing market here, so the prices should be mostly if not entirely affordable. Most of the houses are at least fifty years old. There are some that are more than a hundred years old.”
“What about shopping?” she asked me.
“Farmers market near the river every Saturday,” I said. “There's only one department store that I know of. Plenty of small stores that I can walk to. I'll keep doing my banking online and use direct deposit for my paychecks. Oh, and there are even seasonal festivals each year to go to.”
“It does sound idyllic,” Dad said. “But every Eden has its serpent. No downsides to living in Ellington?”
“I guess anyone who wants more big stores and doesn't mind more crowds, subdivisions, and traffic would be disappointed with Ellington,” I said. “I would ask them, 'Why move here if you'd be happier in a city?' ”
“I think I'd rather stay where we now live,” Dad said. “At least I'm used to it.”
“We could think about what Ariana told us,” Mom told him. “But it doesn't mean we have to move here anytime soon.”
He looked thoughtful and nodded. “Maybe when we both retire.”
I looked at my wristwatch. “It's almost dinnertime. What if I treated you both to dinner at a local restaurant the rental office told me about?”
They both nodded.
“It's about six blocks from here,” I said. “Oh, don't worry. It's mostly flat terrain between here and there.”
“You sure you want to walk?” Mom asked. “We could probably drive there.”
“You can drive there, if you want to,” I said. “I'd rather walk.”
Dinner was wonderful. Nothing fancy, but filling. Rather like Ellington itself. Mom and Dad seem to like the food and atmosphere almost as much as I did.
Mom and Dad slept on the sofa bed that night and I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor.
In the morning, before they left for home, they helped me assemble the bed I'd ordered from IKEA. With sheets and blanket on the bed and pillowcases for the pillows, it looked like it had always been in the bedroom.
I hugged them and waved as they drove away. They waved back until we couldn't see each other anymore.
It wasn't until they were out of sight when I realized that Dad hadn't said my new name even once. Did it bother him that he didn't have a son anymore? Maybe it would be harder for him to adjust to the new me than it had been for Mom. Then again, she might've been just pretending to be okay with it when she hadn't been happy about it.
Standing on the porch in front of the building's entrance, I wondered whether I should go back inside and put on the simple silver necklace that Isaac has given me and just relax, or walk to the Ellington's town square. (The route I got from the rental agent was easy. About ten blocks down Oak Street, then turn left onto Marsalis Street and another ten blocks until I reached Ellington's small town square.) I could look around and see in person what I'd only seen in photos before now. Maybe I could even meet some of the locals. The more I thought about it, the more the walk sounded like the better choice.
As I walked along, I remembered what the rental agent had told me: Like Dandridge, Ellington was one of those towns that sprang up along the railroads spreading across America in the 1800s. But when interstate highways were built in the 1950s and planes crossed the country faster than trains or buses, Ellington seemed to be forgotten. A ghost of what it used to be. Then in the early 2000s, it was rediscovered by those who were fleeing from overcrowded highways and cities. People like me who wanted somewhere quiet to live and work. Some came to farm, some came to write, some came to paint, and some came to retire.
I could only hope that Ellington would never grow into a city. It would lose all the charm that made it beautiful in the process. Small stores, restaurants, and nearby farms. All or mostly family-owned. (For instance, the hamburger place, Harry's Burgers, had apparently been in the same location since the 1920s. Looking through the front window, I could see the old prices handwritten on a whiteboard on the wall above the cooking area.) A drive-in theater was just outside town. We'd passed it on the way to the apartment building. There was even a bar that served both alcohol for adults and soft drinks for the kids. The bar and stools were both made of wood. I was glad to see that people here walked more than they drove. After all, who would want to lose all that just to modernize and enlarge the town? Not me.
After I'd done one “lap” around the town square, I decided to head for Vicky's Ice Cream Fountain and order a big mug of hot chocolate. Then head home.
There were plenty of marshmallows and whipped cream in the hot chocolate. The steam rose from it. I took a sniff before taking a sip of it. Delicious. So delicious that I almost hated to see the bottom of the inside of the mug. I reminded myself to come back here as often as I could afford to.