The Return Home

Anthony and I were on non-speaking terms for about a month after our fight. He was so upset, he didn’t even tell me when he came up to visit—I heard through (an old mutual friend from high school), who heard through Katie, who apparently was again on good terms with Anthony. This in itself stung more than I wanted to admit—the fact that he would drive up here to see the ex-girlfriend he was “not” sleeping with (according to Elida, by way of Anthony himself), but wouldn’t even text me to tell me he was in town. Neither of us had admitted it during the deployment, but we both knew that our relationship would change when Aaron came back, and that the closeness we enjoyed would no longer be possible: No more late-night trips to the coast, no more video chats or hours-long, flirty text messaging—and certainly no more hotel bed sharing.

No, Anthony and I had both decided to hold onto our pride and refuse to make up. Unfortunately, neither of us could last very long without the other’s attention. Even bad press is good press, and even when we fought, it was better than no contact at all. Eventually, one of us would resort to the only way we were able to handle our fights: One day, we just started texting like the fight had never happened.

“So I’m thinking of getting married,” he texted one day, while Kelsey and I were out to dinner. It was his first message in weeks.

“Oh. To Erin?” He had been seeing a curly-haired redhead who was in his company. She was skinny, trashy-pretty, and—according to him—completely incapable of remaining faithful.

“No, I think it’s gonna be Elida.” I balked. Elida was known for her sexual openness, but she and Anthony had more of a sibling relationship than a spousal one. Since I had just gotten in contact with him again, I didn’t want to push him away. I put a very flimsy lid on my anger and hurt.

“I didn’t know you two felt that way about each other,” seemed like the safest response.

“Nah, it’s not like that. She needs the health insurance, and I can get enough money from B.A.H. to rent a place off base.”

We began talking about his daily life, the job I had just quit, and Aaron’s imminent return from Iraq. My lease was about the expire, and I had already signed a new one at a quiet apartment complex exactly three miles from Fort Lewis, Aaron’s assigned base. Most of my belongings had already been moved into our new home, and all that was left to do was find a pet sitter, drive the two and a half hours from Tacoma to Portland, and spend a few days cleaning up the old place.

The new apartment was dark, and poorly laid out, making it appear smaller than it actually was. The exterior was painted in dull browns and forest greens, and—since our apartment was built into a hill—the windows were small, and level with the ground. It was a depressing contrast to the bright, cheery reds and calm, soothing neutrals of my old apartment, which was also covered in large, gaping windows that overlooked the tennis courts and the tall Cleveland pears whose branches grew heavy with tiny white flowers in the spring.  

Since the old place had no furniture to speak of, I rented a room at the nearby Red Lion. Since I had rented a hotel, Anthony mentioned that he had planned to drive up that weekend to marry Elida, and that he was bringing a buddy with him to serve as a witness. The problem was, he said, they had no place to stay. Since I was an idiot, and young, and in love, and recognized this as the last chance we would have alone together, I invited them to share the room—if we all split the cost. By making Anthony pay for part of the hotel room, I reasoned, it was less like I was getting a hotel room with my ex-boyfriend, and more like we were just helping each other out the way poor people do. My logic was flawed, without reason, and was complete and utter bullshit, but I allowed it to validate my choices.

Several weeks later, as back to school sales filled the stores, pumpkin spice lattes dominated the coffee shops, and eager whispers of knee-high-boot weather began circulating, I pulled into the cracked, tar-patched parking lot of the Washington County Fairgrounds/Hillsboro Airport Red Lion.

The hotel had been there as long as I could remember. Before it was a Red Lion, it was a Best Western, or a Shiloh Inn—some other livable, C-grade hotel whose accomodations were generic enough to suit any one of the multiple brand changes it went through. It occurred to me then—as it has every time I have seen it since—that I had driven past it hundreds, perhaps thousands of times during my years spent in Hillsboro, never once considering the possibility that it would be the place where I would have an affair, that it would be the place where the final supporting beam of my marriage would break.

“Would you like to add a card for incidentals?” The receptionist at the front desk smiled at me sweetly, tapping away on her keyboard as she checked me in.

“I—like if I break something?” Suddenly I was terrified of the paper trail I was leaving behind. My card on file would just be one more nail in the coffin to prove that I had been here, one more thing Aaron could use to confirm his wildly shifting suspicions. The fact that I had used the card to reserve and pay for the room was, of course, a fact I was well aware of, but the idea that if Anthony broke something—if we broke something, even if we hadn’t done anything “bad”—that Aaron would somehow know. He would be able to tell that that $49.99 fee for a broken lamp was just the kind of thing Anthony would do, and that the only way he could have broken it was if we were in that cheap hotel room alone, together, doing God knows what.

“Well, that, too—” The receptionist snapped me back to reality, her smile now genuinely amused, “But mostly it’s in case you want to order movies or room service.”

“Oh!” I laughed uneasily, “No, no thanks, we—I won’t be using any of that.”

The receptionist handed me my card keys, and for all the world I don’t think I saw an ounce of judgment in her kind, knowing eyes.

The room was on the ground floor, and spacious enough, consisting of two queen-sized beds, a nightstand, a dresser, an entertainment center, a corner chair and coffee table, and a large-ish, slightly-yellowed (but scrubbed clean) bathroom. It smelled temporary—a faint mixture of cleaner and vacuum and decades-old cigarette smoke covered up by fresh paint and cheap carpet.

I dumped my weekend bag of clothes and toiletries next to the bed closest to the window, drew the curtains shut, and left to go clean the apartment.

I returned to the hotel around 10 o’clock that evening, tired and smelling of bleach, lemon cleaner, and dust. Anthony had been texting me off and on all day, sending me updates as he and his buddy, La Salle, drew closer and closer.

Around four AM, I woke up to firm but quiet knocking on the hotel door. I had fallen asleep, but was wide awake as soon as I heard their knocking.

“Nice hair,” Anthony smirked as he walked in the door, ruffling my rumpled hair. “Oh, this is La Salle.” La Salle—first name Robert—was a tall, red-headed redneck with ears he could probably use to fly with. He smiled, tapping two fingers to his brow in a casual greeting. He wore a gold wedding band.

“Nice to meet ya, ma’am.” He set his duffel bag on top of the dresser, then—looking at the two beds—decided he had to go take a piss.

“So…where are you sleeping?” Anthony tossed aside the blankets from the other side of the bed I had been sleeping in, climbed underneath the sheets, and tucked himself in.

“Well, that’s obviously my bed, so I guess you’re gonna be sleeping in the other one.”

By the time La Salle came out of the bathroom, I was curled up under the blankets on my side of the bed, staring at the window and pretending to be asleep.

“She out?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Alright, guess I get the bed all to myself, then. It’ll be cold without you, Siegel.”

“Shut the fuck up, La Salle.”

Much like that night in Anaheim, Anthony was not about to let me sleep. He and La Salle had driven for about 17 hours straight, leaving base as soon as they were released for the weekend, and hadn’t slept in over 24 hours.

And yet.

He had his arm stretched out under his pillow and angled so that the tips of his fingers almost grazed my head. Every so often, he would tap my head, then pretend to be asleep when I rolled over to tell him to knock it off. At one point, I stretched my arm out to mirror his, and we began a weird game of finger tag, poking each other’s arms and tickling the inside of the other’s palms while we pretended to sleep.

As the morning light seeped through the crack of the curtains, I slowly edged my way backwards on the bed, until we were, essentially, spooning. I was terrified to move any further, but I was growing more and more uncomfortable laying in the same position for such a long period of time. If I turned around, I would be right up against him. If I wanted to avoid that, I would have to move back to my side of the bed, definitively closing any invitations.

I should have wiggled back across the bed, but I didn’t.

I turned around, my head now resting on his chest. I lifted my head, and he was already staring down at me, waiting for me. He wrapped his arm around me and kissed me, as though, by waiting any longer, I might change my mind.

We didn’t have sex. That wouldn’t happen until that night. But we did everything else, hiding our actions under the sheets and moving slowly and silently so as to avoid waking La Salle, who was snoring lightly across the room.

I still had a husband. A husband who—as I finally pushed my affair over from the emotional to the physical—was on his way home from a 15-month deployment in Iraq. He had seen combat, he had killed a man, he had lost friends to IEDs, and would lose more to alcoholism and PTSD.

For now, though, he was sitting in Kuwait, waiting for his next transfer to Dubai. Then Germany. Then somewhere else. Then somewhere else again. Then home. From start to finish, the trip home would take the entire weekend. He would be landing in PDX right around the time I was getting back to our apartment in Tacoma.

There have been two or three points in my life where I felt like I was a genuinely shitty person. When I cut off my best friend after she came out of the closet. When I slapped my brother across the face after he told me he hated me. That morning—laying in bed fielding text messages and phone calls to my husband who was on his way home from Iraq in between consummating an affair with one of his closest friends—is, to me, the worst.

When my phone first started to buzz, panic and guilt nearly sent me into tears. Anthony immediately dropped his hands, acting as emotionally bland as though he had been sleeping in his own bed—alone. I rolled over and snatched up my phone from my purse on the floor, fighting to keep my voice normal.

“Hey, Sweetie!” Aaron’s cheerful, nasally voice crackled from 7,000 miles away. I started to feel light-headed, like I wasn’t getting enough air.

“Hi, honey, how is the trip?”

“Oh, you know, just sitting here, thinking about you…” He started talking in his terrible Sean Connery voice, the one he’d used since we were dating when he was in a good mood because it could always make me laugh. I forced an obligatory sniff of amusement.

“Are you okay? You’re really quiet.” I could feel Anthony texting behind me.

“Yeah, yeah I’m fine…just trying to stay quiet. Elida is staying with me at the hotel, and she’s still sleeping.”

“Oh, that’s good! I’m glad you have a friend there with you.” I pushed the blankets and sheets away from me—I was burning up.

After a few more minutes of small talk, he wrapped up the conversation.

“Well, you sound pretty tired, so I’ll let you go back to bed.” Into the arms of another man.

“Okay, thanks, hon.” I faked a yawn. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Alright. I’ll text you in a bit. Love you.” He dragged out the goodbye for several more minutes, gleaning as much affection from me as he could, like he was storing up for the winter.

“Love you too,” I mumbled, trying to keep Anthony from hearing. “Talk to you soon.”

The rest of the morning was an alternating paradise and reminder of my impending fate in the second circle of hell. To be there with Anthony—actually touching him and doing all the things I’d hardly allowed myself to imagine—was as dizzying as the panic attacks Aaron’s calls and texts induced. For the first time in nearly two years, I was happy—ecstatic—and acting on the love I had felt since high school. Every thought shifted between “Do I do what is right?” and “Do I do what makes me happy?” At the same time, I was terrified that at any moment, Anthony would reject me. Go back to Katie, or tell me I was a piece of shit for doing this, or tell me that everything we had done up to that point was fine, but this next act, that was too far.

As eight AM rolled around, I finally got the courage to ask—sort of. I leaned in close, kissing his neck.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, and gave him that deep, meaningful look that suggested he join me.

“Oh…uh…okay.” I got up and slipped into the bathroom, casting a sexy, guilty grin over my shoulder.

I turned on the hot water and kicked off my pajamas, checking to make sure my legs weren’t too hairy. I despised my own body hair—any stubble anywhere on me was immediately eliminated.

I waited for a minute, then two. Finally, I decided the shower must have woken La Salle up, and Anthony was trying to figure out a way to sneak in without being obvious.

He never came in.

Twenty minutes later, I heard a pounding on the bathroom door. Anthony said something was burning.

“What’s burning?!” I jumped out of the shower and peeked out the door, dripping wet, shampoo suds still clinging to my hair.

Daylight is burning! Hurry up!”

I finished rinsing myself off, and climbed out of the shower, feeling embarrassed and rejected and slightly confused. Maybe sex was the one line he didn’t want to cross? Maybe I had assumed too much.

We took my car to the local IHOP, where I had to run back to the car to get my purse.

“You know, she’s cute…” La Salle said to Anthony, as I dug—head down, ass up—through the backseat of the car. “In a sort of whiny way.”

After breakfast, we took both of our cars to Elida’s. Anthony had planned to marry her for the money the Marines would give him, and she was particularly interested in meeting his (still very married) friend.

“That’s what you’re wearing to our wedding?” Anthony gave a disgusted look as Elida hopped down the stairs in her oversized hoodie and jeans.

“Fuck you, you think I’m not good enough?” Elida walked up to her fiance, staring down at him threateningly. “Am I not the most gorgeous bride you’ve ever seen?”

“She looks great to me,” I nodded convincingly.

The tips of Anthony’s ears went red, and he muttered something vaguely threatening to the both of us.

“What did you just say, mother fucker?” Elida walked up to her future husband, a grin on her face that said she would not hold back any pain she felt the need to inflict.

“Nothing—augh fuck why did you do that?” Elida had just nut-tapped him.

Just as Anthony was using his car to climb his way back up from the ground, La Salle stepped out of the passenger seat. He had been talking to his wife on the phone.

“Well, who’s your sexy friend?” Elida looked La Salle up and down, the same grin on her face, but the desire to cause pain replaced by the desire to cause infidelity.

 “You’re really gonna hit on my best man?” This earned Anthony another nut tap as Elida introduced herself.

After the very awkward introductions, we all climbed into Anthony’s car so he could get married.

“So who the hell would actually agree to sign off on a fake marriage?” The thought of Anthony knowing anyone certified to perform a marriage—even someone ordained online—was hard for me to imagine.

“My buddy who works at the liquor store.”

Anthony didn’t even take Elida in with him. She signed the certificate, and he and La Salle went in, and the guy behind the cash register sold them a 12-pack of Coors and signed off on the document. La Salle signed as witness, and it was official. Anthony was married. In a liquor store, with his bride waiting in the car, talking to his mistress about wanting to fuck his best man. I tried to count which circle we had now descended  to, but I lost count of our sins.

The wedding reception was Elida and I going to clean my apartment, while Anthony and La Salle went deer hunting.

“Woah there!” Anthony grabbed the rifle La Salle had just lifted from the trunk. “This isn’t Kentucky, man, Oregon’s not all crazy gun nuts like you guys.”

Elida and I spent the afternoon vacuuming, disinfecting, and gossiping. A significant portion of our conversation involved my listening to Elida explain—in vivid detail—the plethora of horridly filthy things she planned to do to La Salle. I didn’t bother mentioning that he was married—military men are notoriously unfaithful, and, as of this afternoon, she was every bit as legally married.

On our drive back to the hotel, Anthony texted me a string of panicked messages.

“We need you to let us in. Hurry. We’re standing out in the hall.”

“We’re on our way,” Elida tapped out on my phone as I drove, “What’s wrong?”

“Just hurry. We’re covered in blood. So is our knife.”

A million possibilities raced through my head, all of them worse than the one before. When an enlisted military man gets in trouble while on leave—especially if he is outside of the 150-mile radius allowed without a formal request—he stands to lose everything. He could face an Article 15—which could mean a reduction in rank, suspension of pay, extra duty, or even jail—or (if his commander was really out to get him) his discharge papers. I had listened many times to Aaron’s terrified spiel about the corrective actions available to the military, and all of them were more severe than what you would receive as a civilian. You were enlisted, you were expected to present a certain image to the world—an image of discipline and good behavior.

We whipped into the parking lot and ran to our hotel room, going in the side entrance to avoid strange looks from the receptionist. Anthony and La Salle were waiting in the stairwell, a blue plastic ice box on the floor between them. Anthony grabbed the box and jumped up when he saw us.

To say they were “covered” with blood was a bit of an overstatement. Their shirts were smeared with it, and their hands and arms had a vague reddish-brown tint, but they didn’t look like they had just committed the murder I was envisioning in my head.

“What took you so long?” Anthony snapped, and I stopped fishing for my card to give him a look.

“We were across town. It’s not my fault you decided to look like you just had a knife fight without an extra change of clothes. Fucking drama queen.” I slowly pulled the card out of my purse, enjoying Anthony’s periodic twitching glance over his shoulder to see if anyone was coming down the hallway.

When we got inside, Anthony jumped in the shower while La Salle changed into clean clothes. The ice box sat on the dresser next to La Salle’s duffel bag, smeared slightly with the same reddish-brown blood that La Salle was wiping off his arms with a wet cloth.

“What is that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Deer meat,” he answered, smiling and not looking up from his sponge bath. Elida eyed him hungrily.

“So…you guys just went deer hunting? Well Jesus Christ, I thought you’d killed someone.”

“We did, kinda. And Siegel just likes to freak people out sometimes.” He chuckled.

“Yeah…no shit.” I looked down at the pile of bloody clothes on La Salle’s bed.

Since it was close to dinner time, we decided to order a pizza. While Elida and La Salle sat on their bed and flirted, whispering in each other’s ear, I pulled out my laptop and began looking for online coupons, bickering with Anthony about whether Papa John’s or Domino’s was the better deal.

“We’re gonna go have a smoke,” Elida said, trading shifty looks with La Salle. “We’ll be back in…a while.” The door had closed before we could even ask them what toppings they wanted.

“So…I guess pepperoni, mushroom and olives is okay?” I clicked “Place my order!”

“That shit pisses me off…” Anthony grumbled, fishing through his wallet for cash.

“…The pizza?”

“No, them.” He jerked his head towards the door. “La Salle’s got a wife and a kid, and Elida’s dating Fil, and here they are, fucking in the hallway.” I stopped counting out the pile of change I’d dumped on the bed and looked up.

“That’s different.” He turned away, his ears tipping red. “You and me—we’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve got a history. They just met this morning.” I nodded, rolling my lips together. I could see him thinking hard—about Katie, probably. Their relationship had ended badly, with a history of infidelity on both sides. Even here, she was never far from his mind.

Elida and La Salle returned—flushed and smelling of cigarettes—minutes after the pizza showed up.

“That was a long smoke,” I said, raising my brow at Elida.

“It was so long.” She grinned. I shuddered.

La Salle flicked a twenty out of his wallet and passed it to me.

“For my half,” he said. It felt uncomfortably like hush money.

We spent the rest of the evening picking through Anthony’s collection of burned movies and stuffing ourselves on pizza and the cheap beer La Salle had bought from Anthony’s wedding officiant.

“You know,” Anthony said, as we turned out the lights, “Everyone in this room is married, and none of them are sharing a bed with their spouse. How fucked up is that?” He and Elida laughed, La Salle and I chuckled nervously.

The night was basically a continuation of that morning. While we were still nervous to reach for that first kiss, we worked up to it through quiet conversations with his arms around me and my head on his chest.

Finally, after years of flirtation and missed opportunities, we had sex. I hate the term “making love,”and I instantly think less of a person who uses it unironically, but there was no other way for me to describe the act. Even when I was still in love with Aaron, it was nowhere near as passionate, fulfilling, or intense. The fact that we had to be quiet made it even more intense.

At one point, I was sitting on top of him, pulling off my shirt, and I got stuck. My camisole had a built-in bra, and I had pulled the outside shell over my head while fighting with the bra. As claustrophobia set in, someone climbed out of La Salle and Elida’s bed and shuffled to the bathroom. Instead of laying down, I froze, my shirt still wrapped around the tangle of my arms and hair. The bathroom door shut, and Anthony helped me free myself before pulling me down to lay flat against him.

It felt good—being this close to him. Painfully good. My heart physically hurt and my brain felt like I’d been huffing paint. His stomach—still so strong and concave from boot camp training—felt deliciously carved beneath my fingers.

He had less hair than I’d imagined—the stuff on his head was always so wild and thick I imagined his chest would be one solid pelt. But it was surprisingly smooth, with only a few soft patches circling his nipples, and trailing down from his belly button to his pelvis.

He reached down between my legs and held himself at an angle. As I lowered myself down on him, we both gasped. He bit his lip at the last moment to stifle any sounds he might make, while I bit his chest to stifle mine.

His hands were rough, thick, shorter than Aaron’s—I noticed the difference, and enjoyed it. He moved them awkwardly—barely grazing my skin, then clinging to me and moving my hips with a strength I hadn’t imagined him in possession of—then seeming to come to his senses and releasing me suddenly, then touching me again as though I were some fragile, spun glass thing. It was as though, after years of telling himself not to touch, and finally finding himself in a situation where he could anything he wanted, he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do.

I buried my head in his neck, kissing him, smelling him: the ground-in dirt from months in the desert, the salty sweat that beaded up along the side of his neck. As he pushed up into me, I struggled to keep quiet. I drove my kiss into the space just under his jaw—I could feel his pulse beneath my lips.

We fucked slow, but hard—each movement against the other held years of sexual tension behind it, each curve of our hips carried with it the yearning behind two teenagers who just never could get the timing right.

After, I cuddled with him for a while, more for his benefit than mine. Laying together after sex, when you’re both sticky and sweaty and smelly, and you have to lay in one position until you fall asleep—preferably in your partner’s arms—what kind of way to live is that? But most men seem to like it, despite society’s claim otherwise, so I humored him for a few minutes, intending to push myself away and retreat to the cool expanse of my side of the bed as soon as he had fallen asleep.

Instead, I became The Girl That Cries After Sex. The release of all that tension unloaded waves of hormones, accompanied by aftershocks of guilt and anxiety.

“You two are the most important men in my life,” I sobbed, “And now I could lose you both.” Anthony held me, playing with my hair, unsure of what to do besides mutter vague comments of encouragement.

“It’ll be alright,” he said. “We’ll figure something out. You’re not gonna lose me.”