LENGTH: 30,554 words
Sequel to It’s All Relative
It’s been eleven years since Michael Knapp introduced his lover Dan Biggs and came out to his family over dinner. During that time, the two men have grown closer despite Dan’s military career, which has taken him into war zones overseas. Their relationship has survived each deployment, and with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” their relationship is out in the open and stronger than ever.
Dan was in Afghanistan when the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states, but the moment he’s back from his year-long assignment, he pops the question. Michael can’t wait to share the news, though it spreads a bit too quickly on social media for his liking — the moment he posts a picture of their rings, his sister tells their mother, who insists on helping plan the wedding.
Suddenly Michael finds the townhome he shares with Dan overrun with his family, who might mean well but who want to take over what should be his special day. He only just got engaged and they’re already talking about where to host the reception! Whose wedding is it anyway?
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There’s a podium set off to one side of the altar; this is where the man’s headed. A few lesser ranking men trail behind him like a retinue of stoic-faced choir boys. When he stops at the microphone, they fall into place behind him like good little soldiers, backs stiff at attention, gazes locked somewhere high over our heads. I resist the urge to look up to see what it is they’re staring at. I already know; they just don’t want to see us crumble when we’re told our loved ones aren’t coming home tonight after all.
The man in charge taps the mic a few times. “Is this thing on?” he says, trying to be discreet about it, but of course it’s on already, and his voice booms through the chapel, which has grown quiet since he appeared. With a scowl, he glares out at us, then seems to remember his manners and tries to smile instead.
It doesn’t help.
If this was anywhere other than a US military base, someone in the back of the crowd would’ve shouted out something irreverent by now. “Where are they?” maybe, or, “Get on with it, will you?” While we may not be as disciplined as the people in our lives we’re here to welcome back from the warfront, we’re all too familiar with how the military operates, and we know catcalls won’t get us anywhere. We sit and wait, anxious, nervous, on edge, but quiet.
Damn. Where are they?
Another tap on the mic -- really? Does he have to do that? -- and the man clears his throat, a sound that echoes throughout the chapel. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says in a gravelly voice, “I want to thank you for your patience here tonight as we welcome back the brave men and women of the --”
That’s as much as I need to hear, as much as any of us can hear, before the chapel erupts in euphoric cheers. Suddenly I’m on my feet, arms pumping the air, shouting at the top of my lungs in a wordless, victorious cry. Beside me little Susie is shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!” Her mother’s face glistens with tears; she’s clapping and crying at the same time, and when she sees me, we share a smile that hurts my face, it’s so wide.
They’re here. They’re home.
If the man with the microphone has more he wants to say, he’ll have to wait to say it because there’s no way we’re going to calm down now. Someone starts rattling the backs of the pews, someone else begins stomping their feet, and soon the roof itself threatens to come down around us, we’re making so much noise. It’s amid this cacophony that a door at the back of the chapel opens and the soldiers of the 57th Quartermaster Corps stream in.
The flood of camouflage troops mingles amid the civilians, each one so much alike in their green fatigues and caps, but I crane my neck looking for Dan. Part of me thinks he should be near the front -- he’s a first shirt, after all -- but part of me thinks he’s the type to let his men go first, so he’d bring up the rear. It takes everything I have not to climb onto the pew like little Susie does just so I can see over everyone else. Already others are finding their loved ones and tender reunions are taking place all around me, people hugging and kissing, crying and laughing, and I’m here bobbing from side to side, looking ... still looking ...
Then somehow he appears beside me, as if just thinking about him conjured him up. “Michael,” he sighs, taking my hand in his.
A boxy cap covers his dark, buzzed hair. His handsome face is tanned and lined, more rugged than it was when I last saw it in person twelve months ago -- his cheeks look hollowed out, his eyes darker, his lips chapped. What might be the faintest hint of peachy hair fuzzes his chin and jaw. I reach out to brush my fingertips over it. “What’s this?” I ask. “I never saw this when we Skyped.”
He leans into my touch, turning into my hand to kiss my palm. “Like it? Don’t get too used to it. I’m shaving it off tomorrow.”
“Dan.” I want to hug him but don’t want to chance embarrassing him, not here in front of his men. “God, I missed you.”
Apparently he doesn’t have the same qualms I do. That’s part of the reason I love him so much; I worry about what other people think and Dan ... well, doesn’t. He loves me and doesn’t care who knows it. Without warning he pulls me to him in a desperate embrace and holds me close. I melt into his firm body, molding against him perfectly. This is what I’ve missed all these long, lonely months. This man, these arms, him. Into his ear, I whisper, “I love you.”
His hug tightens, if that’s possible. I can barely breathe, but I don’t care. He’s the only thing I need to survive.