Jill Malone’s latest release, Giraffe People, will be out later this month from Bywater Books. Jill won the Bywater Prize for Fiction for her debut novel, Red Audrey and the Roping. She was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction for that book. Her second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, won a Lambda Literary Award, a Ferro-Grumley Literary Award, and most recently, she won first place in the Great Northwest Book Festival.
In other words, she writes real good.
by Jill Malone
I didn’t know until she kissed me. It had never occurred to me that I could be in love with her. We’d sneak out every night and go to the beach or the park and watch the sky and talk. We’d spent the entire day together, but for some reason there were always urgent things to say, and so she’d pick me up at 1:45 in the morning, and we’d drive some place in Honolulu.
Later, of course, it’s all painfully obvious. She wasn’t even the first. I asked a girl to marry me when I was six. Her name was Susan, and she had black hair, and she said yes. That was at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri.
My nostalgia for military bases is often my nostalgia for the girls there. For the slowly unraveling story. My father baptized me. It was my second baptism, and I’m pretty sure I was a freshman in high school. This is in New Jersey, and that base is the way I remember love. We were always leaving. And that seemed heartbreaking at the time, but the truth is, we were always arriving, too. There was always a girl. My father, the Army chaplain, baptized me and later he said, “You fought me the whole time,” and I tried to pretend that wasn’t a metaphor. Did god hate me? Did god hate me for the girls?
I wanted to write a book about what it was like to be a military kid, a Chaplain’s kid. About what it meant to be these things and be gay. I wanted to write about music. About athletics. About the way that your high school community functions, and how that felt like my first community because it was the most stability I had in my childhood. In Jersey, I had classes with some of the same kids for four years. It was practically a miracle. And there was time, at last, to form relationships with history. To see relationships evolve over time. To play varsity soccer with the girl from that field trip years ago.
New Jersey is how I remember love, but Honolulu is when I realized it was possible. She kissed me and I felt my chest break open. Oh! Oh, I see! I suspect love always feels like that. Thunderstruck. The chemical high, the compulsive urgency, the way you have found yourself, again, in a flowering garden. Maybe military bases prepared me for relationships. For the time limits. For the heartbreak. For the thrilling arrival. For the constant newness.
I was a giraffe. Lumbering across the landscape in my awkward delicacy. She kissed me and leaned back, and it took me a long time to open my eyes. Struck. Elemental. Reduced, by her mouth, to be so much more than my circumstances.
My father was in the military during that time that has come to seem like peace, between Vietnam and Desert Storm. We were stationed in West Germany when I was a child. There was a bomb threat once, but nothing happened. It seems idyllic now. We have been at war for so long.
And I wanted to write about that, too. About the first gulf war. My father volunteered. He was meant to retire in a year, and my mother actually yelled when he told her he’d volunteered. “Would they give you a gun?” I asked him. “I could carry one, yes. But I would go to pray, to minister to the troops.”
Temporary can feel superficial, but we remember childhood that way — a series of snapshots. I had an opportunity to wander more of the world than I might have otherwise. I think of military bases the way I think of holding my breath. The way it feels to wait for her. It’s 1:33 a.m., and she’ll be here in twelve minutes. Her hair will smell like ash and strawberries. She’ll put her head in my lap and tell me stories. I’ll touch the scar on her cheek and her stories will feel like a tether, as though they’re keeping me here. Stationed. I am stationed with her. For this brief time in this brief place.