Simone Gorrindo | Longreads | December, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,400 words)
The little boy and I looked out through the sliding glass door at the men in the yard. We both watched as his father, Jack*, picked up a rifle from the patio table, the other men gathering around him. My husband was among them. Jack aimed at an old Kevlar vest sitting in the weeds, and I instinctively took a step backward, but the toddler drew closer, pressing his hands to the glass.
Neither of us startled as the shot rang out through the rural subdivision. In the year and a half that Jack’s son had been alive and my husband had been in the Army, we’d both grown accustomed to the sound of gunfire.
I heard these gunshots on base, as common as the sound of birds, and saw men ruck-marching down the main roads before daybreak, M4s clutched to their chests. But here in the South, I’d become most intimately acquainted with guns in west Alabama backyards like Jack’s, where soldiers shot inanimate objects for weekend entertainment while chicken thighs sizzled on the grill.
Jack put down the gun. Through the glass, I could hear his voice shake as he pretended to make a call over an imaginary radio, fuck and shit splicing the rehearsed lines. The huddle of men around him broke into laughter. I started to laugh, too, but then I realized: He was doing an impression of my husband losing composure during a mission. I was only vaguely aware of what these missions looked like, but I knew that tremor in Andrew’s voice, and Jack was mimicking it perfectly.
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The moment Jack was recalling was a dangerous one, of course, the instant in a mission when things go south (nothing ever really goes as planned, my husband had said to me once). Here was a catch-22 I was learning to live with: I wanted to know my husband, I needed to know him, but I survived emotionally by knowing as little as possible about a huge part of his life. There were days I wished he could tell me more, and others I had to put my hand up like a warning and say: I can’t. I was blocking the image of what could happen to him. Just as much, though, I was looking away from what he might be doing to someone else.
Jack handed the rifle to Russel*, who kicked the Kevlar vest aside, brought the gun to eye level, and fired a shot into the young pine trees lining the fenceless backyard. Between the trees, I could see the world that lay beyond: other identical, fenceless backyards, kids waging water gun wars in the hot afternoon.
Jack’s wife looked over at me from the kitchen, the light from the windows illuminating her bare face. “They’re just shooting at the ground,” she said. The worry must have shown in my eyes.
“They were,” I said. Russel fired another shot into the trees.
She groaned as she walked over to me. Hailey* had grown up in a 3,000-person town in Idaho and had been terrified to drive the interstate when she first got here. But she didn’t bat an eye at guns going off in her backyard.
She slid open the door. “What the hell?” she yelled in a no-bullshit tone I could never muster with the guys.
The men all turned around with the same slightly amused, slightly bewildered expressions on their faces. Jack muttered something under his breath before taking the rifle from Russel.
When Andrew and I left to go back to our house in Georgia on the other side of the Chattahoochee, I asked him if it was safe for Russel to be shooting into those trees.
“That was stupid,” he said as he pulled out of the driveway.
“But he hit the trees, right? I mean, he’s a good shot,” I said.
We paused at a stop sign. Andrew looked over at me. “He could easily miss, Simone. Anyone could. And at that range, a small tree like that might not stop the round. You know that, right?”
Here was a catch-22 I was learning to live with: I wanted to know my husband, I needed to know him, but I survived emotionally by knowing as little as possible about a huge part of his life.
I didn’t. I knew nothing about guns. I’d spent my childhood in California’s Bay Area and had worked as an editor in New York City before moving to Georgia. In my liberal, urban corners of the country, I’d never had the opportunity or need to even touch a gun; they had been something to oppose, to lament, the occasional shot heard from a safe distance at night. Where I’d grown up, owning a gun was about as sinful and strange as voting red. And I had come of age in the era of mass shootings, was just 13 when I watched the news about Columbine unfold on the television for weeks. Something in me had cemented then: a distaste not just for guns, but also for the people who owned them, championed them, fetishized them.
But I was a long way from home now. Guns were on the hips of men shopping for instant mashed potatoes; at every social gathering we were invited to, on top of refrigerators, in kitchen drawers, on shoe racks and in closets. I knew I should learn how to handle one. Andrew had offered to take me to the range before, but the prospect filled me with dread, a queasiness that I suspected had less to do with my upbringing and more to do with that warning hand I put up in the face of my husband’s stories. Shooting a gun, I sensed, would put me in closer touch with what my husband did for a living. It could satisfy a curiosity that might be safer to ignore.
Ladies’ Night, read a wrinkled flyer that hung by the front door of Shooters. A few of the salesman nodded at Andrew and I as we entered and walked quickly through the aisles of guns for sale to the shooting range in the back. The thin fabric of my dress clung to my thighs. As far as I could tell, I was the only lady here today.
The guy manning the gun rental counter was younger than the men up front, and he seemed to be the real beating heart of the place, the territorial guard dog standing between the range and the rest of the world. He looked as though he’d spent the best years of his adulthood behind that counter, growing out a thick beard, letting his plaid button-downs get snug around the waist. On a leather string around his neck, he wore a crucifix patterned with the American flag.
“You military?” he asked. They always knew.
Andrew nodded, sliding his California ID across the glass counter. Beneath it were rows of handguns, gleaming like wedding bands.
“The left coast, huh?” the man asked skeptically as he studied the ID. He looked up at us. “I’m from Minnesota originally,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “The communists live there too.”
Andrew gave him a weak smile. This talk had surprised us when’d first arrived — could the stereotypes really be so accurate? But we’d gotten used to hearing this kind of thing with some regularity: communists, Yankees, traitors. People had teasingly called us every one of these names, simply for being from somewhere else, a fact that was as impossible to hide as our race or sex.
Andrew chose the lowest caliber weapon they had on offer — a silver revolver — and got us some “eyes and ears,” protective glasses and ear protection. We signed a few waivers and bought some overpriced ammo. It was almost time to start shooting; there was just one more thing.
“Pick a target,” the man said, nodding toward the area behind us.
We turned around. Neatly stacked in a wire rack were typical targets for a buck apiece. For two dollars, you could purchase a skeleton or goblin or bloody zombie bride. A bear-size man approached and grabbed a target that was above my line of sight. As he walked away, I caught a quick glimpse of it: A bearded cartoon in a Keffiyeh sneered at me, a Kalishnakov clutched in his hands.
“Is that — ?”
“Yep,” Andrew said with a finality that I knew could only mean: Let’s not talk about this here.
Andrew opened a heavy door that led to a vestibule, a kind of portal between the range and the rest of the building. The moment Andrew opened the next door, the air turned humid. The cement room smelled of sweat. Empty bullet casings rolled under my steps as I followed Andrew to the shooting stands, where a row of men stood, their backs wet with perspiration. Most of them looked, from the back, like suburban dads, their bodies and T-shirts softened by age. Their guns went off in startling waves. My shoulders jumped with each blast.
“These aren’t working!” I yelled at Andrew, pointing to my ear muffs.
“It’s the sensation,” Andrew yelled back. “You’ll get used to it.” It was a sensation more than a sound, an unsettling tremor moving through me.
“Shooting is athletic,” he yelled, setting down the gun in front of him. “How you hold your body matters.” He demonstrated: left foot forward, arms taut but slightly bent, the way a batter might ready himself at home plate, except forward-facing. I mimicked him, and he gave me a thumbs-up.
“All right, tell me three of the basic rules of gun safety,” he said. He had drilled these into me on the ride over.
“Treat every weapon as if it is loaded.” I began dutifully. “Never point the weapon at anything you don’t intend to destroy. That seems like an important one,” I said, stalling.
“And … keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.”
“Good. Now line your eye up with the sight, and make sure that red dot you see is just below where you’re aiming.” He paused. “Release the safety,” he said, doing it for me. “Take a breath, and then pull.”
“What if it goes spinning out of my hands?” I yelled.
Andrew laughed. I took a breath, and, just as I closed my eyes, I heard Andrew tell me to keep them open. I pulled the trigger.
Nothing. I opened my eyes and pulled again. And again.
“What am I doing wrong?” He took the revolver from me and shot off a few rounds.
“You’re afraid,” he said gently, handing it back to me. “Don’t be.”
I paused, regained my stance, and tried again. Nothing.
“Pull a little harder,” Andrew said.
I pulled again. My finger was starting to cramp.
“I can’t,” I said, and let the gun slip gently out of my hands onto the counter. The barrel pointed toward us.
Andrew scooped it up. “Never point a gun, loaded or unloaded, toward anyone.”
“Sorry.” I felt myself blush. Maybe the fact that I was unable to shoot meant we could abandon our mission, go home, and do something I was good at, like reading books.
‘Sorry.’ I felt myself blush. Maybe the fact that I was unable to shoot meant we could abandon our mission, go home, and do something I was good at, like reading books.
Andrew left then and returned with a Glock .45. It was heavier and somehow more serious looking; by comparison, the silver revolver seemed like a prop out of an old Western. He showed me how to load the first couple bullets.
Just pull the trigger, I told myself. I squinted, located the floating white dot and then, after a moment’s hesitation, went for it.
The force of the shot went through me instantly, the gun kicking back against my hands, through my arms, into my shoulders, and then out of my body.
Some people describe their first time shooting as exhilarating, a rush, the top of a roller coaster before you plummet. I understood the appeal of a rush, the kind of moment that requires surrender. But this was different. This was asking me to trust — not the gun or the men running the range or Andrew, but myself.
“Keep shooting,” Andrew said.
I adjusted my feet, tightened my arms, and pulled the trigger again. The same bone-rattling power surged through me.
“Wouldn’t you rather at least have some familiarity with guns?” Andrew had asked when I’d turned down the range in the past. But why? I wasn’t interested in hunting. I’d spent my life strategizing how to avoid violence, not engage in it. If I needed to defend myself, the only weapons I could imagine wielding were mace or a good old house key wedged between my fingers. Guns had never felt like a realistic or viable option, perhaps because they had never been real to me. They had always been, for me, more idea than object, a symbol of an irrationality in the human heart. The notion of them as tools of utility or purpose — or fun — was outside of my understanding. But moving to the South and joining the world of the Army had forced me to acknowledge that guns were not only real; they were common, as unremarkable on a man’s hip as the cell phone in his hand.
I unleashed a few more shots, put down the .45, and looked at the target: I hadn’t gotten a single bullet on even its far borders. And somehow, I was exhausted.
“I’m going to take a breather,” I yelled over the noise.
From the safety of the vestibule, I watched Andrew. He shot round after round, a swarm of little holes appearing around his target. After a rocky childhood and a string of tempestuous relationships, I felt like I’d found home when Andrew came into my life. We had fallen in love, in part, because we each felt seen by the other. He gave me a sense of belonging, of wholeness, of all my fractured selves coming together. He made sense, so I made sense. But the longer he was in the Army, the less sense he made to me, and the more I began to wonder how well I had seen him after all. I knew my husband better than anyone, and yet, this part of him — the part that shot guns for fun and went eagerly into combat — felt like a story someone else had told me, a narrative I was straining to understand. Those parts of him were the back hallways of his life I was not allowed to visit, and the shadows that obscured them made me feel uneasy, unsure of who he was, who we were — who, even, I was.
Those parts of him were the back hallways of his life I was not allowed to visit, and the shadows that obscured them made me feel uneasy, unsure of who he was, who we were — who, even, I was.
I had not wanted him to join the Army. Years before, when he’d first mentioned the possibility at the beginning of our relationship, I’d even told him I’d leave him if he did. Why on earth did he want to seek out violence? He remained silent about it for two years after that, but then recruitment pamphlets started appearing in our home, and I found notepads on his nightstand filled with workout regimes. He wasn’t going to give up on this desire, which was so strong and enduring some might say it was a calling. If I wanted Andrew, I would have to say yes to the Army.
Nine days after we married in a New York City courthouse, he shipped off to boot camp. His sudden departure, his decision to do things I did not want to think about, felt almost like a betrayal. My husband was the kind of man who brought me flowers, who asked forgiveness when he made a mistake, who’d walked a mile in the sticky summer heat of Brooklyn with a bookcase on his back, carried it up two flights of stairs, and lined it with my treasured books to surprise me. His very presence anchored me. He was thoughtful and gentle. He was tender and loving. He was also a killer.
A month after our day at the range, Andrew brought a gun into our home.
“That was scary easy,” Andrew said as he walked into our bedroom, where I was sitting on our bed, reading a book. He took a black handgun out of a crumpled brown bag and set it down on our faded paisley comforter. I’d known this was coming. Initially I’d pushed back, but ultimately, I’d acquiesced. Guns were a part of Andrew’s daily life and world, after all. Even so, the unloaded 40-cal felt like a threat to my cozy home, my marriage. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
Because Andrew had purchased the gun from a friend, he wasn’t legally required to register it in his name. It was free-floating in the Georgia atmosphere now. Andrew believes in gun control. He supports background checks and thinks owning a gun should be a tested, licensed activity, like driving a car. He also likes guns. His father got him his first BB gun at age 8, and his first .22 rifle at 12. On family road trips, Andrew’s father took him out to shoot it in the Nevada desert. Andrew had told me those stories in the early years of our relationship, when he was a classics student tending bar to support himself. But I’d ignored them, or blocked them out. Instead, I’d absorbed the chapters of his childhood spent on a commune, the afternoons running shoeless in the woods. I envisioned these parts like a film reel, a story about Andrew that matched the man I fell in love with.
But his father saw in Andrew what he’d always wished for himself: physical strength, a native athleticism, an electric current of intensity. Andrew remembers being 8 years old, riding in the passenger seat of his father’s Toyota, rotating Chinese meditation balls in his palm that his martial arts teacher had given him. At a stoplight, his father put a hand over Andrew’s to stop the movement. “Be careful with those,” he told him. “You’ll become too peaceful.” Though everyone in our liberal families was taken aback when Andrew joined the Army, I imagine his father, who died when Andrew was 18, would have been pleased.
His very presence anchored me. He was thoughtful and gentle. He was tender and loving. He was also a killer.
Andrew handed me the gun. It felt cool in my hands. I stared at it, trying to quiet the dissonance I felt. It was the same sensation I experienced when I picked him up from deployment in a parking lot late at night and I could sense immediately, even in the dark, that he was different, that I was different. I felt it, too, during the fights we’d started having since coming to Georgia, clashes over politics and world views that made me question when we’d stopped seeing eye to eye, or if we ever had at all.
“I think I’ll stay away from it,” I said, and handed the gun back to him, though I wanted to say more: Why would you bring this into our home? This is a part of your world, not mine.
But our lives and livelihoods were intertwined. Violence put food on our table. As his wife, I owned the gun as much as he did. In the past, I had pushed to understand: Tell me what you like about guns. Tell me why you think we need one. And long before that: Tell me why you need to join the Army. Now, holding this gun, I was asking nagging questions of myself: Tell me why you’re letting a gun into your home. Tell me why you allow violence to put food on your table.
I didn’t have an answer. I only knew that sometimes I’d pushed Andrew so hard I’d pushed him away. When he first joined the Army and told me the kind of work he’d be doing in a rapidly deployable combat unit, I asked, in a tone like a slap, “Why would you want to do that?”
He’d considered my face for a moment.
“You look ashamed,” he’d said sadly.
Here was the greatest surprise: Sometimes the gun set me at ease. A few weeks after Andrew purchased it, someone pounded on the door at 2 a.m., and I felt a swell of warmth as Andrew roused and moved toward the nightstand.
When Andrew discovered the intruder was a friend walking home drunk from a bar, I was embarrassed. I’d felt real affection for the gun, for my husband as he reached for it without hesitation. I knew he was thinking far more of me than of himself; or, more likely, he was not thinking at all. I saw, in that moment, how love and violence are inextricable for him, linked not by philosophy or ideology, but by instinct. Maybe it is like that for all of us. We fiercely defend, of course, what we love.
But “defend” is such a sanitized word, the kind civilians use in patriotic talk about the military, the sort of language I use when I don’t want to think about what Andrew really does. Inside the Army, they talk freely — enthusiastically — about killing. The Army trains its soldiers to kill, and they’ve gotten very good at it. According to months of interviews U.S. Army historian Major S.L.A. Marshall conducted with servicemen during World War II, fewer than 25 percent of soldiers aimed and fired their weapons with the intent to kill. Marshall’s methods have been scrutinized since he published his findings in 1947, but his studies impacted the military’s approach to training. After World War II, the military focused on conditioning its soldiers to kill, training them to overcome their hesitations through muscle memory-building “kill drills” that simulated combat as closely as possible. In “Men and Fire in Vietnam,” Maj. Russel W. Glenn estimated that, just a few decades later, around 90 percent of troops in combat were shooting to kill. Now, after 18 years of nonstop war, we have the most seasoned, all-volunteer wartime Army the U.S. has ever seen. These soldiers are professionals, and killing the enemy in combat is a duty. But, as in any career, it’s also a purpose and a skill that is celebrated.
Several months after Andrew brought home the gun, we drove to our friend Robert’s* for a weekend barbecue in Harris County, a rural area north of Columbus. He owned a small prefab house that was dwarfed by the acres of surrounding land. The men liked to congregate there; it was a vast, legal, unsupervised place for shooting.
Robert brought a long plastic case out of his closet a few minutes after we arrived. The guys swarmed as he lay it on the kitchen table, while the women barely glanced up from where they sat on the floor, playing with their babies. In the case sat a semiautomatic tactical rifle, a civilian version of the kind the men used at work and overseas. Its presence set me on edge in a different way than handguns and hunting rifles did, but once it was in Robert’s hands, something quieted in me. He handled it with a kind of familiar care, as though it were a beloved instrument he routinely played.
I listened as the guys talked shop about guns, trading in narrative as they always did: stories about wild boar hunting in the Texas prairie land, stalking deer in the north Idaho mountains, camping out in the vast public lands of the Arizona desert, their rifles piled in their truck beds. For most of them, these were the only places they’d known outside of the cities and countries where the Army had sent them. For some, these were still the only spots in the world that felt right to them, their time with the Army just a way station on their journeys back home. Guns were a part of these men’s greater story, the one they’d been given and created for themselves. It was so hard for me to grasp, but I knew some of them would feel, stripped of their guns, without a home in the world.
Our formative years were shaped by such drastically different rites of passage, it was a wonder that we could converse at all. But we did. I even loved some of these men. They stood in the line of fire for my husband without a second thought, and more poignantly, they stretched to understand me: the woman who was raised without God or guns; who’d reduced these men when she met them to “white males from conservative rural areas”; who drank a little too much at these barbecues and unwittingly became enraptured as she listened to them talk about their lives and witnessed their love for one another. They stretched to know me because I stretched to know them. “What are you writing right now?” one of them asked me with timid intimacy at a military ball. I struggled to explain.
They stretched to know me because I stretched to know them. ‘What are you writing right now?’ one of them asked me with timid intimacy at a military ball. I struggled to explain.
Watching the guys in Rob’s dining room, I thought about those afternoons Andrew had spent in the hot desert with his father, those lifetimes he’d lived before I loved him. There was something sacred in those memories that I couldn’t touch. It had taken me some time to realize, but I could not always reach Andrew. And maybe that was okay. In those times, the work of loving may be failing to understand him but choosing to love him regardless, to go to the bookstore with him and share in something we both understand and enjoy. It was allowing both of us a kind of grace; sometimes, I only gave it to us grudgingly. He was better at setting aside, at bringing me close again. He had long ago taught me that other essential ingredient to loving that I still had to work so hard at: letting go.
At dusk, we drove home through the bleak back roads of Columbus, passing aging billboards that advertised fireworks and condemned abortion. The sun was setting. When we’d first arrived, I’d hated almost everything about the city — the heat, the conservative politics, the slow-moving post office lines — but I loved that big sky, the way the sunset softened the whole city. Andrew was leaving the next day for a three-week training. These goodbyes had become routine at this point, less painful, but I still felt like something was being ripped from me when he left. The ground I walked on was less solid, the scenery in my world less vibrant. I put my hand on the console between us. He reached for it and squeezed.
*Names has been changed to protect privacy.
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Simone Gorrindo is a writer and book editor living in Tacoma, Washington with her husband and two children. She is writing a memoir about the secret lives of women on the home front of America’s longest war.
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Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross