It was a revelation, when I let myself see—
I’d fallen in love with a man who carries weapons.
For years, I’ve fooled with bullet points, honing a secret, sacred list of qualities my ideal romantic partner will have. Mostly, I feel too sheepish to proclaim what I want — a man beautiful according to traditional, masculine standards. A circumcised penis. A very square jaw. The capacity to build a dining room table; maybe there’s a pickup truck somehow involved. Desires shallow, private, and impolitic by turn.
Other things I just feel too vulnerable to voice, like the dream of a man who sees me in my power but can hold me as tenderly as a mother when I feel small, busted, and aching.
G, the man with the weapons, is some of the things on the list. He is also some surprises I never considered — a poet who writes lines of stilled beauty. Boy Scout helpful and James Bond debonair, he commands a wit so quiet and quick that if you do catch his jokes, you soon realize they’re 10 times funnier than everyone else’s.
My ideal partner does not play first person shooter video games. He doesn’t play video games at all.
Though G writes, he is a man of many fewer words than I dreamed. Often, his reticence irks me; I just want him to talk. But Gretel Ehrlich, in "About Men," an essay on the nature of cowboys, conveys the gift of loving a man who prefers his wilder emotions kept bottled: "When these are, on occasion, released, they’re so battery-charged and potent that one caress of the face or one ‘I love you’ will peal for a long while."
And so it is with this man, a man who carries a 3-inch dagger in his breast pocket, owns three licensed handguns, makes occasional trips to the shooting range for fun, and plays Call of Duty linked by the internet to his best friend in Pittsburgh, the two of them stalking onscreen insurgents, reducing virtual buildings to virtual rubble with disembodied semiautomatics somewhere in the imaginary Middle East.
My ideal partner does not play first person shooter video games. In fact, he doesn’t play video games at all. My perfect mate never enlisted in the United States Army, never qualified and then served for six years as a Green Beret, never did a tour in Iraq and then one in Afghanistan before beginning his graduate study of poetry, only to withdraw from the program before his final year to fulfill a contract with the Special Forces National Guard — one final six-month tour in Afghanistan.
While I tallied my ambivalences about G, I’m sure I gave him more than a few pauses too. Likely he never daydreamed of a woman who won’t shut up about Burning Man and the patent superiority of the West Coast, who 65 percent believes in the efficacy of crystal healing, a woman who flatly informed him a week into dating that she will never fold a man’s laundry, and who once refused to eat the peanut butter she had asked him to buy because the jar he chose contained high-fructose corn syrup.
I believed I could control the fall. But as Carmen famously sang, "love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame."
It was G who showed me a line in the novel The Goldfinch that lights squarely atop of the truth about love:
We don’t get to choose our own hearts.
I would not, I told myself, ever fall in love with a man who practiced the right to bear arms. Then I did.
A partner I never dreamed of choosing — and a life I never imagined
When my heart led me to someone I wouldn’t dream of choosing, it led me also to a life I never imagined. Did I ever envision myself attending a Special Forces military ball, walking around for days after with the chorus to "Ballad of the Green Berets" stuck in my head? Did I ever anticipate my thoughts winging fast for Afghanistan, that I’d drop what I was doing at least five times a day to calculate the local time at Bagram on two hands? No, no, and no. But there I was. Here I am.
As someone who maintains a white-knuckled grip on the wheel, this sharp swerve off the route I had planned scared the fuck out of me. The moment I started to feel myself slipping, I braced my arms, locked my jaw, and got busy regaining control.
Very early in life, I adopted a belief as self-evident: Violence is never the answer. In the past year especially, as a nightmarish number of lives have ended with the punctuation mark of a bullet, I’ve seen my dovish conviction reflected everywhere — in the social media feeds of my friends, the public comments of politicians, the paper’s op-ed columns, and in the faces of families, fierce and keening over their lost ones.
The snowy night in the parking garage when G opened his coat to fish out an admit ticket and exposed a dagger, my nonnegotiable stance on weaponry took a swerve.
G carries a SOCP dagger, an acronym for Special Operations Combative Program. Uncased from its certified, sand-colored sheath, the dagger is one unbroken piece of black steel with a matte blade. An obsidian arrowhead. It is not the Swiss Army knife your dad carried, handy for whittling marshmallow-roasting spears and cutting Christmas tree cords off the roof of the family car.
The day after my glimpse in the parking garage, I researched the dagger online, even watching an official SOCP promotional video in which the inventor demonstrates its uses and merits.
This dagger, he explains, gives you an edge because it is subtle. The handle, which finishes in a loop, looks like an innocuous metal ring when stored in the front pocket of a soldier’s kit vest, the easy-to-conceal design preventing an attacker from recognizing the dagger for the deadly weapon it is.
That same innocent-looking loop also makes the dagger easy to use in tandem with a gun. Pluck the knife out with the crook of a finger and stab. Slide the loop down over your finger like a ring, palm the dagger, and then reach for your gun. The knife allows you to "create space" between you and your assailant. Once you have that, you can back up and shoot.
The dagger scared me. That I loved someone who carried it, concealed on his person, scared me more. But fear, I knew, can almost always be traced back to ignorance, to not knowing the whole story, to refusing to see.
My fear turned productive, dynamic but double-edged. Mixed with love, it inspired willingness to reconsider in earnest actions I once wholesale condemned. It was a foolish conviction — that all I had to do was learn and I’d be back in control.
How I tried to make sense of G's weapons
Ohio, the state where G and I live, does not require a permit to carry a concealed knife. That said, Ohio law does make carrying any concealed "deadly weapon" illegal. Whether or not a weapon is deadly, and whether the knife was being carried with the intent to use as a weapon — those are matters to be proven in court, by the state, on a case-by-case basis.
So let’s say you tangle with the law in Ohio, and that somehow your trouble involves a knife. If you’d been hunting, fishing, camping, or engaged in physical labor — all activities that may legitimately warrant a very sharp and serious blade — the court may decide you were carrying the knife as a tool after all, not as a weapon.
There’s no question, though, of how a court would rule on G’s dagger. It is deadly, and G does carry it as a weapon. My question, however, as someone in love, was beyond what the court would endeavor to know. My question was existential: Why?
Why carry a weapon to the grocery store, the dry cleaner’s, or a literary reading like the one we’d just left when I first saw G’s dagger? Why?
In the military for six years, G had walked around armed at almost all times. So without some kind of weapon on his person he must feel … well, what? Naked? Vulnerable?
When I put this theory to G, he said yes, that was part of it. And that’s all. In two years of loving this man, I came to understand a few things about him, one being that he keeps his feelings so well-concealed that many are secrets he’s kept even from himself. Long ago, I entered him into my phone, in jest (kind of), as Cipher.
Regarding licensed firearms — of which G has three, a rifle and two handguns, one of which, he tells me, he tosses into his trunk prior to road trips — Ohio is one of 44 states that require residents to obtain a concealed carry permit.
Ohio is a "shall issue" state. That means as long as someone applying for a concealed carry permit meets minimal statutory requirements (not a convicted felon, not mentally incompetent), the issuing body must grant approval, even if there are misgivings.
In the military for six years, G had walked around armed at almost all times. So without some kind of weapon on his person, G must feel …well, what? Naked? Vulnerable?
In Ohio, after just eight hours of training, you can bring a hidden gun on your person wherever you please, except inside mental health facilities and onto the campus of the university G and I both attend.
On every door of every building on campus, a sticker has been stuck that you could easily miss. Always affixed to the door's glass, translucent except for the image of a black gun inside a red circle slashed by a red diagonal line, the stickers state in dry legalese that concealed weapons, firearms especially, are forbidden on the grounds of the Ohio State University.
The year 2015 alone saw 23 shootings on college campuses in the US. Even with OSU’s firearm injunction, it began to dawn on me that this campus, this place where G and I spent most of our time, was, statistically speaking, a dangerous place to live out our days. The thought made me jumpy, but there was nothing to do. I pushed it out of my head.
My second year of grad school, I taught analytical writing. In that class I had J, a resumed undergraduate student a few years older than me. He’d left OSU his junior year for the military, the Special Forces like G, and had just started up college again after a hiatus of eight years.
Unlike G, J liked to talk. I took advantage of his volubility, peppering J with questions about life in the Special Forces — my attempt to gain purchase on G.
One day, I bumped into J in the lobby of the on-campus gym. I shared my reaction to G’s dagger.
"A knife? That’s all?" J was blasé. "I mean, I carry a gun."
"Wait," I said, flicking my eyes toward the backpack slung over J’s shoulder. "You have gun? On you? Right now?"
J’s gaze shot furtively around the lobby as students in dark mesh and bright spandex drifted by. "Uh, yeah," he said, quietly, in a tone that communicated two things: Duh, and, Can you not announce that at an 80-decibel level?
"So you’re saying you brought a gun to my class? The class I just taught 20 minutes ago?"
J nodded again, brows raised in that expression teenage boys assume to let their mothers know they’re asking inane questions.
When I asked J why he would bring a gun onto a campus that expressly forbids it, he didn’t hesitate for even a second before giving an answer.
"If I have a gun on me, I can protect people. I could stop a school shooting."
Carrying a weapon means being willing to use it — and being okay with violence in the first place
G says carrying a weapon means being willing to use it. I say, by extension, being willing to use a weapon means making some kind of peace with violence, a position I remain loath to assume, not as a woman conditioned to avoid confrontation (though that’s true, too) but as a human who aspires to a pacific, harmonious existence.
Lately though, I check myself. Maybe my insistence on going open-handed is naive liberal nonsense. Maybe, in some very limited cases, defending your right to a safe and peaceful life does, in fact, call for an armed fight.
One night, G long gone in Afghanistan, I arrived home at 9 pm to a completely dark house with the front door swung open wide.
Fifteen minutes later, I stood across the street on my neighbor’s porch, still trembling slightly, watching two young white male police officers clear my house in the wake of the break-in. I’d heard too many stories of burglars, jumpy or high or both, who, when someone had come home, panicked and shot them. There was no way in hell I was walking inside myself.
The two officers prowled past the street-facing windows. The white beams of their Maglites sliced to lit fragments the interior of the first, then the second, and finally the third floor. They walked cautiously, guns drawn.
Where the fuck, I thought wryly as I looked on, is a Special Forces solider when you need him? Need. That word. None of this would be happening if G were still here. He would have done exactly what he had done in multiple war zones, multiple times. Which is to say, clear the house himself.
I thought about going to sleep later that night, alone. Against all my objections, my feminism, my pacifism, my liberalism, I wanted G there. I wanted him there with a gun.
G and I were romantically partnered for nearly two years. Because he wasn’t the partner I had envisioned, over that period I cut out of our involvement multiple times. I don’t carry a knife or keep a gun in my trunk, but I do know how to make weapons from words — to repel incongruent love for someone who doesn’t fit my fastidiously crafted, exacting bill.
With G, countless times, I chose words with a slicing edge, cutting deeply enough to make him step back. Even at our most intimate, I kept him at arm’s length. I successfully created space between us. Then I blasted away love at point blank.
As the days drew apace toward G's departure for Afghanistan, we ended it. Saying goodbye plunged me into a fugue, but the pain faded surprisingly fast. About a month later, though, like a temporary, adrenalized, post-attack shock wearing off, I began to feel, with a mauling sharpness, the hole G’s departure had rent in my life.
It was only word that sated me. I liked the V of it; how it conjured a knife, cutting slow and sure to the pith.
With G half a world away, mourning thundered wordless within me, came at me everywhere. One night as I stood alone in my kitchen chopping vegetables for a dinner, the pitch of my sorrow roared louder than everything else. In the hopes of drowning out a few decibels of pain, I put iTunes on shuffle.
The way you hold your knife…
The way you’ve changed my life…
No, no, they can’t take that away from me.
"They Can’ Take That Away From Me." The Gershwin brothers never could have imagined the weird second resonance their lyrics would take on, 79 years after they wrote them, in my empty kitchen. I couldn’t slice anymore. I put down my knife, and I wept.
What carrying concealed weapons means
Love is rebellious as fuck. God knows when my heart shot out my chest like a cannon, straight for G, there was absolutely nothing I could do to alter its course. My love for this man compelled me to recalibrate myself where I could, to work toward a more nuanced understanding of something I’d previously considered a foregone conclusion.
Somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond any experience. e.e. cummings’s opening line rang brazenly true. This love. It didn’t change only me. When love is mutual, it cuts both ways.
In October 2015, a man named Steve Elliott posted a statement to Facebook about the decision to destroy his handgun.
Today I disassembled my handgun, a 9mm Ruger, clamped the pieces in a vice and cut them in half with an angle grinder.
None of us individually can stop gun violence in America, but as a responsible gun owner, I will no longer be used as a justification for doing nothing about it. Today I did what I could.
G saw this post. As usual, his process was opaque, his endpoint clear. G had decided to get rid of his guns too.
Though I don’t know how he got there, knowing G as I do, I’m certain he did not reach this decision lightly; what I’ve glimpsed of his inner life reveals too nuanced a churning.
Regarding the dagger, what he’ll decide remains to be seen. But I’m certain G considers it, and contemplates deeply, even now, each morning in a far away country on his third tour of duty, as he slings an assault rifle over one arm and slips a dagger inside his vest, what carrying concealed weapons means.
And for that, my heart flies to him still.
Alessandra Wollner is a writer and educator in the Bay Area. Her current project is a collection of essays from three years spent teaching college English at San Quentin State Prison. Read her work at AleWollner.com.