The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)
January. The sky in the dusty, drought-stricken valley of central California is a dull gray. I’m standing in the squadron hangar parking lot behind the open, empty trunk of my Honda, facing Ross. Heaped on the ground between us are various duffel bags and a backpack. I lean over for a kiss—I want just one, quick, like we talked about, no tears, no scene, just go—but he grabs my hand instead and gives me a hug that folds me into him. I resist. I can get through this, but we need to stick to the script, keep things moving.
“Be safe.” These are always the first words, the ones that initiate the final good-bye checklist for any absence, short or long.
“I will,” he says. “I love you.” I can smell his aftershave.
“I love you too.” I need these to be the magic words that will make him let go, but he holds on a few more seconds and tears fill my eyes. He will be gone six, maybe seven months, his first official deployment. I focus on the giant painted squadron logo on the side of the building, but the image wobbles and blurs. I curse myself as the rest of our good-bye turns into a fumbling negotiation of bags and straps. He walks away, heaving and juggling the weight, catches a strap in his teeth to free one hand for the door, kicks it wide with his boot, and then turns to wave. I am already buckled into the front seat and shifting into reverse. Our first official deployment, and if I could have just slowed the car to a crawl and told him to tuck and roll, I would have. I make it about a half mile down the road, just past the gate guards, before I let out the howl that’s been building inside me for weeks.
Right after I dropped him off, the prospect of going back to our sparsely furnished rental and seeing everything the same but with one thing missing was so unbearable that I skipped our town completely on Highway 198 and continued on to the next town over, where, on impulse, I bought pink satin sheets. Never in my life had I been a pink satin sheet type, but now I had an excuse for stripping the blue cotton ones off the bed, the ones that held his shape from the morning and still smelled like him. New sheets would remind me that Things Were Different, so that I might avoid the awful smack of knowing after a few seconds of half-wakefulness in the morning that he was gone. They would help me avoid reaching for him, or being tricked by muscle memory into thinking he was there. No way would Ross ever get near a bed covered in pink satin.
When I finally went back to the house, I cleaned it like it was a crime scene. I found places for Ross in the backs of closets and drawers and in cabinets in the garage. I filed him away in folders and binders and a fireproof, waterproof safe. Then I threw out his favorite foods in the refrigerator.
I imagined him balking at the wastefulness of this, but what I couldn’t afford was a half-used bottle of mayonnaise waiting to sabotage me for six months every time I opened the refrigerator. What I couldn’t afford was a little scrap of a receipt with his crimpy handwriting popping out when I went sorting through the desk. Under no circumstances could I afford to imagine him close to me. He was allowed in picture frames. In two dimensions, under glass, and under certain circumstances, I could handle him. When I couldn’t, when things felt sketchy, I needed to know where to avoid looking.
The one thing I couldn’t put away was Green Jacket, which had acquired a name and a personality of its own. Ross had kept Green Jacket since the seventh grade, even after the cuffs frayed and our dog ate the hood’s drawstring. Even after it got lost on a subway in Madrid, Green Jacket always made its way back to him. The simple cotton hoodie with a tiny Olympic logo on the breast was a testament to his stubbornness, to the fact that he wore T-shirts until they were frayed at the neck and threadbare. Ross loves to feel things broken in and soft. He’s the only person I know who has his shoes resoled, who actually looks up cobblers in the phone book. Green Jacket I kept in reserve, tucked just under my side of the bed, for emergencies, for the nights I knew were coming, when I couldn’t clean or organize anything, when every thought was steamrolled flat before it even fully formed, when the feeling of old, used up, no good crept into my skin and applied to my limbs and my bones. When I wanted to throw me out. Then I could get Green Jacket out and hold it to my face and breathe Ross in, and allow myself to think that he would always find his way home to me.
Ross had been my younger brother Doug’s best friend since sixth grade. I’ve always loved the semiscandalous feeling of admitting that to friends—how we transgressed the “off-limits” pact for friends of siblings. But the truth is that ours was no long-simmering, forbidden crush. We pretty much ignored each other all the way through high school, when he and Doug, smart-asses and soccer players, far surpassed me on the popularity and attractiveness scales. Ross was not so much “off-limits” as “hopelessly unattainable,” and therefore an object of my derision. Those were the years when he developed the annoying habit of strolling into our house unannounced, via the door from the garage, and tossing a casual “Word up” over his shoulder at my shocked scowl.
Ross and I had actually spent a few years in junior high and high school band together before he surprised everyone and quit in his junior year. By then, I was a senior and had doubled down on my band nerd identity—sure, there was the unbearable ridiculousness of marching season, but then concert season started and we all got to sit down like actual musicians and play beautiful, complex music. Ross had had enough and decided to devote his time to soccer and acquiring college academic credits. To our band director’s sour comment that he had his priorities all wrong, he shot back, “No, I think I’ve finally got them right.”