I sit at the edge of my bed, staring out into the darkness splashed across the golf course behind our home. Resting my feet upon the heat register, I inhale the warm, spring air, metallic and lilac through the screen. The house is calm as the cats chase one another down the hallway, awakening the floorboards, creaking and whining as they make their way toward my room. Yeti, a giant, longhaired calico climbs into my lap, purring soft and sweet. “Hi kitty,” I say. I listen as my daughter, Elsa sighs and babbles in her sleep and wonder what she is dreaming about. Tonight, like most nights, I remain awake to wrestle with my loneliness. I rest my head in the palm of my hands and stare out the window at the brilliant pathways above in search of answers. I wish I could disappear into the sea of light. But I don’t. Instead, I lay back against the smooth, cool linen to reach for someone who isn’t there. A year has passed since he left and I am anxious for our family to be together again.
We had gone to lunch to discuss his deployment and ended up walking around a Kmart in search of an exersaucer, but our mission, on so many levels had been unsuccessful. Afterward, we sat in the car in front of my office, neither of us saying anything. I was full of a rage that I cannot remember ever feeling before or since. I knew he wanted me to get out, to leave him in peace, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I looked at the dust caked to the dashboard and it irritated me that he hadn’t cleaned the car. “How can you not see how hard this is for me?” I asked. “I can’t believe this is happening. This is so like you. Not that you’d know anything about raising her. I do it by myself anyway.” I was dramatizing the truth about our 7-month old, but I turned to him as I said this, an indictment on his apparent inability to provide for us. I wanted to drive a stake into the heart of virility. He said nothing. “Aren’t you going to say something?” I took a breath before, “and when was the last time you cleaned your car? It’s disgusting.” I wiped my finger across the dusty film to reveal the clean blue patina beneath.
He leaned his head against the window, angry and distant. “Can you hear yourself? You’re so…mean. I can’t take it anymore. This is ridiculous. No one should have to live like this.”
I could hear myself. Granted, it may have been overkill to go berserk over not being able to find the Rainforest exersaucer at Kmart, but Christ, there are no stores in this godforsaken town and my girl needed one! When it came down to it, I hated him, but to be fair, I hated it all: my body, my skin, my lack of self-confidence, having to go back to work after Elsa was born––everything. To make matters worse, the economy was tanking during my obvious postpartum depression, and I wasn’t going to give in. I wanted to win––at what I will never know.
“Fuck this,” I said. “I didn’t sign up for this.” Craig didn’t reach for me as I opened the car door. For the first time in our marriage, I didn’t care. I got out of the car and stormed toward my office. When I had crossed the street, I thought he would be long gone, but he wasn’t. I realized what I had done and I ran back to the car in a panic. I opened the passenger door and sat next to him. “Please don’t leave me,” I pleaded. “I don’t want to do this alone. I’m already so tired.”
Craig put his hand gently on my knee. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with you and Elsa…of course.” He was still looking straight ahead.
He knew that his days in the financial industry were numbered and this was the only way to take care of us. “I know,” I said. My heart sank as I dug deep to find the words or actions to reassure him. I reached slowly for his hand and laced my fingers within his––my one and only peace offering. “Oh yeah…and I’ll get help with the whole psycho thing.” He turned to me and smiled.
Two months and two bottles of antidepressants later, I watched my husband pack his belongings into large canvas bags. Helping him pull the last of his items together, I felt as though someone had stolen my breath. I simply couldn’t form any words, any last thoughts or comments about his leaving. I knew what was coming, the absence of a father for our daughter, loneliness for my partner––simply a long year of unknowns lay ahead. “You’ll be able to make it back for her first birthday, right?” I asked, knowing he couldn’t make the promise.
“I’ll do everything I can to get back for it. It’s important to both of us.”
I bit into my lower lip to keep the tears from falling. He had been sincere and it’s all I could’ve asked for. Elsa was 10 months old. Everyone told me she would never remember his absence. “She’ll be fine,” they’d say. I too was sure she would make it through this deployment emotionally unscathed. After all, he was going to be in the states. It was so different from his last tour. He’ll visit every month. We’ll be a great team, El and I. No problem. Craig opened his arms and Elsa reached for him. “Bye baby. You know daddy loves you, right?” Elsa’s cerulean eyes lit up as she snuggled into his chest. I swallowed hard as he peppered her with kisses. What she didn’t know was killing me. He handed her back to me and we embraced one last time. I cried the first of many tears as we watched him turn the corner and disappear. Elsa was still holding her hand up, opening and closing it in ciao fashion. “Bye daddy,” I whispered and kissed her on the forehead.
For the first five months of his tour, Elsa could never seem to recover from the colds being germinated at her daycare center, which always turned into ear infections, so I had to leave the office at least once a week to pick her up. Being torn between work and home was taxing. I felt self-conscious at every turn. My boss thinks I’m a shit employee. I’m going to lose my job. If I were him, I’d fire my ass. They can’t count on me. I’m a fucking basket case. These kinds of thoughts consumed me, so I worked nights to make up for what I had missed during the day. I was terrified a ball would drop and that a client would call to complain. Although my boss has never confirmed my insecurities about my employment or said anything directly to me over the past year, I’ve certainly felt the tension in random comments, slipped deftly into uncomfortable moments between us.
I will never forget the night I was coming down with strep throat. Elsa had just gotten over one of her colds and was feeling better, so she was running around the house like a madwoman, pulling down everything in her path. Her energy had returned as mine waned. I was trying to put her to bed for the fourth time that evening and she pushed away from me to run down the hallway. I kneeled on the floor next to her crib with my hands open upon my lap. “Please come to mommy,” I implored. Elsa gave me her widest Cheshire grin and turned to run. “Please…please…” but I received no response. Instead of getting up to chase after her, I collapsed to the floor and lay against the soft carpet. I wanted to die. She realized that I wasn’t going to get up, so she ran back to me with open arms.
“Mommy!” she said as she threw her arms around my neck.
“Baby,” I said, wrapping my arms around her. She stood up and motioned for me to put her in the crib. “Okay,” I said. I lifted her up, which at the time felt like 1000 lbs. I went to bed that night knowing that my “rest” was only going to last until the alarm clock went off the following morning. I still needed to get up, get her lunch ready for daycare and prepare her for the day. I cried myself to sleep that night. I would’ve done anything for an extra pair of hands––and the cats never offered to help.
When Craig comes home to visit, he is no longer a member of the house, but a visitor. In the beginning, he had been able to get home three days out of the month, which eventually turned into two-month spreads without him. These breaks mean that I’ll get to “sleep in” once or twice. The closer it comes to his arrival, the more eagerly I count down the moments to sleep. It also means that we’ll get to go on a date. I crave adult interaction and to eat a meal without policing a toddler more than anything. Unfortunately, once he returns, it generally takes me two days to stop resenting him, which leaves me with only a day to love him. It’s a vicious cycle.
Eight months into his tour, a nor’easter bore down on Vermont, and our dreams of a date-night were beginning to fade. At the last minute, grandma offered to watch Elsa, so we jumped at the opportunity to get out––even though I had been mad at him the entire day. We wanted to go to our favorite restaurant––a small, romantic venue where a skilled chef creates heavenly cuisine from locally harvested foods. The smaller, local businesses closed due the weather, so the only thing left to us was a Texas Roadhouse––Americana at its best. I tried to look past my feelings, so we could enjoy our time together, but when a half-dozen fervent teenage girls greeted us at the hostess stand, my resentment grew into irritation. “Welcome to the Texas Roadhouse!” exclaimed the one in front. They reminded me of meercats, each one alert and standing at the attention of their leader. We waded through a sea of Vermonters to get to our table, which was staffed by another vivacious young woman sporting a ponytail and alabaster teeth. I was beginning to note a pattern in the hiring practices. She took our order and brought two giant, “Texas-sized” beers to our table.
I took a long draw on the mug. “So…what are your plans?”
Craig looked at me critically. He knew what mood I was in and was ready for my attack. “I’ll probably extend another year and then go full-time…if I can.”
“I see.” His lack of planning terrified me. I wanted to hear that we were going to get things moving, that we would be together sooner than later. I was exhausted and ready for our arrangement to end.
“What’s wrong now?” he asked. “I don’t know what you want from me, but—
“How’re those drinks treatin’ ya?” Her timing was impeccable. I spoke quietly and didn’t make eye contact. I felt that if I looked at anyone, even the nubile sprite before me, that they would see just how vulnerable I was.
While nibbling at our barbeque, Craig and I argued amidst the clamor of the restaurant. Suddenly, a group of employees jumped into action at the sound of the music. The song, indiscernible to me, resounded through the crowd over the speakers while a line of excitable youth danced about and yelled, “Yahoo!” Craig and I could no longer hold on to our anger. We both cracked a smile and began to laugh. We realized the absurdity of holding a serious discussion in such bizarre surroundings and the heaviness was lifted from our shoulders––for at least awhile. Staring at him across the table, I could see that his intentions for our family were genuine––that he wasn’t torturing me––and that I probably wouldn’t become a regular at the Texas Roadhouse.
A year has passed and I await our reunion; I dream of him. I turn to him, to feel his lips upon my cheek. He caresses my skin and whispers, “You’re so beautiful.” Like young lovers, he wants only me. I look into his intense green eyes, teaming with all of life’s mystery. I want him to love me, to turn me gently, my back rounded to fit within the half moon of his stomach. I was meant to be there––where nothing can happen to me. His breath is playful on my neck as his strong arms are snug around my waste…this is heaven. I startle to the sound of my daughter in the throws of a night terror.
I sit near her crib, monitoring her through the white slats. Once she is calm, I lay on the floor of her room where baby-powder fragranced products and her sweet breath fill the air. It isn’t the arms of my lover; it’s another universe entirely. I like to come in here, to be at peace with myself––with the world. I play the past year back in slow motion and find comfort in the details, her first words, skinned knees, funny faces, time-outs, the wind in her hair, the words “I love you,” all pieces of our time together I will never forget. I think about the demons I have struggled with. I may have burrowed deep into places I thought I would never go. I may have become stronger. I may have cried harder. I may have been more vulnerable. I may have been angrier. I may have spit venom at everyone. I may have hated. I may have cursed God, but I have never loved another with more intensity than I do at this very moment, under the veil of nightfall. The amber stars are still aglow in a simple pattern across the ceiling. Tonight, I don’t want to disappear. I am exactly where I am meant to be.