Waking, the remnants of dreams fade into the backs of my eyelids and then dissipate altogether. I open my eyes and realize that today is the first day in two weeks that I haven’t automatically rolled over to touch the space where Dean used to sleep. Outside, birds chirp.
I get dressed slowly. It is the beginning of autumn but still warm and I wear a sundress, blue as babies’ eyes. On my dresser, there are seven letters stacked in a neat pile, organized by date. Each slice of paper is more worn than the last and I pause over them, grazing the surface of the top piece of institutional stationary with my fingernail until it falls off the edge. I’ve memorized those letters, word by word. I know the delicate scrawl of my husband’s penmanship, the way he writes my name in loops. His S’s are child-like, i’s rarely dotted.
I descend the stairs to find the kids in the kitchen already, eating breakfast. They are sullen or sleepy though lately, the difference between the two is slight. We mumble good mornings as I pour a cup of coffee and offer half-heartedly to make toast.
“Sure,” Isabella says indifferently. She busies herself with unfolding the newspaper, hesitating before announcing, “It’s 102 degrees in Baghdad, today, Mom. Dad’s probably getting a suntan.”
“He’s not in Baghdad, Izzie,” Charlie says from across the table, “He moved locations, remember?”
“He’s still in the vicinity of Baghdad,” Isabella retorts, mocking her brother’s tone, “Temperatures don’t vary in the desert.”
I focus on adjusting the knobs of the toaster, contemplating the heat of the grills. When I turn back to the table, Charlie is slumped in his chair with his headphones on, his eyes half-closed. I sigh inwardly and recall the fact that his bedroom still smells like marijuana. Sooner or later, I know I am going to have to say something.
Isabella conceals herself behind the newspaper. She is younger than her brother by two years, on the verge of adolescence and unbelievably smart. She consumes information on anything that sparks her interest and speaks with a vocabulary that comes from the reference books she reads for pleasure. I am convinced she knows everything.
I walk to the sink and turn on the faucet, remembering when Isabella and Dean would play geography trivia games, charting the space and distance of the world in simple sentences: The Nile flows backwards, south to north, and empties into the Mediterranean. The Andes Mountain Range covers 5,000 miles from the equator to the Antarctic; it is the largest mountain range in the world. The highest and most active volcano on earth is Mauna Loa, located on the main island of Hawaii. They would exchange this information back and forth across the kitchen table, an almanac between them, pages turning rapidly as they searched for facts to outdo each other, their voices matched in enthusiasm. Three percent of Earth’s water is freshwater. Mongolia’s Gobi Desert is the largest desert in Asia. The Himalayas cover one tenth of the globe and stretch from India to Tibet.
Lost in facts about the planet, the smell of burning toast interrupts my thoughts. When I turn around to tell the kids, I’m sorry, I’ll have to start over, the kitchen is empty. I chide myself for not noticing when they left for school. They must have said goodbye. I try to remember and when I can’t, I take solace in the fact that lately, my responses are automatic- I must have said goodbye to them, too.
All morning, I stay active, charged by caffeine. I walk in long strides throughout the house, allowing my steep gait to disrupt the quietness that fills each room. I scrub counters, do a load of laundry and reorganize my closet, first by article, then by color, all before noon.
My sister calls and I recognize her number on the Caller ID but don’t pick up.
She is younger than me, a widow, though she recently remarried. Often, I remember when she told me her second husband asked her, “Will you ever stop loving him?”
My sister had to explain, “There is no him left to love. It’s impossible to love an abstraction.”
She leaves a message reminding me that today is the meeting with the Military Wives Support Group that I promised to attend.
“You need to go,” she says into the phone, “You need to get out of that house. You need to interact with other people. It will be good for you, I promise.” Her syllables are so direct, I figure she must know I’m listening. The word need, fired at me twice, rings out like a bullet.
I have been to the support meetings, before. They are held in community center conference rooms with dirty floors and uncomfortable chairs that seat women who never used to smoke but do now. For an hour and a half each week, they light each other’s cigarettes and complain about being alone.
But there is no more laundry to do and the house is spotless, save for the stench in Charlie’s room. I contemplate opening a window in there, or better yet, bringing in a fan, but ultimately, I grab my keys and get in my car to go to the meeting.
On my way downtown, I get stuck in traffic behind a tow truck with a prophetic license plate that reaffirms my greatest fear: YOUNEXT. I am struck by the severity of the capital letters and lack of spacing. It seems like a threat. Distracted, I run a red light. I almost laugh out loud at the irony, but then I’m in the parking lot of the community center and the license plate suddenly seems from another lifetime.
Inside, the conference room is crowded and there is an air of anguish. There are at least fifteen women lingering around the coffee stand- one is pregnant, two are in business suits and seven are smoking. All of them are chatty with sad eyes, eager to share their grief. I want not to understand them, but I do.
The mediator of the meetings is a psychologist named Marion whose husband owns a sports bar downtown. I know this because I have seen them there together. He is balding and wears an Eagles’ jersey every Sunday during football season. Last year, Dean and I went to a birthday party for one of his coworkers there and I watched him argue with Marion over the counter. I couldn’t make out what they were saying to each other from across the room but their words were heated. When she left, he threw his hands up in the air, drew beer from the tap and took heavy gulps until his shoulders slumped, tension released.
Marion calls for the start of the meeting a few minutes after I arrive and everyone takes a seat in the dilapidated folding chairs, which have been set up in a lopsided circle. The meeting opens with talk of a brunch to honor the husbands of women who are not as lucky as I am. I think about what a funny word “luck” is and don’t realize that Marion is calling my name.
“What?” I ask, my tone more hostile than I intend.
“Do you think you can bring the fruit salad to the brunch?”
I nod complacently, stiffening when she adds, “Maybe you should write that down somewhere, just so, you know, you don’t forget.”
The next forty minutes of the meeting pass quickly, I distract myself with counting the cars that drive by on the main road beyond the community center. I tally their colors, makes and models, dissolving myself in keeping track of the numbers.
Finally, Marion announces that we will end the meeting with a “Management Exercise,” assignments designed to help us redirect any apprehension we may have about our husbands being in the Middle East. I have learned that it is okay to feel angry. I have learned that it is okay to feel frustrated. I have learned that it is okay to feel abandoned. No one says if it is okay to feel sad and I wonder if that is because there is no exercise to manage sadness, no way to change it into something worthwhile.
Today the exercise is comprised of writing letters to our husbands.
“You don’t have to send them,” Marion tells us, “Just be honest and say what you mean. Sometimes you don’t know how you feel until you have a chance to let it out!”
Her tone is cheery and upbeat and I want to ask her, right then, what she and her husband were fighting about that evening in the bar and if afterwards, she went home and wrote him a letter.
The impulse passes and Marion hands us promotional pens from the Army and slips of binder paper. I wonder what Dean would think if he saw me here, the only one not writing a letter in this misshapen circle of women. The thought makes my cheeks flush. I first met Dean in a Poetry workshop in college. After the first class, he told me my words defined me and asked me out to dinner. After my first book was published, he said it again, Your words define you. But what he would say if he knew I hadn’t written since the day he stepped off American soil. A deadline from my publisher looms, but I have no interest in even beginning research for a new project. When I sit down to write some mornings, my mind gets tangled and goes blank. Words feel heavy and opaque, as if they have drifted beyond me, out of reach.
Who am I without words? I want to ask Dean. Am I indefinite? Unreal?
I realize that several moments have passed and I am still posed with the pen over my blank paper. Around me, other women scribble furiously and a few sniffles escape into the silence. I stifle a sigh, sketch a palm tree and play a game of tic-tac-toe with myself, allowing the X’s to win.
After she’s resumed the meeting, Marion implores us, “What feelings did this exercise bring up for you?”
Most of the women clamor at a chance to share their responses with the group. They read with shaky hands and stilted voices. One woman cries openly, unabashedly. That’s the thing about having a husband at war- it makes you selfish, hungry for attention. I look at my feet and don’t dare to speak. The moments tick by but soon it is three-thirty and I am allowed to leave.
I decide to stop at the grocery store on my way home from the meeting. I drive across town to a different grocery store than usual in effort to avoid running into people I know, people who will ask questions and pinpoint my sadness with their casual concern. This new grocery store is next door to a Lutheran church and on my way inside the store, I notice a sign out front the church with letters like a marquis imparting the church’s billing: “Come to me, I will give you rest.” A chill grips my spine and I turn away as if the words might dismantle me, right here in a grocery store parking lot.
Inside the store, I am temporarily blinded by the fluorescent lighting and push a cart haphazardly through the produce section as I desperately try to see what’s in front of me. I walk down aisles slowly, calmed by the order of items divided by their purposes. I pause to touch the packaging of processed pastries and ease myself into the dairy section where I triple check expiration dates, sure that if I’m not careful, I will end up with something stagnated. I allow myself time to read the nutrition information of products I don’t even intend to purchase and stop to consider greeting cards despite the fact that there is no date or event, no person for which I could send one. In the cereal aisle, it takes me fifteen minutes to decide between Corn Flakes and Raisin Bran. The merits of each seem so distinct and so inconsequential at the same time, it becomes literally impossible for me to choose.
When I get to the cash register, I am exhausted. A donation cup sits atop the counter, “Support our Troops!” it suggests in a flourish of red, white and blue letters. I grind my teeth, empty my cart and reevaluate my verdict of Raisin Bran.
The cashier rings me up and declares, “He might not even be alive, now.”
I stare at him, incredulous.
“That will be sixty-seven, eighty-five, now,” he repeats.
“Oh,” I say and offer up a credit card quickly, my head bowed.
On my way home from the grocery store, I get lost. I don’t know what I’m thinking about, or if I’m thinking at all. There’s song on the radio, something about sour grapes on a fruit stand and suddenly, I don’t have any idea of where I am. I’m driving down streets, one-way, detoured, traffic blocking a right-hand turn lane. I feel like a finger on a map, tracing territory that should make sense, but doesn’t and even though I’ve driven these streets before, everything is only vaguely familiar and I second-guess myself all the way back to my neighborhood. Even in the driveway, as I turn off the engine to the car, I’m not entirely sure I’m where I’m supposed to be.
Inside, the house is empty, Charlie and Isabella are out somewhere, I don’t know where though maybe I should since it’s close to dinnertime. I turn on the TV to liven the silence and there’s news of a six-car pileup on the freeway, 45 minutes away. A head on collision that should have been impossible but wasn’t.
“Nothing’s ever impossible, is it?” The reporter on TV asks and I wonder if that’s the right thing to say, live on the air, about something so suddenly tragic. When news of the war flashes on, I change the channel, walk into the kitchen and stare through a window into the backyard. Outside, the sky is a crisp autumn blue and the leaves are richly colored against it. Summer is over and I’m wondering if it’s too late to clean out the rain gutters. It was always Dean’s job and I remember when he would climb on the roof with a rake, scrubbing out the drains so nothing would flood.
The truth is, I haven’t heard from him in weeks and there are days I sit with my eyes closed, trying to conjure up exactly where he is, what he’s doing, and who he’s thinking about. But as hard as I try, I can’t imagine a Middle-Eastern desert, the wind blowing across it, because what color is the sky there? Is it the same clear blue as here or is it smoky from the ash of warfare? I can’t picture it in my mind. I keep my eyes closed and think instead of all the things that were. I think of Sunday morning crossword puzzles, his hand posed accurately above the paper as he thought of the precise word to fit in just so many spaces. I think of six o’clock family dinners when Isabella and Charlie set the table, Dean grilled salmon and I cut fruit one slice at a time. I think of other autumns in other years, the kids going back to school and Dean on the roof, waving that rake like a madman as he did what I won’t, now. These moments come in slow motion, like watching a photo slide show. A birthday, a family vacation, an intimate moment. It comes together in 2-D form. The third dimension, the real-life, human dimension is so obviously missing that after only a few memories, I have to stop because the emptiness becomes too palpable and the absence of the familiar too extreme.
Later, when the kids have come home from where they were (they never did say) and have eaten dinner (take-out, reheated), done their homework (or were they watching TV?) and gone to bed (so why are their bedroom lights still on?), I sit down to try to write Dean another letter. I sit at the kitchen table, hunched over stationary, every muscle in my body tensed. But my own words still don’t come, so I write down what does come, words I didn’t even know I knew until suddenly they’re all I know.
The Nile flows from north to south.
Come to me, I will give you rest.
That will be sixty-seven, eighty-five, now.
Am I the only sour grape on the fruit stand?
When I finish, I realize that because Dean moves locations so often and I haven’t been updated in weeks, I don’t have an address to send the letter. So I crumple the paper and don’t start over because I’m tired and alone and even though the house is clean, the rain gutters are full and even though Dean is alive, he’s not here, and even though I have the things that were, they are hardly enough.
Hilary McCreery is a Program Manager at the literary arts non-profit organization, PEN Center USA. She attended Pitzer College in Claremont, CA and graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in Art History and English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Otherside Magazine and The Contra Costa Times. She currently resides in Los Angeles.
© 2011, Hilary McCreery