Strangely, despite the way things had been going in the marriage, I was at first devastated by the news that the Ex was going to Saudi Arabia for a 120-day deployment. I’m not sure even now if it’s because he was leaving on my birthday, or I really felt bad because I was going to miss him, or if, deep inside, I felt bad because I wondered if I might not miss him.
We spent the two weeks prior to his departure getting everything ready, buying the things he needed, and making sure that he was all set to go. Because I had grown up in a military household, I fell naturally into the “wife with a husband deploying” role. I bought envelopes and put sheets of paper in each one, addressed them to our home address, and put a "Love" stamp on each one, so that he would, hopefully, write to me while he was gone. I packed cards in his bags with love letters inside, each one marked with the random date on which he should open it. Before he was even gone I was amassing a box of care package goodies that could have fed a third-world country for a month. His favorite were Twizzlers and I bought an entire case, determined that he wouldn’t go without them the entire time he was gone.
And so, on the morning of my birthday, I drove him to the airport and said goodbye. He had a big green canvas duffel bag and in his desert camouflage uniform and shiny boots and blue beret I thought he looked very patriotic and handsome, marching off to the Middle East to protect our country (this was not too long after the Khobar Towers bombing). We hugged and kissed, perfunctory, but expected at the airport between a soldier (an airman really) and his loving, left-behind, wife.
And then I sat in the car. I sat in the car for probably an hour and waited for the tears to come. I waited for the teeth-gnashing and wailing and chest-pounding and general hysterics that I assumed I would be in at the prospect of being separated from him for four months. But it never came. I was totally numb now that he was gone. I went home to my empty house and slept in my empty bed and went through the motions in my empty life. Without him around there was no drama, no violence, no accusations, but also no one to talk to, no one to make noise around the house so I would know I wasn’t alone, no warm body in the bed at night, sometimes still snuggling up against my back when he was asleep and forgot for a few minutes that he couldn’t stand me.
Eventually I snapped out of it, I had to go to school, and I was being actively recruited for a new job at a start-up HMO that desperately needed a knowledgeable Medicaid Biller. I started walking every night around our neighborhood and lost about 20 pounds while he was gone. He didn’t use the envelopes I had gotten him, and every time I called his room, day or night, he was never there, always “busy at work,” but nonetheless I was excited for him to come home. As during most of my life, I was convinced that my thinness or fatness had everything to do with his feelings for me and my worth as a person and as a wife. Instant Marriage Fixer - Just Add Weight Loss! If I were thinner, and therefore more attractive, he wouldn’t need to cheat because he would be satisfied with me. If I were thinner, and therefore more attractive, I would be more acceptable publicly as his wife and he would start taking me places with him and not be ashamed to introduce me to his friends. If I were thinner, and more attractive, I would be less intimidating to him intellectually because he could think of me solely as a sexual object. Oh wait, I'm not sure I've got that last one even now.
The Lists started during the time he was gone. First, I would make lists of things I needed to do to get my degree, like classes I needed to take. And then, I started making lists of money we owed versus money we had coming in. The Lists got more and more elaborate and I started to feel like I had List Anorexia – it was the only way I could control my environment. As if I would somehow find the answer to what was happening in my life by making a list of how much money I owed to Citibank Visa. The Lists went on for months. I would buy entirely new notebooks to start new lists in, my favorite being the black and white speckled composition ones that are bound on the side and have three holes. Eventually, The Lists took on a general theme of “What Do I Need To Do/Have/Be In Order To Live Alone?” I would calculate how much money I thought I could make at various jobs, what I thought it would cost me to get my own place, how much I owed in credit card debt (increasing due to Mr. I Need The Best of Everything), and how much school was costing me. I wasn’t thinking seriously or consciously of leaving, and I always thought of The Lists as just being a budgetary or “trying to get organized” tool. Looking back I know that my subconscious mind was already going to a place the rest of me wouldn’t be ready to follow for quite awhile.
As the day of his return grew closer, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I called him at work, patched through by the base operator for our once a week 15-minute "morale call," and asked what he wanted me to wear to the airport. I gleefully bought everything he wanted, ending up with a look I would describe as “out-of-work hooker.” White thigh-high stockings, a short skirt, a tight top, and newly blond hair. A reflection on the desires of a boy who had never escaped his teenage porn-fueled fantasies.
Because he had left his truck sitting in the garage the entire time he was gone, I decided that the best thing I could do would be to detail it and get it all ready for him for when he got home. I took it for an oil change and a tune-up, and then I started cleaning out the inside. Carefully, because it was his baby, more than just a possession, self-worth on wheels. He had gone to my father secretly while we were dating and asked him to cosign the loan. I was horribly embarassed, appalled at the forwardness of the action, and uncomfortable at the thought of my father being pulled into our relationship in a way that I knew must have been truly awkward and unpleasant for him. We are a family that doesn't even return meals at restaurants when they're wrong, we are non-confrontational, and we will die before we ask for a handout or a freebie. Every time I thought of the Ex approaching my dad and asking him to cosign that loan, my face would burn red and I would squeeze my eyes tightly shut and try to shake the image from my mind. Pretending it had never happened, a skill I was mastering quickly, trial by fire.
At any rate, the detailing wasn't too tough because he kept it pretty clean, but I dropped some change I was trying to corral from the center-console, and it fell under the driver’s seat. When I put my hand under the seat and started to feel around, I noticed something sort of papery and stiff under the seat. I reached up and yanked on it, thinking I was ripping off the tag on the seat cover or something, but what came out were two letters and a red envelope. The Letters. He hadn’t thrown them away, he had hidden them from me in the one place he thought I would never look. I didn’t even bother to read them, after all, I already knew what they said. I went straight for the red envelope. A Christmas Card from a girl at work expressing her wistful regrets that neither of them were single and her passionate desire that they remain “the best of friends.” I vaguely recognized her name, the fiance of one of his friends.
He was coming home in two days. Once again, I was devastated and confused, but this time he was traveling between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and I couldn’t call him up and confront him or go down to his duty station and shove the card in his face. I almost called my parents, but I just couldn’t bring myself to dial the phone. After all, what did the card actually say? It seemed to say they were friends and hadn’t done anything else because they were both in relationships. Perhaps, my mind told me, this was a sign that he actually was starting to realize he was married and had to draw boundaries with respect to the women he chose to pursue friendships with. Even writing this I am shocked at how poisoned my mind was.
It took me two days, but eventually I was able to completely justify the entire incident. I threw away The Letters and the card, and figured I would just let him find out for himself next time he went fishing under the seat to reread The Letters From Girls Who Were Not Me. I picked him up at the airport wearing an outfit that probably should have gotten me arrested for solicitation, so desperate for approval that nothing was out of the question.
He had several days off post-deployment and I tiptoed around the house, silently going to school and work, letting him sleep, massaging his ego, giving him sex when and how he wanted it, never complaining that he'd been gone for four months and now wanted nothing to do with me short of my utility as a sexual waste receptacle and maker of ham sandwiches. I tried desperately not to upset the delicate balance that I was creating – the land of All About Serving His Needs. True to form, the idyll didn’t last long, and before the week was up we were fighting. About the floor.
We had these industrial gray tile floors in base housing that looked like they had been stolen from an insane asylum. They never looked clean, no matter what I did, and for some reason they just drove the Ex nuts. He would always point out spots and ask when the last time I had cleaned them was. This particular argument happened on a Saturday. I had started a new semester at school while he was gone, and by the time he got back it was nearing finals again. I was no longer going to school on Saturday, and I usually used it as a day to clean, buy groceries, do laundry, etc. So, at some point during the day, he came walking through the house and made an offhand comment about how shitty the floor looked. As it just so happened, I had spent the better part of the morning on my hands and knees, literally, scrubbing every damn inch of that stupid tile, trying to get in his good graces so we wouldn’t have a horrible weekend. I was still pushing the blue bucket of dirty water around with my toe looking for spots I had missed when he said it, soI know he knew. I pointed out that, as he could see, I had just finished scrubbing the floors and I though they looked pretty good. He said, going right for the emotional jugular, that no wonder I thought they looked good, just look at my own appearace. I was fat and sloppy and disgusting and clearly I didn’t have the necessary discipline to even take care of my own body, let alone judge when a floor was clean.
I was so hurt. He’d barely been back a week and already we were right back in the same place we had been fore he left. But, backed into a corner, I came out swinging. “Oh yeah, well...I threw away The Letters and the card you had hidden in your car. What do you think about that?!”
He looked me right in the eye and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“How can you not know what I’m talking about? They were right there, in your truck, shoved under the front seat!”
“Well, I really have no idea what you found, but I definitely don’t remember putting anything in my truck. Are you sure you’re not making this up to get attention?”
“Yes I’m sure! Oh my God, do you really think I would make this up?”
“OK, if you’re not making it up, let me see these supposed letters.”
“I threw them away.”
“Oh sure you did. How am I supposed to believe you when you have no proof? I really think you need to see someone, I’m starting to worry that you have some real mental issues that need to be addressed.”
“What??? Are you kidding me? These are THE LETTERS. The very same letters you had before you left, that you said you threw away, PLUS a card from a girl at work saying she’s your ‘best friend.’”
“OK, I believe you. Just calm down and we can talk about this later, when you’re feeling better and more calm.”
“Do NOT patronize me! I’m not crazy and I’m not insane and I am NOT making up the letters I found.”
“OK. Sure. Whatever. I’m going out.”
Thus began the new game of “I’m not doing anything wrong, you’re just crazy.” This became a favorite and there were times when I actually believed I was going insane. He would tell me he had to work, and when I would stop by to say ‘Hi’ they would tell me he wasn’t even scheduled that day. When he got home and I asked where he’d been he would say he’d been “out” and then ask me if I was feeling OK and gently try to convince me he’d never told me he’d be at work at all. I must have gotten it confused with “the gym”or “working on his truck at Mike’s house.”
These circular arguments could go on for hours, often exhausting me to the point of tears until I eventually gave up and went to bed where I would lay awake for hours holding my breath and waiting to see if he would come to me. Because, despite it all, I lived for the times, no matter how infrequent, when I would be laying there, back to the bedroom door, tears rolling down my cheeks, and I would hear the bedroom door open and then feel his weight on the bed next to me. Sometimes he would be crying to and he would just lay next to me on his back and sob and ask me "How did this happen? How did this happen?" And eventually I would turn over and put my head on his chest, my tears soaking his shirt, sobbing, until I felt his arm tighten around me and his breathing get fast and a tiny kiss on the top of my head, searching, another on my lips, wondering.
Spring semester ended and I got hired at a new job, working for a start-up HMO as a senior secretary. I thought I was rich because I was making $10.21 an hour, a princely sum that I thought, according to The Lists, might be enough to either (a) get us out of some of our debt, or (b) get me into my own place, should it ever become necessary.
Summer school started, four nights a week, four hours a night. I came home one night, well after 10pm, dropped my book bag down and plopped onto the sofa, exhausted and dreading the various potential endings to my evening. Housework? Terrible fight? Hysterics? And as I leaned back into the maroon faux-leather sofa, a tiny piece of paper came fluttering down onto the cushion next to me.
It read simply: “Went to the E.R.”