“I just love a man in uniform,” my college roommate said, looking over my shoulder into the dim lights of the pub. I turned my head, following her gaze and finding her object of lust. He had on a set of army fatigues, and his eyes met hers.
“Not me,” I responded. “Give me a dirty, shaggy hippy any day,” I said, half laughing. With every great uncle, every uncle, as well as my father in war, I knew intimately what a uniform represented: sacrifice. I ran from camouflage.
As if beckoned, he pulled out a chair across from me. His eyes oozed zest. He smiled, smirking and mocking me. I instantly hated him. “You need to leave,” I told his inviting goatee, shaggy hair, and grungy clothes. He ignored me, staring across the table and urging me to give in.
He talked. I ignored. He laughed. I stared.
“Look at these guys,” he said, pointing to the fraternity table behind us. “They are here on their parent’s money. They have no idea what suffering looks like,” he said. “And how would you know?” I spit, ready to fight. “Because I just got back from El Salvador. I’m in the army reserves and we went there for a hurricane relief mission.” Without my consent, I began to give.
Three weeks later, he showed up at my house. I opened the door, electrified to see his tongue piercing. His thick curly hair. His long, wiry goatee. “I just wanted to stop in before I leave. I’m on my way to shave and get my hair cut,” he said. He had his uniform folded over his arm, and I immediately stiffened. “These are for you,” he said, holding out a basket of pinecones. I stared at them, puzzled. “It’s every pinecone between my house and yours. I didn’t have the heart to pick the flowers,” he said. He leaned in to kiss me goodbye.
He has been kissing me goodbye ever since. Four years later, he went active duty, propelled by 9/11. He kissed me goodbye for seven months of training. Kissed me and our newborn daughter goodbye for a deployment to Afghanistan. In between those kisses, came more kisses for training, schools, and field exercises.
Then the excruciating kiss goodbye before he left for Iraq. Fear and worry that it could be our last. That our toddler and our newborn son wouldn’t know him.
My heart felt like lead, trying to understand how to let him go. My arms, numb and weak, felt awkward in a last hug. I watched him walk away, knowing it could be the last time I see his feet. His hands. His black hair. His smooth-shaven face.
I grieved for him. And my daughter did as well. She searched for comfort, for some way to understand what a goodbye actually means in our family. I told her he would come home. But even a small child can recognize a lie. I had no way to promise her she would ever see him again. And I had no way to ensure our new son would ever know what his father’s arms felt like. I had no way to cement David’s laughter into his memory.
We pushed our marriage through the pain, agony, worry and fear for his death. Every day, one step closer to his return. And every day another mission that could kill him. We wrote letters to ensure our memories stayed alive. I sent packages full of baby clothes and finger paintings in an attempt to keep him a vibrant part of our family.
I thought it all worked. He came home, ready to be a father and husband. I searched for a way to be his wife. For nearly a year, I was anything but that, and the shock of returning to calm, everyday chatter seemed impossible when flashbacks, panic attacks, anger, discussions of bombs, lifeless bodies, and scattered limbs ran rampant in our home.
But we managed. He was allowed a readjustment period, and he grew a goatee. Allowed his thick hair to return to lush curls. And I saw in him that same devilish grin. My heart, tattered and worn, returned to that familiar thump. That wonderful half-beat of adoration.
He kissed me goodbye for another year, going to school to become an officer. I allowed it. Tasted it and welcomed it. At least he was safe, far away from exploding bombs in Baghdad. We wrote letters again. Taped our shredded family together again. And we made it through three years of separation in our six-year marriage.
“I’m going again,” he told me. “What?” I cried. “You just got home three months ago!” There is no answer. No way to understand or control anything about this lifestyle. He shrugged his shoulders, walked away, and left me stewing in my anger.
It felt familiar and comforting to be wrapped in pain again. Instantly, I returned to concrete, refusing his embrace.
“I won’t be home tonight,” he told me over the phone. “We are headed back out to the field, and I have no idea when I will be back,” he said. “But, I have dinner,” I complained. “I can’t do anything about it,” he responded before the line went dead.
He can never do anything about it. Never stop the pain. Never assuage the worry. Never control anything except his kiss goodbye. Dinner sat untouched and cold. Our children waited patiently for him to kiss them goodnight, refusing to believe he wouldn’t be home again. They cried. I raged. My hands felt like weapons. I wanted to tear them apart, force them to bleed, to feel anything other than this rage. That same familiar fury contorted my body. He isn’t mine. Never completely.
I lifted his plate, the one that rarely feels the weight of his food, and threw it against the wall. The sound felt comforting, and I sat in the floor, watching the colors fuse and ooze down the wall.
He is home now, playing with our children, holding my hand. But he is preparing another kiss. Another goodbye. And I am aching. Just the thought of his ear enduring more explosions, sand covering his face, and bullets ripping the air he breathes causes me to lose my breath.
I sit on the phone, watching through the window as he plays outside. The kids run, laughing and skipping as he pretends to chase them. It is a family scene that I once dreamed of while waiting for my hippy prince charming.
“When will he go?” she asks on the other end. “Who knows?” I quip. “Do I ever know anything?” I ask. She is silent. “I’m not sure I can do this anymore. I’m tired of goodbye. It is always goodbye,” I whisper into the phone.
“What are you going to do? You aren’t going to leave are you?” she asks, worried. “I don’t know,” I stammer. “Well, I don’t know how you do it anyway,” she says.
The kids burst through the door, hiding something behind their backs and giggling. I smile, curious and worried that a dead bug could be my surprise. “Open your hands and close your eyes,” they sing. I obey. In my hands, I feel the familiar spines. I inhale and instantly recognize that intoxicating smell.
I open my eyes, already crying. “Why are you sad, Mommy?” my daughter asks. “I’m not, honey. I’m very happy,” I say. She smiles, and my son wraps his arms around my legs. “They from Daddy,” he says. I look over their heads to see his face looking through the window. His eyes twinkle just as they did ten years ago. His smile, still devilish and charming, invites me in once again.
“Hello?” I hear on the receiver. “Sorry,” I say. “What were you saying?” I ask, confused. “I said I just don’t see how you do it,” she responds. “Oh,” I breathe, running my fingers over the pinecones and remembering.
“I just love a man in uniform, I suppose.”