“Don’t,” she says, resting her hand on my shoulder. “Not yet,” she says. I look around the restaurant. Army uniforms inhabit nearly every seat. Our husbands return to the table, and we both force a smile. The upcoming deployment is their new dinner companion. I refuse to meet his eyes. Refuse to hand any of my pain, worry, or fear to him. I will resume the mold of the perfect army wife.
Because what if I kill him?
What if the knowledge that another deployment could break me distracts him from his job? What if I show him the inside of my frazzled brain and I muddle his? What if my worried face on a webcam or my tear-filled voice on the phone is the very distraction that puts a bullet through his head?
The fear clutches me with icy hands. He has no way to assuage my worry. Our marriage is no longer our own. He works late, training. He leaves for months at a time, and I have no idea when or where he will be. He isn’t mine. Not completely. And that knowledge infuriates me.
Throughout the day, I attempt to numb my pain. To pacify my rage. But it is there, always boiling and ready to attack.
“How was your day at school?” I ask my daughter as she skips through the school parking lot. “Fine,” she responds. The sun warms my shoulders, and a soft breeze lifts my hair. My anger remains hidden. Until she begins to break. “Where’s Daddy?” she asks, her lips quivering. My face is instantly hot. My mind, racing. Fury begins to roll up my spine. “He’s gone to work for a few weeks, honey. Remember?” I try to hide my anger so she won’t share it. I fail. “Why?” she wails. My hands begin to clench, and my mind moves back in time. I want to know why myself. Why does he always leave? Why can’t he ever be here with us? With me? “I want Daddy!” she finally releases. Blackness fills my mind. At the end of the pinhole tunnel, I remember the last deployment, her tiny two-year-old frame raging and sobbing for him. Instantly, I am there again.
He is in Iraq. I am on the floor, begging her to stop screaming. She bangs her head, repeatedly on the hard linoleum floor. She screams. Bites me. Punches me. Anything to dispel her rage. Vividly I see her there again, flailing. It is excruciating. Mortifying. And I am filled with rage that he did that to her. That he continues to do that to her.
I look at her now, her body bigger, her arms leaner, and I see her months from now, when he is in Iraq again, begging, writhing, and wailing. “Stop screaming,” I snap. “I’m here. Why can’t you just be happy with that? Daddy’s gone!” Her wet eyes meet mine. I can only imagine my bulging eyes. My twisted mouth. My trembling lips. I must look like a monster to her. I turn from her, ashamed and instantly filled with guilt.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I whisper. She wants nothing to do with me, and we walk home in silence.
When he finally walks through our door again, she runs to him, flooding him with hugs and kisses. He returns her affection and begins the long process of catching up. After the stories, the new “tricks” and giving of gifts, she finally lets out my secret. “Mommy yelled at me,” she says. “What?” he asks, confused. “She screamed very so loud, and she scared me!” she whines. He looks to me, searching my face for an answer.
I lie. “Oh, she’s just joking,” I say. “It was just a rough day,” I explain, hoping he will let it go. He does. He trusts me. And I hate myself. But I can’t worry him. Can’t make him fear that I will crack and somehow hurt our children in his absence. I can’t allow him to think this pain will break me. I can’t explain that watching her writhe in pain again, watching her beg me and bite me for a father I can’t produce, could be the fuse that explodes me. I can tell him none of that. I have to be the perfect mother.
The pressure to be perfect swirls around him as well. The fear of failing in his role of soldier sits on his drooping shoulders. He sits at the table, his head in his hands, reading the latest headlines. “We lost another one,” he says. “Oh? Iraq? Or Afghanistan?” I ask. “Neither,” he says. “Another suicide,” he states, pushing away the paper. His eyes, glazed and unfocused, look over my head.
“How did he do it?” I ask, cautiously. He stares. “Why?” he asks. “Does it matter?” he questions. “Just curious,” I mutter, avoiding his eyes. “He took a bunch of pills,” he says. He looks up. I glance at him for only a moment then push my gaze toward the wall. “That’s the way to go,” I mumble. He stops, puzzled. “I’m just saying it’s better than shooting yourself.” I try to avoid his stare. He puts his hand over mine, and I immediately pull away. “You okay?” he asks. I get up, move across the floor, and clumsily begin to prepare dinner. “Sure,” I say beneath my breath.
I can’t tell him that I think about it. Not dying. Just escaping. I want to sleep peacefully. To never have to hear those words again: “I’m going back.” I want to drive. Fly. Float, or even hallucinate away from this drenching reality. The possibility beckons. I know the exact location of every pill. Every pain killer. Every possibility of deadening myself. But I can’t acknowledge it. Because he would patrol the streets of Baghdad, wondering if he hid that bottle of sleeping pills. I need him focused. Need him to be vigilant. I can’t be the reason he comes home in a box.
Only other military wives understand this fear. We are intimate with it. Possessed with it. No one beyond the grasp of the military can understand me. And I hate them for it. I am completely numb and intolerant of their world.
My phone rings constantly. He checks the caller ID. “Your friend is calling again,” he says, handing the phone to me. “I don’t want to talk right now. I’m tired,” I say, ignoring the hard plastic in his hand. “She has left several messages,” he pushes. “I’ll call her later,” I say, hoping he will drop it. He doesn’t. He pushes the green button and walks out of the room. “No. Sorry. She’s gone again,” I hear him say. “I’ll tell her,” he responds. He ends the conversation, staring at me from across the room. “She’s been your friend for ten years. Shouldn’t you talk to her?” he asks. “I will,” I answer. “Just drop it,” I urge.
She can’t understand. She has never kissed her husband goodbye. She has never waited all day for a death notification knock on her door. She has never worried he could be beheaded, and she has never welcomed him home, wondering if he would resemble the same man who left. She has no idea what a daily goodbye feels like. It isn’t casual. Never flippant. Our goodbyes are a final statement. Over and over again. Hers are hopeful. And I hate her for it. But I can’t tell him. Can’t let him know that my friends and family cannot ease my pain while I worry my day away.
It isn’t just our days that are haunted. Our nights, once an escape, are dense with nightmares, flashbacks, and horrific visions of things yet to come.
I dream, over and over again, of his explosive death. Pieces of his body rain down on me, and smoke fills my lungs before I snap awake, sweating and crying. There is no escape. I try to count at night in some attempt to dull my mind. I try reading long after he sleeps. I try creating future vacations, visions of our grown children. Nothing saves me.
While I dream of death, he dreams of escaping it. Over and over again. He tosses angrily in his sleep. To avoid his clenched fists, I ease myself toward the end of the bed. I move slowly and methodically. After all, behind his eyelids, he is searching for an elusive enemy. He yells. Grunts and moans. When I finally reach the other side of the room, I wait, sometimes for nearly an hour, for him to stop thrashing and punching the bed. When he is finally still, I call his name. “David,” I whisper. Nothing. “Honey,” I say, remembering the advice to help him separate war from home. “Sweetie,” I say, louder. “Yeah?” he responds, cloudy and confused. “What are you doing over there?” he asks when his eyes finally adjust to our bedroom. “Was I dreaming?” he questions. “Yeah,” I say. “But this one wasn’t too bad.”
He sits up in the bed, drinking water to wet his scorched throat. I sit beside him, waiting. He remains quiet. I don’t blame him. I don’t want to talk about my dream either. “Did I hurt you?” he asks timidly. “No,” I respond. “Were you afraid I would?” he continues. I pause, knowing he knows the truth. “No,” I whisper.
We sit in silence, waiting for the night to take us again.
He knows I am tortured. Knows that I am breaking. I know he is worried. Terrified that a third deployment could be the final nail in his coffin. We live each day in the shadow of another deployment. Always pretending there is no deployment. The agony is eating me alive. I am disintegrating in front of him. But I can’t tell him.
Because what if I kill him?