The Soldier's Wife

She would look for him in the fast news updates on any of the three-letter television networks. In the foreground, there would be the reporter, always starting his report by addressing the anchorman. "Well, Jim..." or "Well, Bob...", he would say, as if this war thing was just a normal, everyday topic of conversation. And sometimes there would be some soldiers standing behind him, and she would look for him, crane her neck as if she could somehow enter the television screen, traverse the thousands of miles and ask him, ask him what it was really like. The stuff he'd say over the crackling of the mobile, the business-like reports she got from him over email, it was all general and noncommittal, as if he was a diplomat.
Whenever friends or family members came over to visit, she accepted them reluctantly, seeing them more as gawkers than as the supporting people that they were. She would feel and suppress the urge to cry on such visits. When they were gone, the sadness would be replaced by that feeling that was once strange to her but now familiar: fear. She knew the time zone differences, she knew that he might well be in a combat situation while she was lying in the comfortable bed in their home. As a result, she didn't sleep. For the first few weeks, she convinced herself that she could live with that: in her student days, she'd spent months living on just a couple of hours of sleep per night. But now, things were different, her sleeplessness was not bohemian or rebellious, it was simply exhaustingly terrifying. Her pillow would become moist with the cold sweat. She got caught dozing off at work, but her boss let it slide. Even so, she already noticed that the lack of sleep had left her irritable and sometimes irrational.
In her imagination, she would always see him alone, somehow caught in the crossfire, lying in dirt and getting shot at. She was shocked and disgusted by the fact that her thoughts about what it must be like for him were completely derived from TV and the movies. "Platoon". "MASH". "Good Morning Vietnam". Her perception of war, of what it's like to get shot, took its references from such sources, and she just had to assume that the filmmakers had done a good enough job making it look real. So, ashamedly, she would imagine him getting shot, shot like an animal. Who were these people he was fighting? How could they be so cruel? She'd seen what they'd done to some of her husband's colleagues, and she couldn't believe it.
She would stifle these fears once she managed to get a hold of him on the phone. Her conversations with him were supportive, supportive meaning cheerfully denying any notion of danger or violence. He seemed happy with that, he talked back in the same gist, complaining about the food and the people he "worked with" as he put it, as if he was a business man on a trip. This was all the more surreal because her colleagues at work, three-piece-suited wimps who had never even fired a gun in their entire lives and would be disgusted by anyone who did, talked about their job in terms of conquest, battle plans, and sneak attacks. She wondered if her husband ever questioned her faithfulness to him, but fervently hoped he didn't, because there was no reason for that.
The fear drove her crazy. She lost touch with everyone around her. She felt that reading a book, going to the movies, socializing or watching TV were all tantamount to betrayal. She went through the motions of her practical life like an automaton. At work, she was silent in the canteen and neither cracked jokes herself nor laugh at those of others. Doing the dishes, she found herself scrubbing the same plate for minutes. This skeleton existence, a life reduced to a minimum, like a patient in a coma, ate away at her.

And then, the call came.
"It's over", he managed between sobs.
"My baby", she said over and over again.
And that's how they were over the phone, him crying and saying it's over, her shushing him. She could hear him break down out there, letting go of everything finally. It was the hardest phone conversation so far. If only she could be there at that time, to catch him as he collapsed. But she wasn't there, and had to sit helplessly through it, thousands of miles away. She simultaneously imagined herself smashing the phone against the wall and travelling through the wire, to pop out at the other end and surprise him. But nothing happened.

Three days later, she was hugging herself in the cold morning air on the airstrip, waiting with other wives or girlfriends for the buzz of the plane. She thought she would go crazy watching the plane land, watching it run forever before it finally, finally came to a standstill. Even then, it seemed to take hours before the door opened. Young men, squinting and looking beat, came down the steps. Before she knew it, she was surrounded by kissing couples, her line of vision full of flowers being waved, a sea of camouflage suits. But above the blur of it all, she could suddenly see him. He was chewing gum and stomped down the stairs sluggishly, letting his feet fall on the steps. He looked relaxed.
She went to him and when he saw her, she threw herself into his embrace. He hugged her back. "Hey baby", he said, "you smell good. Come on, let's get out of here."
He drove the car while she sat next to him. He had his arm around her back, steering with one wheel. He was alert, grinning at her, wide awake. He drove fast, way over the speed limit, but she felt safe. She put her head and hand on his chest, looking up to see him grinning down at her. She wanted desperately to tell him how scared she'd been all these months, how much she'd missed him. But the way he acted, he seemed to encourage her to forget about all the bad stuff and focus on the here and now. So she did.
When she lay between the sheets, later, she watched him trot around the house in his underwear. He was sexy. The army had made him athletic, muscular. But he couldn't sit still, he was walking through the house like a visitor. And the sex had been, well... sex, not lovemaking. They had fucked. No, he had fucked her. She was sure he'd never done that before. She wasn't used to him like that. It seemed like he'd wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. So he thrusted and pushed and rammed and then pulled out. It wasn't that she had hated it, but it had taken her by surprise. He had taken her, by surprise.
He would continue to surprise her that night. It took her a long time to get used to him waking up next to her every few minutes, gasping. She remembered how he used to snore at night; now, she wished he would. In the end, she drifted off out of sheer exhaustion. She never found out if he ever got to sleep properly.
The next morning, she found him at the empty breakfast table, smoking, inhaling as much as he could, then lighting the next fag with the previous one. He didn't want breakfast, he said, so she made some for herself. He didn't speak to her. After breakfast, she sat at the table, waiting for him to say something, wondering if he wasn't a hallucination, if he wasn't still out there and she was dreaming all this. Then he stood up from the table and walked toward the door. She remembers now how, at the time, she had wondered where he intended to go, what he had planned to do just then. Now she doesn't care anymore. He walked out the door, and she followed him, standing about a foot behind him. It was still early and quite cold. The streets were almost empty at this hour. Then, looking over his shoulder, she saw a dog. It was a poor, emaciated creature she'd seen before, its ribs showing now as it trotted slowly off the sidewalk and onto the road. Just then, a car doing at least forty jumped out of nowhere and smashed into the dog. As the driver hit the brakes, the dog's body, its lifeless legs fluttering a little in the wind, made a wide arc before it hit the pavement. She could see the ribcage contracting and expanding as it slammed into the concrete.
Then her husband started to laugh. He did not try to conceal his laughter. He just laughed out loud. "Did you see that?" he said, turning back at her. "Honey, did you just see that?" And he went on laughing.