At the dock, which is really a concrete platform edging into the Atlantic, hard blue waves whip up sending a pale mist across naked ankles or nude hose or the hems of stark white pants. Some of the other families have hired photographers to catch the spouses standing beside their sailors. They curl around each other, creating the scene we all know: off to war, last kiss, and then-
You and your daughter do not match these scenes.
It’s 6:15 in the morning. You’re both wearing shorts and tank tops, your hair still messy from sleep. Your husband takes off his sunglasses, hands them to you. Drop them in your purse. Watch your husband squint while his eyes adjust to your face under the sun. Watch him pick up your daughter. Hug him with her body between you. He kisses her hair. He hands you your daughter and turns away. Carry her in the other direction. Fold her into her car seat. Drive her home. Your husband’s boat drives him out to sea.
Traffic is heavy on the way home, the interstate filled with military spouses, all of you sliding into your independence, your bodies vibrating, trying to contain the space between this minute and the minute the sailors should return home in eight months.
A week after I dropped Ken off at the dock, my two year old daughter, Lise, sat in the corner of the exam room looking at pictures of herself on my phone. An ultrasound wand moved across my belly. I listened to the wee‐shoo, wee‐shoo of the fetal heartbeat, little valves pumping, tiny grey shadows on the screen. When I got home, I sent Ken pictures and a video of the ultrasound, but the internet was restricted on his ship. The images wouldn’t load.
Soft, ripe tomatoes bleed across the kitchen counter, a row of women’s hands holding small knives, slicing into the fruit.
Listen to their voices, the row of military mothers, military wives chatting, planning future canning parties, farm visits, playdates, dinner at each other’s houses. Agree to attend some of the events. Smile when you’re supposed to. Cut into your tomato. Remove the water, the seeds. Tell the mothers how you’ve been doing since he left. Slice the meat of the tomato, drop chunks into a mason jar.
Nod when the other mothers tell you they take naps with their toddlers instead of cleaning, they cook fast dinners, they’ll go to any playdate or potluck, anywhere. Nod when they tell you that if you plan to freeze your tomatoes, you need to leave a half inch of open space at the top of the mason jar, to account from tomato expansion, that widening, what happens to liquid when it goes cold.
Listen to the clipping noise, knife through tomato, knife against cutting board. Listen to the children in playroom on the other side of the house, their muted laughs and squeals, the hum of the mothers who are watching them, the ones who are volunteered to watch them so the rest of the mothers can stand in a line, canning or freezing fifty pounds of tomatoes. Let the lull in the conversation fill the kitchen. Ask if anyone has heard from her, that other mother, the one who didn’t show up to the playdate. One mother answers, Her husband is a cop, you know. They found his body on the side of the highway.
The other mothers ask the series of expected questions, trying to assess the situation over the clip clip clip of their knife blades, but who shot him, why he was shot, where was he shot, what will his wife do now?
One of the mothers, whose husband is also deployed says, He wasn’t even in a war zone.
While they’re talking, take a break to email your husband from your phone. You don’t know it, but his boat is in an unannounced dead zone. He can’t connect for six days.
Every night, check the local news. Ask the other mothers if they’ve heard anything about the cop who was shot. How is the cop’s wife doing? Who is watching their baby? Their baby who is the same age as yours.
When your husband finally returns your e‐mail, it’s a response to the list of baby names you sent him weeks before. He’s picked five girl names, five boy names. He writes that your daughter looks so big in the pictures that you sent, that as she gets older, she is starting to resemble you more and more, even though she was born looking like a small version of him.
Look down at your pregnant belly, wondering whose face your second daughter will capture, and for how long.
Lise woke up at two in the morning, every night, from night terrors. She screeched and shouted random words in her sleep like, No banana! No banana!
Or, Shirt off!
Or, Go away, baby!
Or, Daddy daddy daddy daddy.
Your husband sends an e‐mail. He tells you he spends sixteen hours a day in the belly of the ship, fixing airplane parts. His workshop is grey and the tools are grey and the machines that he fixes are grey, sometimes black, but everyone is wearing full body suits in digital camo, a rainbow of deep blues.
Do they want you to blend in with the ocean? you ask.
We are in a combat zone, he writes.
But if you fell off the ship, how would they find you in the waves?
Two months before Ken returned home, I drove Lise home from an ice cream shop. The sunset bloomed pink across the sky. I watched it light Lise’s whole body through the rearview mirror while she fell asleep. A few miles later, traffic stopped, and the bright pink sky darkened. I turn on the radio. A tornado warning crackled through. Rain splattered across the windshield, then harder, then hail. My car rocked a little, but traffic moves forward. I followed. Almost home, I thought. I tried to call my family, to ask whether I should drive home or pull off somewhere. But the signal was lost. I drove through.
I passed a street that dipped down on the right. A station wagon sat on the corner, its emergency lights flashing, floodwaters pooling up to the windows. I realized I was at the top of the hill. Would I be going down at some point, down into the flood? I had only lived in this neighborhood a few months. I couldn’t remember the geography. I focused on the tail lights in front of me. I thought, Hopefully, that driver knows how to navigate these roads, to stay out of the rising water.
The car ahead of me turned left and I turned left. The car ahead slammed on their brakes, and I slammed onto mine. The car ahead of me shifted into park and I shifted, too. The rain hits my windshield hard and fast. A puddle forms around my van. The puddle rose.
Lise woke up. She looked out her window then at my eyes in the rearview mirror. She whispered, “Have to potty.”
The tornado warning scratched through the radio again, ending with a list of possible side effects. Hail and debris and flash floods. A flood. I’d never been in a flood before. The puddle kept rising.
Lise said it again, louder. I unsnapped my seatbelt and squeezed my belly through the crack between the two front seats, crawled into the back. I lifted Lise onto the portable toddler potty that we kept in the car for “emergencies.” Hail fell again. Wind shook the car. Lisa covered her ears and wailed. She couldn’t pee. Out her window, the puddle was just below the seam between window and door.
For a moment, I could imagine myself there, almost eight months pregnant, squatting in the backseat of my shaking van, trying to hold my two year old daughter close while she flailed. Her flushed face, my hands cupping her under the armpits, pulling her to my chest like a baby, skin to skin. My feet were cold, bare, something soft under them: Lise’s baby carrier.
I clipped the bottom strap of the carrier on and swung Lise onto my back. I clipped the top strap to hold her in. I watched the rising water, ready to roll down the window enough for both of us to crawl through. I thought, If the flood rises an inch above past the bottom of the window, I’ll crawl out and swim home.
But the rain slowed. Over the next several minutes, the flood fell away. When it lowered back down below the tires of my van, I strapped Lise in her car seat, drove home.
Home: The light to the left of my front door was still lit, golden. Our street was empty and calm, no debris or branches. Hardly any leaves had fallen. Or, the leaves and branches had been washed away by the flood.
As I pulled into the driveway, all of the dashboard danger lights blinked up. I turned off the car, stepped out, and lifted Lise out of her car seat. She whimpered at my shoulder. I carried her to the bathroom, set her on her toddler potty. Our dog whined from my bedroom, where he usually hid during a storm. After Lise finished, I found my dog on top of a pile of clothes in my closet. Lise’s wicker baby bassinet, the one I planned to use for our next baby, was torn to pieces around the body of the dog, like a nest.
Tell the other mothers that you are just fine without him, that before you moved to this town and married him, you planned on raising your daughter alone. Tell the other mothers that your husband is so much more maternal than you are, more nurturing. Tell the other mothers that you’ve never gotten comfortable being a military wife, that your husband has never gotten comfortable being a military man. Tell them as soon as this deployment ends, your husband will be finished with his service, but if something happened to the baby or to my daughter or to me right now, he would be so far away. There’s no one to call in case of an emergency.
The other mothers laugh. They say, If the military wanted him to have a family, they would have issued him one.
Tell them that before you married your husband, the military paid him $800 a month. Once your daughter was born, once you were married, he qualified for housing allowance, $1500 a month. Tell them that because of the constant deployments and the high price of childcare, you can’t get a full time job away from home. Tell them, It feels like I’m being paid to be a certain kind of mother, a certain kind of wife.
For three weeks after the flash flood, I pulled chewed things from my closet. An old t‐shirt of mine, filled with tooth holes. A pair of my underwear, the band eaten through. Lise’s stuffed glow worm, seams undone, white fluff falling out. One of Ken’s shoes, the extra pair he wore with his dress whites, still shined. I collected the chewed shoe and it’s partner, drove the pair to the Navy Exchange on base to replace them, but the tailor told me that the dress code had changed, new uniforms had been issued, these specific shoes were discontinued, no longer made.
Your husband e‐mails you. He writes, I was technically in a combat zone last week. He tells you that he hasn’t and probably won’t see actual combat, but combat veterans are moving around the top levels of his ships, lifting off in their airplanes and helicopters, the vehicles embedded with the parts that your husband put his hands on, the parts he adjusted and fixed.
A month before Ken’s boat returned home, I dumped out three duffel bags filled with his shoes and clothes. The washing machine vibrated, sloshing wet detergent into the fabric of his t-shirts, and I filled one of the duffel bags with things I wanted to bring to the hospital when the baby was born: dried fruit and almonds, warm socks, a heat pack for labor, an iPod and charger, a list of the other mothers’ phone numbers, a list of places Lise might stay during the labor, and one of Lise’s babydolls, one she loved but wouldn’t miss, something for me to hold onto, just in case.
Your husband e‐mails you. He writes that he will be back on December 6th. No the 8th. No the 10th. On the 10th, you are supposed to pick him up at the dock at noon.
Drive to the dock. Pull into an empty parking lot. Wait. Check your e‐mail on your phone. Wait. Pull out of the parking lot. Pull up beside a sailor in blue digicams while he walks down the sidewalk, eating a cheeseburger. Ask the soldier if your husband’s ship was delayed. The soldier says, It came in hours ago. Everyone went home.
Drive home. Get stuck in traffic. Check your e‐mail. Wait. Keep driving. Receive a call from an unknown number. Your husband’s voice crackles through, but you can’t understand him. Ask the voice, Where are you?
It sounds like he says, home, but you are not sure. The line cuts off.
Inch through traffic. Watch grey clouds move across the sky. Watch rain splatter across your windshield. Watch your busted windshield wipers catch almost none of the water. Watch the cars ahead of you on the highway turn on their headlights and taillights, car by car.
Follow the taillights ahead of you. Follow them until your exit. Turn into your neighborhood, your street, your driveway. In the rain, your husband’s blue‐camouflaged body sits on the front door stoop, blends into the background.
Remember that when you first moved to this city, he said, The vegetation’s so lush here, it’s like being underwater.
Get out of your car. Watch your husband’s body rise, break from the backdrop of your small porch.
Pull your daughter out of her car seat. Move toward him.
For the first few days, we caught each other staring, our memories of each other separating from the edges of the forms we perceived. Ken had shaved his head down to the skin, shaved his face. He had worked out in between each of his 16 hour shifts. He stood straighter, drank protein shakes, lifted heavy weights. His shoulders were wide, his body a 6’5” triangle. He woke up without an alarm in the morning, never missed work, had forgotten how to talk to Lise, forgotten that he needed to squat down to her level to hear her, but that part was okay.
Lise had grown taller, almost double in height. Her wispy white baby hair had thickened, strawberry blonde. While Ken was gone, she had learned how to stand and talk and walk and sing.
I was nine months pregnant, the baby almost ready to be born. My back had curved inward, pulled forward by the weight of my belly. My thighs had widened. The muscles of my shoulders, my legs, and my hands had relaxed. My hair had grown out from the boyish cut I had when Ken deployed. It had grown down, just past my chin. Longer pieces in front curled over the sides of my face. During the birth of my second daughter, those pieces curled in while I leaned over during a contraction, landed in my mouth, and I spit it out, again and again.
When you wake up in the morning, you hear someone moving in the kitchen. Sit up in bed. Notice your husband’s shoes near the door to your bedroom, new, shined even though he doesn’t need them anymore.
Get up, pick them up, and put them in the closet. Gather some remnants of your dog’s wicker nest. Carry them out of your room. Remind yourself to vacuum later. Walk out into the living room, sit on the couch. Watch your husband moving through the kitchen, making breakfast for you and your daughter. Your daughter sits on the kitchen floor, setting frozen blueberries into rows on the linoleum. Your husband drops a cup full of raw eggs mixed with yogurt into a hot pan. Listen to the sizzle. Feel the wicker pieces sharp in the palm of your hand. Pile them on the coffee table. Look down at your new baby where she lies beside the coffee table, staring at the ceiling and kicking her feet in her new wicker bassinet.
Lift your baby. Capture her miniature frame, her shoulders, between your hands. Remember that you just named her. You gave birth to her and pulled her up to your chest and she was alive and you named her. Your toddler notices you and shows you her blueberry hands. Your husband notices you and shows you a plate full of eggs. You feel a squirm in the skin of your hands.
Weeks ago, it was your hands holding the pan, your hands running a sieve of blueberries under the faucet water, your hands scooping the berries into a cup, your body and only your body that your toddler ran toward. But now the baby has been born. She has been named. Your husband has returned, finished his term with the Navy. He has been discharged and renamed.
And what is your name? You’ve never really zipped into this skin, so how do you step out of it? Of staying while your husband leaves. Of all the other unsung mothers and spouses who remain. The remains.
Over breakfast, your husband shows you his discharge papers. Honorably discharged from the matrix of these prescribed identities. Honorable attempt to press fix adjust the self into the body of sailor husband wife dependent. Bodies discharged from the belly of the ship into the cold crisp air, bodies expanding, bodies lifting up high above the ocean.
Their uniforms blend in with the deck, the concrete platform, the neighborhood, the kitchen, the counter, a row of fruit.
Focus until you see them again. Remember that even though you have been discharged, they have not. Remember that you were of them, beside them. They were you. They are you. Hundreds of you. Thousands. Driving the ones you love to the dock or the airport, watching them leave, capturing those last moments before deployment. Deploying. Turning away from the edge of the dock. Turning toward the land, the body, and whatever nest remains.