My wife sits in the big armchair, tooling around on our laptop. I'm leaning against the kitchen counter, smoking a pipe and taking sporadic pulls from a bottle of Leinenkugel. The windows are cracked a bit, letting in the sweet spring breeze I've come to associate with nights in the Rheinland. It's about an hour before the time we typically go to bed, and so our conversation is quiet, reflective, and meandering. We converse as she checks responses to a thread she posted on one of her forums.
"So," I tell her. "Wal-Mart and the guys from Sesame Street are putting together a video, right?"
Anne glances up at me from the computer.
"Yeah?" Back in college, like many local students, she worked at our area Wal-Mart.
I nod, chewing on the pipe stem and dragging sweet smoke. "Yep. For kids whose parents are in the military, deployed. Supposed to help 'em deal with separation."
"Very cool." She buries herself back in the screen, her fingers rattling over the keyboard like the staccato patter of gunfire.
I shrug, taking another pull of my beer. "Read about it today on this blog I check out, The Rude Pundit
. Guy's take on it was pretty funny."
"What do you mean?"
I laugh. "He was going all Vietnam about it. Video's supposed to star Elmo and his father, so the guy was all talking about what happens when Elmodaddy comes home with PTSD."
Anne's eyes shoot up from the screen, staring at me in bemused shock. "What? That's horrible."
"I know, right? Guy's talking about Elmodaddy coming home from a twice stop-lossed tour in Iraq, like with a brain injury from an IED. Government didn't provide him with the proper armor."
Anne shakes her head. "That's so not cool."
"Oh no," I continue, "it gets worse. Like, you've got Elmo sitting on his dad's lap, and his dad has no idea who he is--"
"And of course, he can't work with his injuries. So he starts drinking--"
"--And the flashbacks--"
"And Elmo grows to be all antiwar activist--"
"Milo!" She snaps shut the laptop and scowls at me. I freeze in my narrative, taken aback.
"I don't like when you talk like that."
"Talk like what? It was a joke. I mean, sure, the humor's a little dark, but--"
"I don't care," she cuts in, "can you please stop it?"
I pause, slowly realizing I've crossed a line. "Um, okay?" Still scowling at me, Anne sighs and reopens the laptop screen.
"'S'okay. " She says this, of course, but her tone suggests just the opposite. After a moment, I speak again.
"You're still really worried about me going downrange, aren't you?"
Still staring into the computer screen, her scowl cracks a bit, and her eyes turn up at me sorrowfully. She chews on her bottom lip. "Yeah."
"You're not worried about me dying." She shakes her head.
"You're worried about when I come back... "
I trail off without finishing. Anne glances down at her hands, and nods. She whimpers, and her bottom lip trembles. The full magnitude of my words finally hits me, and all of a sudden I want to hang my head in shame.
"Hey," I whisper. I walk over to her, and kneel down, leaning over the arm of the chair. I stroke her hair, kissing her forehead.
"Hey," I say again. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize..."
She sniffles a bit. "It's okay." Her eyes are wet.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. I love you." I brush her cheek. Her voice cracks a bit, and she mumbles, "I love you too." She looks at me, and the worry I see in her face wracks me with guilt.
"Hey. Come here." I wrap my arms around her, leaning forward and rocking her. "Look. It's okay. I promise you that nothing like that's going to happen, all right?"
She looks up at me. She sniffles again, and wipes her eyes. "You sure?"
"Of course." I kiss her forehead. "Look. Honey. I want you to listen to me. You're a strong woman, okay? I married you because you're strong. I love you, and I promise you that no matter what happens, I'm not gonna let us become like those other couples. I'm not gonna do that to you."
She doesn't say anything. She stares down at her hands again, seeming to collapse into herself. "I'm sorry."
"No. Don't be. I'm sorry, but I thank you, and I promise you I'm not gonna come back from downrange like Hauser." Hauser, or Texican as we call him, is an old mutual friend from the States, a young vet with bad memories of fighting in Afghanistan.
She shakes her head. "Hauser's one thing. Hauser's like an open book."
"What do you mean?"
"I talk to Hauser, and whenever he gets like that, it's easy for him. You know, sex, booze. Drugs. All the usual external stuff. But I still don't have you pegged."
I grin. "We've been together over three years, and you still don't have me figured out?"
"I dunno." A pause, and then:
"You're a lot more complex. You keep things in. You keep your baggage in.
"Part of it, you've got this system of behaviors, kind of difficult to read, that I think holds over from when you were a kid. You know, dealing with shit at school. Dealing with shit at home.
"I don't want to call it an inferiority complex, but still, I do think it has something to do with inferiority, and with your perception of yourself as inferior."
She's right, of course. She almost always is. I've always been a bit on the prideful side; always been emotionally volatile. I have a bad habit of fighting the current when I should perhaps be letting myself drift. I sigh, and kiss her forehead again.
"You're right," I say. "You're right, and I'm sorry. But I love you, and you have nothing to worry about."
"Really." I brush a blonde strand out of her face.
"Honey, I want you to know that I love you very, very much. You are a positive force in my life, and as long as I live I promise I'll do whatever it takes to be a good partner. You deserve that much. I'm not going to come back any different, okay?"
"I promise." Glancing down, I spy a raised nipple under her tanktop. I tickle it slightly with my index finger. She shrieks, and pulls away.
"Honey," she says, laughing.
"Honey, I love you, but we can NOT have this discussion while you're tweaking my nipple. "
I throw my hands up in repentance. "I know, I know. I'm sorry. It was there. I had to. Forgive me."
"Whatever buster. Knock it off."
"Okay. I'm sorry. Friends?"
"Good enough." I move back to rest on my heels. It's getting late, and my contact lenses are starting to irritate me.
"You know I was serious, right?"
She nods. "I do."
"Okay. Just wanted to be sure."
"You sure we'll be okay?"
"As long as you're patient with me," I say, "and as long as I keep writing, I'll be fine."
"Okay." She smiles at this, and hugs me quietly. I draw in the smell of her hair. I sigh, and stare at our reflection in the window, and realize I am truly blessed among men.