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Jul/Aug 2013 Fiction

Boundaries

by Pam McGaffin

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss


The kids have started using their little American flags as swords. Her husband never sees this part, the waiting, the restlessness. He just sees an onrush of arms, the press of moist faces. He'll probably miss these homecomings. She won't. Six months she's been waiting. Six months and 16 years, most of their married life. Waiting for him to get out. And now it's happening. Around noon, the four planes of Electronic Warfare Squadron 157, The Ravens, touch down, ending their deployment. Scott's last, God and the president willing. She glances at her watch, then looks to the sky, then back at her watch again. She should be happy.

"Janet." A young woman walks toward her, half smile on her face, watching for recognition.

"Hi, Carrie." She waves to her new neighbor, who is also her new dental hygienist. She almost doesn't recognize the woman she's only seen in jeans or a pastel smock, dark hair in a clip. Today, her hair is full and loose, and she wears a form-fitting blue dress and high-heeled silver sandals—squadron colors.

"God, are you just too excited?" Carrie asks her. "Your last homecoming."

"Your first."

"I'm so nervous." Carrie is awash in scent, her perfume overwhelming the smell of the bouquet of red and white carnations and blue irises she holds in her hand. Her face is open, hopeful. The time doesn't show on her yet.

"You look nice," Janet says.

"Thanks. So do you."

She was going to wear the green dress, which Scott had always liked. But the day dawned cloudy and cool, and she decided the green dress would be too light. The inside of an airplane hangar can be a cold place. The cavernous, concrete spaces pocket the night's chill and won't let it go. So she put on the cream-colored wool dress she normally wore in winter.

"Where are your kids?" Carrie asks, looking around.

"Jason's over there." She points out her 16-year-old son, standing in a group of other Navy teenagers. "He's of an age where he'd rather not be seen with me. Kim couldn't make it. Midterms. She's coming home spring break."

"I bet she hates to be missing this."

"Yeah, though she's been to a bunch of these."

"Tell me they don't get to be old-hat," Carrie says with a pout.

"God, no. Never." She lies a little. "I've been to every one of Scott's homecomings, and I still lose sleep the night before."

Truth. She did lose sleep. Not because she was excited, but because she couldn't stop comparing the couple she and Scott used to be with the couple they are now, wondering if his retirement will bring them together again. He'll be 45, young enough to start over with a civilian job. Nine to five. Home for supper. He'll become a steady, predictable part of their lives. Too bad it couldn't have been sooner, while the kids were young, while she still needed him. Her thoughts kept her up until half past three.

A horn blast from the 13th Naval District Band jolts her caffeinated brain. The musicians, sitting in a cordoned-off square on the tarmac, practice the opening bars of "Anchors Aweigh" before petering off into stray notes and ragged drum beats. She waits for them to start again and play the entire song, but they don't, and she's reminded of a familiar resentment that's only grown through the years. It's the resentment towards a military that treats its officers as the only heroes.

"So what's the first thing you're going to do when you get him home?" Carrie winks at her.

"Probably not that."

Scott, she knew, would want a hot shower to wash off the sweat and grime from the long flight. Then he'd want a big meal: a plate-sized Porterhouse, baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, and two or three chilled Heinekens. After that, he'd want to sleep, just sleep, in his own bed. The sex would come later. It used to come first, or at least second, and keep coming in waves. She could usually count on being sore those first few days.

"Can I ask you a question?" Carrie leans in closer.

"You can ask."

"Do you think they get tempted? I mean going months without and being in such close quarters with women. There are so many women in the Navy now."

"I don't worry about Scott." Janet's answer, she realizes, sounds like denial, but it's not. "He's as monogamous as they come."

"You're lucky... I don't really worry about Jake, either. Still, you have to wonder how they do it."

"Same way we do, I guess."

Carrie laughs. "Good point."

Score one for the home team, Janet thinks. She sounds so smart and righteous that she could almost convince herself the affair never happened.

She tries to conjure up Glenn's face and sees him in freeze frames. Glenn in profile. Glenn's head thrown back in a laugh. Glenn with his eyes closed above her. It's been years since Desert Storm, but she still feels the shame twisting in her gut.

"I try to stay busy and not think about what I'm missing," she says.

"Yeah, you can really make yourself crazy." Carrie fiddles with her bouquet, plucking off a carnation with a bent stem and dropping the flower to the floor.

"Yes, you can." Janet looks around at all the expectant faces and bobbing blue and silver balloons, searching for something reassuring she can say about this unnatural life they have in common.

"Oh, look!" Carrie points to a TV crew that's just arrived. "We're going to be on the news."

A reporter and cameraman approach the throng of wives and children, grandparents and relatives, who part to let them through. Janet tries to read the call letters to find out what channel to watch later, but the cameraman holds his equipment limply at his side. Apparently, there's nothing worth filming yet. He's waiting for the good stuff: the full-throttle kisses, the leaping embraces. So predictable, it's become a cliché.

"It'd be so cool to be on TV!" Carrie takes a step in the direction of the reporter. "I wonder how they choose who to talk to?"

"They look for the babies."

"The babies? Oh, right. That makes sense."

Janet knows from watching coverage of countless homecomings that she and Carrie combined would make a good story. Carrie's first. Her last. But she'd rather scrub toilets than appear on camera. Its electronic eye would surely capture the flatness in her face as she expressed excitement she didn't feel for a man she wasn't sure she loved anymore.

"You know, I think I'll just walk over there and say hi," Carrie says, lightly touching Janet's arm. And with that, she's gone. Janet feels a sudden absence of warmth at her side, a genuine sense of abandonment. She's always taken separation too personally. With Scott, too. He missed more holidays and special occasions than Janet could count, as well as the births of both their children. Milestones big and small. Call it postpartum depression, but after Jason was born, she began to suspect that Scott didn't want to be with them, that he chose to stay in the military because it took him away.

Who could blame him? Together, their life was constant bickering over constant readjustments. She tried to be patient and flexible when he came home moody and out-of-sync, forgetting where the Scotch tape was and then putting it back where she'd never find it, saying yes to the kids when he should have said no, sabotaging all her systems.

Of course, to Jason and Kim, he could do no wrong. He'd return after being gone half a year or more, and all he'd want to do is indulge them, be their friend, even going so far as to ally with them against her.

"Take a chill pill, Mom," he'd said to her once in front of them, borrowing their teenage language. She was loading the dishwasher, and one of the drawers got stuck. Instead of looking for and removing the obstruction, she banged the drawer back and forth using all the strength her rage afforded her. Broke three glasses and a plate.

"Jesus Christ!" Scott said. "What the hell's wrong with you?"

She told him. She told him she was tired of being the heavy, tired of doing all the house work, tired of being a single parent, both while he was gone and while he was home. She never threatened to leave because she knew she never could. She saw how much the children loved their father. It was in their talk and their walk, a pride verging on swagger. She didn't want to be the one to strip that confidence away and replace it with doubt. A divorce might not hurt them so much now that they're older. She's known of men who've come home, not to hugs from their wives, but to divorce lawyers serving papers. She and Scott aren't that far gone, are they? She's here, after all.

The crowd has thickened, gotten louder, making the airplane hangar feel warmer, less hollow. Other television stations have arrived. Parked on the tarmac are two white vans with apparatus on top. She looks for Carrie, but can't find her. Everyone is clumped in twos and threes, talking or tending to children. Jason, she knows, is somewhere in that knot of teenagers. She's suddenly, acutely aware of standing alone, of being the odd person out.

A "brooding artsy-fartsy type," Scott once called her. He suggested she get involved in base activities. But she never became "Mrs. Commander," assuming her husband's rank among the wives. She knew a lot of the spouses, and she had friends, but not close ones, preferring to lose herself in her studio and her watercolors.

Glenn lived down the hill from them, not far as the crow flies, but a roundabout drive by road. They likely would have never gotten together if they hadn't met by chance at Video World.

She'd gone to the mall out of loneliness but couldn't get past the TVs at the video store. There she was, by herself in a dark little room with plush, movie-theater seats, watching the war on a huge screen. Six weeks in, most normal people had drifted away from the 24-hour coverage, having grown tired of the fuzzy, night-vision images out of Iraq. Not her. She'd watch the day-glow-green anti-aircraft fire and imagine Scott in that night sky.

"Oh, I didn't know anybody was in here," came a male voice behind her. "Quite the system, huh?"

She thought he was a salesman wasting his breath on her. "I'm actually just... My husband's over there."

"Ah, so is my wife."

They talked over coffee. He made her laugh and asked her if she was free for lunch the following week. Janet, telling herself it was innocent, said yes. She loved having someone to share with, someone who understood. And she had to admit she enjoyed getting attention from a nice-looking man.

Glenn was an anesthesiologist who worked the swing shift at the Navy hospital. They got together in the afternoons when the kids were in school and she should have been painting. They talked compulsively, like solitary old people latching onto an ear. Furtive in public, they had hungry, exhilarating sex inside the privacy of their empty houses. For three months, February through April. Then Glenn broke it off. His wife was being transferred to Virginia, he said, and, besides, he couldn't live with the guilt.

Neither could she, as it turns out. She hated herself, told herself she deserved to be lonely and miserable even as she continued to look twice at any blond and bearded man with a strong, compact build. It took a while, but eventually she stopped remembering them together, stopped looking for his blue Toyota truck on the street.

Scott never found out. Even while her truth burned, she never told anyone. She didn't want to be the source of Navy gossip, privately understood, publicly shunned. There must be other Navy wives with secrets like hers, but how would they ever find each other?

She spots Carrie by her blue dress. She's near the band, talking and laughing with a reporter, who's writing down what she's saying in a notebook. That's a woman with nothing to hide, Janet thinks. What you see is what you get.

She might have been able to trust Carrie with her secret. Now that she's leaving this life, she has a tantalizing, reckless urge to tell someone. But Carrie's too young to understand that love doesn't conquer all, that love only makes it worse. Janet had been like that, too. When she and Scott first met, no one could have warned her off him. She adored the way he looked in his summer whites, so crisp and capable, and marveled at his ability to pilot those hook-nosed EA-6Bs. He took her up once, not in a Prowler, but in a little one-prop Cessna, and she was flooded with awe for this man who could fly.

The mere fact of her body in that small plane, hanging on air, seemed to break all the rules. But then flying made anything feel possible. Soaring over rooftops, fenced yards, roads and trees, the world appeared frameless and free, an open, cohesive place.

Surely it can't look that way to the pilots flying over enemy territory to jam radar and fire missiles. How do they know, sweeping over a wide expanse of mountains or desert, when they've crossed that boundary separating safety from danger, friendly from hostile? "Oh, you know," Scott told her.

"But there are mistakes sometimes," she said. And Scott had to acknowledge there were.

Without the manned gate at the base, Janet could forget that somewhere around the world they were someone's enemy. They're surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. For security, Janet knew, but sometimes she wondered if the Navy's real aim was to keep the wives and children in. For the most part, she did stay in. She worked out at the Navy gym and bought her groceries at the commissary. She went into the city to get her art supplies and visit the little gallery that sold her work. But, really, the base had most things a family would ever need, including programs for the kids and counseling for the spouses. Got to keep the home fires lit. Got to support our troops.

"I might be in tomorrow's paper!" Carrie's back in a puff of perfume. "I talked to this reporter from the News-Times. He asked if he could get a photo of me and Jake."

"That's great, Carrie." Janet holds up her hand to receive a high five. "I can say I knew you when," she adds with a touch too much sarcasm.

"Right. When I was a Navy wife." Carrie covers her mouth with her free hand. "Oops, no offense."

"What, you don't plan to retire here?" She jokes to show no offense was taken.

"Hardly." Carrie laughs. "Jake sees the Navy as a way into business school. And me? I'm going for my DDS. Once I'm a dentist, I can finally pay off my student loans."

"And then some," Janet adds.

There's an awkward pause. Finally Carrie asks, "What are your plans?"

"Huh?"

"What will you do now that Scott's retiring?"

"Keep painting, of course... and Scott, he's got some feelers out. He... we... have some soul searching to do. I just hope he finds something he likes as much as flying."

"No other feeling like it, Jake says."

Janet nods.

The flying. Of course. That's why Scott stayed in the Navy, not because he was afraid to leave the military cocoon or wanted to get away from her. He stayed because he loves to fly. And not just any flying. He loves to fly the planes that make him a target: dangerous sorties over enemy territory, heart pumping in your ears until that tail hook grabs you back to safety and the overflowing relief of surviving to do it again.

Carrie touches Janet's arm. "You guys will do fine," she says, and Janet so wants to believe her. Maybe, once she and Scott escape the arbitrary demands of war, they can knit their marriage back together. Now, at least, they'll have the time to get to know each other again, not as the couple they once were, but as the two people they've become.

She really should have stopped and bought flowers. She got flowers for the house, cleaned it next to spotless, and stocked the fridge with steaks and beer and bacon. But she didn't bring anything to give him after he stepped off the plane. What's he going to think when he sees her empty handed? Maybe it's enough that she's here, that she wants to be here. She feels a flutter of anticipation as the crowd surges forward around her, pushing her forward. People cheer and point. Carrie squeals, their eyes meet, and she gives Janet a hug. Over her sweet-smelling shoulder, Janet sees a blur of heads, mouths gaping, eyes tearing, hands furiously wagging flags, as if the planes weren't mere specks in the sky, as if the fliers coming home could actually see them.

 

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