A marine steps on the metal plate of an IED. His legs fly in opposing directions through the air. He lands on the ground with a thud, blood and exposed bone where limbs used to be.
Jess switches off the TV. It’s just a movie. Just a movie.
The days leading up to Cal’s first deployment are tiresome and tense. Jess goes to the garage, where Cal is packing his gear. His workbench is a staging point for regiments of digitized desert hues, empty magazines, canteens, and stacks of maps and waterproof notebooks. Cal has reviewed his gear list twice already, and is going through it now again.
The hardest thing about Cal leaving for war is how badly he wants to go. Jess tries to understand. She tells herself, this is what they train for. This is what marines do. But all Jess sees when she looks at Cal in full gear are points of entry. Right there, between his neck and his collarbone, and there, where his lower back is longer than the Kevlar vest plate that hikes up around his shoulders when he hunches to peer through his rifle scope. There, where the major arteries that pulse through his thighs are protected only by layers of cloth. His smooth face a magnet for shrapnel and burning debris. She studies the small scar below his earlobe, and transposes it onto his cheek, his eyelid, across the bridge of his nose. She watches his hands, calloused and familiar, pick up a pair of flame-resistant gloves, and she sees those hands on fire, ten fingers of flame pointing to the sky, directing where the bombs should fall. Cal waves the gloves at her. “Fucking things make me a klutz,” he says, and pats a pouch on his pant leg. “Don’t wear ‘em. Usually just keep them in here.”
“Don’t tell me things like that,” Jess says. She doesn’t say, tell me you’ll be safe. Tell me you’ll come home.
Jess throws a dinner party for the squad leaders in the platoon because Cal asked her to. “It’s important,” Cal said. Cal didn’t say, it’s what’s expected of an officer’s wife.
Jess understands this, and wishes she were a better cook.
In the platoon, Cal commands forty enlisted men. Four of those forty men are assigned to help Cal manage all that testosterone, and these four are the squad leaders, mid-ranked twenty-somethings who enlisted straight out of high school. Three of the four squad leaders are married, though all of them have kids. Jess wants to ask if there’s any way to make the evening adults-only, but she doesn’t, because she knows the base daycare closes at five and babysitters don’t come cheap.
Everyone arrives for the dinner party on time except Sgt. Lawson, who is unaccompanied. One of his kids is sick, he explains, so his wife stayed home with her. Cpl. Jarrett, the unwed squad leader in the platoon, brightens at the news that at least for tonight, he is not the only man without a woman at his side. Cal has told Jess stories about Cpl. Jarrett, who is twenty-one and a baby daddy, though now he’s dating this other woman two states over. He met her on the internet. She is almost forty and has five kids and no income except some child support from her ex. Cpl. Jarrett wants to marry her, if not for love then for the pay bump he’ll get for claiming so many dependents, but Cal keeps talking him out of it, explaining it doesn’t work that way. Stories about Cpl. Jarrett remind Jess that there is so much more to Cal’s job than just the war part.
Jess serves a roast chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans. Jess has never cooked for a large group of people before, so she cuts corners. The beans are from a can and the potatoes are instant, and she hopes no one can tell. She microwaves the potatoes, but serves them out of a warmed pot so at least it looks like she tried. Sgt. Lawson says they are delicious.
After dinner, the men go outside with a case of beer. The women stay at the table with their children writhing in their laps and Jess offers to mix drinks. “You got tequila?” one of the wives asks, and Jess sets the ingredients for margaritas on the counter. “Let me help you,” the woman says, setting her toddler loose on the floor to pour generous amounts of tequila into each glass.
The women make small talk, trying not to discuss money or rank or base housing, not here in this beachside cottage off base that Cal, with an officer’s BAH, can afford. They also do not discuss the deployment, which is the only thing the men outside are talking about. The roaming toddler sucks on the heel of Jess’s cast-off stiletto while an extended argument over diaper brands ensues between the two women. Jess, who has talked Cal into waiting a while before they start having children, tries not to look relieved when the men finally come back inside the house.
Sgt. Lawson is the last to leave. Jess listens as he and Cal banter about the motorcycle Sgt. Lawson plans to buy with his hazard pay from the deployment, and the shame it is for Jess not to have met his wife. “She’s from Texas like you,” Sgt. Lawson says. “Y’all’d’ve had a lot to talk about.”
At the door, Cal grips Sgt. Lawson’s shoulder and smiles at Jess. “Lawson here’s the hardest working marine in the platoon,” he says to her. “He’s my right-hand man.”
Jess looks at Sgt. Lawson with new interest. So this is the one, she thinks. The one whose job it is to keep Cal alive.
Sgt. Lawson waves off the praise, and tells Jess her husband is a man he’s proud to serve with. He shakes Cal’s hand, and hers. His palm is rough and dry, like Cal’s. Jess watches his taillights float down the driveway and disappear.
While Cal is gone there is nothing for Jess to do but wait. Wait and try to be grateful, for being married to an officer means the odds of still having a husband by the end of a deployment are pretty good. When a captain is killed in a vehicle ambush shortly after Cal’s battalion arrives in country, Jess feels sad and a little scared, but she sees the silver lining, too, the probability that Cal will live going up now that someone else’s husband has died.
Jess sees a lot more of her girlfriends, the other lieutenants’ wives in the battalion, in the seven months that their husbands are gone. They go to bars on Friday nights and dance like they did in college. They brunch. They catch chick flicks at the four-screen movie theater. They go to the beach. Sometimes they take a road trip somewhere and pile into a cheap hotel room just to be in a different place for a while. It’s actually kind of nice, Jess thinks. They’ve all picked up their husbands’ language and speak it with each other without having to explain that a hat is a cover or a bag is a pack. Their language is a staccato of letter-letter, number-number, words drawn and quartered into monosyllables. It’s a secret language, unintelligible to those who do not know what waiting for a deployment to end is like.
Jess has a voicemail. Her cheeks flush hot as she replays her morning, searching for her mistake. The phone was in her hand at the post office, at the PX, at the commissary, in the bathroom, in the laundry room, on the counter while she sorted the mail—on the counter while she took out the garbage. In the time it took Jess to roll the trashcan from the carport to the curb, she missed a call from Cal.
She plays the voicemail. Cal’s voice is hoarse and static crinkles through the line as he tells her that Sgt. Lawson is dead. He says he will call again as soon as he can, but it may be a few days because this is the only satellite phone that survived the blast and it’s another company’s turn to call home.
Jess sits down at the dining room table, the table where they all had eaten that night of the dinner party months before, and she wishes the chicken hadn’t gotten so tough; she wishes the potatoes hadn’t been instant. She sinks into the chair that had been Sgt. Lawson’s and brings her knees to her chest and lets her sobs give way to loud wails, because it is winter in a beach town and there is no one on the island to hear her.
When Sgt. Lawson has been dead for two days, Jess goes to the store to buy milk and beer. Cal has not called yet, but her girlfriends have. “Come bowling,” they say. “Come to brunch. Let’s drink too many mimosas and fall asleep on the beach.” Jess says she is tired. “We have to stick together,” one says, and Jess agrees to a round of mini-golf the next day.
At the front door, she clutches the gallon of milk in her hand and balances the case of beer on her hip as she wiggles the key into the lock and pushes open the door. The sun has set and it is dark when she closes the door behind her. In the darkness, she senses that someone else is in the house. Someone is sitting at the kitchen table. Jess stands still, her breath tight in her chest, and flips on the light.
Sgt. Lawson sits at the kitchen table, just as he had the night of the dinner party. He is wearing sun-faded cammies, with a pair of Oakleys perched on his head. His hair is freshly cut, a regulation high-and-tight that leaves a faint suggestion of dark fuzz on the top. He holds his cover politely in his hands and stares back at her, his gaze tired but friendly. Jess meets his eyes, then walks past him toward the refrigerator. He watches her. Though not her, exactly; she sets the twelve-pack on the counter and his gaze follows it. Jess pulls two cans out of the box and holds one out to him.
“Yes ma’am.” He watches as she approaches the table, then sets the can down in front of him. He picks it up, pulls back the tab, and swallows several gulps. “Thanks,” he says. Jess sits down across from him. She opens her beer and he raises his toward her. “Cheers,” he says. Their cans clink together, and Jess searches for the courage to touch him, to put her fingers on his arm, to see if he is real. Seated at the table, his waist disappears from view, and she wonders about the rest of him. She wonders if she would smell something burning if she leaned in close, if there is blood dripping onto her carpet. She considers dropping something so she has an excuse to look under the table, but is afraid of what she wouldn’t see.
Jess decides the best thing now is to just act naturally, but she doesn’t know what to say or do that would be natural at a time like this, so she turns on the TV and is relieved when Sgt. Lawson’s gaze shifts toward the screen. She changes the channel occasionally, trying to gauge his interest in one program over another. The History Channel has a show about Hollywood explosions. She searches for a reaction in Sgt. Lawson’s face, but finds none. When she changes the channel, though, he blinks, then exhales as though he had been holding his breath. She surfs past a cooking show, a home improvement show, a commercial for Harleys, a commercial for Navy Federal. One of the X-Men movies comes on, and Jess sets the remote down on the table between them. “I love this movie,” Sgt. Lawson says.
At a commercial, when Jess can’t wait anymore, she gets up to use the bathroom. Sgt. Lawson is gone when she comes back, his empties half-crushed on the table. She falls asleep on the couch with the television on. In the morning she sits for a moment in the chair Sgt. Lawson had occupied and tries to detect any kind of scent. She looks down at her feet but finds no trace of blood on the carpet. Jess pulls her phone out of her pocket and hovers over her mother’s number for several minutes before she sets the phone down on the table, undialed.
For two days afterward Sgt. Lawson does not reappear, and Cal still does not call. Jess doesn’t know if she will tell Cal about Sgt. Lawson. She is afraid he will not believe her. She is not even sure she believes herself. Two more days go by, and she is almost convinced she didn’t really see Sgt. Lawson at her kitchen table that night.
Another week later, when Jess comes home from dinner with the lieutenants’ wives, Sgt. Lawson is there, sitting at the kitchen table. Same place as before, same place as the time he came over for dinner and Jess served him instant mashed potatoes out of a pot.
“Hi,” Jess says as she closes the door behind her. Sgt. Lawson nods and holds two fingers near his forehead, tipping an invisible hat. Jess pulls two beers out of the fridge, sets one down in front of him. He takes it with a smile, opens it, throws back a few gulps.
“Thanks,” he says.
Jess sits across from him as she had before. He meets her gaze and holds it until she feels embarrassed and looks away. She picks up the remote. “What do you want to watch?” she asks him. “The news?”
“No. No news today,” he says, his voice gruff. Jess surfs past CNN anyway, blinks at footage of a bomb going off in the desert, soldiers and marines shouting, running. She clicks through the channels and settles on reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. The episodes make Sgt. Lawson laugh. She laughs too, but when she turns to meet his eye, he is gone.
Jess reads about Sgt. Lawson on the internet and learns his first name from an obituary. Joshua. Joshua T. Lawson. Jess wonders what the “T.” stands for. She tries to find a pattern in Sgt. Lawson’s visits. She marks them on a calendar with a small “L,” but his schedule remains a mystery. Cal still doesn’t call, but he does manage a short email, telling her that there is not much infrastructure for communication where he is, that his unit is moving, on foot, to a new location, and not to expect to hear from him for another couple weeks or so. Jess does not mention Sgt. Lawson when she writes back.
The grass continues to grow, so Jess pulls the small gas mower Cal bought off Craigslist out of the garage. She is infuriated when it won’t start. She checks the gas, checks the oil. She presses the little red button three times to prime it. She pulls on the cord. Pulls. Pulls. Nothing.
Jess thinks about walking two doors down to her neighbor Ted’s house. Ted is a retired marine and always asking if she needs anything, any tools or whatnot. He actually says it like that, “tools or whatnot,” and something about it makes Jess smile. Ted walks with a limp. “Once a marine, always a marine,” he says. She knows he is sincere when he offers to help, but she also knows that what’s in it for him is the opportunity to tell his own stories. “So how’s it goin’ over there,” he’ll say, and then before she knows it, she and Ted are back in ’Nam, tramping through the jungle together.
Jess stares at the lawn mower. “Please,” she says out loud. “Please start.”
She presses the little red button a few more times. Pulls. Pulls again. Still nothing. She glances over at Ted’s empty yard, but turns back toward her own front door. When she opens it, she is glad to see that Sgt. Lawson is there.
“I can’t get the lawn mower to start,” she tells him.
He leans back in his chair. “That sucks.”
“Yes. Can you—” Jess hesitates. “Can you help me? With the lawnmower?”
Sgt. Lawson shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “It’ll be fine. You can try again tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” she repeats, filled with unaskable questions.
Sgt. Lawson shrugs his shoulders. “How ’bout a beer?” he asks.
Jess gets just one from the fridge and hands it to him. She considers the questions she has been pushing out of her mind. She starts to ask him, Why are you here? Do you know where Cal is? What do you want? Do you have something to tell me? How did you die?
She opens her mouth, but all that comes out is, “Anything good on TV?”
Finally Cal calls.
“I’m good, I’m fine,” Jess says. “Everything is fine. I miss you. Tomorrow I’m going to the beach with the girls. I love you. How’s everything? I love you.” Jess works “I love yous” into the conversation like commas. She doesn’t hold them to the end because the signal might drop before she can say them. She knows Cal thinks it’s silly of her, but it is important to Jess to have a chance to say those things. You just never know, she thinks, and not just because of the whole combat zone thing. People die doing perfectly peaceful things all the time.
Jess waits for Cal to mention Sgt. Lawson. They haven’t spoken since his voicemail. But he doesn’t say a word about Sgt. Lawson, and neither does she.
Jess sees Teresa, Sgt. Lawson’s wife—his widow, Jess thinks—in the commissary. Though Jess never met her, she recognizes Teresa from the photos she had seen on the internet, photos of Sgt. Lawson’s flag-draped coffin in Dover, photos of Teresa crying behind big black sunglasses. In the photos, Sgt. Lawson’s little girls, Becky and Tracie, filled their tiny fists with as much of that flag as they could hold.
In the dairy aisle Becky is crying, and Tracie seems to be trying to soothe her big sister. Teresa stares above their heads at the colored yogurt cups and continues pushing the cart along. Jess follows behind them with her own cart, wondering where in Texas Teresa is from, until Tracie’s tears join her sister’s and the sound becomes too much to bear.
One of the lieutenant’s wives has a birthday coming up, and Jess is planning the party. She comes home from the party store with streamers and plates and balloons and tiki torches, and is pleased to see Sgt. Lawson at the kitchen table. She drops her bags, flips on the television, and sits down across from him. Neither of them say much for a while. When American Idol comes on, Sgt. Lawson asks for a beer. “I fuckin’ love this show,” he says.
“Are you serious? It’s awful.”
“Naw, only in the beginning. After the bullshit it gets good.” They watch American Idol and during the commercials he tells her about the time he drove two hours to an audition but the judges didn’t select him. “I didn’t get on TV or nothin,” he says. “And I was good.”
“Sing something,” Jess says.
Sgt. Lawson shakes his head, and Jess doesn’t ask again. He stares at his hands until the show comes back on, and she wonders what he is thinking. She wonders if he misses it, being over there, even now that he has seen what happens to a person when a chain of explosives ignites under his feet.
“Can I touch your hand?” Jess asks.
Sgt. Lawson blinks, considers the question. Then he holds his hand out, palm up, fingers curled slightly as though she were about to hand him something round.
Jess takes a breath and leans over the table. She traces the lines on his palm with a fingertip. His skin is dry and calloused, and warm. She lays her palm in his and feels his fingers wrap around hers.
“Will you tell me about it? About what happened?” she asks, her voice almost a whisper.
Sgt. Lawson slides his palm out of hers and shakes his head no.
“I’m just trying to understand,” Jess says. “Why aren’t you with your family?”
Sgt. Lawson looks at her, his eyes sad. “I don’t want to see that,” he says. “I don’t want to see what it’s like with me gone.” He rubs his nose on his sleeve. “I like it here,” he says. “Do you mind it when I’m here?”
“I don’t mind,” Jess says. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Toward the end of the deployment, after a day at the beach and a few drinks at the dive bar, Jess brings the lieutenants’ wives home with her. She hopes Sgt. Lawson will be there. She wants to know if they can see him, too. She wants all of them to have a beer together. She wants her friends to reach their hands out, to see if they can feel him, too, or if their hands just pass right through. She wants a picture of all of them together, beers in hand, smiling at the camera. She wants Sgt. Lawson to tell them what happened, to tell them if he knows anything about their husbands, if he knows which husbands will live or die. She wants Cal to call. She wants everyone to stop asking how she is doing, to stop forwarding news articles about a war she can’t see. But Sgt. Lawson isn’t there, so they sit down at the kitchen table and drink beer and play Apples to Apples without him.
Later, Jess tells Sgt. Lawson she wishes he had met her friends. She tells him she wishes she could talk to someone about him. She tells him it is hard, having this thing in your life and nothing to say about it that sounds right. Sgt. Lawson nods, and asks if she thinks she will tell Cal. Jess says no. “I wouldn’t be able to explain it in a way that was true.”
“I feel that.”
“It’s just—we’ve never had secrets before.”
“It’s not the same as a secret,” Sgt. Lawson says.
Jess goes to the fridge, opens two beers. She feels angry, and tired. Tired of being alone on the other side of a satellite number she can never dial out, and tired of not knowing where her husband is or what his life is like. She decides she will tell Cal about Sgt. Lawson. She will tell him everything, and then he will tell her everything, and he will answer all her questions and she will not be afraid to know what war is like.
Jess brings the two beers to the kitchen table and Sgt. Lawson says, “Let’s watch Raymond.”
“No,” Jess says, still thinking about Cal. “I want to watch the news.” She turns on the television and clicks through the channels, looking for CNN. She is startled when Sgt. Lawson lunges toward her, his thick arm reaching across the table for the remote. She leans back, holds it over her head, out of his reach.
“C’mon,” Sgt. Lawson says, waving at the TV. “That’s not what you want to see.”
Jess stares at him, and holds his gaze. “You’re right,” she says. “What I want to see is you. Show me what happened to you.”
Sgt. Lawson leans back, his expression hard.
“Get up,” Jess says. “I want to see your legs. Get up. Show me. At least tell me what happened. Tell me why there is a dead guy in my house, talking to me and drinking all my damn beer.”
“I can’t,” Sgt. Lawson says.
“Come on. I can take it. I just want to see. Please just—”
“There’s nothing to see,” Sgt. Lawson shouts. “There’s nothing to fucking see. I can’t fucking show you shit.”
On the screen, the CNN anchors are in South America, something about a rainforest.
“You see? There’s nothing to see.” Sgt. Lawson folds his arms across his chest.
Jess stands for a minute beside the table and waits for him to look up at her, then she drops to her knees and peers under the table. No legs. No blood. Nothing to see. Sgt. Lawson is gone. Jess stands up and looks around the quiet, empty house. She walks over to Sgt. Lawson’s chair and sits down. The seat is warm, and Jess sobs.
Each night that Sgt. Lawson isn’t there, she calls his name into the empty room. She looks for him in the house, then at the commissary, then everywhere. When she realizes he isn’t coming back, she wants to light the kitchen table on fire. She has cereal for dinner and sits down at the table, across from where Sgt. Lawson used to sit. She thinks about how Cal’s voice had sounded in the message when he’d told her what had happened, like he’d had a cold for a very long time. She knows Cal saw it happen. She knows he watched Sgt. Lawson die. Jess sits with her legs crossed and waits until she can’t feel them anymore. “I’m sorry,” she says out loud, and she is. She is. She is.
Cal comes home from the war, and he is fine—fine, a term Jess does not ask to be defined. At the reunion point, while she waits for the 7-tons to pull up, Jess looks for Sgt. Lawson, but she knows she will not see him here. She will not see Teresa, either, but Jess looks for her, too. She scans the parking lot crowded with family members, many holding banners or newborns or both. When the trucks appear, a young wife plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on her phone, over and over until the doors on the 7-tons swing open and the husbands spill out like bees from a jostled hive. For several anxious minutes, Jess weaves in and out of the crowd, looking for Cal among the tired, still-dirty faces of marines searching for their loved ones, or at least a ride home. In a daisy chain around her, women erupt into shrieks and cheers when they locate their men. Jess feels a tap on her shoulder and turns to see Cal with a big grin on his gaunt, sunburnt face. Cal is alive, and he is fine.
On the way home, they stop at McDonalds. They hold hands in line while they wait to order burgers. Right away Cal wants to tell stories about the things he’s seen. About the children and how shy they could be, how bold they grew once they got a taste for American candy. About the dogs that wouldn’t stop barking. About sharing strange meals of goat and rice with tribal leaders. But not about Sgt. Lawson. Not about the others—Cpl. Wright, LCpl. Frank, and Cpt. Donnelly, the captain in the ambushed vehicle who was the battalion’s first casualty. Not about the close calls, the what-ifs, the if-onlys, the thank-fucking-gods. Jess does not ask about these things.
After some time, Cal offers small details. Over breakfast one morning, Cal watches a segment on CNN about the battalion that took over his AO. He says, “The rockets have a whoosh to them before they hit. The mortars don’t.” Jess waits for him to say more, but when the segment ends he just asks for another pancake.
Jess knows that Cal will never tell her what she wants to know about his deployment, about what he had seen or what he had done or what it was like. Sometimes she stands under the deck when the other husbands come over and listens to the stories they tell each other, the things they say when they think no one else is listening. But she can’t make sense of them. Too much staccato.
Jess says nothing about Sgt. Lawson. When Cal decides to take a trip to Arlington, he tells Jess he would like to go alone. Jess nods and helps him pack. As his car pulls out of their driveway, she watches his taillights disappear, just as Sgt. Lawson’s had before.
When Cal is gone, Jess takes two cans of beer into the backyard. She finds a shovel in the garage and digs a small hole. She lays an unopened can in the hole and covers it with dirt. She hopes that Sgt. Lawson will find it. She opens the second can and drinks half of it, letting some of the cool liquid spill down her chin. The other half she pours over the small grave, the smell of the beer mixing with the smell of earth and life. Jess thinks about the time she had with Sgt. Lawson, and she wishes she could go with Cal to visit him in Arlington. But she is not the one who watched him die. She did not kneel in a foreign land before his empty boots and helmet. She did not reach out to grasp his dog tags as they dangled from his rifle. She did not stand in a darkened desert and take life from men who sought to take hers. She is not the one who knows what war is like.