by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
“That’s Valerie the Archer, the biggest heartbreaker of all.”
Val knocked on Lucy’s front door again. No answer, but she could definitely hear voices inside. She had a key, but now that Jim was home it felt wrong to let herself in. Val imagined the whole family hushing each other and ducking down under the dining room table, knowing she stood at the door, laughing at her, waiting for her to go away. Lucy must have forgotten she’d asked Val to come over, no longer needing her screwed-up sister hanging around now that she had her perfect family intact.
At Jim’s “Welcome Home” barbeque two weeks ago (a small affair, just burgers and hot dogs and a few close friends; no bouncy castle or clowns, as it turned out), Lucy kept touching her husband all night, her finger looped around his belt, a palm on his shoulder, leaning against his bulk, as if afraid that if she didn’t have her hands on him, he might slip away again. Jim was nonstop smiles, gushing about how much June had grown, how she was writing her name, counting to twenty, making her first stick figure trios: Mom, Dad, June. There was no longer a need for anyone else.
Val turned toward her car. She’d leave the house key in the mailbox and call Lucy later. Then she heard the front door open. Val spun around, relieved to gain entry, but her smile disappeared when she saw Jim standing there, red-faced, his mouth set in an angry line. “Oh, Valerie. It’s you.”
“Lucy invited me over, I swear!” Val blurted. She wondered if the ‘real’ Jim was about to tell her to get lost. After all their clashes in the past, Jim had been eerily kind to her in the last couple of weeks, thanking her over and over again for ‘taking such good care of his Lucille and June-Bug’, getting her drink refills and a slice of pie at his barbeque, even calling her to see if she needed any help around her apartment: light fixtures that needed changing, walls to be painted, rugs cleaned.
“Good to see you,” Jim said, widening the door for her to enter and then swooping down to deliver a kiss on her cheek as she walked by. Val just about jumped out of her skin. “Thanks,” she said, wishing the old Jim was there giving her crap.
“My girls are in the kitchen,” he said. “I’m going to mow the lawn.” He stepped outside and closed the door.
That’s where Val found them, in the kitchen: June sitting on her naughty stool, Lucy on her knees, sopping up melting ice cream with a dish rag. “Hey,” Val said, drawing closer to her sister. “What’s up?”
Lucy jumped, then smiled a little too widely. “Oh, you came! Goody!” She turned to June and said sternly, “Next time Daddy is sweet to you, you say thank you instead of throwing a tantrum. Go to your room, young lady.”
“What’d Miss Bug do?” Val asked as June slammed her bedroom behind her, suddenly 4 going on 14.
“She’s been horrible,” Lucy said, dropping the rag in the sink. “I’ve always believed a deployment makes a strong family stronger, but now I just don’t know. June was great the first few days after Jim got back and I thought everything would be OK. I mean, she was shy around him but seemed happy. Then it started small, like her asking to sit next to me at the dinner table instead of between us both. Then she only wanted me to help her brush her teeth, only I could tell her a bedtime story or sing a goodnight song. Though I don’t know if Jim’s cadences count as songs exactly.”
She laughed nervously as she washed her hands. “Now she acts like she doesn’t want anything to do with him.”
“Maybe she misses the attention you used to give her, and only her, when he was gone?”
“Maybe. Jim says it doesn’t bother him, but I can just see how much it crushes his heart every time she won’t let him help her. He desperately wants to get their relationship back on track. And then, well, he …”
She started to pour ice tea into two glasses.
“What?” Val asked.
Lucy shrugged. “It’s nothing. But, he loses his temper really easily. He used to be so patient. Just now, he made June an ice cream cone. She said he didn’t make it right, that she wanted a “Mommy ice cream cone” instead, and started crying. So he, well, he threw it against the wall!”
Lucy seemed somewhere on the verge of tears and shocked laughter. “I walked in and this strawberry cone with sprinkles was slowly sliding down the wallpaper.” She sipped her tea and Val noticed her hand shaking ever so slightly.
Lucy put her glass down. “Oh my God, listen to me complain about these stupid, minor things, while Billy is still deployed! I’m sorry, Val, how are you doing?”
Val shifted from foot to foot. “Billy emailed today. He’s getting excited about coming home, but feeling superstitious, and doesn’t want to talk about anything concrete-“
Jim walked in. He went to the fridge and opened a can of beer. Val looked at the clock over the oven-9:43 a.m. She glanced at Lucy.
“No rest for the weary,” Jim said, lifting the can jauntily and walking back outside. “That’s new too,” Luce whispered, tugging blond hair out of her eyes.
“It’ll figure itself out,” Val said. “Everything will go back to perfect soon.”
“I don’t want ‘perfect,'” Lucy said, shaking her head. “I just want it to go back to how it was 10 months ago: sweet, old, messy normal.”
Val drove home that afternoon. They had invited her to stay for dinner, but ice cream cones smashed against the walls aside, it was hard for Val to see Jim home. She realized she was jealous, and it made her feel like a monster. She had lost her battle buddy, and though she was glad for Lucy, being reminded that a husband’s place was next to his wife made Val ache all the more for Billy.
Just two more months until he was home.
And then what? She saw Lucy with that dripping rag in her hand, Jim with his early beer, June slamming her door-if her sister’s family were having trouble with reintegration, how were she and Billy going to get along?
Until now, only the return had mattered. Val never thought beyond the moment when she would jump into his arms and kiss his soft Louisiana lips.
But there were so many unanswered questions. She didn’t even know if they would return to Atlanta, to Val’s small sublet in Buckhead, or find a place together here in New Orleans. Billy would go back to being a regional auto hauler for a chain of car dealerships, his truck route including South >>
Carolina down to Florida and west to Louisiana. The headquarters was in Atlanta, but he had mentioned there were offices outside of New Orleans, too.
Whenever she asked him, he would say something vague and sinister like, “Don’t jinx me, babe. We’ll talk about it when I get back in one piece.” His superstitions, once so quaint, were starting to annoy her. She had put her life on hold while he was deployed and was eager to have some certainty about their future. Billy had also been less talkative recently, their phone calls too brief, his e-mails just a line or two. After seeing Jim today, Val couldn’t help but wonder if Billy might come back … different.
She shook her head, trying to get the dark thoughts out of it. Like Lucy said, a deployment should make a strong family stronger. Reintegration wasn’t about perfection, it was about getting things back to the way they were, to Billy pointing out make-believe constellations in the sky (“That’s Valerie the Archer, the biggest heartbreaker of all”), to the Post-it notes sketched with hearts he’d leave her on the bathroom mirror. She loved him, she thought, tightening her hands on the steering wheel. No matter what, she loved him, she knew he loved her, and that was their starting point, that was their ending point. It had to be.
Val went over to Lucy’s house for dinner the next week. She brought a white cake decorated with pink rosebuds and filled with raspberry cream from the French bakery down the street and a bottle of whiskey to make up for all Jim’s whiskey she drank while he was away.
Dinner was served and devoured without any mishap. Val thought, “See, things are working themselves out.” Then Jim cut Val’s cake and handed out the slices.
“I don’t want THIS piece!” June wailed. “Mommy and Val know I love the ROSES! There’s NO rose on this piece!”
“JUNE!” Jim shouted, and the little girl cringed in her seat.
Lucy leaned forward quickly. “June, honey, you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
“Lucille, let me handle this!” Jim slammed his fist on the table.
Val cursed herself for not bringing chocolate chip cookies instead.
Jim took a deep breath. “June,” he said, trying to remain calm. “That is your piece of cake. If you want a rose, you have to ask Daddy nicely. OK?”
June blinked rapidly, always an indication that major fireworks were on the way. Val heard Lucy say in warning, “Young lady …” just as June picked up her plate of cake and dropped it off the edge of the table, the ceramic dish shattering.
The adults all sat stunned for a moment while June started screaming, “I WANT A ROSE!”
Lucy stood up, “Jim, I’m sorry, I always give her a rose, let me-“
But Jim was standing himself, fluidly lifting a kicking June from her chair and carrying her over to her pink naughty stool. Val and Lucy exchanged confused looks.
Jim took off his watch, set it, handed it to June. “Stop crying,” he said, and June gasped a few times, but complied. “That watch will beep when two minutes are up. Then you are done with time-out. No crying, no talking, or I’ll start the two minutes all over again. When that watch beeps, you are going to apologize. Do you understand?”
June nodded reluctantly, glancing at her mother, who was looking down at her fork. “Yes, Daddy,” she whimpered.
Jim returned to the table, his back to June.
“Thanks for the great cake, Aunty Val,” he said and Val lifted her eyebrows: that was the sarcastic Jim she remembered.
After two excruciating minutes, the watch beeped. Val was squeezing her left hand so hard with her right she couldn’t feel her fingers. Please, please, please June, be a big girl, she thought.
June toddled down from her stool and walked slowly to the table, giving her father the watch. Jim dropped down to his knees in front of her. “It was bad to break my cake,” she said. She inched closer. “I’m sorry, Daddy.” Jim gasped, as if he was just as amazed as Val that his ‘time-out’ had actually worked. He opened his arms and June slipped her little body into his embrace.
“It is great cake,” Lucy said softly and Val nodded. She thought of Billy, the whole night sky of stars he still needed to name for her, and she knew that no matter what, things would work out. Somehow this deployment would make them stronger, too. Η