by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
Lucy stood outside the guest-bedroom door, two cups of cooling coffee in her hands, a ring of milk floating thick and gray along the top of each. She had woken with such promise, making a pot of the good Hawaiian blend rather than her usual tinny-tasting decaf. She imagined bringing the steaming cups into Valerie’s room, both of them sitting on the bed, sharing coffee and conversation that would make the past four years disappear.
Her sister was married! Who was this new husband, what was the wedding like, where did they meet, how had he proposed, why did Val love him? All those interrogatives Lucy used in the classroom now seemed like a charm against silence. Surely Val would ask questions too, and Lucy would share the knowledge of military life that her sister, the new National Guard bride, must desperately need.
But the closed door stopped her. It reminded her of when both girls lived in their dad’s small house. Would Val appreciate Lucy barging in at 7 a.m.? Val who, as a teenager, refused to emerge from her room before noon, claiming the morning light gave her pimples?
Maybe Val didn’t want to hear about Lucy’s life of Navy wifedom and motherhood. If anything, it seemed as if Val had only called Lucy because she washed up on the shores of New Orleans with nothing but a flimsy backpack and an even flimsier plan that was wrecked by a little bit of rain. Things were never as perfect as Val wanted them to be, and bang, Val was out of ideas, having to rely on outside help rather than figuring out a way to fix her own life.
Lucy returned to the kitchen, clinking the mugs together in irritation. She glanced at a framed photo of her wedding party that hung near the pantry. In the photo, Val stood on one side of Lucy, Jim on the other, all three of them smiling widely into the clear day. But in the years since, she and Val had become strangers. A sudden fear filled Lucy-if she and her sister could grow so drastically apart, couldn’t the same happen with her and Jim? What was her husband doing right now in Kabul? Who did he sit with at the mess hall, where did he feel the most safe, how did he fill his days, why hadn’t he e-mailed yesterday? In their four years of marriage, Jim had either deployed or been out to sea three times, each eight-month tour full of moments Lucy would never know. She sipped the cold coffee, swallowing without tasting it, wondering how much distance and time apart a family, a marriage, could handle.
“Hey,” Val said, shuffling into the kitchen at 11 a.m.
Lucy stood at the table wearing a beige blouse, dark jeans, and ballerina slides. She tried to dress in a way that could get her comfortably into a grocery store or a church service; she liked to be prepared for anything and it took a lot of effort to look effortless. Val, on the other hand, had slept in yesterday’s clothes, and now pulled a rubber band off her wrist and knotted her hair into a lopsided ponytail.
“Wow, so this is… June?” Val asked, staring at the child who waited for another spoonful of YoBaby yogurt with open mouth. When Lucy brought Val home the night before, the 3-year old was already in bed, a neighbor sitting at the kitchen table paging through Military Spouse magazine.
Val had been too tired to ask Lucy much of anything. She only knew the child’s name from their dad’s monthly phone calls. These calls where usually filled with details about Lucy’s life, and while Val couldn’t help feel like her father was comparing Lucy’s successes with her own failures, she did appreciate the way he maintained a tenuous connection between them.
Lucy put the spoon in June’s mouth. “This is June eating lunch,” she said. It was eleven, for goodness sake, much too late for a responsible adult to be getting out of bed. Despite an attempt at deep breathing, Lucy was already feeling annoyed by her sister.
Val went to the coffee maker, sniffed the over-cooked brew, poured a cup and heaped in sugar and milk. Then she spotted the wedding photo.
“Hey! There I am!” she said, as if surprised Lucy hadn’t cut her head out. Val, wearing a bridesmaid dress she had claimed was “designed for fat women over fifty,” had dyed her hair magenta the day before the ceremony. Lucy assumed it was her sister’s way of making sure she was the center of attention. Now Val giggled, as if impressed by her own outrageousness. Lucy’s jaw clenched. It also reminded her that sister had never once apologized for the way she’d behaved at the wedding.
“Are you and June heading somewhere?” Val asked, draining her cup.
“June has a doctor’s appointment.”
“I could go with you.”
“Nope. We’re leaving now.” Lucy dropped the yogurt bowl in the sink. “I’ll be a couple of hours, OK?”
She could tell Val was hurt. She didn’t care.
In the doctor’s waiting room, June asked, “Who was the lady in our house?”
“Your aunt,” Lucy told her.
“Like Aunty Clarice who pinches my cheeks?”
“Yes. Aunty Clarice is Daddy’s sister. Aunt Val is Mommy’s sister. I’ll tell her not to pinch your cheeks.”
“Kids never like pinched cheeks, Mommy.”
June stared to the waiting room’s flat-screen TV and Lucy thought again of her wedding day. Of Val with her hair lit up like a firecracker, sloshing down margaritas as she insulted everyone associated with the U.S. Navy, most of her jibes aimed at poor Jim. Lucy, raised as an Army brat on a fair dose of jokes at the expense of the other services, had laughed at first, but had been on the verge of humiliated tears by the time Val made her drunken toast.
“She’s the only sister you’ll ever have,” their dad said afterwards. And, “You don’t choose your family, Lucille.” No, you don’t. Wasn’t that why you got married, to get out of the family you didn’t choose in order to create one you did? You met a thousand guys, flirted with a hundred of them, dated a dozen or two, and somewhere along the way you thought to yourself, “Wow, I just might be able to see this guy naked for the next forty years.”
There you were, getting married at an altar before God; you made the choice forever, you made it together, and you promised you would both work to keep that relationship intact.
Sisters didn’t. Sisters took each other for granted, said horrible things, and expected to always be loved. Because of an accident of birth.
Lucy put her chin on June’s shoulder. “Aunty Val has to go tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll tell her to pack her bag when we get home, OK?” June nodded. Lucy was relieved at the mere thought of Val’s leaving.
The kitchen was a disaster, smelling of fire and cinnamon. Dirty bowls were stacked everywhere, a baking sheet full of blackened disks sat on the counter, and a melted plastic spatula oozed across the oven. “Valerie?” Lucy called, thinking Val had trashed the house in a fit of vengeance and left.
“Here I am,” her sister shouted from the living room. She was watching TV, the volume up too loud, something indistinctly burning behind a reporter wearing a flak jacket.
“What the hell-heck is going on?” Lucy said over the newscaster, Juney clinging to her neck. Then she noticed her sister was crying.
Val fumbled with the remote, wiping at her face with one hand and muting the TV with the other. “Afghanistan,” she said in the sudden silence. “A rocket attack. I think it’s Billy’s FOB.”
Lucy put June down and tried not to look at the TV screen. “Oh.” She swallowed, wanting to ask if it was Kabul, but too scared to let the word out into the room.
“I don’t watch the news. Ever.” She took the remote control out of Val’s hand. “If anything happens, the right people will get in touch with you. You have to have faith in that, otherwise every newspaper headline or TV clip from the Middle East will make you go crazy. OK?”
Val hesitated, then nodded, and Lucy clicked the TV off.
“You have a telephone roster, right? Someone you can contact when you’re worried about Billy?” Lucy asked.
Val just stared.
Lucy sat down next to her. “You need to be connected, Val. Billy is Georgia National Guard, right? Well, you need to find out if his unit has a Family Readiness Group, you need-“
“I need Billy,” Val said, rubbing her eyes again. “Don’t tell me what to do, Luce.” She stood abruptly. “Hey, I’m sorry about the kitchen. I wanted to bake cookies but…” She waved vaguely at the TV. “I called a cab to take me downtown. There’s an overnight bus to Atlanta.”
Lucy glanced at the wrecked kitchen. She would let her sister go. That was the easiest thing for everybody. Maybe Val had some Guard contacts in Atlanta who would tell her Billy was fine. Maybe her sister had a better handle on military-spouse life than Lucy thought. But then the flash of fear Lucy felt that morning returned. If she let her clearly upset sister walk out the door, what else would Lucy someday lose? If she allowed the people she loved to leave her life, did that mean eventually she’d be willing to let Jim leave, too? Could the distance someday crawl in between them and ruin every beautiful thing they had?
“Why didn’t Dad tell me about Billy?” Lucy asked, trying to find something neutral to talk about, to stall for time until she figured it all out.
“I didn’t tell him,” Val said. “It happened too fast. Now I’m waiting for his next first-Sunday-of-the-month phone call to break it to him.”
“I used to call too, but you never called back,” Lucy said.
Val swung her backpack over her shoulder. “I get enough lectures from Dad.”
“During your toast you said Jim was ‘out of his depth in a parking lot puddle…'”
“Dad’s been making fun of the Navy our whole lives…”
“It was my wedding.”
“Jeez, Luce, get over it. So fabulous to see you. Now let me leave in peace.”
Lucy took a deep breath and imagined Val on a Greyhound bus driving through the night, alone with her fear for Billy, heading back to a waitress job and sublet apartment, nothing even as substantial as a lease in her life. Lucy heard herself say, “You are always leaving. One of these days you need to come back.”
“Where would I come back to exactly?” Val crossed her arms over her chest.
“Stay here, with me. You should be near a base when your soldier is deployed, a support system of some kind, not alone.” Lucy thought of the e-mail she would write Jim, telling him the sister who had asked “Are you Beavis or Bulkhead?” was now living in his guest room.
You don’t choose your family. “But most of all, you and I have a lot of catching up to do.”
Val uncrossed her arms, peering at Lucy, confused by the sudden shift of conversation. “OK, I admit it. I was a mess at your wedding,” she said softly, her face still splotchy from crying. “And, I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have said those terrible things.”
Lucy understood this was the best I’m sorry she was going to get. She put her hand on her little sister’s arm.
“We’re family,” Lucy said. “Stay.”
And she meant it.