by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
Val could hear Lucy making calls and she slipped deeper under the pillows of the guest bed.
She didn’t tell Lucy that she’d been filled with a murky terror for months-from the moment she and Billy signed the marriage certificate at the justice of the peace. She never doubted her love for Billy. But she also did not doubt that he had only proposed because he was deploying. And she’d readily said “yes” for the same reason.
“I want you to be taken care of,” Billy said, slipping that simple sapphire engagement ring around her finger. “In case anything happens.” In case anything happens. And now something had happened. Even though she knew it was completely irrational, Val felt like their marriage had jinxed Billy, as if he had made some kind of wager, betting his life for Val’s. Now she was panic-stricken that it was time to pay up.
Lucy had coolly taken over. Within two hours of hearing the news about the rocket attack, Lucy had tracked down the personal phone number of Billy’s company commander’s wife and called without hesitating. Val hadn’t even known that Captain Barrett had a wife. And yet even Lucy, with her barrage of military spouse savvy, couldn’t get all the details.
Yes, there had been an attack on Billy’s FOB, a dangerously precise attack. The rockets had hit the mess hall at dinnertime. A Guard spokesman told Lucy he couldn’t release any names until the family members of the wounded were notified. Lucy tried to calm Val down by saying that the longer she and Val went without hearing anything, the closer they were to being out of the woods, since chances are the rear detachment would have contacted the casualties’ families by now.
“Chances are” did not sound like a good gamble to Val. It sounded like her unsettling marriage proposal. If the Guard was still contacting families and therefore couldn’t tell Val if Billy was OK, at any moment they could call to tell her he wasn’t. In the end, Lucy seized Val’s cell phone and ordered her into the guest room to take a nap, promising she would find out something by the time her sister woke up.
Val, tossing in the bed, tried to recall her last conversation with Billy. Had he told her his daily schedule, if he was headed out on patrol? If he had the next day or two off? But she could only remember how she had scolded him for not telling her about the new ATM pin, could only remember she hung up without saying she missed him.
This was exactly the reason, all those years ago, she and Lucy had sworn not to date men in the military. Or ‘boys’, they’d called them then, Val twelve and Lucy nineteen. It had been Val’s idea, and Lucy had laughed at first, Val entering her room with her hands on her hips, saying she was “done with military boys.”
“Done, Valerie? Have you had your heart broken by a soldier already?” Lucy had her school books spread across the bed. She was going to Columbus State University, and Val always thought her sister had decided to stay close to home to keep an eye on her.
Val was indignant. “Rod Brignotti, Army brat, baseball player. He asked me to the Eighth Grade dance two weeks ago, but today he says he’s PCS-ing and can’t go.”
“Oh no! And where is handsome young Rod going?”
“Fort Carson, Colorado!” Val, never one to resist dramatics, flung herself on her sister’s bed, trying to blink tears on Lucy’s calculus book.
“That’s far, Val, but maybe you can write to each other?”
Val lifted her head. She’d been experimenting with mascara lately and a bit of black got in her eye, creating just enough moisture to make it look like tears. “Never again. Never ever. Let’s both promise?”
Lucy stared, perhaps tricked by the smeared mascara. “All right,” she answered. “I’ve had enough of soldiers myself. They’re always going somewhere else.”
Val hugged her sister tighter than she meant to, clinging in a way that made real tears flush her eyes. Lucy agreeing to the pact made her feel like she was being taken seriously for the first time in her life, like she really was almost an adult. Even after Lucy married her squid, Val kept her end of the bargain and steered clear of men in uniform.
Until she met Billy.
She’d been tending bar at Stella’s Grill in Atlanta. She usually waitressed, but on this particular night, Ferdinand, the weeknight bartender, was getting his wisdom teeth out. Val enjoyed being behind the bar. She didn’t have to be as nice as she did waitressing. Waitressing was all about pleasing the customer, nodding with empathy when they sent back perfectly good food, cleaning up their mess of masticated pork fat and filthy napkins, never knowing what sort of tip they’d leave.
A waitress was at the mercy of the customer. But not a bartender. Everybody wanted their booze and wanted it fast. They knew they’d have to ingratiate themselves with the person pouring. A bartender could cut anyone off, kick them out even, no questions asked. And everyone knew it. It was just the right amount of power for Val.
But, like most things, she hadn’t finished bartending school. So she never managed to get the good shifts, just the occasional Ferdinand sick-day thrown her way.
On this particular night, a young man was seated near the entrance of the bar, close to the beer fridge. He had the longest, thickest eyelashes Val had ever seen on an adult and was reading a newspaper. But what caught her attention was the way he hardly looked at her.
Now, Val wasn’t a model. But she was relatively attractive and used to getting at least a once-over. She found herself floating around the man’s newspaper, trying to see what sort of engrossing article he was reading, if he was wearing a wedding ring (no), if the paper was in Braille and maybe he was blind.
He finally looked up. “Another Coors Light, please.”
She brought him the beer, putting a little spin on the bottle when she put it down in front of him, winking. He glanced at her. Then she pointedly neglected him for the rest of the night. Similar to elementary school rules, she had found that ignoring someone at the bar was the best way to get their attention.
He came back the next night. This time Val was waitressing. He sidled up to the bar, ordered a beer, and the next thing she knew, Ferdinand was seating him at one of Val’s tables.
“You seem more approachable behind that waitress pad,” he said.
“Well, last night you were a bit aloof.”
Val squinted, not able to tell if he was joking or not. “What’s your name?”
“Billy, I think I’m going to like you. How’s that for friendly?”
It wasn’t until they were dating for about a month that she even realized he was in the Guard. She wanted to try a new restaurant and when he told her he had his drill that weekend, she was so shocked she hung up. She felt as if he’d deliberately tricked her; it took Billy three mystified messages on her answering machine before she finally spoke to him.
“You know there is a war going on?” she asked, when they met later at Stella’s. It was Val’s night off, and she didn’t usually like going to Stella’s on her nights off. But she was about to break up with this new boyfriend she really liked, and therefore she wanted to be somewhere that felt like home.
Billy cracked a smile. “Yes, ma’am, I do believe there is a war going on. Maybe even more than one, depending on your point of view.”
“Well, I have a rule that I don’t date men in the military.”
“Since you have already broken that rule, it is probably time you ditched it altogether.”
“I’m sorry,” she told him. “It’s just… I don’t want that life. I don’t want anything to do with the military at all. I made the decision a long time ago.”
He stared at her for a moment, as if waiting for the punchline. Then his features moved from amusement to tight anger. He leaned toward her. “That is the most assed-up, un-American thing a woman has ever said to me.”
Val flinched- Billy had never cursed in front of her before. He opened his wallet and started rifling through his cash, glancing at the drinks on their table and calculating how much he owed.
“Billy, wait,” she whispered, not expecting this reaction.
“What were you doing on August 29, 2005?” he said, looking right at her. Val shrugged, lost at the turn of conversation. Billy continued: “You were probably watching TV, safe in your daddy’s air-conditioned house. Well, I was evacuated to a high school gym. Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded. People were drowning trapped inside their attics. Local government couldn’t help, federal government couldn’t help, not even God could help, but you know who was there four hours after the storm hit? Who was riding boats down the streets and helicopters in the air, saving lives? Who set up a triage unit in the Superdome, got people off of rooftops, delivered babies, handed out MREs and water bottles? The Coast Guard and National Guard.”
He stood up and threw a twenty on the table. “35,000 Americans are alive today thanks to them. That’s why I joined. And I’m not planning on a dating a woman who tries to make me ashamed of it.”
She chased him. First time in her life she had ever literally run after a man. It took three blocks before Billy would talk to her. By block six, she’d told him about her dad, about the upheaval of her childhood, about her mom leaving because she couldn’t take Army life anymore, about Val and Lucy’s vow. By block ten, they ducked into a Buckhead bar and Billy could look her in the eye again.
A few months later, he told her he was deploying to Afghanistan. A month after that, they were married.
“Valerie?” Lucy’s voice came through the closed door. Val sat up slowly in the bed, trying not to make a sound, terrified. What news was her sister about to tell? Val could pretend she was asleep, could buy herself another hour or two of ignorance, could crawl back under the blankets and pillows. Then she could remember all the days and nights she had had with Billy, the softball games and the football watching, the time they hiked part of the Appalachian Trail in Dahlonega and Val inexplicably lost the poles to their tent and Billy didn’t care at all, just set up camp and had them sleep under a full moon.
The knock was louder. Even a sleeping Val couldn’t ignore it any longer.
She stood shakily, stepped across the small room, opened the door. Lucy stood with one hand around Val’s cell phone, the other hand pressed against her mouth. She shoved the phone at Val.
“Hello?” Val whispered.
For a moment she thought she had actually fallen asleep, that she was in the middle of a dream, and she reached out and dug her nails into Lucy’s wrist just to be sure.
Amid the clicks and echoes of her phone, the static and haze of seven thousand miles, Val heard Billy say her name.