by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
“Aunty Val? Daddy?” June stepped into the room, holding out her doll. “Why are you fighting?”
Lucy hadn’t actually lied to her husband.
She just let him think what he wanted to think.
When Val had first showed up in New Orleans, Lucy sent Jim a brief e-mail:
Valerie appeared on Bourbon Street tonight, sopping wet, like some lost thing washed out of a drainage pipe. I imagine she will stay a day or two, just long enough to stir up trouble before going off on her merry way.
Jim’s reply was equally glib:
Hope your sister is long gone by now. Though I’m glad she came to see you, babe, especially if she was abjectly repentant about being a total misfit at our wedding. But knowing Val, she probably just penned mustaches on every picture of me, finished off our liquor cabinet, and left you more upset than when she arrived. I’m thinking Kabul was a friendlier place for me than at home with Val. So how’d it go?
Lucy had refrained from replying.
She e-mailed Jim, of course, her daily messages full of anecdotes about what little June had said and done. But she hadn’t mentioned that Val was not only still visiting, but officially living in the house Jim paid for. Weeks had gone by and still Lucy hadn’t admitted that her sister was there, yes, drinking her share of Jim’s top shelf whiskey, but also bringing June to the park every afternoon as well as staying up late with Lucy each night, telling tales of the mean streets and wild bars of Hot Lanta.
Not that she didn’t still drive Lucy crazy with the way she lazed around every morning, how she didn’t load the dishwasher properly, or hadn’t bothered to look at any want ads for a new job (or go back to school, which was what Lucy was really pushing).
But having her sister around helped fill up the loneliness that swelled in Jim’s absence. And Lucy, though she had been trying to figure out a good way to break it to her husband, couldn’t come up with the right words.
Today they were finally managing to do a Skype session, which they tried to every two weeks or so, depending on Jim’s schedule. It was always the highlight of their week, June and Lucy getting dressed up for their “date with Daddy.”
While they waited for his call to sound through the computer, Lucy let June affix twenty child-sized hair clips into her shoulder length blond hair, giving Lucy the look of dreadlocks gone terribly wrong.
“How are my girls?” Jim asked as soon as his face popped up on the computer screen.
“Daddy!” June jumped in front of Lucy, eclipsing her mother, trying to soak up every bit of her father’s precious attention. But Jim noticed Lucy’s hair anyway and his face opened into a huge smile. His words were one second behind the moving of his lips: “Let me guess, my June Bug has been playing stylist on Mommy again?”
June turned her own finely coiffed head of hair. “Do we look pretty?”
“Gorgeous!” he told her. “The two most beautiful ladies in the world.”
June preened and Lucy bit her lip, wondering how she could segue way into a serious conversation about Val. It was one thing to avoid the subject in e-mails, quite another to be looking into her husband’s eyes and continue to keep something from him.
But before Lucy could speak, June shouted, “Yesterday, Aunty Val painted me with lipstick and eye shadow!”
Jim glanced at his wife, the smile on his face suddenly out of synch with his eyes. “Is that right?” he asked slowly. “I thought Valerie left weeks ago?”
“No, Daddy, she lives here now. And she sleeps all day long. Mommy calls it hyper-nation, and I have to be quiet until lunch time or Aunty Val will tickle me until I pee my pants.”
“June, why don’t you show Daddy your new ballerina?” Lucy said. June raced to her bedroom to fetch the doll.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Jim hissed as soon as June was gone, rubbing his thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose. He looked more worn than usual, shadows under his eyes, the skin at his temples thin and wrinkled. Lucy wondered suddenly about the things they didn’t discuss-which included just about everything in Afghanistan.
Jim, in a war zone, oohed and aahed as if a 3-year-old’s hairstyle was the most important thing in the world, and never mentioned the fears and darkness he woke up to every day. And Lucy was too afraid to ask.
“Val married a soldier,” Lucy began, already losing the thread of her carefully devised delivery. “He’s deployed and she’s alone. She’s my sister, Jim, and I know she can be an ass, but I think she needs to be near a base, with people who understand what she is going through.”
He looked at her, incredulous. “That’s just great, Lucy. Did you forget how she once stole your car and was so drunk she drove it into a Quick-i-mart? How about the time she told me I was the worst thing that ever happened to you and then asked if I would jump off a bridge so you could have a social life again?”
Lucy shifted uneasily in her seat, noticing that June had left the office door wide open in her departure. “Jim, Val was a teenager when she did all of that. Well, maybe she was twenty. But it doesn’t matter now. She’s changed. She’s a married woman.”
“God bless the man cursed with supporting that harpy-“
“Who are you calling a harpy, you socially retarded, judgmental prig?” Val shouted from the doorway, holding, to Lucy’s dismay, a laundry basket full of June’s clothes, neatly stacked and folded. Lucy was more amazed that her sister had done June’s laundry than she was that Val had been eavesdropping.
“This is great,” Jim said, throwing his arms up in the air so quickly that his image was blurred for a moment. “This is just what I want to come home to.”
“Don’t you worry, deck ape, I don’t plan to be within five hundred miles of here when you get back!” Val said.
“Val… Jim, please,” Lucy whispered, putting her own hands in the air. She almost had to repress a smile: Where in the world had Val heard the navy slang deck ape?
But Jim retorted too quickly for Lucy to intercede. “Sure, you’ll be gone, after you milk Lucy’s kindness and suck down as much of my deployment pay and free booze as you can.”
Val threw the laundry basket across the carpet. “You sorry piece of -”
“Aunty Val? Daddy?” June stepped into the room, holding out her doll. “Why are you fighting?”
Lucy blinked, then laughed her loudest, fakest laugh. “Oh, Juney, aren’t they so funny? Daddy and Val love to play act, don’t they?”
June trod over the clothes on the carpet, peering at the three adults and their unconvincing smiles. “Are you angry, Daddy?”
“No, baby. I am so happy to see you. Mommy says you’ve been a very good girl today.”
June looked at her mother, even less persuaded that everything was all right, especially since she had backed up Lucy’s toilet with an entire roll of toilet paper just that morning.
Jim continued, “You know I love you more than anything, right June?”
“More than Mommy?”
He laughed. “I love my girls the same.”
June glanced at Val. “And Aunty Val, is she your girl too?”
Jim floundered for a reply.
Val smirked, leaned over and planted a kiss on June’s head. “You talk to your daddy while I throw a couple of frozen pizzas in the oven. This is your time with him; I’m sorry I interrupted.”
Lucy stood up and followed her sister out the door. “Wait, Val. Jim is under a lot of stress, he didn’t mean-“
“I was planning on getting my own place, Lucy. I’ve been looking at studio apartments online all week. I’ll just try a little harder now. For everybody’s sake. I could use a little more freedom myself.”
Lucy nodded wordlessly. She thought her sister needed “more freedom” about as much as she needed a lobotomy, but now wasn’t the time to have that conversation. Val slipped out the door and Lucy turned back to the computer.
June stood a few inches from the screen, lavishly pressing her lips to her palm and blowing kisses. Jim, his image coming in and out of focus, moved as if he was snatching butterflies out of the air.
“Your kisses made it all the way to Kabul!” he said. Then he turned to stare at his wife, his face serious again. “That got out of hand, Lucy, I shouldn’t have lost my temper. But it’s been weeks since you e-mailed about Val’s supposed ‘visit.’ You’ve got to communicate with me, babe. It’s all we have. So what’s been really going on?”
As Lucy started to reply, Jim’s face grew pixilated, tiny squares of color that didn’t quite fit together into a picture. He seemed to realize they were losing their connection, quickly saying, “June Bug, I love you and Mommy. Always.”
Then the screen froze completely, his image a stretched out computer animation, his mouth open, his body digitized into a camouflaged blur with only a hand and half of his face distinguishable.
“I love you too,” Lucy gushed, putting her fingertips on the screen, a habit she could never break. Somehow just touching the flat image of her husband was better than not touching him at all. “Jim?” But he was gone, the screen suddenly empty.
“I didn’t say goodbye!” June shrieked, slipping into the inevitable grief that struck whenever the Skype session ended, dropping her Bella Ballerina on the floor with the now rumpled nightgowns and t-shirts. She whimpered, “I miss my daddy.”
Lucy put her arms around her daughter’s waist. “Me too, baby. Only four more months.”
“Will Aunt Val be here when Daddy get’s back?” June asked. “I want her to stay forever.”
“We’ll see, love,” Lucy answered cautiously, her eyes still on the computer, willing Jim to call back, to hear his voice again, to settle the uneasy feeling in her stomach over their unfinished argument. But the computer remained silent. “We’ll see.”