by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
Val and Lucy sat in Lucy’s living room, waiting for their dad to call. He’d spoken to Lucy yesterday and asked to schedule a time “to talk” with both sisters. This, of course, freaked them out: It could only be news about his new relationship. So the sisters had been drinking steadily from a large bottle of cheap Merlot since dinner to bolster themselves.
The phone rang at nine o’clock on the dot. Lucy picked up. “Hello, Dad.”
Val glanced at her empty wine glass, motioning to her sister that she’d get a refill in the kitchen. When she returned with the bottle of red, Lucy had the phone on speaker.
“OK, Dad, let ‘er rip,” Val said. “I’m back in the room and fortified.”
Lucy glanced at her sister and shook her head, not amused.
Her father’s rich voice filled the room. “Well, girls, I think this will not surprise you. Rita and I want to have the wedding as soon as possible. How about a trip to Columbus, maybe in two weeks?”
Val slugged back half of her glass while Lucy, forehead creased like an accordion, murmured quiet congratulations.
“What’s the rush, Pops?” Val asked. “Why don’t you get to know one another for a while longer? Live it up and live in sin?”
“VAL!” Lucy shouted. Val couldn’t restrain her laughter. Man, sometimes she really cracked herself up.
The phone was silent.
Val continued, “C’mon, Dad. I just want to see you have some fun. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? Right?”
But it wasn’t her father’s voice that replied. It was Rita’s. “That’s very… noble… of you, Valerie. And I am sure you are just looking out for your father’s best interests. But I am a little more, shall we say traditional, than you young folk.”
Lucy buried her face in her hands.
“Oh, hi… Rita, no one told me you were on the phone,” Val replied. “Ha ha. I was totally joking.”
Then her father’s First Sergeant voice took over, short and brisk. “Thank you, Valerie. Mark your calendar. Two weeks. Rita and I will buy a size-4 flower girl dress for Juney.” The phone abruptly disconnected.
“Seriously?” Lucy asked.”‘Why buy the cow when you can get the mile for free?!’ Even if Rita wasn’t there, why would you say that to our father? What is wrong with you?”
Val shrugged, biting the side of her thumbnail. Her sister was right. There was something wicked in Val that always came out when there was talk of a wedding, especially when mixed with a few glasses of alcohol. “I don’t know,” she whispered. But part of her knew exactly what she was doing-right or wrong, every time someone Val loved got married, she couldn’t help but feel like she was losing them.
After the phone debacle, Lucy had demanded Val spend the night. When Val got home to her shabby studio apartment the next day, she brewed a pot of coffee and turned on her new laptop. It was the one extravagant thing she’d bought since moving to New Orleans. She had a used futon for a couch, one of Lucy’s old mattresses for her bed, and the most rickety, god-awful pea-green colored dinner table from the Salvation Army. But she had splurged on a laptop with a built-in video camera and Wi-Fi. It had been Billy’s idea.
She’d sit down at the computer, and even if there weren’t any e-mails from her husband, it still felt like a portal magically linking them together. She could hit ‘send’ and whatever words she’d strung together on the keyboard would eventually get to him thousands and thousands of miles away. It was more dependable than the mail he sometimes sent, half-legible notes he jotted on scraps of paper while on guard duty and trying to stay awake.
Of course, she kept all of those, too, in a shoebox by the bed. She’d reach inside and read one each night, liking that the last thing she saw before sleep was his handwriting. The way he wrote in miniscule capital letters made it seem if all of his sentences were being softly shouted to her from Paktika, Afghanistan.
Today there was an e-mail, and Val wouldn’t let herself read it until she had a huge creamy mug of coffee in her hands and Ella Fitzgerald crooning from her thrift-shop boom box.
My gal, Val,
We got back from patrol before the chow hall closed, just in time to get a nice big serving of mac’n’cheese that had been sitting out for three hours. I shouldn’t complain now that we have a DFAC after months of MREs. But whether it’s a MRE or so-called “fresh,” I still have to cover my food in Tabasco to make it edible.
Have I mentioned that I miss you?
The locals are starting to warm to us. Doesn’t hurt that the captain is handing out small business grants, kinda like giving away free flapjacks at Denny’s: Everybody wants some. Even kids are asking for ‘Dollar, dollar!” Democracy might take a while, but they sure figured out the capitalism part.
Val, damn, I am lonely for you. Even in the middle of the day, surrounded by my buddies. I know you feel the same. When I think of you all by yourself, I am relieved to know your sister has your back.
Miss you (and your cooking) so much, Billy
This laptop was worth every penny, Val thought, tears in her eyes, fingers already typing a long reply.
Her dad’s wedding was held exactly two weeks later at the Fort Benning Infantry Chapel. Val was surprised at how comforting it was to drive onto base after being away for a few years-this time showing her military spouse ID rather than the dependent ID of her youth.
What once seemed oppressive now felt comforting in its fortified strength: Doughboy Stadium with its long white walls and even longer history, the red brick barracks with their medieval castle flair, the Airborne jump towers like fence posts in the distance.
Val and Billy had had a hasty courtroom wedding before he left. He’d promised her a church wedding as soon as he got back. Now, looking up into that chapel dome, thinking of all the uniformed men and women who had stood there and pledged their love before God and country since 1934, well, Val thought that this chapel might be right for her and Billy, too.
Rita did not wear the mini-skirted wedding dress that Val and Lucy had feared she might, having seen the outfit she’d worn when they met her. Instead she wore a simple off-white, calf-length gown, her bright red hair toned down in a French twist. But she was wearing four-inch, glittering gold heels.
The girls took their seats in the front row, with young June at the back of the chapel. June took her flower girl role very seriously, pausing with each step to drop one rose petal at a time down the aisle, until Lucy, noticing how the chaplain was looking at his watch, took the little girl by the arm and walked her briskly to the altar.
Though they never in a million years thought they would have this reaction, both Lucy and Val found themselves crying as their father said his vows, amazed that this man, so straight in his tuxedo, so stern in feature, so proud and stoic, could promise such undying love.
The reception at the Benning Club was held in one of the smaller rooms, just friends and family, with a forty-ish DJ in the corner playing Elvis. Rita had a whole red-headed clan clustered around, including some preschoolers in plaid shirts and sneakers that June immediately started chasing.
The first thing Val’s dad did was take her over to the bar. “Absolutely, under no circumstances whatsoever, give this woman a drink,” he said.
The bartender looked between Val and her father, not sure if this was a joke.
“It’s OK,” Val said. “I agree. No matter what, do not give me any booze. I have a history of trying to ruin the weddings of family members.”
The bartender, clearly an off-duty soldier, looked at Val’s dad, who, even with his new goatee, still exuded 26 years of military service. The bartender swallowed his grin. “Yes, sir,” he said, actually standing at attention.
The DJ played a salsa, and bride and groom went out to the middle of the floor. Val winced at her father’s attempt to dance in public. “My God, he really must be in love,” Lucy whispered and Val nodded.
Billy had met her dad once, before they’d gotten married. They drove Billy’s truck from Atlanta to Columbus to pick up some of Val’s old clothes and a beanbag chair she hadn’t used since high school. Her dad and Billy had talked sports, but each time Val had lugged another black bag of clothes out to the truck, she heard their voices drop and she knew they were talking about Afghanistan. On the ride home, Billy had said how much he liked her father, and he squeezed her knee appreciatively, as if liking her dad made him treasure Val even more.
“I wish Billy was here,” she said, knowing Lucy had to be feeling the same thing about Jim. It seemed horrible to be having this monumental moment, this celebration, without their husbands. She scanned the tables scattered around the room, all the couples with their wine glasses and salad plates, so lucky to be sitting next to the people they loved most in the world.
Many of them were retired military like their father, so they had been through exactly what Val and Lucy were going through now. They had lived the military life, the months and years spent apart, missing anniversaries and holidays and children’s first words; yet they managed to snap back together time and time again. Val looked at her sister, so glad she and Lucy were in this together, both of them alone. She didn’t know what she’d do if she didn’t have her sister next to her every step of the way.
Then their father’s voice broke over the DJ’s microphone. “I’d like to propose a toast,” he said. “To my new bride, Rita, for making this broken-down old infantry grunt the happiest man alive.” The roomful of people clapped. He continued, “And I’d like to toast my daughters, Lucille and Valerie, and their husbands, who can’t be here today because they are serving our country.” Faces turned toward the girls. “I am so proud of them, my beautiful girls, for their sacrifice and strength.”
The guests applauded and Val lifted up her champagne flute full of apple juice, clinking it against Lucy’s, full of the real thing. Then, as if on cue, Lucy’s cell phone rang. Their dad went back to the awkward leg shaking he mistook for dancing, and Lucy hunched under the table, a finger in the ear not pressed up against her phone.
When her head popped up again, her mascara was down her cheekbones. Val, who had never seen her sister look so smeared and Goth, knocked her water glass into her lap. “My God, Luce! What’s wrong?”
Lucy’s leaking eyes widened. “That was Jim,” she said. “He just got his orders-he’s coming home next month.”
Val could feel ice water seeping through her thin skirt. The salsa music was too loud, everyone talking and laughing at once, her sister blinking and waiting for her response. God, how she hated weddings.
“That’s just great,” she said.