by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
Lucy looked exactly the way Jim felt: She looked as if she had spent the past nine months hoping against all hope that the person she loved most would return.
Lucy did not drive Jim’s truck to Armstrong International Airport. Oh, no. She took the Volvo and left the truck in the garage, where it had been since she brought it home with its new bumper and muffler. She also did not bring June. She left her 4-year-old screaming on the kitchen’s tiles while Valerie ran around trying to distract her with chocolate chip cookies.
“I could be waiting for hours!” Lucy said, patting June’s convulsing back. Lucy knew from experience that her husband’s flights never arrived when they were supposed to. “You’ll have much more fun here with Aunty Val.”
But June crawled away from her touch, wailing that she wanted to see her daddy. Lucy mouthed, “Naptime” to Val, grabbed her keys, and left the house. She felt guilty about abandoning June until she arrived at the airport and learned that Jim’s flight was, of course, delayed. One hour became two, which then became three.
Lucy had left the house so quickly she’d forgotten to bring reading material, or, more importantly, her make-up bag to fix her face. She tried to look at the books and magazines in the Hudson News shop in the terminal, but the words would not string themselves together logically and the movie stars on the covers of the glossies seemed sinister with their plastic flesh and wide smiles.
Surely none of them had spent more than nine months waiting for their husbands to return from Afghanistan. Surely stories about their latest workouts, frivolous divorces, and coconut water diets would just remind Lucy that they had never listened to their daughters’ goodnight prayers asking God to make sure their daddies didn’t get blown up.
Instead, Lucy became intimate with the menu at PJ’s Coffee, managing to drink down a latte, an iced mocha, and then, Lord knows why, something frozen called “Southern Wedding Cake,” which immediately made her feel like she was bursting out of the tight dress she had bought for today.
And her feet, in heels that were much too high, were throbbing so much she was tempted to order another frozen Southern Wedding Cake and stick her feet inside the supersized cup to soothe them.
By the time the Arrivals screen announced that Jim’s plane had landed, her hands were shaking, her mascara was pooled under her eyes, she was walking around barefoot, and she’d visited the women’s room six times.
Jim tried to look like a normal human being as he waited to deplane. He watched teenagers with iPods dangling from their ears and old folks in golf shirts calmly tug at overhead baggage as if they had all the time in the world. What he really wanted to do was shout, “Move the hell out!” and kick his way to the door.
He glanced at the other uniformed men and women who had also boarded this civilian flight in Atlanta for the final leg to New Orleans. They too seemed to be trying very hard to not look and act as deranged as they felt. An Army lieutenant a few rows ahead was visibly doing some kind of deep yoga breathing, while the mother next to her picked up her toddler’s scattered toys (the toddler had screamed for two hours straight).
Jim knew that every uniformed member onboard had just lived through a torturously slow trip like his own: Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, to Manas, Kyrgyzstan (four and a half hours), the indefinite wait in Manas for a flight out (for Jim, 18 days), Manas to Incirlik, Turkey (six and a half hours), and on to Shannon, Ireland (four hours), then Shannon to Atlanta (eight and a half hours).
Then they had to sit on an Atlanta runway in the rain for so long that Jim and his neighbor, a 19-year-old Marine, had convinced each other to share a rental car and drive to New Orleans just when the crew announced their take off. Now, amid the baseball caps and t-shirts, he could spot the digitized blur of Army, Marines, and Air Force uniforms, every one of them tapping their thighs or fidgeting with their backpacks, every single one of them delirious with a combination of exhaustion and caffeine, in sore need of fresh fruit and vitamins and leg space, wanting more than anything to step off that plane and find someone waiting for them.
Lucy drew closer to the security gate, trying to peer over the metal detectors and luggage scanners and catch a glimpse of her husband.
“Ma’am, please step away from security,” a large man bellowed at her. She smiled and waved, then did a quick loop around the terminal. When she returned to the Terminal B arrival gate, she drew even closer.
“Ma’am, I am NOT going to tell you again. Step AWAY from security,” the same man shouted, arms folded across his pressed uniform.
She stopped and stared. “Where are YOUR combat medals, fat man?” she wanted to ask. But instead she said, “I’m certainly not a threat! I am waiting for my husband to return from war!” Then she quickly scurried back into PJ’s Coffee before anyone could take a picture of her for future security alerts.
Jim had somehow forgotten all about June’s birthday when he was in Afghanistan. It was only when he was languishing in Manas that he remembered civilized fathers and husbands ought to bring back presents to their family. He scoured the market there looking for something vaguely Afghani, like a plush camel or a pewter tea pot for Lucy, but had failed, and instead purchased an old Russian officer’s hat with a Soviet hammer and sickle emblem on front for June (what was he thinking?) and a gaudy Prada knockoff purse for Lucy (again, what was he thinking?).
He had done a little better in Shannon Airport, where they refueled. There they had let loose an entire plane of hot-blooded young military to stare with lust upon one of the most cruelly beautiful bars in the entire world-12 gleaming taps of beer, all of it out of reach thanks to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If Dante had had more foresight, he would have made that one of his rings of hell, all those airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines gazing at good Irish beer after nine months in dry Afghanistan.
But Jim had at least raided the gift shop, brought June home a pink Guinness is Good For You t-shirt and Irish Cream chocolates for Lucy. He hated placing these gifts in the same backpack he stuffed his dirty socks and t-shirts into, imagining everything crushed and reeking, but it was the best he could do.
This time Lucy managed to get right up against the barriers, TSA be damned, and her fat-man-adversary was actually checking carry-on bags and didn’t notice her.
She saw Jim first.
Lucy, always so calm and in control. Lucy, the older sister who took care of everything. Lucy, who had pictures of Grace Kelly in her high school locker and whose favorite word was “sophisticated.” Well, that same Lucy started to jump up and down. She didn’t think about trying to act graceful, she didn’t think at all, just lurched into the air as if she’d been hit with a cattle prod.
There he was. Alive. He had made it. He had returned intact. She pressed both hands against her mouth, amazed. There he was, blurred by her tears; there he was making his way toward her.
Lucy let loose a shout that made all the TSA guards turn toward her and grab their walkie-talkies in fear.
Jim could feel every hour of travel, every day and month of his time away in each step he took toward the exit sign; he felt so tired he could have collapsed right there and slept his way until Christmas, roller bags zipping right over his inert form. He should have brushed his teeth, washed his face-jeez, washed his hands-what time zone was he in the last time he washed his hands?
That was the sort of thing he would need to start thinking about now that he was back in the “real world.” For nearly 10 months, he’d been surrounded by soldiers filthier than himself, with showers and flush toilets a luxury. His morning grooming nothing more than a cold shave and a baby wipe swiped over his crotch.
He had a sudden and very crisp memory of June as a baby, crawling around the house, how he would come home from work and reach to pick her up, and Lucy would ask in a cheerful voice, “Honey, did you wash your hands?” He dutifully would, never mentioning that Baby June was certainly picking up her fair share of germs from the dust bunnies under the fridge or from gnawing the toilet seat. He’d just let it slide.
He needed to remember that now, needed to just let things slide. He’d have to watch out for the cursing that made up about 50 percent of the TOC talk in Kabul. He would have to remember that Lucy had been doing things her own way while he was gone. Maybe her way had become the right way. She and June had their own routines, and he would slowly have to fit himself back into their lives.
Things were going to be different. They always were when he got home, and he would have to accept it until life became normal again.
Then he heard a maniacal shout near the exit doors, security all turning toward it, and Jim realized the noise was coming from someone who looked alarmingly like his wife. What was she doing, a hop with her hands in the air one moment, rubbing her eyes the next, then wildly waving again? Her hair was shorter than he liked it. Her face was deathly pale except for dark makeup smudged under her eyes, and she was barefoot, high-heels kicked over next to red, white and blue helium balloons listing to the side.
Jim felt his legs, dragging just a second before, begin to run. He had the distinct feeling he had to get to his wife before TSA did. Lucy looked like a disaster, some lunatic set loose in this world where the people around her had nothing more to worry about than the weather. She looked exactly the way Jim felt; she looked as if she had spent the past nine months hoping against all hope that the person she loved most would return.
She was his. She was here. All the months, weeks, days, and hours were behind him-in two more seconds he would finally touch her.
She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.