I never thought I’d get married. But three weeks after walking down the aisle in the perfect white dress with the perfect hair and the perfect makeup and the perfect everything- before God and every other person that I thought had mattered…he left me.
OK, I’ll be honest: I WANTED to get married, I just had growing paranoia that the head-over-heels, madly in love, can’t live without one another, Prince Charming/Cinderella madness would never actually happen for me.
It’s not that I didn’t have relationships before, I mean, heck, I was engaged at one point. But I never felt that…feeling. As I neared my late twenties, I started to get a little panicky: was something wrong with me? Was I missing that love chip that the world told me was supposed to be ingrained within my heart somewhere? Would I have to settle? Was that what love was? Settling?
But then I met Matt.
Within two months of dating, we were engaged. After a whirlwind four months of engagement we were married.
And then he left me….for the Marines.
Three weeks after our wedding, he was dropping me off at the airport to catch a flight back to my hometown and telling me that he, ‘couldn’t get out of the car to hug me goodbye at the airport,’ because he was in his working uniform.
And so I exited the car and watched–as tears streamed down my face–his tiny silver sports car drive to a very different airfield.
But, I wasn’t worried about us. The day of our wedding (and the days leading up to our wedding) I never once felt a single jitter. This was the man I was going to, was destined to, marry. The fantasy was still in my head. Except the problem with fantasies based on movies is that they all end at the perfect moment: Richard Gere carrying Debra Winger through the factory, Tom Cruise kissing Kelly McGillis as he returns from a harrowing flight.
I had the fantasy. Now I was living in the ‘ever after.’ And in the ‘ever after,’ anything is game.
So I returned home to my normal life and my job and dreamt of the moment we’d see one another again on R&R in Japan.
But when the time finally arrived, it wasn’t exactly singsong happiness. Sure, we stayed in beautiful places and saw amazing sites, but something was off. Instead of being the madly in love fantasy couple I had envisioned us in my head, I realized that we had different opinions on quite a bit, actually. I mostly realized this after agreeing to take a bike ride around Kyoto, which apparently involves a few large hills. While riding up a rather large hill to see our, what felt like, seven hundredth temple, I had enough.
‘NOT ANOTHER TEMPLE!’ I screamed as compact cars whizzed dangerously past me.
‘IT IS NOT ANOTHER TEMPLE! IT’S THE KIYOMIZU-DERA!’
I wanted to stop on that mountain. I wanted to head back to the hotel, put on comfortable clothes, find a bar somewhere and converse with the locals. To me, that was vacation. A glass of wine and engaging conversation. Sure, I’d be happy to see a few temples here and there, but to the dismay of all historians everywhere, I preferred to take in my culture with a engaging story and a chilled Pinot Grigio. My husband, on the other hand, was intent on seeing absolutely everything that had been constructed on the Japanese Island since 710 AD.
I will admit that one morning as we sat across from one another in our hotel breakfast lounge, he with a red pen and map of Kyoto spread before him, pushing his American breakfast, I thought with a self resigned sense of exhaustion, ‘well, they eat sushi here for breakfast, how far off on the socially acceptable scale would it be to order a drink?’ And so that afternoon, while wandering around perfectly manicured gardens, we lost one another. I spent at least fifteen minutes stewing on a bench as I stared at a Zen Garden.
I did not, in those fifteen minutes, feel particularly Zen.
That was when I learned a very important lesson about myself: it doesn’t matter if I’m with a gorgeous man in an exotic location, I can still feel lonely.
When he was set to return from deployment, I flew out to San Diego and grew ever more excited to watch his plane. When his squadron landed, I ran out to greet him, all memories of the R&R behind me, as seeing a spouse that is all yours (in a flight suit) is wont to do. We had lots of plans in San Diego before we drove cross-country to our new duty station. And then…I got Salmonella poisoning.
I would say that the first year of marriage went along those lines pretty precisely: we’d have big plans, and in good moments, wax philosophical about how madly in love with one another we were, and then reality would hit. We’d be having dinner while I discussed the relationship toils of my friend, while he’d be recounting the battle of Tarawa, I’d be home alone with our infant daughter (oh yes, that happened)-ragged, hair in knots, no time to shower or eat, wearing the same pair of yoga pants for three days straight while he’d be in the field with forty ‘kids’ of his own, wearing the same uniform for three days straight, no time to eat or shower. And we’d both be aggravated that neither of us got it.
I spent our first anniversary crying and wondering how the hell I’d gotten to some god forsaken duty town a million miles away from family, friends, the job I’d loved, and alone. That day, I’d posted on message boards of fellow military spouses looking for understanding, or really, looking for someone to tell me that it was OK to feel completely full of self-pity.
We’d yelled at one another; once I threw a plate on the floor in a rage (and also because I thought it made me look like a passionate Latino women, like Penelope Cruise). But all it did was make me look like a deranged, exhausted woman tiptoeing around broken china.
I remembered my full of life friends in my hometown, my career that was moving up and up and up before I’d left and put a definite bottom line out. I’d questioned how everything had added up to me here, with this stranger and this small child that I had brought into this world and was completely, and totally overwhelmed. I had absolutely no idea how to move forward through the fog that surrounded me- it seemed absolutely never-ending. Twice, even, I had packed my bags to leave without a destination in mind-just an idea of freedom and a beach and my little girl.
But then one day, it sort of lifted. I wish I knew why: but it was into our second year of marriage. We had grown to understand one another, or perhaps, bite our tongues better. Sure, we still fought, but when we did, it wasn’t always to ‘win’-at least not all the time.
And just as soon as the clouds of self-pity lifted, I realized that I wasn’t so different–from women everywhere, from men everywhere, from my husband. That’s the thing about military spouses: we’re not so different. There’s no black and white cartoon image that can accurately describe us all. Instead, there’s a lot of foggy grey. And mostly, we’re just like any other married couple.
In popular culture, there’s a real tendency to pigeonhole us military spouses: we’re either the long suffering spouse of a military man or women grappling with psychological issues, or we’re the loving one in the kitchen just waiting to run up to that man or woman in uniform as he or she comes home from war. That is not reality. That is not ANYONE’S reality, military or civilian spouse alike.
The problem with fantasy is not just that it requires our spouses to fit a certain mold of perfection, but correspondingly, it asks of us to fit that mold, too. And, fighting against that, we wind up stuck in a foggy haze of confused expectations.
We, as individuals, are not defined by our spouse’s military calling, no more than a movie or a fantasy can define us. In turn, our marriages are not defined by any one ideal or vision of what a marriage can or should look like.
That first year of marriage was really a battle for us, a battle that we trudged through on the home front-a battle so many of our fellow married couples share. Heading into my fourth year of marriage, I don’t think of him as a military man. He doesn’t think of me as a military spouse. In the end, we’re all just trying to fight through the grey fog to define ourselves outside the meticulously drawn black outline of fantasy.
There will be moments when he picks me up and carries me, and there will be moments when I do the same for him. Great marriages don’t begin or end when a director yells, ‘cut.’ The moment when Richard Gere and Debra Winger walk out into the sunshine and look at one another and say, ‘what next?’ is when greatness begins.