When people think of packed bags placed at the doorstep, they think of adventure, of moving from the world of mediocrity into an exciting unknown. When I think of packed bags, I think of my husband’s old duffel bag, almost as big as me, circular in shape when stuffed with twelve shirts, navy blue per regulation, two uniforms, a poopy suit, and probably two pairs of civilian clothes, ensuring one shirt was a button up in case they hit up certain ports. There would be a few photos with handwritten notes from me about how much I loved him, his laptop, some books he planned to read but wouldn’t, shampoos, deodorants, and every necessity that one needed to feel alive while trapped in a submarine. And that bag stunk, worse than my husband’s uniform because at least that got washed from time to time, although not as regularly as I would have liked. That bag had absorbed the sweat, masculine angst, amine, and whatever that sub’s filtration system couldn’t clean out of that boat.
I never hated that bag more than on April 11, 2015 when I found it, at five a.m., placed beside the doorway. It tripped me as I went down to switch over the load of laundry that I had forgotten about. It was solid, like it wasn’t a duffel bag with Josh’s things but a punching bag set loose from its frame. I kicked the stupid thing, but I immediately felt guilty.
“You ok?” I heard his voice call from the top of the stairway.
“I thought you were supposed to bring this bag to the boat yesterday?” I grumbled, but I didn’t say it loud enough for him to hear. I couldn’t be mad or bitter today; I couldn’t argue or whine. Today I had to swallow every ounce of negativity that threatened to spill forth, for his sake.
Going up the steps, I thought of our neighbor’s kid, Ronnie, who just a few weeks ago had turned their set of stairs into a makeshift ramp. I can’t remember if he rode a sled or a snow board, but either way, the velocity of sliding down the stairs helped him to pick up speed, enough speed that when his ride caught the edge of the stairwell, the boy was propelled out the open door, which I assume was his intent. What he didn’t account for was the landing, his weight upon his wrist, the bones inside snapping under the pressure. I had talked to his mother the night before, and she said he’d have that cast on for six months. That’s over 180 days, two seasons.
Waiting six months seems like forever, but for people like me and Ronnie who are dependents of the US. Navy, that’s a time frame we’re used to. That’s the length of a submariner’s deployment.
Josh was sitting on our bed, his hair still wet from the shower that he had taken, which was his way to kickstart his day. He was silent, the glow of his phone contrasting the entrenched darkness of the master bedroom. I stood in the door frame trying to soak in his features, like the adorable way his lips moved from time to time when he was reading. Perhaps it was the lack of constant exposure to the sun, but in the ten years that we had been married, he looked like he hadn’t aged a day, his skin even sporting a pimple on the lower right of his chin.
In contrast, I was almost twice the size, exponentially worn, and always tired. My belly was still swollen from having Alexander a few weeks ago, and my hair was more out than inside of my bun. I was still in maternity clothes, which were more comfortable than attractive.
The newborn, sleeping in the bassinet next to the bed, wouldn’t be a wrinkled little new life when Josh came home but three times the size, sitting up, on the verge of crawling. Our middle son, Andreas, would have lost a tooth or two, perhaps even broken some bones to cope with the changes in his life, like Ronnie. Maddie, our eldest, would have advanced a belt in her karate classes and performed in two vocal recitals. I would have lost the baby flab, got inducted as the Family Readiness Group’s Vice President, and signed up for a community college class.
Life was going to move on without our submariner.
When Josh arrived back in port, his mind would be on liberty, on freedom, and the bitter attempt to reclaim life that was robbed from him. It would take time for us to fall into a semblance of normalcy, but the truth, the secret that no one talks about is that both feet may be on soil, but a submariner’s soul is always left somewhere on that damn sinking ship.
Not only sinking, but silent, parallel to the silent service that I was submitted to each time he departed. This morning, the lack of words exchanged before a long separation, was tradition. Although which of us established it, I cannot say. We’d separate from each other through the absence of words way before the separation of miles and international waters.
I took a seat at my vanity that was wedged on my side of the bed. I brushed my hair, staring into the mirror but barely registering the reflection before me. Truth be told, I was staring at the little photo stuck in the corner of the mirror. It was one of those random quick snap photo sets you can get for $5 at the movie theatre.
“Check your messages,” he said to me, his eyes never leaving his phone.
Tying my hair up quickly into a bun, I looked at him cautiously, but then I did what he asked, finding my phone on the end of my nightstand. I had a text message, and given that it was 5:18 in the morning, I knew right away it had something to do with Valencia. Valencia was Josh’s best friend on the boat, a boyfriend really with all the emotional attachments of being in a committed relationship but lacking sexual intimacy. Often, it felt like their relationship was stronger, their brotherhood and the task of enduring being submerged in a tube trumping my ability to give Josh love and a family.
No part of our relationship lacked the aftertaste of Valencia.
The text message was one word: Ride. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to read that. Was it a question? An informal Uber request? My mood, already soured by that stupid deployment bag, made me feel like it was an order.
I couldn’t get mad at Valencia; after all, he was deploying too.
At least there was a bright side to this deployment: I’d be free of having to deal with him for a while. But that wasn’t true, given that I had painstakingly supported Valencia as much I did Josh, sending encouraging emails, crafting halfway boxes, even decorating a calendar square to celebrate his birthday in July. Again, all the emotional entrenchment of a relationship without the sexual perks.
“Fine,” I typed back, figuring one-word questions deserved one-word responses. These guys didn’t think about things until the last minute, but I had known since the deployment date was scheduled that I would be driving Valencia in. I always drove the two besties in on their adventure days. The message was just a weird formality.
I headed to the room where our two older kids were sleeping. Waking them early was going to be the bane of my existence, but I had to do it. When I was a kid, my mom would just tell the neighbor adjacent to our housing unit that she was dropping my dad off. Just thinking of that reduced me to panic, the feeling of something concrete and safe being there one minute and then gone the next. I still had nightmares of various people in my life just disappearing, of never getting to say goodbye.
It was better to include them in the process, to empower them in any way that I could.
I sat on Maddie’s bed and stroked her blonde hair that clearly came from Josh. “It’s time to bring Daddy,” I whispered. Her eyes snapped open, the wild fear of youth magnifying her innocent facial features, an exact mirror of all the emotions that I had practiced stifling down. But she was quick to react, grabbing what she needed to head out of the door.
Andreas, however, wasn’t as easy to wake up. He limply let me put on a jacket and shoes, his eyes opening for brief windows of time. I had to enlist Josh to carry him to the van while I placed Alexander into his carrying seat. Fortunately, Josh had taken the stupid duffel bag into the van before I made my way down the stairs.
Maddie was sniffling in the back as I placed the newborn into the base of the seat in the back row. After all the effort at settling down, I noticed that Andreas’ strap wasn’t secured correctly, but overall, in retrospect, the process of getting out the door was a lot smoother than I had anticipated, making me wonder if I had finally mastered the art of being a Navy Wife.
We lived on streets that were named for states, a way I suppose to show how submariners from all over the country were united in these units. We lived on Ohio Ave, and Valencia lived a few roads down on Florida. When we arrived, he was sitting on the curb, a stupid duffel bag beside him taller than his hunched frame. He was short and scrawny, barely above five feet. To compensate, he had a huge mustache on his face that he thought made him look macho, but really made him look like a jerk.
“Uncle V!” Maddie called when Valencia opened the trunk, throwing his duffel bag on top of Josh’s.
“Hey guys! Shouldn’t you be sleeping or something?”
“It’s not like I could leave them by themselves,” I snapped, as if my ability to parent my kids was on the line.
Valencia, like Josh, had a scathing ability to ignore my comments when it suited him. He squeezed between the two older kids, even though the space in the third row where Alexander slept was wide open.
“The Dallas is out, and Peterson is on leave in Alabama. The house is gunna be empty for a week. Can you swing by and feed the fish?” He didn’t address me directly, but there was only one person to direct the question to. Valencia placed a set of keys on the console, anticipating that I would say yes. He probably thought that I would be happy to help him out. I didn’t answer, but I moved the keys to the cupholder. “Peterson was supposed to have his local girl do it, but she’s bailed three days in a row. Her husband’s probably on the Connecticut.” He laughed at that, and I saw Josh’s lip curl. The Connecticut had pulled in a week ago; I didn’t find it funny one bit.
I silenced the simmering anger by pulling away from the curb and hightailing it down the road. The base was only two minutes from housing, but the line to get on was always spilling onto the main road.
I did my best to keep the demons inside, as my mom would say, to swallow them with deep breaths. I could see that my talks with Maddie had been paying off. Every so often I saw her chest swell up, only she would hold it as long as she could before letting it out in a whoosh that sounded like a cough. Andreas had gone back to sleep, as oblivious to the world as my newborn.
Josh had given up staring at his phone. Instead, he looked straight ahead, as if he had a need to count every inch in our crawl towards the gate. Valencia followed suit; he was the quietest that I had ever heard him be. I let them sit with their thoughts, knowing that I didn’t have the clearance to know them.
We passed the gate, the point where our purpose for being here began to have a concrete existence. Months of pre-deployment planning and meetings just suddenly brushed against reality. I took a deep breath, riding the post pregnancy hormones and impending deployment turmoil, a nasty concoction that could prove to be fatal if I didn’t get it under control.
“Are you ok?” Josh asked. I bit my lip, angry that I could not hide it from him at the exact time he needed me to.
“Of course, she’s fine,” Valencia countered.
Josh knew better than to prompt; his asking had already been a violation of a lifetime of protocol. Instead, he took my hand in his, lifting it to his lips for a brief kiss like he was some prince or something.
“I know,” Josh replied softly.
I nodded, tears coming to my eyes.
On base, there was one main road that ran from one end to the next, breaking off lower base and the waterfront that housed over a dozen submarines from the rest of the military property. The closer we got to the only access point onto lower base, the more clogged the roads became. Those with passes could park down there, but they all had to gain access from one point, which made traffic come to a standstill. Those who didn’t have passes had to park in other areas, and since they were of a higher volume and had a problematic disregard for crosswalks, there were moving shadows of submariners in the pre-dawn light.
I pulled up to our usual dropping off point: the parking lot to the commissary, which due to the fact that it was shy of being six a.m. and the sun was not yet fully up, was empty.
The moment had come, the true time to say goodbye.
Maddie couldn’t hold it in any longer; a sob escaped her tight lips that devolved into a shriek that reverberated around the van’s interior. Valencia had the look of a trapped animal, and he reacted by jumping from his seat and trying to escape the vehicle. The door near Andreas wouldn’t budge, the child’s lock being engaged.
“Fuck!” he hollered.
“Hold on,” Josh said, getting out of the passenger seat to open it. I raced out of the driver’s seat, too, even though I knew that I wouldn’t get there in time to help.
The loud voice, so close to Andreas’ face woke him, his legs jerking up. I couldn’t see it, but I assumed that Andreas had kicked Valencia in the gut, or somewhere worse, for I heard Valencia grunt and fall back onto the front passenger’s seat. Then the side door opened, and my husband’s shipmate unceremoniously slunk to the ground.
Despite two kids wailing in the van, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of Valencia balled up on the ground. All the pent-up energy, all the swallowed despair, escaped from my lips. This would be the only symphony that would send these men off.
Josh crawled into the van, and I watched as he leaned into Andreas’ seat, whose legs were still pumping furiously, as if trying to find a new target. Then he moved to Maddie. I couldn’t hear what he whispered to her, but it softened her crying into sniffles.
When his goodbyes with the kids were over, Josh closed the van door. He leaned on it for a moment. His eyes closed as he collected his composure. I put my hand on his shoulder, a sign that I was there and supporting him. After a moment, he opened his arms for me to sink into for one last time. I leaned in, inhaling deeply the unique smell of boat life, a pungent but pleasurable smell because it reminded me of Josh. Of my dad. Even of Valencia.
“Take care of yourself,” I whispered. He squeezed me tighter in response. Then he dipped me down and kissed me softly. I was the first to break away, signaling that it was time to move on. I headed back into the car, to my own personal crew that needed to be navigated home.
As the men opened the back to get their sea bags, I heard Valencia say, “Tell the wife, thanks.”
Josh grunted, “You tell her.”
Why couldn’t Valencia call me by my name, not “the wife?” For Christ’s sake, we had known each other for twelve years. I had wiped the tears away when his girlfriends broke up with him and mopped up his vomit off the floor more times than either of us could probably count. He was a walking psychosis, an expert on navigation, weaving through oceans that had hardly been discovered, but he was a mess. A mess that I hadn’t agreed to clean up, but I still did it all the same. I could be more than “the wife”.
Our goodbye had only been a few minutes. As I drove unencumbered by traffic off of base, but still plagued by rogue pedestrian sailors, I thought of how quickly time moves, and how in a blink of an eye, I would be back on base picking up these men, one I loved and the other I tolerated on his behalf.
There was promise of the sun coming up when I wrangled all the kids back into the house, my first attempt with all three children alone. On our step was a basket filled with things to keep the kids busy during the day while I struggled to stay afloat. My neighbor’s way of showing her support.
I settled the kids onto the couch, grabbing all of our blankets and pillows and everything that would make a temporary cocoon from the rest of the world. I nursed the baby, watching the older ones attempt to play a board game from the basket.
We had been here before; we would be ok.
Until my phone buzzed a few hours later. I reached for it, hoping to see one last “I love you and will miss you” message. Instead, I saw: “Boat’s delayed until tomorrow. Told Valencia we’d give him a ride home.”