Compass Lines
by Cassandra Longest

I am standing naked in front of the mirror. I think, for a moment that I am both too young and too old for such womanly architecture. All military wives wear, in a place deeper than cloth and skin, the weariness of waiting.

The waiting is like rushing water against rock, slowly carving lines of both bitterness and gratitude. For the first time in months, I pull out my wedding ring and slide it back on. It is a simple gold band, which fits a little too tightly and gives no quarter to the skin warmed by its weight.

The man I have been having an affair with made no comment when all those months ago the ring so casually disappeared. He could have claimed me on the day I set it aside, but instead he kissed my long girlish hands and held them to his breastbone. I look through my closet, wishing I could wear a piece of him as well. I take a white sundress down and press my face against the pale fabric. The worn cotton, so easy unraveled at the seams had been a fragile innocence carelessly discarded. I inhale deeply, searching for my defiance. It does not smell of either one of us, but instead a middle ground of fragrance where we were once united.

It is late morning and the sun is just beginning to appear in the east where my husband, Aaron has been deployed. A year has passed where the end of his day was the beginning of mine. “I am sending the light your way,” he would say over the phone. The distance at one time was harder. Now the division of opposing compass lines has taken on a wisdom of it’s own, teaching us how to be whole in our separation.

I finish putting on my clothes, and walk outside. Texas seems to be always large and bright, even in the morning. Aaron and I were born in mountain country, with thickly wooded forests. Here the sky is wide and heavy, compressing all beneath its reach down into still grasslands.  

For a moment, I regard the doorways of other military wives, who are still waiting. My gaze rests upon 3C, who sits smoking, listlessly on her steps, wearing the grey, oversized garments her husband has left behind. She is waiting for news, for phone calls, for scraps of love, and for the day of return. I was once like her, a girl who did not know how to be alone, to possess autonomously my own sense of time and space.  

Aaron had been gone for four months when Peter moved in next door to me. He was coming home from Iraq, and for years had been only known as Sergeant Foundling. Our first conversation was about something meaningless on our adjoining porches overlooking the highway to Fort Hood. We both had bought wilting plants, which hung from the roof like little lights, as if to say that the person that was living here was still alive. I didn’t see how damaged he was, but we are taught to not see it, because maybe it will go away.

There was a time when my infidelity was unimaginable. I married my childhood sweetheart at eighteen, but every other year after our misguided wedding he left. This is how war is: it is endless, and it stretched us across the map, so that we became strangers tied together by hurried phone calls and hasty emails. My husband loved me on those blissful stretches of peaceful homecoming. However, the version of him, the manufactured reproduction of him that went away to war, and was always gone had no room for me in his life. Aaron put me on hold because he was a soldier, and soldiers cannot love women except in the dark places inside of themselves, which hope for a future beyond the desert.  

Peter was not unlike most soldiers, always in uniform with an impossibly straight back and impeccably short hair. His features were blunt, and his body well muscled. He had soft blue eyes, thick lips and sandy colored hair that in his childhood must have been like warm butter. By contrast, Aaron was dark and lean, his gaze always sharp and inquiring. They were both handsome, but in different ways.

Almost immediately I learned three things about Peter. He had been deployed four times since graduating high school. He had married a lost girl and divorced her in the span of a year… And he had been part of the first wave to enter Afghanistan, which is widely regarded as the most brutal of all the waves. Men like him are common; they love, they lose, and then they go back to war under the banner of brotherhood and patriotism.

One night, while sitting with Peter I asked, “You have been deployed so many times. Why do you stay in?” We both had been drinking. The phone had broken another promise to me. Peter had been there, so easy to talk to, our plants almost touching, our camp chairs facing the same direction.

He shrugged. It was questions his mother had probably asked him many times. “I have been to the edge of the world and back. I wouldn’t know how to be a civilian again. What is there for me to do here?”

“You could go back to school,” I said.

“But then I would have to go to the beginning and I just can’t do that,” he replied.  He couldn’t look me, only at the highway, with its bright candy-colored cars, new and untested, driving by quickly. In my memory I can still see him sorting out his words, which echo through the folds of my dress. “Sometimes in this business….You can’t start over” he’d said.  He was trapped. He was a young man like so many of them who had given up his young man dreams.

Peter rose and gazed out over the porch, towards the horizon, towards Fort Hood. Taps were being played, and we watched as vehicles pulled over, and men in and out of uniform got out to stand in solute. “They all have that answer,” I said as the music ended and life resumed. “Tell me the real reason.”

He looked at me with such naked sadness, and I saw for a minute the truth: He had already done things he couldn’t live with, things that hurt him, and haunted him in his lonely moments. He wore the fact of his shame and grief so plainly that I was shocked that I hadn’t seen it before. Suddenly, I knew he had done things, unforgiveable things. I found myself wondering if perhaps my husband, my good, sweet Aaron, had ever given someone else the same look. Had he given it to me? Had I passed it by, shoved it under the bed where imaginary monsters laid in wait.

"You wouldn't understand," Peter continued on. I was also familiar with this response. The women here are always hearing this answer. How could we possibly understand, we didn’t wear the uniform, and if we did we would know how wrong it was to press the question. After all, how could we admit that the men we loved made their living trying to kill the beloveds of other women half a world a way.

There are things that you don’t talk about so that the soldier can separate their two lives. Not talking about the memories allows our nationally minted heroes to pretend they didn’t do those things, that they are not the equivalent of their required actions. We don’t ask those questions so that they can come home and aspire to be the person they were before they went away. “You wouldn’t understand,” is always the end of the conversation.  Sitting there I sensed that Peter wanted me to question him further. We always sense it, but it always seems wrong to pry: “Have you killed anyone?” I already knew the answer. It is the same answer that everyone who has been in long enough eventually has.

Peter kissed me then for the first time, our bodies separated by the porch. It was a sweet kiss. I felt his warm breath on my ear, his calloused hand on my hip. We moved together as if wild pages of profound poetry, our bodies tangling in and out of awareness. He fondled me in the shadows and openly claimed me to passersby as temporarily his.

Here are the things I remember about our happiness: His legs were sturdy. They held my body on top of his like I was some fragile nothingness that might wash away. His fingers were long and elegant, but they did not touch me with any elegance. Even then the sorrow slipped in and out.

I can still hear our cries from that night, the strands of sounds weaving their way through my life. I can feel my desire for him, my longing for that moment to return, beckoning me back. Why did I fall in love with him? Why did I so readily take my clothes off for this strange man? The answer is intangible; there was a vocation inside of him for me deeper than lust or love. For just a night, that turned into many more nights we succumbed to the need for our own humanity, and the reverent wish to not always be suspended by compass lines.

Our affair lasted nearly six months, and then came the rumor that that the 4th infantry division to which Aaron belonged was coming home. A week after the rumor was confirmed, news spread that Peter’s unit was redeploying. One step forward one step back. We were all caught in the same unmoving dance. Peter didn’t want to go, but then of course he did. I watched, as he became a stranger again, remembering all he would return to. I knew he was terrified, but also resigned. To be reconciled to the inevitability of deployment lessens the suffering.

Peter and I struggled to find the wild rhythm, which had previously been so effortless. When we failed in our lovemaking I cried just as I cried before with Aaron.

“You always knew I would leave,” Peter said into my hair, “isn’t that why you chose me?”

“I can’t do it again” I replied.  

He held me against his heart; his lungs expanded and contracted in our stolen moment, marking the seconds.  “Shhh,” he murmured above me. “I have to go, so your husband can come home.”  

A month later I said goodbye to him. Now I am driving to Fort Hood, taking a road that is universally known for its blessed homecoming and dreaded goodbyes. Inside the gates, with its high fences and dirt roads lies a strange city. The lawns are closely cut and have pristine, well-defined edges. Each building has the same coat of white, brown, or tan paint. Men and women in military uniforms walk the streets looking like permutations of one another.  I always feel uneasy here, it seems so obvious to me that I am an outsider hiding in their midst. But I have always been a secret outsider.

I park at one of the gymnasiums. Women and children, and old men and women are filtering into it. A large “Welcome Home Heroes!” sign written in finger paint and decorated with little hearts and flags is hung above the doorway. I sit in the car and stare at the happy children and their grateful if not beleaguered mothers who fill the parking lot.

Just last week Peter had become Sergeant Foundling once again, but I had not been there to see it. My presence would not have been proper, but I had helped him pack and sell his furniture. For nearly ten minutes I contemplate not going in. and leave my husband there to wonder what has become of the life he is always leaving behind. But I do not.

I sit in the back row of the bleachers. A Toby Keith album plays on repeat, women comfort new babies that have never met their fathers, and older children who have never known them. A few veterans approach the podium to speak about the glory of America and sacrifice, but they forget to thank us, those who are waiting for these men and women living half a world away.

“The bus is pulling up.” The rumor runs through the crowd and without needing to be asked we stand up as the music changes in anticipation. Aaron is there, somewhere beyond the building, unloading his bags. Dry ice fills the gym and the national anthem plays, and then suddenly there is my husband: tan and bright. Our eyes meet, the distance shortens. Aaron becomes West, just as Peter became East. Who are you I wonder of my constant.

Excitement fills the crowd. Finally we collectively exhale. Just twenty-five feet away the soldiers stand and salute us. We cheer, and my eyes fill with the man I have loved nearly all of my life.

A short speech is given, of which no on listens to. From across 35 feet Aaron has only eyes for me. Soon we are in each other’s arms. There is a necessity of joy and hope, and all else is forgotten. In his arms, I can see other men who have no one there to embrace or hold them. I am struck with the guilt of my happiness as I imagine 3C, and of the other men who did not get to come home. I imagine Peter who is just now setting foot in Afghanistan for the third time so that my husband can stand before me.

“Thank you,” I whisper to him, to both of them, to all of them, who stretch the compass lines.

 

© Cassandra Longest, 2016
For more info about the author click here. This story was read by Megan Katherine.