The woman walking toward me is not the woman I last saw four years ago.
My wife exits the airport terminal in fatigue pants and rubber sandals, her hair held back in a military bun. She wears a t-shirt with the phrase Present Without Pay written over it, and when I ask what the shirt means, she slaps the back of someone else wearing the same shirt and tells me it’s an inside joke. Then she says she’s ready to go.
Who is this woman.
She angles her head to look at a billboard for an auto dealership, and I notice a scar on her face that is new. Vertical almost. Goes from her eyelid up through her eyebrow and stops before the hairline. It is neat, almost unnoticeable except for the gap in her eyebrow. She’s lost weight, but in return she seems to have gained a kind of invisible strength. A tint of color has been drained from her face and I can see her jawline for the first time.
And something is different about her feet. They look long and smooth and the toes are splayed out, almost as if her feet had recently been in casts. She reaches down and scratches them and they make no sound, like they are not her feet and she is not in my car and I am not driving her down Interstate 40, toward the rocky hiking paths of Robbers Cave.
“When’d you get a new car?”
It’s the first thing of real interest for her since she disembarked. She hasn’t yet said how happy she is to be alive or to back in the States or to still be married to me.
So I don’t tell her that the car is a rental, that my old black Honda with the hail dents and the oxidized bumper is under the care of a mechanic named Victor who knows no deadline, who confuses this Friday with next Friday and all other Fridays, and that I’m contemplating forfeiting the car to Victor because I’m afraid of how much the bill will be.
“March,” I say. “Got it in March.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever get to tell you.” She stops to sneeze, wiping her nose with a tissue. “But I hated your old car.”
She comments on the air quality here, that it’s doing something to her sinuses, and how unsettling it is to be somewhere where the air is wet. She says that when she first landed in Mosul she had nosebleeds for a week, but had later acclimated to the desert air. She trails off when she says this as if it’s a thought she no longer needs to catch.
I also don’t want to tell her that I lost my job at the bank and now I work part-time at a hospital where I file patient records in a cold corridor that smells like lime Jell-O. I had to sell our house and move us into a small one-bedroom apartment with a little patio that overlooks the highway and the state capital. There is a laundry room in the basement where I buy cans of Coke and talk to the neighbors. It’s not the right time to tell her that we’re apartment people now, that we now share washing machines and dryers with people washing cloth diapers and ball caps.
Everything I want to ask and say to my wife has contracted, folded in on itself out of diffidence, and now I find myself counting mile markers until our destination. I can’t ask the questions I used to ask during her initial deployment, when I would needle her for information while avoiding words like war, bullets and IEDs. I had never used the words insurgents or casualties, and instead, I asked about the people she was fighting with: their names, ages, their families back home. Back then, I wanted to know everything about her new life, but now that she is here, I am not sure what is the old life and what is the new life. I’m afraid to know what the woman is thinking.
So I quote a line from a movie we both love, a favorite that we often revisit, and she looks at me blankly as if I’m talking to the wrong person.
We’d decided long ago to spend our first night back together camping. We picked Robbers Cave because we’d been there before and already knew the trails, and also because the last time we were there, we camped on a hidden peak of flat rock that we’d found and subsequently dubbed our place. And we’d decided that it would be for one night, the reunited husband and wife staring at the stars and starting to cleave to one another. And in the morning, we would drive to Ardmore to see her aging, ailing mother and then we’d drive back to our home where we would reconstruct our life with as much luck as possible.
The trail is narrow and I walk in front of her. She says she remembers the way, but it is obvious in her voice that this particular memory has been replaced, and as I lead us, I wonder what it is that replaced this memory. When I turn around, I see her on her phone, tapping with both thumbs, a cautious smile on her face.
Our backpacks are tall and aluminum-framed, each of them holding a small sleeping bag. I can hear the plastic buckle on mine make noise as we walk the rough path. Hers is clasped tight. Inside both are water bottles and tools, matches and compasses and flashlights. I’ve included aspirin and bandages, cotton balls and rubbing alcohol. These packs are ready for hot weather and cold weather, for bug bites and snake bites and treating minor wounds. In mine there is a wind-up radio and in hers there is a long hunting knife, sheathed and holstered by a safety clip. The knife is illegal to carry without a license in nine states.
I stop and note physical landmarks—the yellow paint on a tree, a boulder, a gray and brittle shack by the creek—but she doesn’t recognize them. We keep walking and I remind her of that movie we watched where camping schoolchildren go missing in the dark and she says I shouldn’t make light of the situation.
“In Mosul, we were guarding children one day,” she says. “Schoolchildren. And we were walking them from their school to a makeshift U.S. operation.”
She drops off and doesn’t say anything else. We keep walking, and I hear her steady pace behind me. When she doesn’t pick up where she left off, I ask her what happened.
“Never mind,” she tells me.
The trail begins to lead upward and we slow down. She says, “I know where we are now,” and walks past me. I begin to follow her, and after two more turns and stepping over a rotted tree trunk that I remember from last time, we arrive at our place.
Our place, the phrase we picked the last time we were here, consists of a large, flat stone that looks out on the road where we drove. At night it gets quiet out here, and your inner mind expands and settles around you, and you see your thoughts for what they are.
At our hidden peak have never seen a single person, not on the trail, not on this rock: there is even little fauna. We see trees and leaves and grass, but rarely do we see spiders and insects. Squirrels leave this peak alone. It is rumored to sometimes lure mountain cats, but we take comfort in the fact that a mountain cat would seek a more impressive height.
But for us, this height is enough. This is where Jesse James hid money and where someone in his gang fell and broke his neck on the rocks. So much time and footfall has passed that if there had been money, by now it has already been found or it has been buried where boulders and tree trunks fall and adjust themselves against the earth. This network of low hills and puzzle trails lends to us a crisp intimacy, and we are its last explorers.
She opens her backpack and lays out what I brought, setting the items close to each other as if prepared to give an account of her belongings. She lays out the multi-purpose tool, the bottles of water, the first aid kid, the needle and thread, the emergency blanket, the flare, the matches, the hunting knife and the bug spray. She sets it all out in a grid, standing back and asking, without looking at me, “Where’s the food?”
“It’s in …” I start to say, looking at her things, and then picking up her backpack, thinking she may have not emptied it, but there is nothing there. Her sleeping bag is already rolled out and aligned with the items on the blanket.
But there is no food.
“Maybe,” I say, rushing to mine and opening it, “it’s in here. I think it is.”
I empty my pack completely, shaking everything to the ground. The bottle of aspirin rolls down the stone and off the edge where it probably catches in prickle brush. Everything is scattered. I tell her that I remember packing peanut butter sandwiches and I remember packing ham sandwiches, and they were wrapped neatly against a cold pouch.
“Maybe it’s in the car,” I suggest, mostly to myself. “It could be in the car.”
I think back on the morning, on my apartment kitchen, on the little white Formica counter that gives me enough space to make an elbow’s length of lunch. I make single-serving food now, sandwiches and bowls of noodle soup. I make chili for one. I buy boxes of frozen food that are microwaved for two minutes, dinners that sit on my lap while I watch TV. I want to tell her this, but it’s not the right time to tell her that we’re microwave dinner people now.
“No,” she says. “No, I would have seen it if it were in the car.”
I tell her that I at least made it. There’s the tactile memory of the peanut butter on the knife going over the bread, of wiping the knife on a paper napkin before I put it in the dishwasher because the dishwasher never gets the peanut butter off completely. I know this, this issue with the peanut butter. I also remember checking the cold pouch last night, making sure it was in the freezer. I even bought the kind of ham she likes. The white cheese instead of the yellow cheese. This is an exact memory.
After a moment, she says, “Don’t worry about it.”
This is an exercise in how much we have failed each other.
I apologize for our hunger, and and we live the rest of the day like still-life subjects. The sky goes dark and we climb into our sleeping bags, looking up at the stars and watching the trees dance in the wind until one of us pretends to be asleep.
In the middle of the night something wakes me up. Something specific and unnatural, and I turn over and see her sitting upright, cross-legged, her face lit by the white glow of her phone. She taps the screen, smiling. She giggles and holds a hand to her face, suppressing herself, and I want to know who is tickling my wife at this hour.
In the morning I wake up and see that she has assembled her backpack and sleeping bag, and she stands stretching and looking out at the view as the wind blows her ponytail like a weathervane. She tells me she saw a coyote walking along the creek and she saw a heron fly over us, and then before I can say anything, she tells me that the street dogs in Iraq look like coyotes. And she says it in an alien tone—accusatory, almost—as if the problem between us was that I had never known this about street dogs in Iraq.
I look over at my backpack and see that she has assembled mine, too, and then I watch as she rolls up my sleeping bag into a tight roll, attaching it to the backpack, this woman who knows how to disassemble and reassemble a weapon in a minute, blindfolded, patting the bag like a grandmother adjusting couch pillows.
“So,” she says. “I was thinking about going to Durant.”
I nod and hum an affirmation, waiting for this to be explained.
“I was thinking about that you could drive me there. That we could go straight there.”
“I thought we were going to your mom’s after this.”
My wife shakes her head no.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says, clearing the morning out of the corner of her eyes. She runs her tongue over her teeth and cups her hand against her mouth to test her breath. “Oh, do you have any gum?”
“There’s gum in the car. So what’s in Durant?”
“Just some friends,” she says, reaching behind her head to remove the clip that holds her hair together. She shakes her head and lets her hair fall and smooths it out, and I am reminded of the woman I said goodbye to four years ago.
“Some new friends.”
“Which new friends?”
“Some new friends from Dallas,” she says. She looks down and picks up her backpack and pulls it over her shoulders. Then she hands me mine, and looks back at our place. I have always had the suspicion that she and I are the only two people in the world who come here, to our place, and I like that number. I want to keep it at two. I don’t want it to go down to one.
I can feel her impatience at the car’s lack of speed. The two-door economy car is flimsy, as if it is being controlled by a remote somewhere, and I think that if I listen close enough, I can hear the battery-powered whir under the hood.
She announces how close we are to Durant, and she asks if I remember the name of the burger place we liked in Durant. Before I can tell her that I don’t think she and I have ever been to Durant together, she says that her new friend Colby really likes burgers, and I am left wondering who this new friend is, if Colby is a man or a woman.
The phone is in her lap and she drums on the back of it, her nails clicking a beat I don’t know. She bites her bottom lip and looks over at the speedometer, drumming on the phone again. When it vibrates, she turns it over and tilts the screen slightly away from me as she types a message. She pretends to cough.
We pass a billboard for a new housing development, with prices starting at attractive figures. I look over at her and see her head down, staring at her phone, and I look at the cuticles of her fingers. They’re ugly now. Her fingers have been beaten and abused, the life of a woman living in the desert, fighting sandstorms and faceless enemies. Fingers that know only one language.
So I tell her about the house that no longer exists, the house to which she will never return. She raises her eyebrows and listens, but keeps her eyes down on her phone. I tell her that one or two things have changed. For example, I finally built that deck she wanted and gave it an all-weather coating. There’s a birdhouse out behind the house now, and it’s difficult for squirrels to get in. I repaired the hinge on the back door and in one Saturday I fixed the faucet drips in both the bathroom and kitchen. I tell her I finally called out a chimney inspector so we can burn wood this winter, and that right now I’m in the middle of planting a new vegetable garden, and that in the spring we’ll be able to eat a whole meal of food I planted and picked myself.
Trent England is a playwright and author of short fiction. He has published over twenty-five short stories, two of which were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In 2015, his play, A Play About Nothing, premiered at two theatre festivals in New England. Originally from the US, he lives in London.
Photo credit: bahenska, morguefile.com