By Steve Almond
When my husband returned from Afghanistan, we hoped our lives might go on much the same as before. Bill hadn’t been in much danger. We’d been married for ten years. We had the support of good friends and a large extended family. Our two little ones were healthy, and within a few months of his return, a third was on the way. It didn’t seem unreasonable.
A buddy had convinced Bill to join the National Guard. He described it as a part-time job that would help him start his plumbing business. I wasn’t wild about the idea. But I had uncles in the Guard and they said quit worrying. He’ll be gone one weekend a month. You’ll have him out of your hair. Which is how it went. Then the war went south.
I was furious. Here I’ve got these two little babies. I’d quit my job as a school guidance counselor. I started crying. It seemed ridiculous. “You’re a plumber!” I said. “Why do they need a plumber in a war zone? You’re going to come back in a bag.”
He took my hand. “I signed a contract, sweetie.”
So off he went in his uniform with our last name stitched over the heart and his sweet little potbelly. We did two phone calls a week, Thursday and Sunday. I sent videos of the girls. He was over there as part of the counterinsurgency strategy—getting water and indoor plumbing to the Afghanis so they didn’t take up with the Taliban or the warlords or whatnot. He didn’t get into specifics. “Drains and pipes,” was as much as I could get out of him.
“Where are you?” I would say. “What’s it look like there?”
“Right now, I’m looking at a mountain.”
That was Bill. He was from a family of Mainers where the only thing you’re allowed to get emotional about is the Red Sox and the price of gas.
When he was getting short, I started attending these sessions about how to help your partner readjust to civilian life. It was full of young girls who carried their hopes around like teacups. They got dolled up each week. Most of them were newlyweds, or about to be. I felt like Methuselah. But it was also kind of nice. I was a counselor. I knew the verbs. Cope. Integrate. Accept. I knew about patience. They asked me for help with their self-inventories. One time, one of them—clearly put up to it by a few others—asked if it hurt to breastfeed. I said, “Only if the baby grows fangs.”
Then Bill was back. He walked through the security gate, a bit heavier, a bit tanner. I was worried the girls would be shy. But they ran to him in their little dresses. A dozen relatives were waiting at home, a pile of food, enough beer to take the edge off.
“It’s you,” I said.
When we finally embraced, I started sobbing. My husband’s arms around me—it was a blessing that somehow stung. His warmth. His thickness. The kids clung to our legs keening. “What’s wrong, mama? What’s wrong?”
“It’s you,” I said finally.
“Who were you expecting?” he whispered.
Later, after the party, Bill stepped from the bathroom into the candlelight. He looked like a farmer with his clothes off. I was lying there in my fancy underwear, all waxed and tweezed. By force of will, I’d gotten down to my pre-baby weight. He looked at me for a few seconds, like he’d forgotten what came next. Then I saw his body lock into the moment, and we were at each other.
I urged Bill to take some time to relax, unwind, re-acclimate. But he wanted to get back to work. He’d figured out how to send e-mail blasts to the customers he had before he shipped out. We lived in a small town, South Berwick. Everybody was eager to help.
Bill was quick and neat and well-spoken on the job. He knew how to read people, the women who wanted him in and out, the husbands who wanted everything explained so they could feel somehow involved. Within a few months, he started taking jobs up in Kennebunkport and Portland, not repairs but renovations, which is the big breakthrough point. Contractors liked him. He worked for a little less than the older guys. He bought a new truck and a bunch of new equipment. It was exciting to see him building the business. Pretty soon I was pregnant again, waddling around with number three, and we needed the money.
It made him happy to work, to support his family, to confront and solve the small crises bestowed by old buildings and corroding valves. I understood. I didn’t complain. I gave him space. He left the house at seven and returned after dark. He kissed the girls goodnight and ate a reheated plate and took a shower and when I felt the weight of him settling into bed I smiled and murmured, “Howdy stranger.”
Then there was a new baby in the house, and everything was upside down anyway, so why shouldn’t Bill start taking emergency calls? His cell would vibrate on the bedside table and he’d be dressed in two minutes. Frozen pipes. Backed up toilets. “The world is full of people who pay me to worry about their shit,” he said. Then he kissed my forehead.
Weekends were tougher for him. He gave the kids rides on his back, and sometimes let them screw around in his workshop. But he had no tolerance for the mess or the fights. He refused to arbitrate. He didn’t raise his voice. He just walked out of the room. It was the same way at parties or family gatherings. One of his cousins would start in about the war or Wall Street, and he was gone. It was something to be admired. Other women told me so. But I could feel the unease seeping like an invisible gas.
The vacation to Cape Cod was my idea. I had to browbeat Bill practically. His family wanted us to take a cabin upstate. They said, “The Cape? Oh, I see,” in aristocratic accents. I said, “What’s the point of working so hard if we can’t enjoy life a little?” The girls were old enough. We got a little rental in Mashpee. My cousin Billy took the place next door with his new girlfriend Sharon.
The men went out fishing and Sharon and I sipped white wine on the beach and let the kids run amok. At night, we did the hibachi. You could see it wasn’t going to work with Billy and Sharon. They were keeping score already, tallying up the grievances and marinating them in plenty of booze.
But Bill was happy, so I was happy. Sharon and I went and got massages at one of these little hippie places, and this old Chinese woman climbed up on my back and dug her elbow under my shoulder blade, and suddenly I was weeping like some kind of widow. That’s how much tension you’ve been carrying around, she said.
The night before we were supposed to leave, the guys drove to Falmouth to see a Cape League ball game. Bill came back at eleven. He smelled of beer and mustard. I was happy to make love to him. It was like back in college, the same sloppy execution but without the nerves. And I liked the feeling afterward, that my husband was finally still, at rest. I traced the veins in his arms while he snored through his mustache.
At two in the morning, we heard a door bang.
“What the fuck?” I said.
Bill sat up. “Just stay put.”
“There’s someone in the house.”
Bill pulled on his shorts and stumbled out to the little living room. I heard him say, “Who the hell is that? Billy?”
“Hey,” said a second voice. It didn’t sound like Billy. But it was hard to tell given the hour. Everything sounded sort of underwater.
“You’re in our living room,” my Bill said. “It’s me. Bill.”
“Tell me something, Bill.”
“Quiet down,” my husband hissed.
“Why are cunts such crazy fucking parasites? What goes on inside their stinking cunty brains?”
“Shhhhh. Goddamn it, Billy. It’s the middle of the night.”
They went back and forth for another minute. Then the baby started crying, and I had to go into the kid’s room to get him settled down. When I got back to our room, Bill had a pillow over his head.
“What the hell was that about?” I said.
“Your cousin drinks too much,” he said.
“I noticed that,” I said. “Where is he?”
At about six, Bill’s phone started to vibrate. “Where the hell are you calling from?” Bill said.
I could hear Billy’s voice bleeding through, asking about fishing.
“But you slept here last night.”
“What’s going on?” I said.
Bill hung up the phone without saying good-bye. He was up like a shot. “Stay where you are,” he snapped at me.
He hurried into the living room, and I heard him say, in a low, even tone, “You need to get up and get the hell out of here. Right now.”
“Be cool,” the other Bill said. He was speaking in the way hungover people do, like the words might shatter.
“You have five seconds to get out of this house. Four. Three. Two.”
I could hear a scuffle of footsteps, the clank of keys. I hurried to the doorway. And here’s my Bill, he’s got this guy by the scruff of his grubby windbreaker, marching him toward the back door. It was exciting to see my husband in alpha mode. The guy had ropey gray hair and the manner of an experienced vagrant, at once obsequious and entitled. “Okay, man,” he said. “Okay. Chill out. I can walk on my own.”
“Then keep walking.” Bill unlocked the door and pulled the man through and then—I’ll never forget the shock of it—he shoved him off the steps. Not down the steps, off them. It was only a drop of four or five feet, but the guy wasn’t expecting it and he landed hard on his side. I could see him struggling to catch his breath.
“You didn’t have to do that, man.”
Bill started down the steps. I couldn’t see his face, but the guy could and he understood that things were about to get worse. He tried to climb to his feet, but Bill swung and the man’s head snapped back. I could see his face—a face already battered by bad decisions—crumpling in on itself. He started crying.
I must have made some kind of noise because Bill turned toward the house and the guy used this opportunity to stagger away.
I met Bill at the back door.
“Was that really necessary?” I said. “Jesus.”
Bill was breathing hard, staring down at the floor. Behind us, I could hear the baby crying, the girls calling mom-mom-mom.
“What did you want me to do, cook him breakfast?”
I touched his shoulder. “He was just a harmless old drunk.”
“I won’t have some goddamn stranger in our house.” Bill looked up. For the first time in fourteen years together, I took a step backward.
Bill didn’t have a temper. He was a go-along-to-get-along type of guy. When we were first dating, we walked into a party that happened to include one of my ex-boyfriends. It was one of these house parties with grain alcohol punch and a few bongs floating around. My ex was pretty jacked up. He had a coke habit—the lunatic smile, the arm gestures. He walked up to us and announced that we needed to talk, meaning him and me.
“You don’t mind right?” he said to Bill.
“To be honest it’s none of my business.” He could tell my ex was trying to draw him into something.
So we went out onto the porch and this guy did his passive-aggressive monologue for a while. Then he got bored, like cokeheads always do, and went off to play Frisbee golf. I wished Bill had done more to defend my honor, even though I knew that would have led to some pointless hassle, maybe even a fight. I should have been beyond such sexist crap. That was my first thought when he hustled that drunk out of our rental place. It was as if he were saying to me: You want a man to protect you? Okay, this is what it looks like.
Bill wasn’t saying anything, though. I tried to make it into a funny story, an anecdote. I told all my girlfriends. They laughed right along until the end. “Wait, he punched the guy? Really? Bill?”
I began to wonder if Bill was suffering from some lesser form of PTSD, if his industry represented a kind of inward panic. Was he using his job to avoid being around home too much? To mask his insomnia? He loved the kids. But they were these bright little fountains of chaos; they frightened him.
I started to watch him more carefully, and he knew it. When I asked him how things were going he’d give me a sly look and say, “Is this my wife who wants to know, or the guidance counselor?”
“Both,” I’d say.
Two months after we got back from the Cape, Bill sat up in bed. Again, it was the middle of the night. Half awake, I waited for the phone on his side of the bed to vibrate, for some panicky female voice to summon him into the night. But there was no sound. I put my hand on his shoulder. I was about to ask him what was happening when he wheeled around and punched me in the nose.
At the time, I had no idea what had happened. I felt this sharp thudding pain. My eyes started to water. I heard Bill saying, “Oh Jesus, Mary. God. I’m sorry.”
“What the hell, Bill?”
“I didn’t know it was you. Here. Put your head forward. Pinch your nostrils.”
“It’s going to be okay. Oh honey. Oh shit.” He ran to the kitchen and brought back a plastic bag full of ice. I touched my nostrils and my fingers came away wet. “Put this on there. I’m sorry, honey. Shit. I got you pretty good.”
“Got me with what?”
“My elbow, I think.” He sat down next to me and tried to set the cold compress on the bridge of my nose. I reared back.
“You need to get some ice on there right now.”
“You hit me.” The bridge of my nose was throbbing. Blood dripped off my wrist onto the sheets. For a second I thought about those young girls in those classes we took together, what they would make of this situation.
“It was a mistake, honey. I was still asleep.” Bill was hyperventilating at this point. “I was dreaming about that drunk guy. He was right in the room with us. He was lying in our bed. Let me hug you, honey. Please. I love you. I’m trying to take care of you. That’s the whole point.”
I went to the emergency room alone. Bill wanted to come along, but that would have meant finding a sitter in the middle of the night, or waking the kids, and I didn’t want to do either. I didn’t want anyone else involved, to be honest. The intake nurse took one look at me and winced. The doctor was a pretty Indian woman, about my age. “You’re lucky, Mrs. Morse. It’s just a hairline fracture. Can you explain to me again how this happened?”
I told her the story I’d come up with on the drive over, that my five-year-old had elbowed me in her sleep. I’d done this to my own mother as a child, though I’d only bruised her cheek. The doctor pretended to examine her paperwork. I wasn’t the first woman to show up in the ER in the wee hours with facial injuries. “I have to ask, and I hope you’ll understand why, if you’re absolutely sure your daughter caused this injury.”
I told her I understood absolutely, that she was just doing her job, and that, as a school counselor, I’d been in the same position many times. She looked relieved to send me off with a facial splint and painkillers.
If I’d told her what really happened, the state would have gotten involved, especially with young children in the home and Bill having served overseas. And this struck me as exactly the sort of thing that would drive a wedge between us, that would put him under official suspicion and thereby humiliate him and push him further from the family. This was my reasoning.
I’d always told students never to lie about an injury. But I thought of them as vulnerable, relatively defenseless, pitted against parents, or step parents, or sometimes older students, who were more powerful and psychologically sophisticated than they were, and intent on hurting them. Whereas I was a grown woman married to a good man who was suffering from, at worst, a mild case of PTSD. He had been startled from sleep by a nightmare and lashed out, not in anger but confusion.
It was five in the morning when I got home. The kids were still asleep. I’d called from the hospital to explain the situation to Bill—nose not broken, but swollen and tender. He met me at the door with tears in his eyes.
“It’s worse than it looks,” I said.
He reached out a fingertip, very slowly, and touched the tip of my splint, and I did my best not to flinch. He was trying to be tender. Then he pulled me into a hug and whispered, “What have I done?”
I was thinking about the kids, how the splint was going to scare them, then even more so my eyes as they blackened up. I was going to have to explain the state of my face to them, to my family and friends, and to Bill’s, to the whole world. I could tell them the truth. But I didn’t know the truth exactly.
To Bill I said, “This was a mistake, honey. I understand. You were startled. But I think it would be good for us to talk about some counseling. There are some things happening between us, and maybe inside you, that need to come out into the light.” I remember how carefully I was trying to say all this, to keep him from feeling I was accusing him of anything. His arms stiffened around me, as I knew they would.
“I had a nightmare,” he said quietly. “An angry drunken man walked into the home where my wife and children were sleeping. He invaded our home.”
“It’s not just that,” I said. “It’s bigger than that.”
Bill said, “Please, Mary. Don’t do this. I know it’s what comes natural to you, the talking cure. I get it. But it’s not that complicated. I was away. Now I’m back. Don’t treat me like some casualty. Don’t make me talk about how boring and pointless it was. It was bad enough being there once.”
“But that’s just it,” I said.
Bill stepped back and let out a long breath. “You want to hear a story about the big bad war? Is that what you want?”
“Yes it is. You want me to talk. You want me to process. So lemme tell this story. Because it’s the one thing that really bugs me. Okay?”
Bill led me into the kitchen and poured me some of the sludgy coffee he made each morning—what he called his “rocket fuel”—and reminded me of his basic duties over there. The infantry guys cleared and secured a village, then Bill’s unit came in to do infrastructure. “Basic stuff,” he said. “Septic tanks. Sinks. Most days we sat around the rear base, playing spades. But when we went out on missions we’d always pass this small clump of buildings. It was an academy, like a school, for blind kids. No idea what it was doing there. We’d see these kids with their canes, hobbling out to these nasty open latrines, sitting there on sheets of plywood with a hole cut in the middle. It just looked . . . I don’t know. It started to really get to me. The fact that they were blind, I guess. So I asked my C.O. if I could take some of the surplus PVC from other jobs and build them an indoor trough-and-drain set up. I must have asked him a dozen times. He made excuses. He had to assign a security detail, a translator. They had to fill out the proper paperwork. It was always something.”
“Sounds frustrating,” I said.
Bill waved his hand. He wasn’t looking for my guidance counselor patter. “The point is, I started heading out there on my own. It was perfectly safe. A school for blind kids, okay? My translator explained to the old guy who ran the place what I wanted to do. So I built them a little bathroom. Then the headmaster comes up to my translator and it turns out they need a sink in the science room, too. And that leads to a spigot in the courtyard so the kids can wash their feet, which means I’ve got to figure how to get a second line into the water main. It got to where I was spending most of my off days there. The way these kids were living. And here’s our base half a mile down the road, with air-conditioned movie theaters and perfumed urinals and a fucking Burger King . . .”
Outside, the sky was turning purple. The kids were going to be up soon, with their questions and appetites and small, fierce complaints. The daily machinery would lurch into motion. I had the feeling of wanting to hold it all off, a feeling I can now see must have plagued Bill.
“It was just something to feel like you’re not totally useless.”
I wanted to lay my hand on his, though I knew if I did he would clam up for good. “Sounds like you did something important,” I said quietly.
“I’m not done.”
“I rotated to another base,” Bill said. “And when I came back, two months later, the school was gone.”
“What do you mean gone?”
Bill made a gesture, as if backhanding crumbs off the table.
“You mean blown up?”
“To smithereens, technically.”
“My God—the kids—”
“No. It was at night. There were no casualties. None that I knew of. My C.O. said it was some warlord. The way this thing was leveled, though, everyone knew it had to be a drone. It’s not that complicated. I went out there to look around. The locals had taken all the bricks and ripped out all the copper.”
“But it’s a school. Why bomb a school?”
Bill looked up. He had lost himself for a minute, and the sight of me, his wife, my face injured by his own hand, brought him back to where he was, in our kitchen in South Berwick, at dawn. “It was like staring into a grave that’s been robbed,” he said tiredly. “The entire country was like that.”
I tried to understand what Bill was telling me. The war had been senseless. He’d made an effort to do good. That effort had been thwarted, which had chipped away at his faith and his patience and had awakened some kind of rage within him. But more than any of this, I felt that he was retreating from me. Or maybe he was retreating from himself, from the easygoing young husband he’d been before he flew over there.
I managed to convince him to come to a couple of group meetings for veterans. He listened politely, and thanked the facilitator. On the way home from our last meeting, I asked about whether he might want to speak at the next one. He was quiet for a minute. Then, in an almost pleading tone, he said, “I wasn’t injured, honey. I wasn’t killed. None of my buddies were killed. It was just a shitty job I had. Can you please let it go?”
So that’s what I did, or pretended to, anyway, which is about half of marriage when you get right down to it. Bill continued to work insane hours. He continued to suffer from insomnia. He got a prescription, then a second one. For our twelfth anniversary, he remodeled the master bathroom. I got the claw-foot tub and heated stone floor I’d dreamed about. He filled the bath with rose petals.
Bill did his best with the kids. He took them to matinees and ice cream shops. He taught Frannie how to ride her bike. He dozed next to Lily as she told her endless stories about the Princess and the Pop Star. And he listened to me when I talked about them, all the worries about picky eaters and preschools. I could see him trying.
Then, one Sunday in winter, I heard our three-year-old shriek. I ran downstairs to Bill’s workshop and there was Ethan cradling his left arm.
Bill was crouched near his workbench, facing our son with a stunned look. “I was trying to get him away from the saw,” he said.
“My arm!” Ethan said.
“Let mommy see,” I said. Ethan wouldn’t let me so much as give it a kiss. Little kids tend to exaggerate the extent of their injuries, especially if it means extra attention. But there was something awful in the way he screamed when I tried to touch his arm.
“He was getting too close to the saw,” Bill repeated. “I told him three times. Then I pulled him away and he kind of collapsed on me, like he does.”
“Can you move your arm?” I asked Ethan. “Not even a little bit? For mommy?”
He shook his head and started crying even louder.
The doctor at the ER wasn’t terribly alarmed. He diagnosed it as a partial dislocation of the elbow, known as nursemaid’s elbow. “Kids are susceptible until their tendons develop more fully.” He fished out of his breast pocket the little flashlight he used to look in people’s ears, which Ethan had been admiring, and handed it to Ethan. Then he grabbed my son’s injured arm and popped it back into place. Ethan let out a wail of shock. Within a few minutes, he was happily occupied in choosing out stickers.
It was the kind of thing that happens all the time with kids. I knew that. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Bill, how quick he was to defend himself. “Tell me what happened again,” I said to Ethan in the car on the way home, which is when I knew the situation had gotten away from me.
This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to give my husband an ultimatum, or make the tough but necessary decision to leave. But that’s not what happened. It’s almost never what happens, except in the movies. In the movies, the woman, who is beautiful and brave and expertly lit, gives a tender speech about protecting herself and her babies. She stares into the camera with defiant hope.
I talked with my two closest friends, with Bill’s sister, with an old colleague whose opinion I valued. I told them everything and cried and apologized for crying. I wanted them to tell me what to do, or at least why I needed to do something. But they all said the same thing: it sounds complicated. You have to listen to your own feelings. You have to share them with Bill.
A few nights later, after the kids were in bed, I told him that these episodes, to me, formed a pattern, and that I was worried something bad was going to happen, something worse, and I knew that might sound irrational, but it was how I felt. And I didn’t want his reassurance. I wanted him to acknowledge what I was talking about, and commit to getting some kind of help. I didn’t say it quite that well. That was the gist.
Bill said, “You want me to admit that I’m a danger to you and the kids is what you’re saying.”
“Please don’t get defensive,” I said.
“I’m not getting defensive,” Bill said. He was extraordinarily calm, as if he’d known this was coming for a long time.
“I just want to know that you’ve got some place safe to put your feelings,” I said.
“What feelings?” Bill said. “The feeling that life is unpredictable and frustrating? The feeling that we’re in danger? It is. We are. I’m sorry, Mary. No amount of talking is going to make those feelings go away. They’re not even feelings. They’re facts. Most of the world accepts them as givens. The bad dreams we have—they live those dreams.”
We were lying in the dark, staring at the ceiling over our heads. Bill, my husband, the love of my life, a quiet man, was trying not to cry. Or maybe, on my behalf, he was trying to cry. “If you want me to leave,” he said, “I’ll leave. But I’m not going to be badgered about this anymore. I’m not going to stay in the house against your will. I love you. I want to spend my life with you, and our children. But that love isn’t going to make your fears go away. Nothing is.”
It was a cruel thing to hear. I knew Bill was being manipulative and avoidant. And I had every right to tell him I was frightened, even an obligation. But he was also telling the truth, his version of it. We cling to the idea of safety only so long as fate consents to the illusion. War and disease and dumb luck find us anyway.
And we’d been lucky, by most measures. Born into a lucky age and a lucky precinct. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if things might have been different: if Bill hadn’t joined the Guard, if he hadn’t seen those blind boys on their latrine, if that drunk hadn’t stumbled into our vacation house, if our son hadn’t stepped too close to the blade of a saw. I closed my eyes and listened for what might come next. But Bill had said as much as he was going to say. Now there was only that other sound: a man lying next to me in bed, breathing in and out, waiting in the dark.
Photo by Julien Sister