We didn't have big plans. CSI: Miami, maybe, and takeout. Jim asked me if I wanted to go for a couple pints with him at our local, which is his way of announcing that he'll be drinking that evening and I can join him or not. I had decided to join him until Josie called.
After she gave me the flight info, we went back and forth over the cab. I told her we'd come and pick her up, but she insisted on the cab. Jim overheard my end. "Just let her take the cab," he grumbled. "Jesus Christ." Later, I realized what it was. She wanted to come and go on her own terms, something she didn't get to do too much of lately. But it was something else, too. She was trying to manage the imminent convergence of two disparate worlds.
Meanwhile, Jim was trying to manage three: the one where the two of us watch CSI: Miami in an otherwise empty house, the one that he imagines Josie living in, and some other world in which he tries to reconcile the first two—one that he won't even try to describe to me.
I used to think that he didn't love me anymore, but I've come to suspect that he just doesn't know how to explain to me where he goes any more than I know how to explain to him where I've been.
He is uneasy as we walk the aisles of the grocery store. Though he says nothing, his disgust nudges the back of my head as I reach for some napkins that read "Welcome Home." He thinks that I don't know her at all, that I still see her as a little girl. He's half right. I still see her as a little girl. But even her little-girl self would have no use for these napkins. I put them back.
I glance at the items he has put in the cart: a bag of Doritos, an ice-cream cake, a twelve pack of Old Milwaukee, and a box of condoms. Jim does not have any illusions about his daughter—not the way I do. I look at the cart and I see the groceries of a mischievous but intractable twenty-one year old man-boy. I don't want to think this way, but I do. He intercepts my gaze. "She's an adult, Mary." I nod and wheel the cart forward.
My mother was never terribly concerned with how women were supposed to be. In one of those strange ironies that occur so often in life that I'm not even sure it can be considered ironic, this attitude ensured that I didn't live with her most of the time. I lived with Auntie Flo, who checked every evening to make sure my hands were outside the covers and nowhere near the parts that I wasn't supposed to have.
"Coke," Jim says. "She likes Coke."
"Are we trying to poison her?"
"She runs five miles a day and eats three squares. Give her a break."
I love him for this, the way he loves her, but I hate the way it makes me feel. He wants her to have things I didn't have, but I want to have had them first. I want to reach for some broccoli, or put the condoms back, or start an argument so I can retreat into a familiar and comfortable role: that of the virtuous matron who struggles mightily against her brutish and indulgent husband in order to preserve the health and safety of her children. I can reluctantly lose a battle now and again to maintain the cohesiveness of the hearth, but I have to resist. I give the acquiescent sigh this time, and my performance has the shameful warmth of an unsullied quilt.
By the time we reach the checkout line, the cart contains charcoal, mosquito coils, some tiki torches and bamboo skewers. CSI: Miami and an eight-piece bucket has become a full-on backyard barbecue. This seems to be acceptable to both of us, until I start listing people I feel like I should invite.
"Let Josie decide if she wants to invite those people," Jim growls. "Why would she want to sit there with your aunt and talk about her doll collection for an hour? She'll fall to pieces every time Josie takes a sip of beer. No. No way."
I act offended and hurt, but I'm not. He's right. Josie would hate it. Maybe Jim isn't withholding a world from me. Maybe I am just missing a dimension that his world has. But then maybe he knew that from the beginning. Maybe he married me for the distance he knew that he could keep.
I used to give Josie Barbie dolls to play with. I didn't know why. I didn't even particularly like them. I just had them in a box, and I gave them to her. When I asked Auntie Flo why Barbie didn't have a vagina, she slapped me in the mouth. I didn't just not like Barbies, I hated them. Still, I was horrified when I found Barbie's limbs piled in the payload of Josie's toy dump truck, a generic GI Joe at the wheel.
When she was a teenager (she's still a teenager), she would watch war movies with Jim, usually after I'd gone to bed. I'd hear the muffled gunfire, explosions, and screams through the wall and I could not understand why they wanted to see all that killing and suffering. They would watch movies where nothing good happened, nearly everyone died, and the people that survived didn't want to be alive anymore. I once insisted to Jim that this was why she severed the limbs of her dolls. He ignored the blatant chronological error and pointed out that none of her GI Joes had ever suffered this fate.
When she was about seventeen, she began quoting Apocalypse Now every chance she got. When I overheard her tell a friend to "Unass that shit, and get it out of here," I pretended like I had not. I found it harder to ignore when I walked in on her telling her cousin, "You're in the asshole of the world Captain," and I felt like I had to confront her after she opened the fridge saying, "Fuck it. I'm gonna get me some mangoes."
"One more of those and I'll wash your mouth out with soap, young lady!" Neither the crude and arcane punishment nor the 'young lady' were inventions, or intentions, of mine, but once they had entered the space between us they became parts of the invisible obstacle course we had built there. She kept at it.
"Classic. We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won' t allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it's obscene!"
I could have let it go, as Jim had repeatedly implored me to do. It was mild as far as teenage rebellion went, and I had given it too much attention already. Still, I'd said what I'd said and I felt obligated to honor it.
I seized a bar of soap from beside the sink and brandished it, but Josie didn't flinch. "Go ahead, stick it in there," she seethed. "You can't scrub your way out of bitchdom." She opened her mouth wide. I had forgotten my original purpose by the time my hand scraped her adult teeth and dislodged the lonely and delicate holdover from her childhood that the dentist kept sending postcards about. I kept at it until I heard her retch with such force that I was suddenly convinced that she would cough up the coagulate sins of every mother since Eve.
I came to Jim with swollen eyes, and I rubbed my knuckles like a prize-fighter waiting for a decision. There would be no prize. "She's right you know," Jim said. "I wouldn't worry about a few f-bombs when we're about to be dropping real ones again."
When she calls to say that her leave has been postponed indefinitely, I decide to leave out the preface that we always use with each other when we hear something from Afghanistan: "Nothing to worry about, but…" It's a courtesy that protects us both from that one second of spurious certainty that the worst has happened. I feel like this is a betrayal of monumental proportions, but my need to know if we have any common points of reference at all anymore has finally superseded what I've come to think of as my ethics.
"She's not coming home," I say, trying to deliver it neutrally, without any affectations that would make this cruelty any crueler.
The pause tells me nothing and his reply even less.
"Aren't you glad you didn't get those goddamn napkins?"
We light the tiki torches, the mosquito coils, and bring the TV outside. Jim opens an Old Milwaukee, sets it in the cup holder of my chaise longue, and opens the Doritos. A velvety blanket of relief wraps itself around my beer buzz and the light breeze doesn't bother me at all. We watch the moon come up over CSI: Miami and listen to the mosquitos whine just beyond the invisible barriers we've created. At about ten-thirty the ice-cream cake comes out. We may just get to those condoms yet.
BIO: Damon Barta once lived in a place where he could see for miles in every direction. He now lives safely among trees. His work has appeared in several print and online journals. Selected fiction can be found at http://damonbarta.site88.net/.