Willow never thought she could be the kind of woman to leave a wounded warrior, yet, she’s on her way home to do just that. My tour is finally over and I’m not reenlisting.
Her husband, Denny, is not a Vietnam vet who’d be living in a cardboard box without her nor is he a soldier who lost his legs or suffered a brain injury as a result of an IED explosion in the second Iraq war. The consequences from his war —the first Persian Gulf War— are different. It was a war fought without adequate defense against an invisible enemy—nerve gas, deadly chemicals, and pollutants. Denny is chronically victimized by his environment now. Triggers are unavoidable.
The scent from a woman’s perfume, a fresh coat of paint on a neighbor’s house, even spring pollen, can set off days in the dark with migraine or debilitating allergy attacks. The bouts come and go. Jobs come and go. Yet, Willow stayed.
From the day he flew to the Middle East and beyond, Willow and Denny lived on shifting sand. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, were once countries whose shape Willow would trace on a map. What happened to him there changed the trajectory of both their
lives. Whether it was oil fires, searing heat, smoke, desert sand lodged in every pore, or the pills he was forced to take didn’t matter. Pick one or all.
The lingering chronic leg pain and limp he suffered? That’s another story all together.
He blindsided her when he joined the Marines just when they were about to get married. When she remembers that day now, she’s enraged she didn’t run. But then, it never crossed her mind she had a choice.
“I’m sorry, Willow, but I couldn’t tell you until it was a done deal. It’s something I have to do and I didn’t want you to talk me out of it.”
Willow’s tears streaked her contorted face. “No. Denny, this is not something you had to do. We had plans. What about our life? I thought that’s what you signed up for. What about that, Denny?”
“I’m sorry, babe. I really am. Th ink of it as me going off to college for four years. It isn’t as if there’s a war going on. It’s a good thing. When I come back, we’ll do everything you want.”
But there was a war. What’s more, it never occurred to her that if he could do this, there might be other equally arbitrary decisions he might make. After recovering from the first blows— enlisting without telling her and coming back as he did— the second more deadly strike was his unilateral decision that they would not have children.
Now stopped at a traffic light, Willow grips the wheel. Her grief resurfaces again, red and raw, as she remembers the second worse day of her life with Denny. “Are you kidding me, Willow? The pills they gave me cause birth defects. It would be a crime to bring a child into the world knowing that.”
“What?” she gasped. “No. We always talked about having a brood. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“That was before, Willow. Get your head out of the clouds for once. You’re a librarian. Read about what’s happening to the babies born to PGW vets. You could do that to a kid? Maybe when I’m better, we can adopt.” He stomped out of the room. Conversation over.
Willow was sure she’d stop breathing. When she told her sister that she felt something inside of her tear, she meant it. Autumn was infuriated. “I told you to leave the loser when he joined up and now this? You are not staying with him. You are moving in here with me.
That’s all there is to it.”
But she stayed.
Winding her way through the city streets, Willow puts her hand on her racing heart, willing it to slow down. Stop thinking about the past, concentrate on how to begin, what words to use. She silently practiced her speech to him all afternoon but now can’t remember a word.
For a moment, she pushes the bad memories aside and sees the Denny watching her as she walked into high school, her first day in a real school. She knew no one. Groups of students hung out together, relaxed with one another. Apart from all of the noise was Denny. He was leaning against a wall wearing a football jersey, ragged jeans and when he saw her, a wide grin. She could never explain it but from the moment she first saw this redheaded, freckle-faced guy, she was his for life. They didn’t date right away, just gravitated toward each other when passing to the next class, then after school. She’d watch him at football practice, captivated by his skill and speed.
They’d sit on the grass behind school cross-legged, facing each other. She’d tell him stories of her wandering childhood living in communes. He’d laugh, twirl her light golden brown curls around his finger, stroke her cheek. He’d call her at night. They’d do homework together. Before a single kiss, they became each other’s world. Blinded by her idea of them, she never saw the restlessness pulsing beneath his skin.
As one year bled into the next, she knew she would never have the husband and family she dreamed of. Th ose losses devolved into blame. Implacable, he was defeated and wanted only to turn his back on that time and accept his limitations.
She never knows how he’ll be when she comes home from school. Moody. Agitated. Apologetic. Energetic. Sometimes even loving. Yes, sporadic sightings of her Denny remained. The occasional flicker in his eyes let her know the Denny she fell in love with
was still in there somewhere.
In the wide swatches of time she had to think about her marriage, she decided that when the terms become skewed, when worse exceeds better, and cherishing is long gone, it should become null and void. It slowly dawned on her that it came down to this — when
the balance of happiness to unhappiness tips all the way over, it’s time to rip up the pledge and heave it into the black hole that grew deeper each year.
At least that’s what she told herself now.
She felt her unhappiness keenly as it insidiously spread, a pool of dark sludge coating her life with sticky residue. Th en, one day something small and unanticipated happened. She had an epiphany enough to startle her back to life.
Sometimes change starts small but it begins to take up more and more space until it’s too large to ignore, as if you don’t know how cold you are until you feel the sun, or when the simple joy of careless conversation or sharing a meal with light banter makes you happier than it should.
Willow’s feelings for Blake, were slowly aroused. At first, it was just chatter about work. He was her boss, the school principal. She liked being around him and sought him out whenever she could. He made her see that she could fill herself up with something bright to balance the pull-down of Denny. Chatting became coffee. Then a drink. Dinner. And when they could no longer stand not touching one another, they became lovers. She expected to feel guilty but she didn’t.
A fling. Something to look forward to. When it’s over, at least I’d know I chose life while holding on to my sinking ship. But it didn’t happen that way. There was no going back.
Willow and Blake decided this would be the day they would each tell their spouses they were leaving. She would go home and tell Denny; he would tell Jillian. Willow supposed it was a fitting day for what they were about to do. Sunny while they were together. Now, it was raining in big, sloppy drops.
“We’ll tell them and then meet at the Beverwyck Inn.” Blake said. “Or maybe I should be there, waiting outside your house, just in case.”
“No. It’ll be okay.”
He pulled her close, stroking her hair. “Just get in and out. Fast.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I know. What about Jillian? Do you know what you’re going to say?”
“No. But I don’t want to let her turn it into a harangue. I want a hit and run, I think.”
“No, you don’t, Blake.”
Willow eyes the interstate signs and considers taking the long route home. She looks at the clock. Five–fifteen. The traffic on I-90 should be picking up. She could sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic pretending she’s a commuter anxious to get home to prepare dinner or play a game of catch with her kids. Th e other drivers would probably curse the crawl while she’d hope traffic would come to a dead stop.
No. That’s silly. It’s too far out of the way. The sooner I get this over with, the sooner I get to Blake.
She turns on the radio, pushing the button to change the dial from NPR to rock. You’re a heartbreaker, dream maker, love taker. Pat, oh, did you got that right. Denny in spades.
Maybe she should stop for a cup of coffee to concentrate. She has to choose the right words rather than have a torrent of incoherence spill out. What she says does matter. She needs him to understand this is best for both of them. She must be gentle but firm. He
has to understand she won’t change her mind. Willow has no doubt she is doing the right thing. Yet, she can see his face crumble as soon as he understands what she’s saying.
Despite everything, sadness wells up inside her.
Stopped at a light, tears blur her vision and stream down her face. She thinks of him alone in their dark house. Where is the damn Kleenex? She looks over her shoulder and sees the box on the floor, on the passenger side. It’s wedged under her umbrella out of reach. She
turns around, letting go of the wheel for a second to flip the box toward her. Stretching, Willow’s foot slips out of her shoe and the heel gets caught on the gas pedal. Twisted, she pulls herself back to face front when the car lurches forward, accelerating into the intersection. She hears tires screech, a crashing sound, and the blast of a horn. Willow feels impact. Then nothing