Prologue

This is how you survive a war.

Each morning before you wake, you run a hand over the cold space in the bed next to you. It’s a simple touchstone, a reminder. You are here; your husband is not.

You sleep on his side of the bed now. Most mornings, your eyes are blurry and the text on your phone runs together when you check for a message from him. You have to squint, sometimes closing one eye or the other, scanning the emails that have come in overnight (mostly spam) to pick out the distinct peaks and valleys of your husband’s name, Brad Sabatto, among them. If there is no new email message, you re-read some of the old ones. You have your favorites.

You make your own coffee, and because you’re not a morning person like your husband, who is not here, sometimes you run late enough that the coffee doesn’t get made. You brace yourself for the sludge in the law firm’s kitchen that you’ll have to drink until you can run out between appointments and get yourself a proper cup of joe.

You chit-chat with your assistant and some of the other associates and say “fine,” whenever anyone  asks how you’re holding up and how Brad is doing “over there.” You spend much of your time doing math, trying to convert time zones, until the numbers break down and you can’t remember if you’re ahead of Iraqi time or the other way around – if your husband is in your past or you’re in his. You spend too much time trying to decide which would be better.

You bring your phone into meetings and court appearances because it makes you feel better. You would worry less if he hadn’t gone over there as infantry, as a grunt, but this is how things have played out.  So you use personal email far more than you’re sure is allowed by the law firm’s lengthy policies and procedures, and vow to be a better employee when your husband is stateside once again, and safe.

You don’t know what it is that your husband is doing over there – what duties, thoughts, and dangers fill the minutes of his day. You can only imagine, and are certain that the imagining is worse than knowing. But when you ask, he changes the subject. This happens often enough that, after a while you stop asking. There’s little sense in wasting the few moments you get to hear his voice on questions that won’t be answered.

Because you aren’t certain what, exactly, you should worry about, you try to stop yourself short of doing much active worrying. You tell yourself that he’s smart and quick and strong and so are the guys around him. You tell yourself that the question is not if he comes home, but when – that he has a job to do over there and he’s doing it, and you have your job to do here, and someday, this will all seem like a tiny blip on the long timeline of your life.

Sometimes, you even believe yourself.

But then there are times when the minutes of this damn deployment seem more like hours, the hours more like whole months to endure, and you wonder if it’s ever going to end. Once in a while you duck into the stairwell, prop the door open with your shoe so you can get back out, and have yourself a good little meltdown.

On those days, you try to fill your time. You schedule lunches and drinks and sometimes dinners. You file motions and send letters to and on behalf of your clients and volunteer to write research memos for the partners. You answer email and return voicemails. You become the world’s best, most efficient, most hardworking attorney.

Most days, you drop off dry cleaning and pick it up. You sort the mail and pay bills and call the plumber when the bathroom sink won’t stop dripping, and again, three days later, when water starts seeping through the wall next to the shower. You cancel a dentist appointment your husband made months ago, before any of this was the plan. You mow the lawn until it’s covered in white, and then you scrape ice and shovel snow. You load and empty the dishwasher, scrub the tub, and wash sheets and clothes. Sometimes you fold them. Oftentimes you don’t. Toward the end of some days, the responsibility of doing every last thing yourself, alone, weighs so heavy on you that you almost can’t move.

You go to sleep, and wake up the next day, and then you do it all over again. Because there’s no stopping this war. Soon enough you’ll learn that. Soon enough you’ll learn that sometimes you can fight and fight and never win. Because sometimes the war follows you home. And sometimes, it doesn’t leave. It settles in, and puts its feet up in your favorite recliner, nice and comfortable and oh-so-content to be there.

One

November, 2004

“Turn that junk off, will you?” Darcy says, nodding at the television. “It’s not good for you.” Darcy’s gurgling, wriggling ten month-old daughter, Mia, is sitting naked on a blanket on the living room floor, fresh from her bath. Darcy bends down and rubs her nose against Mia’s. The baby grabs a handful of Darcy’s hair and Darcy pries it away. She adds, “For any of us.”

Darcy’s husband, Collin, became Brad’s mentor when he fast-tracked for Officer Candidate School after enlisting. Now Collin is my husband’s CO in Iraq. Here, Darcy is mine.

Anderson Cooper is promising an update on the war after the commercial break, complete with details about a roadside bombing in the Anbar Province outside of Baghdad, where our husbands are stationed, but I listen to Darcy. Deep down, I know she’s right. And it’s rumored that our guys will be coming home soon anyway. Still, that off button is always heavy as a cinder block to move.

I watch Darcy pick up Mia — with her plump cheeks and impossibly small pinkies and the little wisp of blond hair that tops her head — and something inside of me strains like a pulled muscle.

It’s not true what they say about a biological clock. Nothing inside of me is ticking. Ticking suggests patience. What I have inside of me is all about pulsing and yearning and wandering the baby aisles of Target for an hour when I only went in for deodorant, some highlighters, and paper toweling.

I trace a finger across Mia’s velvet skin, Darcy smiles a half smile at me, and Mia flails her chubby arms, now grabbing for Darcy’s glasses. “Soon, Elise,” she says softly. She’s used to this — to me, my wistfulness around babies. With Brad in Iraq, every month I cross off the calendar is one more without the promise of having my own.

Darcy’s house feels like a home, unlike the house Brad and I bought before he left, which has all the ambiance of an over-sized college dorm room given the melding of our used and mismatched furniture. At Darcy’s, the couches match the curtains, her well-worn kitchen table expands to seat ten and often does on holidays, and a ceramic heart that reads, “Happily Ever After” hangs by a coiled wire over the stove. Darcy is five years older than me, and even though she looks young, the years between us feel greater. She and Colin have been married for more than a decade already. By comparison, I discovered Brad’s middle name only a few summers ago.

“Can you check the Picatta?” Darcy’s voice calls out as she carries Mia down the hall to the nursery. Darcy likes to say that Mia found her voice as soon as she came into the world and has elected to use it fully every day, ever since. I can hear her jabbering to herself, which I know she’ll continue to do right up until the moment that sleep overtakes her. Darcy sits with her each night, in a rocking chair next to the crib, and sings lullabies accented now and then by Mia until she quiets down and her breathing slows. She’s a funny baby. A great baby. The kind of baby I am certain I’ll never have, because not many women do, and because, if my mom is to be believed, karma is definitely gunning for me with a little one as prickly and feisty as I was. Or, still might be, now and again.

I walk to the stove where a giant frying pan holds chicken breasts, broth, and tiny green olive-like things all gurgling at a low simmer. This is the other thing about Darcy’s house — every Tuesday that I’m here, and the occasional morning or afternoon on the weekend, it always smells like the next meal isn’t far off from done. At breakfast, muffins or scones. At lunch, bacon for BLTs. Tuesday dinners are wild cards, but always something delicious that I’ve never before heard of. Probably because my idea of dinner is salad – from a box –because even with something as basic as lettuce or noodles, I still need the pre-mix and instructions spelled out for me on the back.

Darcy had been a teacher in the same middle school as her husband, Collin. But after Mia was born, Darcy stayed home. She started watching the Food Network like it was her job, and threw herself into perfecting the recipes she saw. It didn’t hurt, either, that the rattling of a grocery cart soothed Mia to sleep like a lullaby. Collin would come home after coaching sixth grade basketball each night to a feast. Now that he — and Brad — have been deployed, I’ve become her tester, her audience, her calf to fatten.

I don’t have the faintest idea what I am supposed to “check” with the chicken. Perhaps just that it’s not burning? With the wooden spoon that was balanced on the pan, I scrape the bottom, turning up little brown flakes. Unsure if that is what’s supposed to happen, I turn down the heat a touch. Then I bring the spoon to my lips. The sauce glides smooth and buttery over them, but finishes in my mouth with a tang that makes my mouth pucker.

A car door slams in front of Darcy’s house. It isn’t altogether unusual for some of the other Guard wives to stop over now and then at night, looking for some way to stave off loneliness, a nightmare, a rumor run rampant on any number of social networks, or a bad newscast. Throughout Collin’s years of service, from his time in the National Guard and the cadet program in college to serving as an officer in this most recent deployment, Darcy has collected a number of us, like a menagerie of strays. Many of us are from different eras of Collin’s military career and don’t know one another well, but we are all Darcy’s. She found me standing at the edge of a gym before the sendoff. I had to take a late lunch from work to be able to attend and was wearing a smart gray suit in a sea of camo and T-shirts, capris and tank tops, and gobs of kids – not belonging in more ways than one.

I walk to the front window and nudge the curtain aside with my elbow because I am still carrying the wooden spoon. A car I don’t recognize –a dark nondescript sedan –is parked front of Darcy’s house. By the light of the streetlamp, I see two men in stiff dress greens get out. They stand at the end of the sidewalk, talking. My breath catches in my chest.

Usually, when Darcy tells me to turn off the news, she’ll say, “You’re not going to get anything but crazy from watching that box. Good news never comes from there and the really bad news will show up at your doorstep.”

And here it was.

Like the goddamn ark, they always come aboard in twos.