by Reilly Cundiff
He writes you letters from basic training. The envelopes arrive once a week, stuffed with three to five pieces of paper folded twice to fit in the squat white rectangle. The United States Air Force logo is emblazoned in blue in the top right corner of the stationery. He doesn’t have much time to write – most of it is scratched out in a bathroom stall – and what he does get down turns your stomach; his letters are an odd mix of dry reporting of his day, his feelings of fear and homesickness, and sterile sexual fantasies spilled on the page.
They never answer the questions you have, and sometimes they ask questions you don’t have a good answer to, like “Will you marry me?” You can’t believe it. He isn’t more than six weeks into training and the crushing weight of his new reality is already bearing down on him: basic training is eight weeks spent away from home, but then it would be five months more somewhere else.
Then two years. Maybe five.
You sit in your customary seat at the kitchen counter and stare at the piece of paper in your hands. The large script is scrawled nervously over an entire face of one sheet and underlined for emphasis.
Well, will you?
You are surprised and embarrassed for him: what is he thinking? How is he expecting you to respond? This proposal cannot be motivated by love. He is scared and grasping for something in his life to remain constant: You are a souvenir. You know this. You remind him of home.
Home. You don’t want to leave. This is where your father, your mother, your siblings and your friends are. Your sister just had another baby, and you cry when you think your niece and nephew might grow up and forget you. Forget vacations at the beach. And you go to school, you just started at the community college. You want to go to culinary school but your dad thinks you should do something sensible first, like major in business.
Do something sensible. You quickly dispatch a refusal, wrapped in the cloyingly sweet perfume of every other eager affirmation of your love you can offer. You still love him, you write. You love him but you want to be sensible. You go to school.
He is able to use a payphone on base and calls you crying because he is lonely, because he misses home. You say you’ll see him soon.
When his eight weeks are up, you fly to San Antonio, Texas with his parents to attend his graduation. He looks as though he has lost twenty pounds. The thick, black square frames that sit on his nose draw attention to the shadows under his eyes and the way his waxy, yellowed skin clings to his cheek bones. You think now it must have been this – seeing how pathetic and wasted he looked – that changed your mind, because you still don’t have a better explanation for why you agree to marry him in Texas.
You are a souvenir. You know this.
You did not know you would be sneaking to the courthouse like so many other couples that weekend and signing the papers. You only packed one dress and it is black, so that is what you wear when you shuffle into the courthouse; his friends ask him if you are Goth because your hair is dark and your dress is black when you get married.
There is more training ahead and you try to submit to the passing of days that weigh on you like layers of plaster, attempting to preserve the girl married at eighteen. Each week, each month, is spent in anticipation. It doesn’t matter what you do while you wait as long as he can recognize the mould. You put school on hold so that you can fly out to spend a weekend with him at a moment’s notice. He is in California and sometimes you fight at the hotel and he leaves, but he always comes back after a few hours.
When you have to leave, you both cry, because you remind him of home.
You are a souvenir. You know this.
Finally, he completes all two-and-a-half years of his training and is stationed at a base just outside Omaha, Nebraska. All of your books and furniture are shipped out ahead of you; on the plane you carry a small bag and roll behind you a bursting black suitcase. Your dad drives you to the airport and does not say much when you leave to walk through security, but he will watch you go. He will wait.
You land at the airport, collect your luggage, and are afraid to face your husband when you hear him calling your name. He wears a dark, nubby woolen sweater that you do not want to feel wrapped around you. He will wave and you will speak in terse, awkward fragments, trying to disguise your nerves with excitement. He will pull your suitcase and you to the car. This is what was on the other side of waiting. You are over a thousand miles away from home, your family and friends. You are joining your husband in a new place.
You remind him of home.
Reilly Cundiff is an MFA candidate at Hollins University. A native of the Northern Virginia region (read: a relatively flat area crisscrossed with highways and rivers), she can’t help thinking of the mountain ranges that encircle the Roanoke valley as the lip of a giant fishbowl. And she really wishes she had invested in a car with four-wheel drive.