By Kate McCorkle
Given the entrenched nature of my fight against the United States Army, it’s embarrassing that pipe cleaners broke me in the end. I had been resisting everything the military represented, on both real and ideological fronts for months, so it’s pathetic—yet probably fitting—that four measly pipe cleaners hastened my surrender.
At twenty-three, I found myself engaged to an Army lieutenant stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. When we met, though, Jason wasn’t that—he wasn’t anything in high school. I transferred to his school our junior year when my family moved, but it wasn’t until we ended up at the same college that we became friends.
The summer after our freshman year, he enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to pay tuition. Soon after, we spent the next three years as one of those annoying on-again, off-again, who-the-hell-knows couples. I questioned Jason about the ROTC thing (i.e., all that “blind obedience to authority” stuff). Also, apparently, my drinking was not like a “normal” person, and that complicated things as well. When he became an officer after graduation, I had someone I begrudgingly loved in the infantry.
For the next two years I lived in Chicago, studying and working, and Jason was between Georgia and Clarksville, Tennessee, training. Through phone and letters, our connection broke and grew stronger by turns. I had a hard time reconciling the thoughtful, sincere guy I knew with the image of a fighting machine; distance and academia highlighted the stereotype. Ultimately, Jason’s importance to me outweighed anything as external as a job.
Once we were engaged, however, it became clear that the United States Army now expected something of me.
During one of my visits to Clarksville, Jason showed me some advice addressed to spouses in the Army Officer’s Guide, thinking it might prove informative and helpful. One line stated that an officer’s wife should be “wholesome, normal, and pleasant.” I chucked the book across the room in response. I figured there was no hope since restless, irritable, and discontent was my baseline. Normal, conjuring some ideal default state I could never achieve, made me panic. I envisioned a troop of Stepford-like women smiling through deployments and blindly accepting their lot.
Well, no thank you. I figured as long as I kept fighting that — and what was it exactly? The infantry? A certain image of wifeliness? My new identity as a spouse? — I just needed to fight, and I would be okay.
* * *
The wives’ August coffee occurred when I happened to be at Fort Campbell a few weeks before our wedding. The invitation, made by the battalion commander’s wife, seemed innocent enough: coffee with some women. I showed up to a stranger’s living room, nervous but determined to job network and possibly wow them with my grasp of current South African fiction. I was oblivious to the protocol my presence violated. Girlfriends are not wives. Fiancées are not wives. Thus, they do not belong at the wives’ coffee. Shelby Lee Donewell, the battalion commander’s wife who ran the meetings, acknowledged as much at that first coffee.
“We don’t normally include—” she began. “Well, since Kate is a fiancée and their wedding is just around the corner—two weeks, yes? — I thought she could be invited.”
Next to me, a blonde with dark roots leaned in and hissed, “I wasn’t invited when I was a fiancée.”
“Well, you never know who will cut and run,” I whispered, making a joke.
Dye-job scowled and scooted away.
Shelby Lee explained that I wouldn’t get my name tag until I was married. The room nodded its assent. Later, several ladies approached to mention they weren’t invited to coffees as fiancées. I somberly nodded, but didn’t get it. This wasn’t some Parisian salon. It was a conversation about stain removal while noshing on a Pampered Chef crescent-roll ring.
During the small talk part of the meeting, several women lauded the merits of smacking their kids with a blue stick. My eyes widened as I perched on my folding chair, balancing a plate of cheese. They were openly discussing whacking their kids. It was the blue stick, apparently, that sanctified it. It was just the right weight and length, and it wasn’t too rigid. There was some give. I told Jason about the beating stick afterwards. He was unimpressed.
“They expect discipline,” he offered.
“There are better ways to discipline than with a stick,” I countered.
This kicked off an argument about whether we’d beat any future children with a stick.
Maybe I should have been more aware of the infantry culture before our marriage. I cultivated distance, though: I wanted to preserve a self not connected to Jason’s rank. Because of the marriage, however, I needed to reconcile myself to his life. So Jason wore a uniform for work. So did lots of people. So his job put him in harm’s way. Well, anyone could be hit by a bus when crossing the street. So the Army referred to me as a “dependent,” grouping me with children in official information. I could change that. That could be my project on weekends and when I got home from work: Change Army. Besides, Jason only had a four-year commitment because of ROTC. This wasn’t forever.
Eleven days after our wedding, less than forty-eight hours after arriving in Tennessee from our honeymoon, terrorists killed 2,996 people in the 9/11 attacks.
I felt lucky because Jason was alive. He was just gone.
For our first three months of marriage, we were apart more than we were together. In the beginning I didn’t know where he was. Kuwait? Afghanistan? (It turned out to be a power plant in Indiana.) Then when we were together—were we still newlyweds? Was it vacation? Did the rules apply? I was angry with him for leaving so often, then guilty for being upset with someone doing a difficult job. I steeled myself for death—would it come through Anthrax in the mail? Another airplane? A war? I wanted him to feel bad for me, which he never did.
But in those first days, I just tried to get though the twenty-four hours in front of me. Life was still happening. Small things changed. Flags popped up everywhere. Car dealerships offered deep military discounts. At the Exxon a lady sobbed, her head on her SUV, as she pumped gas and kids knocked on the window from inside. I developed a twitch under my left eye, and my lips bloomed with seven stress-induced fever blisters. I’d forgo showering, because what was the point?
I didn’t change my name after we married. I wasn’t strongly political about it—the name change was just something I didn’t like. But when retaining my name consistently threw off the Army database, and complicated matters every time I swiped my ID, I was glad. See how antiquated you are, I judged as the guy at the gym repeatedly scanned my card to see what soldier I belonged to—like it would suddenly work on the twelfth swipe. You literally cannot process an independent woman.
* * *
I was in no mood to attend the September coffee, but Jason, who happened to be home when the invitation arrived, said I should go. It’d be good for me to shower and leave the house. I balked, reasoning that I was awful at book clubs. Besides, who cared about set-in stains after so much recent carnage? He said this was about his career, that I had to be a team player. A typical extrovert, he also said that maybe I would make a friend or learn something new; I might be discounting some great opportunities and wonderful people out of hand. I could see his point, but I also wanted to stab him in the eye with a pencil. This couldn’t be a normal newlywed feeling.
So I was a team player and attended the monthly coffees. We met in living rooms that rarely accommodated our size. Some women were chair-and-couch sitters, while others always claimed the floor. A handful of the wives worked outside the home—at least two were officers themselves. Almost everyone had finished college, and a few either had graduate degrees or were pursuing them. For many, Fort Campbell was not their first post. They were veterans too. Most had kids: several homeschooled, someone was always pregnant. The talk inevitably turned to what I secretly called “placenta chat.” Who was dilated and effaced for how long, who leaked what from where, and who had the longest/hardest/most unique labor.
Shelby Lee followed a formula: introduce yourself, put your name tag in the Longaberger basket, do an icebreaker, discuss new business, pull a name for the raffle, determine the next hostess. Shelby Lee’s words flowed in a buttery southern murmur as she made the same introduction every month.
“Hi, I’m Shelby Lee Donewell. My husband is Lieutenant Colonel John Donewell, Battalion Commander of the First of the Seven-Eighty-First. He just loves serving with all y’all’s husbands. We have one wonderful daughter, Margaret, who is our angel. She’s five years old, and she really is an angel. She plays the cello beautifully.”
At this point, the chaplain’s wife, Christine Prince, who usually sat at Shelby Lee’s feet taking notes, would interject. “She really is an angel. Truly. I’ve heard her play. Margaret is an angel. She’s an angel, Shelby Lee.”
The two women would then fold into a private consult regarding Margaret’s angelhood. After this exchange Shelby Lee would suggest everyone else make introductions. They followed a template.
“Hi! My name is Ruth Johnson. My husband is First Lieutenant David Johnson, company XO. We have two boys; Bodie is five and Connor is three, and two dogs, Kayla and Bear, who are wonderful. Dave has been working really hard and is just so happy to be part of this unit working with LTC Donewell.”
“Hi. I’m Michelle Roberts. My husband is Major John Roberts, the battalion operations officer. We have three children. Rebecca’s twelve, Sarah’s nine, and Daniel-we-got-our-boy is six. John just loves serving with this unit, especially with LTC Donewell, even though he’s always at the office and I never see him.”
“Hi, y’all! My name is Steph Cooper. My husband is Captain Luke Cooper. Campbell’s our second post; we were at Bragg before this. So yeah, I already know Kelly and Jessie—hey girls! We’re thrilled to be at Campbell after Bragg. Luke is so happy to be working with LTC Donewell and all y’all’s husbands. This is just a great unit. LTC Donewell is awesome. We’re also trying to have kids, so hopefully y’all will be at my baby shower soon!”
Then it would be my turn. “Hi. I’m Kate McCorkle. Most recently I worked at a marine industry non-profit in Chicago, but now that I relocated, I would love to find a job in my field, which is really anything to do with literature, history, the humanities. I’m originally from Delaware, but I’ve also lived in Massachusetts. Oh, and my husband is Jason Voigt. He’s a First Lieutenant with—HHC, I think.”
Really, I was grateful I hadn’t blurted out that I was in recovery. Put me in a circle and go around with introductions, and muscle memory wants to kick in. Hi, I’m Kate. I’m an alcoholic. So, I’m still struggling big-time with this move and how freaking slow people do things down here, and I’m just insanely overwhelmed by all the changes and the fear that something terrible’s going to happen…
But I hadn’t done that. I kept my cool. So why were the other women making stink faces? Couldn’t they comprehend independent thinking? They eyed each other. Was wanting a job that radical? Shelby Lee would murmur something about how I was still new, but that stopped after the first two meetings.
An ice breaker followed introductions, even if no one new had joined the unit since the last coffee. One ice breaker was to get your favorite lipstick from your purse, remove the cap, then analyze the slant of the lipstick. We were given a piece paper that illustrated the various slants: flat, horizontal right, horizontal left, a valley, a mountain, etc. The shape of your lipstick revealed something insightful about your personality.
I didn’t have a tube of lipstick. I had only recently starting carrying a purse or pocketbook in lieu of a backpack because it was awkward toting pens and candy by hand.
* * *
The monthly coffees turned my stomach in knots, but the other social events were worse. At least the coffees followed a pattern—you knew what to expect and when the night was going to end—but the other events had no guide.
I was going to a scrapbooking party! Did I scrapbook? No. But Shelby Lee issued the invitation. I brought my three pictures, like the invitation instructed, and used the scalloped scissors and variously patterned cardstock to make a page celebrating my important life event. Then I used a nice black pen to journal—write captions—on the page. I actually kind of had fun. I like making things. I like pens. The food was good.
Despite living off one paycheck, I ordered a pair of surgical-sharp scrapbooking scissors, thinking they’d come in handy for other tasks. I turned my order sheet in to the chaplain’s wife, Christine, who was sitting at the dining room table shuffling them into a perfect rectangle. She glanced at the paper.
“Hey, big spender,” she belted in full Ethel Merman, extending the form toward me. “You sure you’re done filling this out?”
“Yes,” I answered, unable to come up with a wittier reply. Did anyone else hear her sing that? Did they all think I was cheap? Did I screw up? God, she was awful.
“It’s okay,” I heard Shelby Lee murmur from my side. The Broadway, surely, brought her over. She motioned for Christine to file the paper.
I left the scrapbooking party convinced I somehow botched things. But why would I buy a ton of supplies when I didn’t scrapbook? The invitation said it was okay to come and just socialize. You didn’t have to buy anything. Why say it if it wasn’t true?
Besides the smaller gatherings, there were Hail and Farewells, which included the whole battalion. They were to welcome the newest members and salute those leaving for other assignments. Hail and Farewells were also drunkfests. This wasn’t a big deal, except—unsteady as I felt in every other aspect of my life—that atmosphere made me twitchy.
This particular night, Jason, who orchestrated things, disappeared into the barroom. The men had identical high-and-tight haircuts and wore golf shirts with belted khakis. Some sported obnoxiously large class rings that bulged as they held sweaty Heineken bottles. The women, while slightly less homogeneous, looked like they walked out of a Belk catalogue. Nails done. Hair done. Jewelry flashing. Lipstick. All very tailored and neat. Not everyone was drinking—some of the Baptists took that seriously. Despite several conscientious attempts, I never managed to break into a conversation. I didn’t know acronyms or Army politics. I didn’t have kids. I won’t participate in a whispered dissection of someone four feet away. Between the isolation and the flowing booze I was miserable.
When Jason and I finally left, I insisted on stopping at Kroger for chocolate ice cream. With him waiting in the car, I also checked out the aisle-long magazine section, the length of which made me initially optimistic. I wanted a Smithsonian, but I’d be just as delighted with a National Geographic. Maybe there’d be an old, hidden Civilization somewhere…
Probably six rows of magazines covered the aisle, yet there wasn’t one cultural or literary volume. It was muscle cars, auto repair, men’s fitness, men’s health, sports, woodworking, guns and ammo, hunting, soft-core porn, regular porn, home repair, and business and technology. Then there was hair—rows and rows of hair. I never imagined that many hair magazines existed. But I didn’t want to view photos of the latest celebrity looks.
I returned to the car, complaining as soon as I opened the door. “Can you believe it?” I said in a tone suggesting I found cockroaches. “They don’t have a single real magazine. It’s all hair!”
Jason shook his head, uncomprehending.
“Hair,” I said, grabbing a chunk of my own. “So it’s photos. No words. Nothing to read. There is nothing to read in this illiterate town! God, I hate the Army.”
Jason looked at the road ahead. “Why are you blaming the Army that an off-post Kroger didn’t have the magazine you wanted?”
“It’s the culture. This place is insipid. Like the only thing in my brain is wondering how to cut and style my hair,” I slouched into the seat. “The Hail and Farewell sucked, by the way.”
“Maybe that’s what their clientele wants. Maybe that’s what sells.”
“That’s the problem!” I bolted up to face Jason. “They’ve been conditioned to want that shit! If you put a New Yorker in there once in a while, maybe they would want something else from the world.”
“But how is that the Army’s problem? Something the Army did?”
I scowled and cradled my ice cream. My husband’s unperturbed logic and lack of sympathy was infuriating.
Soon after the Hail and Farewell, Jason called from work saying that I needed to get his ruck and drive it in—he had to leave. He assured me he wasn’t going overseas, that this would just be for a few weeks, but he couldn’t say more. When I got to the company parking lot, tearful wives were hugging their men and wishing them good luck. I threw the ruck at Jason. If it was lighter or if I was stronger I would’ve hit his head instead of his feet. That’s where I was aiming.
“Here’s your fucking bag,” I said with the heave.
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“Screw you.” I was already turning back to the Jeep.
“I love you.”
“I fucking hate the Army.”
In the rearview, I could see him, dressed in his desert camo, standing on the curb with the green ruck by his tan boots. He was just standing there, watching me go. The other wives were staying with their men until the company had to depart.
I called my sponsor and yelled a profane Serenity Prayer as I drove home over bumpy, uneven terrain. God, grant me the fucking serenity to accept the fucking things I cannot change…
At the next coffee, several women suggested I get pregnant. It would give me something to do. All this free time wasn’t good. Besides, if something, you know, happened, then I would have something to remember Jason by.
“I want a job,” I told them.
“Why in the world would you want to get a job?” Christine asked. “You’re married. Get pregnant. Let him take care of you.”
The invitation to the December coffee arrived in early November. Shelby Lee decided that for this coffee, it would be fun to do something different. We’d meet in the Officers’ Wives Hut, a special building on post, rather than in someone’s living room. Everyone would bring two kinds of cookies to swap. We’d have an ornament exchange, capped at eight dollars. Shelby Lee and some others would arrive early to decorate. It would be like a party.
Electricity sparked. Christmas. I knew Christmas. My family rocked Christmas. I would find the ornament to end all ornaments. Mine would put everyone else’s to shame. The other wives would see it rise majestically from its Bubble Wrap cocoon and covet it. They’d regard me in admiration. Wow. Kate really brought her A-game. She knows Christmas. Maybe I should get to know her better. Maybe I should reconsider my life’s choices and read a New Yorker soon.
I spent the next few weeks obsessing over this ornament, driving all over the sprawling town, checking every store that might have a holiday section. Since we didn’t know yet whether we’d be able to leave Campbell and go home for Christmas, this was a good distraction. Rather than bemoan this as the first in a string of holidays separated from my family, or fear that the unit would be called up quickly again, I could embark on my festive quest.
I wasn’t impressed by the ornaments at Walmart, Target, Home Depot, or Hallmark. I asked around in the few businesses in the older part of town, thinking maybe there’d be some local artist making regionally-relevant art under eight dollars that you could hang on a tree, and they would be showcasing this artist for the holidays. I checked at the post shop, the PX. I bought ornaments for our tree there, but didn’t see anything right for the exchange.
Time was running out. The cookies were already made. The day before the exchange, I was making one last, neurotic loop through town before calling it quits and doubling back to the PX in surrender. Then I saw the Pier 1.
I had worked at Pier 1 for several months after grad school. Initially, I hadn’t wanted to revisit the smell of the store: a subtle blend of candles, fiber, and cardboard. Pier 1 sold ornaments, though. Some of them were cheap, too. The Christmas I worked there it was animals made from nature, so two acorns glued together with moss was the squirrel. A pinecone became a bear. That sort of thing.
The current Christmas display, however, was a frenetic kaleidoscope of color and material. And everything was on sale! This was a sign. I bought a glass ornament that looked like it came from Whoville. It must have been seven or eight inches long, a traditional oval shape, with a thumb-print indent in the middle just like a vintage bauble. Its two ends spiraled gracefully, eventually tapering into rounded points, all in jewel tones that would certainly compliment any tree. This was it—the showstopper. And it was under eight dollars. My victory was assured.
The next night I found the Officers’ Wives’ Hut on post—I had never been in that area before—and learned “hut” was indeed an accurate description. But Shelby Lee was right. It did look very nice all lit up with twinkling lights. And there was a little decorated tree for us to put our wrapped ornaments under. The cookies were spread over a long table, and you could pile them on a plate to take home. Christmas music played. A lot of the women wore festive sweaters or holiday jewelry. It actually did feel nice and welcoming. We spoke of family traditions and holiday plans optimistically, having recently learned we could leave post and return home. The sense of relief was palpable. Besides, I already knew I brought the best ornament.
After the usual introductions (My husband is so awesome and he loves your husband, blah, blah, blah.), Shelby Lee handed out the wrapped ornaments, one per person. We’d pass them along to Jingle Bell Rock. When the song stopped, you kept the package you were holding. We did a few rounds of this, women remarking about fancy wrapping paper and embellishments, or giggling about a strangely heavy bag as we passed the gifts. Then the music stopped for good, and Shelby Lee declared that we were to open the package we now held.
There must be a mistake. All I held was an empty brown paper bag. A lunch bag. Did Shelby Lee include it by mistake? Did trash from someone’s car make it under the tree? I heard cries of delight and murmurs of satisfaction all around me. Light reflected off glass ornaments; a woman looked admiringly at the snowman she just won. I reached my hand in the brown bag. There was something inside.
I pulled out a bow made by red and white pipe cleaners. They were twisted together, candy cane style, then shaped into a bow. A glue blob in the middle held it together and attached two ambiguous bells or berries. Two tiny, dangling red spheres. What the hell. Was this a joke? I held the lunch bag upside down, thinking a gift card might fall out. Oh, no. This was for real. My ornament was pipe cleaners. Four fucking pipe cleaners.
I was in a tunnel where it was just me and this bow. Nothing else existed beyond our abysmal darkness. I was preparing to leave my body when someone, a finger, came between us—between me and the bow.
“I made that,” said the most annoying voice I’d ever heard. She sounded like she was trying to parody Urkel or Fran Drescher, but who would do that at a time like this? In my near-catatonic state, I shifted my eyeballs to look at her. She was pale with long, curly, dark hair and sorrowful eyes. I recognized her from the coffees, but couldn’t recall anything about her.
“I had to make thirty for my student teaching,” she continued in that nasal whine. “It was kindergarten today. It was awful. All those little kids. And I had to do the glue gun. They don’t let the kids do the glue gun. It’s a real hard craft. I burnt myself. See?” She extended her middle finger for me to examine an invisible mark. “This is where I burned myself making that for you.”
Oh dear God. Was she for real? All I could think of was the weeks of effort I put into finding the perfect ornament—I saw Christine Prince, the awful Chaplain’s wife, over by the cookies, holding it aloft and twirling it for all to admire—and how literally everyone else in this hut got something real and I got pipe cleaners. A kindergarten craft project. And this girl was going on about how it was handmade. It was art. And she burned herself in the name of art. I thought I might pass out.
Shelby Lee was beside us, her red holiday sweater matching her red lipstick. “Ladies, we’re gonna do the raffle now, ladies,” she purred. She reached into a Longaberger basket adorned with a red bow, pulled out a name tag and pocketed it.
“Kate won,” she announced. “Oh, Kate, here is the raffle prize. You won.”
She put a holiday bag tied in raffia and spilling over with green and red tissue in front of me. I was still sitting with the brown bag on my lap, the pipe cleaner bow in hand.
“Open up the raffle, hon,” Shelby Lee insisted, nudging the bag toward me.
I don’t remember what was in the bag. It may have been peppermint bath gel or hot chocolate–scented hand lotion. I remember Shelby Lee’s kindness—her quick recognition that I was unraveling and her attempt to help. At the time, I felt justified. It was good and right she threw the raffle on my behalf. Who brings a kindergarten craft to a legit ornament swap? What adult is intimidated by hot glue?
I had no recollection of my thirty-minute drive home—no sensory details recalling me to the reality that I just operated a motor vehicle. I was almost surprised to find myself at the threshold of the front door, like I’d magically teleported from the Officers’ Wives’ Hut. If anything, those thirty minutes only existed to nurse my anger and growing sense of injustice. I was near-shaking with rage, clutching the weightless brown lunch bag when I got home.
Jason was sprawled on the couch watching TV. I ranted enough about the evening that he muted his show. I showed him my pipe cleaner ornament.
“Wow. That is pretty crappy,” he conceded. “Are you just going to throw it out?”
I thought, Why yes—it is crappy. So I went into the half bath and looped it around the toilet handle. “There,” I said. “I found the perfect place for the ornament. Now we have a Christmas toilet.”
Jason resumed watching his show. Standing outside the bathroom, a feeling in my stomach told me maybe I should call my sponsor.
* * *
I expected her sympathy as I told my tale—see the Army, the wives, it all just sucks—but I should have known better. As her words broke over me, I began to realize she was right.
“You have to stop fighting,” she insisted.
“I’m not fighting—”
“You’re tying yourself in knots.”
“What do you call driving all over town for a tchotchke? Freaking out about salon magazines? You’re angry and hysterical when he leaves—”
“How am I supposed to be?” I asked. “I’m not happy about it. Am I supposed to stand there like a robot and apply lipstick and—”
“This. This is the problem. You’re an alcoholic. Fear and anger is crushing you. We need to cease fighting if we want to live.”
“But I can’t stop fighting.”
There was a long pause before I answered. “Because this isn’t right. Because I’ll disappear,” I mumbled.
“Kate,” she sighed. “You are never going to change a darn thing—not about the South, not about the Army, not about the wives. The only thing you can change is you. You made yourself find the perfect ornament. You were the one connecting it to your self-worth. No one did that to you. And—by the way—if you need an eight-dollar piece of glass to prove your value, you have bigger problems than feeling jilted by another person’s gift.”
Oh. I had tied the ornament to my self-worth, hadn’t I? After all my stubborn insistence that I wasn’t a dependent, that I was an individual apart from my husband’s rank, that I didn’t snap into the Army’s mold of “Wife,” I reduced myself to an eight-dollar bauble. The weight of this sank in.
She pressed on. “You don’t have to love the bow, but you certainly don’t need to revile it either. What if this was the best she could do? What if she’s not creative and she genuinely impressed herself with this craft? And she wanted to share it?”
“Oh no,” I managed to rebut. “Seriously. You have to see it. It’s kindergarten work. This has nothing to do with creativity and craft.”
“You’re missing the point,” she insisted. “You had expectations that went unmet. Now you have a resentment. Whether your anger is justified or not—you don’t even remember driving! That’s a problem.”
“This sucks. I don’t think it’s wrong to have the expectation that—”
“Kate. Come on.”
I had been pacing back and forth on the small front porch during our conversation, but now leaned against the brick wall and slumped down. The sky was black. Street lamps along the cul-de-sac obscured any stars. The Jeep, with its blue military ID sticker, was parked in front of me. Christmas was around the corner. I let out a sigh that had been building for months.
“I’ll take it off the toilet,” I murmured.
Before I went to bed, I moved the red and white bow to the tree. I put it on the side, though, where you couldn’t really see it.
Sometime the next morning Jason observed that I had thrown out the ornament.
“What? No.” I said.
“But it’s not on the toilet anymore.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It doesn’t go on the toilet. I moved it to the tree.”
“Okay,” he shrugged, getting his cereal bowl. “You want to go out tonight for dinner?”
The ornament was a disappointment. I believed I was giving the best one, and I expected to get something decent in return: the other wives’ acknowledgment and celebration of my value (even if just as a stellar procurer of colored glass). Instead I was confronted with twisted pipe cleaners, a wad of hot glue, and two ambiguous dangling berries. Under different circumstances, I might have laughed. I certainly could have mustered a thank you. I wouldn’t have seen this ornament as a cosmic condemnation of my fragile personhood.
I hated my reality. Well, here was a glue-gunned reality I could put on my Christmas tree. I didn’t have to like it, but if I accepted it for what it was—a sincere offering—maybe shifting my attitude would bring the slightest bit of peace. I had no clue what this acceptance would look like in real life (and the thought of it terrified me), but I could see my old approach wasn’t working. Admittedly, thank you was probably a better alternative to driving in a blind rage. I had been so invested in maintaining a self apart from the military, I probably did miss times when I could have connected with someone.
The girl who made the pipe cleaner bow, her husband would die in Iraq less than eighteen months after the swap. She would be pregnant with their first child.
* * *
Her ornament has migrated to the top of the tree—in pride of place—in more recent years. It weighs nothing, so it’s good for those really light branches. It lives among the decorations that are photos of my children’s first Christmases. It sits below the star they made for me. An earlier version crumbled, so they replaced it with one made from macaroni, gold paint, and cardboard. That’s all I had wanted—something they made, something where I could see evidence of their hands, their fingerprints. And isn’t that what she gave me, years ago? Something handmade. Something with her fingerprint. A best attempt from one scared young wife trying to get by. Who am I to reject that? Who am I to choose where and when grace comes, squeezing though the cracks of my prison of self-sufficiency and exploding it?
Kate McCorkle’s work has appeared or is upcoming in The Missing Slate; Juked; Marathon Literary Review; Midway Journal; New York Press; RKVRY Quarterly; and Sand Hill Review, among other places. A 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee, she is currently working on a book about her experience as a 9/11 Army wife. The mother of four children under ten years of age, she swims to stay sane.