The First Time (from the archives)

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mailboxThe clock reads 12:03. He’ll be home for lunch soon. She marks the page in her book and unfolds herself from the hideous couch, with its big blue flowers. She opens the shades of the single window, letting a faint beam of light into the dull gloom that is their apartment. They have lived here for a month now in this unfamiliar town, far enough away from home that no one has bothered to visit.

In the bathroom, she surveys her face. It’s bloated. Pregnancy pounds. She’s only in her sixth month, but her face has filled out something awful. Quickly, she applies concealer and a bit of lipstick. Lining her eyes makes them look a little less red. She slips out of her pjs and into the blue tent shirt that her mother bought. The old gray sweat pants still fit over her belly and she’s thankful for that.

In the kitchen she prepares his lunch the best she can. On a small plate, she arranges a turkey sandwich cut diagonally and a whole dill pickle. Beside it, a second plate holds five Saltine crackers fanned out beneath a bowl of Campbell’s Minestrone soup. She can’t cook, has never needed to, and now, with the wedding gift recipe books, she studies in the afternoons, planning fancy entrées that look so splendid on the page but inevitably become burnt glumpy messes by the time he returns from work each night.

She is thumbing through one of these recipe books when he comes in. Like a dog, she greets him tail wagging, desperate for affection and news from the world outside their small dark apartment. He pecks her cheek and rubs her belly briefly before moving into the kitchen to find his lunch. As he eats, she sits across from him, her elbows on the table and her chin in her palms, listening to stories about his day. These stories are peopled with friends she has not met, and littered with technical terms and military lingo she does not comprehend. Still, she listens, hungrily.

She shows him the new recipe, the one she is planning to cook tonight, and she asks for the checkbook so she can go to the grocery store. He tells her again that she should shop at the commissary on the base, but she won’t. She has not been back there since the first time, just a week after their wedding, when she dropped a gallon of milk at the checkout and everyone in the place froze, watching the white waterfall from the counter to the floor. She could not face that place ever again.

He tears out a single check and passes it across the table to her. Then he offers her half his pickle and promises to be home in time to help her cook dinner. She asks if they can take a walk in the evening, like her parents used to, holding hands and meandering through the park in the twilight. He says he’d like that. Then he puts his dishes in the sink, gives her a big hug and a brief kiss before heading out.

She stands in the doorway, her arms around her belly, watching him walking across the complex, seeing him stop at their mailbox. His back is to her as he peers into it and she is smiling at the still-fresh crease in his uniform. He turns back to her and shouts “Nothing yet” as he closes the box and walks away. He knows how badly she wants mail, how she craves the smallest gesture from family and friends, some sign that they have not abandoned her.

Back inside the apartment, she carefully prepares the grocery list, takes a leisurely shower and curls her hair. Going out, even to the grocery store is an event. She gathers her purse and keys and steps out into the sunlight. Before heading to the car, she walks over to check for mail once more. In the box is a single, envelope. She withdraws it and turns it over in her hand. The envelope is blank. No address, no postmark, no stamp. She tears the envelope open and pulls out its contents; a twenty-dollar bill and a neatly folded note. As she unfolds the note, her heart slams against her ribs.

Fill up the tank and go to your mother’s.

 I won’t be coming home.

This is how she was left for the first time, without warning or explanation. Subsequent departures were anticipated, half-expected, and subconsciously encouraged. She became very good at being left, and not so good at being loved.

[Originally posted on Lily White Intentions 07.07.2003]

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4 Responses to The First Time (from the archives)

  1. jessie says:

    this. i love this.

  2. Brad says:

    Geez, Jules. It’s been long enough that I forgot the gut punch at the end.

  3. Yes, gut wrenching is the right word…so sad.

  4. mary teacher says:

    Wow. That’s one of the saddest things I have ever read. What a complete loser chicken shit thing for a guy to do. The failings of some fathers never ceases to amazes me. Thanks for the 20 bucks asshole.

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