Today, on my thirty minute break at work, a coworker asked me about Keith and I attempted to describe. "It's not so bad," I said, and saw several emotions pass over her face at this statement; disbelief and a certain kind of impatience. I hastened to try and explain, "I can call him every day and he's coming home for mid tour in December and..."
And what else, exactly, made it not so bad? Her face told me she was not convinced and it reminded me what a strange gulf, even after just two months, there is between myself and someone who has never gone through this.
My scare that he might have been on the helicopter that went down did wonders to clarify my priorities. I realized that it didn't matter where on earth he was, so long as he was on earth. It didn't matter if he was far away from me, so long as he was mine. It didn't matter if he was going to be gone for a year, so long as he came back at the end of it. These truths formed the basis of things being "not so bad."
Once those things were clarified for me, everything else seemed like icing on the cake. He has a cell phone! Oh joy! He calls almost every day! I'm almost ashamed even to complain! And even more, he sends me random texts. How to describe the impact of receiving, at odd times, day or night, a statement such as "Jenny i got your number and in going to make mine i love you," or simply "I heart u". It is like candy for the heart.
Today he called and due to bad reception, was sent to voicemail. This was during dinner, but hectic as it was, I escaped to the veranda where there was a stronger signal and called him.
"Sweetie, you called?" he answered, his voice light with joy. I explained. He told me not to worry and that I shouldn't call, it was probably costing me six dollars a minute.
"I know," I admitted. "But it's so wonderful to be able to call you anytime!"
"I know, kitten," he said, laughing, and his voice was so delightfully rich and warm with love as he spoke. I used to take that tone of voice for granted, now I take almost nothing for granted.
Last week, I went in to work at four in the morning, after some one on the night shift called off. It had been a long, long time since I had worked an overnight shift. I had forgotten the way the dead of night turned the corridors and sitting areas into empty, looming space. All the windows were blackened, reflecting back the pale, orange lights or my ghostly reflection. I sat down at the top of the stairs and simply listened; it was as though I could hear the entire building breathe, in the hum of the electricity and the rumbling of the heating ducts.
It reminded me of years ago, my first job in this field. I got the weekend, overnight shift. I remember how time was measured by laundry and how the clothes would send up soft, white clouds of dead skin and the sickeningly sweet smell of the dryer sheets. Every two hours, my coworker and I would check each room by unlocking it and peering in to the darkness.
This was always a little unnerving, to look into the sudden black, to wait a moment until pale shapes swum into vision, took on the shape of the back of a chair, or the edge of a bed. There would be the gurgle and thrum of an oxygen machine or the throaty rumble of snoring.
The corridors themselves seemed to go on endlessly in the pale light and always something seemed to be moving out of the corner of my eye, a shape caught like a human form, or movement in the depth of a mirror. Countless times my own reflection scared the hell out of me, coming at me from the glass door to the atrium, or in the tiny pantry window.
Certain places felt worse than others, more dead. We moved through them quickly, looking straight ahead. The kitchen, with its gleaming multitude of equipment, hidden corners, dripping faucets and strange hums was the worst. We never lingered, I went there alone only briefly, I forced myself to do so just to prove a point to myself, or to whatever was watching.
Towards dawn my head would fill with a dull ache, a low thrum. Exhaustion would weigh down my limbs. I would fill a Styrofoam cup with a combination of coffee and hot chocolate. The liquid tasted vaguely chalky and a little too sugary, but it was hot.
The best part of the night shift was the last two hours. We would make our last rounds and as we did, we would throw open the drapes in the common areas; the dining room, the sitting room, the ice cream parlor. In the dead of winter, the sky would still be black, the street lights still casting their dull orange glow on the sheets of ice on the pavement.
But it was an act of faith, opening the drapes, and we always did it with a flourish. It might not seem possible then, but dawn would come, light would come flooding in to the dining room, glint off of teaspoons and reading glasses. Residents would spill their orange juice and call out for coffee, they would spread crumbs on the carpet and butter their toast in the strong light of a new day.
After opening the windows, my coworker and I would go and sit in the break room and fill out the paperwork, our eyelids heavy over scratchy eyes. Then there would be the last bustle; pre dawn pills given, early birds assisted, a few beds to be made and suddenly, as I stood on the landing, I would look out through the plate glass window to a world made of blue, periwinkle blue snow, cobalt blue sky, silver blue ice and pink and gold all along the eastern rim of the world, half hidden by bare trees and roof ridges.
Then I would drive home in the quiet and sit, alone in my apartment, while the rest of the world went to work.
I remembered this time in my life so vividly and I only recently realized why; it was one of the loneliest times I have ever passed through. Now I am solitary again, but what a contrast! I live in the light, in a house built up and improved by my husband's own hands, I have the bustle and small demands of work and I have an international calling card so that I can hear my husband's voice whenever I need to, and I need not pay six dollars a minute to do so, either! Things really are not so bad.
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