I watch from the observation deck as Bea takes off. She rises like a prehistoric bird, straight up, half-copter, half-jet, and it’s a beautiful and frightening thing, the thrusters pushing down and out at once, her Harrier lifting off like a rocket. My eyes fog the lenses of the binoculars, and I have to pull them away from my face, wipe them off, try again. Without binoculars she is all glint and glare and liftoff. I can’t see her face for the helmet and the gear and the low-slung cockpit, but I can sense her. She’s up and looping wildly, and as I watch her, the fear and fascination makes me think of sex, my stomach pitches and rolls with hers. Because she told me about the stomach, about how everyone throws up the first time and no one thinks he’s going to. Not me. But then you do.
She had been home a few days before she slept in our bed. I had been prepared by counselors that she might sleep on the floor or in the closet or in the yard. It was normal for combatants to bring home strange habits. Like cleaning. Everything. All the time. But for a strange tic, cleaning was a pretty good one. I liked it. She was not hitting me or drinking. She picked up objects, held them up to the light, and dusted them—tiny bowls for sushi-dipping sauces, little cloisonné pill boxes, the tile coasters from Mexico. She vacuumed under the beds. She was serene and loving, and we adopted a kitten. She became an instructor, and it was beautiful to see her take off her helmet and the shock of her red hair emerge, flashing in the afternoon light. We moved through our first weeks of reunion delicately, watching each other through the spaces in the shelves of the supermarket, spying over each other’s shoulders at documents on the computer.
Then one night at dinner, she cuts into her steak and watches me eat, my eyes far away. She wants this, has always wanted this. The news of it starts up, shimmering off in the desert heat of Iraq, the deployment notice on our counter. Bea looks up from her dinner and smiles at me. “I’m going to be a soldier again.”
The day arrives, and she kisses me twice, hard and long, before climbing out of our car. The air beats and throbs with Apache and Chinook helicopters. She disappears into the tower, tucking her hair under her helmet. I can see her silhouette through the smoked glass door. She walks lightly, with purpose. On the seat next to me is a manila envelope. A simple index card taped to it reads “Open Only in Case of Death.” I throw it back on the seat and feel all the hatred in the world for this war. I can’t drive away until she’s up and gone, and I wait fruitlessly, unsure of which jet is hers. A line of Harriers shoots into the sky, and I ache with each one goodbye goodbye goodbye until they’re all gone.
I look at the back yard until nightfall begins, the twinkling of streetlights, the bikes and frisbees abandoned in driveways. It sits on the table, has been on the table, for a week now, the sunlight fading the manila to beige. I pour myself a glass of wine and open it. She leaves me everything but her clothes and jewelry. Those go to her niece. That isn’t a surprise. What shocks me is the carefully itemized list, the calculation of each object, as if she held each thing in the house—the bubbled glass vase, the print she bought at a flea market ten years ago, a Christmas ornament from her childhood. Her jade elephant. Her favorite teapot. I realize that she made this list during her last deployment, the inventory a kind of comfort for her when bombs were close, when friends died. I also know this is why she cleaned—to touch them, turn them in her palm, hold them to the light, to memorize their placement in the house, the way the light hits them in the afternoon.
I place the papers back in the envelope and watch through the window as a crow takes off, beating his wings in the air, flying into the dusk. The mirror in her office. The small ivory-handled knife on her dresser. Four cobalt martini glasses glowing in the last light of the day.
Frances Badgett is the Fiction Editor of Contrary Magazine. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Dead Mule School, Word Riot, Toe Good Poetry, Grey Sparrow, and she has a story forthcoming in Atticus Review. She has completed her first novel, Pale Mother and her first poetry collection The Refuge of Stars. She lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband and daughter.