Then there are the joint decisions that become mine because Sam and I cannot discuss them. Like when I had to decide whether or not to renew my apartment lease for another year, with no information about the location of Sam’s next navy assignment. Or what to tell the career counselor I was meeting with about my preferences for job type and location during my next gig—decisions that Sam’s next placement would ideally inform.
But things like being able to tell Sam about a really good apple cinnamon muffin or to vent about a colleague at work are, I realize now, equally important as these life decisions. Details are the stuff of relationships, and during deployment, the details are few.
I’ll work backwards in telling my deployment story. Now, in the last month, I feel raw anger. I’m pissed off at everyone–but no one in particular—because Sam is gone. I find reasons to shove other people on the train on the way to work. I threaten harassment charges against the Toyota salesman who will not stop calling to get me to trade in my used model for a newer one. I stop trusting myself to send e-mails to colleagues and friends over things as simple as where meetings or get-togethers will take place; I’m afraid I’ll write something snarky, like, “It would be nice if you could compromise a little and meet me somewhere in the middle,” in response to a friend who wants to come up from a neighboring city for a visit, when really, what I want is for my partner’s job to allow him to meet me a little more in the middle. So I save everything in my drafts folder, wait an hour, and reread and edit before sending. I snap at the woman hovering over me at the corner boutique suggesting which scarf would look good with my skin tone, telling her that I don’t feel like talking to anyone.
In the few months before this angry stage, I had a budding realization: That I need friendships with other women whose spouses are in the military. During the beginning of Sam’s tour, I tired of other spouses because I felt that they were too focused on doing things for the men on the boat. Even the navy-sponsored Family Readiness Group, whose name implies it is supposed to help families get ready for the stresses of military life, seemed to be way too focused on providing services for sailors. Then by chance, I got to know the wife of another officer on Sam’s boat, Renee. She began to call to check in during deployment. I realized that we have a lot in common in terms of our professional interests and our outlook on navy life. I discovered that it was possible to talk to Renee about my frustrations without her judgment. What’s more, she shares my interests in social justice and also struggles to merge a challenging career with her partner’s navy career.
I realized my folly in dismissing spouses’ groups as oppressive extensions of the military—which they can certainly be, but not always. I resolved to make myself a part of the next spouse’s group and selectively choose which events I will become apart of.
The first stage of deployment was a roller coaster of moods. On the kitchen table of the condo we share, Sam left me a gift for each month that he would be gone. I arrived home from a trip to find a new pizza stone waiting for me, and I spent the weekend baking. I happily imagined the sequence of treats that I had given Sam to open on a monthly basis—from chocolate-covered Oreos one month, to a scrapbook documenting the first years of our relationship. I clung to these gifts as tangible ways in which the two of us would be together.
Intermixed with romance was frustration as I realized how restrained Sam’s time would be. I blew up because he had only a few minutes to call me during his port stops, and because I had to be there to answer the phone when he called. I balked when I realized that between port calls, I would not be receiving emails from him at all. I began to experience what it was like to be both partnered and alone. I set time-consuming, solitary projects to pursue during deployment: learning to make chocolate filled croissants, writing a short story, training for a half marathon. I started, but didn’t finish, any of these projects, but I realized that the point is doing something, not necessarily finishing anything. I realized a few other things: (1) that Sam and I, all things considered, are good at managing this separation, (2) that I hate deployment, (3) and that I need a community firmly in place next time from the outset, whether it is a family of my own, a local network of friends in my new city, or a group of spouses in the same situation.
I wonder if it might in some ways be more feasible to survive a deployment with children. Would having someone to take care of ease the loneliness? Or does the exhaustion of singlehandedly caring for someone outweigh the benefits? What are the experiences of other child-free women while their partners are deployed? Of men?