My life has two rhythms. The first, increasingly common one is when Sam is gone and out of contact. I fill my time with activities to keep myself happy. I cook elaborate meals, take up hobbies like creative writing and yoga, read a novel a day. I let my employer pile on extra projects and I arrive home from work at midnight. I take trips to visit friends all over the country, reconnect with people I had lost touch with, put myself on complicated new diets that are supposed to transform my body and my outlook. Recently I considered going to church, and I’m not even religious. My life expands.
The second rhythm is when Sam returns. You never know when Sam will return, because the navy will not tell you until the day before, and usually not even then. So it happens like this: Sam pops up on Skype or by phone one day after being at sea for weeks or months.
My first feeling is joy. I live for moments when I see the green Skype bubble pop up with “Sam is online” written under it, announcing that his boat has surfaced; or find a bunch of emails suddenly in my inbox, which Sam composed while he was at sea to send upon arrival. My love is back. The person I share my every thought with can now listen, respond, and tell me his. The one I share the same jokes with can laugh with me again.
The next feeling is anxiety. Where do I find time for the person who has been incommunicado for months? What do I do about the work project I have to finish in an hour? The plans I made with my high school friend to have drinks in a few minutes? The short story I was going to work on tonight? What if this is my only chance to talk with Sam for the next day or three or sixty? Likely, Sam will have to go back to the boat and do work within the hour, or complete some bureaucratic formality, and will only be able to call the next day at some to-be-determined time.
So I drop most of the things I had been doing before and sync my schedule with Sam's. My life contracts.
If Sam can only talk at 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, then that’s when I leave my office and find a quiet space. If Sam can meet in Lisbon next week, then I’ll figure out a way to get there, pushing aside other parts of my life like so much brush in a jungle.
The same goes when Sam is in port. If he calls at 2 p.m. and that is when he can talk, it will probably be my only chance that day. It doesn’t really matter what I’m doing because if I want to talk to Sam to firm up plans for that night, I had better pause. It’s even more fun when some officer interrupts that phone call that has interrupted my day, and I am put on hold. My life contracts.
It mostly contracts in a wonderful way,, because of how I feel when I am with Sam. I wonder if this is the same sense of love and demand that parents experience. There is no place where I am happier than at Sam’s side, and yet, the navy gives him so many needs. If I want to be with him, I had better revolve around him. All our plans are for when he is free, and the margin of choice is almost nonexistent.
The whole pattern of dropping things to synchronize my schedule with Sam’s began a few years ago when I was taking karate. We had just started dating. I was at class, dressed up in my white fighting pajamas and about to bow onto the mat. My cell phone began ringing in the locker room behind me. I had thought Sam would be away for three weeks, and this was a wonderful surprise. Also, I had something I needed to talk with him about and I hated the fact that we would have to wait. Turned out, Sam’s trip to sea had been postponed by several days. I actually changed out of my uniform and drove the hour or so to his house, skipping class, my friends leaving worried messages on my phone after I left. This was the moment when the pattern got set, when I was either on my own and filling the time, or at Sam’s beck and call.
Sam and I had a wonderful weekend together, I was increasingly in love. And then he left, and I had to explain to my karate instructor why I ran out and to my friends why I cancelled that weekend. I stopped doing the most rash things like skipping out on class and friends, but I kept adjusting my life back and forth.
Can things be a different way? Is it possible to be in a committed relationship with a service member and not be at his beck and call? I’ve thought about this a great deal.
Well, for starters, let’s think about some of the changes the fucking powers that be can make, like making it commonplace and acceptable for service members to inform their spouses of their schedules as soon as they get set. What if the military trust these spouses to take reasonable precautions with security just as they trust them to do the military’s work of taking care of service members?
They can place more phones on the fucking boats and figure out a way for service members to get email while they are in port.
Rather than embracing the image of spouses as support staff who dutifully organize their lives around service members, they can make it a part of navy culture for service members to ask their partners what their plans are and when they will be free each time they have the opportunity to, rather than taking for granted that they are the ones to be planned around. Hell, the navy tries to dictate every other part of their lives.
I’ve been all too eager to accommodate, and I could certainly claim more time as my own; but I wonder what would happen if I turned the table and asked Sam to compromise more and build his time around mine; or if he asked himself. My great fear, of course, is of never seeing Sam. It is a real one.