By Nicole Janson
Note: Some names have been changed due to national security concerns.
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I have loved Steven since we were both 16, over half my life. He was tan, dashing, barrel-chested like a 5’s movie star — even in high school — with this warm, Kennedy grin. I was a semi-goth, chain-smoking drama-geek, but our worlds intertwined when we were both cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He played Lysander— the dashing, romantic lead. I played Mustardseed, also called Fairy #4. In the play, Lysander falls madly in love with Helena. In rehearsal, Steven fell madly in love with Jennifer Kaiser, who played Helena and had red hair. Nobody fell in love with Mustardseed.
But Steven and I became good friends. We exchanged letters all through college — he was halfway across the country, doing ROTC to pay for school. There were visits. Lunch in Chicago when he passed through to see his brother. Salsa dancing in Austin when I was there for work and he was stationed at Ft. Hood. And while we each dated others over the years, I always held my high school crush. He was so different from the bad-news-musicians I gravitated towards. He was kind, stoic and old-fashioned. I realized: This is the kind of man I should marry. But nothing ever happened between us.
And then one recent Friday afternoon, he emailed me:
Are you around? … I’m coming to NY to see friends. I just got called up to active duty. In support of current operations. Not sure exactly where or when, but I got a pretty good hunch.
He was still in the Army Reserves. I had no idea … panic …. I called immediately … His voice was steady, as always … How about dinner tonight?
I hung up the phone and it crystallized in my mind: I am conveniently single; Tonight’s the night.
I MEET HIM AT PENN STATION and I look good. We haven’t seen each other in years and for the first time, I feel beautiful and confident and worthy of him. He’s heavier than I remembered, more gray hairs … but gorgeous as ever; that warm smile, his strong arms embrace me.
One Italian dinner and bottle of red wine later, we are at my apartment. He’s going to sleep on the pull-out sofa. Kiss me, I try to tell him telepathically. I don’t want to make the first move; I want this to come from him. I start making up the sofabed. Again, telepathy: Kiss me. Nothing. Are you really going to make me go through the motions of making the bed, when we both know what’s supposed to happen next? This is absurd! You’re going to fucking Iraq — KISS ME.
But I say nothing and I smile and give him a pillow and we hug goodnight.
I lay in bed, wide awake, my heart pounding. Is this it? Should I get up and pretend to go to the bathroom? I feel the loom of Iraq, I think of him dying, I think of our 16-year history. I feel immobilized. Maybe he just never liked me. And then — a knock on my bedroom door. I leap up. YES?! He asks me if I have another blanket. This must be a move, right? Or does he really need a blanket? Is this how he plans to approach his military endeavors … a hesitant knock on the door of an al Qaeda bunker? STORM ME! TAKE ME NOW! I am so tired of this dance — yet I pretend to look for a blanket, knowing full well I have none. And, finally, I say, why don’t you just sleep in here. I barely finish my sentence when those arms which had, hours earlier, embraced me at Penn Station, are now hungrily enveloping my entire body. He kisses me — my lips, my face — there’s this relief, this freedom, in finally having the green light.
He backs me in to my bedroom, kissing me all the while … How long I have been waiting for this…
We make love.
It is horrible.
It is quite possibly the worst sex I’ve ever had. Steven is inept and awkward and the whole five minutes of it is so unsatisfying. But I can’t say anything — he is going to Iraq — I might never see him again. And, of course, in the final seconds, the condom comes off which he kind of fails to tell me until it is over.
As he’s holding me so lovingly after, all I can think is: I’m pregnant. As he traces lines on my back with his fingers, I imagine myself being interviewed by a CNN reporter as I stand on the port with a thousand other wives, waiting for his ship to come in … Holding a stupid sign in one hand: “Welcome Home, Steven,” holding his child in the other. He’s kissing my hair and telling me how beautiful I look and I think: tomorrow’s Saturday — will my doctor be in?
The next morning, he visits college friends, leaving his suitcase in my kitchen. I call my gynecologist.
I’m pissed. I’m pissed the sex was so bad. I’m pissed I might be pregnant. But I still love him. My doctor tells me it’s “highly unlikely” I’m pregnant, but prescribes Plan B to be safe. I spend the entire day trekking around the city to find a pharmacy that will fill the prescription. I buy saltines and ginger ale to ease my stomach as I brace for the vomiting that friends who had taken the pill warn me of.
I go home. I cancel my dinner plans. I look at the calendar. Highly unlikely that I’m pregnant … just to be safe. I take the first pill. Plan B is two pills taken at 12-hour intervals. They sometimes give you a third in case you vomit up the first. I stare at his stupid suitcase in my kitchen as the pill works its way through my body. I go to sleep. I wake up. I take the second pill.
Steven comes over the next morning. I killed your stupid baby, I want to say. But there is no baby. I’m being dramatic. I say nothing. When I see him, I melt. I love him. I don’t want him to go to Iraq. I want to take care of him. I want to make him soup.
Over lunch he talks about everything he has to do before he leaves. See his parents, cancel his cell phone … It is suddenly so real. That he might not come back. He kisses me and I kiss him back and he carries me into the bedroom.
The sex is still bad. I pretend it isn’t. I want to be close to him and this is the closest we can be. I feel a little like a whore. Not in a good way.
When he leaves, the goodbye feels real. He kisses my lips and then my forehead and we both start to cry. I want to tell him I love him even though I know I don’t love him the way a woman loves a man. I love him as a friend, which is really all we ever were. “Until next time,” he says. Until next time? What the fuck is that? I’m pissed again. But I let it go. Because he’s going to war.