“One day,” Aaron threatened, glowering, “one day, you’ll realize that you took the easy way out. That you chose to leave, instead of working on us.” He used to look at me with such love in those dark brown eyes—with such intensity and adoration that it was hard for me to look him in the eye. Now the intensity remained, but the rest had been replaced with anger, loathing, and betrayal. He had been my first, and—once—he’d been exactly what I wanted.
Deployment brings out the worst in couples. Aaron once told me that 80% of couples ended in divorce after deployment. Some unqualified statistic he had heard from some drunken Army buddy, I think. Like the one about how 60% of women who own Audis cheat on their husbands. Correlation does not equate to causation. But I believed this one. Of the six men in Aaron’s squad, one was already going through divorce proceedings, one had had his wife take his enlistment bonus and leave him for another man, and one had received a Dear John letter. Aaron’s best friend—a sweet guy clown named Meadows—was currently trying to convince his wife not to leave him. If the marriage failed (which it eventually would), it would be his second divorce; the first one starting with him chasing his former best friend around the front yard with a baseball bat for fucking his wife. Actually, it seemed like the only couples that were still going strong were those in contract marriages: an informal (and illegal) agreement between an enlisted member and a civilian, wherein the civilian receives free healthcare, and the enlisted an extra $1,300 or so on their paycheck for off-base housing, groceries, etc.
Contract marriages aside, that left Aaron and me, sitting next to each other on the couch. He sat with one leg crooked under him, so he could better see my face. I sat with my knees clasped tightly together, hands shoved between them and arms squeezed tightly to my sides. We entered hour two of conversation three-hundred, tears welling in his eyes as desperation set in.
“Sweetie,” he begged, “why can’t you just love me?” The words would keep me up at night, years after the divorce was finalized and we had both moved on with our lives. The worst part of it was that I didn’t know why I didn’t love him anymore. He was controlling, he was broken, and he was so, so angry, but he was my husband, and I had fought like hell to keep us together for those 15 months. Harder than most 18-year old girls would have. Harder than most women twice my age.
I met him while I was still in high school, during a brief phase when I was considering joining the Army. I was faced with the reality of not graduating (thanks to depression and a bad home life), and the thought of living with my mother while I attended community college was almost inconceivably nightmarish. Aaron was friends with a classmate of mine, and his younger brother had graduated from my school just the year before. He and his brother were signing up through the same recruiting center, so we worked out together a few times in preparation for the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) physical exam. We started talking, and soon we were spending weekends together.
Initially, the nearly six year age difference between us caused substantial discomfort with our families, but it soon became apparent that we were madly in love with each other, and nothing could be done about it except to get married.
His controlling nature had been apparent early on in the relationship. He would follow me around the house, playing with my hair or slipping his hands around my waist—he had to be constantly touching me in some physical way. Jealousy was his second nature, and the fact that he had “stolen” me from an already-doomed high school relationship (one that lasted the ripe old age of 6 weeks) was always proof to him that I was capable of being stolen.
We got married. We had a cat together. Then two. Then a dog. I tended to collect animals, but this didn’t bother him. He’d grown up on a farm in rural Oregon, and was used to a menagerie in the house. But he was hard on them. He would hit the cats like you would hit a dog, and hit the dog like you would hit a bigger dog. Soon, the animals began to piss themselves every time he came into the room, which just made it worse. Once, he decided to bathe my cat Stanley in the tub after such an accident. Stanley put him in the emergency room for a bite on the knuckles. It went down to the bone. I was proud of Stanley for that one.
Did I really want to have children with a man who treated animals this way? Did I trust someone with an artery of anger that ran so deep?
Of what was to ultimately be a 2 ½ year marriage, 16 months was spent apart due to his obligations to the Army. In the spring of 2006, deployment orders came. He would be driving Strykers in Baghdad. Late night tears were shed as we stood in a crowd of families and rucksacks, and then he was gone. I can still remember the smell of his sweat-soaked uniform after a run, and the dry, cracked texture of his hands from hours spent in the cold raking up leaves.
I moved back to Oregon to stay near family and friends, like most of the military wives. Life soon became fights on the phone. I got a job so I’d have something to do while he was on missions and unable to talk. Fights on the internet. For months, my life consisted of talking to him from midnight to 3 AM, going to bed, waking up at 7, talking for several more hours, going back to bed, then waking up at noon for my shift at the coffee house, where I usually worked until about 11. Rinse. Repeat. He was gone for a week in Baqubah—I was simultaneously relieved at the break and disgusted with my own selfishness. Most of the time we weren’t even talking—we just sat in silence for hours, trying to think about what to talk about. He would yell at me if I started to fall asleep, and begged me not to hang up the phone or get off of MSN Messenger.
“Sweetie, please, I don’t know when I’ll get to talk to you again.” I’d stay on, knowing nothing would interrupt our daily-scheduled fights and awkward silences.
“Just knowing you’re there is comforting,” he would say, then suddenly disappear for several hours. I tried to be patient. I would never be in his shoes.
“Sorry,” his pixelated smile popped back up on screen—the internet was shit out there. “We had a drill…I had to do something for sarn’t Smiley…Meadows wanted to show me something…” Months later, he told me that was when they were being mortared. When I asked him why he didn’t leave his trailer for the chow hall (a much more stable building) he replied with “They were the ones that got hit.”
Aaron would insist on pictures of me daily. One time, my skirt was too short and he accused me of going to the movies to “pick up guys and fuck them.” He would enlist his mother to monitor my activities and wardrobe, and I was not allowed to talk to my family about our problems, since it was “between husband and wife.”
“You left Rudy for me, remember?” he said.
The accusations came more frequently, and with greater fervor, less control.
“If you ever get horny, please don’t sleep with a guy,” he begged one night. I reassured him—again—that that would never happen. That I loved him. That he was my first. My only.
“If you do get horny,” he continued, “make out with a girl. That’s okay.” One time I did. It was most certainly not okay, and turned into one of the biggest fights we ever had.
“You will do whatever I say, whenever I say it!” he yelled into the receiver, the phone crackling with the distance of 7,000 miles.
“If you’re going to act like a whore, you’re going to be my whore! Whatever I want, whenever I want it!”
Stories are always one-sided. It is inevitable for any story-teller to be truly neutral. I drank too much. I flirted a little. Then I got lonely, and tired of emotionally carrying the marriage. I started to rely upon an old friend (and ex-boyfriend) from high school who had joined the Marines around the same time as Aaron. Aaron talked to him a lot. Told him more than he told me.
“He’s just stressed,” Anthony would say. “you can’t imagine what he’s under right now.” I nodded, realizing that he was right, and also that I was falling in love with someone that was not my husband. The first time we slept together, Aaron was on his return flight from Iraq. It was the only time I can ever say I “made love,” and I hate that fucking phrase. The act was a mercy stroke to an already dying marriage. I cried afterwards in my lover’s arms.
“I can’t stand to lose either of you, and now I might lose you both.” It was a tired, shitty line, but it was true. It felt like something out of a bad romance movie.
Months passed, and I discovered that I was terrible at lies.
We tried to work the marriage out. He asked if I cheated because Anthony’s dick was bigger than his. He started to grab me tightly by the arm, digging his fingers in until I thought I would bruise. We went to a lovely therapist named Eve, who made things better for a while. But I was mostly just going through the motions. That nerve was long dead—completely unresponsive to marital counseling or romantic getaways. He once sprinkled the bed with rose petals for me. Guilt overwhelmed me, and I locked myself in the bathroom and forced myself to throw up—the most recent in a spate of minimalist self-harm experiments. Scalding hot showers, picking at sores until I bled excessively, mild bouts of starvation…If I hurt myself enough, I would pay penance for the pain I had caused. And what was this pain, compared to what he was going through right now? Compared to what he had already been through?
“I want a divorce,” I said, and tried not to meet his gaze as we sat on the couch.
“Okay,” he said, “but only if you agree to date me afterwards.” What the fuck?
“What? No! If I wanted to be with you, we wouldn’t be going through this.” He raised his fist, livid.
“Go ahead!” I dared him, “Do it! I’ve seen what happens to soldiers who mess up their wives.” He lowered his fist slowly, gritting his teeth. I sighed with relief—at least one bluff had worked.
“Alright,” he said. “But one day—one day, you’ll realize that you took the easy way out. That you chose to leave, instead of working on us.”
Ten years later, and I’ve never looked back.