Twenty-four hours after I left the arms of one man, I was back in the arms of another. The two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Washington had passed in a dreamy blur, consisting of equal parts giddy arousal and tear-filled shame as I replayed my affair over and over again in my head. I was in love–madly so–but not with my husband. Our two-year marriage had been rife with vicious arguments that were dropped–never resolved–and struggles for power that always ended with me belly up, legs spread. Battles over how I should dress, who I could talk to (a list that varied week to week, depending on his mood), and even when I could sleep or go out with friends.
“Sweetie,” he’d plea, “I’m going on a very dangerous mission, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk to you again. I might get hurt, and you can see your friends or sleep anytime. Please, don’t go.” So I would stay up another hour (or four), exhausted from my civilian job at a coffee shop–a job that didn’t even begin to compare to the stresses of his own–until at last, after hours of silence because we’d already shared all the stories we had during our last phone call seven hours earlier, Aaron bid me a sweet good-night and hung up the phone.
My parents had taught me that marriage was something that took dedication, compromise, and work. I had taken what some had called a “sacred vow,” one that my fundamentalist Christian family took very seriously, In my mind, this mistake lay solely on my shoulders, and was up to me to get over and fix as quickly as possible, so that I could move forward and begin my new forever with my husband, a man who would give me the world if I asked. Just not my freedom, a thing I had convinced myself I was not responsible enough to handle on my own.
The homecoming ceremony for Aaron’s company was brief, borderline perfunctory. A welcome home announcement, a moment of silence for those who were injured, or didn’t return, and they were released.
I’d worn his favorite outfit: a baby blue, spandex-rayon scoop neck shirt, with a black pencil skirt, pumps, and micro-fishnet tights. Pictures from that day show us smiling ear-to-ear, tears of joy in our eyes, but I have twisted my body away from his, even as he wrapped his whole arms around me and pulled me flush against him. It had been a shitty 15 months, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to still be married, but Aaron had returned home safely, and that was more than enough reason to celebrate.
Aaron insisted on driving us home, but I wasn’t ready to give up that small independence yet, and convinced him that it would be much easier for me to drive us home than to give him directions. Our new home was a small, poorly designed one-bedroom unit set into a hill at the back of an apartment complex. It was dark: the bedroom and bathroom windows were both level with the ground and blocked by bushes, and the sliding glass door faced north, so we only received about four feeble, sunlit hours a day. The whole place felt like living in a cave, but it was the best we could afford on a military budget, and the manager was kind, and pretended not to notice that we also had two cats, as long as we walked our new puppy by the office whenever we dropped off our rent check.
Aaron smelled like military surplus and industrial-strength machine grease, a smell that–as soon as he stepped inside and set down his bags–swept aside the scent of the vanilla and sandalwood candles I had used to purge the place of its persistent mustiness.
“I’m so happy to be home, Sweetie!” Aaron took me in his arms, tears in his eyes. He pulled me close, and the surplus and machine grease was now joined by the oily smell of his hair. His BDUs still billowed around his thin, wiry frame–he’d intentionally bought them a size too large so he could accommodate the muscles he was sure he’d gain while working out in his free time during the deployment. Instead, it seemed, he had spent the time talking to me.
“Me too, hon.” I forced a strained smile, finally, fully realizing that my freedom was over. I had a husband to answer to, now; I was a wife first, and a woman second.
“You look so nervous…” Aaron began stroking my hair, sliding his hand up and down my arm as he marveled at my ghostly complexion. “And you’re so soft…all those Army assholes are rough from being out in the sun.”
“…You know how their skin feels, huh?” I smirked, edging away from his touch.
“You know what I mean.” He grinned. “So…show me our bedroom.”
“How about you take a shower first?” I forced another smile, pressing my palm firmly against his chest. “You smell pretty rank from being around all those guys.”
The next few weeks didn’t get any better. I kept realizing I was married. Til’ death do us part. I covered my doubts as best I could.
“I’m just getting used to sharing the house with a husband,” I told him one evening, and he grinned and nodded, relieved, and wiggled closer to lay on my chest while we watched tv. I stared down at the top of his head, annoyed at his thick, curly hair skewering me through my shirt. He once told me a story from his childhood, when he’d accidentally knocked down a hive of yellow jackets, but his hair was so thick and tough that they couldn’t reach his scalp to sting him. For some reason, remembering this angered me more, and I got up and told him I needed to lay down.
“Ooh, that sounds nice!” Ever the adoring, lost puppy, he followed me.
A company’s return from deployment meant parties—lots of them. Every weekend, there was a new house party to go to, each one more stocked with beer and liquor and raucous infantrymen and their self-temple-massaging wives than the next. In the safety of large crowds and plenty of alcohol, I was able to avoid Aaron for a few blissful hours, so I was even more eager to attend than he was. I would sit on a suspiciously-stained couch in the corner, or on the carpeted stairs, my purse between my feet and a toy truck poking into my back, sipping a shitty free beer while I watched my husband get falling-down drunk and laugh hysterically as his best friend called him a fag.
Sometimes, the soldiers would have “boys only” parties. They would use this as an excuse to get extra drunk and away from their wives, who would all be dropped off at one soldier’s house before the men carpooled off to a tiny apartment filled with overflowing trash cans and free booze. This was what they called a “compromise.”
“You won’t want to be there, Sweetie,” Aaron reassured me, rubbing my leg fondly on our way to The Wife House. “It’ll just be a bunch of nasty guys getting drunk and stupid, and I don’t want you around them, anyway.” He smiled. “Besides, you’ll have a lot to catch up on with Sarah and Amy.” I nodded and watched as we drove past the Puget Sound—things were always easier in the relationship when I let him make the decisions.
I usually found myself out of place among the other wives. I was the youngest by several years, I didn’t have any children, didn’t smoke, and never really found the joy in gossiping. I was not, however, alone in my trouble adjusting to married life.
“Paul comes in and always leaves his shit everywhere!” Sarah took a drag on her cigarette and blew (most of) the smoke out the back door. She and her husband, Paul Johnston, had three children together, and it was their house we were staying at tonight.
“No, Colton—here, have some soda and go play.” She shoved half a can of Mountain Dew at the three-year-old that clung to her leg and took another deep drag. “I’m telling you, I used to have this place—I mean, not perfect—but clean—and now everyday he’s coming in here dumping his rucksack and his helmet in the middle of the living room floor!”
“Eric does the same thing,” Amy nodded, flicking her cigarette and commiserating in her soft country drawl. “I keep tellin’ him I don’t want the place stinkin’ like his shit, but he just don’t care.”
Amy Reyes was the closest I could consider a friend in that group. She didn’t have any kids, she constantly struggled to go to school in between moves, and she had been drifting away from her husband since before the deployment. She and Eric met while working at Arby’s in a small town in west Tennessee, and, after six months of dating, he told her he had enlisted. The choices, Eric told her, were either to get married, or break up. They would be the first couple in our group to split up six months later.
The boy’s parties would usually wrap up around 10:30 or 11:00—early enough to get up for physical training the next morning, late enough to get good and wasted. Aaron would always stumble in the door of The Wife House, incomprehensibly drunk and falling into the walls, laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe. I’d drive us both home, rolling down the windows so he could puke out the window at stop lights.
When we reached the apartment, I would usually end up on the bathroom floor with him, rubbing his back and bringing him water and saltines as he fought the spins and expelled buckets of alcohol into the toilet.
If Aaron had just been the type to get drunk, it wouldn’t have been so bad. I was 20—of course I didn’t mind if there was alcohol being passed around. But he wasn’t able to hold his liquor, and he would often end the night in tears.
“I just love you so much, Sweetie!” He cried one night, laying his head in my lap and wrapping his arms around my waist. “I don’t want to lose you!”
I peeled my way out of his grasp, slowly standing up.
“I have to go to work in the morning, Aaron. Now, you have water and crackers and a blanket—do you need anything else before I go to bed?”
“Don’t go!” he cried, grabbing my foot with the desperation of a drowning man. “Don’t leave me, Sweetie!”
I sat back down, annoyed, ashamed of my annoyedness, and frustrated at us both.
“Thank you, Sweetie,” he sighed, laying his head on my lap once more. “Thank you for not leaving me.”
Parties were my escape from my marriage problems, but they would also be the thing that revealed my affair to Aaron.
My cousin had come up to visit from Salem, Oregon. It was a three-hour-plus trip, so we decided to spend the weekend shopping at the nearby mall, a ghetto place that occasionally had a problem with active shooters in the parking lot, before attending a party at Aaron’s sergeant’s house.
Aaron wasn’t sure where the party was, so we planned to meet Eric and Amy at their house and then follow them to the party. I drove us to Eric and Amy’s apartment, but as we started to pull out of the complex, Aaron stopped me.
“Sweetie, I should really be the one driving.” I stopped, raising my brow.
“Why is that?”
“So you and Kelsey can hang out, you know.” He smiled helpfully.
“I mean…we’re hanging out now. I can talk and drive at the same time, hon.” Aaron’s face fell.
“Yeah, but…Reyes will think I’m a little bitch if he sees me being driven around by my wife.” He grinned cautiously, hoping I would appreciate his joke.
“Are you being fucking serious right now?”
Kelsey sat in the back seat of the car and stared pointedly out the window as Aaron and I fought. Reyes, meanwhile, had noticed that we had stopped, and was shooting us puzzled looks from his rearview mirror.
“You know what? Fine. If you’re going to be such a macho asshole, you can drive.” I turned off the car and climbed out of the car in a huff, throwing the keys on the seat as I got out.
“No, Sweetie—look, if you’re going to be so upset about it, you can just drive.”
“NOPE,” I was done with his shit. “I’m done with your shit. You can drive us there, and you can drive us back.” I got in the back seat next to Kelsey.
“You’re also going to be the designated driver.” Sullen despite his victory, Aaron got in the driver’s seat, started the car again, and shifted it into first. Reyes—still confused—shrugged at us and rolled out of the parking lot, Aaron driving sheepishly behind.
The problem with deciding to get drunk very quickly when you haven’t drank very often in the past, is that you don’t really know how much will get you drunk, and your estimations are usually very wrong.
Three beers, a jager bomb, and a shot of tequila large enough to need a tumbler later, I was gone, and it was great. I was no longer troubled by the fact that I was an adultress who cheated on her Iraq veteran husband who loved her madly, I was a 20-year-old girl who was out having fun with her best friend and her husband that she was trying to work things out with.
Memories of the night are hazy, at best, but I remember texting on my flip phone during one of my many, many trips to the bathroom to pee. I was texting Anthony, of course, and the texts were about what you’d expect from an underage drunk white girl still hung up on her ex.
“I still love you.”
“We had sex and it was so good, right?”
“Do you miss me? I miss you.”
Halfway through yet another pee break, Aaron knocked on the bathroom door.
“Sweetie? Are you alright? It’s time to go.”
For once, he had kept his promise about staying sober, and we set about trying to find Kelsey. She was leaning up against the garage door, flirting with a soldier from another squad: Carlos Garcia, a handsome Venezuelan with a thick Spanish accent. He was leaning in close, his forearm resting on the door above her head.
“Don’t you think I’m sexy?” he crooned, as—at the other end of the driveway—I slapped Aaron’s hand away from my lower back and insisted on climbing into the back seat of the car myself. “I work out every day…”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Kelsey laughed, right in his face. “Does that line actually work on some women?” Garcia leaned closer and kissed her.
“I have to go.” Kelsey’s bravado had been overtaken by her nerves, and she ducked out from underneath him and ran to the car.
“Why didn’t I kiss him back?” Kelsey groaned as she fastened her seatbelt. She buried her face in her hands. “He was so hot!”
“Because he was being a fucking douche!” I reminded her. “I saw him kiss his biceps—I saw him do it. You can’t possibly take a guy like that home.”
“Yeah…you’re right,” Kelsey sighed. “But he really was super hot.”
Twenty minutes later, we pulled into our designated parking space near our designated apartment in our designated building. As Aaron got out of the car and started walking towards the apartment, I suddenly saw an opening for confession: Kelsey was my best friend, my confidant since we were old enough to get into trouble—and she didn’t know what I had done.
“Aaron knocked on the bathroom door while I was peeing and he almost caught me texting Anthony!” The words fell over each other in a desperate escape from my lips. I had to unload some of this burden, and Kelsey was the only person I could trust who also fully understood the history behind me and Anthony.
“What? Why would that matter?” Kelsey eyed me seriously—drunkenly.
“Because then he’d know that I had sex with Anthony!” The sentence came out as a single word.
“What?!” Kelsey’s face warped into shock as the car’s interior light came on.
“Sweetie? Are you guys getting out?” Aaron had opened my door and was leaning in, looking concerned. He had come back when he saw we weren’t following him.
“Yeah, we’re coming.” I fumbled with my seatbelt and stumbled out of the car. The overhead light—so significant in my drunken tunnel vision—illuminated Kelsey’s shocked face: eyes wide, her jaw now somewhere on the floorboards, lost among the plastic water bottles and fast food trash.