by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
Val had a small backpack and a return bus ticket, which made her feel untethered and free as she walked toward Bourbon Street. It was drizzling and there was music in the air; the sound seemed part of the drops that fell lightly on her denim jacket and she stopped to listen to a man in a wheelchair fill the sunset with his trombone’s song. She put five dollars in his jar, knowing Billy would like that.
Billy always gave too much money to the open hands and empty coffee cups held in his direction. He had a kindness Val wished he hid a little better, a kindness that made him easy to hurt, and she wasn’t proud that she was the one who usually hurt him.
Yesterday, they’d fought on the phone. Billy had forgotten to tell her he changed his debit pin number and Val hadn’t been able to use it at Publix to get groceries. It wasn’t a big deal, but it embarrassed her in front of the cashier who chewed gum in the side of her mouth and looked Val over as if she was a thief. Val used her credit card to pay, but yelled at Billy anyway, said he wasn’t looking out for her, that after only a month he’d forgotten her already. Her voice got too loud as she asked him what he would forget next. To deposit money in their joint checking account? Maybe he’d forget her birthday, or the color of her eyes?
As soon as the words were out of her mouth she regretted them, but she was someone who only said sorry when it was too late. She knew this and yet it didn’t make apologizing any easier. Billy, in his Billy way, laughed gently, said there was no way he would forget Val because her hot temper would be chasing him all night in his dreams.
Then he told her he’d try to call again in a week. A week. A whole week of feeling miserable and not able to do anything except wait for his call. A week to kill, and it made her want to be in New Orleans. Billy had been raised not far outside the city, so New Orleans felt like the closest she could get to him, walking around in a place full of his memories.
She took the 5:55 a.m. Greyhound bus out of Atlanta, and twelve hours later she was here, in this oddly magical place of ornate iron balconies brimming with ferns and flowers, horse-and-carriage buggies clomping down the street, old-fashioned street lanterns casting an antiqued glow over everything. She could even see the shine of metallic beads caught at the top of a lamppost, twinkling ?in the last light, a ghost of Mardi Gras past and future.
Val had always wanted to see New Orleans, the French Quarter, the parades and floats and general debauchery of the place. When her sister, Lucy, moved here four years ago after her wedding to a Navy man, Val assumed she would visit. But the silence between them stretched out, and now it had been nearly that long since Val had heard her sister’s voice.
The wheelchair bound trombone player switched from “Mack the Knife” to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” The song welled up, tinged with grief, and Val moved on, trying to get out of earshot of the sudden sadness. She’d make everything OK with Billy. Of course she would. She felt around in her pocket for her list of local dishes he loved.
When she checked into a hotel later, she’d send him a long e-mail, full of apology and pictures of his favorite foods-boiled crawfish, gumbo, a tremendous slice of pecan pie. He’d realize how sorry she was, how much she missed him, and forgive her yet again.
She crossed the street and noticed a couple sitting on a bench, the man pulling the woman close and pressing his face into the side of her neck. She looked around at the other passers-by, spotted an older couple walking a dog, then a man and woman with matching shoulder-length hair and dark fitted jeans, arguing passionately in what she guessed was Cajun. Even the waiter and waitress at the coffee shop across the street seemed to be a pair.
Everyone else was part of a couple, half of a whole, except for Val. And then, as if to emphasize her displacement, the shimmering drizzle started to well up into fat, splashy drops of water.
Val saw an open door and ducked inside. She climbed onto a stool at the bar, studied the menu. The Acme Oyster House. She took out her phone and snapped a picture. She ordered a bowl of gumbo and a tall hurricane, bewildered that people still had the good humor to drink such a thing after Katrina. The rain was coming down harder outside and the sunset had become a dark wall. Suddenly wandering Bourbon Street did not seem so appealing.
She thought of Billy again so far away. Something desperate and a little afraid caught in her throat. Why couldn’t she have told him she loved him before they hung up? Why was she always trying to smash up the important parts of her life? And she suddenly thought of her sister in her wedding dress, standing mortified, looking at Val like a stranger.
She picked up her phone and began to scroll through its phonebook, sitting back in astonishment when she found what she was looking for. She had had at least three cell phones in the last four years and yet her dusty little overworked SIM card had faithfully carried Lucy’s number from phone to battered phone, like some sentient conscience. Val stared at the screen-all those years of no contact, could an old number still connect her to a voice this easily?
The hurricane arrived and Val took a long sip: cold, cherry-red, incredibly sweet with an after-taste wallop of booze. Then she pressed the call button. Somewhere on the other side, it began to ring.
“Luce, is that you?”
Silence was fine; Val could handle silence.
“Oh, hello, Valerie, how are you?” Calm and collected Lucy, as if they had spoken only yesterday. Val could not handle that. She let loose immediately, one breath away from crying. “Lucy, I’m here, at the Acme Oyster House.” Her sister went quiet again, while Val bit savagely at her thumbnail.
“OK.” Lucy finally said. The most beautiful word in the world. OK, after four years. “I’m coming to get you.” Those words were pretty close to perfect, too.
Four years ago, Lucy was getting ready for her wedding to Lt. Jim Day. Val, seven years Lucy’s ?junior, was twenty-one and did not like the cut of her maid-of-honor dress.
“Who wants to look like a maid?” she’d asked, trying to tug the empire waist down to show cleavage. The seamstress, her mouth full of glittery pins, sighed in annoyance at Val’s feet.
“You look amazing,” Lucy replied.
“And you look pleased as a peach,” Val said.
Lucy glanced at her, with a smile that suddenly seemed not as sure of itself.
“May the Georgia peach and the Navy squid live happily ever after.” Val curtsied.
“Are you practicing your toast?” Lucy asked, touching the tight French knot at the back of her head.
Val couldn’t help herself: “We said we’d never marry military men,” she said, straightening. “Remember? ?We swore.” It had been one of the things that had united them, even with their age difference. They were raised in Columbus, Ga., right outside of Fort Benning, where their dad had stayed after he retired as a First Sergeant. One of their most rebellious and common retorts was, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a civilian!”
And they had pulled it off for years, avoiding all those smooth-faced soldiers, both determined to never wash BDUs, never spend holidays alone, and, most importantly, to raise children that did not even know the meaning of the phrase “military brats.”
Then Lucy, getting her teaching degree, was somehow convinced ?to go on a blind date, her first blind date ever, and found herself sitting across from a military man.
Damn it if she didn’t fall in love with him. Val couldn’t help but feel betrayed.
Lucy smiled, tugging still at her tight bun of blond hair. “Funny how things work out, huh?”
“You’re making a huge mistake-ouch!” The seamstress had definitely stabbed Val’s knee.
So it was only natural that Lucy seemed brittle and nervous when Val got up to do the toast at the wedding reception. Lucy looked like a piece of rock candy on a stick in her glittering white gown.
Val, never one to enjoy public speaking, should not have had that last margarita. She meant her speech to be funny, but her use of the word “seamen” had gone a little too far. Her father- the same father that had subjected the girls to annual TV viewing of Army-Navy football games, letting loose long angry rants against the Navy every time they throttled poor Army- did not even chuckle. One look at his stony face and she abruptly ended her joke (“A submarine goes down with 300 single men and comes up with 150 happy couples…”) and stumbled down from the podium.
She heard the new groom whisper to Lucy, “There is something seriously wrong with your sister.”
After a honeymoon in Cancun, Lucy headed to Joint Reserve Base in New Orleans. Val went back to her life in Atlanta, part-time waitressing, part-time dropping out of college. The sisters exchanged a few stilted, obligatory phone calls at first, but stubborn Val wouldn’t apologize, and they soon got out of practice of calling each other, of automatically reaching for the phone to hear each other’s voices, of hearing each other’s lives.
But now, here in New Orleans, Lucy pulled up in a Volvo SUV, windshield wipers furiously pushing aside the rain.
Navy is doing alright, Val thought to herself as she stood under the bar’s awning, trying to decide if she ought to smile or look forlorn as her sister rolled down her window. Lucy looked at the backpack in Val’s arms.
“Where’s your hotel?” she asked.
“I haven’t found one yet,” Val answered.
Lucy hesitated, just the tiniest bit, but Val noticed. And then: “You’ll stay with me, of course.”
Val shrugged as if she’d only entertain the idea until something better came along, and jumped into a puddle as she opened the passenger side door. “What’s Mr. Admiral going to say when you bring me home?”
“Nothing. He’s deployed.”
Val felt a mixture of guilt and relief as she slid inside the car. “Billy’s deployed, too,” she whispered.
Lucy had her blinker on, was about to pull out into traffic, but immediately stepped on the brake. “You’re dating a military man?” she asked, eyes wide.
“No,” Val whispered, amazed at the intensity of the feeling that rose from her toes to her chest. Had she really not even told her sister? How could she have stayed away for so long?
“No,” she said. ‘”I married one.”