NON-FICTION
New Normal (9/26/01)
Kate McCorkle

Photo by Jacob Valerio on Unsplash

Photo by Jacob Valerio on Unsplash

I was lucky because my husband, Jason, was alive. He was just constantly gone.

The first few times he disappeared on assignment, he either didn’t know where he was going or he couldn’t say. Army guys talk all sorts of shit (he would blame privates, yet I think everyone did it to a degree), but no one really knows anything. They kick up rumors that get into the air, then settle like dust on every surface. You don’t know how you know something or where you heard it, but there it is, coating you in a film. Eventually your body buzzes with the low hum of rumor and innuendo. It’s like being in a room that’s next to a rattling old clothes dryer, feeling the vibration of the unseen engine through floor and walls. I assumed the worst—overseas war zone—but Jason told me not to think like that. He was trying to be reassuring. I didn’t appreciate him telling me what or how to think.

We were twenty-three, and only married eleven days when the 9/11 attacks happened. Jason was an infantry lieutenant at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and I’d been living in Chicago after graduate school. I was new to the Army, new to town, new to marriage, and he was gone.

He’s alive, though, I told myself. I needed to be grateful.

Then Kathy Travis called one afternoon two weeks after the attacks to report that the battalion was headed to Kuwait. The guys would be heading home from work early to say good-bye, then they’d be gone again. No, her husband, Tom, hadn’t told her, but after fifteen years in the infantry, she could read between the lines. Kathy wanted to give me a heads-up so I could prepare myself. Give Jason a nice good-bye. I did my best to buck up, which mainly meant I pinged around our small townhouse looking for ways to keep Jason there. I could lock him in the closet under the stairs by wedging a chair under the doorknob, but how to lure him there? I could run over his foot with the car, but why would he stand that close? I could shoot his foot, but we didn’t own a gun. If I had more time, I might have formed a better plan.

Jason was leaving the house at five p.m., heading to the helicopter that would take him away. This was my groom. We’d just walked down the aisle. I was still doing laundry from our honeymoon.

His hand on the doorknob, I confessed that I knew it was Kuwait. Jason rolled his eyes.

I know,” I said, my eyes boring a hole in his face, attempting to see into his soul, willing him to stay alive amidst burning oil fields. “Be careful. I love you.”

“It’s not Kuwait,” he said.

“It’s okay. I know.”

“We’re not going to Kuwait in a Chinook.”

I shook my head. “Kathy told me.”

“Kathy?” Jason let his ruck fall from his shoulder. “Kathy Travis? She thinks we’re going to Kuwait?”

I nodded, keeping my hangdog gaze on him. I know. You can tell me the truth.

Jason started laughing. “That’s awesome. I wonder if Major Travis told her that or—”

“She said she figured it out,” I asserted, shoulders back. “She’s been in the infantry long enough—”

I wished we weren’t having this conversation in the two-by-two-foot space between the front door and the stairs. There wasn’t room for two bodies, especially when one was humping a ruck the size of a fifth grader.

“Kate,” Jason said, sliding the ruck back to his shoulder. “It’s not Kuwait.” He placed his hand on my arm and leaned in like he’d done so many times before, whispering in my ear, “You cannot breathe a word of this.” He pulled back to check my eyes, determine that it sank in. “It’s Indiana. You can’t tell a soul.”

I sprang away. “Indiana? What’s in—”

“Chemical plant. We’re guarding it.”

I stared at Jason in confusion. He was shipping off to die. He was heading to a war zone. There was a coordinated attack on American soil, and he was the one stepping into that void, and everyone knew Kuwait and the Taliban and death—and he’s saying Indiana?

Jason started laughing again, which was both reassuring and supremely annoying. “I wish I could tell Major Travis his wife’s going around calling lieutenants’ wives, spreading rumors we’re in Kuwait. That’s wrong on so many levels.”

He chuckled as he moved to leave.

“Well, I’m glad you’re happy,” I said.

“This is awesome,” he said of Kathy, shifting the ruck as he opened the door.

I moved to kiss him. He had such a baby face with his hair all short. Indiana. I was tired, too tired to hold up my body. Once he left, the couch would be good.

Jason turned to go. “Not a soul,” he said.

 

The next morning, I was relieved to know he was in Indiana instead of among burning oil fields, but I was also angry. I was angry at the Army, at Jason, and at myself for being so stupid as to marry him in the first place, putting myself in a position to be hurt. I feared something like this when we were in college and he was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. I never envisioned a terrorist attack, but I figured, you go into the Army, you’re going to be in danger. I took a leap of faith and married him, and now look.

But that’s life, I reasoned. If you’re alive, you’re going to get hurt. Loving someone means you risk getting hurt. Marrying someone in the Army, though, was sticking my head in an oven and just waiting to see what happened.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The sky was so blue. It was jarring how beautiful the weather had been. If this were a novel, there’d be storms, thunder and lightning, a cataclysmic dimensional portal swirling in a black sky. The glorious weather complicated things somehow.

My day, my life, had quickly become divisible. Just get through the next hour. Just take the next moment.

Technically I’d moved in. The boxes were unpacked. I’d moved my things from Chicago at the end of August, before the wedding (which took place in Massachusetts). People had also sent elaborately packaged wedding presents to the house. Nothing was really put away, though. I’d be embarrassed if someone dropped by. In the windowless kitchen, a dozen brass candlesticks, a miniature hand-painted serving tray, and three crystal picture frames sat on the table awaiting homes. We hadn’t registered for these things; I wasn’t sure why we received them. I didn’t think I was being ungrateful. I was overwhelmed making it all fit. A candlestick was heavy in my hand, the base wide and unwieldy. I could brain twelve people and never use the same candlestick.

I should try to put these away. Or I could try to organize the office—the second bedroom—littered with my grad school papers, secondhand books, and poofy piles of winter coats and sweaters. I should write thank-you notes for the wedding presents. I could clean the disgusting bathtub I’m still wearing flip-flops in. That might feel good. To have a clean shower.

I needed to register for Tricare, the military health-care provider. I somehow lost my glasses in the shuffle between Chicago, Massachusetts, honeymoon, and Tennessee, and needed to replace them. I had to be in the Tricare system before doing that.

Only two of the other officers’ wives I’d met work, so it’s almost normal to stay home and cocoon. I doubt anyone would think it strange if I just disappeared, became entombed in an avalanche of candlesticks and old academic papers and laundry.

My stomach lurched anytime my cell phone rang. I had to put a hand on something to brace myself for the dry heaves.

I needed to get moving. Clean the tub. Apply to jobs. Exercise. Buy groceries. Write thank-you notes.

The person who brought me to this place is gone. The front room is ugly.

 

When I left the house, things were the same but different. Life continued to happen. You still had to get through the twenty-four hours in front of you.

American flags had popped up like dandelions in spring, lining the side of the road like a citywide Fourth of July parade. On the way to the post office, mailing a pack of thank-you notes, I worried about Anthrax (outbreaks in Florida, New York, Washington, D.C.—news that the FBI stymied potential and attempted attacks). In Kroger, a woman wearing baggy jeans cried in front of the cereal, a toddler in her cart sucking down a sleeve of Ritz crackers. Seven stress-induced fever blisters erupted on my lips. I stopped showering because I didn’t see the point.

I was supposed to attend family meetings organized by the battalion, but I didn’t go because I didn’t have a family. Between guarding the chemical plant in Indiana and last-minute training exercises, Jason was gone for weeks at a time. In our first three months of marriage, we were apart more than we were together. If I’d had a job to go to, it might not have been so bad. But it was just me in this rented townhouse, where the wall-to-wall carpet didn’t quite reach all the walls, in a town that supported three Walmart Supercenters and inspired a store called 3-N-1 Gifts, Socks, Football.

I missed Jason. Did the days count when he was gone? What did it mean when our second dinner at home happened three weeks into the marriage? Then when he was there—were we living in the suspended reality of a holiday, or was it better to create routine and normalcy? Jason would come home to a house he didn’t know, his things moved from where he initially put them. After days sleeping in a tent or Humvee, all he wanted was to crash on the couch and veg. And all I wanted was to talk with him, hash things out, go out somewhere fun and do something. Only we lived in a town with nothing to do. So I’d research places around Nashville—gardens, museums, music halls, historic sites, bowling alleys, malls, even golf courses—and Jason would lie comatose on the couch. When he did rally, he complained I spent ten dollars on fresh vegetables again this week.

This wasn’t a marriage. He wasn’t home long enough for a marriage. But he wasn’t leaving on purpose. I didn’t think he preferred sleeping in a Humvee with two other guys to sleeping in a bed with me. And he was under pressure. He had the same 9/11 uncertainty as me—as all of us. He was twenty-three and in charge of other men, responsible for keeping them safe, cohesive, disciplined. I told myself I shouldn’t be mad at him for zoning out to watch CSI. And death could still land on us, Indiana notwithstanding. Would it be another airplane? A war? Anthrax? Shouldn’t I just be happy he was here in the living room? Why did I need him to listen to me too?

When he was home, we bickered about little things and argued about money. I thought he was irresponsible. He thought a budget meant you weren’t living life. He said I had issues for going home to my parents three times in three months. I figured, my husband is gone and I have no job and the world has ended. There are worse places to be than home.

My life was hijacked (no, bad image—not literally hijacked), but Jason thought I should suck it up, a lovely infantry mentality. Many times, in the context of towers falling, I told myself to do just that. This is life. And you’re still here. Suck it up and deal. But I would have given anything for him to show some empathy for what I considered a rotten situation.

I later learned Jason wasn’t deliberately negating my experience of pain and isolation—he just figured it wasn’t that bad. He saw me as strong enough to handle anything life and the Army threw at me. You’ve always conquered whatever was in your way, he’d say. Yet because we saw each other only sporadically due to his assignments, and because we were emotionally twisted in the aftermath of the attacks, we wouldn’t have that conversation for months. In the meantime, it became How can I get under your skin so I don’t have to live in mine?


Kate McCorkle received her master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago and her bachelor’s degree in English from the College of the Holy Cross. She has regularly attended the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio since spring 2012. In 2015, her essay “Laundry” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She won second place in tNY Press’s (formerly theNewerYork Press) 2015 bureaucratic writing contest.