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  • 33. The Mission

    By Emily Gray Tedrowe

    Emily Gray Tedrowe’s recent debut, Commuters, is one of the most emotionally mature and nuanced first novels I can recall. Her fearlessness is on similar display in this bracing story, in which faraway threats and home truths are equally troubling.

    In one movement, Jean sprang from bed, swept up the portable phone, muffled it against her stomach, and lurched into the bathroom. She jerked the door shut behind her, noiselessly. An insistent, digital ring purred against her sleep-damp T-shirt, but she held still in the dark, straining to hear any sound from the baby’s room. Nine-week-old Halley had just gone back down, after her second middle-of-the-night feeding. If she woke now, with over an hour until it was possible to nurse again . . .

    Calamity. Apocalypse. The ultimate pit of despair.

    There was no irony in Jean’s assessment, no awareness of exaggeration. She was shredded by lack of sleep, utterly bombed-out, and in this first night on her own with the baby—with Tom out of town on business—every new-mother jitter was magnified to a power of ten. Who the fuck was calling?

    “Hello,” she hissed, and then instantly understood who it must be.

    “ . . . Vic.” With the thick seconds-long pause between her words and his, Jean’s little brother sounded as far away, in Iraq, as he was. “Guess I woke you.”

    “No, no, I’m so glad. Can you hear me?”

    “ . . . hear me? Just had a minute, because we’re loading up to—”

    “I thought you said you wouldn’t be able to—but this is great! I mean, are you okay, is everything okay?” She stopped, because her own words were still unspooling, echoing between them.

    Pause.

    “. . . Sat phone at the bigger base. About to go out on a mission, though, so I won’t be able to talk long. How’s Halley?”

    “Fine. She’s fine. What do you mean, on a mission?” Jean sat on the toilet lid and pulled a towel around her bare legs. As if they, too, had been asleep, all the usual symptoms of her fear began to rise and move within her: shortness of breath, weak upper arms, a nausea that seemed to originate in her thighs.

    “ . . . pictures she’s looking big. What are you feeding her, steak and protein drinks?”

    “Still just—” Jean listened to steak and protein drinks echo back. “Breast milk.”

    “ . . . to this other part of Anbar, be out of touch for a while so didn’t want you to worry or anything.”

    “Okay,” she said, not okay with any of it. She wanted to ask how dangerous it would be, but held back. It’s not his job, she told herself, to go to war and make her feel better about it. “Should I call Dad?”

    “ . . . um, gross,” Vic said, laughing. She realized he was responding to the mention of her breast milk.

    “ . . . going to call him next. But can you do me a favor? When I get back—” Here the sound warbled and nearly cut out, Vic’s voice struggled up, submerged. As he spoke, she heard care package; she heard nothing too nasty; she heard any kind, I guess. Jean interrupted, speaking as loudly as she dared. “Vic? Vic? I can’t—”

    But he was back. “. . . magazines, whatever. If that’s not too . . .”

    Wait. Had she really heard what she thought she had? “You want me to send you . . . ”

    “—weird for you.”

    Porn?

    Their phrases overlapped, and Jean quickly adjusted the priggish tone she heard in her voice. “Wow. Sure. Hey, what are sisters for?”

    “—can’t really ask anyone else, can I?”

    Jean picked up a tube of lanolin, a thick yellow ointment—Tom called it her axle grease—that she was supposed to spread on her nipples whenever they were cracked or bleeding. She thought of Vic’s sort-of girlfriend back home, the one she desperately hoped would keep writing him; she thought of his friends from college, worlds away in their entry-level office jobs; she thought of their father. No, there was no one else.

    “I’ll put something in the mail tomorrow. I mean today.”

    “—won’t be in touch for a few—out of range of—”

    Lanolin oozed out from under the tube’s cap; Jean released her grip and dropped it on the sink counter. “A few what? Days? Weeks?”

    “—later, okay? I love you.”

    The pressure on the sound of his voice lifted suddenly. Jean spoke quickly, making her own echo—I love you, be safe, call soon, I love you—until she knew she was the only one left.

    *

    Victor had enlisted in the Marine Corps the day after Thanksgiving, a year and a half ago. He just drove to the local recruiter’s office, one town over from the Boston suburb where they’d grown up, and in one hour and a half signed all the papers. That night at dinner, their father toasted Vic’s decision and Jean almost vomited into her turkey leftovers. Tom put his hand on her leg, under the table; that and Vic’s boyish pride, were the only things that kept her from bolting. Instead, she lifted her glass briefly and put a fake, alien smile on her face. Instantly, Jean was ashamed of an inward childish disappointment; she was twenty-seven, had just aced the qualifying exams for her PhD in Education—good for teaching the teachers, her father liked to say—and was home for a holiday with her brand-new husband. Now Victor’s announcement was ruining everything.

    Was this a made-for-TV movie? Their father and stepmother were trading lines, something about real responsibility and serving your country, but the subtext was how much Victor had struggled in the past few years after his and Jean’s mom died. He’d graduated from UMass, but just barely; there had been drinking issues and two car accidents and one low-paying job at Home Depot. Okay, even from Chicago Jean had known her brother was having a hard time—but she had struggled, too, after Mom died, after her father had remarried the perfectly nice Marie, sitting immediately to Jean’s left. Hadn’t she?

    “So, going off to war,” Jean said flatly. “That’s what you want to do.”

    “Jeanie,” their father said. Tom blew out a long breath, slowly.

    “What? Are we pretending that’s not what’s going on?”

    “That’s reductive,” her father went on. For more than twenty years, he’d taught math at the local high school; both Jean and Victor had had him for trigonometry, junior year. “That’s not the whole point of the armed services.”

    “We don’t know a single person who’s in the army—” Jean began.

    “Marines,” Vic put in.

    “—nobody in this neighborhood, none of your classmates, I’ll bet.”

    “That’s all the more reason to be proud,” their father said, with a touch of triumph in his voice. “If the only people we depend on to serve are from certain sectors of society, certain income brackets—”

    “Fine,” Jean said, reversing course. “But last time I checked, nobody at this table thought invading Iraq was a good idea!” She half-wanted to stop. “Did that change? I mean, did they find some actual WMDs over there today?”

    “Whether or not it was the right thing to do—” Jean tried to interrupt but her father spoke over her. “—in this house, at least, we support the troops. No matter what.”

    “A lot of times marines are stationed on ships, way out in the ocean,” Marie put in. “I’ve read that.”

    Everyone avoided looking directly at Jean, as if she’d made a bad smell at the dinner table. Tom said nothing, but Jean forgave him; he was new enough to the family, he couldn’t be expected to leap to her defense. Only Victor seemed to get it; he cocked his head toward the back porch, their signal since childhood for let’s talk about this later, without them.

    “I just wish your mother—” Their father turned toward Victor, struggling to speak, and Vic put a hand on his shoulder. But this outraged Jean further. Mom would have been horrified—at the war, at Vic in the marines, at all of it! Wouldn’t she? Jean coughed quickly, to cover her snort of disgust, but the faux cough turned into a real one, and soon enough she was choking. Tom half-stood, and thumped her on the back; Marie jumped up to get some water. As soon as she recovered, Jean used the excuse to go upstairs to her old bedroom, where she could rage silently to the rock-stars in their faded posters, to her narrow bed with its pink comforter.

    *

    In the morning, Halley made wet sucking noises, rocking happily in her blue bouncy chair; thwack went her little bare heels against its plastic base. Thwack. Thwack. Jean switched on the radio and positioned the chair on the floor next to her laptop on the coffee table; if Halley lost her bouncing momentum, Jean could get her going again with her own foot. Still, she knew the chair worked for only five minutes, ten if she was lucky. By then it would be squirming and straining, grunts of displeasure, and then a full red-faced wail. So she skipped the Times, glanced at the front page of the Tribune just for the weather, and went straight to email. Last night was still a blur; Halley had nursed three times, which was definitely a step back, according to the baby books piled everywhere. By now, infants (hence mothers) should be sleeping six hours at a stretch, Jean had read, and underlined with a savage swipe of her pen.

    “Six hours my ass,” she muttered now, clicking open Yahoo. There were emails from a neighborhood new-moms group she had joined (in desperation), and two friends from college, but the one that caught her eye was from Victor. “Go back to sleep!” was the subject header, and last night’s phone call in the bathroom came back in fuzzy fragments.

    “Sorry we got cut off,” Victor wrote. “Heading out soon but I have a few minutes. Don’t worry about that stuff I asked you to get. I know your busy with Halley and its not like babies should be exposed to all that dipravity anyway haha. But if you do get it that would be awesome. And also find a way to hide it when you mail the package because my CO is pretty tough and also other guys sometimes take peoples stuff. But you can just forget it okay that’s cool. Love you say hi to Tom and talk to you later. Vic.”

    Well, she had mailed him everything else he’d requested: high-tech long underwear, individual packs of tuna, beef jerky, skin lotion, chap stick, Gummi Bears, X-Men DVDs . . . and now porn. How was it different, really? To a twenty-two-year-old guy, porn was probably just another item on a basic supplies list.

    Suddenly a muffled splatter came from the seat of the bouncy chair, and then another; Halley, who had startled herself, began to cry.

    “Whoa,” Jean said. She unbuckled the baby and lifted her up. They had a situation: poop had exploded out the sides of Halley’s diaper and up her back, soaking through her onesie and onto the blue cloth of the bouncy chair. Hoisting Halley under the armpits, far away from her own body, Jean carried her to the changing table. Halley screamed and arched her back as Jean tried to contain the damage with wet wipes, a towel she managed to grab out of the hamper, and finally a baby blanket they’d never really liked that much anyway.

    Later, she was scrubbing her arms and hands, surgeon-style, in the hall bathroom. The NPR woman’s voice was low and calm and crisp, floating toward her.

    “From Baghdad. AP news is reporting that six marines died when their convoy—”

    Jean froze. In the mirror above the sink, she saw and didn’t see a smear of baby shit on her forehead. “Nah,” she told herself, wiping it away. “Impossible, so don’t even. Just don’t.”

    Halley was on a red and white mat in the living room, bobbing her head up desperately. Jean went in and lay down on her stomach, too. “Good,” she whispered. “See? Tummy time. Works for neck strength, or something.” The news update had ended, and the story was now about a proposed gay, lesbian and transgender high school on Chicago’s north side. Halley dropped her face onto the mat and let out a yell. “There’s no way,” Jean explained, touching the bald spot on the back of Halley’s head. “He was just at the big base, where . . .” She trailed off; Halley flailed, face-down, and Jean rolled her onto her back “He’s probably still there,” she told the baby, whose gaze drifted elsewhere.

    Victor’s email was still on the computer screen. The day/time stamp read “Thursday, August 19th, 4:49 pm.” Well, did that mean Iraq time, or U.S. Central, or neither? What was Iraq time? Jean Googled it and stared at what she found, uncomprehending: “three hours ahead of Greenwich mean time (GMT + 3).”

    But wait. Today was Friday morning, and Victor had called last night. She could figure this out: the call had come between the first and second nursings, so . . . around one or two A.M., then. Or had it been later? Between the second and the third? And was that better? If he was going out on a trip, a mission—a convoy, she thought, with a sick pain of dread—then there couldn’t have been enough time for the chain of events to unfold: the leaving and travel, the blown-up truck, the finding out, the reporter filing the story, the calm, calm voice of the NPR woman reading aloud. No, this was someone else’s tragedy.

    On the screen: “heading out soon.” Vic’s echoing voice, on the phone: about to go out. Jean forced herself to find the AP story: six marines believed to be dead in Anbar Province; convoy of trucks; suspected IED.

    She stood, shaking, and stepped over Halley on the mat. Jean dialed Tom’s cell and quickly hung up; he was in an all-day conference and had told her he’d only turn on his phone at lunch. Who else? Not her friends, because they wouldn’t know what to say. Not her father, although she thought about this for a long time. He wouldn’t know anything, though—he’d be in the dark, just like she was. And also, they weren’t speaking. So: no one.

    Playboy,” Jean said aloud, looking out the window at Cottontail Park, the lazy traffic on State Street, an orange-line El train stopped at the platform at Roosevelt. Behind her, Halley began to fuss, hungry again. “Penthouse. Um . . . Juggs.” There. The words themselves kept the nightmare at bay, and she needed to do something, to fill all the panicky hours ahead. All right, then: today’s mission would be porn for her brother. But first, the baby needed her morning nap.

    *

    When Victor was at boot camp, Jean coped mainly by keeping busy. At Northwestern, there was research, putting together a dissertation committee, and teaching the first of many freshman-comp courses to come. She and Tom moved to a one-bedroom condo in one of the renovated high-rises springing up everywhere in the South Loop. This was 2004, and almost a thousand U.S. soldiers had already died in Iraq; Bush was still talking about “weapons of mass destruction” but no one was listening any more. The photos of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib were released, were everywhere; a contractor named Nicholas Berg was captured and executed on video. In November, Jean’s favorite professor led a student-wide walkout to protest complicity in the war. Jean didn’t go to her afternoon seminar, but she avoided the campus rally outside Norris, skirting the stage and the microphone and any friends who might catch sight of her. Instead she went to see The Incredibles, and sat alone in an empty theater, sobbing throughout the entire cartoon.

    Victor’s dispatches from Parris Island confused her. On the one hand, Jean couldn’t help but find the idea of “boot camp” reassuring, the word “camp” itself, and those college-prank hazing overtones, Vic’s references to bunks and mess hall and the constant yelling. He wrote them, with pride, about having lasted the longest in some simulation that involved a dark, sealed room, gas, and pretend grenades. “Remember how he used to go the length of the pool?” is what their father had to say about this. “Underwater the whole way!”

    But it was around then that the dreams began, touched off by some detail in an email from Vic, or a headline in the paper, or the unable-to-be-escaped word behead. At the time, Jean wouldn’t notice the effect on herself because if she looked away quickly enough, if she burrowed into grading papers or into bed with Tom, it was possible to dodge that increasingly familiar hit of fear. Except when she slept.

    “He said,” she gasped, bolting upright before dawn, in their still-unfamiliar apartment. Tom held her, stroked her sweaty hair. “The dog tags, they go . . . they go . . .” But when she awoke to it, the horror of realization that this was not a nightmare, not unreal, she couldn’t finish the thought out loud.

    Dog tags, Vic had mentioned. How it worked was, you wore one around your neck. The other you tucked deep in one of your boots.

    *

    Jean still flinched almost every time she took Halley out in the stroller. It was too jarring, even today. Especially today. The noise and speed of the cars, the jostling of people rushing past, even an errant spray of water from a sprinkler—all of it came unbearably close to tiny Halley, buckled in and facing her, who was delighted by the sights and the feel of the hot August wind on her bare arms and legs. Jean walked eight long blocks north to the light at the intersection, rather than cut across State Street. Then eight blocks back down, a full twenty-five minutes, only to end up at the dingy White Hen corner store directly across the street from their apartment building.

    Inside, the odors of stale coffee and cleaning fluid. A black man, about fifty, was behind the counter, flipping through the Sun-Times. He nodded at her pleasantly, but Jean felt uneasy. She steered Halley around the Slurpee machine to the rack of newspapers and magazines: Time and Newsweek, stacks of the Tribune, one battered New York Times, three or four candy-colored celebrity weeklies. Then Jean saw something promising: Maxim, with its trashy red font and unrecognizable actress whose airbrushed breasts strained to be released from their slutty top. She picked it up and flipped through—but weren’t there too many articles here? Ten Greatest Video Game Movie Adaptations, Eight Questions for a Bengals Cheerleader, Hometown Hotties and Celebrity Lookalikes. This couldn’t be what Vic meant by porn.

    “Excuse me—”

    “Help you?”

    Jean held up Maxim. “Do you have any other magazines? Like this, but, you know . . . the kind that are wrapped in plastic?”

    The man behind the register slid his eyes, once, at Halley in her stroller. “Just what’s out there.”

    Jean stuffed the magazine back in the rack. Sweat beaded her upper lip, and she was woozy with the effort of walking. Could she risk a soda, even after that half-cup of coffee earlier? But her baby books were relentless on this, how caffeine absorbed right into breast milk. And if Halley didn’t nap later, or do any better than she had last night—with Tom gone until Monday . . . No, that was unimaginable.

    She wheeled Halley up to the counter to pay for a Sprite. Was the man at the register avoiding looking at her?

    “The toll from yesterday’s suicide bomb in a Baghdad market is up to thirty, say observers—”

    A television in a corner of the store had somehow sprung to life; Jean’s eyes flew up to the bland, grim-voiced news announcer, the ticker of words running inexorably below him—

    “Warm out,” she said loudly, the man slowly making change for her soda. “But maybe a little better tomorrow, isn’t that what they’re saying?” She talked on, desperate to block out what the announcer might say next: six marines, truck, Anbar province. The man muttered to himself, having trouble with a tightly wrapped cylinder of quarters. Halley’s fed-up, let-me-out cry began, and Jean began to smile. It built to a wail, and Jean pretended to coo a fake baby-talk, the kind that Halley never responded to. She left the stroller entirely still, knowing that the only thing that might help in this situation was a firm, back-and-forth pushing motion. Halley yelled on and on, drowning out the man on television, Jean’s hurried thanks, and whatever it was the man behind the cash register said as they left.

    *

    Victor deployed to Iraq four months after boot camp. Just before shipping out, he was given a ten-day leave from Camp Pendleton and flew out to Chicago for a quick weekend visit. Jean was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with Halley, and for most of the time, Vic and Tom joked nonstop about the baby, the birth. Jesus, don’t point that thing at me, Vic would say, about her huge stomach. Tom: she’s loaded and ready to discharge. Jean encouraged it all; every lame comic routine took them another step away from Iraq.

    And who was this man, anyway, tan and bulked up, with his head shaved into a precise, government-decreed design? Vic had arrived with a stuffed animal in a plastic bag, a tall and purple synthetic bunny that he’d clearly bought at an O’Hare gift shop. Jean made a fuss over it, exclaiming over the unlovable thing. She put it in a place of honor in the empty crib. When had her little brother last brought her a gift?

    She remembers flashing her bare stomach at him one morning, thinking it would be funny to show her brother the way her belly button had recently popped out, a distended half-inch of turned-out flesh. But Vic had turned away, a flash of revulsion on his face. They turned it into a joke, but Jean regretted it, her stupid attempt to make things light.

    One day the three of them walked, slowly, up through snowy Cottontail Park, stopping in a tiny deli in Dearborn Tower. The woman behind the counter knew Vic for a soldier as soon as he pulled off his wool cap, and she wouldn’t let any of them pay for their coffee. “God bless you,” she said, and Vic ducked his head, muttering some thanks. Jean’s eyes welled up, and she felt a rush of fury at herself. No, this wasn’t allowed. You didn’t get to have the pride, when you seethed at the war, the marines, your brother’s involvement—all of it. It wasn’t fair, to accept the coffee or the blessing or the look of respect in that woman’s face, with your secret anger burning all the while. But she did.

    When it was time for him to go they stood outside the Blue Line turnstile. Jean could barely hug him the way she wanted to; the bulk of her stomach kept them apart. And luckily, too, because she was crying and Vic had set his face, hard. It interrupted that with something to laugh about.

    Halley was born nine days before Vic left for Iraq. They had emailed him some photos from the hospital; he called twice from base camp to say congratulations. But it was clear her brother was now in a different mindset. He spoke loving things about his new niece, but he made no jokes. Vic was upbeat, brisk; he hadn’t left yet for the war, but even over the phone, even through her haze of pain and euphoria and sleeplessness, Jean could tell. He was already there.

    *

    Jean pushed the stroller hard up State Street, and turned east to Michigan as soon as a quiet cross street presented itself. Halley was grappling with the cell phone she’d been handed, occasionally gumming it, and the few minutes of contentment this bought seemed worth the risk of a broken phone.

    “Hey, sweet mama,” some guy at the corner on Wabash sang out. “You looking—”

    “Back off,” Jean spat. He held up both hands in surrender and they blew past him.

    She’d heard there was a new Borders bookstore in the ground floor of one of these anonymous glass-fronted buildings—hard to tell if they held offices or residences—and just as she was about to give up—sweating, breathing hard—she saw the familiar red sign.

    Luckily, the magazine racks were just inside the front door, which a nice woman held open for her. But Halley had had enough; Jean unbuckled her and put her on her hip while she wheeled the empty stroller through the aisles and around people browsing. Halley burrowed her face against Jean’s bare shoulder and started sucking at her skin, wetly.

    “Not yet, baby girl,” Jean murmured. This wouldn’t take long—they could definitely be home by the next nursing. There! Finally. Naked women. Well, the covers were mostly blocked out by black bars across their plastic wrappings, but Jean could tell, even from the shoulders up—and by the look in their eyes—that these women were naked. With her free hand, she pulled out three or four magazines that seemed promisingly dirty, and dropped them into the stroller.

    The line to check out was long, and now Jean had to use both arms to hold Halley, bouncing her and blowing gently in her face, to keep the baby calm. She kicked the stroller ahead with her foot each time they moved.

    “Jean?”

    Fuck. Sarah Grisholm, from school, standing with her husband two people ahead of them in line.

    “I thought that was you! Oh my God, and this is your adorable Callie.”

    Jean surreptitiously reached down into the stroller basket for a blanket, and dropped it casually on top of the magazines. “Hi, Sarah, how are you?” She ignored the Callie.

    “Go ahead of us, please,” Sarah said to the people behind her.

    “No, that’s okay—”

    But Sarah had already moved closer to Jean, eyes alight and hands stretching out to Halley. “Give me this sweet pumpkin. Oh, look at you! You are a cutie-pie, aren’t you?”

    Jean handed over the baby—she had no choice—and made small talk with Sarah’s husband. They were standing in an awkward clump in the middle of the roped-off line, and she tried to calculate how she could get out of this situation, absently answering Sarah’s rapid-fire questions about Halley’s weight, sleep schedule, and how things were going at home.

    “Here, let me help you,” Sarah’s husband said, and put a hand on the stroller.

    “No,” Jean said, and grabbed it back. “I mean, I’m good. So, how’s the department?” She scooped up the blanket and magazines underneath.

    “Who’s next?” A cashier called.

    Pretending to listen to Sarah describe the latest gossip about their fellow grad students, Jean slid the magazines from under the blanket and stuffed them behind a display of travel coffee mugs. Sarah’s husband gestured for her to go ahead, so she took an Us Weekly from the stand at the counter, and paid for it.

    “Guilty pleasure, huh?” Sarah said, about the magazine, reluctantly handing Halley back to Jean. “Good for you—hey, you’re on vacation, right? We have to get together soon. I want to hear everything about everything.”

    “Totally,” Jean promised, buckling an unhappy Halley back in her seat. She waved goodbye and shoved the stroller back out onto the street, eyes burning. It wasn’t the magazines. Jean didn’t really care if stupid Sarah or her no-name husband saw her buying Playboy—although, she had to admit, it wasn’t a fun idea. What she found impossible was what would happen next: for my little brother, she would have explained, with a nervous shrug, he’s in Iraq. Jean can picture the couple’s faces: chastened, respectful, understanding. Perhaps even admiring. But then, their polite questions: where is he, how is he, when will he be back? And how could Jean respond, when she had no answers? Is that how you fit anguish into a socially acceptable exchange. . . with a daughter in one hand and some porn in the other?

    I am embarrassed. Jean wondered at it, this strange truth, as she fled. Embarrassed to allude to it—that Vic could die. Could have died.

    *

    When Halley was five weeks old, Jean and Tom took her to Boston to meet her grandparents. That first airplane ride went fine for Halley, less so for Jean, who leaked through two shirts and all her breast pads, and arrived at her father and Marie’s house feeling frazzled, incompetent, and fat. But the first day and a half went well: Marie took the baby on long walks, Jean and Tom slept as much as they could, and her father grilled steak and corn on the cob.

    On the morning before they left, Jean finished nursing Halley in the guest room, and then brought the baby out to a blanket on the floor of the living room. It wasn’t yet seven, and Marie and Tom were both still asleep. Her father was in his usual chair, reading the paper; he handed her the sections he was finished with. For several minutes they read together silently, drinking coffee, Halley making humming noises among her toys.

    Her father made a tcch sound, and turned a page noisily.

    “What?”

    “This Cindy Sheehan. Why some people think their own tragedy qualifies them to become grand-standing know-it-alls who speak for the rest of us, I’ll never figure out. All she’s doing is hurting her own cause.”

    Jean could have let it pass. She could have handed the baby another rattle, she could have started scrambling an egg or gone to take a shower. Instead, she said, “She’s got a right to speak out. I mean, her son died there.”

    “Well, maybe this is news to Cindy, but she’s not the only one. And that doesn’t give her the right to hurt the other troops who are in harm’s way—”

    “How is protesting outside Bush’s ranch going to—”

    “She’s as much an enemy to Vic and the guys out there with him as the Iraqi terrorists are. All people like that want is attention—look at me, look how hard I have it. Some of us bear our sacrifice with a little more dignity. A little more self-respect.”

    Jean hated to remember what happened next. In fact, she didn’t even fully know how it all happened, so fast and brutal. Glimpses remain: herself, standing over her baby in the middle of the living room, shaking, yelling at her father. Her father, in his worn blue robe and a forced half-smile, patiently explaining as if she was one of his students. And the things they said . . . Jean said if Vic died in Iraq she wouldn’t hesitate to devote her life to making George Bush’s a living hell. She said that anyone who pretended that serving in this war was honorable was either totally deluded or worse. Her father said that to imply any American death in Iraq was a mistake, or a waste, meant you might as well take up arms with the Shiites. He called her naïve and sheltered. She called him a righteous asshole; she said if Vic were hurt or killed she would never forgive him, her own father, for his part in all of it.

    Halley cried and then was taken away by Marie and Jean didn’t even notice. After a while Tom pulled Jean out of the room, out of the house, and walked her in hysterics around the block in the hot sun—both of them still in pajamas—and talked her out of immediately leaving for the airport. Back at the house, there were stiff, unfelt apologies on both sides, and then a grim silence for the next eighteen hours. Jean barely made eye contact with her father when they said goodbye.

    Since then, she and her father spoke only when necessary, or when Marie made them, and when they did, it was brief and hardly meaningful. Occasionally she would email him a picture of Halley, no other note, and receive a one-word reply: cute! Whether or how much her father heard from Vic, she had no idea.

    *

    Big mistake. Jean was almost running now, the stroller jolting hard against cracks in the pavement; Halley was crying, twisting this way and that against the car seat straps. She must be starving by now, Jean thought—she could tell from the painful pressure in her own breasts. It had been three and a half hours since the last nursing, and Halley almost never went that long in the middle of the day. But they were still at least eight blocks from home—how had she let this happen? Soon Halley’s wails and the guilt inside Jean combined with the anxiety of racing along these empty, ominous sidewalks to lay open a shattering possibility. Victor. Maybe it had been him, in that truck. What if it was his body being identified, right now, a world away—the information passed from marine official to marine official until two of them were dispatched in matching uniforms to Longfellow High School, in Somerville, Massachusetts. Would they go directly to her father’s classroom? Would they interrupt him at the chalkboard, drawing yet another sine curve?

    One hand on the stroller, the other on her phone: Jean speed-dialed Tom. When it went right to voicemail, though, she hung up. What she wanted—she needed—was something very specific, and there was a chance he might bobble this, even in his always-good-intentioned way, and that would be worse than not talking at all. What she needed was for Tom to say exactly the right things in the right order (and in the right tone), that would convince her that Victor was not one of those six marines.

    By now, Halley was exhausted from screaming, and she was starting to fall asleep. But that was a problem, too, since it would wreck the chances of an afternoon nap, and if that happened. . .

    While Jean was trying to parse all the infant combinations of feedings and sleep, and their consequences, a gleam of something caught her eye. Porn. Through the grimy window of a hole-in-the-wall bodega she’d never noticed before, on State Street above Thirteenth. A bell over the door tinkled while Jean backed it open and hoisted the stroller up two stairs and in—the noise, and the jolt, sent Halley howling.

    “How much are the magazines?” Jean called to the lone dark-skinned woman working there. “Those porn ones. Never mind, I’ll take two. Or make that three.”

    She unbuckled Halley to soothe her, but gentle bouncing only made her wilder. The woman was saying something to Jean, who had pulled out her wallet and tossed it on the counter. “Could you just take the money out?” she said. “I don’t need change. I’m in kind of a hurry.” She thought she might start crying, too, alongside Halley’s repetitive siren wail. And why was this woman still talking? It was a simple fucking transaction—what was her problem?

    “Come on,” Jean said. “I need help.”

    The woman came around the counter and very close up to Jean. Her brown eyes were lined with thick black kohl. “Feed your baby first,” she said, enunciating. “Then, you buy.” And now she was guiding Jean—with a firm hand on her back—to a dusty plastic chair in the back corner of the small store. “You have the bottle?”

    But Jean was already pulling up her shirt—the tank-top now dark with wet patches—and unsnapping her bra. Halley gasped, and latched on airlock-tight before Jean could even sit down. Her little hands scrabbled against Jean’s bare skin. The baby’s sucking sounds filled the room; both women were silent, listening.

    “Thanks,” Jean said. Her voice wobbled. “I didn’t realize—I should have—”

    The other woman shook her head. With one hand she gestured, just sit still. With no words she said, you’re fine now. Everything is fine. So Jean sat, and rested her head against the cool glass of the soda case. Halley nursed fast and then slower, deeper. Jean watched the woman putter around the store, straighten a display of pre-wrapped muffins, replace a bag of chips to the shelf. Every so often, she would glance back at Jean, and smile a little.

    “You want newspaper?” she said. “I’ll get it for you.” The woman moved to the front area where a moment ago Jean had been ranting.

    Jean sighed. “No, I wanted a couple of the girlie magazines. You know, the dirty ones.” She was feeling sleepy and content, as if Halley’s satiation was her own, too. She expected the other woman to be startled, perhaps disgusted, and was mildly surprised to see her immediately pluck three porn magazines out of the top rack and hold them up for Jean’s approval.

    “Oh, great. Actually—” The woman began to stack them by the register. “Can I see one of those? Um—that one, with the girl in the—what are those . . . overalls? Right.” With her free hand, Jean took what she’d been handed. “Mind if I unwrap? I’m definitely buying it.” This time, the woman’s hand gesture meant, suit yourself.

    Jean tore open the plastic with her teeth. She shifted Halley around and began to leaf through the magazine. No, this wasn’t Maxim, and it wasn’t even Playboy. Full-color, glossy nudity hit her like an icy breeze—not so bad, Jean thought, on such a hot day. Women posed themselves playing the guitar, changing tires, painting walls, sitting on low stools: naked, all naked. Some held their big, shiny breasts out to the viewer with exaggerated expressions of delight, as if the women themselves were surprised—as if they had just glanced down to find these glorious, silicone marvels and wanted to share the good news. Others squatted or reclined, hands framing their own bare labia, somewhat more resigned: well, let’s see what we’ve got here.

    “I don’t get all this waxing,” Jean said to Halley. “Is that mandatory?” Halley cocked an eye up at her mother, but went on nursing. Jean considered the appeal of so much female nudity. Wearily, she eyed the taut bellies of the naked women. At the moment, sex itself was a foreign country, one she could only vaguely imagine wanting to visit. And wasn’t there something inherently thin and useless about nudity on paper, something flimsy? Still, Jean guessed she could see what Vic—and perhaps Tom—would enjoy here. Objectively speaking. After all, she herself liked to flip through the latest issue of Food and Wine while she ate dinner; reading a recipe for beef bourguignon could enhance even macaroni and cheese from a box.

    “You like this one?” The woman at the counter held up one of the other magazines. “Better for you, maybe?”

    Jean glanced up and Halley popped off, finished on one side. For some reason, Jean hardly cared that her own breast—with its wet, elongated nipple—was exposed in front of a stranger. Usually she fumbled under a blanket, but now Jean merely burped Halley and got her started on the other side before refastening her bra.

    “We have more in back,” the woman said. “I bring for you?”

    “No, these are fine,” Jean said. She thought about explaining, about correcting the assumption that the magazines were for her, but found that it didn’t matter. Halley was slowing, getting full; Jean drifted, the porn magazine lying lightly in her lap. Why have I never been in this store before? she wondered. We’re coming back tomorrow. And the day after.

    But the television, bolted to a ceiling corner, made her flare awake. Even with the sound off, Jean could see the grainy, washed-out images of war, helicopters and empty streets, intercut with the bright colors of a frowning reporter in the studio. Jean struggled to sit up. She felt the beginnings of a dark terror stir; Halley clamped down hard, a toothless bite.

    Then the screen went black. The woman behind the counter was aiming a remote. “Not good,” she said. “No good for babies to see.”

    Jean could have hugged her, this bodega angel in a blue cotton smock. She looked more closely at the woman’s smooth dark hair, her deep olive skin. . . . And her accent—wasn’t it . . .

    “Are you Middle Eastern?”

    The woman stared at her. Jean flicked her chin towards the television. “Are you . . . from over there? From Iraq?”

    The silence was long enough for Jean to regret her question, but not long enough to figure out what to say instead.

    “From India,” the woman said finally. She turned away to gather up the magazines and stack them in a firm pile by the cash register. This time, when she held her hand out to Jean, it meant, are you finished?

    *

    Halley had been bathed and changed into snap-up pajamas; she rocked herself in the bouncy chair and sucked on a fist. Sitting cross-legged on the floor next to her, Jean wiped her face. The latest AP report said that the Pentagon was withholding names of the six dead marines in Anbar until each one had been identified. With every ragged breath, Jean fought back the images in her head, coming in waves: shredded metal, blown-apart limbs, young men smeared across a bloody desert road. But she had things to do, she had a plan: the porn magazines were rolled and rubber-banded into a tight cylinder.

    “It’s our little art project,” she told the baby.

    Halley’s gaze drifted up to the pipes running along the ceiling.

    Jean picked up the bunny, the purple synthetic one Vic had brought for his unborn niece. She took the kitchen shears and slit the seam running up its back. Inside, coarse white stuffing; Jean pulled and cut until the bunny was mostly gutted. Halley watched with little interest, even when Jean had to tug open the back of the bunny’s head and its face flattened out. Jean found herself singing a little song while she worked; the actions were calming. She had tried a few other ways to hide the magazines, as Vic had told her to do—camouflaging them in a copy of the Sunday Tribune, wrapping them in an old sweatshirt of Tom’s—but nothing had worked. Then, changing Halley, she spotted the purple bunny, propped in a corner of the crib.

    It was a tight fit, but eventually she got the magazines in. Jean had to squeeze the bunny between her knees, though, to stretch its sides back together. She tried to sew quickly as a tired Halley began to fuss. Jean—who usually counted down the minutes until she could put the baby to bed—had pushed back the schedule, tonight. What would she do, alone, when the bad thoughts came back?

    Tom’s message—she missed his call while Halley was in the bath—had come from outside a noisy bar packed with coworkers. He asked all about Halley, but he was rushed, and he sounded happy and a little drunk. Jean had started to call him back, and then she dropped the phone on her bedside table.

    “There,” she said, biting off the thread. She held up the bunny and turned it this way and that. “What do you think?”

    Halley groaned and drummed her legs.

    “I know,” Jean said. “It’s totally warped.” The bunny, once floppy and soft, now had a bloated, rectangular shape. Still, it might pass—she’d put it in a box with some candy bars and a couple paperbacks, and hope for the best. Vic would love it, she told herself. It was the perfect touch, using the stuffed animal he’d brought for the baby. It could be the centerpiece of their next funny story.

    *

    In the middle of the night, the phone rang. Or did it? Jean sat up in bed, confused, her heart pounding. Had she dreamt it? There was no sound now. And Halley . . . Jean groped for the clock: 2:41 A.M. No, that couldn’t be right. Because she hadn’t nursed Halley once since putting her to bed at nine. Could Halley actually be sleeping for more than five and a half hours? (She had to count this on her fingers.) For the first time ever?

    Jean slipped from bed and tiptoed to the nursery door. Sure enough, Halley’s rumbly breathing was slow and steady, with no sign of waking. She crept back into the bedroom, took the phone off the charger, and went into the bathroom. More awake now, she could have sworn it was a ring—a single one—that had wakened her. Caller ID showed nothing, but then again just one ring wouldn’t register. What if it had been Victor? She knew it wasn’t possible, but still . . . what if it had been him? One of the bad images rushed up: Vic, with a hood over his head, handed a phone.

    Jean dialed quickly now, with no hesitation.

    Her father answered right away. “Jeanie?”

    “Dad, I thought I heard—”

    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. That was me. I thought I heard our phone ring, but it was a wrong number. I started to call you before I figured it out. It’s stupid, I know, because we just spoke to him last night—but I thought it might have been Vic . . .” Her father’s voice was warm, and worried, and filled Jean’s small, harshly-lit bathroom. She shut her eyes.

    “What if it’s him,” she whispered. “That truck, yesterday. Those six marines.”

    “No,” her father said. She heard him move around, say something muffled to Marie. “Okay, I’m in the office now. Let me just get my glasses on. Here—I found something online about it, I’ll read it to you.”

    “I tried to do the time difference but I couldn’t—”

    “Seven or eight hours ahead, depending on daylight savings time,” her math-teacher father said automatically. He was comfortable, as ever, in the world of numbers and probability, and his matter-of-fact tone began to lift Jean out of her loneliness, out of her panic. She could picture him exactly, in the blue bathrobe, grey hair awry, under a cone of yellow light at the orderly desk where he graded papers, where he’d checked her and Victor’s homework every night before bed. She had known this voice since childhood—her father picking his way slowly and calmly through thickets of confusion. “That’s another reason it couldn’t have been him. But also, I found about three different websites where they say that convoy was from the Second Brigade—Vic’s in the Third, you know—and I’m going to send you the links now. Let me just type in your . . . okay, got it. I also made a list of the different areas in Anbar Province where Vic could have been heading—he can’t tell us exactly where, of course, but it’s not hard to figure out if you spend a little time reading the various blogs. So then, if you calculate the circumference in miles there’s just no way he could have been anywhere near the . . . Jeanie?”

    Her breasts, full from Halley’s unprecedented night, began to ache. Jean wanted to say something to her father, about how she felt a little better, about how he was helping her. There was still anger between them; it hadn’t gone away. But it had ceased to matter, here at three A.M., in her bathroom, on the phone. And even though she knew—in a tiny, hard-lodged place buried deep inside—that her father’s efforts and diagrams wouldn’t erase the possibility that it could be Vic, that they couldn’t know for sure, at least not now . . . it was helping, nonetheless. Sustenance: a little sleep, the math, his kindness.

    “I’m here,” Jean said. “Go on.”

    © by Emily Gray Tedrowe. Used by permission.

    Read more about Emily here . . .

    Read about Commuters here . . .

    And read a bit of it here!



    One Comment

    1. Shannon on September 7, 2010 :

      Nice story. I can really identify with the feeling of having to go about your daily business while worried about something far more important.

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