So to recap, I’m a little Jewish girl who once walked in the Million Mom March for gun control, and I’ve just walked into a bar where I’ve been introduced to a 6’3” army guy who’s wearing cowboy boots.
Huh. That was easy. I should have just written that instead of immediately admitting how bad I am at sports.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the reason I didn’t run screaming from Jonathan the second I met him. It could have been that, despite the poor shoe choice, I found him attractive. It could have been that he seemed generally unassuming, and not desperate. It could have been that the group of people I’d come to the bar with included an overweight Guido with too much hair gel who kept grabbing my ass, and the cowboy-soldier seemed like a better alternative. But whatever was keeping me there kept me there until last call, talking to Jonathan, ignoring my beer, and forgetting to keep an eye on my friend Jacki, who wears really short skirts and has questionable taste in men.
Jonathan called me on New Year’s Day. He asked me out, and I suggested coffee. He suggested dinner. I chose the Macaroni Grill, because it seemed like the kind of place you would take somebody who you assumed you’d never see again.
Because, along with being perfectly aware that Jonathan was in the army before I ever laid eyes on him, I was also aware that he was about to deploy. To Afghanistan. For a year. Which was, if possible, more unappealing than the cowboy thing. Sure he seemed nice and all, but I have standards—standards that include not pursuing a relationship with people who could die in the near future. Or republicans.
He was both.
I went to dinner with him anyway, claiming years of unfulfilled patriotic duty, but, more substantially, because…it didn’t matter. My boob could fall out of my shirt and into my salad dressing; he could punch the waiter in the face for forgetting he said no mushrooms; we could have nothing to talk about and spend a half hour drinking mediocre wine while trying to decide if we were in the mood for cappellini or spaghetti, and wondering if there’s really a difference in taste between those two pastas, or if it’s just a difference in girth. Whatever happened, in a few weeks he’d be back in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, readying himself for a war on terror, and I’d be in Baltimore, playing Cecily in a Jewish production of The Importance of Being Earnest. (Yes, that happened; no, I don’t want to talk about it.)
No pressure, no commitment, and therefore no fear. Just dinner. And how often do we get a chance for something that simple?
But, as these things generally go, my boob stayed in my shirt. He was polite to the waiter. We talked through the entire meal, and never once about pasta girth. It was, unfortunately, a really nice night. A nice night with a nice guy who would be a nice memory, and that was that.
Jonathan went back to Fort Campbell. Earnest closed and I got a job in DC. And for the sake of no reason not to, we ended up staying in touch. I knew nothing about the military and he knew nothing about Oscar Wilde, so we spent a lot of time just describing our lives to each other. Finding common things to laugh about despite the fact that we appeared to have few things in common. We didn’t talk about a relationship, or about dating; we just talked. And listened. We became friends.
There was no time for me to dwell on the emotions a person has before someone they know deploys. And even if I’d had the time, I was completely unfamiliar with the emotions. I’d never even known a person in the military. And I’d never imagined I really would. I would spend the rest of my life worrying about my boyfriends’ credit ratings and tax brackets and their willingness to take me to Banana Republic sales, but never about life and death. I wanted to be an actress, maybe. Or a writer. OR BOTH! That was my reality. And Jonathan was little more than a new friend. I wasn’t going to pretend I could identify with the families and friends who say goodbye to a loved one they may never see again. I knew the emotions existed, but I didn’t have the context or history to even begin to relate.
That ignorance was a huge blessing.
Jonathan deployed. He emailed me from places I’d never heard of. Occasionally he’d call me from places that sounded vaguely familiar, but where there was probably no Dunkin’ Donuts, so no thanks I’ll stay here. He never talked much about his job, which was just as well, because most of it never made sense to me and I’m convinced they turn everything into acronyms simply to piss everybody else off.
And, still, we did not talk about a relationship.
When you’re in your 20s and have just started a new life in a new city with happy hours and speed dating and “Have you met so-and-so who works on the Hill for that important congress-person that you’ve definitely heard of and also I think his family’s loaded?”, it gets to a point where, for the sake of your sanity, you need to know if you’re single or not. And, most days, I wasn’t sure. I’d been in enough long- and short-term relationships to know how they work and progress, but this was not in my arsenal. When somebody asks if you’re single, they’re looking for a yes or no—not “Oh, well, there’s this guy I met at a bar and went out with once but he’s totally fighting a war in some desert somewhere and I like him and all but we’ve never really discussed a relationship, but I’d still kind of feel guilty if I started dating somebody else, even though he might die.” No. You can’t say that. That’s embarrassing. That makes you sound immature, and also kind of unbalanced.
So I decided to take a much more mature approach. I ignored it.
In the spring, Jonathan told me he’d be coming home for a week or so for R&R. When I didn’t understand what “R&R” was, he said, “You know, on leave.” When I also didn’t understand that, he asked me how I got into Phi Beta Kappa, and then explained that he’d have a short break to come home, and that he wanted to see me.
I drove to the airport to pick him up, concentrating so hard on not vomiting that I’m surprised I could also concentrate on driving. I made it to baggage claim, to see Jonathan for the third time ever and to see fatigues for the first time ever, and feeling more unprepared than I’d ever felt for anything, including when I was an intern for a legal association and a lawyer first threatened me over the phone with a lawsuit, and I was like, “WHAT THE FUCK IS INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME?”
Jonathan’s first deployment was several years ago now, and I’m still trying to sort through all the emotions I did and did not feel during that week or so when he was on leave. It was the first time I’d felt some of them. It was the first time I’d been to an air show. And it was the first time I tried to break up with somebody who I wasn’t even sure I was dating, and then fell in love with him instead.
I’m no longer nine years old. I understand, now, that a delicious spicy tuna roll comes from a fish that was dragged to its death by a person. I understand that, sometimes, peace only exists because violence also does. I understand that we bleed, and then we heal. We get dirty, and then we make ourselves clean again. And it is possible to swallow your own tongue, but it means you’re probably having a seizure and therefore have bigger problems.
In a little more than a year, I’m getting married. To a soldier. And in less time than that, he’ll be going back to Afghanistan for his second deployment. Instead of worrying about what the characters in my novel should eat for breakfast or if I need to Crest Whitestrip my teeth before an acting audition, I’m suddenly worrying about how to assimilate into a life with country music and without Trader Joe’s, where my ability to love is more important than my ability to hold a job at a legal association (which, by the way, I’m very good at).
I’m not writing this because I have everything figured out. On a scale of one to 10 (one being I’ve been in a coma for eight years and 10 being I’m Holly Petraeus), I’m probably at a four. Except I didn’t really know who Holly Petraeus was until I Googled her just now, so maybe that should drop me down to a three. I’m writing this because I’m terrified. And because I’m happy. And then because I’m terrified again, and if there’s anything I can be sure of anymore, it’s that I don’t want to go through this alone.