Nonessentially Essential

Terry was supposed to have been home by now. Done with all this. That was the deal. Pete had made dinner, fed the kids, took care of the dog, the cats, the dishes, the laundry, the playdates, the bills…keeping himself active now to stem the barrage of disaster scenarios. Accidents and phones dead and emergency rooms and—

Stop.

He took a deep breath. Two. Three. Four. Checked his phone again to make sure he hadn’t missed her. Some accident of interstellar space keeping her voice from its landing pad, some defect in the system. Once he had two voice mails and the little button on his phone never told him.

Nope. Nothing.A low rumble started from far away. He felt it in his fingertips, pressed against the countertop. The rattle in the windows pounding in his heart.

“Dad. Dad!” Mark, all of seven, came barreling in, hair askew, eyes wild. “Dad. It’s one of those big planes. I can tell by the lights! Come see!”

A fifth breath. He’d been hearing more and more of those engines shaking the house. Cargo planes from the air force base, an hour away. Headed god knows where with how much killing power.

He went outside with his son. A clear, cold night. Stars twinkling. The sort of night Terry had written poems about, before she took on this new assignment… Before she tore a hole in the tapestry of their everyday. Before terrible meals and unmade beds and lonely nights. So many lonely nights. He knew this was the deal. Didn’t mean he liked it. Didn’t mean he hadn’t had the occasional fantasy of driving to Washington and punching a few politicians in the face.

“Dad!” Mark was shouting, pointing up.

Pete had never seen lights move that slowly across the sky. Hovering. Taking one last, long glimpse at what its passengers would be leaving behind.

“I think it’s a Galaxy!” Mark waved. As if the people on board could see him. “Like the one Mom was in! Dad. You think she’ll come back in one, too? Maybe this time we can see it?”

His throat tightened. His hand landed on Mark’s thin, twitchy shoulder. “Yeah. Maybe. We’ll see. Let’s go in now, son. Cold out here.”

He went back to busywork, diverting his attention. Long ago he’d stopped watching the news; he didn’t want to know what had exploded where. “Just keep in touch when you can,” he’d said, mustering all his energy to quash some Y chromosome throwback—or voice of his father—telling Terry that her place was with them. Not in some godforsaken country doing thankless work for ungrateful leaders, where every day could be her last.

“I have to try,” she’d said. A near-death experience shining a new light in her eyes, as bright as the stars she wrote about. “I have skills they need. Getting girls into schools. Teaching them to read, to have a chance to improve their lives. I have to serve.”

“But couldn’t you do that here? Somewhere safe?”

She laughed, a soft laugh, pressing a cool hand to his cheek. A strong hand, one that had held babies through sickness and health, through joy and pain. Yet tender enough to calm his greatest fears.

She couldn’t calm this one. It would have been so easy: don’t go.

He’d reasoned, he’d fumed, he’d tried so many ways to get her to see things from his point of view. But in the end he gave up the fight. Because he eventually realized that when she came home—and he wouldn’t even allow “if” into his head—he wanted her to come home to him. 

Three months, she’d said. That was what she’d signed on for. Six months ago. 

He put the kids to bed, watched something unremarkable on television, put a leash on the dog for one last, quick walk.

Half a block later, under a canopy of stars and silence, his phone rang.

Terry. His blood pressure dropped twenty points just hearing her voice, hearing her tell him about the work she’d done, the lives she’d bettered. He held his tongue each time he thought “what about our lives?” But then he saw a shooting star. Making a wish on it like his mother always told him. Wishing he could make peace with her decision.

“Honey, you still there?”

“Uh. Yeah. Sorry.” The connection was bad. Why did she sound so flat?

“I said, is next Tuesday good? Around six?”

“Good. Good for…?” Damn. So self-involved, so absorbed with how this was making his life a holy mess that he didn’t…

“For meeting me at the base. They’re done with me. I’m coming home. Or would you prefer I call an Uber?”

“Wait. Done with you?”

The pause broke his heart a little. In it, he imagined a frown, a shrug. A brave face. “No money, no nonessential services.”

Those bastards. “They can’t just—”

“Yeah.” The sound this time was a definite sigh. “They can.”

His Y chromosome went into overdrive. “We’ll find you something else. Some other way you can help. There are plenty of girls here, poor neighborhoods, schools that need help…”

Was that a laugh? It was a soft laugh, a little sad, but it made him stop. And smile.

“Whoa, cowboy,” she said. “I want to talk about that, I want to talk about all of it, but let’s wait until I get home, okay?”

“Yeah.” His voice broke. He cleared his throat. “We’ll do that, yeah.”

After they ended the call, he petted his patient dog’s soft ears, and the two of them finished their walk silently, gratefully, under the dome of stars.

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