Winter 2012, #18


Where Will I Go in Search of Your Safety?

     by Kirsten Clodfelter

When he calls, Daniel tells me he’s still having that dream almost every night, that we’re down at Otter Creek, skipping rocks on the grassy bank that backed up against his family farm’s property line in Terre Huate, where he grew up. He says it with a bit of wonder edging into his voice, as if throughout these four months of his deployment I’ve had something to do with where his subconscious mind takes him.

As he talks, his faint, uneasy laughter is swallowed by the crackling static, and I’m reminded that what’s binding us together in this moment is fragile-an electromagnetic transmission carrying our voices through a distant satellite to cover the six thousand miles between us, and the science of this feels so unreal that it’s like magic. I try to picture that old farmhouse and the creek from my husband’s childhood, but it’s too much like some Edward Hopper painting I can’t remember the name of, too easy and idyllic for him to really dream us there night after night; and I, ungrateful little ass that I am, feel sure that he’s lying, that something so precious must be untrue.

But as he goes on, I hear the pitch of something dangerous start to creep in, a flicker that hints at how close he might be to falling apart. He won’t really talk to me about losing Carter last week in a firefight just outside of Mosul, or about how, only a few days after his company first arrived at FOB Marez, while going through a checkpoint at Kisik with his platoon, three PFCs in the armored Humvee in front of his own suddenly disappeared, the instantaneous shattering of bones accompanied by the loud explosion of an RPG, the twisted, smoking shell of their split-apart vehicle coming to rest just outside of the crater left from the mortar fire. “They were there, and then they weren’t,” he had said to me, days later, when he could finally call. “There was nothing to even look for.” His voice sounded lost somewhere inside his own body, and that was the last time he spoke of it. I can only guess that it’s because he doesn’t want to share the burden of such devastation.

Instead, he forces something like grim cheer during our conversations, and tonight he interlaces the growing silence that always sets in after our first few exchanges by talking about his day-to-day inside the wire where he feigns normalcy by playing Halo or killing time at the gym. I can’t think of a single question to ask, and I hate myself for not listening more carefully. I do not memorize the exact words, each inflection, the gentle motor-start clearing of his throat when he’s trying to think of something else to say, the slight tremble when he forgets himself for a second and is maybe staring down his sadness until he’s regained power over it. I can’t focus on what he’s saying-I can think only of the unending, unbearable noise, the way the sound of violence must snake inside his head even during sleep, so inorganic and full of malice that it is worse even than a cancer, harder to dig out. When Daniel tells me that he’ll find me in dreams, it means it’s time for him to go. Tonight we’ve had thirteen minutes, and even though just moments before I felt like I had to drag myself through a string of halted, awkward sentences, now that they’re ending I have dozens of things that I suddenly want to tell him but can’t, things that will crowd my head for hours or days after I’ve hung up the phone: Yesterday I had the oil changed in his truck; I’m thinking about rearranging the furniture in the living room; my mom snapped at me this morning because I called for the third time to ask for her poblano soup recipe that I won’t ever write down; sometimes I still forget and set the table for both of us.

Like always, after the third or fourth “I love you” but before the click goodbye, he says, “I’ll see you at Otter Creek,” and I answer softly, my lines of the script long-memorized, “I’ll wait for you,” because I do think in this moment that I would wait forever, and I need for him to know. But the truth is that I am robbed of him even in sleep. I never dream myself to that Indiana farmhouse, to the field above the creek where the wild grass is tall and thick enough around your calves to feel like its own body of water, the pockets of my blue cotton dress filled with stones-smooth and cold with the promise of flight. Instead, at night, I tumble through a dark, expansive void without end or light, my lungs pushing and pushing out the scream like a birth, but the sound is absent and stillborn, and then I wake up with my heart trying to beat its way out through my ribs and my throat raw, the comforter of our bed balled up in my dry mouth.

I know that if just once I could get there, to Terre Haute, I’d see Daniel in jeans that were rolled up to his knees and a white undershirt, civilian clothes, squatting in the shallow water, searching for something to give me-a disc of darkened sandstone or shale to skim across a wet, unbroken surface. I know seeing him would mean release, a breadcrumb trail out of that hostile desert back to the life that’s still waiting for him on the other side. But I also know that I will never be able to find that place during sleep, that until he comes home-if he comes home-every night I will dream the worst for both of us, as if that will keep him safe.