I awoke this morning, pretending it was a day like any other. Lying in bed next to her, telling myself I would just go to work and be back in the evening to see her again, have dinner, and spend another night with her. My delusion lasted for a few seconds, but no longer. I let her sleep, hoping that in her dreams she would be with me still, that her man would never have to leave again, that all would be right in the world. Quietly slipping from the bed, I fed the cats and showered quickly. In the short minutes I had left, I wanted to be with her as much as possible. Packing my last few items in a bag and dressing for the day, I returned to the bed and sat gently on the edge, gazing down at her beautiful face, so peaceful in sleep. I hesitated before waking her, not wanting to force this day on her.
Her eyes blinked sleepily open, a smile lighting her face, and just as quickly disappearing. She knew. The smile returned, but this one was forced, fake. Sadness and longing belied the upturned lips, and the smile didn’t reach her eyes. I almost lost it there, but forced a lie into my mind that it was just another normal day. It helped a bit, and I took a deep breath. This is how I cope with these days of leaving. Pretend that I don’t have to leave until I’m already well on my way. I know it’s a lie, and she knows too, but what else can I do? We both have our own strategies for this. It helps keep the tears away for now.
Hugs and whispered encouragements and silent prayers follow, delaying the inevitable. The clock ticks inexorably forward, and we part slowly at the door. I grab the bag of trash to take out, as if this routine chore would somehow make this whole day routine, and we wave our goodbyes, straining to keep up the façade of normalcy. We’ve done the teary, emotion-filled partings before, and either way the end result is the same. Better to have a memory of a smiling face than a sad one.
For her the release will come sooner. By the time I make it out to the street she will be alone and can let out the pent-up tears and emotion. Not I. I’m just starting this awful day. The forced smile stays plastically in place as I hurry down the hill to work. I’m a little bit late now, and I focus on that instead, glad to have something else to think about, to worry about. It’s still early, but a few people are up and about, going about their lives. Presumably all of them will be returning home tonight to a wife, husband, or at the very least, to the familiarity of their own house. Not I.
The work day starts, and I finally achieve a temporary disconnect from the emotions. Enough to do what I need to for now. There will be time for the rest later. We still have a few hours until we pull out, and I spend them doing my job here. There are things to be done, and I do them, not thinking, not feeling.
The moment comes, and I barely look up from my work. We’re underway now, but it’s difficult to tell from where I’m working. Taking a short break, I walk to the hangar bay. Dozens of people are standing at the open bay doors, speaking quietly on their phones, making last-minute goodbyes. For some this is a new experience, and it’s easy to see the emotion just below the surface. Others are more used to it, or are not leaving someone behind, and are just out watching land slip away as the tugs pull us out into the channel.
I move out to a small space open on one side to the sea. This is a smoking area for the ship, and even though I don’t smoke, it’s one of the better places to watch from, so I put up with the smoke for a while to be here. It’s quieter here. People lean on the railing and gaze back to the shore, slowly smoking. Phones aren’t allowed here, so they’ve already made their goodbyes or just have no one to call. Nobody makes eye contact. Too much concealed emotion right now. Once we’re on the open ocean, with no land in sight, it will be easier. Seeing houses and trees slip away is not easy, though, even if you’re not leaving someone behind.
I walk slowly back to my desk, and notice the light on my phone blinking. I had forgotten to turn it off earlier when I got to the ship. It’s a text from her, telling me that she’d started her countdown. I almost lost it for a second time today. The countdown. It helps toward the end, seeing how few days are left. And I think it helps her even at the beginning, having a concrete number of days instead of just a vague promise that I’ll be back. To me the countdown is just a reminder that by the time I’m back on land and home, summer will have turned straight to winter with no autumn in between. A reminder that I can’t hold her hand, take her out to dinner, give her a hug, bring her flowers, see her smile, go on a bike ride, spend the night or a lazy Sunday afternoon, watch her draw or paint, or do any of the things that I so desperately want to do with her right now. But I pretend not to think any of those things and text her back that it sounds like almost no time at all left.
Alone now, finally, sitting in my rack with the curtain separating me from the others in the room. A small lamp lights this book as I write, reliving the day, the morning again and again. Seeing her face, hearing her voice, feeling her kisses. I move the paper to keep my tears from smudging the ink. Silently sobbing so as not to disturb the others, thankful for the noises of the ship to drown any sound that might escape. The say that grown men aren’t supposed to cry. I say with a wife like mine and a job like this, how can I not?
I love you, Naomi.