The Home Front

By SILVIA SPRING

 

As soon as I saw Katie, I wanted to live there. Concrete steps led up to the front door of the house, past a flower bush, fallen petals caught like fish in a net of branches. She opened the door and said, with her cartoon heigh-ho enthusiasm, “Well, you must be our Emily,” and led me in past the living room, down the stairs to meet James, her boyfriend. I had found the room through a handwritten ad tacked up in the University of London student union, and they had invited me over right away.

James was tall, long-limbed, with dark hair he had to brush away from his eyes before shaking my hand. Katie busied herself cleaning, washing a frying pan whose nonstick surface had burnt off the middle and then rinsing the plates under a swan-necked faucet. She used huge squeezes of soap for each piece and put the dishes onto the drying rack with suds still sliding off. A candle burned in a glass jar by the sink, sending out its perfume like a small, hot bouquet.

Katie was beautiful, magazine gorgeous with a narrow face and thick brown hair that stopped a few inches below her shoulders. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, and once her hands were dry again, she poured herself a full glass of red wine.

“Katie!” James whispered in mock horror.

“Oh, it’s only a little bit,” she slurped, rolling her eyes at me.

It was too early to tell whose side I was on, so I said, “No, thank you,” to both wine and coffee and answered all their questions about myself empty-handed, tracing a semicircle on the counter where a pot had scorched the wood. They loved that I had grown up outside Boston. (“As in the Boston Tea Party?” Katie grinned. “Wonderful.”) And she had a friend who had done the same yearlong master’s degree in gender studies that I was about to start. We were all just out of college, the same age.

It was the end of August when I moved my stuff in, the rare kind of clear London day when all the postcard photos get taken and the double-decker buses seem too red, the old stone buildings between Trafalgar Square and Westminster too white. From the window of the taxi, I saw government workers out on their lunch breaks, mole-faced and blinking in the sun.

I had just one large suitcase, weighed on my bathroom scale back home before I left, as my mother instructed. I had unpacked and repacked, removing the heavy frames from my photos and slipping the sticky bare pictures between the pages of the few books I had allowed myself.

There was a photo of my parents, my brother, and me from my high school graduation: me in a white dress, the uncomfortable center of attention. My brother, George, was still just an inch taller than I was, his arms skinny then compared to the guns he’d build up in his last year of combat training. My mom is turned toward him instead of the camera, picking at something invisible on his shirt. George and I have the same face: pale, round cheeks that flush easily and dark eyebrows, which on him look broody but on me boyish. When my father saw the photo laid out with my things, he’d picked it up and said, “Back when we were all civilians, right?”

My mom, arms folded across her chest, closed her eyes instead of responding. She went back downstairs to fold laundry, and my dad returned to the couch to watch the Red Sox. In my room, I could hear the TV cheers from the game and smell the greased pizza boxes still out on the kitchen counter. My brother had deployed to Afghanistan a month earlier, my flight to London was the next day, and my parents were already spending more time in separate parts of the house. As I zipped my suitcase, I imagined landing in Heathrow with it, my escape complete. I thought I might never come back.

 

At home, I had thought I was bringing too much, but once all my clothes were put away, I looked around my new room and felt like it still didn’t have any of “me” in it. My navy and white T-shirts, my least worn pair of stretchy bootcut jeans, all of which I thought of as my staples, seemed androgynous and character-free when unpacked in my new room. On the other hand, it left plenty of space for the new me, which I imagined lay somewhere out there in the British experiences and shops I had yet to find. London life would change me; I was sure of it. But I couldn’t quite picture how.

Katie carried in a pea green glass lamp as a welcome gift, the whole thing blown and shaped into an hourglass that was both its base and its shade, “For a little character,” she said. She looked around for the right spot, set it down on the floor next to a plug, and then came back with a small fold-out table that had been downstairs. She set the lamp on it like a crown and switched it on.

Katie and James lived in the room across from mine on the second floor. Their window faced the road, overlooking a curved sidewalk lined with parked cars. The small stone church across the street rang its bells on Sundays, but we never saw anyone go in or come out. Their room was larger, the house’s master bedroom, and when they left the door open, I could see a double bed, small desk, and marble mantel over a sealed-up fireplace. They had their own entrance to the bathroom, which we shared but was really, in every practical way, theirs. There was an enormous white tub with seashell-shaped feet but no shower.

Katie was an assistant beauty editor at a fashion magazine and so came home every night with bags of expensive products she got for free at her office—age-defense creams, green tea vitamin lip saver, rosewater eye-rescue gel. The complimentary products crowded every surface, not just around the sink and bath but also all up and down the stairs and into the kitchen.

James worked for the government in the Foreign Office and was just a few months into his first assignment. All the new officers started out in London, randomly assigned, and his posting focused on the EU. He brought home a set of free umbrellas for us, decorated with a V-formation of swans against a blue background.

“This is the beauty of the EU,” he told us, tracing the design. “One team, all flying together, taking turns in the lead.” He was laughing at himself a little bit, but his enthusiasm was genuine, as was his apparent belief that all those swans could be equal.

If he felt any conflict about the UK’s involvement in Iraq since the previous spring, despite the anti-war protests and marches across the country, he was already too loyal a bureaucrat to say it.

 James personified the proud Union Jack, but I could hardly play his American counterpart. At breakfast, as the autumn mornings got darker, we’d sit in the kitchen longer with our coffees, reading papers full of headlines about George W. Bush and Tony Blair. I sometimes felt embarrassed to be a citizen of the country that was dragging theirs into a war everyone here hated. Katie pushed back hard on James’s defense of Britain’s involvement, which she called “fucking stupid.” But I didn’t have to stand up for all of America, or defend its bad decisions, I told myself. I didn’t have to do that for my brother either.

 

The phone call from home came late every Sunday night, early evening for my parents. The conversations never lasted long, my mother panicked that my brother might be trying to get through on the line at any moment. In the weeks between his deployment and my flight to London, I had barely been allowed to use our landline. My mother said that she planned to survive George’s months in Afghanistan through yoga and rosaries. But any time our phone rang, she answered with such rawness it was clear neither was enough.

“You don’t ever take the Tube, do you?” she asked on one of our first calls. It was years before terrorists would attack the Underground, but my mother sensed danger in any crowded place.

“Of course not,” I lied. There was no other way around London. The bus would have taken hours from Stockwell across the river up to Holborn. And walking even longer.

“Good, sweetie, great. Do you want to speak to your father?” It was like this with her now, speeding through to avoid any bumps.

I heard her shout, “Bob, it’s your daughter on the phone from London,” which of course he knew. This was just how she took control of situations: by becoming their narrator. “Pick up!”

After a moment, his voice came on slow and hoarse. He had probably been outside sweeping up the leaves around our garage door. “Emily. We sure do miss you, kid.”

Then almost immediately my mother again: “So, wrapping things up here,” she said. “We love you, we miss you, stay safe, and email me, okay?” I could hear the bell from the microwave, their dinner ready, and I pictured their two plates set out to be served next to a cold stove.

Mom meant the “stay safe” part. We all knew this wasn’t the London I had visited with my parents and brother during summer vacation when we were in middle school, all of us sitting on the upper deck of an open-air bus that took us past Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace, me on the lookout for a real live queen. We got lost in the British Museum trying to find the Rosetta Stone and returned to our hotel in Bloomsbury, feet hot and throbbing inside our shoes, and took tea in the lobby, sipping out of cups as delicate as birds’ bones. We laughed about the Americanness we felt sunshined off the four of us, unembarrassed and doubling down on it. Sometimes my dad or George even clapped the shopkeepers on the back good-naturedly to really make them jump out of their cardigans. We noticed British people called everything “lovely” and “gorgeous,” and we started saying it too.

“What about these magnets?” my mom asked in a store, holding up a set that included a miniature red telephone box and a black cab.

“Goooorgeous,” George would say. “Just lovely.”

That was back when we were all civilians, as my dad said, back when George would do anything to make the rest of us laugh, back when his plans were something we all talked about and not an announcement made at a family meeting. Back when my parents had time for me, and didn’t waste it all worrying about my brother.

In London, I could see now, the farther south you went from the neon-lit storefronts of Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street toward my new neighbourhood in Stockwell, the smaller and darker it became, the roads less grand and more pokey. We lived on a street of semidetached houses, each with a small garden in the back. Around the corner there was a Portuguese bakery full of custard-filled croissants and a store not much bigger than an American walk-in closet that sold newspapers, phone cards, and milk. Farther down, a place called Today Is Boring rented movies next to a bar called Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes, which had originally been two separate shops, one that sold bags and one that sold shoes. The stores had been gutted and combined as part of the fashionable push to take crappy things like old power stations and forgotten lidos and make them hip. The bar was full of women with dark, asymmetrical haircuts wearing scuffed high-heeled shoes that were decades old but that they called “vintage,” and stubbled men in grubby jeans and biker jackets. I never actually went inside, but there was something I liked about having to pass it on my way home from the Tube station every night. Compared to my friends from back home who had taken office jobs in New York and D.C., I was edgy.

 

I started my courses, bought a stack of A-4-sized notebooks and sat through lectures with titles like “Gender in the Spectacle of Citizenship” and “Visual Representations of ‘Poor Women’ in Development.” I tried to follow the nuances in arguments about “regimes of truth,” “exclusionary gender norms,” and certain “habitual and violent presumptions.” I came home in the evenings, my bag heavy with books: Gender Trouble and Economics as If People Mattered. I understood that the point of all this analysis was that heterosexism was everywhere, from the structure of families to the design of buildings, and its heteronormative implications were a truth I had blindly taken for granted for way too long. A good student, I believed everything, memorizing the theories my lecturers spoke about as if they were historical events that were important to know about but had little to do with my everyday life. This year, I felt, was already making me smarter, perceptive to signs and symbols I had never noticed.

I spent a lot of time reading, both in the university’s new library in Holborn and propped up in bed with cushions I had taken off the couch downstairs. Through my window I watched the fallen leaves in our garden turn the grass into prewinter mud and listened to the foxes scream at each other at night, which made Katie wail through the walls in mock fear. Each class required I write only one essay per term and take one exam. Compared to my last year in college, it didn’t seem like much work at all.

I had taken out a student loan to cover the tuition for the year, but it seemed a small price to pay to stay in school and away from what everyone in my whole Frisbee-throwing, bean-bag-lounging graduating class feared the most: the real world. My mother would have been more actively horrified by the amount of money I’d borrowed had she been paying attention. Instead, when my father pressed her on it, she closed her eyes and said, “I’m not in charge here.”

I had a vague plan that I’d eventually go to law school and then work for a small nonprofit, giving legal advice to immigrant mothers or battered women. That’s the kind of career everyone at my small liberal arts college had talked about, competing to find a place in the world where they could make a difference.

The previous spring, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, everyone had walked off campus in protest and then sort of wandered back on once we’d made our point. At least it gave us something to talk about. When Katie and James asked me what I thought about U.S. policy in the Middle East, I said, “Well, at my school we marched out of class,” as if I had done my part to make things right. I didn’t pretend to know exactly what I’d do next or what value I could add anywhere, but I was here to find out—to see where I fit with all the world problems I read about in school and in the newspapers, and to find my place, now that my parents’ home and all my dorm rooms were behind me.

 

George never called me, only emailed from his military address so full of hyphenated acronyms he seemed even farther away than Afghanistan. He wrote to me from a trailer-turned-computer-room, which I pictured as a box full of boys with buzzcuts refreshing their screens endlessly for emails from home. George promised my mother that he’d write every day to let us know he was okay. He copied me in as well, so that by the time I turned on my laptop in the morning, his message was usually there, always with the same subject, Checking in, and his signature at the bottom, SFC Mills, George. Just a line or two, something like:

Pretty cold here today, but it’s all going great. Love you.

My poor mother. I know she did not delete a single one.

Sometimes I’d write back just to him, If things are so great, why haven’t you found Osama bin Laden yet? This was the guy who slept through entire days when we were home from college. I’d try to wake him, to go see a movie or come eat dinner, and he’d respond, not even lifting his head, speaking sideways off the pillow, “Thing is, Em, I’m actually in the middle of a really good nap right now.” And my mom would shrug, Let him be, even though I’d just set the table for four. He always got to do whatever he wanted.

 

Katie cycled to work during the week, and on weekends rode her bike all the way up to the freshwater ponds in North London. She packed picnics—a baguette, hummus, grapes—and would stay up there all day with the newspaper and come home with her face freckled and hair damp as if she’d been at the beach. She said swimming was excellent emotional therapy. Every stroke that propelled you forward simultaneously pushed all your cares behind you in your wake.

She tapped her head toward James when she told me this, but the only complaint about him she’d confided in me was that everyone thought he was “perfect.” Her job seemed too easy to me to be stressful, just endless calls to beauty companies requesting free samples, which she organized for the ad writers and brought home for us to try once they’d been reviewed and discarded. Katie told me her colleagues were glamorous but silly, all supported by rich banker husbands who worked in the City, which meant they didn’t care if their wives were paid next to nothing.

Once, that October, I went with Katie to the women’s pond at Hampstead Heath. It was one of those precarious days which the whole change of seasons seems to hinge on. We stepped into the station in Stockwell, the world behind us shining warmth on our backs, and stepped out forty minutes later to near-winter cold, a bright patch of fog left where the sun had been. We walked up to the grassy edge of the pond and sat down, forced to wrap ourselves in the wool tartan blanket we’d brought to sit on.

“Brrrr,” I said dramatically.

“Don’t make cold sounds,” Katie scolded. “It’ll only make you colder.”

Katie could be bossy like this. James called her “our benevolent dictator,” but it annoyed me. She must have felt a little bad, because she made a point of asking, “And are you all settled in? It must be hard to be so far away from your mother.”

She was guessing. I never mentioned my mother, and now I felt bad about it.

“It is hard,” I answered, because I didn’t want to admit to Katie that it was actually pretty easy. “But you know, with my brother away—”

“Oh, shit, that’s right. Of course,” she interrupted, not because I talked about George all the time either but because I could tell it made her shy to hit something sensitive straight on the head like that.

 “Poor you,” she said softly at the grass. “If someone I loved were over there, I’d just die.”

 

I wasn’t so involved in the making of my new home-away-from-home that I didn’t worry about George. But being apart from my parents and the fog of anxiety at home allowed me to tell myself that things were not so scary. I didn’t have to be my mother’s constant partner in panic, turning off the television any time there was a report on Afghanistan, crossing off the days on the calendar “Until My Son Comes Home,” and watching my father, so afraid of saying anything that might upset her, slowly go mute.

My departure hadn’t inspired a calendar, and I preferred it that way. It was my move, my escape, my new place in the world, for me to define, rather than an event my mother had promised would tear us all apart. I felt the newness here would eventually coalesce into something clear: a sign that I had made the right choice to be here, that this move was somehow key to who I would become and what I would do next.

 In London, I clung to the equally literal and symbolic status of being closer to George. He had a funny way of describing his life over there in the emails he wrote only to me: that it was like “camping on the moon” or “college with guns,” and it was only much later I realized he did this on purpose, so that I’d replace the reports I saw on television with these silly scenes. He’d go into detail about all the crap he ate, tater tots and the chicken nuggets served on cardboard trays in the dining facility, the D-FAC, he called it, that was not so different from the cafeteria where we’d both gone to high school. He’d tell me about all the bootleg DVDs the guys passed around the base, movies like Lord of the Rings and Old School that I would have had to pay ten pounds I didn’t have to see in a cinema in Leicester Square.

And because I didn’t know anything, I took these descriptions to be the whole story of what it was really like over there, thinking I understood George perfectly in a big-picture way that my parents, blinded narrowly by fear, simply could not.

 

By the beginning of December, the days were so short I had to switch on the hourglass light in my room by 3:30 if I wanted to see the book I was reading. Everyone on my course was making holiday plans to go home, some to different parts of the U.K. or Europe or back to the States, and each university department had its own Christmas party, full of tinsel and mulled wine, where we students mingled awkwardly with the lecturers, trying to sound intelligent.

U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in his hometown of Tikrit, and my brother emailed me that he wished he were in Iraq. From where I was, the war on terror looked like a game of hide-and-seek.

 

The weight of the lengthening evenings seemed to bring us all down to the basement kitchen, where Katie cooked elaborate dinners. That was her arrangement with James: he paid the rent, which he could more easily afford on his salary, and she was in charge of the groceries and meals. (Yes, in lectures I learned about Western society’s design to keep women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, but I’d be lying if I said the sight of Katie stirring her wooden spoon inside a pot at the end of a cold day wasn’t fundamentally comforting.)

She taught me how to make a Bolognese sauce with finely chopped carrots and celery and how to boil whole cloves of garlic in with the peeled potatoes before mashing them. I tried to please Katie, but mainly I couldn’t keep up with her stepping back and forth endlessly between the refrigerator, the chopping board, her wine glass, and various pots of chili con carne or gravy that popped away hot on the stove. And then later I’d find that she’d also had something roasting dark in the oven. I’d come downstairs in my sweatpants for a glass of water an hour or two later and see her and James at the table eating together, small flickering tea lights all around them, forks and knives lifted, paused mid-conversation over plates of steak and parsley-flecked potatoes.

 

A few weeks later, around Christmas, George sent me a digital photo he’d taken of himself, a one-handed self-portrait. There he was, his helmet just covering his dark eyebrows, its strap cupped around his chin. He was buckled tightly into a seat, maybe inside a tank, and I could see a green backpack stored behind him. Light came through a bullet-proof window over his left shoulder, bleaching the color from his face. He was so white, his chin sharper than I remembered it, eyes focused above the lens of the camera, trying to look distracted so it wasn’t so obvious he was trying to look tough. I was glad he hadn’t sent the photo to our mother.

 

I stayed in London right through the winter break, telling my parents the transatlantic flights were too expensive this time of year, and they agreed. They had already decided not to celebrate at home but instead to drive out to visit friends in Western Massachusetts. Having us all gather around the tree with a big George-sized hole in the room wouldn’t have been any fun, anyway.

It was my first Christmas alone, my first away from home.

With both James and Katie away with their families in Cambridge and Bristol, I wandered around the house distractedly, making hot cups of lemon ginger tea and letting them go cold on my desk before I could take a second sip. I ate Cadbury chocolate bars for breakfast and took hour-long baths in the afternoon. I’d fill the tub with scalding water and then stand beside it in my towel, dipping my toe in every few minutes until it was bearable. I tried all of Katie’s products—things like sea crystals and fossil salts that dissolved turquoise in the water and bubble baths made from pure sake or sugar cane extract or mango seed oil. I’d sit there reading fairy tales of invigoration and long-lasting moisture on the back of each bottle and stand up finally to towel off, my whole body relaxed and slick with oil and perfume.

I stared at myself in the mirror, face flushed, this new person who lived in London and spent her time commuting by Tube and considering gender theory. This person who was alone for Christmas and working hard not to feel lonely. I was building my new self, far away from my family, but it seemed I was more curious about who I was becoming than they were.

 

The fighting started in February, just as a wave of frigid rain swept in that lasted through the end of the month. James had received his first posting: Cairo. His departure date was set for July, but Katie refused to go with him. London was her home, where her friends were, her family just a forty-five-minute train ride away. She had a job. But James was keen on the Middle East. (Watching clips of protesters torching the Danish embassy in Damascus on the BBC over a few cartoons actually made James want to be there.) With no desire to live or work in that part of the world, Katie insisted loudly, repeatedly, unashamedly, that James quit, or switch to a department that didn’t involve any travel. She refused to consider a long-distance relationship. James at 2,500 miles away could not be her boyfriend, she said. He’d be a pen pal.

Most of these fights I didn’t see. Katie would reenact them for me with such drama and passion that sometimes it felt as if I were the one she was trying to convince not to go. But all I could do was feel helplessly sad for both of them. One afternoon I walked through our front door to James at the bottom of the stairs, his jacket hung on the banister, his tie loose, and the top few buttons of his shirt undone.

“You’re the only one talking about breaking up, Kate,” he shouted, offering it up just in case she might care. There was no answer. James looked at me as I set down my bag, and I mouthed Sorry as if it were my apology he needed.

This is how I observed the slow breaking up of our little household, in these short exchanges caught, interrupted, or overheard between two people who could not agree on how to stay together. I’d walk into the kitchen to find them drinking their coffee in silence before Katie would excuse herself to lie down, saying, “It feels like it’s been quite a long day already.” Or I’d look out the window and see James sitting alone in the garden with his coat on, staring at the frosted grass. Spring was slow to arrive, and even as the buds on the trees grew fat and ready to blossom, the wind stayed bitter cold.

 

The Sunday calls continued. I’d tell my mother, “I saw the email from George today. He sounds good.”

She’d agree and then change the subject: “But right now I am talking to my daughter and hearing about her week.” Adding any more detail to George’s good would have only given her more things to picture, and more things to picture meant more things to worry about. She preferred hearing stories about all the things that didn’t really matter to me: the due dates of my essays and the small group of Italian girls on my course who invited me to lunch just so they could practice their English. I told her about Katie and James, hoping she’d be impressed I was attached to such a glamorous couple, but to my mother, they were just two people who weren’t my brother or me, so she didn’t care.

 

When Katie could not convince James that he was making a terrible, irreversible mistake, she’d sometimes settle for the next best thing, which was convincing everyone else of it. Her friends would arrive, all of them thin as stray cats, with their skinny jeans tucked inside their boots, and sit around, faces bent and legs crossed, rubbing Katie’s arms sympathetically. When they’d all left in time to catch the last train home, she’d mope in my room, sitting on my bed until I turned around and asked her what was wrong, even though I knew the answer.

“The problem is that James’s ridiculous optimism doesn’t allow him to see the fact that being a woman in the Middle East is horrible,” she told me, and I knew better than to argue. She didn’t want to go. That should have been enough.

 “Of course, everyone will love him and treat him like their best friend while at the same time snarling at me like I’m a tart. I’d hate it. Even looking at other women wearing headscarves makes me feel stuffy.” She took a deep breath. “And there’s no swimming.”

I tried to be sympathetic, but at the time, it was hard for me to understand Katie’s reluctance to go with him. Attached to a British diplomat, living in Egypt sounded exciting, and of course there would be pools to swim in. And wasn’t this part of growing up and moving forward: living in new, faraway places? At that point in my life, I would have traveled anywhere at all if someone had bothered to fall in love with me and asked me to do it. And here she had this cheerful, dashing guy who probably whistled his whole walk to work at the thought of promoting British values around the globe, who could save her from a job of writing up reviews of overpriced beauty products, and she was telling him no?

Maybe I thought she would eventually change her mind, or maybe I just didn’t want to see that my new London home, which I loved, was falling apart. Katie and James were both such attractive and eligible people. I had seen the way their friends looked at them, eyebrows raised in excitement, as soon as they arrived at a party, not the way anyone looked at me when I walked in anywhere, like an extra in a movie, slightly out of focus in the background.

I wanted to believe that the decisions we were making at that age were important, if not permanent. I had decided to live overseas and think big thoughts in London. My brother had decided to serve his country. Katie and James had decided to live together and be together, hadn’t they? They had a certain reassuring gravity; apart, I worried they’d each feel as untethered in the world as I did. Or at least Katie would. She had built her life around James here in a house I knew she couldn’t afford without him. James could go off with his diplomatic passport to a celebrated career, and their home would just be the place where she stayed behind. George had done the same thing. My professors told me that society expected women to care responsibly and thanklessly for their families and homes, whereas men were rarely depended upon to stay and help. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. I had left; my father never would. But those lines of textbook thinking tangled up the situation until I couldn’t decide who was right.

 

The first spring day of full sunshine, I took the Tube up to Hampstead Heath on my own, proudly navigating the ten-minute walk from Belsize Park Station like a local. I brought a magazine and a towel to sit on, determined not to think about gender, war, or my deteriorating homes, in Boston or London. It was a Thursday afternoon, and the park was mostly empty. I got turned around trying to find the women’s pond, instead taking a path that led uphill to a meadow of tall grass, where a few walkers had let their dogs off leash. I was sweating now and desperate to swim. On the other side of the hill, I could see the coed pond, which had a small dock and rows of o-shaped buoys in the water that swimmers could hang on to. I made my way toward it. As I approached, I saw, unmistakably, the back of James’s head bobbing in the water. He was facing away from me, toward the shore, and the top of his hair was dry. He leaned back just then, paddling with both arms, and I saw there was a woman swimming close to him. Her hair was dark, cut short by her ears. It wasn’t Katie. I stopped and saw her lean her face toward James. They kissed.

Katie often accused James of wanting to live in other countries only to use them as stages on which to perform his own heroic life. I wasn’t sure that this was his motivation, but I did agree that when you’re living in a country that isn’t your own, you can sometimes feel you’re in a theater. For me in London that year, I was seated in the audience. I had watched James play the good diplomat breadwinner and Katie the homemaker. I had watched two wars unfold through pictures on the television and in newspapers. I had sat in lecture halls where my professors told me that the world was how they analyzed it to be and not as complicated as how I lived it. I’d spent lunch with foreign students who based our conversations on the vocabulary they wanted to practice. None of it was real.

I threw out my magazine and got back on the Tube. Instead of going to the house, I got off at Holborn and went to the school library. My bathing suit was still on under my shorts, and it pinched my thighs. I logged on to one of the computers, all free this time in the afternoon, and responded to George’s last email.

I can’t wait until we’re all home again, I wrote.

In the morning, I woke up to his message back: Me too, Em.

 

A few nights later, I found James alone in the kitchen washing dishes. Two rinsed-out wine glasses were flipped over to dry on a dish towel, and I could see the wet streak marks on the counter where he had just wiped it down. He looked tired, and it was clear that the cleanup was a kind of punishment. I asked him how he was doing, watching his face closely.

 “Oh, you know, Emily,” he said. He was good at being charming: saying my name, telling me I knew something, when he clearly thought I didn’t. He smoothed down the hair on the back of his head with one hand.

 

The night when George told us he was going to Afghanistan, my mother had shaken her head slowly, horrified. It was my junior year of college, and I had just gotten home that afternoon to start spring break. George was a few months away from his own graduation. He gathered us all into the living room and switched off the television to give us the news, telling us that the war was important, that it would define his generation, and he needed to be a part of it. Al Qaeda was on the run, but we had to fight them in Afghanistan so we wouldn’t have to fight them at home.

“I thought you were going to tell us you were sick, that you were dying or something,” my mom said.

“Well, you can relax. I’m not dying.”

“This is worse than dying,” she said, her voice dense with anger and concentrated on him. “I wish you were sick. Anything but this. Sick I could understand. Sick we could go through together.”

I had followed George back to his room. “I thought you wanted to go to medical school,” I said. That was the plan. My dad had been calling him “Doc” for the past two years. He had killed himself to pass organic chemistry.

Mom wanted me to go to medical school,” he corrected. “But I didn’t get in anywhere.” He shrugged, like no big deal, and put both hands in the pockets of his sweatpants.

“Mom and Dad know that?”

“Of course.” We stood in the doorway to his room. Behind him, I could see his bed unmade and a row of shoes he inexplicably kept on his bottom bookshelf.

“So apply again,” I said.

George shook his head. “Nah. This is a better plan anyway,” he said. “This is the right thing to do.”

 

“James,” I said, and he looked up from the dish towel he was drying his hands with. “You’ve made your decision.” I gestured in front of me as if the answer was in the air around us. “Go.”

He looked down and nodded, overdoing the solemnity of the moment, I thought.

“You should go,” I repeated. I pictured the girl with the short hair, swimming one pond over from Katie’s. It was twilight outside now, but the kitchen was dark. The faucet dripped like a finger tapping. I stepped by James to shut it off.

James held his face still like a mask, but he must have been surprised. He thought of me as Katie’s friend, and now he wasn’t sure. Maybe I wasn’t such a nice person after all.

“I love Katie,” he said slowly, like maybe I didn’t understand this very obvious thing.

“I do too.” I took a glass off the shelf and filled it with water. He stood there until

I finished.

“Emily,” he said before I could leave. I turned to face him again. “You don’t really know us.”

He spoke evenly, gently, but his lack of emotion only made his words worse. I absorbed their impact, and a stinging feeling slid down my throat to my stomach. I wanted to be in my room, but I didn’t move.

“We live together because Katie and I couldn’t afford the house on our own.” He shrugged. “This situation is really difficult for us. Please don’t get involved.”

I nodded, embarrassed and obedient, and started up the stairs.

Katie was standing on the landing outside their room, in her silk Japanese-print bathrobe, worn soft around the sleeves and hem. She whispered as if there were a baby asleep in the house somewhere.

“Did you see James down there? Is he on his way up to bed, do you know?”

I smiled, nodding yes, and closed my door behind me. I hated myself. James was right, of course. It wasn’t my place to tell him what I thought he should do. But I was tired of staying out of everything too. I had watched so many big decisions unfold around me, and no one ever cared what I thought. I wasn’t even sure anymore: was James going to Egypt to get away from Katie, or had she pushed him away? Did George go to Afghanistan to escape our family or to make us proud? I was least sure about myself, leaving my parents behind when they were falling apart, when they needed me. We were all taking dramatic steps forward without any idea of what those steps would mean for us, and for the people we loved. There was no way to know whether we were making the right decisions, stay or go.

I worried that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going to continue like magnets, sucking up every man, every George and James from their homes. There would be more mortars, more explosive devices, more casualties. All of us left-behind people who read the papers and watched TV had gained the new vocabulary. We used acronyms like IEDs and WMDs in our conversations at holiday parties and our kitchen tables but had no idea what was happening really. Even The New York Times admitted it had failed in misreporting the likelihood that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. There were infinite amounts of history and context and politics that we couldn’t understand. George was there, and he didn’t know anything either.

 

After the Bank Holidays in May, when it started getting warm enough to eat outside again, James got his housing assignment. The accommodations the government provided would have been big enough for both of them, but Katie refused to leave London. He kept asking.

She still complained to me about James and his selfish shortsightedness, though with slightly less venom. I tried not to listen. I was tired of hearing her make the same case over and over, especially since James had told me to stay out of it. She’d walk right into my room while I tried my best to tap out a ten-thousand-word dissertation on gender, kinship, and access to resources in rural India.

To change the subject, I explained to Katie how societies depend on women to create and maintain their domestic and national identities, and then, because women are so responsible, all the aid organizations target them for their projects. So that on top of giving birth to and caring for all the children a lack of effective contraception allows them, and doing all the cooking and cleaning, they get recruited into half-baked micro-lending schemes promising to make them entrepreneurs for which they are required to donate their time and energy to—do what?—weave baskets? And then whatever money they make goes back to their households, where their husbands take it and use it to buy beer instead of soap or any of the things their families really need.

 “But what about love?” Katie asked. “What if the women stay home because they love their families, their children, and their husbands?”

My books had no answer for this, so neither did I.

 

I made sure to spend long days in the library around the time James left, to avoid the goodbye. I missed the two of them the way they were, when I had met them: bright and charming, morning drinking in a clean kitchen. I’d lived alongside the slow cracking of their relationship; I couldn’t stand to see the final break.

In my remaining summer weeks in London, I barely saw Katie at all. She stayed in her room with the door shut and went away for days, to stay with friends or her parents. I lost track of where she was. I ate outside a few times, just cold cereal or buttered toast, at the wood table, its varnish erupted now into blisters and peeling from being left outside all winter. The blue flowers on the bush by the front door bloomed with no fragrance, and then the wind came through and scattered all the rotted petals down the street.

What I had once thought might be my bold forever move to London, my transformation to a future adult version of myself, now felt like only an extended vacation: a one-year break from the real life I would return to. I searched for disappointment but instead found a kind of relief. I had been trying so hard, I realized, to find a place for myself in this big, foreign city. I was exhausted. I wanted to go home.

I knocked on Katie’s door a few days before I had to fly back to Boston, to return her green hourglass lamp, which now had a gentle layer of dust on the inside that I couldn’t reach with a paper towel. I walked right in before realizing she was there, under the covers of her bed. It was the end of August, and she was flushed. She sat up to receive it like it was a gift but then gestured vaguely for me to put it down on the other side of the room, oh, anywhere. I placed it on the dresser, next to an empty vase. She was wearing just a black tank top and dark opaque tights pulled high up to her ribs, like some miserable, starved court jester. I asked her if she had heard anything from James.

“He wrote me a letter,” she told me.

“What did it say?”

“Oh, you know, just basically: Fuck.

I didn’t know what that meant. But to ask would have been to press her up against the hard weight of the empty room and confirm her loss, and I couldn’t do it.

Instead, I said pathetically, “Will he come back, do you think?” Katie had no answer, and when she closed her eyes, I left quietly and closed the door.

 

George finished his first fourteen-month deployment around the same time I came home, but it wasn’t until years later that he told me about the times in Afghanistan that scared him into thinking he’d never return. Once, on the way back from a night patrol, his entire convoy had gotten lost in the freezing, featureless dark, unable, even with all six Humvees loaded low to the ground with the latest GPS navigation equipment—digital magnetic compasses, thermal-imaging night goggles—to find the base’s fucking front door. They had lost the dirt road they were on and followed footpaths for a while before eventually veering off those in search of a new route home through the underbrush. Driving in rocky circles through the helmet-rattling emptiness, George had felt the pressure of his heart beating hard against his Kevlar vest.

The problem was that once you started thinking about it, once you were outside the wire, and you weren’t distracted by some mission or firefight, it was hard to remember how to ignore the danger. There were homemade bombs, tiny explosive devices sewn into every scene, scattered like seeds, hidden in a cinder block, a pothole, or even a pile of sand. There’d be no warning. One minute, you’d be sitting there bored, and the next, the smoke would be clearing and you’d be deaf from the sound of your legs being shattered. Or worse.

That night he was lost, he had thought about our parents, about how they convinced themselves that if they tried really, really hard to keep calm enough, he would come home safe. And he thought of me and how he always pictured me in London: sipping Earl Grey tea out of a porcelain cup or on top of one of those buses we had ridden together so many summers ago. All day I probably ate cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, right? Had it all been lovely? Jolly, bloody good? It had made him laugh, and I laughed too at this image, so far from the truth, when he told me about it.

“Oh, yes, of course,” I said. “That’s exactly what it was like. And then Mary Poppins gave me two spoonfuls of sugar and we flew away under her magic umbrella.” When in fact all it had taken for me to leave England forever was returning some library books, pulling out the suitcase from under my bed, and sliding my key back under the door after I closed it behind me, all the lights out in an empty house.

 

Silvia Spring lives in Bethesda, Maryland. 

 

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The Home Front

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