Colorado Springs, August 1999
The doorbell rings, but there’s no answer.
Lisa doesn’t look up when I open the door, coming into the living room. She’s sitting at the far end of the couch, watching TV. CNN, some woman talking about problems in Yugoslavia. Wrapped in Frank’s old camouflage field jacket, hugging herself like she’s cold. She keeps staring straight ahead when the screen door bangs shut behind me.
“I’ve been watching the news,” she says, without looking at me. Her voice is far away, fragile. “Just in case there’s something on. You never know.” One hand reaches for the remote, flipping through a few channels. It’s on the weather report right now, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “Something about where… or when, or how… ”
Or why, I fill in the last word silently. That’s the biggest question, I know. ‘It’s not that he’s risking his life, Sara,’ she used to tell me. A long, long time ago… ‘I could live with that. Not saying it would be easy… but I could. It’s that I’ll probably never know why…’
“You find anything?”
The coat’s way too big for her, and in it she looks very small and lost and young. I sit down on the couch, remembering all those times when Jack was gone, when I’d go bed wearing his old shirts and imagine his strong, safe arms were holding me.
But I don’t want to think about Jack right now.
Looking around the room, I can see it’s pretty much the same as the last time I was here. Not much by way of decorations, except for a few framed photos on the mantel. Most of them are of people I’ve never met, fresh young faces filled with hope for the future. Her students, mostly. While she was still married she used to work as a substitute teacher in the Springs, and after Frank left she got a permanent job at a high school near Denver. She loves her job, I know, and she’s been fairly happy here. But she’s never dated anyone since Frank left.
There’s another picture, at the far end of the mantel, of her and him the night they met. I wasn’t there, didn’t know either of them until years later, but I’ve heard the story a thousand times. He and Jack were twenty-four when Frank met Lisa, and she was eighteen. They’d just graduated from Special Ops training, and had a bit of free time and some money to spend. They’d taken her and a group of her friends to a county fair, blown a wad of pay buying them all candy and stuffed animals and rides. By the end of the night he had her number, and not long after that she had his heart.
A year later they were married, just days before he left for his first overseas deployment. Her whole family disapproved strongly, and as far as I know she hasn’t talked to any of them in almost twenty years. But watching her and Frank together, when I met her a few years afterward, was what eventually convinced me to take a chance on Frank’s charming, crazy friend.
A couple more clicks, and the channel changes again. Fox, this time. “If it was as big as he said it was… ” and her voice cracks a little, “ …you’d think there’d be something on about it.”
You’d think so, I thought, as she dropped the remote on the coffee table, next to a battered-looking cigar box I’d never seen before. But after more than fifteen years as a Special Ops wife, I know better than to count on such things.
I knew pretty much from the start what I was getting myself into, the first time I gave Jack my number and told him he could call me. I’d said no at first, repeatedly. I first ran into him at a store, when he was tagging along shopping with Frank and Lisa, and against my better judgment I’d let him draw me into a conversation.
He made me laugh, with his completely off-the-wall sense of humor. He made me feel beautiful, just in the way he looked at me, and the way he talked to me, in a conversation that lasted less than fifteen minutes. And there was something about his smile, his spontaneous little-boy grin, that made my heart beat just a little bit faster than normal.
But I was not swept off my feet, not then. Not yet.
He asked me for my number, before they left, and I told him, half-jokingly but with a laugh that was almost reluctant, that I didn’t date Army guys.
“Good,” he’d said. “We’re Air Force!”
I wasn’t moved, though. As a teenager, I’d watched too many of my friends’ older boyfriends leave for Vietnam. Some of them came back. A lot of them didn’t. And I’d sworn long ago never to do that to myself.
I watch her as she reaches toward the cigar box, pulling her hand back before she touches it. “What is it?”
She looks at me for the first time, and her eyes are red, but dry now. “I don’t know.” There’s a distant look in her face. “Jack left it here, said it was all they could find of his personal stuff. I… haven’t opened it yet.”
I pick it up carefully, lifting the lid. There’s mostly only papers, old and crinkled, covered with Lisa’s rounded handwriting. Letters, most of them dated from the early ‘80s. One dated September 9, 1991. I remember she showed that one to me before she sent it, asking me if I thought she’d said the right things, if there was anything else I thought she should add, to convince him to come home.
It didn’t work.
And there’s one fragment of a letter in his hand, never finished, never sent. I don’t read it. She takes one look at it and sets it aside on the coffee table, like she’s not ready to read it just yet.
And then there are the pictures.
Underneath the letters there’s a picture of her, looking no older than some of her high school students. There’s a picture of him and Jack the night they graduated Special Ops training, and one of the three of them with their arms around each other the day after Frank and Lisa got married. All of them grinning at the camera, all looking impossibly young.
Then there’s one that must’ve been taken in Germany, their first Christmas together. Sitting in an armchair next to the tree, she’s on his lap, and his arms are around her. And the look on her face in that picture is the one that made me give in, and let Jack take me out that first time, years ago.
Lisa and I had clicked immediately, recognizing in each other a kindred soul. They were new to the Springs then, and during those days I hung around with them, showing them how to get around, I couldn’t help noticing the way they looked at each other. The way they stayed close to each other, and how much they seemed to treasure every moment they spent in each other’s company. They didn’t try to be obvious about it, in front of other people — they were both very shy — but it made an impression on me, seeing how happy they were together.
It wasn’t until after Jack and I were already pretty serious that I saw how miserable she was when he was gone.
Jack was adorable, he was charming, he was funny — he was like a big kid, a lot of the time, but there was a deeper side there he didn’t show often. There’s a picture in here of that week the four of us spent up at his grandfather’s cabin in Minnesota, when he proposed to me. We’re sitting on the end of the dock, our feet dangling in the water, and he’s got that goofy grin on his face.
Oh, yeah. Once I let my guard down I was his, hook, line, and sinker. I knew what I was getting myself into, but for him it was worth it. He had that dark side, that closed-off part of his mind even then, but even if he couldn’t say the words very often he knew how to show me he loved me. There was that grin, and that special note in his voice when we were alone. And his hugs, the way he’d wrap his arms around me and hold me, every evening he came home from the base…
And there’s Lisa again, she’d be, what, twenty-five or so, in this picture? Holding Charlie the day we brought him home from the hospital. I swallow hard past the tears stinging my eyes, looking at the next few pictures, different combinations of the four of us, all holding Charlie. I can’t believe how young we all look…
We were a family, the five of us. None of us really had any other family, not who we had any real contact with… except for me, and Dad’s job kept him away too often back then. But we had each other, and we knew just how lucky we were. We treasured those times we were together, because we knew how quickly everything might be taken away.
But we never suspected just how it would all fall apart.
Through the years we were Special Ops wives, there were two things we counted on, to comfort us in the uncertainty of our lives. We knew that no matter what, Jack and Frank would look out for each other as much as they could, and neither would ever come home without the other.
And whatever dangers our husbands had to face on a daily basis, we would always have Charlie. We wouldn’t let anything happen to him. He was our hope for the future, when the present seemed all dark.
I hand the photos to Lisa after I finish looking at them. She doesn’t make a sound, but I can see a tear sliding down her face as she takes them. She’s not the only one crying, as I pick up the last photos in the box.
After Jack came home from Iraq, and made it quite clear he wanted nothing to do with his former best friend, Frank and I still kept in touch. A letter once a year, Christmas cards, and every year I always sent him Charlie’s school picture. They’re all here, from the six years between the Gulf War and Charlie’s death. Jack never knew, of course.
Looking at them all in order, from four to ten years old, I can’t help the tears filling my eyes. Setting them back in the box, I put it back down on the table, folding my arms and staring at the TV. The announcer is saying something about Kosovo, and I wonder if that’s where they were. Where Frank still is, whether he’s dead or alive.
Stop it, Sara.
I have to know. “What did Jack say, when he was here?”
Training accident, my foot. Lisa looks up after a little while, laying the pictures back in the cigar box. “All he said was, ‘you know I can’t tell you.’”
She sniffs, and I reach across the coffee table, handing her a box of tissues. And I try to imagine the scene that took place here, just a few hours ago. Try to imagine her reaction to seeing Jack for the first time in eight years.
Jack’s not the only one of us who knows how to hold a grudge.
Frank and Lisa had been having some problems before that last fateful mission. She’d been asking him to retire for years, and on Christmas Eve 1990 she asked him one last time to pull some strings, get a job stateside. If you go to this war, she told him, I won’t be here when you get back.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love him. And when he came home, wounded and in shock and grieving for his best friend, she was here. And they got back together. For about two months.
When he found out Jack was alive, he caught the next plane back to Saudi, even though the war was ending.
And he never came back.
She never forgave Jack for that.
I still remember the last time he and Jack saw each other. Jack was in the hospital, and Frank had been staying at our place, looking after Charlie while I stayed with Jack. I wasn’t in the room, and I didn’t hear what Jack said. I saw Frank walk out of the room, his face set and expressionless, but paler than I’d ever seen him. He didn’t look at me, didn’t say a word to me. Jack was still pretty upset when I went in to talk to him afterwards, furious would be more like it, and he told me in no uncertain terms he never wanted to see Frank again. He’d only been in the States for a week, and he was still very weak, recovering from horrific injuries I didn’t even want to think about. None of that meant a damn to Lisa, when I told her what had happened. She was grabbing her coat before I finished telling the story, looking like she was about ready to shoot somebody, injured or not.
“Where do you think I’m going?” she demanded, when I asked her. “I’m going to give your insensitive asshole of a husband a piece of my mind, that’s where I’m going!”
We were both worn out and scared, our tempers dangerously frayed from the last two months’ agonizing uncertainty. It wasn’t that I blamed Frank for anything. But Jack was in no condition to get in a fight with Lisa right then, when she was looking like nothing so much as a mother grizzly defending her cubs. In the end we wound up screaming at each other for about half an hour, before she got in her car and drove off way too fast.
I don’t know where she went, but it wasn’t to the hospital. And she didn’t find Frank, either, but that night I came home to find a message from her on my answering machine.
We both apologized, and we spent the rest of the conversation crying. After that we were still friends, and when Frank left to go back to Florida she came over every day to take care of Charlie, until Jack came home from the hospital. She never did confront him about Frank. She never spoke to him again. Until tonight.
Right now I can’t bring myself to be angry at her, no matter what she might have said. There’s a part of me that knows whatever he’s doing to himself is far worse than anything she can say. And after everything that’s happened since ’91, I don’t think I have the strength to defend him, or to be angry on his behalf anymore.
“He said Frank saved his life.”
The words drop quietly into the silence between us. I look at her, but she’s staring off into space now, at something only she can see. Her face is frozen, and she hardly seems to notice the tears running unchecked. I want to reach out to her, but she doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t even seem aware that I’m here.
I can’t say I’m surprised. There’s a certain awful, tragic symmetry about the whole ugly mess. And for Frank, who always saw this kind of thing with a soldier’s black-and-white mentality, it would have been the only possible ending to the story. Blood can only be paid for with blood. His own death would have been a small price, when he’d already lost everything that made his life worth living. For Jack, though, it’s not going to be that easy to accept.
“It’s what he would have wanted,” I say finally. She knows that, of course. She doesn’t answer at first, though, and for about a minute I think she didn’t hear me.
“That’s what I keep telling myself.” But she doesn’t sound comforted. I fold my arms, letting the silence lengthen. There’s no sound now but the ever-present hum of the TV, but the words of the announcer don’t register anymore.
You’d think, I reflected bitterly, it wouldn’t affect us so much now. He hasn’t been a real part of our lives in the last eight years. It’s been more than two years since Jack and I were together as husband and wife. We’ve moved on, now, made our own lives as independent women, cut ourselves off from the men we loved once.
And we thought by doing so, we could protect ourselves from being hurt by them anymore.
All of a sudden she covers her face with her hands, drawing her knees up to her chest with a strangled little sound. She seems to draw back into herself, moving away from me, curled up against the arm of the couch.
Her shoulders are rigid, and she doesn’t move at first when I put my arm around her. Feeling helpless, I squeeze her arm gently, murmuring something inane and vaguely comforting over her choked and muffled sobs. It’s a while before she relaxes, turning to me and flinging her arms around my neck.
“Oh, God, Sara… ” She’s trembling violently, forcing the words out. “I miss him so much… ”
“I know.” I know, honey, I know… I don’t know what else to say, so I only hug her harder. “I know.”
“It’s been eight years.” The words are barely audible, stifled against my shoulder. “I didn’t think… it would be this hard… ”
Jack and Frank aren’t a part of our lives anymore, I try to tell myself, and whatever was left unfinished between them isn’t anything we should lose sleep over.
I wish I could believe that. But that doesn’t stop the horrible empty feeling overwhelming us both, the worst I’ve known since Charlie died. It’s still hard to accept the fact that Frank’s gone, that another member of our little family is dead. And our grief over his loss isn’t any easier to push aside, just because all of us haven’t been together as a family in eight years. If anything, it’s harder, to think of all those times we could have been together, and we weren’t.