The Frozen Finger-Tipped Foragers The first time my husband asked me to marry him, we were nothing more than children. It didn’t feel like that at the time; it never does when you’re young, but it was playful, and innocent, and forgone of any meaning. It happened on the way to school one day. Traveling to class, like every other day of high school, meant waiting for one bus, and then waiting for a train, and then waiting for another bus, or another train, or walking the last mile and a half to school. Or, waiting for death, which sometimes seemed like it would be faster. Mostly, it meant praying for traffic to part. But when he was there, I prayed for traffic to slow us. The ride took so long that it was still dark when we’d meet at the train station in the morning, both already awake for an hour. Some days, when I was particularly lucky, Colin would get up extra extra early and take the bus to the train station, then take another bus to my house, just so he could ride back to the station with me. Luckily, when you’re a teenager, bed is not a place but a state of mind, and so he’d compensate for lack of sleep by laying his head against my chest and dozing while I curled pieces of his unwashed hair with my fingertips. He wore it long then: too lazy to wash it, too lazy to cut it. We’d only been dating for a couple of months when he helped me down from the bus and clasped both my hands in his, looking down deeply into my eyes like every romance movie. “You play with my hair even when it’s greasy.” He smiled like a goofball, “Will you marry me?” “Well, not for a while,” I said sensibly. He huffed and threw his hands in the air. “I’m a sophomore!” I said. “I want to be way older before that, finish school and everything,” just like my mom had always taught me. She’d gotten married at 17, swept off her feet by a hippie who’d never changed his ways. Vehemently against marriage, despite her 25 years of it, she’d have been happier if I never looked at a man. I hadn’t even introduced her to Colin yet. “I definitely don’t want to get married now,” he agreed. “Somewhere around...27, 28, I think.” That sounded like a good number, so I nodded and laughed, thinking we’d never make it that long. The second time may not even count, because he never said it aloud, but I think that he was thinking it. It was months later, a quiet thought layered behind orgasms and cuddling. What he did say, laying on the bed in that ocean blue room while sweating through the air conditioning was, “I think that I love you.” And I confessed that I thought I did too. Everything was endless fun with him, and “Will you marry me?” became a running joke. He’d show up at my house in the morning with my favorite drink and drop to one knee. I’d say something that made him laugh so hard he farted, and instead of saying excuse me, he’d propose. My best friend Annemarie thought it was the grossest thing ever, and she would grab my hand and say to him loudly, “I don’t see no ring on her finger!” By the time he was serious about marriage, I was serious about other things. During my junior year, it occurred to me that I could be the first in my family to go to college. In comparison, Colin, in his senior year, nearly failed out of school. “My parents want me to join the military.” Him! The ‘I-don’t-care-what-you-think,’ breakdancing, goofy art student. “Well, do you want to?” I asked, dreading the answer. He was walking me home from school, finally only a block from my house. He’d been disappearing more and more often for long family talks and extended ‘study sessions’ that suddenly made sense: his ‘tutor’ was actually a recruiter. I could hardly keep from groaning: the only thing my mother hated more than me dating (although she’d long since met Colin at this point) was the military. Vehemently against the militarization of our already violent police state myself, and embarrassingly opinionated with my whole seventeen years of wisdom, I remember thinking, “Oh Lord, here come the guns,” like that was the part I had to be worried about. “My entire family’s been in the service,” he said, “it's expected of me. And really, what else am I going to do? I can't go to college, but I don’t want to leave.” And then all of a sudden, he was. To this day, we don’t know how he got talked into it. Someone somewhere sat him down and convinced him it was the best option for him, and maybe it was: a job, a place to live, a life to start, career benefits, and travel. But it didn’t seem like it after he signed the contract and entered the Delayed Entry Program (DEP). It seemed like: time away from home, time away from family, time away from me, starting over all alone, and dangerous journeys to areas torn by war. Suddenly, every date crossed off the calendar was a shrinking list of how many more days we could spend together. Everything was changing. Long journeys to school became short train rides to work, casual conversations became treasured moments between discussing the ins-and-outs of a long-distance relationship. I spent days laying silently next to him in bed, confused and disappointed. He would hold me very close, press his face into my hair, and cry quietly. “I'm scared to leave it all behind,” he said. “I'm scared to leave you behind.” I told him, “You are headed for much greater things. It won’t be forever.” Then I wrote him a poem, because sometimes that is all I know how to do. When everything else is uncertain, writing understands. I will include it here: See You Later I lost my mind alone in eight inches of snow when we, the frozen finger tipped foragers, searched for hours in the flakes of the sky where we found something in each other when we lost track of time, when we danced in the snow that was falling outside. And after all these years, I am still proud to call you mine. And when you have left I will remember to find you in the sky. On the day before he left for bootcamp, Colin, Annemarie, and I went for lunch. It was a nice, blue-sky kind of day. Completely coincidentally, a Navy ship had pulled into the nearby harbor, and all the seamen wandered around enjoying their leave, entirely unaware of how much just looking at them pissed me off. It felt like some great karmic injustice, as if the world were just some story written by Unknown Author with a penchant for heavy-handed foreshadowing. I nearly pushed my friends into the restaurant, where Colin took the window seat of the booth so that he could watch the sailors. Annemarie slid me the horoscope section of a newspaper she’d grabbed and said, “Read mine.” I slid it back across the table toward her. We have the same horoscope, born only two weeks apart, so I knew what it would say. She tossed the paper at Colin, who was sitting next to me. “Read it to us!” “Taurus: will see a task all the way through to the end... Hates change,” he said. Annemarie tossed her long dreads and made sympathetic eyes at me. She was sad too, on Colin’s last day as a civilian, and his last day in Philadelphia. “I love change,” I joked, playing with a cup full of nickels. “Well, I hate it,” said Colin, with a mouthful of cheeseburger. I chewed my own burger angrily, months of ignored frustrations finally coming to a head. Hate change? How could a man who hated change join the military? How could he leave behind all his family and his friends? Those seemed like pretty big changes. He’d even changed physically. Since Colin had joined the Navy’s DEP six months earlier, he’d cut his hair, shaved off his beard and filled out. One day I’d come home to see a man sitting at my kitchen table and not the scrawny sophomore I’d met three years earlier. It’s strange to watch the people around you grow up. “This is the last time we’ll ever do this together," I said. "You know, as kids." “Yeah, Colin, next time I see you, you’ll be an adult!” said Annemarie, who I love because she is so quick to go along with me. “Guys, I don’t want to talk about that,” he said, puttingon his coat and jacket for a cigarette with his eyes still on the sailors. “I just want to have a normal day, no big deal, with my two favorite people.” “Normal?” I called after him. “On what ‘normal’ day does Annemarie ever buy us lunch?” When we went to catch up with him, he was outside talking to two men in their dress whites. They had thick southern accents and the sun shone off their uniforms. “You know,” said Annemarie aside to me, as Colin lit his second cigarette while talking with the men, “When he said his two favorite people, I thought he meant us.” I kept it together pretty well that night, but the next morning was sad. I woke up early and met Colin at the train station. We rode in together and it felt just like every other train ride we’d ever taken, every trip twice a day every day of high school, but it had a sense of finality about it that neither of us spoke of. We went to the International House of Pancakes because it is a “normal” breakfast place, but Colin got French toast and I got a cheesesteak. I quizzed him on his General Orders of Ascension over coffee and chocolate milk. Time never goes so fast as when you want it to last forever. Eventually, we had to leave. We walked back to the train station slowly, holding hands. I hugged him for a long time in the dim-light of the underground. When he pulled away he told me not to cry, but it was too late. He kissed me soft, and I kissed him hard, and he told me that he loved me. “Fuck, now I’m crying,” he said. “We’re stronger than this.” Then he walked slowly toward the light of the train, looking back after every step. For months after that, we spoke only in letters. His often came in paper of all different sizes: one sheet of printer paper, a few pages ripped out of a notebook or penned on a notepad, using whatever he had around him. I put them all in a puzzle box, purple and shaped like a butterfly, and tried to send him back every detail of my day and interesting bits of local and world news, sneaking a lollipop into each bulging envelope. When his bootcamp graduation finally came, shortly after my own high school graduation, I went out to the Great Lakes in Illinois with his older sister to visit him. The base was all large open areas with utilitarian buildings and gray insides, and it made me sad to be there. We were led into a gymnasium with two-story seating. I was stuck behind a family of Olympic-level cheerleaders who kept jumping in front of me and contorting their bodies every time I tried to get a better view – not that it mattered, because when the servicemembers entered I couldn’t find him. Below my feet was an army of straight-backed men and women, nearly bald beneath their dress blues and identical in their blank, set faces. “I see him!” shouted his sister. “Where?” I asked desperately. She pointed downward, and I tried to follow the tip of her finger, but it was like my eyes were crossing over and over again. I searched and searched for my old painter, my familiar jokester, but I was unable to pick him out. When it was finally over, I raced down the stairs and waded into the blue uniforms, searching for his familiar face, for those green eyes with the yellow sunflower centers. Finding him was surreal: neither of us spoke. He was different: bigger, stronger, and clean-shaven, but his smile just as bright, if not brighter (the military has good dental). When I let go, I clutched hard to his hand and he squeezed three times: I love you. I squeezed back four: I love you, too. He leaned down toward my ear. My heart was so full, so excited at finally getting to actually hear his voice after months, and when he spoke it was in a quiet whisper, almost lost to the crowd of happy families, “You have to let go, I’m not allowed to hold hands on base in uniform.” Never had I heard more romantic words. I didn’t let go until I had to fly home a few days later. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not forever.” And after that, I did not see him again for months. We tried to talk as often as we could but contact with loved ones is a hard-earned privilege when you enter the Navy. “It would be much easier if we were married,” he’d text me. The thought was appealing: to know how he was, where he was, to be able to see him whenever I wanted. I got a taste of it when he was stationed in Virginia. He’d take the train home for weekend leave, pushing the boundaries of exactly how far sailors are allowed to travel without a liberty chit, and stay for a day or two. Then, I went to visit him myself. I took the 9-hour Amtrak ride all the way there from Philadelphia and pretended I was on the train back to high school. When I arrived, he’d had the last line from my poem tattooed large across his chest, reaching from shoulder to shoulder in elaborate cursive: I will remember to find you in the sky. “What are you going to do if we break up?” I asked him. “That’s a hell of a tattoo.” “What do you mean?” he asked. “Say you’re getting hot and heavy with another girl, what are you gonna say, ‘Oh, this is something my grandma wrote’?” “I’m gonna say that it is something that is very important to me, and it has a lot of meaning. It helped me through one of the hardest times in my life.” A few days later, he asked me to marry him. He said it like a man who’d done desperate thinking alone and separated from his loved ones, with an excited lilt to it – almost hysterical. Barely of legal age myself, I shared his excitement but could not understand the certainty in his voice even after seeing the tattoo. “I’ve thought a lot about this. I want to be with you forever,” he told me. “That’s so cheesy. How could you possibly know what you’ll want in ten years? I don’t even know what I want for dinner.” “I’m certain,” he promised. “You weren’t before you left.” “Bootcamp changed things. I’ve spent a quarter of my life with you, and I want to spend the rest of it with you, too.” “Not yet,” I told him again. I could not fathom being married in college, especially to someone on the other side of the country. There are so many situations you cannot imagine you will find yourself in, or how you will react to them, until you’re actually there. I couldn’t say yes, not when I did not understand him. “I’ll wait for you,” he said. We broke it off shortly into his first deployment, uncertain of how nearly a year of no contact would change us as individuals. It was my first year of college, and Colin would be turning 21. It was a hard decision and ultimately one that I made alone. I thought it was the right decision. Better to separate than to be separated; if you love it, let it go; yada yada yada. I could come up with more reasons why I left him, and no single one of them is the right answer. But no matter where in the world he found himself, he’d buy a disposable cell phone and call me up. I waited for each of those calls, never knowing when they’d come. As he toured the Middle East, I found myself nervous and sleepless. I'd wake up at midnight to a call from him, fresh off of armed watch, where he’d stood alone on a wooden dock for hours, counting down the time with prayers about not having to use his gun. We celebrated his return, and his birthday, with our own bottles of Gray Goose and a Christmas party with friends that felt like family. He went into the bathroom and stayed there for a long time while I stayed around the tree with my friends, confused. Eventually, he called for me and I went, as I always do, regardless of situation or circumstance. He was sitting on the toilet with his pants around his ankles, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. “I’m not pooping,” he said. “I’m just comfortable.” I sat on the tub across from him. “You can lie to me, but you can’t lie to yourself,” I told him. He smiled at me and told me he loved me, and it was so nice to hear. “I’ve been sleeping on the floor because the bed's too nice,” he said. I wondered how else he’d changed. We talked for a while and spent a few days together before he had to leave again, this time stationed on the other side of the country. Before he left, he told me the saddest thing I’d ever heard. “I bought a ring for you, while I was on deployment.” He’d come back with many other gifts for me, despite our breakup. Among them was a beautiful, light blue and white high-collared blouse from Hong Kong, decorated in traditional Chinese style; a vibrant red and deep blue woven scarf made from the softest cashmere in Oman; and a hand carved sandalwood elephant from Tibet. “Where is it?” I asked, like any reasonable girl. “I sold it,” he said. “Why did you sell it?” “It was an engagement ring.” I didn’t say anything for a while, only sat and wondered why I felt that I had lost something very great. “I was going to ask you to marry me when I got back from deployment,” he said. “But then you broke up with me.” He was heartbroken, and so was I; but worse, I was guilty. I felt that I’d ruined him. That’s when I knew that I had to stick to my decision, because only now did the uncomfortable fear that it was too late arise. I could not burden him with more uncertainty. “Friends,” I told him with a pinky promise. “For now.” That never works, but we rarely saw each other, so I could pretend most of the time. He didn’t even try, never hiding his absolutely unwavering love, taking every opportunity to talk to me, and even better, every opportunity to see me. They were few and far between, because getting enough days off in the military to fly home to Pennsylvania from California is like hitting the lottery: almost statistically impossible, and even if you get it, they’re going to take an arm and a leg in taxes. It had been at least six months since I’d seen him when he asked me to come stay with him for the summer. I was ecstatic. A huge change from his rare four-or-five-day trips home, I would have months to spend with him. I hadn’t been around him for more than a few days at a time in nearly two years despite talking almost every day. It was nerve-wracking. I thought to myself, “I’m going to live with this man that I’ve barely seen in forever.” I didn’t know how to leave my home behind, even only for a little while. But he came home and we left for the West Coast together, and I loved every minute of it. Sitting on our balcony, ten stories in the air, holding his hand in mine across our mix-matched beach chairs, looking down at palm trees and telling the people running across the astroturf field below us to “Get off our lawn!” – I knew. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” I said. After so many years apart, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. The not knowing if he was ok, the never seeing him, hit me all at once and I realized I didn’t have to. If I wanted to be happy, if being here with him was happiness, then I’d do it. If that meant switching schools, moving to a new house or a new state, it didn’t matter. I knew that I could do it. “Really?” he asked, standing up. “Really,” I said. “I’m sick of it. I’m happy here with you, and I’m tired of one of us always having to leave.” He picked me up and shook me up and down because spinning on the narrow balcony was impossible. “Well, we have to go pick out a ring,” he said. “You still have to do the whole proposal thing,” I said. “And pictures. We need to take pictures.” “Do we really have to take pictures?” he asked like an idiot. “Yes, we really have to take pictures,” I said in the tone you use when you’re responding to an idiot, and we smiled like goofballs. The last time my husband asked me to marry him, we were still just kids. It certainly felt like that at the time. It was playful, innocent, and full of meaning. It happened a few days later, on our way back from the jeweler’s. We’d just had the ring resized and I wore it all the way home. We raced to the apartment door and he tried to trip me, and then he tried to lock me out because he beat me inside. When I finally managed to get in, he was hiding, and I found him in the kitchen closet. He yelled, “Blagh!” and then he made me give him back the ring. He put on reruns of my favorite show without being asked, so I made quesadillas, completely content to watch him lounging on the black leather sofa. I went into the bedroom to get comfy, and we had sex on the floor. When I came out of the bathroom wearing a big t-shirt, he was on one knee in bright red underwear with my ring. “Sara Watkins,” he said. “Will you marry me?” “Yes!” I yelled, like I was surprised. “A million times yes!” And then we kissed. I got all dressed up, wearing a blue and white polka dot dress he’d bought me just for the occasion. We traveled to downtown San Diego and stood in front of the U.S.S. Midway, where there is a giant statue of a sailor dipping his girl. He held me in the same passionate embrace while a cooing stranger took our picture. Then, we went for a fancy dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, bought a whole chocolate peanut butter cheesecake, and ate half of it while watching movies and developing bellyaches long past our bedtimes. I feel like here I should offer some great conclusion, discuss an overarching theme, or just drop a pun like, “You can have your cheesecake and eat it too!” Some kind of understanding that comes only in hindsight, or maybe a follow up; my very own, “Where Are They Now?”, but this is a moment that has not yet passed, and I am not incredibly eager to let it go by too fast. I will hold onto it for as long as I can before it, too, has to leave. But, as always, there is the promise of more to come.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Sara Watkins is an editor, author, and collector of tiny, fat dragons. She also runs Spoonie Press. Her writing explores themes of disability and autonomy using wry surrealism and general weirdness to champion the idea that, despite our differences, we are not alone. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering Journal, MASKS Literary Magazine, and Blink Ink. Sara can be reached via www.sarawatkins.net or @saranadebooks.