blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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Where the Navy Sends You

We weren’t sure what to do with some of the wedding gifts. Many were easy. The curving metal candlesticks would sit on the bookshelf beside our new kiddush cup and seder plate. The heavy crystal bowl belonged on the nightstand. Our complete set of handmade Polish plates, bowls, mugs, and serving pieces fit in the kitchen cabinets, ready to be used every day, at every meal. But other presents posed a problem. What to do, for instance, with the two used cutting boards, their surfaces engraved with knife marks, smeared with vegetable oil, still scented with the memory of old onions and chicken breasts? And what about the glass vase shaped like a three-foot-tall crimson bong? And the ceramic plate from Hallmark, our wedding date written in Sharpie on the back—July 31, 2005—beneath the inscription, Made in China?

Of all the bad gifts, the worst was a fake wooden plaque that read, Home Is Where the Navy Sends You. It came from a former military couple who had spent more than twenty years traveling from base to base, billet to billet. “I know you’ll appreciate this,” the wife had whispered, as she handed me a lumpy bundle of tissue paper, curled ribbon, and Scotch Tape. Later, Jeremy and I unwrapped the present together. We ran our hands across the plastic, feeling its faux walnut finish with our fingertips. Jeremy held the tablet at arm’s length. He pretended to hang it from a wall, studying it from different angles as he would a piece of fine art, leaning in until his nose nearly touched the wood-grain surface. Then he stepped back again, angling it away from his body as if it smelled of rotten fish. “What the hell were they thinking?” he asked. He dropped the plaque on the floor, where it didn’t crack but spun on its edge like a coin, finally falling flat, its words face up. Home Is Where the Navy Sends You.


“Home Is Where the Navy Sends You” has nothing to do with moving vans. It is not a variation on the theme, “Home Is Where the Heart Is,” but a reinterpretation of the old Yiddish proverb, A mentsh tracht und Gott lacht (Men plan, God laughs). To be married to the military is to accept that spouses will be deployed when least expected, birthdays rescheduled, anniversaries postponed. Pout, scream, break a dish, throw the cordless phone across the room—in the end, none of it makes a difference.

I learned the first lesson of the Navy wife handbook before Jeremy and I married. When we heard that his ship was scheduled for BALTOPS, a three-month deployment in the Baltic, we were forced to move our wedding date from May to July. The postponement nearly cost us a large down payment at a sleek hotel in Washington, DC, where the ceremony was to be held. After a former military brat told me about all the cancelled Christmases and Thankgivings of her childhood, I bit my nails to the quick, tallying in my head the security deposits that might be forfeited: floral centerpieces, the harpist and swing band, the three-tiered chocolate cake, the trolley tour of our nation’s capital.

Although BALTOPS entailed training rather than risk of combat, the deployment made me realize that our plans should be written in pencil, not ink. Would we even have a wedding? Like many brides-to-be, I viewed the Big Day with a Hegelian sense of historical determinism; all of Western civilization had led to the moment when Jeremy and I would sign our ketubah then stand beneath the chuppah to hear the recitation of the seven blessings. Blessed art Thou, Lord, who rejoices the bride and the groom.

When I finally understood that marrying a member of the U.S. armed forces is not like making a home with an accountant, a lawyer, or another writer, I became an authority on insomnia. I had imagined that the diplomas on my wall set me apart from other Navy wives. I had slept easily before. After all, I was a poet, a PhD candidate, a daughter of American diplomats raised among the intelligentsia. But the truth was that ours would unfold like any other military marriage, our time together determined by news reports on CNN, by budget cuts or the price of oil (Men plan, God laughs). No matter how I tried, I couldn’t forget the former military brat’s words. Midnights, I heard her voice. “We never knew when Dad was going to be deployed. Or when he was coming back.” She paused, turned her face from mine so that I couldn’t see her eyes.


In early 2006, the Navy sent Jeremy to Nebraska, where I was finishing my PhD. Jeremy would take graduate courses in history while working for the Naval ROTC unit at the university. We had been married for six months when we were able to finally live together, mashing our two households into my small student apartment on South 20th Street. His books of military history leaned up against The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens and Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. His black combat boots nudged my Stuart Weitzman peep-toes. We fought over closet space, whether to buy Cheerios or Grape Nuts at the grocery store, what time we should go to bed and wake up in the morning. But those are the schisms that make a marriage, and so we were grateful even for the arguments.

Not long after Jeremy arrived in Lincoln, while we were still unpacking his boxes and learning how to share our blankets, his detailer explained that the Navy might need to deploy him on an I.A. to Iraq or Afghanistan. An I.A., an Individual Augmentation, is an assignment in which a member of the U.S. Armed Forces—often the Navy—is placed temporarily with a military unit—usually the Army—in order to fill position vacancies or to perform specialized “skill sets.” In other words, the Army is spread thin, short-staffed, and needs live bodies. Many Individual Augmentees are placed in unfamiliar terrains, frequently without enough training or preparation for combat.

This wasn’t a postponed wedding. This was the possibility that Jeremy would be shipped off, not to serve on a cruiser or destroyer as he had been trained to do but perhaps to guard a convoy, wearing desert camis, a Kevlar vest, and gripping an M16. Traumatic brain injury. Rape. Friendly fire. Gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These were the catastrophes I couldn’t stop reciting to myself. On the day he told me about the Individual Augmentation, my tears surprised us both. I kept thinking of Elizabeth Bishop, her terrible refrain in “One Art.” She repeats and repeats, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” until we know the poet must be lying, because no woman who believes in the easiness of loss would speak of it so much, her words casual as a hand shooing away the buzz of a fly.

As is so often the case with the military, plans changed again. Jeremy’s Individual Augmentation soon became less than rumor, the possibility of a deployment finally diminishing to a thin thread of smoke (Men plan, God laughs). But I couldn’t sleep, and, when I did, I heard Elizabeth Bishop—“their loss is no disaster”—or I saw Jeremy dressed as a soldier, his face gray with soot, his eyes turned from mine.


I like to joke that the plaque should have read, “Home Is Where AWP Sends You.” Most Navy wives have portable careers. They are bank tellers at Navy Federal, nurses, grade-school teachers. In the final year of my PhD program, Jeremy travelled with me to Chicago for my MLA job interviews and to New York for AWP. “Wear the purple scarf. Pin the starfish brooch to your lapel,” Jeremy suggested, as I dressed in each hotel room. Academia is barely portable; it can’t be folded into a suitcase. And, yet, Jeremy helped me prepare for every meeting, checking my purse to make sure I had remembered the business cards embossed with my contact information, the sample syllabi, and the proper shade of lip gloss. He knew if I received a job offer from Montana, I would go there, or Kentucky, or Michigan. I would go, no matter how far from the coastline the teaching took me.

Jeremy makes a far better Poet Husband than I do a Navy Wife. He has seen Mark Doty read and Dorianne Laux and Ted Kooser. He has seen me peddle my own poetry in dozens of dimly lit, out-of-the-way venues: coffee shops, martini bars, libraries, church basements, main sanctuaries of synagogues. He always stands in the back of the classroom or perches on the edge of a squeaky fold-out chair. He wears a dress shirt and pressed slacks. He wears a tie. In his wallet are dollar bills for making change, in case I want to sell copies of my chapbook.

On the other hand, I am a grouch when it comes to my responsibilities as a “milspouse.” I kvetch each time we’re invited to a Super Bowl party, a formal ball, or the ubiquitous Hail and Farewell get-togethers that punctuate the calendar of any Navy family. Such social obligations are known as Mandatory Fun, an oxymoron in the grand old tradition of military doublespeak.

Jeremy usually turns down offers to eat chicken wings at Hooters. He barely drinks beer and hates talking sports teams. We are a strange couple in Navy circles. I kept my maiden name, my Judaism, my lefty liberal politics. We have no children. We have lived in separate residences, in separate states, more often than we’ve lived together. Right now, I teach at a small liberal arts college in Maryland, and he’s in Rhode Island, preparing to begin his first department head tour on a destroyer. Before that, our coordinates were my Nebraska to his Virginia, my DC to his Bahrain.

Home is wherever we meet, often a point equidistant between our two locations. We find home in the difference between six p.m. and eighteen hundred hours, between civilian and enlisted (Men plan, God laughs). We have broken with Donne’s model of the lovers’ souls as two parts of a twin compass, the woman fixed and waiting, the man an instrument of change and movement. In “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” the poet writes, “And though it in the centre sit, / Yet, when the other far doth roam, // It leans, and hearkens after it, / And grows erect, as that comes home.” Instead, we take turns watching at the window for the other’s return. Sometimes Jeremy is the unmoving center. Sometimes I am.


It is important that I wasn’t the one to drop the plaque on the floor. From me, this gesture would have seemed predictable, the action of a woman ambivalent about her husband’s choice of careers. In the mornings, when I watch Jeremy stepping into his service khakis, I am struck by the transformation from civilian to officer. I pass him his hat. “It’s called a cover,” he reminds me, straightening it on his head. He adjusts the burnished belt buckle at his waist. He checks that the SWO pin—a gilded scene of waves, a ship’s bow, and crossed sabers—is fixed to his chest.

What they say about a man in uniform is true. He’s handsome, shoulders back, chest out, his walk decisive, as if he already knows where he plans to go. In uniform, Jeremy also becomes foreign. He must hold my hand with his left, leaving his right hand free to salute. He must kiss me quickly, when no one is watching. He still calls me ‘my love’ but keeps his voice so low that only I hear him.

This is also where the Navy sends us, into a landscape defined by distance: the gap between our fingertips, the rigidity of our two bodies. No matter how close I feel to Jeremy, a part of him remains unknowable. Like the Ticonderoga-class cruiser he once showed me, its passageways narrow and jagged, illuminated by a sallow light, there are areas of Jeremy’s heart that I cannot enter. On that cruiser, USS Anzio, he was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the primary air-search radar for the Aegis combat system, which the Navy describes as a “total weapon system, from detection to kill.” The Aegis system can simultaneously search, track, and fire on a hundred separate targets, in the air, on the water, and below the surface. Jeremy loves his job. “Accelerate your life,” the Navy’s slogan goes. Accelerate. Sometimes I am afraid of the speed and space that separates us; I don’t know how to hold words like “detection” or “kill.” I can barely imagine him at work, sitting in the ship’s Combat Information Center, his face lit by blue console displays.  

Instead, I prefer to think of my husband as I know him best, in the kitchen, julienning red and orange peppers for the tomato sauce, his knife tapping out a tattoo. When we first met in college, Jeremy worked the line at a local seafood restaurant. After each shift, his shirt carried the smell of grease in its seams. Our earliest dates were home-cooked meals that he served me in my dorm room: curried acorn squash soup, seared tuna still pink in the center, Asian sesame slaw, and a dark wedge of Death-by-Chocolate chocolate cake. We ate dinner picnic-style, sitting cross-legged on a quilt that I spread out on the linoleum tile. Later, we cleaned the dishes with Ivory soap in the bathroom sink.

I prefer to think of Jeremy, his face lit by the glow of a television set instead of a ship’s console display. Perhaps it is movie night, and we are watching all five hours of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet sits at the pianoforte, lets her fingers kiss the keys. Darcy faces her. Jeremy leans over to whisper one of Jane Austen’s lines in my ear, “We neither of us perform to strangers.” Alone together, we don’t need performance either. It is possible to close the distance, simply by braiding our bodies, my legs curled over his, his arm curved around me. We don’t speak about war or poetry. Elizabeth plays. Darcy listens.

It is important that Jeremy was the one who dropped the plaque on the floor, trying to break the tchotchke so that he could justify throwing it out. In the end, it didn’t matter that he couldn’t chip the plastic, couldn’t dent the fake wood. Some things are too ugly to stare at every day. Home is Where the Navy Sends You (Men plan, God laughs).

He pushed the present into a black trash bag that bulged already with the angular shapes of the two oily cutting boards, the red vase, and the ceramic plate from Hallmark. All the cleanup of the wedding done, we were married now. “I’ll be back in a moment,” he called over his shoulder, as he headed out to the garbage can at the side of the building. He didn’t look back, the way people don’t when they know their absence will be brief, thirty tick-tocks of the second hand, a couple of footsteps across the concrete floor. And I watched him walk away, despite myself, the fixed arm of the compass waiting for his return.  end

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