The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(2)

Written By: Rachel Starnes

I spent my Friday nights itching and sweating in my blue polyester uniform and toy soldier hat with the twelve-inch feather plume, and Ross, cut from the soccer roster just as the season began, came up with his own solution for how to spend his time by appointing himself the team’s mascot. He assembled a superhero costume with a cape that read “The Guy” and ran up and down the sidelines at soccer games with a giant flag every time our side scored, much to everyone’s delight.

If you’d asked me then what I thought of him, I would have said he wasn’t my type, but the truth was that I didn’t yet have a type. I was awkwardly tall and 1800s pale in the central Texas world of compact, athletic, sun-kissed blondes, and for the vast majority of my high school career, I didn’t date. Ross’s broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes, and explosion of messy brown curls meant that he had what my brother called a “case of terminal girlfriend,” one long, steady, largely unremarkable relationship that lasted most of high school, which meant that he was exempt from the ongoing intrigue of high school coupling, and yet always the not-entirely-ignorant subject of several crushes. He could, and did, flirt with impunity, and for this I decided that he was dangerously full of himself.

My opinion of him remained static through our college years, when I heard that he had again acquired a long-term girlfriend at the small private liberal arts college he attended. She was beautiful, I heard, Iranian and premed, and Ross was learning phrases in Farsi, all of which made me roll my eyes and think, “Of course.” I was muddling my way through a far less focused syllabus of failed relationships at the University of Texas, trying on wildly different versions of myself in the process. By the time I was two years past graduation, underemployed and single once again, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with Ross at my brother’s birthday party. We were all standing outside of a Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin, waiting for a table, when Ross asked me, “So, what’s going on in your life these days?”

Embarrassed, and pissed off that I was embarrassed, I answered him truthfully: “I answer phones for the college I should have left by now and I make copies for a woman who calls me ‘sugar bear.’ I’m also really good with a shredder. I can barely afford my rent, I think my degree may be useless, and I have no idea what I’m going to do about any of that.”

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I’m cold-calling for an insurance salesman and living at home with my parents.” He grinned. “I win.” That brilliant grin, paired with the bracing shot of humility, was the thing that let me see him anew. All the old facts I knew about him—that he loved classic rock and drove a pink and white ’55 Ford Fairlane that he and his dad worked on together, that he was an Eagle Scout raised in a conservative, churchgoing home but was nonetheless very convincing vamping onstage in drag with Doug for a contest in high school, that he’d earned a private pilot’s license during his summers cleaning airplanes at the municipal airport and that he hoped one day to fly fighter jets for the Navy but he’d applied twice and been rejected—all these things hovered in the back of my mind. I was cynical and defensive when it came to guys, never fully convinced they weren’t secretly laughing at me, but all the things I knew and remembered about Ross, along with the things I was newly discovering, turned, over the course of an evening, into the beginnings of a powerful attraction. But the biggest thing was that he kept making me laugh—actual bursts of it, not the polite snicker I generally used with guys.

Two years after college, I was still tenderly excavating myself from the wreckage of high school, and I hated the idea of parading my emotional baggage in front of someone I considered a golden boy. We exchanged phone numbers and began to e-mail each other to occupy the long hours of our soul-crushing jobs. When we started meeting up on weekends, I knew that if we continued on this path, I would have to fill him in on the convoluted story I was only just learning how to tell. Through my brother, Ross already knew the outline, but it was important that I tell it to him myself.

Back in junior high, while I was furiously practicing scales with the band, my father fell into a long period of unemployment. All my life he had worked on oil rigs, and the company he’d been with since before I was born had laid him off after a downturn in the industry. After a rough year and a half of looking for work, he found a job, only it was in Saudi Arabia, which meant uprooting our family and moving us there at the beginning of my ninth grade year. This was the story Ross knew, how his best friend moved to the Middle East for a while. What he didn’t know was how that move fractured my sense of self and sent me reeling through a series of rebellions. The school on the company compound went only to ninth grade, and after completing the year in a haze of culture shock, I was shipped off at age fifteen to a boarding school. Away from the anchoring presence of my family, I sank into a deep depression, started experimenting with various drugs, and was subsequently expelled just past the midway point of my tenth grade year. I spent about six weeks in a sort of limbo, being fretted over, medicated, and shuffled between various living situations until it was arranged that an uncle on my mother’s side would come and live with me in our family’s mostly empty house in Texas so I could salvage the rest of the tenth grade back at Georgetown High School, where I would have ended up if we’d never moved to Saudi Arabia in the first place. My mother and brother arranged to move back to Georgetown as well, scrapping Doug’s plans for some other boarding school. And there we all remained for the rest of high school, leaving my dad in Saudi Arabia until my senior year, when he finally found another job in the United States that would allow him to move back home.

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