The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(7)

Written By: Rachel Starnes

I could feel a Total Meltdown coming the way I imagine some people claim they feel storms coming by a pain in an old knee injury. It was a kind of low emotional barometric pressure that I could sense just in the slack way Mom would put down a breakfast plate or the way she would rake one hand through her curls to push them out of her eyes. At times like this, her eyes would elude me when I tried to catch her attention with a funny face or tell her a joke that went on a little too long because I was already getting nervous and forgetting the ending. All my energy went into strategies of distraction for her, and I kept up a constant scan of the house to catch things that might piss her off—a messy pile of clothes I could kick into my closet, dishes in the sink, a microwave popcorn bag left out by the TV. Doug must have sensed something too, because it was always these times when he pushed back at the rules or he broke something with what seemed to me like obvious intent. I harried him and picked at him and threatened him, convinced that he was the errant spark that would start the blaze. And then somehow it always happened. One little thing—a spilled mug of hot chocolate is one I remember clearly, but it seems like spills of any kind always did this to us—would suddenly become a very big thing, and all three of us would be sucked into a fast spiral.

“God damn it!” Mom’s opening volley.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Whichever kid is at fault.

“Get a towel!” An increase in volume, panic circuits lighting up all around.

“Don’t yell!” Yelled, of course.

“Shit! It’s getting everywhere!” Time is now a factor, messes are spreading, and the towel is inadequate.

“I’m sorry!” Default response, also inadequate, tick-tock, tick-tock.

“Hurry up!” Whichever kid is not at fault joining the game.

“Quit YELLING!” Screamed, this time.

“SHUT UP! YOU QUIT!” The other kid, in a desperate, failed bid to curry favor with Mom or else short-circuit the reaction.

“Fuck you!” Both kids facing off against each other, easier opponents and more familiar rivals in these meltdown moments.

“Watch your mouths!” Mom reasserting herself, now with both a mess and a fight to contain.

“Fuck you!” The other kid, not to be outdone, gets out the big gun in the sibling standoff. Complete anarchy ensues, physical combat between the kids if they’re within each other’s reach; otherwise, engagement of projectiles. An ultimate explosion is needed.

“Fuck all of this! I’m so sick of this! I want out of this marriage!” Mom delivers the cannon shot that scatters all combatants, and like some triggered land mine we would all go flying apart in a roar of profanity and tears and slamming doors, a sad, half-cleaned mess the only marker of the conflict left behind.

The resulting sulk would be long and quiet and sour and I was often the last to come out of it, feeling doubly wronged because I was so convinced that I was the only one who had worked to try to prevent the whole thing. My consolation in these sulks was a promise I made to myself, written over and over again on the pink pages of a diary otherwise given over to fantasies and doodles: “I will never, ever do this to myself or my kids. I will never, ever marry a man who leaves.” As I got older and meaner, I started throwing this little barb out at my mom when she would try to break the ice and apologize.

The hot chocolate incident is my clearest memory of the sudden appearance of the nuclear specter of divorce, which in itself was a tricky concept because it seemed so common in the lives of my friends at school, and because many of my schoolmates assumed that my dad’s infrequent presence meant my parents were already divorced. But I lived in fear of the idea, enthralled by it, the way standing near a huge drop-off can make you feel like you’re actually leaning into it. Just as I believed every time that my dad might change his mind and not leave for work, or that I could short out the circuit that led to our family explosions when he was gone, I believed that every time they invoked the word “divorce,” the event was imminent. It was Doug who finally whispered to me from the backseat of our car, still rocking from where Dad had slammed the passenger’s side door and begun his long walk back home from a rare family dinner out, “Maybe we’d be better off if they did.”

What I wish my parents had said to me during those moments when it seemed everything would explode, that separation, abandonment, and chaos were imminent: “This threat isn’t real. It will pass.” What I’m terrified that I can’t say, even now, to my own children: “I have no idea if the threat is real or not. We’re making it up as we go along.”


We love you, Pensacola, YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!”

“NO LOOTERS. This property is armed.”

“Why, Ivan?”

“State Farm is a lying neighbor who cheats and STEALS from you!!!”

When I arrived in Pensacola, Florida, as a newlywed, forty-eight hours married and in the front seat of a U-Haul with the dog in my lap, the city was still reeling from the damage from Hurricane Ivan, which had stomped it flat only two months prior, while Ross was finishing Officer Candidate School. Spray-painted messages that ranged from mournful to outright profane decorated the fronts of storm-gutted homes and businesses. Ross and his classmates had sheltered beneath desks in a cryptology bunker, later emerging to distribute MREs to newly homeless civilians and clean up fire ant–covered debris, their OCS syllabus on indefinite hold, while I had busily continued planning our wedding in Austin on the weak promise that he would probably be there.

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