Image: Andrew Hem
Interview: "Husband on the Home Front"
Alexi Zenter discusses the new military family and the fine line between emotion and sentimentality.
On the night that his wife shipped out to Iraq, Henry agreed to let his daughters sleep in bed with him. They had begged, and he said okay, but only for the one night; the concession seemed a small one given that the girls were, at least temporarily, losing a mother. He was never able to regain the ground he lost, however, and for five months they encamped in his bedroom. But last night had been the final night. Tonight, for the first time since their mother left, the girls were going to sleep in their own beds. Colleen, missing most of a leg, was coming home.
“It’s like having your very own little insurgency,” Moira had said to her sister on one of their many phone calls while Colleen was serving in Iraq. Moira said things like that. Colleen’s sister was the kind of woman that Henry liked, wry without any of the mocking bitterness. “They’ve occupied your bedroom, Colleen. I keep telling Henry that he can’t let them bunker down. Get them out before it’s too late. Buy them toys. Bribe them off. Weapons of mass distraction. Hell, give them candy, whatever it takes, just be a man, that’s what I tell him.”
But despite Moira’s words, neither she nor Henry had tried to move the girls back to their own beds while Colleen was gone; among the many small betrayals that Henry had committed as a father, depriving his daughters of this small sense of security would have loomed large. Besides, he did not mind sleeping in the same bed with his daughters; their presence, the gentle weight of their bodies, their hot sticky breath on his neck, was comforting to him in a way that his wife’s presence had never been. No, sleeping with them was not the problem; instead, the actual process of getting the girls to fall asleep was the torment for Henry. Tilly, barely 3, shifting against him, kicking at him, talking to her doll, and then the grunting—her porcine grunting rising in volume until he had to threaten to take away her monkey blanket—and Karen, almost 5 but with a teenager’s penchant for exaggerated sighs, hands roving over his face, touching his eyes, his ears, no matter how many times he took her wrist and laid her arms flat against her body; that 30 or 40 minutes of trying to get them to go to sleep every night made him doubt his ability to raise his children without violence.
Still, the torment was worth it for the precious few minutes he had with them when they were neither awake nor asleep, when they were finally still and their breath began to flatten out in rhythmic heaviness, when their bodies fell slack and rolled in toward him, toward the black-hole depression that he occupied in the middle of the mattress. They always fell asleep within seconds of each other, and he often wondered if some magic formula could make them fall asleep more quickly, say, in three or four minutes, instead of the better part of an agonizing hour.
Once Tilly and Karen were sleeping, Henry always crept out of bed with exaggerated carefulness, though he knew that something more momentous than his evacuation would be required to rouse them. Karen occasionally talked in her sleep, muttering and mumbling, no words that he could decipher, the language of somnolence. She seemed to be having a conversation she would not let him enter; dreaming, she asked and answered her own questions. But once they were down, they were gone to him until morning. He was still amazed by how soundly they slept, as if night were some sort of pit they had been thrown into, something irreversible. He could do nothing to disturb them.
By the time he left his room, he knew the house would be clean. Moira, already a frequent visitor before her sister left, had gotten into the habit of coming over every day to play with the girls while Henry cooked, to lend a hand with bath time and reading stories. While he lay with the girls until they fell asleep, Moira washed the dishes, straightened up a little, put in a load of laundry, and if she had time, sent an e-mail to her sister. Moira liked to send photographs or scan drawings that the girls had done, to tell Colleen what the girls had eaten for dinner, what they had said that was cute, what changes Colleen was missing. “I want her to come home to kids that she still knows,” Moira told Henry one night.
That empathetic concern was one reason Henry was still amazed at how little compunction Moira had shown about her affair with him. She had no qualms about taking Colleen’s place, both as surrogate mother and as Henry’s lover. To be fair, Henry often thought that, in many ways, the first was a bigger betrayal than the second; Colleen loved her daughters unequivocally, but her husband was a different matter.
Henry had gone to college with both Colleen and Moira, had met Moira first, in fact. Moira was the popular sister, funny and smart, one year younger than Colleen. Moira was the one who dated and went to parties, the one who had a full ride on a softball scholarship, the one who was friends with everybody but kept her mystery, as if she had some hidden substance that nobody would ever discover. Colleen, though physically similar, seemed determined to be everything Moira was not. Colleen was a loner, except for her sister’s company. She was sour, quick with a harsh word, and she did not play sports, joining the ROTC instead to cover her tuition. He had watched enough movies to know the way it worked: Moira was loud and shiny, but Colleen was the one with depth, the true treasure. He thought he was being clever when, near the end of his and Colleen’s senior year of college, he went after Colleen. He thought he had secured a prize.
Henry soon realized he had outsmarted himself. Both sisters were exactly as they appeared on the surface; Colleen was petulant and better suited to her own company than anybody else’s, and Moira was genuinely likable and smart, an interesting woman with a complex profundity that made him feel vital in her presence. He understood his mistake, however, a bit too late: after a few weeks of dating, Colleen was pregnant. Henry was the kind of man who believed in duty, and he compounded the error by marrying Colleen, in a small ceremony immediately after graduation. Momentum set in, the marriage became irreversible, and a year later, when Moira joined Henry and Colleen in the sisters’ small hometown, Moira became a fixture as both aunt and friend. Only later, once Henry was left alone on the home front and Moira had stepped in neatly, taking over Colleen’s role as mother and wife, did Henry, for the first time, have a visceral understanding of what marriage should be, of what marriage could have been had he chosen better.