The Prison

Real life can tie you down – tether you to a destiny you never wanted. Danny had dreams, but she was forced to accept a more mundane fate as a wife to a man she chose when she was a different person. But a boring life can transform from tedium to a living nightmare in a heartbeat.

It started well enough, as these things usually do, in a flutter of stomach-butterflies, in hazy summer memories, in certain songs that seemed to be on the radio every other minute so that, years from then, just hearing their opening bars could transport you back to a time in your life when you were different. You never feel different at the time; the differences manifest later, and so the past seems like such a novel place, full of people you never quite get to know, because the memories of those people have been supplanted by the actuality of their beings, here and now. Nostalgia is sort of like having an unrequited crush on someone who never even notices you looking. That summer had been a difficult one. She was considering changing her major. This time last year she’d been backpacking her way across Indonesia and she’d returned to a grey Philadelphia fall, assuming she’d be ready to start her new life. The years she had taken to travel meant she was starting college a little late, and she didn’t get the same freshman experience as her contemporaries. She thought herself wiser than them. Most had moved straight from their childhood bedrooms to the dorm, and would spend that first weird semester trying on new identities, exploring themselves and each other, learning how to be alone, how to be grown up. That was what college was really for. She’d done all that. She’d been around the world; to Europe, to Israel, to India, to China and then jetting around almost at random on the last of the money she’d made teaching English for three months in Korea, to whatever South-East Asian country had piqued her interest when it came time to leave the last one. She had a Plan. Two years travelling, two years experiencing all the things that adult life would make it impossible to experience, while she had the opportunity. A windfall from her dead grandmother, eating as much cheap food as possible, being sensible. Learning. Then back home, to get a more recognisable education at Pitt. Not too far from home, but enough to keep the distance from her childhood that she’d become accustomed to. She had always planned to be a business major, but it had started to look less appealing by the week. Her time abroad had allowed her to cultivate an interest in other pursuits. She sought transcendence. She picked up a few arts classes, considered learning an instrument, but she was always pulled away by the sense that this wasn’t part of the Plan – that she had to pay a price for her idle months of aimless journeying. She had a responsibility, as someone who had lucked into something amazing, to pay society back somehow by being productive, by being sensible, by being normal. So, that summer, as she sat at a bar tracing shapes in the condensation left by her beer bottle, she was gripped by a sense of ennui. By the need to be somewhere else, by feeling strongly that she had to do more with herself than just get her diploma, find a job somewhere in Pittsburgh, or Boston, or New York or wherever, be an adult for the rest of her life.

He was with a group of guys in a booth on the other side of the barroom. Seniors. Frat boys. Not her kind of person at all. They were drinking shots. She smiled ruefully as she watched them out of the corner of her eye. She could drink any of them under the table. In Thailand, she’d spent one memorable weekend drunk or high for two straight days. No sleep, no food, just an endless freewheeling party that took them from a city bar to the beach, to a moonlit lagoon, back to the city streets, a series of hotel rooms and hostel dorms, and then more bars, the beach again, skinny-dipping in the warm ocean as the sun went down…

He caught her eye. He was good looking, except for the silly little scrub of beard he wore. She had no plans to be anywhere else that night, and as the bar filled up they just gravitated towards one another. He introduced himself – Jay – and she took his hand with a smile. “Danny.”

It was a fun night. Jay was about to graduate. He had majored in sports science. “You gonna teach phys-ed?” she’d joked. No, he was joining the navy, actually. He wanted to be a Marine. “Sure, and this is your last night in town, right? Try a new line, big guy.” He was big too. Six-foot-five maybe, built like a pro. wrestler, tattoos down both arms. He kept his head shaved and wore a baseball cap. It leant him a boyish air that she found sort of cute. He was a doofus, exactly the kind of idiot she’d taken him for when she first saw him with his buddies, but he had an infectious smile and they ended up making out in the parking lot. They exchanged cell numbers. He said they should ‘hang’ with a grin and she said, “yeah, that’d be cool.” She meant it too.

For the next month or so, they were almost inseparable. They hung out, they got shitfaced, they fucked, they had fun. Jay liked drinking. She was right that she could handle more than him. For a big guy, he got hammered quick, and he had a bit of a temper. At the end of one too-long night, she’d screamed at him and his friend to calm the fuck down after an argument got out of hand. Two huge guys, butting heads in the street like horny stags, blind drunk, and strong enough to be dangerous nonetheless. By some miracle, they got them apart, settled everyone down, got them both back home. In the morning it was like it never happened. The two bros clasped hands, hugged, forgot all about it. Danny breathed a sigh of relief. Just a drunken fight. It was no big deal.

They talked about going their separate ways after Jay graduated. He’d been accepted as a recruit for the Marine Corps and was going to boot camp in South Carolina. She was still at college. Doing long-distance didn’t make any sense. But she knew he wanted a girl to come home to. And she liked him. Liked him a lot. “Let’s see how it goes. No pressure, okay?”

They kept in touch. His time online was limited, but they still managed to talk most days some way or other. There were other guys here and there, and she was honest about it with him. He said there were girls there too. They weren’t exclusive. It was fine. Her major continued to bore her, but nothing else appealed either. He came home at Christmas, and it was like he’d never been away. His buddies were gone now, scattered to various corners of the country or even the world. His family were local. They had a much more normal time. His training had changed him, calmed him down, made him more responsible. It was nice. She started to realise she hadn’t liked him being away. When he asked her to marry him just a year after they’d first met, it actually made sense. She was even more aimless then, considering dropping out, and then he asked her to move with him to the base in North Carolina. The rationale was typical of Jay – the family accommodation was better than having to share with the other guys in barracks. He said it as a joke, but it was true. So she dropped out and moved in with him. They got married just a few months after that.

“I never wanted to be an army wife,” she told her friend Karen.

“Actually you’re a navy wife.” They were in another bar, a million miles from Pittsburgh now. Some scuzzy North Carolina dive. Karen had come to stay for a weekend. Jay was on his first overseas deployment. She had nothing to do. She didn’t need to work, because Jay’s salary was enough to pay for groceries just for her, and they still lived in family housing on the base.

“Whatever, it’s the same shit.”

“You’re all in it together though, right? All the other wives or whatever on the base.”

“Yeah, there’s all kinds of fucking…fucking…activities. Community shit. I hate it.” She laughed. “Stepford smiles. This isn’t where I thought I’d be.”

Karen looked around the smoky bar. “Yeah, not exactly Borneo, is it?”

They clinked their beer bottles together. “No, no it’s not. But it’s okay, you know? It’s fine. I miss Jay mostly.”

“What’s the long term plan? Kids?”

“I guess, maybe.”

“Will he come out of the service one day?”

Danny shrugged. “I guess. Then maybe I can do something instead of sit here waiting for him.”

“There’s nothing stopping you enrolling in college again. It’s not like you’re working.”

“Yeah, but I’d need to be to pay for it. Then I’d have no time to do it.”

“Evening classes?”

“In what? The local community college isn’t exactly falling over itself to offer liberal arts courses. Unless I want to learn how to sew fucking quilts or some shit.”

“Quilts are nice.”

“Yeah if you’re fucking…seventy.” She laughed bitterly. “Fuck this; we’re supposed to be having fun, right?”

Jay came home. For the first few days, it was great. They fucked like bunnies, and spent whole days just lying around in their robes, him catching up with all the shitty TV he’d missed, surfing all the websites he couldn’t access from his base overseas, her just enjoying having him around the place, having anyone around the place. They went to the bar, had some fun, but then he wanted to go out by himself, with the guys from his unit. They’d been through something together, she understood that. His deployment hadn’t been into a warzone – but they’d all been away from home from a long time, living a different kind of life. She knew how that went. She knew the feeling of constant déjà vu that accompanied the return to a more familiar setting. She let him go. He came back drunk – real drunk. He was pissed off about something, something he’d seen on TV, or maybe something someone had said to him. She was upstairs, waiting for him in their bedroom, when she heard him burst through the front door, trip over something and curse loudly. Then he started clattering around the kitchen, looking for something. She went downstairs. “Jay? Honey?”

“Fuck! Where is the fucking bread?”

“It’s here,” she went over to a cupboard and opened it.

“Since when?”

“Since, I don’t know. A few months?”

“Why the fuck did you move it?”

“Because we got a food processor, and I had to move some shit around.”

“Fuck. Why do we need a food processor?”

“For processing foo…what do you want with bread anyway?”

“I’m gonna make some fucking toast. Is that a problem?”

She grabbed the loaf from him. “You shouldn’t be making toast in your condition.”

“What condition?”

“You’re dr…you’ve had a few drinks. Go sit down. Have some water. I’ll make you some toast, honey.”

“I’ve been in fucking Europe for five months. I know how to make grilled cheese.”

“I don’t think we have any cheese, actually…”

He set his hands on the counter, seemed to be composing himself. “Five months in fucking Europe. Five months with the shit they call cheese over there. All I wanted was a slice of American cheese. Nothing with mould or herbs or any other shit in it. Just a slice of regular orange cheese.”

She laughed, assuming he was making a joke, but he didn’t join in. He just grabbed the bread from her hands and hurled it at the floor, spilling the slices everywhere. Then he pushed past her and stomped up the stairs.

He didn’t say anything about their silly little argument the next day, but there was a distance between them now. The days of lying around in each other’s arms were over. He went to the bar with the guys again that night, and pretty much every night after that. He was only home for a month. They didn’t have any more arguments, except for the usual bickering and sniping that she told herself married couples had.

Each time he came back, it followed the same pattern. A day or two of affection, then he went back to the bar and drank excessively. Danny told herself it was just his way of dealing with his job. She tried to enrol at the community college, like Karen had suggested, but nothing held her interest for long. She got a temp job in an office for a little while, but cutbacks brought it to a premature end. Jay was home for the holidays one year after his first tour of active duty. He’d been in Afghanistan. It had shaken him up a bit. One of his friends, Johnny, had been killed by an IED. She met him at the airport, drove him home, understood when he dumped his kit, changed his clothes and headed straight for the bar. He got in a fight. Some local kid made an ill-judged crack, and Jay put him in hospital. It was a military town: no one pressed any charges. Jay escaped with a black eye for his trouble and walked with a limp for a day or two. He stayed in a foul mood all through Christmas. His folks were over – Danny hated her mother-in-law, and had never spoken more than two words to her father-in-law. He was a military man too, gruff and uncommunicative, even with Jay. They talked football, and that was about it. His mother was overbearing, critical, disapproved of almost everything about her. Danny had never had much use for cooking before, but she’d made an effort to learn a few recipes while Jay had been on deployment. She didn’t have a knack for it though, and didn’t like improvising outside of her restrictive little box of dishes. His mother never said anything, exactly, but it was clear Danny wasn’t wife enough to be her daughter-in-law. And she kept talking about kids.

“You’ll need a new place soon, I suppose.”

“What? Why?” She was checking on the potatoes, which she’d tried to do something clever with and was now regretting.

“You only have two bedrooms.”

“Right. That’s how many we need.” She prodded the potatoes with a frown. They were supposed to be crispier, she thought.

“What about when you have a baby?”

“It’ll go in the spare room, I guess.”

“And when you have guests? No, dear, you need three bedrooms at least.”

“At least?”

“What happens when you have another one?”

“We don’t even have one baby yet…”

“I know,” she said, somehow stretching the latter word and endowing it with at least two extra syllables, “but you need to be thinking ahead.”

“Can’t our kids share?”

“What if you have a boy and a girl?”

“What, are you scared they’ll start fu…” she stopped herself, put the lid back on the potatoes and slid them back into the oven, “I guess you’re right, Wanda.”

So that’s how they came to move. Back to Pittsburgh, close to his parents. There was a satellite base close by, but Jay was on deployment more often than not anyway. He went back to Afghanistan, despite what happened to Johnny, and came back darker and further away each time. He went back to his old bars, hooked up with his old buddies from college and before and, the next Christmas, he came home drunk and hit her for the first time.

Danny didn’t even know how the argument had begun – it was just something stupid about taking the garbage out probably – and they were screaming at each other across their new kitchen. It wasn’t their worst fight even, but he’d changed so much from the man she’d met three years ago, or so she told herself. She got too close, got in his face, jabbed a finger in his chest and he just lashed out, suddenly. It was an open-handed slap, not really intended to hurt her she supposed and, physically, it didn’t. It just took her by surprise and, large and strong as he was, it staggered her. She stumbled to one side, caught herself on the counter. “Fuck!” he yelled at her. “Why don’t you fucking listen?!”

It was just a moment of madness, she told herself the next day. He was out with his dad, working on his pickup, the only thing besides football they could talk about, and she sat alone in the kitchen, silently drinking coffee. She did this most days. He had been drunk, and he’d done something stupid. He knew that as well as she did. He’d apologise, make up, like he had with his friend back during that magical summer. There were no bruises or anything. No pain at all. He’d hit her, but not really. There was no apology, no acknowledgement at all, just a pervasive grey silence in the house and, within a week, he was gone again. His tour in Afghanistan had ended, but now he was off training, doing whatever it was Marines did when they weren’t fighting wars. Her mother-in-law made a point of calling ’round quite often now, maybe every other day. She continued to drop hints about babies. She told Wanda quite pointedly that she couldn’t very well conceive when her husband wasn’t even in the same state.

“Well, that’s why you need to make more effort when he’s home, honey.”

“What?”

“I didn’t want to tell you this,” she said conspiratorially, “but Jay was talking to his father about you the other day.”

“He…what?”

“And he said that the two of you hadn’t…you know…since last…”

“Wanda! That is none of your fu…that’s none of your business.”

“I think my own grandchildren are my business, don’t you?”

“You don’t have any grandchildren yet!”

“And don’t I know it! You know, my boy, your husband, is off defending our freedoms in these God-forsaken countries, the least you could do is make him happy when he comes home. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how miserable he is. Maybe if you gave him what he wanted, things wouldn’t be so depressing around here. Something to think about, Danny?”

She tried. He was willing enough, but there was none of the romance and affection they’d once shared. Afterwards she said,”I thought we could stay in tonight, maybe sit down and have dinner together? Since you’ve been away for so long.”

“I’m meeting Carl tonight.”

“Carl?”

“From college? I’m sure you remember.”

“I guess. Can’t you see him another night?”

“He’s only in town tonight.”

“Oh. Well, is he married?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. Why?”

“Maybe we could go out for dinner with him or something? Like a double-date, if he has a wife or girlfriend.”

He just laughed. He was already standing up, pulling on his jeans. “I don’t think Carl’d go for that. I’ll be back later. Don’t wait up.”

She hadn’t meant to, but she was in the kitchen getting a glass of water when he stumbled in. He stunk of booze, but he was also horny, and he grabbed her and pushed her up against the refrigerator. He nuzzled at her beck, then put his hands underneath her thighs, tried to lift her up. “Jay, no,” she said, “you’re drunk…”

“C’mon,” he bit her neck, “I thought we were over this.”

“Over what?”

“You not putting out.” He laughed into her hair, pushed himself up against her, moving aside her robe with a pawing hand.

“What do you mean?” she tried to push him away and, in his inebriated state, he took a few tottering steps backwards. “Not ‘putting out’?”

“Yeah!” He looked confused, though she supposed it was the drink more than anything else. “My mom said she talked to you.”

“What?! That…fucking bitch…told you what she said to me? And you! You talked to your fucking dad about our sex life?” She only just realised how angry she was about it, how she’d been instinctively pushing down her rage for weeks.

“What was I supposed to do, Danny? You’re my wife! And you won’t fuck me!”

“I let you fuck me this afternoon, Jay, or did you forget that somewhere between here and the bar?”

He hit her again. This time it wasn’t an idle slap, but a punch with a closed fist, delivered with full-force. She was knocked right off her feet, down to the ground. Her head spun. She could see flashing lights. She placed her hands on the floor, and all she could think of was how cold the tiles were, and how she’d once been happy to have such nice flooring, not thinking about how cold, smooth, unyielding it was. Jay grunted something at her, but she couldn’t hear it through the ringing in her ears. He went up to bed.

It went like that usually. He’d drink, they’d fight, he’d hit her, then he’d storm off. It was always as a result of an argument, at least for those first few years. She wasn’t stupid. She thought about trying to get help, just walking away, talking to his superiors. There was support. But Wanda wouldn’t leave her alone, wouldn’t stop reminding her of her duty as a wife, of what Jay was doing for all of them. She wondered if her husband had hit her too. If this was just part of the deal. If she was just expected to suck it up and take it as her due. Was this how the army wife experience was supposed to be? Their sex life struggled on, but it was hard for her. She felt tired almost all of the time. She tried hobbies, thought about evening classes again, even looked for jobs. Wanda discouraged her. Said she should come to some of her women’s groups instead. They were filled with fussing wives with painted-on smiles, gaggles of children. Most of their husbands were in the armed services as well. Women like her, with big strong men off fighting wars, doing their duty, defending democracy. When Jay came back, she tried to please him, even though it made her die inside, and he could sense her detachment, the emptiness within. But he didn’t understand and soon he no longer needed alcohol as an excuse to beat her. He slapped her for doing anything he disliked, punched her to the ground when he was in a temper. She had visible bruises, and would stay indoors for days until they went away.

He went to Afghanistan again. His last tour, he had told her over another silent, mediocre meal in their dreary kitchen. “Then when I come back, maybe I’ll take a desk job, and we can think about having kids.” Like they hadn’t been trying. She thought she might be infertile. Or maybe it was Jay. But no, not Jay, not perfect, tall, strong Jay, star quarterback and prom king back in high school, US Marine Corps’ finest, a veteran and a hero. She knew he looked at porn when she was asleep – he wasn’t smart enough to clear the history – and she suspected he wasn’t just going to bars with his friends. Might there be other women as well? And other kids he’d fathered? The idea didn’t bother her as much as she thought it might have, and she wondered whether she could drive him away with her disinterest. Would he divorce her? Find another unsuspecting woman to bulldoze over?

He got on his flight with a perfunctory hug, and Danny thought about what she might do while he was away. He would be gone for eighteen months. That was a lot of freedom. She could travel again, but she’d need money for that. Maybe a job? She resolved to do something to kickstart her life, to try and recapture the passion she had before she’d gotten married. She had been creative, exciting, and now she was dull and grey. This was an opportunity. A chance to make things better. He wasn’t there to hit her now, and her in-laws were going on a trip to the Grand Canyon soon. She’d be alone, and free.

A month after Jay had boarded that plane, she got the call. It was an IED, the same thing that had killed Johnny. He’d been riding in a humvee, and the blast had flipped it right over onto its roof. Jay and another Marine were dead, four more were badly injured. It was a national tragedy. Their faces were on the news. All she could think about was that now, finally, she was free of him.

But she was wrong. His body was flown back. There were cameras. The coffin came off the plane, draped in the stars and stripes. Mascara was smeared down Wanda’s face. Jay’s father was silent, stoic, his eyes far away. She just kept her face even. Part of her did miss him, yes, but she was thinking of the things she’d be able to do now, and the things she’d no longer have to dread, of being free. They had the funeral. There were guns fired, speeches by men she didn’t know, talking about another man she couldn’t remember ever meeting. Who had Jay been when he was away from home? A prankster, apparently, a joker, the life of his unit. He was a hero. He’d saved lives. His picture was everywhere. She had to host the wake and because of his stupid Irish family everyone piled into her house and drank all her liquor. Everyone was crying. Wanda was still inconsolable. “My boy! My baby boy!” No one could, or would, shut her up. Never mind, it would all be over soon.

“You can move in with us,” Wanda suggested when it became clear that the pay-off from the government wouldn’t pay the mortgage on her now-too-large house. “Until you get back on your feet and find some work.”

“Some work?” She wasn’t qualified to do anything. Her résumé was empty, except for her temp job, and she’d never graduated college. And everyone looked at her with such sad eyes. She wasn’t Jay’s wife any more – she was his widow. The widow of a hero, killed in action, and nothing could erase that status. Her own parents had moved away and, anyway, she’d hardly seen them for the last five years. She’d lost touch with Karen and everyone else she knew from college. She just had Wanda and her silent husband now and, as she lay in the bed in their spare bedroom, staring at framed pictures of the young Jay on the drawer unit, she realised that she wouldn’t ever be free of him now.

This entry was posted in Contemporary, Feminism, Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

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