One day near the end of Reagan’s first electoral reign I left for Europe with barely enough money to sustain my whim.
An airplane is the best way out of the metro area because it leaves you feeling like Phoenix, rising from the ashes of urban blight. As the 747 lifted me up and out of my own more personal malaise, I contemplated a smoky haze of an itinerary. A sibling in England needed visiting, so I hereby designated myself family ambassador. No letters warned my sister and no phone calls prepared her. I was going to guerrilla my way into her household. These were the days when I thrived on the pleasant notion that anybody and everybody had time for me.
The flight was as unexceptional as coasting tens of thousands of feet over the Atlantic can ever be. The pilgrim who shared my armrest was well-versed in traveller etiquette, and the pilot apparently knew his stuff. We landed in the morning, my first foreign country and language.
London was a diversion but so was my luggage. When you don’t make plans you can never be off schedule, so I immediately called my sister.
Dawn had gotten hitched, to the Air Force and then to a husband. A bystander by blood, I had my opinions. Great, I had concluded when both unions had occurred. Now she’s serving both her country and her man.
While suffering the whims of telephone relay switches my first mission materialized: was my sister in bliss? I determined to gauge the level of same and report back to superiors. I wanted to be able to tell my parents (who hadn’t yet met their son-in-law) yes, she appears to be happy, so no, don’t worry. And of course I wanted to see this for myself. I have nothing against bliss.
Where there’s smoke there’s either fire or a brother who likes to cause surprises. Dawn was immediately suspicious.
After exchanging the oblicatory health and welfare data we discovered that we were both fine. Still, she didn’t know where I was calling from. “New York?” she guessed, my latest postmark, but one distanced by time.
“Do you have a spare bed?” was my clue. Turns out she did.
She was a married woman without even P.O.S.S.L..Q. status [Person of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters — a very 80s expression] because Scott, the husband in question, was stationed in Germany pending an officially sanctioned change in venue. They had been stationed apart. Life is paperwork.
Dawn lived off base, sharing her picturesque cottage with another Airman, female class. After a bus ride I met sister and housemate in a hamburger joint, my own favourite venue. Once home and alone we talked.
“How’s life?” I asked her, giving her plenty of room to manoeuvre.
Dawn had always needed her space, but had never been given any. A first-born, she suffered all the restraints that new parents are wont to construct. The red tape she cut through as a child to cross the street and stay out past dark had dissolved, by the time I came down the pike, into an easy permission to not only hike cross town but to just be back before dawn. She suffered the shock of a tourist inching through customs watching a diplomat breeze through.
This is of course the typical state of affairs, but Dawn took it hard and savored her freedom when it came at the end of high school. That summer she worked in an amusement park and rode the emotional roller coaster of assuming an independent trajectory from the family orbit. She also quickly fell in love without a net (and love is the suspension of gravity, is it not?). Exhilarated by the possibilities, she stormed into college ready to learn and to do but ran out of money, that great arbitrator of opportunity. By this time her affair had seriously blossomed, but it proved to be an annual rather than a perennial and she sloppily fell apart from this particular Him just as she was disengaging from her sophomore year.
That maxim about not being able to go home again proved true, again. Though my parents had outgrown their protectiveness, Dawn had been conditioned to expect nothing less. The Protestant work ethic is hard currency with them, and she appeared to be drifting in soft apathy. The climate was chilly. My father, a former Marine, lobbied for enlistment. Money for college, he said.
And so here we were, my sister now telling me that life was great, just great. “I got married so I could be alone.”
“Doesn’t everybody do that?” I asked without humor. We talked through the night and she laid bare the facts. Turns out she hated the Air Force and wasn’t so sure about her marriage, either. They hadn’t even shared a household, but already she was getting nervous.
“When we’re together on leave he wants me to wait on him like I’m a servant,” she commented, her voice but a single plaint in a chorus as loud as the world. “When we first met I liked how he made me feel safe, but not he just makes me feel smothered. Or at least I’m afraid he will.”
My counsel was one of understanding by my experience was far short of being able to. Sympathy but not empathy. Had she talked with him about it? I asked. Yes. Apparently his answer was something along the lines of “Sure, okay. And could you get me another beer?” Within the framework of his ability to comprehend his own shortcomings, he acted on them. In other words he stayed the course, like many of us. Dawn invariably got him the beer.
When she told me that the military had to give her and Scott permission to marry — just a formality, but one which merely reconfirmed who was really in control of her life — I marvelled. Our parents had been replaced by college which had given way to Uncle Sam. I longed for her to be of herself.
Our month together was a rejuvenation of an atrophied bond. We got to know each-other all over again. When the light fuse went out in mid-October we failed to replace it and spent nights on either side of a hurricane lamp, relating of this or that storm in our lives. During the course of our talks my next mission developed: I decided to visit Scott and see if he really was the enemy and, more important, if he thought he was.
Dawn’s roommate had a general, all-encompassing comment on the battle of the sexes: “Women. Are better.” She was adamant.
As my stay came to a close, Dawn’s chief complaint of life with brother was that I was forever running out of rations and getting into her groceries. She’d told me of this early on and, within the framework of my ability to comprehend my own shortcomings, I’d acted on it. I’d eaten some more.
If approaching Scott didn’t prove to be as easy as simply calling him and arranging a meet, it was only because I didn’t want it to be. One must stay in character.
In a roundabout manner I found my way to Bitburg, an unfamiliar X on the map until Reagan’s public relations disaster. Sitting in yet another hamburger place — my true reason for going to Europe seemed to be to compare the price of Big Macs for later research — I commenced fact-finding and learned that the Air Force base was closed to the general public, which would mean capitulation to the mundane act of notifying Scott of my arrival. Fortunately another admirer of cholesterol took note of my English and asked who I was.
“Just your typical ugly American,” I answered, and though he didn’t disagree he did prove my ace into the place. An MP, he offered a smooth ride past his brethren because, as he put it, “You don’t look too dangerous.”
There was no time to take offense at this remark because soon enough I was standing outside Scott’s domicile and finding nobody home. A knowledgeable passer-by said he might be in the bar.
“So you know my wife,” said the man from the east side of Chicago, showing no emotion but numbness. Could be the drink, I thought, or could be his personality. Listening to somebody slur his words all night long can be fun, but he wasn’t a talkative drunk. Come the sobriety of morning’s light he maintained his brevity but allowed that it might be interesting having me around. I quite naturally agreed, so we meshed eccentricities and lived together as man and brother-in-law.
Next came the sizing-up. Turned out his face was a mask that never came off. He seemed aggrieved, not a happily married man at all. When finally syllables clumped into words and those into disquieting notions, his antennae didn’t evidence damage. “Something seems wrong,” he said. “I’m getting this feeling from Dawn.”
“What feeling is that?” I asked, unable to keep from playing marriage counsellor and knowing full well that I was cheating. My quick decision was that my sister did not need a surrogate and I shouldn’t be one. Whatever emotional battlefields they were destined for, mine wasn’t the role of the artillery man. So it was “Why?” and “For how long?” and “You don’t say?” rather than “Now listen here,” or “Dawn says that…”
The guy wasn’t an ogre. My sister’s “I do” hadn’t been a “How can I possibly?” He seemed gently confused about it all, prone to leaving his thoughts unfinished because he didn’t know where they should end.
We took to sharing our nights in a clam bar in Trier, a stone’s throw from Luxembourg, where he avoided the clams and I avoided the bar. He’d tell me about Dawn’s latest failure to write and I’d try to weigh in with the optimism that he had come to expect from me.
Our sessions finally seemed to have an effect. He got mad. At me. But no volcano of sputtering, he. Increasingly the looks he favoured me with were those of a wrestler circling his quarry. Unfortunately, this was to go beyond metaphor.
The first time it happened we were playing poker in his living room and I was losing. To shore up his mood, I flattered myself. During a midgame full body stretch he abruptly but calmly began moving furniture close to the walls. When the floor was clear he swept his hand over it as if to welcome me into his office and before I could much think about it he was choking me.
It was supposed to be a grip of camaraderie, a friendly armhold that had my windpipe kissing the crook of his elbow. “You ever wrestle?” he almost whispered into my ear.
“I don’t think I’m in your class,” I gasped, uneasily prying my neck loose. The same bulk that had once comforted my sister quite overshadowed her brother.
“Come on,” he taunted, bent close to the ground. “It’ll keep you in shape.” He was looking at me with his head cocked just so, and suddenly I could read his mind.
If I walked out of the house there would be no welcome back. The floor was cold under my back as, soon enough, I lay there pinned. He was smiling. He didn’t help me up.
That night spawned a dozen unofficial matches. He never uttered a mean word in my presence, but neither did he allow me to bow out of our little play. Because this was, after all, theater: for a few brief minutes every other day he had a wife again.
The clams had long ago lost their taste. I announced my departure on the evening that Scott finally got the letter he had been waiting for.
Inside was a ring.
New York Press, October 1989