An Extraordinary Monologue
At my bi-weekly visit to the nail salon. I’m seated immediately next to a glum, looking stocky woman almost in a trance. I feel like moving to another chair but don’t. She has brown, short clipped hair with bangs and dusty gray eyes. Her fake oval nails are the longest I’ve ever seen. Their painted gloss reflects the lights above us. She wears a slim silver ring.
Although we’re seated so close, her self-absorption prevents me from saying hello. I doubt we’ll chat.
Always needing something to read, I open a book that I rest on my lap. The manicurist speaks a language other than my own, so he gestures for me to put my fingers in a small glass bowl of warm water. The warmth relaxes me. He quickly grooms my nails very short as I like them, then holds up a small bottle of clear polish with a gesture that asks if I want it. I shake my head. “No polish please.”
The woman with the long nails says, “How about bright pink?”
I laugh, not only at the suggestion so alien to my taste but also due to my surprise that she engages me so affably.
“I keep my nails short without polish because I’m a writer always on the computer.”
“I type too, but I click, click, click and my husband laughs.”
I laugh again and she begins to pour out a long story—a life story.
“I’m doing Melissa.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been a military wife 42 years. I married my husband who’s in the army. I’m having a hard time adjusting to civilian life since he retired. Today is my one day a week to myself.”
“Oh, ‘doing Melissa.’”
“Yes. I live in a cul de sac so I have neighbors, but no one knows each other. When my husband was deployed all the military wives were friends and we all helped each other care for our children. And I just moved here from Hawaii, so I’m not used to this cold.”
“How old are your children?”
“Sixteen, eight, and four.”
“Oh my. The kids around here are so used to the cold they even wear gym shorts when it’s snowing.” I smile but she retains a serious expression.
“My sixteen-year-old wore them to school the other day. I saw all the kids did and someone told me to choose my battles, so I let him. He’s on the spectrum.”
“He wanted to fit in?”
She pressed a long nail to her mouth. “He’s high functioning. He didn’t talk until he was four. I was married at twenty-one and he was born the next year…”
I wonder. Was her husband home those difficult first years with her son?
“I’ve been on my own for the most part in army life. My sixteen-year-old doesn’t want to go in the army. He wants the air force so he can be an air traffic controller. He won’t need college just the training.”
Without a natural pause, she continues.
“ My husband treats my sons like they’re in the army, commanding them like soldiers, marching them through the house. But he treats my eight-year-old daughter like his pet, doing her homework for her. When my husband was in Iraq and Afghanistan I ran the family with the other military wives.”
The reality impresses itself upon me.
“It wasn’t difficult until he had a short nine-month deployment. He seemed to leave and return so quickly. Then the waiting was hard because it was so fast.”
I listen in awe of her experiences. I see an image of a pistol cocked and fired then a long stream of bullets.
“We moved around a lot when we were at the base camps. Every few months. I’ve been around the world. I was there when the wall came down in Berlin and I have a rock.”
“Wow. Which side?”
“The good side. The west?”
Something cracks in my chest. How curious she isn’t sure of east or west.
“I like moving around, not staying here. It feels foreign. I’m a foreigner in civilian clothes.”
She seems not to know where to put her gaze, and her rapid speech seems to conceal more feelings.
“How do the kids adjust to moving often and going to different schools?”
“They like it. I know not to show fear so they don’t feel it.”
She’s insightful to realize her kids will be affected by her feelings yet she can’t let herself know they’ll sense them anyway. She’s drawn a cord between us as I worry about her children. Her fears for them must be shut down so her early experiences don’t pelt her in the present. It must be so hard for her sixteen-year-old who has trouble connecting with others to move around so often, go to different schools, and rarely see his father who’s in danger.
“My mother left one day when I was four and I took care of my eighteen-month-old brother. She didn’t come back.”
She’s speaking so casually yet her voice seems to come from somewhere other than her mouth, somewhere farther away. This horror silences me. Was there a father somewhere? This day and all that week—or more—how long were they alone? A crucial thought swoops through my mind—are memories of those terrifying minutes absent so she won’t unravel?
“I was raised in foster care.”
“In one home?”
“Oh, no! I went from family to family.”
My shoulders flinch thinking of her inchoate, erratic life swarming…
“In my late teens, I dated an older man which was a mistake I know. But I changed when I met my husband. We married when I was twenty-one and we had our first son. I was an army brat with a military stepfather but raised in eight foster homes. My husband normalized my life. All the kids want to be in the military. Goes on for generations.”
The gaps in her story are astounding. I’m hardly conscious of my body. What happened to her mother? Her father? How did she have a stepfather yet lived in foster care? What could she mean by generations of military men? Could she know or even bear knowing anything of the generations in her past?
“Since my husband retired I’m not happy. I liked traveling all the time. I want to go back to Hawaii, but the army isn’t paying for everything now and that’s too expensive. It’s expensive around here, too. It was great when the army paid for everything. We’d travel around the world at their expense. I liked being adventurous.
Shafts of silence surround Melissa’s monologue. The effect is unnerving. It’s that middle part of the afternoon when it seems like the afternoon will last for weeks. The two male manicurists, quietly almost invisibly, continue to communicate in gestures. The usual women manicurists are absent. They are friendly and recognize me when I come in, which feels good, and homey. I miss them, especially now.
The stillness in the room is in stark contrast to Melissa’s continuing narrative. Her sole voice in the still room speaks to me as if her torturous years were just facts, not searing memories. After listening for what seems like hours breathing softly, I’m keenly aware of Melissa’s world thousands of miles away in every direction in contrast to the deserted salon.
I ask, “What’s been the biggest challenge?”
There is no hesitation. Her voice rises for the first time.
“Loneliness… I get into bed alone.”
For the first time she pauses. Her eyes shift back and forth, up and down. The atmosphere in the room shifts as if a screen darkens and from the depths of her mind comes a thread of extraordinary pain.
I have never seen this sudden paling expression on a woman’s face. I feel as if I am falling.
As I absorb this painful declaration, I find myself asking, ‘Why did I decide to drive half an hour in the snow, in subzero weather today with no one else on the icy road?’ I stilled my fears of the precarious drive by becoming enchanted with my classical music which held the empty snowy fields surrounding me in twinkling beauty.
Was I, too, propelled by a moment of loneliness? Wanting to visit in a familiar place where I felt taken care of? Do we have something of that in common, yet nothing else?
I know there’s a story lurking here to write but my personal terror about soldiers in war precludes me from grasping Melissa’s particular mindset. I’m acutely aware of the horrors she doesn’t speak of, the fears, the uncertainty, the constant terror of death.
I was feeling the horrors of war, but death and destruction were not what was on Melissa’s mind. I finally see that. My personal terrors in today’s convulsing world are not hers.
The other parts of her story hang together for me. My heart softens even more deeply. Going from foster home to foster home may have been like going from base camp to base camp. That was her normal. Like her kids, she went to school after school. Again, her normal shapes her mind so that she doesn’t dwell on either their trauma or her own—the inevitability of being so carelessly unrooted. She never experienced the certainty of security. It’s alien to her so, her cul de sac is barren.
What she feels is pronounced loneliness. It’s been encroaching all her life, relieved only periodically by the community of caring military wives that shift from one location to the next. Even the military wives are like interchangeable foster homes. She’s a thirty-eight-year-old child who’s never been taken care of, with three children to nurture on her own.
She knows nothing about me. Never asked. Doesn’t need to ask my name and I don’t think to tell her.
I get up. “Nice talking with you,” Melissa says.
“Me, too,” I reply. “Me, too.”
For that hour, I fell in love with twenty-one-year-old Melissa sitting in her thirty-eight-year-old body. I was privileged to listen to her.
Given all that she feels, I only hope I became a nameless good mother listening attentively for an hour, something she sorely needs.