My husband, commanding officer of a U.S. warship, has returned from operations in the “tanker war” in the Persian Gulf. His purpose there was defense and deterrence.
While he was away, I too became involved in defense and deterrence here on the home front: I found myself subjected to and fending off a fusillade of jokes and light comments. Imagine my surprise: I had thought the dangers of the Persian Gulf, given the mines, missiles, and suicide speedboats, were obvious. I had to think again. I also had to look again: The flak came not from enemies but from “friendlies”—friends, acquaintances, and the urban villagers one deals with daily.
For example, over and over I heard how “terrific” such tension is for the marriage. On the defensive, I sputtered something about my marriage being terrific already. “And besides,” I said, “I don’t see this as marital therapy.”
Others fixed on the sexual, predicting a “bed-breaking reunion” or surmising the number of boyfriends I required “to get through.” I fell silent. How do you convince someone that, given the dread, safety, not sex, was foremost on my mind?
Another set of comments made light of the situation itself. I heard my husband called “The Target.” I heard repeatedly what his ship could do to the Ayatollah; I heard myself addressed as “Trojan Woman,” a reference to the widows of Troy lamenting their fate as slaves of the conquering Greeks. Some comfort, I thought, again on the defensive.
Not one to gainsay humor (normally I’m known for my wit), I found this sort trivializing, not to mention dissonant as a Schoenberg symphony: As I ventured daily into the helium of society, my head teemed with heavy images direct from my husband’s letter—of him writing battle orders, heading for another patrol in the Strait of Hormuz, entering another Silkworm “envelope,” wondering if that fishing dhow out there carried fish or maybe mines. The gulf between the Gulf and the Comedy Store was immense.
Not all was joking, however; there was also avoidance. Several close friends became distant, making no contact at all. Others wrote notes saying “Thinking of you” or “I don’t know what to say.”
With the former I remain disappointed, but with the latter I came to understand—and accept gratefully—that the thought itself was sufficient. In our culture, getting serious takes many raps of the gavel, and discussing dread is a favorite topic with nobody, not even a particular friend with the most refined sensibility: When she expressed doubt about my reference to the “warlike conditions” in the Persian Gulf, I replied that I took my cue from my husband (who took his cue from the U.S.S. Stark [which was attacked by missiles]) and, once more to the defense, convinced her with excerpts from his letters.
As off-key as individual responses got, I am afraid the outright clinker came from my book club, a group of multi-credentialed professionals meeting monthly for the serious discussion of serious books.
That night the book was Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” After a sober two-hour dissection of both the inner and outer lives of the fictional Michael Henchard, the conversation segued to personal updates. When it came my turn and I mentioned my husband’s whereabouts, the atmosphere became….well, less than sober. There were jokes about the “hilarious names” of the oil tankers under attack, with “Gas City” providing particular merriment. From the cosmic to the comic in the flick of an agenda! And this from a group that’s worked its way through Dante, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and only minutes earlier and in minute detail, Hardy’s tragedy.
What, I wondered, is going on? Is fiction more real than reality? Is serious discussion reserved only for theoretical issues, while actual ones get tabled? Humor, of course, can provide release, but what about coming to grips?
In the six months my husband was gone, I had but one serious discussion about my situation, when a friend in town on business paused to talk with me about the fact that my husband was indeed a target. What an upper! Several others had their status upgraded from acquaintance to friend because they could ask, “How are you doing?” and actually listen without quip to my response.
Of necessity, then, I came to understand not only the dread of my husband as target but also that I’d not derive much relief from our culture. I’d have to manufacture my own, something I did by sublimating in work, “talking” to my husband in letters, reading serious books. And, not incidentally, indulging in the wonderful screwball comedies of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart. In its place, humor exhilarates. But when applied to the Persian Gulf, a place of deadly seriousness, it rattled.
“Can we talk?” Indeed we can. I quite like—and need—the straight kind. First, though, come to a full stop, remove the smile, and dispense with the banter.
A little respect for the dread, please.
Carla Seaquist is a freelance writer in Washington.