Loving Through the Labyrinth
How getting kicked out of the Navy strengthened my marriage.
“Is love enough to keep you happy?”
I asked my husband. We had been married for about two weeks, and together for a little over two months. Husband still felt foreign on my tongue.
I took it personally and pried.
“Because I always wanted more from life. To travel. To do something meaningful. To make something meaningful.”
He was in the Navy, and had been for a little over year. His muscles were huge and his hair was cropped low to his scalp. He spoke softly. When we first met, when I was 15, he was lanky and his hair was long. He was the front-man for a band and shouted into pulsing rooms of South Jersey punks about the plight of running out of pot. He didn’t like to wear shoes. His earlobes were stretched wide with wooden gauges. The man I sat across from in our New London, Connecticut apartment had shriveled holes in his earlobes and tired eyes.
“I want to be somebody,” he said.
His tattooed hands were folded, but I could still read the words printed along the outlines of his index finger and thumb. BE SOMEBODY read one hand. DREAM IS DESTINY read the other. They reminded me of the post-it notes my friend Dhruti hung all over her college dorm with quotes meant to move her. But the tattoos were from the film Waking Life, one we both loved. He was passionate about film, studied it before dropping out to join the Navy. I remember being shocked from thousands of miles away when he invited me to his boot camp send-off. I couldn’t understand why he was enlisting. And talking to him on the floor, his Navy wife, I couldn’t understand why we were there.
“But isn’t love the most important thing? Could you enjoy any of those things without it?” I asked.
I wanted him to say I was enough.
“I don’t think I could enjoy love without any of those things. I don’t think I could be satisfied.”
His honesty angered me. We were married because he called me for the first time in a year after dreaming about me. That was my idea of destiny. I was on the West Coast, traveling alone, taking some time to get to know myself, and then he called me and I wasn’t alone anymore. When I got home to New Jersey, it took me only a month to decide that I was ready to pack up and move far from everything and everyone I knew. To Connecticut. There was nothing in Connecticut but Femi. There was nothing in Connecticut but love.
It was hard being there.
I was unsatisfied. I went to work at the local Good Will and he went to work on base and we’d come home and eat quesadillas and drink fancy beers. We got a kitten. I tried to make friends with some of the Navy wives, but I was 20, a pothead, a pacifist, and for the sake of transparency I hated everything about the war and the chain-of-command Navy culture. I didn’t know my husband’s rank. I hated not being able to decide where to live. I hated how many people were dying at the command of the people who paid my rent. I hated that my husband might be taken away from me at any moment for months on end to fight someone else’s war. I hated that the soft-spoken boy who taught me about PMA (positive mental attitude) on long drives listening to Modest Mouse might have to kill, but I was there because I loved him. And I wasn’t ready to admit that it wasn’t enough to make me happy. I wasn’t ready to admit that I was wilting. I wasn’t ready to admit that he was right.
In February, a few months later, after a heaping dose of personal trauma, I was trying not to cry behind the register at work when I saw him. He came into my job in his full camouflaged get up. Boots. Hat. I always thought he looked beautiful in his uniform, despite the fact that I hated what it meant. I wasn’t expecting to see him. He was supposed to be at work. His eyes were red.
“We need to talk,” he said.
I signaled for my manager and took my break.
We sat in his car.
“Dom, please don’t hate me for what I’m about to tell you. I fucked up. Bad.”
My stomach dropped. I’d had talks like this before. It usually ended with my ex-boyfriends confessing infidelity.
“What is it,” I said, more of a sentence than a question.
“I failed a drug test. I might get kicked out. I don’t know what to do.”
He looked helpless, desperate for me to say it was okay. I said nothing for a while.
We had just gotten home from New Jersey the week before. When we were there, his band played a show in a sweaty Philadelphia basement. I watched the Black boy I loved glisten, moving the room. He smiled a lot that night. He was in his element. He was happy. After, I sat on the kitchen counter, smoking a blunt for the first time in months, brooding over a loss we’d faced the day before. He smoked too, among other things.
“Is this okay? I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be doing this,” I said, not forcefully enough.
I knew what could happen. Not because I was clairvoyant, but because I was cautious.
“Nah, it’ll be fine.”
Later, when we were in bed and I brought it up again, he told me that everyone had been drug tested on the day that we left for our trip home, so they wouldn’t do another for a while. We didn’t think that they’d test him the day he got back, but they did.
And he failed it. And I was angry. I was angry because I was dealing with some heavy shit and there he was, shoveling more shit on top of it. And if he’d listened to me we wouldn’t be here. I wanted to say I told you so. And then I remembered that he was dealing with shit, too, and that guilt weighs more than bad news. I thought about the index cards all the married couples wrote advice on for us at my bridal shower. I thought about the one my aunt wrote, about making our marriage a soft place to land. I realized she was implying that sometimes life felt like free falling. And she was right about one thing: no one wants to land in a briar patch.
“It’s OK,” I said, even though it wasn’t, yet. “Whatever happens, we’ll figure it out. This fucking sucks, but we’ll figure it out.”
And we did. There wasn’t a quick fix or neat resolution. It was months before we knew what his punishment was. We figured it out in a making-it-from-day-to-day kind of way. He had to see a psychologist to determine if he was addicted, which would mean his drug use was a disease, not an impulse, and then he had to appear before a panel of fate makers. His bosses were there to testify to his character. One, who had shown him empathy, promised him that he’d support him. He said he knew he was a good guy, a hard worker. He said that he would defend my husband, but berated him before the board. He told them my husband’s decision made him a disgrace.
While we waited on a verdict, his pay was cut in half and his hours were doubled. He was put on desk duty. His coworkers made him a pariah. The one we’d had dinner with a month before. The one whose wife straightened my hair in futility on the rainy day of the Christmas party. They ignored him. Wouldn’t look him in the eye anymore. He had never really fit in with them, though. Most of his coworkers went to the club for fun and that just wasn’t his scene.
We made friends with the locals. Warren, who worked in the record store with an infectious kindness and a dozen band recommendations. Jasmine, from the poetry open mic who invited us back to her place and then recited a monologue from the play she was in in sixth grade. Will and Jae, who made us pizza from scratch and gave us wine while we watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch on their projector. Susan, the seamstress from outside the bar, who told me I was beautiful and put me in her runway show. Karrie, the photographer, who brought us a pizza and soda and paper plates when we were broke and stuck in our packed-up apartment after the moving company bailed on us.
Those are the people we kept with us when we left, not the others. One day my husband came home and deleted everyone he’d met in the Navy from his Facebook page. We weren’t keeping them. They hadn’t kept us. By the time he was officially discharged, it came as a relief. The longer we waited to find out if we had to leave, the more we both realized we had never really wanted to stay. We were unhappy there. We had made our marriage into a soft place to land, but nothing soft can sustain when you keep slamming your weight against it.
His discharge was classified as other-than-honorable.
That was fine by me. So, he wasn’t dishonorable and he wasn’t honorable; what did their standards matter to me when it came to who he was? I saw him lucidly. I knew who he was, what he wanted. I knew that their standards demanded he be willing to die for them. To sacrifice himself. I knew that even if he didn’t get deployed, their standards were keeping his dreams three years away, and that life wasn’t meant for waiting. And so we were discharged into open space. And I was glad.
Because love wasn’t enough to keep me happy.
Because I needed my dreams, too. Because I needed to not be afraid all the time, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and squish our lives like roaches. Because I needed control over my fate, to create my own destiny.
He got a job in Philly a week later. We moved into my childhood bedroom in New Jersey. We got an apartment two months after that. We still live here, three years later. We have a son. We can’t afford to travel, and we aren’t really somebody yet. But we are doing something meaningful. Everyday we are getting closer to who we want to be, and not farther away. We are living intentionally. We are not waiting. We have dreams, alone and together. And we have each other. We aren’t happy all the time. Sometimes life is a labyrinth in the dark, and love can’t get you to happy. But it’s a hand to hold in the void, and that’s enough to give us strength.