His news hits me like a brick. I try to lift the cardboard cup to my lips, but my hands tremble. I set it back down so the tea doesn’t slosh over the sides and burn my fingers.
“We both knew this was coming,” Sam says, spinning the coarse material of his hat through his fingers. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
“I know,” I reply. And in a way it doesn’t. It’s expected, and a complete shock all at the same time. Work had kept him from home so often the last couple of weeks. Meetings that ran into the early hours of the morning, weeks of training exercises. It all should have prepared me for this, but I was happy to stick my head in the sand and stay safe behind my wall of denial. “I just didn’t realise it would be so soon.”
We’re sitting in a coffee shop; it’s the middle of a Saturday afternoon and the cafe is busy. Families coming in from the cinema across the parking lot, young couples passing time until the evening show. People whose lives are the same now as when they woke up this morning. Unlike mine, which has now been turned on its head.
I know now why Sam asked me to lunch today. He wanted to tell me the news in public. To make it harder for me to make a scene. Or if I did make a scene, it would be a cardboard cup I threw instead of one of the bone china mugs his mother had bought us as a wedding present four years ago. But I do my best to hide my emotions, still a little numb from the sudden delivery.
“I’m sorry,” he says, as if that will make it better.
My throat closes up and I release a little cough to clear it, swirling my tea in my cup. “How–” My voice cracks and I try again. “How long have you known?”
Sam continues to play with his hat. Under the table his leg jogs up and down, making the surface shake and the contents of my cup ripple. “Since Wednesday.”
This surprises me. Hurts a little bit. For seventy two hours he knew what my future would be before I did. He’d had time to process. To work up the courage to sit me down and break my heart. I didn’t have the luxury of preparation. Anger flares up inside of me and just as quickly fizzes out as I accept his task isn’t an easy one. But it’s kind of nice while it lasts, that anger. A way to start breaking through the numbness that blanketed me up until then.
He reads my reaction, starts to reach for my hand and then pulls back, flexes his fingers around the small brim of his hat. He knows well enough that the smallest act of kindness will break through my weak armour. “I probably should have told you sooner, but–” he swore under his breath, conscious of the children at the table beside us, “I didn’t know how.”
I nod, letting him know that I understand. I don’t know that I do, yet, but I will. I’m sure I will.
“When do you leave?” I ask. The question is so difficult that it sticks in my throat. The idea of him packing his things and walking out—I push the thought from my mind and focus harder on my cardboard cup, forcing myself to release my grip before I bend the cup and splash the scalding contents over my lap. Physical pain to accompany the emotional.
“Tomorrow, I think.”
A small sound escapes my lips before I can prevent it and I have to blink a few times to clear my vision. “That’s soon.”
“I think it’s for the best. Maybe make it a little easier for you.”
I want to scream that nothing will make this easier. That him to stay is what I want. But I bite my tongue and nod again, picturing him alone in a hotel while I take up the whole space of the queen size bed. Horrible for both of us.
“Do your parents know?” I ask. I have to focus on the practicalities. It’s the only way to get through this moment, the hardest part. It will get easier.
He chews on his cheek, shaking his head. “Not yet. Dad suspects. We were talking last night and I gave him a bit of a head’s up. Just so he can prepare Mum.”
“That’s probably smart.”
“I think she’d like it if you kept in touch. She’ll be worried about you.”
I try to force a smile, but I don’t know how successful it is. I can feel my lips shaking as my chin quivers. Trying to hide the unsightly expression, I hide my face with a sip of tea. The warm liquid courses down my throat, down into my belly, staving off the coldness that’s suddenly come over me in spite of the winter sun coursing through the windows beside us, and the masses of people in the closed-in cafe.
“But hey,” Sam pushes out a cheerful tone of voice. “This isn’t forever. I’ll be back before you know it.”
Trust Sam to find try and find the positive of any situation. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him. I try my best to match his feigned cheer and again twist my lips into a smile.
“Nine months,” he continues, “and you’ll be back telling me to get my feet off the coffee table and put the clothes away.”
I nod, knowing–hoping–he’s right.
Finally he reaches out and takes my hand. The intimate gesture almost pushes me over the edge, but I won’t cry. Not here. The tears will come later when I’m alone in the house, adjusting to the silence.
“I love you, Liz,” he says.
“Love you, too,” I reply. The words sound stiff, no matter how much I mean them.
At the table next to us, someone’s watch beeps the hour and Sam’s fingers tighten around mine. He glances down at his own watch and I see a glimmer of panic that makes my heart speed up and I hold tighter onto the security blanket that is my tea cup.
“I should go,” he says, although I can see he really doesn’t want to. “We have a briefing this afternoon.”
Another flare of anger twists my guts and threatens to push my misery closer to the surface. Such little time left and they’re stealing precious hours away from me.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asks, setting the olive and brown army cap over his short brown hair.
“Of course,” I manage. “Aren’t I always?”
He smiles and lifts my hand to kiss the back of it. And then he’s gone, and I realise that tomorrow it will be for good. He’ll leave and I will have to find a way to cope. He’ll go off to war and serve his country, and I will smile proudly and watch him go. I’ll stand strong so he can be strong. Because that’s what army spouses do. And sometimes I think that’s the harder job of the two.