Dustin has already been home from deployment for a month. Yes, it's true. I know because I have a calendar. If I went with my gut instead, I would think Dustin just arrived. The month leading up to his homecoming crept by painfully slow, but the past four weeks have slipped past like a summer's end.
To say it's been a good month would be an understatement. Dustin, the boys and I have been in a cocoon of family time. We even spent Christmas alone, just the five of us.
"This is the first Christmas when we didn't have other family visiting," Ford said, and I had to think about that for a minute. Dustin was home. We were together. Nothing really seemed to be missing.
We are in that post-deployment period -- a honeymoon, of sorts -- when nothing else registers or matters except being together. According to my longtime military-wife friend, this is when spouses have to "break up" with their deployment world in order to make room for their returning loved one. Or, put another way, military wives are serial "rough weather" friends: We cling to our support system during the deployment, then we shut out everything else, if only for a while, once it's over.
Since Dec. 1, my friends have heard from me less, and I haven't had much "me time." I haven't wanted it.
But this post-deployment honeymoon period always comes to end. Eventually, things return to a new normal. Eventually, a night out with the girls sounds better than a night in with the husband. Eventually, a military wife asks herself, "Doesn't he have somewhere he's supposed to be?"
"Eventually" came last week, during a family trip to Boston, when Dustin, on foot, took a left turn instead of a right and sent me this text message several minutes later: "I'm going down a hill. Now I'm going up a hill. I'm actually not sure where I am."
Wait, let's stop and rewind:
The day after Christmas, Dustin drove us to a hotel that is attached to an indoor water park. These are fairly common in the northeast, but when we first moved here four years ago, the idea took some getting use to. Swimming "indoors" in the south means swimming inside one of those screened enclosures that blow into your neighbor's yard during a hurricane. In the northeast, it means squeezing into last summer's bathing suit while freezing rain pelts the windows of your hotel.
I walked dazed and confused through the steamy, chlorine-filled water park, and by the sheepish smiles on the other women's faces, I knew they felt the same. Our nods said, "I forgot to shave," or "My legs are white."
But the kids had a blast. So did Dustin ... and every other husband in the building. When I saw mine run past with the older boys, on their way to a big slide while I sat in ankle-deep water in the baby pool with Lindell and the other moms, Dustin's face looked 20 years younger. His wet hair stood up in all directions. "Isn't this great?" he said. "Just one more time down the big slide!"
All at once, sitting in an unnaturally warm pool, I felt angry for the first time since Dec. 1. My life was supposed to get easier with Dustin home. Instead, he seemed to be having all the fun.
When we were leaving the park, Dustin forgot something and had to go back inside. "I'll meet you at the car," he said, so the boys and I went out the double doors and walked through the freezing rain and darkness. We went down a sidewalk and turned right in front of the hotel, where our car was parked.
Review: We went straight and then turned right.
Slush slid down the windshield and hot aired warmed my feet as we sat in the car waiting for Dustin. Five minutes. Ten minutes. No Dustin.
I drove around the parking lot to look for him.
"I bet he went the wrong way," I said aloud, my annoyance growing.
"But there's only one way to go," Ford said.
PS: I've known Dustin a lot longer than Ford has.
This is when the text message came: "I'm going down a hill. Now I'm going up a hill. I'm actually not sure where I am."
I called Dustin on the phone, and after a few confusing minutes ("You were supposed to turn right. Can you see the hotel? Are you outside? Are you in the parking lot?"), I figured out he was on the backside of the hotel, in the loading zone, walking in the opposite direction of our car.
"Maybe I took the long route," he said.
"Geez, it's like having a fourth child," I said under my breath.
And just then, in front of me in the rain, I saw him. He was standing in the middle of the road, his sweatshirt soaked and drops of water running down his cheeks. He was laughing and smiling like a little boy. We were still on the phone.
"Hey, it's you," he said. "Man, I'm glad to see you."
And though I was annoyed, I sort of fell in love all over again.