Our back yards were so close that when we both fired up the grill for dinner, the smoke joined into one cloud above the privacy fence. I don’t remember the first time we finally spoke to each other; we sized each other up for a long time before saying hello. Things can get awkward quickly if you’re too friendly with the people who share your walls, especially if they turn out to be asshats.
My spying revealed that their three daughters appeared to be similar ages to our kids. They were well-behaved. Their family seemed to enjoy one another and when they had friends over, they weren’t rowdy. Plus, the stuff they barbecued always smelled really, really good. They passed the cursory asshat test with flying colors.
When we finally broke the ice, we usually only talked over the fence. We always ended up grilling at the same time and we’d stand out there and shoot the shit. LeRoy was like Wilson from Home Improvement. For the longest time I had no idea what his whole face looked like. The top of his head and eyes bobbed over the top of the fence as we talked. Jessica was too short to see over the fence so we stood on our porch stairs and chatted across the yard. In time we learned that they were high school sweethearts. They were only in their mid-twenties but had been married for longer than us; they had already spent years apart due to deployments. Our youngest daughters were born on the exact same day. Our kids made friends and played together in one yard or the other. The adults mostly stayed in our own spaces at first; we took the adage, “good fences make good neighbors,” to heart.
While Ollie was preparing for his first Afghan deployment, I often found him out at the fence talking with LeRoy about what to expect. A proud cavalry NCO, LeRoy freely shared his experiences. He had been home for about six months and was preparing for an Iraq deployment in another six months. Iraq was calming down and he wasn’t too worried about this one; it was billed to be an easy deployment without the constant enemy engagement like he experienced before. Afghanistan was heating up and I was scared for Ollie to go, but we were all glad that LeRoy was “just” going to Iraq. Their family deserved an easy one after the others.
It was my first experience in post housing, living among other military families. Jessica was an inspiration and mentor to me, whether she knew it or not. She ran her household efficiently, was a stellar mother, exercised every evening and resiliently rolled with the Army punches. She spoke of maddening Army moments with a shrug and amused raise of her eyebrow. One day she got bored and decided to paint her kitchen. I asked her how she could do that in on-post housing and she answered, “I’ll just paint it white again when we leave!” Her industriousness impressed me. I was pregnant, had little energy, and felt paralyzed by Ollie’s impending deployment. She was the Energizer Bunny who let nothing get her down.
When I accidentally got stuck out of town for two months with my very premature baby, Jessica cleaned the house, mowed the lawn, and fed the cat. When we came home, she helped me get settled in. She answered questions like, “Does that look like a rash to you?” and “Do you think he has a fever?” She invited me over for dinner all the time so that I didn’t have to eat alone with the kids every night. LeRoy was one of the few males I would allow near my littlest guy before Ollie could get home to meet his son. My boy seemed relieved to have a male counterpart. So did LeRoy–he was a father of three daughters. He and Jessica frequently apologized to my baby for his first name, promising to only call him by his more acceptable middle name. They launched a hilarious but doomed campaign to convince me to change his name altogether. One evening when I found my back door standing open when I came home, LeRoy cleared the house before letting us go inside. They watched out for me. They were family.
When I had to run out to emergency FRG meetings, Jessica watched my babies. We never really talked about the memorials, but she was witness to my unraveling. She encouraged me to join her for her multi-mile speed walk evening excursions from Hades. We pushed strollers full of babies while the big kids road bikes or scooters. The activity helped burn off a lot of anxiety. On nights when I had to call families to inform them of unit casualties, I sat outside and breathed in the smoke from LeRoy’s cigarettes. After a while, I started bumming smokes from him. We didn’t really talk much those nights. We smoked on either side of the fence, silently reflecting on the fuckedupedness of it all.
We were supposed to trade babysitting, but Jessica ended up watching my kids way more than I watched hers. I was glad when I was able to take care of her girls the night she and LeRoy went to their pre-deployment Ball. She was gorgeous as always, he looked distinguished in his Class A’s. They came home laughing and telling stories about the night’s events.
As LeRoy’s deployment grew closer, they decided that she and the girls would move home while he was gone. They would have family support and the kids could spend time with their grandparents. I was devastated for them to leave, but glad that they would have time with family. They packed up and moved during the two weeks that Ollie was home for R&R near Christmas. She did as promised–the kitchen was painted white again when she pulled out of the driveway for the last time. We waved to them as they were packing the truck, but we missed saying real goodbyes by about 20 minutes. Most military families avoid the goodbyes anyway.
We stayed in contact as time allowed, but life was busy for both of us. I volunteered, dealt with memorials, my health suffered, my friendships were strained and with every unit casualty my paranoia increased. One day in April, the panic beast raged and I had no hope of taming it. I paced through the house from the front door to the back door, looking outside, watching for the official vehicle I thought must be coming for me. Through the front window, I caught a glimpse of a military police car cruising slowly down my street. Our eyes met as he looked at my house. When I walked to the back door, I saw him again. He was cruising down the alley behind the house, pausing to look at me through the back door. Panicked, I called my best friend Heather to talk me down. There were a million reasons that an MP could have been driving by the house. She distracted me until I was feeling almost well enough to hang up the phone.
Then the doorbell rang.
The doorbell rang.
Time stopped. My ears buzzed. I had tunnel vision. “Stay with me,” I whispered to Heather.
I walked toward the front door. It might have taken me 5 seconds or 5 years to get there. As I approached, I saw papers. Papers held by a man. Papers held by a man in Class A’s. Two men in Class A’s with papers. “They’re here,” I whispered. “They’re here.” She was silent.
My knees somehow supported me all the way to the door. I opened it slowly, pleading, begging, whimpering, “No.” A simple word, the only word. I knew what it meant for them to be there. I begged for it not to be true even though I knew that my beloved husband had to be dead. Ollie was gone.
They gathered themselves for a moment, looked directly into my tear-filled eyes and said, “Hello, ma’am. Are you Jessica Webster?”
All I heard was that it was the wrong name. It wasn’t my name. “It’s not my name, Heather, it’s not my name!!” I hung up on her. “That’s not my name! You have the wrong house, that’s not me!” They were horrified. I felt, for just a flash, like I’d won the lottery.
But then I understood.
They were looking for Jessica.
LeRoy Webster was dead.