Siobhan Fallon is the author of the short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone.
The spouses of deployed soldiers have a desperate relationship with the phone.
You never know when it will ring. Even when you get an email that says your husband will call you at a certain time on a certain day, there are always last-minute patrols — sudden communication black-outs when all Internet and phone lines on the base are cut, or claims that "the satellite dish can't find the satellite." The randomness can drive a girl crazy. Because I had to answer that phone — especially since there was always an ugly whisper in my brain saying this just might be the last call my soldier would make.
My husband has deployed three times: Afghanistan in 2004, Iraq in 2006 and again in 2009. Technology changed a great deal from his first deployment to his last — from 2004, with its long stretches of nothing broken up by airmail letters closed with electrical tape and covered in a fine, gray sand, to the sporadic Skype and fairly regular email contact we had in 2009. But somehow, during each deployment, it seemed like I missed his calls more often than I managed to pick them up, my cellphone inbox full of his faraway sigh, "Damn, baby, where are you?"
But I was there, all the time — running for the phone left on the diaper changing table, digging for it at the bottom of my purse while driving 70 miles an hour on a Texas interstate, leaving a trail of water from the shower to grab a phone just out of reach, clamping it to my ear one second too late.
During the three years of our marriage that we spent apart, those phone calls, even with the time delay and static, were the closest we could get to each other, when we could hear each other breathe and know we were both OK. You learn to cram into that allotted 15 minutes every scrap of a shared life you can manage — that the mortgage payment is on time, that your child is learning to crawl, that you still love each other with all the distance thrown in between.
That tenuous phone call is the highlight of your week.
Now the media is focused on our troops returning from Iraq, a happy influx of homecomings and reunions. But there are still 100,000 servicemen and women in Afghanistan. Their families are still waiting, getting ready to watch a ball drop on New Year's, holding on to their phones, wishing them to ring, praying they will be there to answer — and that they will hear their soldier's voice on the other side.