Soft Spaces

by Andrea Rathbun

A porch filled with plants and sunlight.

I check the rearview mirror just as her chin hits her chest and at last comes to rest. I sigh, louder than necessary, letting out a breath that I’ve held for the last four months. I glance at the other side of the back seat and see my baby, drool spilling onto her pink ruffled dress. Baby might not be the right word anymore; she is almost four after all. I roll my head, my neck cracking as I go. The car falls quiet as we move towards our destination and refuge.

For four months I have been solely responsible for these two little tiny people. The weight of that is a constant companion. So is my cell phone, always within finger tip’s reach, waiting to announce contact. My husband is a third of the way through his third deployment and a buzz or gentle chime calls me to attention and relays his safety. The girls and I are escaping this reality for the weekend, a much-needed break. I turn the radio up just slightly and set the cruise control, letting the car take over.

A gentle yawn moves me from the trance I have entered at 65 mph. “Mama, are we almost there?” rolls sleepily into the front seat.

“Yes my love, how was your nap?” I ask, just above a whisper, not wanting to rouse the little one whose drool puddle continues to expand.

“I wasn’t sleeping. I just closed my eyes for a minute. Who are we going to see again?” The lie is automatic, Katalina has not admitted to being tired or taking a nap since she was two and I can’t help but chuckle.

“My best friend Lisa. We were in the army together a long time ago. You’ll like her.” I hope this is true; Lisa has not always been a kid-person. Then again, I was basically a kid when we met, just 18.

“You were in the army? Like daddy? Did you ever have to go away?”

“Yes I was, and yes I did, but that was a long time ago.”

“Was it scary?”

“Look, we are here!” I pull into a long gravel driveway and let the question fade, relieved to not have to give these words, these thoughts to my daughter.        

When I think of my best friend Lisa, I think of a deep desire for comfort. She is a person who at all times seeks to be surrounded by softness and light. This is in deep contrast to the setting in which we became friends, the army, combat and war. Our friendship was forged during times of discomfort, brutality and hardship.

Lisa emerges onto the welcoming porch clad in pajamas, hair uncombed and bra long abandoned. She whisks us through the front door and we are immediately surrounded by soft colors and plush fabrics. The home is clean enough to be pleasant but cluttered and askew enough to be welcoming. As my daughters explore and ready themselves for a weekend of swimming in the above ground pool, Lisa settles me into her space, a covered back patio that contains overstuffed patio furniture, hanging plants and a gracious old dog that is happy to lay his head in your lap or have you lay your feet on his back.

As I sink into one of the chairs, warm drink already in hand, I can’t help but notice the absence of sharp edges. Lisa had created a world made up of rounded corners. There is nothing hard to brush up against, nothing abrasive to jar you from the gauzy existence. We are, for all intents and purposes, padded and removed from the harshness of life.

In this beautifully controlled environment, my older daughter’s question bangs around loudly in my head. Was it scary? I wince as it hits a nerve, finding purchase.

“They are so frecken cute. The little one reminds me of you. She’s a mess, look at that hair. I am so glad you guys came. I’ve missed you.”

It has been almost ten years since I sat in the same room as Lisa, and I have missed her too.

“Me too. We should have gotten together sooner.” Honestly, we should have. Our friendship spans 14 years. This much time apart seems unacceptable. But with the question still pounding away inside of me, I think I know why so much time has elapsed. As I look at Lisa, I know the answer. Yes, yes it was scary.

The day moves on and I join Lisa in her pajama-wearing, braless state. The girls race in and out of the house, trailed by the smell of sunscreen and chlorine, leaving splashes of popsicles in their wake. I settle into this place and the giggles it brings. We laugh about the people we once knew and even more about the people we once were. The sun is setting as I pull the girls reluctantly out of the pool and gather them into Lisa’s overly plush, pink towels.

My lap contains a wiggly little butt. Long, damp, brown hair falls down my chest as my older daughter snuggles into me. The little one is perched atop Lisa, counting the freckles on her nose. They have formed a friendship that surprises me and I am happy to have my mama’s girl, happily engaged with someone new.

“Ms. Lisa, were you and my mommy really in the army?” my youngest daughter has reached 17 freckles. Unable to count any higher, she poses the question. I am surprised; I thought she was sleeping in the car.

“Yes, we were. That is how we met. Your mom could do more push-ups than any of the other girls.” Lisa’s eyes get wide as she says this, push-ups were never her strong suit and my ability still impresses her.

“That is true,” I add laughing, “but Ms. Lisa was a way better shot than me. I could barely hit the target.”

“You mean like guns? You shot guns? At people?” The head that had been resting on my chest has shot up and two blue eyes, red-rimmed and blurry from the sun and pool water, stare into mine.

“No babe, not people,” I answer, looking up to see Lisa watching me. She registers the lie but lets it go.

I hear myself telling the girls to get into their pajamas and get ready for me to tuck them in. The question is back, bouncing around my head. I make it through the nighttime routine, teeth brushing, hair combing, story reading and song singing before returning to my spot on the porch. My hot beverage has been replaced by a cold one.

“Sorry about all of the questions. They didn’t really know I was in the army until today.” I admit this to Lisa, a little ashamed and a little defensive.

“I don’t really talk about it either. It’s fine. You can tell them more when they get older.” I nod, this is the same thing I tell myself.

“Why don’t you talk about it?” I say, not sure who I am asking.

“It just doesn’t seem worth talking about.”

“Dillon talks about it,” I say, referring to my husband. “He talks to guys we were over there with and my little brother. They all talk about what they did, what they saw.”

“But that’s different.”

“I tried talking about once. When I was getting out, I had to go to a therapist to get cleared, make sure I wasn’t too crazy to become a civilian. I told him about some of the stuff that happened, that I had trouble sleeping. He told me I was being dramatic, women were not allowed in combat. He signed my paperwork and told me to leave, so I did.” Lisa is watching me and I take a sip of my beer in order to break the eye contact.

“It is like what we did doesn’t count. That is why I don’t talk about it.” As Lisa says this I see the sharp edges that have been missing. They appear on her face, ready to do battle to protect me. She always tried to protect me.

“Maybe we can talk about it sometime.”

We both nod, and settle back into this soft space, waiting to find the words.

Category: Fiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing