The Secretary Regretsbypatricia51©
Marge Paper groaned and held her aching head between her hands. She had already taken three extra strength aspirin with a glass of orange juice that had nearly made her throw up again. If she could just get the coffee going and maybe get some food in her stomach, she might survive this hangover. Again.
Her hands trembling, she finally managed to poor water in the proper compartment, add the filter and coffee to the basket and turn it on. She collapsed into a kitchen chair for a moment. Where the hell had she put her cigarettes? Ronald didn't like her to smoke but he wasn't here, damn it. She spotted a pack on the counter top and wearily got up and lit one.
Yuck. Menthol. Must belong to Larry, or Harry, or whoever the hell she had left in the bed. She walked down the short hallway and peered in. He was still asleep, sprawled among the bed covers. She was pretty sure his name was Larry. Well, he was in the Army too, just like Ronald. Hell, he was even a lieutenant like Ronald. Funny how that was. Ronald would never have been in a dive like that one last night. But then, neither should she have been.
She walked back to the kitchen. Pouring herself a cup of coffee, she gulped a mouthful. Not hot enough. A vagrant thought crossed her mind. Her mother had always made coffee in a percolator. Now that was hot coffee. Burn the lining right off your throat. This morning that would have been nice. It would have taken off the fuzz left from all the smoking and drinking of the night before.
She really loved Ronald. They had discussed his projected Army career when they first talked about being married. She thought she had accepted that he would be gone for periods of time. She was sure she could deal with it. She had heard rumors about how the clubs around a base would fill up with wives as soon as a unit was deployed and had been certain that she would never be one of those.
As it turned out, the abstract was much easier to accept than the concrete. When he went off on his first training rotation she was unbelievably lonely. She had gritted her teeth and made it through. She had hoped the second time would be easier. It wasn't. Then she was dealing with her pregnancy and the birth of their son. It made things easier because she was busier, but it also made it harder because she was much more tired and grumpy at times.
Then finally she had enough. On a Saturday night she asked her next door neighbor to sit Ron Jr. Sylvia was happy to do so. How she managed to remain so cheerful while her husband was gone Marge never could figure out. But Sylvia didn't ask any questions when Marge asked her to watch her son on an occasional night.
She had been determined to keep it all on the safe side. She had made it clear to anyone approaching her when she was out that all she was looking for was conversation and a chance to relax. Maybe a dance or two. No slow dances. Well, maybe just one. It had felt so good, just being held by someone while they moved in a slow circle around the floor. And if she closed her eyes and laid her head on a muscular shoulder, she could imagine it was Ronald.
Larry had commented on that last night. When they were dozing after the first round he asked "Who's Ronald?"
"What?" she had answered.
"Ronald. You kept calling me by that name."
She had cringed then and cringed again remembering last night. Last night. Last night. Last night. Just another night at one of the clubs that lined the street stretching out from the post's main gate. She couldn't even remember the name of the club. Shit, why should she? She couldn't even recall the name of the man in her BED for God's sake. She could only remember bits and pieces of the night.
The music had been loud and fast. She had always loved dancing and had spent that night on the floor. For those minutes out there, undulating to the music and some nameless stranger she could forget how lonely she was. She could squeeze her real life into a box and tie it shut and be single and 20 and wild again.
Well, she wasn't. She was 24 and married and a mother. She had drunk too much beer, but that was an excuse, a straw to clutch at. It didn't excuse what she had done, anymore than the fact that the man she had danced that long, slow dance with had been good looking and charming. It didn't excuse leaving with him, the fumbling against the wall of the club in the dark shadows. It didn't excuse the wild kissing, the feel of his hands under her skirt, her hand on his straining hardon threatening to break free of his jeans.
"Oh my GOD, what have I done?" She buried her head in her hands and cried.
What she had done was bring a stranger home and fuck him in her bed, in THEIR bed. Shit, it hadn't even been that good. He was no match for Ronald. What she really craved had not even been sex, but to be held throughout the night. And he had rolled over and started snoring as soon as they were done.
"Okay," she said aloud. "You fucked up Marge. You're no better than those 'every night with a stranger' wives you despised."
"Alright," she challenged herself. "What are you going to do about it?"
She almost laughed at holding a conversation with herself, but there was nothing funny about it. Then and there she decided.
"I screwed up. It was no one's fault but mine. Well, I can't undo it. I can't unfuck that guy back there. But I can damn make sure it never happens again." She paused and pounded her hand on her thigh. "What the FUCK were you thinking?"
She slumped further in the kitchen chair. The cigarette she had laid in the ashtray had burned down to the filter so she stubbed it out and lit another one.
"Yuck." Her stomach revolted again. He crushed the cigarette out and refilled her coffee cup. She stood and crossed to the refrigerator, drinking the black coffee as she went. She rummaged through the food, pulling out eggs and bacon.
The knock on the door made her jump. Nobody ever came by on Sunday morning. Perhaps it was Sylvia wanting to know when she was going to pick up Ron, Jr. Sylvia never said a word when Marge asked her to baby-sit but her disapproval was clear. Marge sighed, wrapped her housecoat around herself and got up.
When she wrenched open the door the bright sunlight forced her to close her eyes for a minute and brought her headache right back. She managed to open them and gasped. The caller was Lieutenant Colonel Davis, the Acting Post Commander. With him was a medium height, dark-haired woman Marge recognized as his wife from the occasional Officer's Wives Club functions she had attended. They were accompanied by one of the Post Chaplains. She thought it was the Episcopal one, even though she hadn't gone to services much since Ron had been gone.
"Mrs. Paper, may we come in?" The stern older man phrased it as a question, but it obviously wasn't.
She stood aside and shrugged.
"Sorry, I wasn't expecting visitors," Marge mumbled. She tried not to show the embarrassment she felt at the disheveled appearance of the house. Generally a fussy housekeeper, she had let thing slide down hill more and more as the time Ronald was gone lengthened. "Just like myself," she thought, suddenly remembering the sleeping man back in the bedroom. She needed to get this, whatever it was, over in a hurry before he woke up.
The trio closed the door behind them. Colonel Roberts took a deep breath. He hesitated and looked for a moment at his wife. Marge felt something flow between them, as though the woman was passing strength to her husband. He turned back to her and squared his shoulders.
"Mrs. Paper. The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your husband. Lieutenant Ronald Paper, has been killed in action in Iraq facing an armed enemy of the United States. Further details will be forthcoming as they become available."
A giant hand squeezed Marge's heart. She screamed, staggered and would have fallen if the woman had not caught her arm and supported her.
The two men stood silently, watching the older woman assist Marge to the couch. The momentary quiet was broken when footsteps echoed down the hall. The young man, Larry, Marge finally recalled from some dim corner of her mind, burst into the living room.
"What the hell is going... oh FUCK!"
"Good morning, Lieutenant Hall." Larry blanched as he recognized the Colonel, who continued. "Lieutenant, perhaps you could find time in your busy schedule to come by my office tomorrow morning? Shall we say 10 AM?"
The young man nodded, gasped out a hoarse "Yes Sir" and rushed out of the room. Shortly there was the sound of the back door closing and a car took off with a squeal of tires.
"Mrs. Paper, is there anything we can do for you?"
Marge barely comprehended the Chaplain's words. His attempts to comfort her seemed no more than meaningless noises. The fact that he was trying so hard to help her made Marge want to turn away even more.
Finally, after a few more formal sentences, the visitors left. The Colonel's wife lingered in the doorway and then left, closing the door behind her.
How long Marge sat on the couch, her mind filled with conflicting thoughts and images, she didn't have any idea. She had cried until there weren't any tears left. She was reliving her whole life with Ronald, from the first date through when he left on the bus going to the airfield. Recalling her final words, and realizing they had been yet another complaint and whine, rather than supportive and loving. God, what a bitch she had been. Whimpering, all about "me".
She refused to even think about last night. She would not let herself realize that at the very moment she was betraying Ronald he might have been dying. That thought would lead to madness. She just sat, her thoughts a whirl of grief, regret and loss. Eventually the tears came and stayed until she found herself completely wept out..
A soft knock came at the door. Marge ignored it, sunk in her thoughts. The knock was repeated, louder this time. Her head swiveled towards the door. Maybe if she ignored it, whomever was there would just go away.
The third knock was thunderous. "Marge, open the door!" The voice was that of Colonel Davis' wife.
This time the door shook. "Marge Paper, either you open this damned door or I'll kick it in and don't think I can't!"
Shocked in spite of everything, Marge pulled open the door. Mrs. Davis marched through the door. With her came a gaggle of women. Marge recognized two of them as being the wives of other officers. Even though she was sure she could not feel worse than she had, her heart sank a bit more. They were here to line up and let her have it for what she had done.
Well, she deserved everything and anything they threw at her. In fact, a part of her welcomed it. She should be abused and reminded what a slut she had been. She stood, her hands clenched and prepared herself.
Then she realized that the women were hardly equipped for a lynching, verbal or otherwise. One clutched a broom, another a vacuum cleaner. A third held a bucket full of cleaning supplies and the last two held platters. Mrs. Davis rapped out directions.
"Sylvia, would you start in the kitchen please? Clean a place to put the food first. Then get the frige, the stove and work your way from there. Delores, if you and Danielle would favor me by starting in here I would appreciate it. Denise, make some coffee and get the food put up, please." She turned to Marge. "Marge honey, where is your son?" Marge managed to mumble about Ron, Jr. being next door. "Good." The Colonel's wife turned to the last woman, who was about the same age as the speaker. "Frances, would you be kind enough to see to him?"
"Of course, Tina," answered Frances. The rest of the wives simply nodded and scattered to their tasks.
"Now then, young woman," Tina Davis turned to Marge. "You look terrible. Jump in the shower. I'll find something for you to wear."
Numbly, Marge obeyed. It was easier just to do what the Tina told her. Mechanically she climbed into the tub and ran the water. She began to scrub herself, routinely at first, then harder and harder as though she could wash away the events of the last hours somehow.
Marge stayed in the tub until the hot water ran out. Then she reluctantly came out, and dried off. When she reentered the bedroom she was surprised to find Tina Davis had already stripped and remade the bed and laid out clothes. Without a word, the older woman helped her dress. Marge herself remained silent as she stood before the dresser mirror and fixed her face. Finally she turned around and faced the Colonel's wife.
"Why, why are you doing this?"
"Because dear, you're part of the sisterhood." Tina held her hand up. "No, I don't want to hear it. Yes, you made one helluva mistake Marge, there's no getting away from it. But you can't take it back and you can't apologize to your husband for it. You can't make it up, so you're going to have to live with it."
"But how can I?" Marge burst out.
"Because you don't have any choice," was the answer.
Marge thought for a moment. There was another choice.
Tina Davis must have read her mind, because she shook her head. "No," she said softly.
"No, THAT is not the way out. That's the coward's way out in this case Marge. You have a son to raise, a boy that will need someone to keep his father alive for him. That's going to be you." The older woman paused. "Its going to be anything but easy. Your son will remind you every day of your life what you lost, but he'll also be a reminder of what you had."
The older woman stared off, looking at nothing. Softly, not really talking to Marge but to herself, she continued.
"When Jim, Colonel Davis that is, was a young Lieutenant he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne. There were a lot of field exercises and practice deployments and time spent being the alert unit. Its a hard adjustment. I thought that since Jim and I had been married since he was an enlisted man and through college that I would be more settled and accept it easier. It wasn't. It was as hard for me as it was for any Second Lieutenant's bride fresh from the Cadet Chapel at West Point.
"You just do the best you can. And you try to stick together. If nothing else, you can bitch to someone else who will bitch right back at you about the same things. Then you'll both laugh and for a while you feel better.
"There was one wife, I'll call her 'Carly'. No different than the rest of us. There were good times and rough times, but when I think back, I believe that when we all got together we let the rough spots dominate. Sometimes it feels good to bitch to someone in the same boat, and sometimes it becomes so routine that you don't even notice that instead of releasing your frustrations you're adding to them.
"Well, one afternoon we all were notified by our husbands of an unannounced alert and they didn't know when they'd be home. Carly and her husband had planned an evening out, the first in a long time. She lost it. Already dressed, she stormed out of the house and went to town.
"To make a long story short, she didn't come back for 48 hours. By then the news of the drop on Grenada was splashed all over. The casualties were very light, but Carly's husband was one of those killed.
"She came hone to find the notification team camped out on her doorstep. She fell completely apart. Yes, perhaps she deserved to feel the crushing sorrow and guilt that she did. But there was no doubt that the rest of us wives, me included, were just as wrong to turn our backs on her, stick our noses in the air and sniff disdainfully.
"A month later she killed herself, leaving behind a daughter who was too young to understand why her parents were never coming back. I've had to live with the knowledge that I might have prevented that had I not been on my high horse about 'I would never do such a thing' instead of being a friend."
There was a soft knock on the door. The woman who had gone next door poked her head in.
"Tina, I have Ron, Jr. He wants his mom."
"We'll be right there, Frances. Thank you." Tina turned to Marge and wrapped her up in her arms. "Now, you go out there and hold your son. Hold your head up high, even though you want to fall on your knees and announce 'Mea Culpa'. Its going to be hard, very hard. But this is the only way you can be true to your husband now." The two women started towards the door. "And Marge, when the blackness comes back, be it three o'clock in the morning, you call. You call me, you call one of the other women who is here today. They won't condemn you, even when that's what you want."
Marge nodded. She took a deep breath and started the first day of the rest of her life with Ron.
The Casualty Officer arrived back at the Post Adjutant General's Office, a take out bag from a local fast-food restaurant in his hand. He set it down, fished inside and handed a paper wrapped sandwich to the enlisted clerk on call. Continuing to fill out paperwork, she took the food with a nod of thanks.
"God, what a Sunday morning," the Lieutenant remarked to no one in particular.
"And getting worse, El-tee."
"Another one?" The young Specialist nodded and passed a printout to the officer. He scanned it and sighed. "Are the Colonel and the Chaplain on their way back?"
"Yes sir. Here's his cell phone number"
The Lieutenant picked up the phone and hesitated. "God, the Old Man is tough. I couldn't do this. He insists on making all the notifications or at least going along when possible. And this one, this is going to be really rough."
"I know, Lieutenant. When both people are in service..." The words trailed off.
"I'm sorry, Phyllis. That was pretty thoughtless of me. How is your husband?"
"He's safe and sound so far, Lieutenant."
"Tell him I was asking about him next time you talk. You've got a great guy there, even if he did wipe the course with me the last time we had an NCO/Officer golf match."
"Thank you, sir."
"Are you still getting bothered by that numbskull who wants to 'Comfort you' and his pals?"
"They've backed off ever since you had a word with them. Maybe they finally realize what "Hell NO" means."
"Okay, but if they ever start up again, remember I came here out of the Ranger battalion when I broke my arm. I can drop a word in the ears of a couple of non-coms over there and I promise you won't ever be bothered again.
The female soldier laughed softly. "I think the last time he came around I convinced him. But rest assured I will let you know."
"Okay." The young officer returned his attention to the paper. He sighed and punched the number. "Colonel Davis, this is Lieutenant McIllmore at Casualty. Sir, we have another notification. Lieutenant Christina Hall was killed by an IED in a roadside ambush. Her husband is Lieutenant Larry Hall. I'll have his address and everything by the time you get here, sir."