For the first time since we tied the knot, I’m remembering who I am as a whole pie instead of just a slice. I’m tapping into the part of me that was a Goldstein before I was a Hayes. And, because we don’t have children, I am truly going it alone while he’s away.
We’ve spent long stretches of time apart before, when we lived in Japan during a two-year deployment. He would be at sea for months at a time, but it felt different because, at that time, we weren’t engaged or married. The uncertainty of our future made it harder to be alone. Fortunately, I had living and working in a foreign land to focus on.
This time around, there’s something about the forever of our commitment that takes the sting out of the loneliness. It’s a gift that has helped me gain the confidence to travel alone, be a third wheel with friends every weekend, dive into work, and reinvest in friendships that collected dust when Tom entered my life.
Tom is a lieutenant commander in the Navy. He’s usually working as an anesthesiologist at Walter Reed Navy Military Medical Center, but this summer he’s aboard the USNS Mercy, which is on a medical mission visiting Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Vietnam.
While aboard the Mercy, Tom shares a room with seven other physicians, some of whom are from Japan and Australia. He eats things like Sloppy Joes for dinner; in the mornings, he gets up before everyone else to try to score some Kashi GOLEAN cereal. He has limited access to the Internet, only through an official ship e-mail address. That means no Googling, which is how I ended up searching “betel nut” for him when the ship reached Papua New Guinea. The majority of his patients there were so fond of the stimulant that it affected their dental hygiene, making things like intubating challenging.
Because we’ve always had a playful relationship, I like to toy with him to see what I can get him to believe, like telling him that Matthew McConaughey has entered the presidential race or that Donald Trump is the leading Republican candidate. (Oh wait, that last one’s true.)
He does, however, have access to a phone — and that’s where the magic comes in. Unless a ship antenna is on the fritz, we get to talk by phone every day, typically for 20 to 30 minutes. When was the last time you got to speak to your partner, uninterrupted, for 30 minutes a day for four months? I bet it was back in middle school when you purposefully stretched calls with your crush to persuade Mom and Dad to get you your own phone line.
We are lucky, spoiled even, to get to connect without distraction. No one is checking tweets or texting with colleagues while the other yammers on. He doesn’t have a choice, and I force myself to even the playing field by stepping away from the computer or turning off the TV. The focus is exhilarating. He’s hanging on to my every word for the first time since we were getting to know each other when we met in 2007, and I find myself doing the same.
The conversation topics aren’t profound — we aren’t discussing childhood memories or great works of literature — but it doesn’t matter. I care that he’s found happiness from getting his hands on the final episodes of this season’s “Game of Thrones,” or that his roommate was responsible for tranquilizing horses from a helicopter in Fiji.
We have our faux independence to thank for the healthy flow of conversation. Do I fess up to my little solo-living victories, such as using the washing machine as a hamper and forgoing the toilet paper ring altogether? No. Do I disclose that I stayed at Cashion’s Eat Place past whatever unspoken marital curfew we had given each other? Not really.
But relearning and rediscovering who I am gives us a lot to talk about because he’s doing the same. Navigating a solo life, albeit temporary, is a bit like relearning an old hobby, like trying to play an exhaustive, ball-chasing game of singles tennis after playing doubles comfortably without breaking a sweat for years. It takes some time to relearn the game.
Before my husband left, our relationship wasn’t rocky, but it wasn’t perfect. Our dog passed away suddenly; our condo was damaged in a flood; and both of our careers were demanding most of our attention. So much life was happening around us that we forgot to do the living together.
I can’t wait for him to return in September knowing what I know now — slowing down to both talk and listen can help you fall in love all over again. So can taking little timeouts to remind you of the person you were before you were part of a “we.”