Short-Term Rains - Joy Bilbey
Nothing had prepared me for the challenge of Boot Camp. And I didn’t even go. My son did.
A few days after he left, a box appeared on our porch. His dad and I sat on the couch to cut open the box. We stared inside for what might have been a year. The contents were his cell phone, charger, the clothes he’d been wearing: sweat-wicking t-shirt, denim shorts (a misnomer since he wears them long), barely-there socks, boxers, tired-looking tennis shoes. “I guess I’ll do laundry,” I said.
When a letter arrived from Parris Island, I propped it unopened against the painted napkin holder. I fought the temptation to open it for hours until Vincent got home and we could all read it together. I spun the lazy Susan like the kids did when they were small, watching the pencil-marked envelope give way to the centrifugal force. The force pushed into my chest, yet at the same time it felt like pushing out.
Vincent pushed his glasses up his nose and read the letter in his rich baritone, so slowly I went half mad. We all leaned in like we were starving. Henry, Victor, and little Annie had so many questions we couldn’t answer. Is there a war? Why are there bad guys? Does Jameson get to have ice cream?
There wouldn’t be a phone call until graduation was inevitable. My boy’s messages, scratched in graphite afterhours by the light of a torch (flashlight), flashed brilliantly into our lives that June, July, and August. We read the letters again and again. I recited his words in my head while pulling weeds, folding t-shirts, chopping onions, stirring frozen peas into ground meat.
He’d sacrificed sleep, just as I’d once sacrificed for him. He described meals, marching, ironing, scrubbing, sweating. Sandflies biting flesh. To move was to draw attention. To be known was to be punished. We thought about those flies and scratched our arms and legs. Seven weeks into the thirteen-week cycle, his Drill Instructors still did not know his name.
We handwrote our replies to him in solidarity. Knowing how hungry he was, we never mentioned food. We celebrated a quiet Fourth of July without him. Through tears, we read his letter dated July 5 and learned he’d eaten ice cream and watched fireworks on the holiday he’d always loved. I clung to those letters to avoid being flung into space, exploding, imploding.
Tell him in your letters about the funny things that happen, I urged my other children. Make him smile.
I wondered if he still hated sparklers. When he was little, a glowing spark lodged between his sandal strap and fleshy three-year-old foot. I scribbled song lyrics in my letters. Yesterday… All my troubles seemed so far away… He thanked me for putting melodies in his head.
He was promoted for the first time on the day he graduated. Next, he trained in two other bases. He practiced survival skills, crawling through North Carolina swamps, which surely is survival when bullets are flying. He practiced hand-to-hand combat on Florida’s harsh, scratchy grass. He graduated again, ready for the fleet. He sent pictures in which he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades, arms crossed before chests, rolled up sleeves baring forearms of every shade, each clean-shaven face unsmiling.
Now, correspondence was luminous, luxuriant, whenever we wanted. We called, texted, emailed, video chatted. His orders were to serve in Japan. He came home for ten days before shipping out.
I cried buckets at the airport. He suggested that I wouldn’t miss him too much with three other kids at home. And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me. Shine on until tomorrow….
He texted pictures upon his arrival in Tokyo (So clean! So crowded!). Trains and taxi and base and barracks. He told us about his busy schedule. Marvel of marvels, his messages arrived just seconds after he sent them. He worked, trained, and took classes. He called to tell us that he and his roommate were appalled to discover how much money was being deducted from their paychecks for the Chow Hall. They put a stop to that. They bought a rice cooker, a microwave, an electric grill press, and groceries. They taped a plastic grocery bag over the smoke detector in their room while they cooked.
Correspondence was now as accessible and inevitable as the weather. It was as sporadic, inconvenient, and brutal as the weather. You could try to predict and anticipate, but mostly you just had to see what each new day brought. But tomorrow may rain, So I’ll follow the sun…
Whenever several weeks passed since we last heard from him, I slammed cupboards and grumbled, my heart parched and dusty. Hearing from him was like rainfall. I could breathe more easily for a while.
I didn’t want to talk to him every day, didn’t want him to need to talk to me every day like when he was little and asked a thousand questions, loved Star Wars, and spent all of his money on Legos.
He worked in ordnance. He labored amid funnel clouds of bureaucracy, which made him sound like thunder. I was thrilled when he spent days at a time in an office, miserable though he was, because he was not handling explosives. To pray that the pilots would not drop bombs during flight meant to pray that he would have to remove and deactivate them.
He met someone at home a few days before he left for Japan. The Mom is not supposed to be excited about The Girlfriend. I was pleased, thankful, even if his contact with us was suddenly less frequent. The wind had changed.
I learned that he and Kaleigh stayed in touch when I crossed paths with her mother. After a year overseas, he visited home for two weeks. They got engaged and, the following September, married. All you need is love…
He returned to Iwa Kuni, occasionally deploying to Okinawa, Kidina, Misawa, Alaska, and Yuma. I held up my hand mitten-style and pointed in the air around it to show the younger children where he was, relative to home, at any given time. This always resulted in a debate, subsequently settled when we elbowed each other over to the world map mounted above the piano, my younger sons having sprouted overnight and suddenly towering over me. His bride, meanwhile, waited.
Finally, someone in Quantico signed the one paper, among countless others in some heady pile, that granted this particular request. Already packed into three huge suitcases, Kaleigh was in Detroit one day and Tokyo thirteen hours later.
A week went by and I saw my son’s new mother-in-law loading groceries into her trunk.
I asked through my open window, “How’s Kaleigh doing? Did she get there okay?” My fingernails still sparkled from the manicure I’d had for their wedding.
Vivian tucked her black hair behind her ear, reminding me of her daughter. “She’s there now. Did you know about the monsoon?”
“I guess it’s monsoon season there.”
“I didn’t know there was a monsoon season.” My son had been living there for eighteen months, and I knew nothing of the weather. Willing my hands to loosen their grip on the steering wheel, I hoped she couldn’t see my foot tapping on the floor.
“I guess the landing was really rough because of the storm, so rough that she threw up. There was a hole in her airsick bag, which she only found out after she used it.”
“Oh no.” I examined my nails, still polished copper.
“And she was wearing sweatpants because it was cold here when she left, but southern Japan is semitropical . . .”
“Hmm.” I wished she would speak faster.
“It was very muggy in the airport. She was just really hot and dirty and miserable. She didn’t find anywhere she could change, and I guess Jameson got on the wrong train, so he went two hours in the wrong direction. It was a bullet train, so he got pretty far away.” Her dimples appeared, as they did when she talked about her family.
“And she just had to sit in the airport?” I want to ask Vivian if she was calm while she waited for her daughter’s updates, if she snapped at her other children, if she wiped counters that were already clean.
“Yes. She called me then because she was pretty upset. When Jameson finally got there, she told him she was very tired and not feeling well and needed to go straight to a hotel. After she was showered and rested, they got on another bullet train, but then those were shut down because of the storm. They got on a regular train, but after fifteen minutes, those were shut down, too, and everyone had to get off.”
I nodded, hoping this was sufficient encouragement for her to keep going. I tried to mirror her relaxed shoulders, her even breathing. I had received exactly one message from my son during this time.
“They found an AirBnB and stayed there a few days until everything opened back up. Then when the trains started running again, they rode the four hours to base. So, yeah, I guess she got there okay.”
All I could do was shake my head, laugh, and show her the one message from my boy which, we gathered from the time stamp, he sent from the AirBnB.
There it was, like a blink of lightning behind a cloud so distant that if you weren’t looking right at it, you would miss it. He’d written: “The Hulu password isn’t working.”
Later, I pulled into my driveway, turned off my car, and realized I didn’t know what a monsoon was or, rather, how it was distinct among storms. I looked it up on my phone.
Monsoon: a seasonal prevailing wind in the region of South and Southeast Asia, blowing from the southwest between May and September and bringing rain (the wet monsoon), or from the northeast between October and April (the dry monsoon)… Usually, the term monsoon is used to refer to the rainy phase of a seasonally changing pattern… The term is also sometimes used to describe locally heavy but short-term rains.
Here comes the sun, and I say…
Long ago, I was responsible for keeping him alive. I set aside my needs and learned to be as faithful as the sunrise. Now he does it for me. As my son—my hero—weathers this season, so can I.
Joy Bilbey earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Alma College in June, 2023. She grew up in urban and rural areas of Michigan, changing schools and homes frequently. Through a lengthy and mysterious illness in her thirties, she has come to appreciate that the best stories are real. This is one about how she has grown in understanding of the perseverance of the human spirit through one of her children: a memoir/essay in which, through the lenses of different modes of communication, a mother examines the ways her relationship with her adult child necessarily change.