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How a Hookah Helped us Reintegrate

One of my most difficult struggles during this year’s reintegration process has been giving my husband the space he needs to merge gracefully back into our lives after a year-long military deployment. Since I had to get by without him for so long, it seemed natural that his return would signal the green light for me to freely paw him and breathe on him and smother him to death. Oh sure, he likes it for about a New York minute. Then he delicately requests a little space. I frequently respond just as delicately.

“Space!? I just had 15 months of space, Jackwagon!”

Ahem. I mean, “Didn’t you miss me, Dearest?”

This idea of keeping my words to myself and my mitts off him really offended me when the requests for space dragged on and on into the sixth and seventh month after his return. In fact, it really made me feel angry. Let’s just say I bought a kick-boxing DVD. Let’s just say I particularly enjoyed the mental vacation I took whenever the neck-chop segment came on. Let’s just say my “he-yaws” apparently sound somewhat like an errant donkey, which may have caused my concerned neighbors to call animal control.

After I stumbled my way through the anger like a bull with a wrecking ball tied to its tail, I was left feeling horribly insecure. I stood in front of the mirror wondering what in the world was wrong with me. Homecoming was supposed to mean reunion. It was supposed to mean romance. It was supposed to mean rekindling. Not stupid unemotional idiotic time-wasting illogical dispassionate friggin’ space.

So I declared war and I engaged in a clandestine rogue solo mission: OPERATION DEATHSPACE.

I tried being nicer (fake). I tried being a supermom and superwife (exhausting). I tried being demanding (annoying). I tried twice a day workouts and a vegan cleanse (cranky). I even tried being funny, which actually worked for me from a mental health standpoint until I realized I was the only one laughing. Then it was just sad.

The bottom line is that I tried everything, and everything I tried just created more space between us. As the months rolled on, my husband seemed farther and farther away.

Enter, the hookah.

That’s a shisha-smoking pipe that looks a lot like you’re gonna take it home and smoke some weed, y’all. And I’d like to remind you that I’m a deputy prosecuting attorney on top of that. I am not typically found in “smoke shops” with names like “Mary Jane’s Glass Shop” or “Smoke-a-Whirl” or “Herb ‘n’ Legend,” let alone giving the purveyors my credit card to put on file. Yet here I was, shortly after Christmas, in just such a shop with my husband, shopping for a hookah.

This was something he had occasion to do Over There. This was something he enjoyed doing with his other friends. This was what he wanted for Christmas: a hookah. And the winning model wasn’t a little table-top variety, either. Noooo. It had to be the big four foot high, four-hose type contraption with colored glass and velvet tubes and rich wooden handles. It almost didn’t even fit in our car.

The grape-mint and melon shisha smells filled the car and he smiled as we drove away with the huge incriminating device in our trunk. I fainted in the front seat wondering which watch list my name had just been added to. He unloaded it gingerly once we arrived home but there it sat in our living room for the next eight months, collecting dust and requiring explanation whenever a police chief’s child or a housekeeper or a church friend came over. “It’s a hookah,” I’d volunteer. “Um. My husband brought it home after his deployment.”

It wasn’t completely a lie. He did technically bring it home after his deployment. “After” is a vague term.

Fast-forward. It has now been ten months since my husband’s return, six months since the inception of OPERATION DEATHSPACE, and five months since the hookah came to gather dust in my living room. It also marks my complete and utter resignation to feigned resiliency and contrived optimism. I started coming home each night in a daze. I fixed dinner, managed what little housework I could stand, loved on my kids, and went to bed. I quit staying up late, quit waiting for him to come to bed, and quit wandering into his office to see what he was up to. I quit lingering near him waiting for a kiss. I quit asking him about his day. I quit volunteering to tell him about mine.

It just sort of happened.

And then, it was husband’s birthday this week, and after we came home from a birthday dinner there it sat, mocking us: the hookah. My husband was suddenly polishing it, disassembling it, checking the seals, igniting the coconut shell coals, packing gooey sweet shisha into a ceramic bowl and filling the psychedelic glass bulb with just the right amount of hot water. I joined him on the deck, surprised by his level of conversation and engagement with me, and took my first reluctant suck of the foreign-smelling tube which was sure to cause me to lose my job and my dignity. And I choked.

But as we sat there, the smell got sweeter and I learned to go slowly. I breathed in the melon tobacco and let it soak into my senses. I watched my husband as the smoke curled around his lips and he released more than just a breath. We talked in a way that we rarely do as the sun set and my husband’s feet brushed against mine, propped up on the table between us. He was very still, and he leaned back in his chair as the golden light shined in his eyes. He told stories without that faraway stare, not reminiscing so much as sharing them with me.

And he smiled, and his shoulders dropped into a comfortable curve. Pretty soon there was a chill, and we wrapped up in blankets and quilts and he pointed out the rising moon. It was like time stood still for a little while. We joked about what the neighbors could see and whether the girl who sold us the contraption laughed when she saw us leaving with it. And I looked over at him. Even the silence was comfortable, now.

“What was it like? Is this similar to what you had over there?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I’m glad you like it. Not everyone does.”
“Why did you like it so much?”
“It was one of the only times we really relaxed.”
“Relaxed?”
“When we worked, we were scrambling. The idea of sitting for hours was a luxury. The idea alone was relaxing. Of course it was also still 100 degrees at night over there, so doing it from underneath a blanket is a little different.”

We both chuckled, and he flashed a smile. The space between us seemed to disappear, and the outstretched hand that has kept me at a distance so many times was laid open on his lap. He used it to hold the fear of rejection and the ire of reintegration at bay.

The days since we found the hookah have felt different. I’ve been able to leave space and he’s been able to walk into it. So whatever it is that is standing between you and connection, whatever phase of reintegration you’re in, I hope you can read a story like this that inspires you to find your hookah.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes, and be unselfish enough to create the space necessary to allow your military spouse to find whatever it is that connects your two worlds. And I hope you can be smarter and braver than I was in realizing that the process of finding that thing, that hookah, just takes time.

About Lori Volkman

Lori Volkman is a Deputy Prosecutor, mother of two, and wife of a Navy reservist. She is also an award-winning writer at Witty Little Secret, a military family blog about her experiences as a military brat, active duty wife, and now reservist family. She volunteers as the Communications Director at www.MSJDN.com, an organization that advocates for military spouse licensing in all 50 states. She was voted the 2013 Navy Base San Diego Military Spouse of the Year by her peers.