Being in the Navy seems like the perfect time to be single. Sailors are young, many just out of high school. They’re always traveling the world. Reaching a foreign port is one of the craziest parties imaginable.
The ship’s crew — mostly male — gets obliterated and goes wild in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar women. We’d get off the boat, feeling like celebrities with 50 to 100 cab drivers waiting for us, charging only $5 American to take us anywhere we pleased. I would be at a bar and see male shipmates with at least one Asian prostitute hanging on their arms.
“Six hundred baht,” a pretty Thai girl would say. “Six hundred baht all night long.”
Six hundred baht was about $20 American, so for a minimum ATM withdrawal a man could have his way with a woman all night. I was 20, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and shocked to see officers and gentlemen French-kissing prostitutes and using those same lips on their wives and children a few months later. I loved being the one to call them out.
“Dude, why are you kissing her?” I’d ask a guy with his Thai rental. “Do you know where her mouth’s been today? You really think she brushed her teeth?”
With a mouth like mine, it wasn’t long before I discovered how the Navy gets back at those who dare to cross the lines.
What was bizarre to me when I first entered the Navy was how everyone was married, young and old. The oldest ones were usually on their second, third, and fourth marriages, but everyone was in love with someone. Sailors fell in love fast, married fast, and cheated fast. Divorce was not uncommon. Many sailors were married but never spoke of their spouses at all. In fact, you would never know they were married. When I finally looked at the pay charts, everything began to make sense.
Basic allowance for housing (BAH) is what members of the military receive if they have dependents, which includes nonmilitary spouses. It is tax-free money that provides couples with a place to live, along with the other comforts of home. Single sailors were forced to live on the ship. We slept in tiny beds where the mattress lifted up like a coffin lid and you stored your things inside, but the lids were heavy and could easily crush fingers or heads. It was bad enough that I worked long hours on the ship, but I lived there, too.
The ship was cold, uncomfortable, noisy, and had a musty stench that reminded me of my grandmother’s moldy basement. I hated waking up in my coffin, unable to sit up, afraid to roll out because it was up high. Drowsy, I would jump down onto the cold hard deck, hoping that I’d land right. The constant echo of Navy terminology over the ship’s intercom made sleeping in or napping nearly impossible. I still remember irritating announcements: Reveille, reveille! All hands heave out! Muster Duty Section on the quarterdeck! Ship life drove me crazy.
I missed the little things, such as sitting on a couch, sleeping in a real bed, or being able to walk barefoot in my kitchen while eating cereal in my pajamas. I was unhappy. The Navy was suffocating me. It seemed that everyone around me was falling in love, getting married, and soon had a home. In a moment of intense frustration, I called my friend Will, who had just been discharged.
Will wasn’t a fan of the Navy either. He had developed severe insomnia and depression during his last deployment and separated from the service for medical reasons. Will and I were shipmates on the USS Higgins. We weren’t close friends, but for my 19th birthday on May 28, 2004, I went to Rosarito with a group of friends, including Will. We had an odd love/hate relationship. I irritated him, he picked on me, but somehow we got along that way. We ended up getting extremely intoxicated and started making out on the beach. The next thing I knew, we were in the back of a truck being sent to jail. Our friends rescued us, and we had that memory of being locked up in Mexico together.
As far as the make-out session went, it was an odd, drunken one-time thing of being young, stupid, and new to the military. The fact that we had no chemistry beyond friendship was the reason I wanted to marry him. I knew that a marriage for money should be strictly platonic, and we kept it that way.
“We’ll be roommates,” I told Will. “I’ll have a place off the ship to live, and you will live rent-free.”
“You know, I might be down with that.” Will’s response was typical. He was tall, thin, with dark hair and drowsy eyes that never had an intense expression about anything. He came from a good home in Alabama and had a kind face and good heart, but this clashed with Will’s twisted, cynical sense of humor.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.
“Wow,” I said. “Okay, I guess we’re engaged.” Sarcasm was my second language.
We giggled hysterically. We laughed about our marriage throughout its entire 31-month existence.
Kissing my husband on the lips was the most awkward thing I’ve ever done.
I was quivering — not out of passion or even love — but out of nervousness, thinking, “How am I going to pull this off?”
Will and I got married on January 5, 2005, the day before my first anniversary of joining the Navy. I wore a black blouse and a leopard skirt, trying to be especially tacky. Will was in a pair of casual jeans, flip-flops, sporting his new chin piercing. We stood facing each other. I looked at Will, unshaven and mellow. I was jumpy and rushed. Our clerk at the downtown courthouse, a short, stocky, middle-aged woman, smiled at us sweetly. But I could see in her eyes that she knew we were full of it.
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