Here is Admiral Keene’s wife Bunny, shopping in the commissary on the payday before Thanksgiving. Cold raindrops evaporate from hundreds of coats, humidify the overheated air, and fog up her reading glasses; she wipes them with the scarf that covered her freshly highlighted hair. She tows one cart, which she’s filling with groceries for Thursday’s family dinner. She pushes a second cart with a squeaky wheel. It holds her Gucci handbag, her cashmere Burberry coat, and supplies for Tuesday’s party. The guests of honor, two admirals from Washington, will discuss base realignment and closure with local elected officials and their insipid wives. The base commander, a select handful of the admiral’s subordinates, and their wives will mingle and fill gaps in the conversation. The event will be a success, the base will expand, the local economy will prosper, and Larry Keene will get his second star.
Her husband has his sights set on a Pentagon job. Bunny understands that Southern Maryland is an obscure backwater, but she enjoys being a big fish in the small pond of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. She knows absolutely everybody. She plows into the holiday crowd and cheerfully greets everyone she sees, raising her voice to be heard over piped-in strains of “Happy Together.”
By the salad greens, she flutters her manicure at Captain Carmichael’s wife Kathy, plump and frumpy in the same ratty sweats Bunny saw her wearing in the gym that morning. Bunny works out every day so she can stay trim. It also gives her the energy to keep up with Larry’s obligations and her own volunteer schedule.
Like chairing the library fundraiser—a job that Linda Freeman, the wife of Larry’s senior enlisted advisor, had wanted. Linda stops sorting green beans in a produce bin long enough to return Bunny’s greeting coolly. Her jealousy is as ridiculous as the wide-eyed gawp of the honeycomb-paper turkey decoration spinning over their heads. It’s not like Bunny wants to run every little committee, for heaven’s sake. Larry says you have to lead by example. An admiral’s wife is a role model for other Navy wives, especially the young pilots’ wives just beginning to navigate Navy life.
Like timid little Michelle Knudsen, who accidentally blocks Bunny’s route through the canned goods. The center of the aisle is stacked with cases of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green beans. Shoppers waiting in a checkout line jam one of the two narrow paths along the shelves. Michelle smiles, mumbles something about right of way, calls her “Mrs. Keene,” and backs down the aisle to let her pass.
By the flour, Commander Trent’s narrow-nosed wife Ellen glares at the noisy wheel on Bunny’s cart. Ellen’s husband is the commanding officer of the airman who failed to salute the flag sticker on her car when Bunny drove through the main gate last week. Of course she’d pulled over to correct the oversight. What if she’d been Larry, or one of the visiting admirals? The gate guard’s deficient military bearing reflected poorly on Commander Trent, on Larry, and on the entire Navy. Rules are rules.
In 1967, when she was a Navy nurse assigned to the hospital in Subic Bay, Bunny had broken a rule. She’d fallen in love with the hotshot pilot who’d broken his leg when the North Vietnamese Army shot down his F-4 Phantom.
“Nurse-patient fraternization is against the rules,” she’d said.
“The only rules I care about are the laws of aerodynamics,” he’d replied. “Live for today and kiss me, Bunny. Make it better.”
Kissing him made it so much better that she’d willingly left active service to marry him and follow him on the fast track to admiral. She told herself that she’d never really left the Navy. And she never stopped trying to make it better. She’d done more and worked harder every time Larry’s promotions had increased their responsibilities, their prestige, and their privileges.
In the commissary, head-of-the-line privileges are for military in uniform. Bunny disregards the white-lettered, navy blue signs over the cash registers. Her carts are full and she is behind schedule. She is no longer in uniform, but she still works for the Navy. She makes her way to the head of the nearest checkout line.
“Hey, lady!” calls a woman farther back in the line. Her husband tries to shush her. She waves him off. “Get your ass to the back of the line, like everybody else!”
Bunny squints at the woman, whom she doesn’t recognize. She’d meant to explain, to ask if she could cut in, but instead she says, “Don’t you know who I am?”
“Sure. You’re the admiral’s wife. You do the same thing that I do for a living—you fuck a sailor. Now get your ass to the back of the line!”
Bunny straightens her spine.
Here is Admiral Keene’s wife Barbara, shivering in the parking lot beside her car. Her coat is still draped on one of the full carts she abandoned at the register. Cold drops stream down her cheeks; she blinks a shimmering wetness from her eyes. The sky on the northwest horizon is clearing, and two stars twinkle low above the sodium-orange smear of light pollution that marks the nation’s capital. She stares out at them and then turns away.