Writing in Public #4 (Novella) Chapter 6
By the time Graul got done with an inspection of the engine room, lunch had ended an hour ago and his stomach was growling unhappily at him. He headed over to the mess deck because it was closer. Though the crowds had mostly cleared out, the chatter of voices and clatter of pans wore on him, especially after being in the noisy engine room.
A tray in hand, he wove between the tables, greeting people as he passed by. He sat down at the officer’s table against the back bulkhead, marked with a blue table cloth. None of the new officers came to this mess deck, preferring to stay in the officer’s mess. Graul alternated between both, more so since the collision.
One of the bugs bots crawled along the base of the bulkhead, checking for weaknesses in the ship and reporting findings to the computer. He wasn’t sure who in GALCOM had decided to design the foot-long bugs as ants—it made the ship look like it was infested.
While Graul ate his chili and rice (and eyed his ice cream, debating desert first), he used the table top computer access to call up the dashboards of the ship’s systems.
He was so busy reading the monitors that he didn’t notice Marotta walk up to his table until she said, “Those two do not go together.”
She nodded to the chili and the ice cream.
“Ice cream goes with everything,” Graul informed her loftily. “Especially when it’s chocolate. Do you want to join me?”
“Sure, sir. I’ll be right back.”
She returned a few minutes later with a big salad. The salad had been pushed in on the edge of the plate for a scoop of macaroni salad.
“You’re trying to guilt trip me,” he said, frowning.
“No. I had it on good authority the chili is spicy. Hope’s been a bad influence on the cooks. Spicy is not passing this woman’s lips.”
“It’s not that bad,” Graul said, though he hadn’t really noticed. That probably wasn’t good. He closed the dashboard screen, and the computer returned the tabletop to its normal appearance.
Marotta speared a romaine lettuce leaf and added red onion slice. “With respect, sir, when you take lunch, you should take lunch. Not try to do ten other things. We can’t have you burning out.”
He sighed. “You’re right. It’s just been difficult because the new officers are so inexperienced.”
What he really wanted to do was complain–no, bitch–about the minions treatment of him. They’d effectively stalled all the paperwork coming out of the ship, regardless of how it was hurting the enlisted. And he’d heard plenty at the repair facility, with his peers openly telling him that he wasn’t qualified for space command and needed to get a clue.
But bitching would look bad on him, and besides, it wouldn’t do him any good. Probably wouldn’t even make him feel better.
Best to switch away from that subject.
“How’s the crew handling the storm?” he asked. “Any problems?”
Marotta picked up a forkful of the macaroni salad. A lone macaroni escaped and plopped on the table. She scooped it up and put it in her mouth.
“Five second rule,” she said. “The storm is requiring additional monitoring of the systems. It is tiring, so I’ve been running shorter shifts for the people directly affected.”
“So if I see you cursing, it’s the duty rosters?”
Those were the bane of Marotta’s job. Trying to deal with the complex duty schedules for nearly two thousand people was worse than a juggler tackling swords.
“It’s not too many,” she said.
“Fifty is a lot,” he said. At her sharp glance, he added, “C’mon. You know you can’t keep a secret like that.”
The moment he said the S word, he regretted it.
Marotta homed in on it. “Secret, huh huh, sir. You’re one to talk. Why the big secret about your wife?”
“It’s not a secret,” Graul said. “It’s just–we don’t tell anyone. Mel’s not exactly an officer’s wife.”
“That,” Marotta said, “does not make sense.”
Graul finished off his chili and pulled the bowl of ice cream closer. He wiped his spoon off on the napkin. Marotta was right. Chili would not taste good with ice cream.
“GALCOM is still pretty old fashioned when it comes to the roles of officers’ wives,” he said. “I didn’t get married until I was thirty. Which my chain of command reminded me continuously about. When I did get married, they reminded me that Mel had her own duty to serve with the other wives. There were certain…expectations.”
Marotta arched her eyebrows. “Expectations?”
Graul scooped up ice cream, stopping to enjoy the taste. There really wasn’t anything better than ice cream.
“That she was supposed to support my career at the expense of anything herself. She was dirtside then and grudgingly went to this wives event after my command dropped bricks about it. She’d been to over thirty planets at that point and brokered some pretty important deals. None of the wives had been off-planet. Since I was a junior officer then, she was expected to volunteer for everything.”
Marotta winced. “What did she do?”
Graul chuckled. “She’s a pretty good negotiator. She steered it away from her. But when she came back, she told me she wasn’t about to make and serve coffee at events for—’her words—’a bunch of nattering busybodies.’ So after that, when everyone circled back to me about her, I told them she was on standby to be deployed. It was true, but…” He shook his head. “The male spouses don’t get treated the same way.”
“We have similar problems on the enlisted side. The male spouses actually don’t get much respect. Everyone’s like ‘we don’t know what to do with you.’ But it’s hard anyway. I’ve been divorced three times. They all say they can deal with the space travel and then they can’t. How long have you been married?”
“That is a long time for a spacer.”
Graul’s officer face went up instinctively. He suspected at one point Mel had been thinking of divorcing him. He’d been a mess after the Crying Planet disaster, and she’d put up with a lot.
But Marotta was on another track. “What do you do different?”
It caught Graul so off guard, he dropped his officer face. “We send message drops to each other every day. Just talk about our day.” His tone became wistful. “It’s hard though being so far apart all the time.”