Sunday, September 19, 2010

That June

My daughter urged me some time ago to post this, so Kc, this one is for you. And, forever and always, for Bill~~Enjoy

I wrote to him for almost a year before disaster struck. 

I’d graduated from high school a few days before. As was popular in southern California, and still is today, immediately following the evening graduation ceremony, all the matriculating seniors changed clothes and hopped on a dozen or so school buses in which we were ferried to Disneyland for an all-night ‘grad party’. We had the exclusive use of the entire park—along with several thousand other graduating teens from other high schools—all of us teetering together on the cusp of adulthood. The lines to Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World were just as long as ever, but somehow standing in them was much more enjoyable with a gang of my friends, knowing my parents were sixty miles away, watching The Johnny Carson Show on TV and not watching me.

After a night of fun, frivolity, a couple of shoving matches, and a fistfight or two—topped off by extremely expensive junk food and silly hats—we all piled back on the buses, arriving in the school parking lot a couple of hours later just as everyone else in the western United States was going to work. I blearily drove my little Ford Falcon away from school for the last time, thinking I’d maybe take a shower and then sleep for a while but my body rebelled, refusing to settle into slumber. Back then I thought circadian rhythm was the opening act for Jefferson Airplane. Who knew?

Bill, the young army sergeant my grandmother had conned me into writing to the previous fall, was on my mind. He was in Vietnam and although we’d never met, I kept his picture on my bedside table and his letters to me in a stationery box in the top drawer of my dresser.

I knew he was tall; I knew he was blond; I knew Grandma liked him. With that, I’d taken on the task of writing to him with a zeal heretofore unknown.

At least by me.

I wrote to him every day.

He was older than me—twenty-four—and judging by his picture, clearly a dangerous man. He’d been wounded twice that February and spent a month in the hospital at Long Bien before the army sent him back into combat. He never wrote about it, but Grandma sent me the article from the Barstow paper about him being awarded a Bronze Star for Valor to go along with his two Purple Hearts.

Today, looking at the twenty-two letters I received from him back then, still in the Snoopy Stationery box in which I kept them all those years ago, I am struck by their unremarkable content. There were no professions of adoration, no lustful suggestions, no declarations of devotion. They contain nothing other than polite discourse about the weather, a little about where he was, and stories about his life in the army, and before.

Nonetheless, they enthralled me, ensorcelled me, terrified me.

He referred to any action in which he and his men became involved as ‘being busy’. “We were busy today,” or “Charlie has been busy,” always with the admonishment, “Don’t worry!” He sent photographs: the village, the marketplace, animals, military vehicles and soldiers.  He sent Vietnamese money and Military Payment Coupons.

And, he asked questions about me.

I suppose that was what was most astounding, that a grown man in a foreign land—a stranger, himself in harm’s way—took the time to ask questions of me; that he bothered is what flattered me most.

I couldn’t wait to get home from school each day, rushing straight to the mailbox to see if there might be an envelope from him. I watched the evening news, hoping for a glimpse of him and horrified I might see him in danger, or hurt, or worse. But, I couldn’t not watch. Watching, like writing, had become part of my job.

Now, I sprawled on the bed in my lavender and purple bedroom and wrote a long description of graduation and the night I’d spent at Disneyland. Once done, I launched into my standard flight of fancy—that he’d come home, fall instantly in love with me, and we’d live happily ever after.

I floated back to earth about the time Mom arrived home from work, and as was our habit, we fixed dinner together and ate in the den on trays in front of the television, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather reporting on the war.

Feverishly attentive, I watched the screen as always, fulfilling my duty to my pen-pal for another night. Watching was the least I could do.

Afterward, I called several friends, inviting them to go with me to Newport Beach the following day. It was Thursday night and there was no school. I was free as a bird. Never mind that I’d had less sleep than an astronaut circling the moon, I was FREE!

I hung out at the house until Mom went to bed, then grabbed my car keys, picked up a couple of these same friends and went cruising. The ebullient giddiness of liberation from the stultifying burden of high school invigorated us all. We spent three hours or so at McDonald’s, reliving moments from our shared past, and discussing our abruptly adult futures. 

And him. 

We always talked about him. 

No one else was writing to a strange man at war. To my giggling teenage girlfriends, this long-distance, platonic relationship was more romantic than an episode of The Love Boat. 

Finally, I drove home, set my alarm for five, and climbed into bed. I got about four hours of uninterrupted, blissful sleep.

With a strong sense of joie de vivre, I drove my friends to Newport Beach the next morning, swilling horrible coffee from 7-11 like so many of the jaded commuters around me. We sang along with the radio, flirted with truck drivers who honked enthusiastically at my carload of girls in two-piece bathing suits, and talked about boys, and him. As always, I hoped Bill was safe. I hoped Bill was dry. I hoped Bill was madly in love with me.

By the time we got to the beach, the sun was broiling, and I was exhausted. The sleepless excitement of the last couple of days had finally caught up with me. Following a quick dip in the ocean, I spread my towel, and as was my habit, slathered on a bar of cocoa butter, purchased from a beach vendor for the astronomical price of three bars for a quarter. I toppled over face-down, murmuring something to my friends about waking me up if I went to sleep.

I’m a little hazy on the events that followed.

Sometime during the day, someone roused me enough to get me to turn over. About four that afternoon, I woke up on my own and ambled out into the ocean to wash off before we headed for home. The water felt surprisingly cool, almost cold, in fact. I dunked my head and got as much sand off me as I could.

Walking the quarter mile to my Falcon, I knew I was sunburned, but growing up in California, pre-sunscreen, sunburn sort of went with the territory—like rattlesnakes and scorpions in the desert. “Am I red?” I asked my friend Kathy as we trudged along. It was a foolish question, really; I’d been asleep on the beach for seven hours.

“A little,” she said, avoiding eye contact. Oncoming pedestrians gave us the sidewalk, gaping at me askance as though I were a sasquatch being led along on a chain.

At the car, I shook out my beach towel again, and draped it over the naugahyde of the driver’s seat and climbed in. Affecting nonchalance, I looked in the rearview mirror and recoiled in horror.

I looked like a radiation victim. A radiation victim with oddly-green hair.

A blister was already emerging on my nose. My eyelids were swollen, my eyelashes sticking out like the thorns on a cholla cactus. On the upside, my eyes and teeth had never seemed so white in a face more livid than the reddest Atomic Fireball jawbreaker.

It was gridlock on the freeway. Our forty-five minute drive took three hours. Three hours in an un-air-conditioned Ford with a carload of sweaty, sunburned, surly women. The truckers honked and waved, but somehow the thrill was gone.

By the time I got home I was on fire, tender places like my abdomen, the backs of my knees and my thighs reminding me that seven hours in the sun, with cocoa butter as basting sauce, was just too long. My skin was sticky from the saltwater and blisters peppered my shoulders—well, peppered me—period.

Mom took one look and sent me to the bathroom with a box of baking soda which I poured into a cool bath. But nothing could quench the fire in my skin. I was evenly toasted on both sides, so there was no position I could assume that did not cause me pain. My usually pale complexion had taken on the hue of an Oscar Meyer Wiener. In agony, I went to bed, unable to tolerate even the top sheet on my body.

By morning, I’d grown a fever blister on my upper lip that, had it been measured, would surely still occupy the ‘biggest’ category in the Guinness Book of World Records. I staggered into the bathroom and took stock. I’d rubbed the ruined skin off my nose sometime during the night, leaving a nose-sized raw patch in its place. I globbed the vacancy with a sticky white coat of zinc oxide. Other miniscule blisters roughened my cheeks and forehead and there was, of course, the cauliflower upper lip. Except for where the top and bottom of my bathing suit had been, I had combusted; there was no other way to describe it. Miserably, I realized I hadn’t thought about him for hours.

I was brushing my teeth, trying not to touch anything, anywhere, when Mom knocked on the bathroom door. “Hurry up, honey. We’re leaving in a few minutes.”

“Leaving?” I jerked the door open, unconsciously brandishing my toothbrush. “Leaving where?” Toothpaste foam sprayed out to sprinkle Mom’s glasses.

She had raised four kids and didn’t bat an eye. “We’re going to Grandma’s. It’s her birthday.”

I had forgotten. The trip had been planned for a couple of weeks.

“But, I’m sunburned.”

“Yes, you are. And you’ll be just as sunburned no matter what you’re doing.”

That meant I was going. I dragged myself back up the hallway to my bedroom, in a quandary over what to wear. Certainly not my bathing suit. But slacks were out of the question, as was anything else that bound or rubbed. In desperation, with Mom calling for me to hurry, I scrabbled through my dirty-clothes hamper and found the two items of clothing I owned that would touch me the least: a navy blue, scoop-necked, sleeveless blouse with tiny white pin dots on it, and a pair of double-knit, swamp-green polyester pants I’d hacked off about four inches below the crotch and never hemmed. Now hideously ugly short-shorts, they were spattered with lavender and purple paint (having been worn when I redecorated my bedroom) and there was a big purple moon on one butt-cheek where I’d backed into the wall. Both pieces were wrinkled from being stuffed in the hamper, but I didn’t care. Besides, riding eighty miles out into the desert in Mom’s old sedan would steam the wrinkles out of anything, probably even Grandma, if she’d been making the trip.

Mom, my little brother Louie, and I loaded up. Without a word, Louie climbed into the backseat, looking at me with something approximating sympathy. No little-brother gloating, no teasing. “You look awful,” was all he said.

I sulked in the front seat, listening to the news, knowing my soldier-pen-pal-dream-lover Bill would be home from Vietnam around the end of the month. All things being equal, I’d probably be healed up enough by then to accept visitors. I also figured if I restricted my diet to nothing more than a saltine and a half-a-glass of water a day—and got plenty of exercise—I might even lose the fifteen pounds I’d been planning to lose since he sent me his picture back in October.

My cold sore had swollen stupendously by the time we pulled in at Grandma’s place on the Mojave Desert. I wished her happy birthday, but for obvious reasons offered nothing more by way of physical affection. “Go get some ice for that lip,” she said, scanning the rest of me as she scolded. “You’re old enough to know better than to get this much sun.”

Yes, I was.

I went into the kitchen, wrapped a couple of ice cubes in a paper towel, then came back to the living room to sprawl on the carpet, directly under the icy blast from the swamp cooler. At Grandma’s direction, Louie retrieved a spray bottle of Bactine from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and sprayed my shoulders, my thighs, and the backs of my knees. That, a couple of aspirin, and the cold air from the cooler made me feel a little better.

“You look awful,” Louie reiterated.

“You heard anything from Bill?” Grandma asked, changing the subject. Always curious about our correspondence, she listened raptly as I lay semi-comatose on her living room rug and told her about his last letter, received several days before.   

My hair wafted around my head, limp and unstyled. The auburn hair dye in it had been profoundly affected by the sun and salt water at the beach. Not only transmogrified to green, it was also puffy, almost electric in its appearance. Conditioner is what it needed, I figured. Or being sawed off at the scalp.

I nursed my lip with my ice poultice. I couldn’t even muster enough enthusiasm to engage in my happily-ever-after-dream-lover fantasy.

Around noon, I helped Mom make lunch and we carried it out to the flagstone patio off the kitchen. Even in the shade, it was hot. Louie sprayed me with more Bactine. We ate. I managed to circumnavigate my upper lip to swallow some cake, then we all walked around in the garden, me with my legs splayed and arms out like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, admiring the array of vegetables and flowers my grandmother had managed to coax out of the desert sand.

Once back on the patio, I noticed that the zinc oxide I’d applied to my nose that morning was melting in the heat and had migrated (kind of like the Blob, only white) onto my face and onto my round, black-framed glasses. I was vigorously cleaning them on my blouse when I heard a car coming up the long gravel driveway out front.

Grandma’s eyes twinkled. “They’re here.” My mother looked very concerned.

“Who’s here?” I asked with some dread, rubbing at the greasy white smear now adorning my blouse-front, which, incidentally, was still wrinkled and smelled vaguely like gym socks—and Bactine.

“Emmett and Delma,” Grandma said. “They’re bringing me my birthday present.”

Emmett and Delma.

They were his parents. Bill’s parents. I knew immediately I would never be able to erase from their memories the apparition I’d become. Not ever. It wouldn’t matter how much Bill loved me when he got home; they would forever remember the thing standing in Grandma’s patio.

Alarm replaced dread. I didn’t want them—I didn’t want anyone—to see me like this! I jumped up, thinking to go hide in the house. But Mom’s car was out front; they would know I was there; I always came along when Mom visited. I quickly fussed with my hair, knowing it was a lost cause.

Their station wagon rolled to a stop, the front bumper and part of the hood visible around the side of the house. I heard the car engine shut off, then car doors opening and closing. I bolted for the house, but it was too late, and silly. Just another symptom of how young I really was. With no small amount of glee, my brother blocked the kitchen door, so I turned back, defeated, a toothy grin frozen on my ruined face.

Around the side of the house, gift in hand, came Delma, with Emmett on her heels, all smiles. They immediately saw me standing in the deep shade against the house, and stopped.

And that’s precisely when disaster struck.

Because Bill, my every fantasy personified, was right behind them.

He came in slowly, modestly, greeting my grandmother respectfully, shaking my mother’s hand. His plaid shirt was crisp, ironed, his jeans immaculate.

He turned in my direction as Grandma introduced us.

Blond, tan, and gorgeous—the scars from the wounds he’d received in February standing out on his right forearm—he looked like a recruiting poster.  A warrior, a hero, the grown-up man and stranger I’d been writing to for almost a year.  

Over the roaring in my ears, I heard Emmett say Bill had received a ten-day drop and came home early, surprising them all. Apparently, he’d strolled out of the Greyhound Bus Station in Barstow, his duffle bag on his shoulder, just as his parents drove by. His mother tried to get out of the still-moving car.

I was speechless—knowing myself to be nothing more than a lumpy, smelly, scalded teenager with tumbleweed hair and white grease on her face.

But Bill, well he didn’t so much as flinch. With nerves of steel, honed on the battlefields of Vietnam, he strode across the flagstones of Grandma’s patio and kissed me. “Hello,” he said. His hands skated lightly down my arms. I looked up into the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. His parents and the others seemed to spiral away as we stood there.

“W-w-welcome home,” I managed to croak. 

He grinned down into my upturned face and held both my hands. “Thank you,” he whispered, for no one else in the world but me.