“I met her just before I shipped out. Eighteen years old and full of spit and piss I was.”
The old man was slumped in his wheelchair, his US Navy hat sitting awkwardly on his head. One of the last WWII vets left at the VA I was volunteering at. Once a month, I would come in on the weekend and sit with the veterans that we were told no longer had any family. His name was Joseph and had no one left, he said. So, on this weekend’s visit I sat with him. Our conversation started about me, ironically. He asked me if I had a girlfriend. And in a show of how up to date Joseph was, he added “Or boyfriend. If you swing that way, that is.”
I chuckled and said, “Ahh no. Neither one. I’m into the ladies though, for future reference.” He patted me on the hand and cracked this huge smile. “I like the ladies, too.” I asked him if he had been married and the light turned off in his eyes suddenly. He leaned forward in the wheelchair and locked his shaky fingers together in front of him.
“I had a girl once. Prettiest little thing you ever saw. She had a laugh that was contagious. And boobs.” I burst out laughing and he smiled. “Some things you never forget, you know?” “Indeed”, I replied. He leaned back and looked up, as if seeing her again.
“I met her just before I shipped out. Eighteen years old and full of spit and piss I was. I got mad at the drop of a hat in them days. But not with her, never with her. I loved that girl from the moment I laid eyes on her. She told me she loved me too. When we went out on the town, I tried to keep a hand on her all the time. You know, cause I wanted the other boys to know she belonged to me, right? Even with me there, she still got hit on. But she always turned ’em down. Cause she was with me. Damn, I loved knowing that. You know, one time we went to a picture show and she let me put my hand on her leg for the whole movie. Now, that may not mean much nowadays, but back then, hell, we might as well have been married.”
He took his Navy hat off and a shaky hand scratched the top of his head slowly.
“She was the light of my life. I would drop her off after a date and I couldn’t wait to see her again. I probably drove her crazy trying to get over to her place and see her. I mean I was hooked on this girl. Bad hooked.”
He put the hat back on his head.
“She wrote me while I was out at sea that she had met somebody else. Said she didn’t want to see me anymore. Kind of matter-of-fact like that. Didn’t say nothing else. I wrote her back that I wanted to see her on my next leave but she didn’t answer. Well, my next leave I went straight to her house from the boat. I had been gone 6 months, hadn’t heard from her in 3. I walked up the steps, shaking like a leaf. I’d been to war but I was scared of this little girl more than anything I’d seen out on that ocean. I think I was scared of rejection more than anything.”
I noticed he looked on the verge of tears. I thought to myself, how many years had it been since all of this happened? And it still affected him this way.
“I set my duffle down and knocked on that door. It was a boarding house for young ladies so the woman who ran the place answers the door. I ask for my girl and she called out to her. When I saw her coming down the front stairs, my stomach flipped. Six months since I last saw her and she hadn’t changed a bit, except for one thing. She was pregnant. Pretty far along from the look of it. I started doing the math in my head. I’d been gone 6 months and she looked to be about 8 months along. The problem, you see, was that she and I had never done ‘it’. And if she had two months before I left, then that could only mean one thing.”
His voice was shakier now and I held his ice water glass with a straw in it out to him. He sipped at it then continued on with his story.
“You shoulda seen the look on her face when she saw me. The lady who ran the boarding house said we could sit in the front room and talk. Fact, she kinda insisted on it. We sat there, kinda quiet at first, then she started telling me how sorry she was and all. That it wasn’t something she’d planned, it just kinda happened. I told her it was okay, I was a man of the world now. In truth, I didn’t know shit but I didn’t want her to know that. I don’t think she bought it anyway. I think she could see it in my eyes how hurt I was. I thought about showing her the ring I’d brought her but decided probably wasn’t a good idea, considering. I told her I hoped she was happy with him and she said he’d run off when he found out she was pregnant. I told her I was sorry to hear that but I still loved her and I didn’t care who’s kid it was, it was hers and that was all that mattered to me. She said, no, it was not my responsibility and that she would take care of it. We talked for a while longer. Even got her to laugh a little. But then I had to go.”
He just stopped talking and kept looking down at his hands, crossed in his lap in front of him. We sat in silence, the question burning in my brain. Finally, I had to ask him.
“So, what happened?”
His glistening eyes raised to meet mine.
“I never saw her again. We wrote each other every now and then for years after that but I never did see her again. She eventually found a guy and got married. We lost touch after that.”
I held his ice water out again.
“You married though, right?”
He smacked his lips from the ice water.
“No. I told ya she was the light of my life. Loved her more than you can know. But what’re you gonna do? You can’t make someone love you back. You throw your heart out there and you hope someone catches it but you just never know. One of my letters, years later, I told her that I never understood why it was so hard for her to love me, but so damn easy for me to love her. I never did figure that out. I think about that little girl every day.”
Then I saw the twinkle return to those gray eyes of his.
“And those boobs.”
We both laughed out loud and I looked at my watch. It was time for me to move on to another patient. I thanked him for sharing his story with me.
“Sure, son. You take care and get yourself a girlfriend.”
I patted him on the leg as I stood.
Later that afternoon, as I was driving back to my apartment, I thought about his story and the love he felt for her. He never found that again with anyone else. She must have been someone very special. Then I wondered if she knew how much she had meant to him. I felt a pain deep in my chest when I thought she might not have.
I hope she did. That kind of love doesn’t happen often.