Part 1: The Siege of Khe Sanh
Vietnam wasn’t much in my life that spring.
Marching in the anti-war demonstrations, I wore a Vietcong hat made out of construction paper, but I wasn’t thinking about war.
My thoughts were all on love, the pure hippie girl yearning for me and the dreams we wove in the letters we were sure would bring us together finally in California after college.
I wanted to touch her, feel the weight and shape of her breasts as she rolled her gray sweater above her head and said, “Don’t be so shy, Johnny. Don’t you love them?”
And I did. I loved them more than our dreams of California beaches and waking in a house among green and red flowers with the scent of sunlit breezes stirring the curtains softly, softly but not enough to wake her from her dreams, just enough to wake me so I could follow the curve of her chin and imagine the taste of her hair in my mouth. Vanilla, sweet apricots, and something salty, maybe my sweat when we made love.
Those dreams kept me writing to her, but they weren’t enough. So while the soldiers in Vietnam pressed their backs against the sandbag shacks of Khe Sanh, I told my parents that college was driving me crazy, and I dropped out and hitched 23 hours to College Park, Maryland.
But none of it worked out the way I imagined.
She was still in school, writing a paper on Crime and Punishment. She knew I loved that book and asked me what I thought Raskolnikov’s final sin was. Was it pride that drove him to drive his axe into the old woman’s head, or was it the love he felt for his sister and mother? I couldn’t think straight and made up stuff about Jesus and the Greeks and how hubris is a good man’s failing.
And sometimes at night we’d walk the lazy, springtime paths of the campus, stop at a bench in the shadows and neck and pet, or if we were lucky and her roommate was out, we’d sneak into her dorm room and press against each other, my hands on the breasts beneath her gray sweater, her palms rolling soft circles on my chest.
But mostly, she spent her time in the library, and I sat in an all-night diner dreaming and spinning a silver dollar on the counter.
Part II: Dreaming
Later that summer, we were in my parents’ house, the rooms quiet with sunlight streaming through the windows and spinning the rooms to gold, and she said she didn’t love me.
She said she had hitched from Maryland to tell me she was seeing me for the last time, that my love wasn’t enough to keep her dreaming of California with me. She said she was moving to Frisco alone, and this was the end of us.
I went to my parents’ bedroom and pulled a revolver from a drawer, and I didn’t even know if the revolver was loaded or if I was just joking, and I grabbed her arm so tight she couldn’t pull away, and I pointed the revolver at her face and said I’d shoot her and then I’d shoot myself because she didn’t love me.
She looked at my hand grabbing her arm so tight, and then she looked at the revolver and said, “If you’re going to do it, do it—because I don’t love you and don’t care if I go to California alone or die here with you.”
And I said I’d do it. I’d take the revolver and pull the trigger. I couldn’t live without us dreaming about California and cold beaches and red wine, all those dreams that filled our love with all the glory and beauty, all the time and sunlight, we’d ever need.
And she said, “Just do it. Just press the revolver there and do it.”
And I knew I couldn’t—not there in my mom’s kitchen with the sunlight so pure almost like the sunlight on the cold beaches in California, and I let the revolver drop to the floor and told her I couldn’t do it.
And she said it again, “I don’t love you.”
I couldn’t look at her. I turned away and asked, “What we do not?”
And she shook her arm loose from my hand.
Part III. Here/Now, 2015
What can you do after something like that?
We went out for coffee and talked, but there was nothing to say.
She moved to Frisco, and I finished my degree and started another. And all the while, I was writing her letters that didn’t say anything because they couldn’t, and she’d ignore them, and sometimes during spring break, I’d hitchhike to California.
I’d just stop by to see her. I wanted to see if she had changed, if the dream we shared had somehow pieced itself back together.
But it never did, and I met someone in grad school, and we got married and got jobs and bought a home and loved each other like I never dreamed, and we were happy.
And sometimes I still think about the pure hippie girl and the weight and shape of her breasts as she rolled her gray sweater over her head, and I remember the taste of her hair in my mouth. Vanilla, sweet apricots, and something salty, maybe my sweat after we made love.
But it’s different.
I’m sixty-six now, and soon I’ll be sixty-seven, and what I’ve learned about life’s changes is that we change the way the great glaciers change. Slowly.
One year we melt a little. The next we freeze a little. A wind comes from some place and shines up our northern walls. The next year the wind is a little stronger or weaker. We don’t change the way people in books change. Today’s hero, tomorrow’s fool.
Our future—a patient grandmother with a toddler in hand—comes slowly.
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