I. The Siege of Khe Sanh
The Vietnam War wasn’t much in my life that year.
Marching in the anti-war demonstrations in Chicago that spring, I wore a Vietcong cooley hat I made out of construction paper, but I wasn’t really thinking about the war. I wasn’t thinking about my drafted brothers stalking through the green mazes in the Mekong Delta or shaking through the mortar rounds exploding into killing bits of steel all around them.
I didn’t pay much attention to the news either, about how the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive or about how the Marines fought them off for months at Khe Sanh. I didn’t watch when Walter Cronkite choked up as he talked on the CBS Evening News about the women and old men and children we killed at My Lai with hand grenades and M-16 rifles and bayonets.
My thoughts were all on love, the pure hippie girl yearning for me and the dreams we wove in our letters that built a bridge of love and dreams that we were sure would bring us together finally in San Francisco after we graduated.
I wanted to touch her, feel the weight and shape of her breasts when 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, not enough to wake her from her dreams but 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 after we made love.
The dreams kept me writing to her and imagining her, but they weren’t enough. So while my brothers in Vietnam pressed their backs against the sandbag shacks of Khe Sanh, I told my parents that college was making me crazy, and I dropped out of school and hitched the twenty-three hours east to College Park, Maryland.
But none of it worked out the way I had imagined.
She was still in school, preparing a project on the peasants of the Mekong Delta, and drafting a final paper on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. She knew I loved that book, and she asked me what I thought Raskolnikov’s final sin was. Was it pride that drove him to drive his axe into the old lady’s head, or was it the love he always felt for his sister and mother? I couldn’t think straight and made some stuff up about Jesus and the Greeks and how hubris is a good man’s failing.
And sometimes at night we’d walk the lazy paths of the campus, stop at a bench in the shadows and neck, kiss, 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.
That’s what we’d do if we were lucky.
But mainly, she spent her time working on her papers, and I sat in an all-night diner off campus dreaming and spinning a silver dollar toward a .22 cartridge shell standing upright on the counter.
Later that summer, we were in my parents’ house, the rooms quiet. The sunlight streaming through the windows in the afternoon was spinning the rooms to gold, and she said she didn’t love me.
She said that she had come from College Park, Maryland, to tell me she was seeing me for the last time, and that my love was not enough to keep her with me dreaming of California. She said she was moving to San Francisco, and this was the end of our dreaming.
I went to my parents’ bedroom then and pulled the revolver from the drawer, and I grabbed her arm so tight she could not pull away, and I pointed the black revolver at her face, and said I would shoot her and then I would shoot myself because she didn’t love me. I didn’t even know if the revolver was loaded or if it was real or if I was just joking, and she said she didn’t love me again and that I should really do it if I was going to do it, just right there in the kitchen where we spent so much time dreaming of us in California.
She looked at my hand grabbing her arm so tight and then she looked at the small black revolver, and she said, “John, just do it. 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 that I would do it; really, I would. I would take the revolver and pull the trigger. I would do it because I couldn’t live without her dreaming with me about California and cold beaches and red wine, those dreams that filled our love with all the glory and beauty, all the time and sunlight I ever thought we ever needed.
And she said, “Just do it. Just do it. Just press the revolver there and do it.”
And I knew I couldn’t do it there—not there in my mother’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 that I couldn’t do it.
That’s when she said it again, “I don’t love you.”
I couldn’t look at her. I turned my face toward the refrigerator, and I asked her what we’d do now, and she shook her arm loose from my hand.
III. Coming of Age: 2008
What can you do after something like that?
We went out for coffee and talked, but there was nothing left to say.
That’s the way it was for years.
She moved to San Francisco after graduation, and I went back to school and finished my degree and started an MA in English. And all the while, I was writing her letters that didn’t say anything because they couldn’t say anything, and she would ignore the letters, and sometimes when I had a spring break, I would hitchhike the 2000 miles from Lafayette, Indiana, to Oakland, California, where she was living. I’d just stop by to see her. I wanted to see if she had changed, to see if the dream we shared had somehow pieced itself back together.
But the dream never did, and I met someone in grad school, and we got married and had a daughter and put together our lives and got jobs teaching and bought homes and moved from one place to another and took vacations I never dreamed we’d take and loved each other, and we were happy.
And sometimes over all the years I would think about the pure hippie girl and the weight and shape of her breasts as she rolled her gray sweater up over her head, and I would remember the taste of her hair in my mouth. Vanilla, sweet apricots, and something salty, maybe my sweat after we made love.
And sometimes I still think about her, but it’s different.
I'm sixty now, and next year I’ll be sixty one (on June 22nd if you want to send flowers or candy), 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 no 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.