john guzlowski

john guzlowski
Danville, Virginia, USA
June 22
I was born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, and came with my Polish Catholic parents Jan and Tekla and my sister Donna to the United States as Displaced Persons in 1951. My parents had been slave laborers in Nazi Germany. Growing up in the immigrant and DP neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, I met Jewish hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. I write about these people.


Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 26, 2008 11:29AM

1968: A True Confession

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 Me at an Anti-War Rally, Grant Park, Chicago


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.

 II.  Dreaming

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. 



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This was beautiful.

(It also reminds me of why I hate handguns.)
I love this story. It is so honest and real, so in-the-moment. I think I'm going to read it again right now. Thank you.
Loved this. I'm 59 and was with you for each word. My first-love (we broke up during our college years and went our separate ways- actually, she ended our relationship) called me out-of-the-blue one night about 10 years ago. She had tracked me down by calling my father and getting my number. She was in GA, I was In NC, and my father was still living in MI. She was reconnecting after her divorce, and was slowly losing her eyesight to her diabetes, and had a 10 year old son. I was married (again) and had two children and still loved her.) We talked for over an hour. I told her I would contact her again. I haven't. For over 30 years I have thought about her every few days. Always warm thoughts.

Powerful story. Thanks.
I love you story.
This story shook my insides. I guess I want to know now, is life good to you and are you happy? I hope so. That was painful for me to read, and I think it was painful for you to share with us. Thank you for doing so.
(the painful part isn't bad, that means it was good writing.)
How beautiful, and how honest. David Sedaris would approve, I think.
You made me stop in my busy day, and read carefully, and feel everything--this is some pretty visceral writing--in your piece. Thanks.
Oh John, that's a duzzy. Bitter sweetness always gets me and I like the repetitions and the modest philosophizing at the end. Congratulations.
Gray Jake
Cool memory. Somehow it reminds me of Updike's "A&P."
Lovely and powerful. Paws up.
Glad you didn't shoot her. One of the main reasons I won't have a gun even though I like to shoot- my version of love is just too damn immature and stupid. I cannot imagine living with the guilt of that action, even if you did end up in jail.
Really great writing John.
John, that was perhaps one of the best love stories/essays that I have ever read. Very vivid, very vivid.
is it wrong to say them there lips look made for kissing?

and that i love that you were so fiery and passionate and if i may, a tiny bit silly? one of my favorite valentines presents i ever gave was a book by wm steig, to a man i loved who didnt love me back. it had a picture of a woman holding a gun to a man, and she is saying, "say you adore me."

the ending here, tho, thats the wallop. i find men often think their college sweethearts would have been lifechangers. its a fallacy i think mainly suffered by men, anyway. i know many men who think that (some are even silly enough to think it of me), but no women who think so. i am glad to know that one day they might realize it, when they recognize who they have in the patient grandmother by their side.