Fiction

A Private War

By: Kathleen Williams Renk

In 1975, sixteen-year-old Pham Quan bowed to his parents and ancestors and left his family’s home in Vietnam with his sister.  They escaped the fall of Saigon and traveled to America, while hiding under a tarp in a boat to avoid capture by the Viet Cong.  

Several years before Pham Quan fled Vietnam, another boy fled his homeland – the U.S.A.  He went to Vietnam to escape his family.  One boy’s family sacrificed everything to give him the chance for a better life.  The other boy’s family sacrificed nothing; truth be told, they had nothing they could sacrifice. So, they left him adrift at sea, struggling to find his own way to fight his own war.

***

The last time Maggie saw her ex-boyfriend was in 1972, several weeks before he was to ship out for Vietnam, where he became a helicopter gunner, a year after their breakup and well into their adjustments to their new worlds – her university life and his indoctrination into the army. 

When she learned from her friend Julie that he was in town on leave at the same time she was on spring break, Maggie told Julie that she didn’t want to see him; that she was happy to have eluded him and his plans to marry and imprison her in an army barracks amid a sea of diapers. “He should have realized,” she said to Julie, “that there was no way I was going to marry him and live in an army barracks trailer.  And I wasn’t ready to be a wife and a mom. I wanted to go to college, but that wasn’t an option in his mind. Besides, he scared me sometimes.” 

So, when Julie called and asked her to come over, Maggie donned her patched-up bellbottom jeans, her Indian print shirt, and the love beads that she and Julie bought at a head shop in D.C., when they ditched visiting the Smithsonian with the rest of their senior class.  Maggie thought it would be fun to reminisce about their adventure and compare their varied college experiences.  She pulled up in front of Julie’s house and didn’t know she was being watched as she got out of her car. 

As soon as Julie opened the door, Maggie saw him sitting on the couch with one leg propped up on his knee. 

God, no, Maggie thought. Why is he here? I told Julie that I didn’t want to see him.

The last time she ran into him after their breakup had been a disaster. She drove up to the beach with Masimo, the Italian cousin of her friend Angela. Masimo was driving a red Ferrari convertible and her ex spotted them as soon as they got out of the car.  

As they spread their beach towels on the sand, her ex walked up to her and confronted her, saying, “So this guy is good enough for you, huh?  He looks like a rich mama’s boy.”

Then he shoved Masimo and Masimo shoved him back, knocking her ex to the ground. Masimo cursed at her ex in Italian, “Vaffanculo!” (Go f*** yourself!), he shouted. Masimo spoke little English, but he understood that he and Maggie were being harassed. What he didn’t comprehend though was that this roughneck, this belligerent boy had been Maggie’s high school love. He just thought this boy was a bully.

She yelled at her ex to leave them alone. Finally, he walked away, but he sulked from a distance, casting evil looks her way whenever he could.

“What’s he doing here?” Maggie asked Julie before walking in.

“I didn’t have anything to do with it.  Mike brought him because he knew you’d be here.  I’m sorry, Maggie.”

Maggie felt like turning around and running away but decided it would be better to let him know once and for all that she wanted nothing to do with him.  Clearly, he still hadn’t gotten the message. Maggie nodded to Julie and Julie quietly slipped out of the room, saying she had to make a phone call.

At first, neither one of them said anything.  Instead, they eyed each other suspiciously, like enemies, searching each other’s faces for any sign of trust.

He looked the same, his hair closely cropped, his skin bronzed, but now through military training, not through construction work.  He seemed smaller though, a diminution of the boy that she had been mad about for four years.  Now he wasn’t the teenage rebel she once had so much passion for.  Now he was a stranger, a foreigner who knew nothing about her and about whom she wanted to know nothing.

He was the first to break the ice. “Your hair looks different,” he said softly. “It’s redder and longer.  It’s beautiful, like always.”

“Thanks,” Maggie replied. She flipped her hair back over her shoulder and then sat down in a chair as far away from him as she could.  She wanted to get this conversation over with and she didn’t desire his compliments.  “When did you get back?” she asked.

“Yesterday,” he replied. “When I found out that you were in town, I told Mike that I had to see you.”

“Why?” she asked. 

“I just wanted to know how you are.  What your life is like.”

She didn’t reply.  She resented the fact that she was practically being coerced into speaking with him again, even after she had told him to leave her alone.

She had no wish to know about his army life, how he was learning skills that could hurt, even kill people.  How he was now directing his rage toward strangers halfway around the world.

Besides, how could she tell him about her new life?  He would never understand.  Just like she’d never understand his life and the choices he’d made.  She hadn’t wanted him to drop out of high school in his senior year and join the army.  She thought his decision was foolish and made on a whim. 

“I can get my GED in the army and then we can get married after you graduate,” he said. “And I’ll be helping Paul out.  He just got drafted and I don’t want him to go to Nam alone.”

“I don’t think the army is a good idea. Why don’t you finish school?  Then we can both go to college and see if we want to get married later,” she replied.

“What?  You don’t want to marry me.  Don’t you love me?”

“Of course, I love you, but I’m not ready to get married and you’d be better off finishing what you’ve started. Plus, a high school diploma is better than a GED.” 

She recalled the many times he had quit high school, mostly because he didn’t have nice clothes or because his parents needed him to help them out financially.

Even though Maggie didn’t agree with him, he decided he would drop out for good and enlist in the army, despite the fact that other young men near his age were fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.  She was disappointed that he gave up on education when an education meant so much to her.  Later, she thought about his decision and realized that his real reason to join the army was to get away from the family that was saddling him with too much responsibility. His mother demanded that he work instead of going to school.  She figured that she never graduated from high school so, in her mind, why should he?

“Come on, Maggie, talk to me, like you used to. Remember, we were best friends. We were once nearly engaged. It’s okay. I really want to know. How’s school?  You like it?  What are you studying?”

She still hesitated because she knew he couldn’t understand her new reality. How could she tell him how different the university was from high school and what he was missing by joining the army and not going to college?  She felt like she was seeing reality for the first time; her mind had been stirred by questions provoked in her classes and by her long-haired, barefoot, college friends who debated philosophy, smoked weed, and stayed up all night just to witness the sunrise.  All of them were convinced that we were entering a new era, that times were changing and a new peaceful world, based on love and mutual respect, was just around the bend.  She and her friends were opposed to this unjust war, where murdered babies and children were euphemistically called collateral damage.  The boys she knew at school protested the war and the draft, because they didn’t want to hurt others and they didn’t want to die in some misguided war. Once, in the student union, she saw a long-haired, bearded guy wearing a placard around his neck that said “I’m number 2.  I’m f*****. Vietnam here I come.” Her ex would never understand.

She and her friends were trying to find a new way to live and they often struggled with existential questions.  Personally, she questioned for the first but not the last time:  How can a good God allow war and suffering?  Why is there evil?  Do we have free will or are we determined?  Are humans basically good or evil?  She had learned about illusory reality and ignorance from Plato and Socrates; Voltaire taught her that it’s necessary to tend her own garden, and Sartre insisted that because there is no God, we are free to make ourselves.  She was studying philosophy, while her ex was studying the art of war.  They’d never understand one another or find common ground.  Discord was inevitable.

So, to keep it simple, she said, “It’s great; I love it.  I’m studying lots of science, but my favorite class is philosophy.”

“You’re lucky that you get to go to school,” he said.  “I didn’t have that chance.”

“That’s not true. You could’ve if you’d wanted to. You could have stayed in school and then found a way to go to college.  You didn’t have to join the army.  You weren’t drafted.”

He shook his head, “You know that I joined the army so that Paul wouldn’t have to go to Nam alone.  Besides, I didn’t have the money to go to college.  I don’t have rich parents to pay for college like you do,” he shrugged. 

She suddenly remembered the rumor that had circulated around high school that her parents had bought her a car in exchange for her breaking up with him.  It simply wasn’t true.  Maggie’s parents cared about him and had never asked her to disavow him.  Once, they had even bought him a car, an old beater Ford Fairlane for $150, a car that he wrecked the first time he drove it. Her parents didn’t even get mad about that, but afterwards her dad taught him how to drive.  They cared about him as if they were his parents.  They wanted the best for him because they knew what it was like to be poor. They had only recently arrived in the middle class and had memories of scarcity and want.

As she sat there, she also recalled the graduation card he’d sent her three months after their breakup. He’d scrawled on the inside, “I hope this card is good enough for you;” he thought she’d rejected him because he wasn’t “good” enough for her.  So be it.  Let him think what he wanted. He’d never understand the way he made her feel trapped; how he and his family were too chaotic for her, how he occasionally frightened her. And he could rationalize all he wanted about not going to college. 

“You could’ve gone if you’d really wanted to,” she said.  “I know a lot of people who pay their own way by working in the summer and on weekends.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not like those people.  I’ll have to wait until I get back from Nam.”

“When do you leave?” she asked.

“My company ships out in two weeks.  You gonna miss me?  You gonna write to me like you used to?” he said.

He just didn’t get it.  She would never write to him, as she had when they were together. She had no interest in him.  She was as narcissistic as any teen but, in keeping with the times, she also burst with youthful idealism.  “You shouldn’t go. You should go to Canada. You never should have joined the army.  This war is wrong.  America should never have gotten involved in Vietnam.  And why do you want to kill innocent people?  Don’t you know how unjust that is?”  She was getting worked up and was ready to preach the anti-war sermon to him. 

“Oh, man, is this what they teach you at that college?  I never said that I wanted to kill anybody.  I’m going to defend our country.  They’re feeding you BS, Maggie.  We’re over there to stop the commies from swallowing SE Asia whole.  I’m proud to fight them.  Somebody has to have the balls to stop them before they get over here to our country,” he shouted, stood up, and walked towards her.  His face was red and the veins on his neck bulged.

Maggie sat up straighter and prepared to defend her ground. “Yeah, right.  I can see that the army has done its job on you. They’re the ones feeding you BS.  Don’t you remember Mӯ Lai and what soldiers did to women and children?  We talked about that once. You didn’t used to be like this.  What happened to you?”   

“That was one guy who went nuts and others followed him.  I’m my own man.”

“But you will have to follow what your commander says, right?  Isn’t that what the army’s about?  Telling people that they have an enemy that they should consider non-human and that you have every right to kill them?” she replied.

He hesitated and then said, “I suppose you’re one of those flag burners.  You protestors oughtta leave the country if you don’t like it.  Go live with the commies.”

Here was the same old sing-song cliché, the safe love it or leave it comment spoken by non-critical thinkers.

What he said reminded Maggie of the devastating protest fire on her campus when someone burned the chapel where her philosophy professor taught. Professor Wolf lectured on a stage in front of an enormous gothic, stained-glass window.  She gazed in awe at him as he argued that humans would inevitably destroy one another and our planet unless we created a world government. On the grand stage, he resembled a new Elijah.  He spoke vehemently about how we were doomed because of our ethnic and political tribalism, our us vs. them mentality.  Unless and until, we achieved a world government, he said, we’d continue to fight and kill one another.  In his view, humans were fundamentally flawed, even if we banded together in tribes.  

When someone decided to torch Gilmore Chapel to protest the war, they thought they were doing the right thing by helping to undermine the war, but it really didn’t work that way and it didn’t make Maggie accept their destructive methods of protest. As she stood in front of the burning building and heard the stained-glass break and crash three stories down, as she felt the infernal heat, she knew she would never see Professor Wolf preach in that secular chapel again. She watched the bricks blacken and crumble, pulling down a place where ideas had been given life and safety.  Her ex-boyfriend could never understand that she hated war, but she also hated any protest that tried to destroy sacred and beautiful places that were intellectual homes for so many. 

She couldn’t explain all this to him, so she only replied, “You don’t understand that it’s possible to love your country and still be against war.  The purpose of war is to kill and killing is wrong.”

“You’ve really changed,” he said.

“Yeah, so have you,” she replied, as she stood up, turned, and marched out of the house.  “Tell Julie I had to go.”

She glanced behind her and saw that he was following her, so she ran to her car and locked the doors.  As she sped away, she looked in the rearview mirror and saw him standing in the street, looking sad and regretful.

That was the last time she saw or heard from him. 

Her dad ran into him a few years later at the grocery store and learned that her ex was on his way to Missouri to try to convince his wife and kids to return to him. 

Recently, she learned, from his friend Paul, that her ex died a few years ago at age 52 from drug addiction.  Ironically, even though he was against those long-haired protestors who smoked pot and experimented with other drugs, he came back from Vietnam a substance abuser. And for a time, he’d been a narc in the army. Her ex had finally graduated, not only from the school of hard knocks, but had earned a certificate of merit as a meth addict. His heart burst when he was on a break while working at a hardware store. Her ex had been married three times and had seven children by three different women, the first of whom, according to his best friend, resembled Maggie.

Maggie met him at a church dance when she was 14.  They danced to a teenage rock band playing “Light My Fire,” which eventually became their song.  Couples were entwined in the darkness, other singles were searching for potential loves, eyeing each other in the shadows.  Hormones pulsed as they all sought partners.  She’d known of him because he was a friend of one of the tough kids from public school. He was a gorgeous, 15-year-old bad boy.  They danced and then later talked in the steamy air outside the church basement, while strobe lights flickered in the background and “Born to be Wild” and “Baby I Found You” blasted from the speakers.

 He promised to call her, but she didn’t hear from him and then the next week his sister told Maggie he wanted to call her but didn’t have a chance since he was working construction with his dad until it got dark.  And then he was so tired that all he wanted to do was sleep.

“It doesn’t take very long to call.  Just a minute to say hi.  I guess he doesn’t really like me,” Maggie said.

“Yeah, he does.  He can’t stop talking about you.  He thinks you’re beautiful.  He loves your smile.”

“Why doesn’t he tell me that?”

“He will,” she promised.  “I’ll make sure of it.”

The next day he finally called and asked, “What’re you doin?”

“Oh, nothing.” Her heart hammered and her throat suddenly felt so dry she could barely speak.  “Just watchin’ a re-run of Hullabaloo.  Are you watching it?”

“Naw, our TV’s broken.  My little brother fell against it and the picture won’t come on.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Hey, how about I come over and watch it with you?”

“I guess so.”  Her heart raced.  She was excited that he wanted to see her, but she wasn’t sure that she wanted him to come to her house.  It was so boring. Her parents were old and fussy.  They would embarrass her, and she’d never be able to save face in front of this cool guy.

Once, a bunch of kids came over when her parents were gone, including the hunk Brian Di Franco, who had the most incredible white teeth and enormous smile; he was tall, slim, and muscular, the star basketball player and the most popular boy in the eighth grade.  It was rumored that he slipped into his rich girlfriend’s bedroom each night and made love to her. Maggie really wanted him to be her boyfriend but knew that she’d never get him away from that girl who lived in an enormous house on the hill above the river.  She’d have to settle for someone else.

“Yeah, sure, let me check with my mom.  I’ll call you back.”

“No, I’ll call you,” he said quickly.  “I’m calling from my neighbor’s.  Our phone’s out of order.  The repair guy was supposed to come today but I guess he didn’t make it.  I’ll call you in five.”

Once they connected, their relationship quickly developed into a mixture of tenderness and passion. This wasn’t a juvenile romance or a crush.  Every moment was filled with longing and the need to be with each other. They quickly became best friends, confidants, and sometimes adversaries, whose solitary time was filled with wet, passionate kisses, and tender, furtive gropings that alternated with jealousy and suspicion.  In the four years that they spent together, they probably broke up a hundred times, only to be joyfully reunited because they couldn’t stand to be apart and couldn’t bear to think about anyone taking their places in each other’s lives.  Even though they spent every day together and he practically lived at her house, when he went home, he wrote her love letters every night, filled with sincere promises of lifelong fidelity, and plans for their future together.  She must have expressed the same feelings for him.  She couldn’t remember what she wrote.  After they broke up, she burned the hundreds of letters he had written her.  Every single one. 

As their relationship grew closer, he began to let Maggie learn the intimacies of his family life.  She knew he came from a poor family; his father was a deaf, sometimes employed bricklayer and his mother a barmaid; he was the oldest of six and the family lived in a tiny, rented house in a rundown section of town. 

After he trusted her, he brought Maggie to his house.  Before they went in, he said, “I have to warn you; it’s nothing like your house.  And my dad can’t speak.  He kind of makes weird noises, but don’t be scared.”

She could see right away that his house was nothing like her own two-story middle-class home. The porch of his house was tumbling down and when she stepped on it, some of the boards gave away.  Her boyfriend opened the screen door that had a hole in it and then when they walked in, they were greeted by a swirl of kids.  Maggie looked around and saw that the walls were gray and cracked, the paint was peeling; solitary light bulbs hung from the ceiling.  The front room was bare except for three bunk beds that filled the room.  It was obvious that all six kids slept in the same room. 

His parents sat smoking and drinking at the table; they seemed as uncomfortable as she was.  His dad was wearing a grimy “wife beater” shirt.  When her boyfriend introduced Maggie to him, he grunted.  His mom waved her cigarette at Maggie to acknowledge their meeting and then quickly returned to her beer. 

The children gathered around Maggie, the little ones with runny noses, the older ones brooding and silent, hastily glancing her way to check out their big brother’s girlfriend. The sweet younger boy smiled at her; years later Maggie learned that he was sent to the penitentiary for shooting a clerk at a gas station in an attempted robbery.  In a way, as she walked through the house, she felt like an investigator who must report to the authorities the condition of this family’s life.  This place was so alien to her world that she couldn’t fathom it.  It reminded her of one of her girlfriend’s houses, a fearful, chilling place, where children were ignored in favor of drinking in the kitchen, where her friend Pat was once pushed down the steps by her drunken mother who threatened to kill her.

Maggie noticed that his parents had their own bedroom with a door that shut out their brood. The door had a hole in it as if someone had put a fist through it.

The kitchen sink was heaped with dirty dishes, empty potato chip bags, and beer bottles littered the countertops.  The kitchen floor was covered with a mountain of dirty clothes.  The entire place smelled moldy and each time Maggie went in she felt fearful and uncomfortable, wondering how eight people could live in four rooms, thinking about how her boyfriend had nothing to call his own, no space in which to grow, read, or be alone, away from all the noise and confusion of little children and yelling parents. And they did yell. After their phone was “repaired,” after they paid the bill, he called Maggie.  Inevitably someone was always screaming at someone in the background.  A lot of the time, it was his dad, whose voice sounded like a low moan or a howl.  And many times, it was his mom, who despised Maggie and her middle-class life.  “Why are you calling her?  Get off the phone and get to the store before it closes.  I’m sick of always doin’ everything around here,” she shouted.

It’s ironic that Maggie had to contact her one night when her boyfriend needed her.   For once they’d spent Friday night apart.  She’d gone to the football game with friends and he was with his.  Afterwards, Angela, Julie, and Maggie pulled into the local hangout and saw several cop cars with their cherry tops flashing.  Kids were running through the parking lot and everyone was shouting. 

As soon as Maggie got out of the car, a red-haired girl ran up to her.  Maggie recognized that she was the younger sister of a boy in her class.  She was crying hysterically, “Maggie, they have your boyfriend on the ground,” she gulped.  “They tackled him and threw him on the ground.  He’s in handcuffs,” the girl said as she pointed between the cars.  “You have to help him.  They’re hurting him,” she cried.  Tears convulsed her chest and she swallowed hard to try to control herself. 

Maggie grabbed Ann’s arm and they ran between the cars.  Her boyfriend was on the ground facedown with his hands locked behind him.  As soon as he saw Maggie, he raised his head to yell at her.  A fat policeman stepped on his neck to keep him from getting up and Maggie could see blood on his mouth. 

“Stop it! Let him up,” Maggie screamed.  “You’re hurting him.”  She lurched forward to help him, but the policeman shoved her away.

“Get back, young lady.  Stay back, all of you.”

“He’s my boyfriend,” Maggie cried.  “Let go of him.  I want to talk with him.”

“No, miss, you can’t.  He’s gotten himself into mess of trouble.  We’re taking him into custody.  You go on home now.”  He pushed Maggie back into the crowd and she looked at her boyfriend squirming under the pressure of the policeman’s foot.

Maggie was shaking as she turned to Ann.  “We have to find his mom.”

“Why don’t we just call her?”

“Can’t.  Their phone’s disconnected again.  We have to go to their house.  We have to get him out.”

They hopped into Maggie’s car and the red-haired girl ran over to them.  “What happened?” Maggie asked.  “Was there a fight?”

“I don’t know.  I heard someone yell and then there was a crash — and I looked and saw a guy on the ground. The guy had been thrown through the plate glass window.  I guess he was the manager.”

“Who did it?”

She said it was Maggie’s boyfriend. 

“Why would he do that?  He must have had a good reason.  He doesn’t act like that.”  In an instant, she remembered that he told her that once his dad broke down the bedroom door when his mom refused to let him in. 

“I gotta go find his mom.” 

They sped away, running stoplights.  Maggie cried the entire time and could barely see the road.  All she could see was the policeman’s foot on her boyfriend’s neck. 

He lived a long way from the hangout.  When they pulled up to his house, she saw one light on.  She pounded on the door.  His sister opened it and they rushed in.

“What are you doing here?” his sister asked.  She looked bewildered and quickly started picking clothes off the floor, as she shoved shoes under a bed.  Dirty plates, cups, and clothes were strewn across the floor.  She looked at Maggie, and then at Angela and Julie.  “God, you scared me, Maggie.  I thought you were my dad.  He’s back and mom told us to tell him to go away.”  Her little sister and youngest brother burrowed out from under the bed where’d they’d been hiding.

“Your brother’s in jail,” Maggie replied.  “The police arrested him for throwing a guy through a window.  There must be some mistake.  Oh, God, they were holding him down like he was some animal.”

“Is he okay?” she asked. 

“I think so, but it looked like he was hurt.  Is your mom here?”

“No, she’s out.”

“Do you want us to go tell her?”

“I don’t know where she is,” she said as she continued to push dirty clothing under one of the bunkbeds.

“But we have to find your mom fast or else he’ll stay in jail.”

“What do you think she can do?” she replied.  “She doesn’t have any money – she couldn’t get him out anyways.”

Maggie couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  Couldn’t someone help him?  Would she have to ask her parents?

“Why don’t you mind your own business?  Just go away.  We’ll take care of it,” his sister said as she motioned for them to leave.  As soon as they were on the porch, his sister slammed the door behind them.

Later his sister screamed at Maggie for bringing Angela and Julie with her.  She said, “Why did you embarrass me like that?  Now they know how we live.  Now everybody will know and no one will like me at school.”

Whenever Maggie drove to his place, she always passed a house that had a playhouse behind it, a tiny gingerbread home with ornately carved windows, an exact miniature of the parent house.  Instead of a real door, the playhouse had a little Mr. Ed door, and the house was encircled by beds of daisies and roses.  When she was a child, she longed to live in that house; as an adolescent, she always envisioned herself growing up and marrying a fine young man.  They would buy a grownup version of that gingerbread house, a haven where they would read Sonnets from the Portuguese to each other in the garden as they sat under a towering willow tree.

This miniature house represented her life in this town.  Before her family moved to this place, they’d lived in a big city and the move involved an uneasy change in social class.  They’d moved up and out of the working class – out of a house with cracked linoleum, peeling and fading wallpaper, a crumbling staircase going up to their flat.  Their apartment was sparsely furnished but clean; their backyard was brick, but her mother made the most of the little garden in the back where she planted climbing red, yellow, and pink roses that overflowed the trellises.  Even though they were poor, her parents made the most of whatever they had, creating beauty in the process. 

Her family only owned a few children’s books, but her mom read them to her over and over. In their Grimm Brothers fairytales, Maggie drew elves and fairies, and she wrote her name in the margins to claim the book as her own. Her mom belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club and regularly read Reader’s Digest.  No one else in the old neighborhood cared to read, it seemed; no one had books gracing their coffee tables or strewn about on chairs and beds.  Instead, unlike her parents, some of the people in her neighborhood sat in the taverns all day swilling beer. And some regularly, like her Uncle Al, went to the horse track and bet their last buck.  In the summer, they would sit in the sweltering heat and fan themselves on the back stoop, while they smoked cigarettes. Often, they’d lounge on the fire escapes, men in their “wife beater” t-shirts and women in their slips, trying to get cool.

Now, in Maggie’s parents’ new home in a new city, instead of a tub full of ice with a fan blowing on it, they had air conditioning.  Instead of peeling linoleum, they had wall-to-wall carpeting.  Instead of a brick backyard, they had grass.  Instead of an alley, they had a garage with two cars in it. Instead of a dilapidated kitchen, their kitchen had new cabinets and appliances.  Best of all they had bookshelves in the living room and in each bedroom.  Maggie’s mom filled the living room shelves with the “classics” that she bought from the door-to-door salesman, who also sold them the World Book Encyclopedia.  In Maggie’s own room, she had built-in bookcases from floor to ceiling, overflowing with hundreds of books, childhood favorites by Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Brontë sisters, teenage finds by Tolstoy and Joseph Campbell. 

Maggie knew that she could never tolerate a move back into a neighborhood and material conditions that spelled enclosure, and want, no life of the mind.  And she knew that she could never adjust her vision of her future to a world in which someone else made decisions regarding her life.  She would choose her life; she would go to the university and learn all about the ancient world, the Renaissance, and other cultures.  She would never regress to a world that didn’t promise her the possibility of an endless horizon.

After he enlisted, he arranged their last night together.  He borrowed a friend’s apartment, and the climax of the evening was supposed to result in them making love for the first time.  He had everything planned — the music, the wine, the candlelight, and the condoms.  She knew about the plan, but she’d decided before hand not to go along with it.  Even though he had the foresight to protect them from an unwanted pregnancy, all Maggie could think about was what if I got pregnant?  That would ruin my life.  I wouldn’t go to college. I’d be tied to him and he’d be able to cart me off to Fort Leonardwood, as he’d conspired to do all along. 

When the moment came to “prove” their love and to make a more permanent commitment in this adult way, she said, “No.”  Even though he needed her to show him how much she loved him before he left for the boot camp, she refused to go through with it.  He was hurt and frustrated, and Maggie left before they opened the wine.  It was then that she knew that she had to get out before he smothered her.

She tried to end the relationship many times, sometimes just getting up and leaving when he was out of the room at his next-door neighbor’s house, a move that she recognized later as a passive-aggressive act to show him that she wanted out without having to say it. 

She only finally mustered the courage to break it off completely when he unexpectedly returned on leave from boot camp.  He called her from the airport and told her to pick him up.  He was so happy to see her; he grinned and kissed her hard.  He was in his dress uniform, his buttons and shoes shiny, his lapels ironed and stiff.  He was every bit the soldier. Maggie wasn’t thrilled to see him, but she attempted to act like she was happy.  On the freeway heading toward her house, he noticed that she wasn’t wearing the small ring he’d given her before he left for boot camp.  

“Where’s your ring?” he yelled.  “Why aren’t you wearing it?”  He eyed her suspiciously.  “Are you seeing someone else?”  He grabbed her hand and squeezed it in his fist.  She nearly lost control of the car on the freeway.

“Let go!  You’re hurting me. I took it off,” she shouted as she tried to wrench her hand out of his.

“Why?  You promised you’d never take it off.”  The veins swelled on his neck, as he gripped her hand. 

She pulled off at the next ramp.  Her heart was racing, as she slammed on the brakes. She yanked her hand from his.

“Get out of my car right now,” she said.  “Leave me alone.  I don’t want to see you anymore.”

These lines were words she’d said a hundred times before.  He assumed she didn’t mean them and that in a few hours they’d be back in each other’s arms.  He jumped out, slammed the door, and Maggie sped away.

When she got home, she could barely breathe she was crying so hard. But she knew what she had to do.  She ran into the house, locked the door, and told her brother what had happened.  She warned him, “I know he’ll be here any minute, you have to tell him to go away.”

Fifteen minutes later, her boyfriend was pounding on the door, shouting for her to come out. He yelled that he loved her and that he was sorry.  “Please, Maggie, come out.  I need you.”

Maggie was shaking and weeping uncontrollably.  She hid in her room, behind a locked door.  She yelled to her brother, “Tell him to go away.  Tell him not to come back.”

Her boyfriend kept beating on the door and eventually her brother answered it.  They shouted at one another.

“Let me in, Joe, I have to see her.  She’s mine.  Tell her I’m sorry.  I’ll do anything to make it up to her, please.”

“Face it, Robbie, she doesn’t want to see you anymore.  She said to tell you to go away and leave her alone.  It’s over.”

Maggie heard him scream.  As she choked on tears, she turned her head away from the noise and put a pillow over her head.

A few hours later, he came back, and her mom insisted that she go out and talk with him.

She sat on the top step leading into the house.  He stood before her.  He’d changed out of his army uniform and was wearing his “civvies,” his usual jeans and a white t-shirt.  His face was flushed and forlorn. He looked like he’d lost his best friend.

Maggie hated to have to say it, but she knew that she had to, or he’d never let her go. “I don’t love you anymore,” she said.

“You don’t mean it,” he insisted.  “I still love you. I’ll always love you,” he said as he reached out to her.

She pushed his hand away. “I don’t care. Please leave me alone,” she said as she stood and walked back into the house.  She turned around and he just stood there. As darkness descended, she looked out of the window and saw him.  He was still standing in the moonlight, waiting for her to admit that she still loved him, that she’d marry him as he planned.

The next morning and every morning for four weeks he called her collect.  He was back on base. Each time he called, she hung up.  Finally, the calls stopped.

In the end, she’d won her war and walked away unharmed. She went to the university and moved away. He completed his training and escaped to Vietnam; an escape that proved futile. In Vietnam and after he returned home to his family, he fought many skirmishes and battles. Sadly, for multiple reasons, he was broken and injured. Eventually he lost each and every war.

Categories: Fiction

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