by Judith Clayman
Jenny entered the bedroom and shook her head. She’d been married to Charlie for eight months, and as he packed for a four-month training exercise in Spain – his third trip since their marriage – she guessed it was time to accept the axiom all of the wives knew: “If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife it would have issued you one.”
Like a prince towering over his underlings, Charlie, at six feet two-and-a-half, seemed to take up all the space in the room. As Jenny maneuvered around their rent-to-own bureaus, he packed. He was twenty-seven, had regulation-cut red hair, freckles, broad shoulders and strong hands. The bright silver bars on his shirt denoted his rank of first lieutenant. His polished shoes gleamed. She could see her face in them. Even in his lowly fatigues, he was movie star handsome with icy blue eyes that avoided his wife’s. Yet sadness permeated his visage.
Jenny, a year younger and a foot shorter, was slight, beautiful yet fragile. She had long, dark brown hair and big brown eyes. She was wearing slacks and a long sleeve t-shirt. It was April. The days were unseasonably cool for North Carolina. She settled in on their queen-size bed, their one new purchase, on the blanket with the small burn hole that was a score at the Salvation Army Store. She would need to remove it soon. It was all they needed last winter and all they would need next … if they were still together, she thought sadly. The hand-crocheted spread that she had loved, her one extravagance, was the purchase that had caused all the trouble..
“We have student loans, car payments,” he had said when she brought it home.
“What about the night you blew twenty dollars on that shell game at the traveling carnival?” She said, though she had voiced no censure at the time.
“That was my money,” he said, a haphazard defense thinly considered.
The “my money” made her want to kill him.
Their words began boldly but stopped abruptly, both having realized that they entered a minefield that would not brook a winner.
He, afraid she would refuse, had not insisted she return it.
She, afraid he would, had stayed silent too.
Going forward, everything else became an issue. They embarked on a war of words as each one’s discontent with the other spread like an unchecked fire amidst a field of dry timber. Feeling powerless to change the trajectory of their lives, truths and lies floated like Ping Pong balls between them.
“I can’t wait till you’re deployed.”
“I can’t wait to go.”
The house grew hot with their anger.
Finally, exhausted and confused, they shut down. Charlie had the brotherhood of the squadron and the structure of his occupation. Far from old friends, her sister, and his family, Jenny had only the infrequent teas and luncheons hosted by the Colonel’s wife, a group she dismissed as cliquey. She came to resent his job, his friends. He came to begrudge her her perceived life of leisure. Some nights she wandered through their four rooms until the sun came up then muddled through the day. Her rage became a suit of armor that protected yet isolated her. Food no longer tasted good. She lost weight. He began stopping at the officer’s club after work. At home, he slept, hoping to awake from a very bad dream. They both feared the explosion that would bring irreparable damage. Their couplings were infrequent, desperate, and fraught with rage even though they resurrected – albeit briefly – the great joy they had once found in each other’s arms.
Jenny and Charlie met in college in a sociology class ironically titled “Marriage and the Family.” Charlie had watched her, admired her, and made the first move. Studying together, they soon progressed from the syllabus to the personal and eventually to the sexual. Their love, tenderly cultivated, advanced from seed to bud to flower. When Charlie took her home to meet his parents, she found them supportive, caring, and kind. She knew she wanted a family like Charlie’s with Charlie. Graduating first, Charlie joined the Marine Corps Officer Candidate program. Flying was his childhood dream. Graduating later, Jenny took a job with the local Head Start program. She blossomed from the joy of giving and had an easy relationship with the other teachers. Apart, they hungered for each other and treasured every opportunity to be together. The sun seemed brighter and the sunsets more magnificent when that happened. Certified as a Naval Aviator and Second Lieutenant, he proposed. Marriage found them in the state of North Carolina, far from their anticipated state of bliss.
All morning the quiet of the room had been broken only by the ticking of the clock on the TV table they used as a nightstand.
Closing his duffle, he said, “What will you do while I’m gone?”
“I understand they’re looking for a stripper at the Zebra Club. The pay is good. What do you think?” She proposed, standing, a grin now masking her gloom.
“I am serious,” she countered, irritated at his unwillingness to play along. Posing, batting her eyes, she asked, “Are you afraid they’ll turn this body down?”
“I can’t talk to you,” he snapped.
“I hate you, I hate the Marine Corps, and I hate this town,” she said, her fury now matching his.
He threw up his hands, grabbed his bag and walked out, slamming the door behind him.
Jenny’s heart pummeled. She sobbed great, giant sobs. She went into their tiny bathroom, washed her face, wiped her eyes, and looked up. The circles under her eyes were visible; the self-hate coursing through her veins was not. She asked, “How could I send him off like that? Have I become my mother?” The mirror silent, she grabbed her sunglasses and a scarf and then left. She walked and walked. A number of the houses she passed were rented to other junior officers and their families. With the squadron’s early morning departure, the children in school, and many wives back to bed, the street was quiet. She felt alone and helpless. As she turned the corner, it came to her. She would call Marge. Her sister would know what to do. Repeating her mantra: “Marge will know what to do,” gave her some modicum of peace.
Marge, CFO for an international corporation, had been transferred to Paris. It had been three years since they’d spent time together, save for Jenny’s wedding. Meaningful dialogue amidst the choreography of that affair had been impossible. Their parents, now dead, had been first generation Americans. Their grandmother had cared for Marge, the first-born. Eight years on, Marge became Jenny’s de facto mother, as her grandmother was barely able to care for herself.
Jenny managed to report Charlie’s trip to Spain before dissolving into tears.
“Come to Paris.” Marge said.
Resuming her old role as Jenny’s protector, Marge made the arrangements and wired tickets and money. Jenny packed a bag and put the mail on hold.
Jenny dressed in her best suit, fastened a single strand of pearls around her neck, straightened the seams in her stockings and donned her white gloves. Totting her valise and a small purse, she headed to the New Hanover County Airport in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Jenny’s flights were her first. The attractive stewardesses in their catchy uniforms, the roomy seats, and smart clothes of the first-class passengers amazed her. She paid rapt attention to the pre-flight safety instructions. The miniature bathrooms, the galleys with their metal boxes and drawers and the meals that came out of them delighted her. The flights themselves were uneventful. The New York connection she dreaded was made with ease. Arriving at Orly, she spied her sister in a Jackie Kennedy hairdo and Dior ensemble. Jenny covered the distance between them in seconds, latching onto her in a breathless embrace, a Barbie doll in the arms of a runway model. Tears sprang unbidden from her eyes. For the brief ride to Marge’s flat, Jenny basked in the shelter of Fort Marge.
Though restrained by work, Marge planned Jenny’s days so she could experience all of Paris. At the Louvre, Jenny, thrilled to be viewing the paintings she had only seen in books, was even more amazed as strange men sidled up to her. They made her feel sexy and desirable. It was the same at the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. She wondered if Charlie would be impressed with her, in a foreign city, dealing with a foreign language, men interested in her. It had been a while since she felt she was the object of his admiration. Yet none of this eased Jenny’s angst.
Night after night, Jenny and Marge met at a neighborhood café on Rue Abel. At their small sidewalk table, amid the chatter of French blended with the multinational tongues of tourists, the curling smoke of cigarettes, the clatter of trays, and the dishes that could only be described as a psalm of joy to the palate, she confessed all through breathless, halting sobs.
“Charlie’s away more than he’s home. I have no friends, not any. I’ve lost the best job in the world – I hate him for taking me to that godforsaken place. And when I remember how much I wanted it, I hate myself. I think I’m going crazy. Everything and anything makes me cry. And the most ridiculous part is that when he leaves, I miss him and want him back.”
Marge moved closer and, despite the awkwardness of the square table, managed to wrap her arms around Jenny. “I know, Marge said, feeling her pain hoping to find words that would comfort yet guide. She recalled their youth. She learned to tolerate her parents’ cruelty towards each other but every time their father’s shouted reprimands and their mother’s criticism battered Jenny a part of her died. She knew this could have been her fate as well. Her grandmother, uneducated, bursting with love, allowed Marge not only to survive but also to feel special. She felt she owed that lady the protection of her second grandchild. Marge declined a fellowship to a prestigious Ivy League university to attend college in their small town and remained until Jenny graduated high school. While saving her, Marge grew to love her. In turn, Jenny loved Marge.
Is he volunteering to travel?” Marge asked, handing her a handkerchief.
“No.” said Jenny, blowing her nose.
“Is there any possibility of a teaching job, substitute or full time?”
“None, nil, zero!”
“Are there other opportunities?”
“No. I don’t think so. Whatever jobs there are have waiting lists and most on those lists are experienced.”
“Have you met anyone you could lunch with … attend a movie?”
“They hate me.”
“All of them?” inquired Marge, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice.
“You don’t understand. The squadron was formed a year and a half ago. The other wives have known each other that long. They are only interested in each other. Therein lies the irony; I have no female friends in a place where there are plenty of women with loads of free time. Pretty pathetic, don’t you think?” Jenny said.
“Not so pathetic. Lonely and unhappy, yes, but not pathetic. Teaching was what you did, not who you are. You’re still you. And anyway, you’re angry at the situation, not Charlie,” Marge said, knowing the Jenny who loved Charlie was still in there; that big sisters who are almost mothers can see things that the person herself can miss.
“This stint in the service is only one part of the parts that will make up your life together. I deal in math. For one plus one to equal two, you each need to bring something to the union. Charlie has something whether you like it or not. You need to find something. Ideally it should be something you feel fervent about. Can you grow you as well as support him?”
“I don’t know. To support all his time away I’ll need to pretend I like it too. Shouldn’t marriage be based on truth? Honesty?”
“Well, if what you’re doing isn’t working, you have to try something else.”
Jenny quieted as she gave this some consideration.
On their last night together Jenny repeated, “I’m still not sure what to do.”
“No, maybe not, but I have faith that you’ll figure it out,” Marge said as she kissed her on the head and placed an American fifty-dollar bill in her hand.
“I can’t take that,” Jenny moaned as she squeezed the last of her clothes into her suitcase. “You’ve given me more than enough already.” She felt guilty for not being a better wife and bringing her problems to Marge.
“Yes, you can. I have it. You don’t. I can do that much for you. That’s easy, the hard stuff you’ll have to do yourself.”
Dropped at the airport, Jenny, felt cautiously optimistic. Despite the anxiety that roiled her insides, she was determined. If Marge believed in her, so would she. As she went to exchange her last few francs for dollars, her eye caught the headline in the French newspaper, Le Monde: “Des helicopters americains crash, huit morts en espagne.” She bought a copy of the English newspaper; The Sun. Its headline read “Two United States helicopters on an exercise in Spain crash, eight dead.” That was all. Disbelief prevailed. Crashes and death were for television news shows, not for young people like her and Charlie.
Two helicopters meant four pilots, and she doubted there were more than twelve in the squadron. She wished she’d paid closer attention when Charlie had explained these things. When it was time to board, her limbs moved automatically though her head was filled with a nagging image of Charlie at the controls of a crashing Sea Knight, a helicopter she had sat in herself for a photo op on family day. At her row in coach, she squeezed past a man who introduced himself as Jean Lafite. He was around forty, she guessed, medium height, kind eyes, dark hair peppered with grey and a smile that said he was hoping for company. She thought, if I am right he will be very disappointed. She fastened her seat belt and reread the headline, as if a second reading would garner new information.
He glanced at her paper, “American boys, what a shame.”
She couldn’t answer. She could only nod.
As the plane moved down the runway, there was a flash from one of the engines.
“That can’t be good,” Jean said.
Again she shook her head. Skepticism cascaded to despair and then peace; if Charlie were dead, she didn’t want to live. The hope Marge had given her would be as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny.
The plane ground to a halt. There was an announcement in French first, and then another in English: “This is a technical problem. There is no danger. Please remain in your seats while we lower the exit stairs. We will be departing through the main door.”
“I want to get out now,” shouted a teen-age boy. “I’m not going up in flames.”
“Yeah, open the emergency exits,” yelled his seatmate, possibly two high school exchange students.
“I repeat: there is no danger. We must do things in an orderly fashion,” said the senior stewardess, her eyes flashing fury in their direction.
Within minutes a bus pulled alongside the plane. The stewardess ushered everyone out, row by row, down the stairs into the bus.
“First class passengers first,” she reminded them.
“What are we, fire fodder?” Asked Jean.
The lady in front of him bobbed in agreement.
When everyone was aboard, the bus moved to an empty gate.
For over an hour, they remained there.
A young mother said, “I need milk for my baby.”
“I am sorry but I cannot help you here,” said the stewardess.
As if understanding, the baby began to cry.
A man asked, “What’s happening? Do you want us to believe this bus will take us to New York?”
There was some laughter followed by the stewardess’ remark, “You know what I know.”
A second hour passed.
A man yelled in a foreign language. Jean told her it was Italian. Even those who didn’t speak a word of it knew that he was swearing. They applauded as one.
Finally, the bus moved. They approached another Boeing 707. Upon boarding, the stewardess needed the first-class passengers, whose ranking had been muddied on the bus, to reassert themselves. Seat numbers were slightly different on the new plane. The young man and his friend eased themselves into first class. The stewardess issuing commands seethed. Nothing could happen until they moved. This slowed the boarding process.
The flight to New York took eight-and-a-half hours. Jenny couldn’t sit still. The minutes seemed like hours and the hours like days. She felt as if she would crawl out of her skin. She needed to ring her father-in-law. He would have heard, contacted the proper authorities, and known something. But she was a captive of Air France. She drank two gin and tonics. She considered telling someone on the plane. She could tell Jean. She made many more trips to the bathroom than were necessary. She could tell the American girl she met in the line for the toilet. They agreed that no one had seen any movement of baggage between planes. The girl told her that she had placed her dress for the wedding she would be attending in her carry-on. It would be wrinkled but she would have it. Though not a regular smoker, she bummed a cigarette from the woman across the aisle. She even deliberated telling the cigarette lady, with whom she had communicated with gestures and who spoke no English. In the end she was afraid that as much as she wanted – needed to speak – she couldn’t. Telling, even to someone who wouldn’t understand, would make it real.
In New York, she barely noticed that the checked bags hadn’t arrived. She couldn’t get off the plane fast enough. She was driven to call her father-in-law although terrified at what news he might impart. The line through customs inched forward every so often, most of the passengers on her flight shuffled along impatiently glancing at watches. Yet she hardly noticed them. The minutes crept by. The line seemed to slow to a crawl the closer she got to the customs agents. By the time she handed the official her passport and blurted out answers to their queries her chest felt like it would nearly burst. When the man smiled and handed her passport back, she barely heard his welcome back to the United States.
She ran, down the escalator to a payphone. She called her father-in-law.
“I have spoken to someone in Washington. Charlie is the pilot of one of the two helicopters. When they crashed, one went down killing all eight aboard, the two pilots, the Sergeant and the five enlisted men in the belly. That is all they will tell me,” he said. “They say, that is all they know.”
She heard someone crying in the background. She was sure it was her mother-in-law. Her body stopped supporting her. She sunk to the floor of the phone booth. When someone opened the door, she spilled out onto the airport floor. Shocked, he offered his arm. She stood, aware that people were staring. She managed to remain upright though it took all her strength.
“I am okay now, thank you,” she told him. She would proceed with dignity, she vowed. A tenuous self-preservation prevailed. She willed herself to believe. She was young. Maybe Charlie would be okay.
Until she heard otherwise, he was alive. She screamed silently, I didn’t want this, not really, not this.
She had missed her connecting flight by many hours. Arrangements had to be made. She managed. She had not slept in twenty hours.
She was beyond exhausted but wired. In North Carolina, she called again. Her father-in-law had heard.
“Charlie, his co-pilot and crew are safe, only banged up and bruised. Officially, it’s contusions and abrasions. The two pilots and the six Marines in the belly of the other helicopter are dead.”
She panted as if at the end of a race. Then she shook; the tightness she held herself in released. She hadn’t killed him.
Spring had turned into summer. The North Carolina heat was stifling, filled with the promise of longer and longer days of the same. Only one of the dead pilots, Mickey, was married. Though she barely knew his widow and really didn’t want to, Jenny forced herself to visit. She had walked her walk; she had felt her pain. Meg, six-months pregnant, hugged her and broke down in tears. The other wives were already there. All whispered of having had visions of a crashing helicopter with their husbands at the controls. Spared, they were generous. They welcomed Jenny. An overhead fan whirred in the background. Meg’s mother sat in the kitchen offering ice coffee and wringing her hands. Once the remains arrived, they would travel with it to extended family in Indiana where they would bury him and she would have her baby.
The city turned out in force for the memorial. Now a member of the club, she attended with the other wives. The sorrow was palpable. It was as audible as the cadence of the honor guard and the sobs of the mother of the eighteen-year old private. It was as visible as the stoic countenances of the wife and two teenage children of the sergeant and in Meg, sweet Meg, as her arms cradled her unborn child while the arms of her mother clasped the shoulder of the one she had borne.
Charlie wrote. He would not return for two more weeks. He mourned the loss of his friends. “We started training together. It could have been me if I hadn’t pulled up when I did. I came so close.”
Jenny promised herself she would try something, anything…Grasping at straws, she remembered the time her freshman English teacher suggestion she submit her work to the school paper. She hadn’t but why not, she thought, a travel piece on Paris? She wrote. Rereading it, she was embarrassed. She hung around the bookstore in town studying published travel writers until she could no longer endure the stares of the manager. Day after day she reworked her piece, adding the practical data garnered from her souvenir pamphlets. When it was something she was willing to own, she packaged it in a manila envelope and mailed it to the travel editor of the Jacksonville Daily News. Good or bad, passionate or not, it had given meaning to her days, she thought. She considered, she wished, she dreamed; maybe, hopefully, possibly, it would be enough.