by Libby Sternberg
“There you are!” Kate breathed a huge sigh of relief, hoping he didn’t notice as he approached the small booth near the back of Beck’s Tavern, a few blocks from the hospital. She was still new enough to going out again—going out seriously, that is—that she though
t it might all disappear in a blink.
After a day shift made longer by a tardy afternoon nurse, she’d rushed home to change and had been afraid of not making it back in time. Then, as she’d waited, she’d worried that he wouldn’t show up. Oh, because he’d been delayed by a patient, but still… Then what would she say, how would she act when she saw him the next day?
He’d suggested seven-thirty because he had so many things to do at the hospital. She normally ate much earlier with her mother, usually around five or so.
He grinned and looked down as he approached. Aaron was so timid, she sometimes felt like a tugboat nudging a big ship with him. She knew he wanted to see her, but was she being too pushy? She felt out of practice.
He’d kissed her at the end of their last get-together, an outing to a concert, music she didn’t know and had been intimidated by. She’d enjoyed his explanations, and she’d known that they’d relaxed him. He’d driven them—my, he was a timid driver, too, but Baltimore was still relatively new to him, and he’d confessed to not driving at all in New York—and walked her to her door, held her hands in his and planted the sweetest kiss on her lips, tickling her cheek with his beard.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, easing into the seat across from her.
He smiled directly at her, and she was glad she’d changed. She wore a pale green cotton dress, with a light white sweater draped over her shoulders and big gold earrings and matching necklace her mother had given her last Christmas and she hardly wore at all—only to church every once in a while.
“I never expect a doctor to be on time,” she joked. “Burgers are good here. You hungry?”
“Yes, very.” He nodded, then reached for a menu, propped against the wall behind the sugar container. “Burgers, you say?”
“Or pork barbeque, whichever you prefer. Best barbeque north of Charlotte, I’ve been told.” And immediately, she warmed with blush. Pork—really, Kate? “I mean, the burgers are really the best. Everybody loves ’em.”
The waitress came by and they both placed orders for burgers. She ordered a beer, and he followed suit. She knew he had to head back to the hospital after their dinner—that’s why she’d come in to meet him. He had a new admit that he wanted to see this evening when the family visited.
“You look lovely,” he said, smiling.
“Why, thank you, kind sir,” she joked. They were still in the getting-to-know-you stage, and Kate had determined she’d find out more about his history tonight after someone at the hospital had told her he was divorced. Oh, she didn’t hold that against him, but it had made him a rarer creature than he already was. In her circles, people didn’t divorce. Catholics didn’t, at least. There was still so much to learn about him…and lately, it had been making her afraid. He’s Jewish, her mother had said when Kate had told her about him. She knew that didn’t mean her mother wouldn’t like him. It meant she was telling her daughter that it wouldn’t be easy should they become closer. But nothing was easy, was it? Kate had learned that the hard way.
“I took your advice and talked to Sister’s superior,” he said, leaning in. But even that hadn’t helped much, he went on to tell her, outlining the conversation he’d had, before asking if she knew if it were true that Sister wouldn’t be assigned back to the Mother House so late in the summer.
“Hmm, I’m not sure. When I was a kid, it did seem we knew when a nun wouldn’t be back the next year—before the school year ended.”
“You were taught by them?”
She nodded. “Twelve years. And then I went to nursing school atSt. Joseph’s and had a few there, too.”
“So you know a great deal.”
“Yup. But not just from that. I actually thought of being one.”
“You can relax,” she said, smiling. “It’s quite common among Catholic girls. We all dream of wearing the habit one day. It’s romantic-looking. And we all dream of being the Little Flower—that’s Saint Teresa—being loved through the ages.”
“But with you, it was something more?” he prodded.
Their beers arrived, tall, frosty glasses with foam skimming the top. After taking a sip of the malty brew, she answered.
“Yes, I looked into it seriously. I considered it twice, actually. Once when I was in nursing school and then—well about five years ago.”
“So recent,” he said and then sipped his own beer. His eyebrows shot up.
Oh, that was good, Kate, giving him the impression you’re not interested in anything but the single life. Best correct that misperception quickly…
“Well, I was going through a bad time. My husband was MIA in the war. I found out he was really dead.” She remembered how it had appealed to her right after finding out Brian was gone, for sure. Oh, how nice it would have been to lose herself in a white habit, in anonymity. She felt so exposed in the world, so foolish for cherishing the hope he was alive for so long. She had wanted so badly to hide.
She had planned on telling him about Brian, as a way of getting him to tell her about his marriage. She’d share her story, and surely he’d share his. It was the nice thing to do, and he was very nice hidden away under that beard. It was what had attracted her to him. He wasn’t like the other doctors—imperious and dismissive.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“And I thought maybe I should dust off that convent dream. But it’s not something you should do to run away from problems. You should be running toward it.”
He smiled. “Like everything in life really.”
She eagerly agreed. “Yeah. Like everything in life.” She felt him relaxing, so she relaxed, too, the tension easing out of her shoulders as she looked into his eyes. They were very dark eyes—a deep, earthy brown. She realized this was the first time they’d had a chance to really look at each other, not just talk. Besides the concert, they’d been to the movies once, and to an art gallery—none of them occasions for deep conversations about their lives.
“So tell me about your life, during the war, after,” he began, looking back into her own eyes, as if he were realizing the same pleasure as she at this chance to deepen their relationship. She couldn’t remember him doing that at the hospital—that kind of straight-on stare. It made her feel giddy, almost lightheaded.
“Spoken like a psychiatrist.”
He grimaced, and she reached for his hand. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend…you must get that all the time.”
“I don’t want you to think my interest is clinical,” he said. “I’d really like to know. Tell me about your husband. He was MIA? That’s a hard sentence.”
“It was like a sentence,” she said, surprised at his insight. “A prison sentence. Waiting and waiting.”
“I’m sorry you had to suffer that.” His voice was gentle, like warm rain. How good it made her feel, to find someone who understood. She’d not talked about Brian much to anyone beside her mother. So many men didn’t come home, their widows and mothers receiving the news in a cutting blow. At least when Brian had been listed as missing, she’d had hope. Oh, yes, she’d had hope. She looked up again and saw a hesitant eagerness in his eyes, anxious to know more even at the cost of pain.
“He was lost in the Pacific,” she said at last, head high, shoulders straight. She’d not suffer again.
“It was fierce fighting there,” he said.
“Fierce everywhere is my guess—were you in it?” She said it lightly so he wouldn’t be ashamed of admitting to not having served.
“Yes, but often behind the fighting lines, in Europe.” He looked down. “I don’t like people to think I was in the thick of it when others experienced so much more.”
Her heart went out to him. “It didn’t matter what you did if you were there, Aaron!”
“But people like your husband, they had to face things every day, quickly, with no time to think.”
Inwardly, she smiled. Yes, Aaron would have struggled with the lack of thoughtfulness in war.
Their dinners arrived, but before they dug in, he prodded her again to tell her story. She took a couple of bites and decided to get it over with quickly.
“We were married a year before he got the call up. He shipped out to the Pacific in ’44, was missing in action six months later.”
“When did you come to accept he wasn’t coming back?” He wiped a bit of grease from his beard. That small movement startled her. Brian had done that. Oh, not on a beard. His chin. He had a distinctive chin with a dimple in it, and he’d wipe it a lot when they went out for burgers or sandwiches.
“Come to accept—I don’t know if I’d use that turn of phrase exactly. ‘Forced to accept’ is more like it. See, after a year went by and the war ended—I started having a different vision. I thought maybe he’d been taken prisoner. So I just moved on to believing in something else. But then he didn’t come home with the other prisoners, he wasn’t on those lists.”
She’d never thought of him as dead. Never dead. Never a lifeless body. No, in a hospital somewhere swaddled in bandages, unable to speak. She’d said Novenas, bought Mass cards, prayed the rosary.
The end of the war—what a time that had been. The whole city one big party. And she’d thought: Bri will come home. Now it’s over, he’ll be coming home.
“So you were forced to accept it then.”
She patted his hand, comforting him. Even he didn’t like to think of how foolish she’d been.
“No,” she said, “I’m mulishly stubborn. A couple years after the war, I read of some fellow in a hospital inCalifornia, burned real bad and unable to talk or use his hands or anything for a long, long time. They didn’t know who he was until he fully recovered. And then I heard of some other guys who were hurt so bad—disfigured, you know—that they stayed away from home for a long time.”
“And you thought that’s what happened to him.”
She nodded without looking at him. It seemed so humiliating now, pinning her hopes on all those stories, and selfish, too, to hope that Brian had been so grievously injured. But she couldn’t help it. She remembered her Ma just looking at her so sad when she showed her the newspaper stories. “Yes, Kate, I guess it’s possible,” she’d say. “But it’s best to let it go.” Let him go, was what she’d really been saying.
She’d even had a big fight with her mother after one of these talks. Her own faith had been flagging, and she’d needed her mother to be more enthusiastic about the wild scenarios she was envisioning for Brian. When her mother failed to deliver, Kate had accused her of giving up too soon, suggesting she’d done the same when her father had been in the hospital after an accident that had ultimately claimed his life. How could she have said that to her mother?
“I even thought. . .well, I’d heard a story of a friend of a friend of a friend….” She looked up, shaking her head, her appetite gone now. She put down her burger. “Her husband hadn’t come home because he didn’t want to be married anymore. He’d taken on a new name in another city. She found out from someone who ran into him.”
“You believed your husband had done that, too?” He sounded incredulous.
“Yeah, pretty bad, huh? But I figured if Brian had wanted to move on, I would have told him that was okay. I just wanted to know he was still alive. I just wanted to be…right about him being alive and the Army being wrong.”
They both lapsed into silence. When she thought of this story now, it was only in snippets, not one long tale. It seemed much sadder as a whole. The little pieces were all noble. The whole added up to something pathetic and miserable.
“It took me five years,” she said at last, her voice low. “An old Army pal of Brian’s came into town—Bob Brody. Big Bob, Bri used to call him in his letters home. Big Bob was such a cut-up that Brian said he would forget where he was from laughing so hard. Big Bob went through training with Brian, saw combat with him. And he was in town on some sales meeting—he lived in Pennsylvania, had a wife and two kids—and he called me up out of the blue and said he’d like to meet me.”
She smiled at the memory, at how happy it had made her feel to hear his voice, this connection to Brian. She’d danced on air all afternoon. Her heart hadn’t felt so light since before the war. She’d spent hours deciding what to wear, how to do her hair. It was as if she were going to meet Brian himself.
“I got it in my head that…see, this was just after I’d heard that story about the husband who’d changed his name. So I was kind of thinking about that a lot. And I got it in my head that Big Bob was going to break the news to me—that Brian was living near him and all. That’s what I thought. I was sure of it. I felt it in my bones. I even knew what I was going to say to him, how I was going to tell Bob that all I cared about was that Brian was alive. And you know what? I believed I would have said that and meant it, too.”
“But that wasn’t why he wanted to see you. Did he come on to you?”
“No, no, nothing like that at all. Bob was a gentleman, happily married, just working hard to take care of his family. No, he wanted to see me because…” Even now, it choked her to say it. “Because Brian had died saving Bob’s life. At least that was the way Bob saw it. It was some big ambush and Brian had provided cover for Bob and a bunch of guys. Bob says he saw Brian go down and then a big shell blew up the spot where he and a couple other stragglers had been…. Poor Bob. He didn’t know Brian had been listed as MIA. He thought I’d been told outright he died.”
She looked up at the ceiling, blinking. “I was a blubbering idiot the rest of the meal. I couldn’t touch a thing. And he was paying for a nice steak dinner for the two of us, me in my gloves and crinoline and he in a fancy blue suit. Goodness, he must have been embarrassed.”
She’d dissolved that evening. She couldn’t even remember all of it, so drastic had been her loss of composure. All that hoping—it had come crashing on her like a crumbling building. No digging out easy from that. The waiter had come by asking if she needed a doctor. And Bob had told him to get her a brandy in a big, commanding voice. Big Bob with the booming voice. She’d sat for another hour, staring straight ahead with a stupid half smile on her face, trying to listen to Bob tell stories about Brian he’d figured she would want to hear. But all she’d wanted to do was run screaming from that restaurant out into the street, hoping a car would hit her.
Later, she realized she had been right in one aspect—the Army had made a mistake. Brian hadn’t been MIA. He’d definitely been killed. It was a strange but real comfort knowing they’d been wrong. She’d faced the unpleasant task of getting in touch with Brian’s family, asking Bob if he’d mind if she gave Brian’s mother Bob’s address in case she wanted to write to him. He’d said, sure, sure thing. Anything for Brian McClaren.
“All right, I’ve told you my story,” she said, her voice’s brightness covered as if by a scrim. “Now you tell me yours.”
Copyright 2012 Libby Sternberg
From the novel After the War by Libby Sternberg