I was in love once. Her name was Jennifer, and she was fourteen.
I was twenty at the time and had that whole scruffy, gonna-start-a-ruckus lookthe nurses eyed me beadily, but beneath their disapproving gazes were throes of desperate, not-gettin-any passion. I would know; one named Laura whod been making sure my comrade Billy pissed in his cup right headed me off on my way to the jon. I told her no thanks; I hadnt seen her wash her hands and Billy had no aim.
I hadnt really had much time to be in love, see. I was young, but Id never been stupid; all through high school I concentrated on lacrosse scholarships and good grades. I went to one of those fancy-schmancy rich kid schools on scholarshipoh yeah, I was real promising in those days. Girls were objects to rub ya the right way and make ya feel good after exams, or friends to help ya study, if you respected their brains. I guess I was unique in that wayI only liked them if they had a good mind; if not, they were useless, trash for me to use and then crumple like a soggy tissue. I guess I was kind of a bastard, but this story isnt meant to call my morals into question.
There was one girl, Lisa, and man, she was a bunny. Great legs, great tan, great breasts...oh, man, Im tellin ya. We had a fling once or twice. She was head cheerleader and I was captain of the lacrosse team. I felt it was my civic duty to uphold school tradition, so I had at it with
what do those Italians call it, gusto? Yeah, what a great word. Gusto. Feels like a punch, or a grunt, or a thrustskin on skin, a tumble of athletes legs on the splintered hardwood under the gym bleachers. Funny storyI saw Lisa in a pinup section of Playboy my boys back home sent me on my first tour. Not that any of my comrades would believe Id scored her five times in school.
Anyway, Im gettin off topic here. So the pa my mama claimed was mine died back in the Second Great War, and even though theres a four-year gap between my supposed conception in 1945 and my birthday in 1949, I never asked who my real pa was. I worked really hard to get into a good college and make my mama proud, if only so shed have some man to speak of without feeling shame. Then, just a week before the big game, the one where coach was gonna bring some scouts from Stanford with him, I hurt my knee. Twisted it up real badhad to have surgery. Not only did I lose my scholarship, but we lost the game, and heres the real kickerI didnt apply anywhere else. I had no idea what college to go to. But, lucky for me, oh, man, lucky for me, my knee healed up like a champ. A real medical miracle, the doc said. Its the good genes, my mama said. Then, two weeks after the day I should have received my college acceptance packet and bought my twin-long sheets in a pale blue, I got the letter in the mail.
A few months later, I was learning how to handle a machine gun, running four miles a day for PT, and enduring cold showers, and Stanford, believe me, was the last thing on my mind.
Man, whatd you do that for? That chick was, like, so fillet, said Billy back at the hospital, clapping me on the back and watching as Laura hurried down the hall, obviously humiliated. We were both there to get physicals before we were sent to Namme for my third tour, he for his second.
Whatre ya talkin like that for, man? I mean, seriously, what the fuck is that? Fillet? I laughed and started walkingBilly followed like a dog, the way I knew he would. I heard his heavy, dark green boots clunk against the clean, white tile as he caught upprobably left tracks of mud that poor Nurse Laurad have to mop up. I chuckled to myself at the thought. Like I said, I was a bastard.
I heard somebody say it on Threes Company, lay off. Anyway, you say man all the time, man. Billy was short and squat; he had to hop on every third step just to keep in stride with me. But damn, that kid was strong. He could lift three hundred easy. Come to think of it, I shouldve had him carry my backpack as well as his. Bogus, the things ya think of when they dont matter anymore
Luck would have it that Id get the same nurse Billy did for my physical when they finally announced it was my turn. Laura was pretty bunnykinda pudgy, but pretty, with pink-tinged cheeks, too much lipstick, and long eyelashes. Im sorry about this, she said in what Im sure she thought was a coquettish way. I dont like shots, neither.
My plan had been set from the beginningId just have to change it up a bit, I reasoned. Getting paired with Laura had actually worked to my advantage, I told myself. I reached out a hand and stayed the needle from my arm. Im not going to be gettin any shot, maam.
What? Specialist, Im required to give you this shot for all the malarias
Lauramay I call ya Laura? I gave the nurse my best smoldering look from under my too-long hair theyd be chopping off any day now. She nodded, looking dazed. Too easy, I thought, and tried my best not to smirk. Well, see, this is my third tourand a dude cant be lucky through three tours, not when he has comrades fallin left and right and hes on the front lines, ya know? I was just wondering
if youd like to spend some time with me. Like, now, for instance. Before I have to go.
I could tell her resolve was shakenher voice was weak when she said, But
Mr. Bridges, I really have to give you this
No, I said, my blue eyes boring into her brown ones like I actually meant what I was saying. We need to go now. While theres time. Come on, Laura. Please. For me. One last time, being with someone I think I might
I let a pregnant, torturous pause build up in Lauras eyes as they grew wider and wider with anticipation.
care about, I finished, still staring at her, only now noticing that her pudgy cheeks were kind of
well, doughy. Christ, I thought. All this so Ill get sick and die.
Laura swallowed. May I call you Lewis, Mr. Bridges?
I wouldnt have it any other way, I whispered in her ear, before I pressed my wide, firm lips to her gunk-covered, squashy ones.
Fuck, man. The only girls Ive ever dated are Rosy Palm and her five sisters, Billy was saying, his hands hanging between his open legs as we both sat in the hospitals reception room, waiting for the bus to pick us up. And you manage to pick up such fillet girls.
Thats just raunchy, man. No. Just no, I replied, touching my swollen lips. I couldnt believe Id pulled it off! I mean, what a bunny! Nurse Laura ate it all up, even marked that Id had my shot on my sheet when that needle hadnt even touched my arm!
Man, I still dont understand why you didnt just take the damn shot. It wasnt so bad, you know?
It wasnt the shot, Billyit was the principle of the thing. Whats the point of getting a shot for some fever when its the moaning minnies thatre gonna kill us the first day, huh?
Billy put his bottom lip between his teeth and began chewing. In an impeded voice, he mused, Well, when you put it that way, maybe I shoulda skipped the shot, too. He lifted up the band-aid on the meaty part of his right arm. Oh, grody. Pus. You know, I reckon you could probably do things with that brain of yours, you know? Like, espionage. Work for the fucking CIA. James Bond all the girls, you know?
I chuckled, and made my voice deep. Names Bridges. Lewis Bridges.
Thats ace, man. You should use it. A light came on in Billys headit was like seeing a rat perk up after smelling food. But you gotta credit me.
Every time I say my name like James Bond I have to credit you? Thats bogus, man. I dont know how I stand being your friend, fool that ya are.
Shut up, he said like a sulking child, apparently unable to think of anything else.
Smooth play, Shakespeare. I laughed until it abruptly cut off at the sound of someone saying, Oh, face, man! to my left. Huh? I whipped around and cricked my neckugh, why was Laura so damn short? I was gonna be stiff for hours.
A girl stood therelooked maybe twelvewith long, dishwater blonde hair plaited in a braid that hung over her shoulder. She had a bony face and freckles, with the most painful contraption Id ever seen fastened to her teeth.
Ouch, man, said Billy, rubbing his own set of not-so-pearly whites.
Eh, said the girl. They dont hurt so bad.
Ya need somethin? I asked, stretching out my legs and putting my arm behind the seatlounging, perfectly at ease with the world. I hoped the kid would get lost, and fast. Id always hated children. They were whiny, loud, and stupid.
Yeah, actually. The girl flipped her braid to her other shoulder. I wanted to talk with you.
What about? asked Billy, leaning around the arm that was tucked comfortably behind my head. Yeah, let her harass Billy, I thought. Get both of them off your back for a while.
The girl looked at Billy for a moment, considering, before turning back to me. No. Just one of you. You.
Me? I grumbled, moving my arms from behind my head to rest on my knees. Why me?
Because, Private, I say so. She turned on her heel and walked a little ways off, swinging her hips, making me recalculate her age by a few years. I raised my eyes at Billy, who shrugged, looking a little putout by the little girls rejection (what a muff), and followed the kid.
Specialist, I corrected with a grunt, towering over her five-foot-tiny with my six-foot-huge.
What number are you on? the girl asked, plopping down into an identical black chair to the ones me and Billy were sitting onthese were just on the other side of the room. Cautiously, my eyebrows still raised, I sat as well.
"Number? Number of what?"
"Tour, of course. What other number would I care about?"
I had a dirty reply on the tip of my tongue, then remembered I was talking to a bossy little girl, not some bunny. "I don't know," I growled, seriously getting annoyed before I realized she'd technically asked a questionno matter how convoluted a way. "Three."
The girl whistled. "Third tour. Wow. You came here for all your shots and shit?"
"Uhyeahrighthey, what're ya even doing here, anyway, talkin to me? And who said you could say 'shit?'"
"No one said I couldn't, and anyway, I'm almost fourteen. I'm a teenager. We can say shit."
"Right." My two raised eyebrows had reduced to onebut I was sure it would stay cocked up there for this entire peculiar conversation. "So what are ya? A general's kid, or something? The way ya called me 'Private' like that, I'd have to assume ya got some military blood in ya or somethin'"
"No relative of mine ever served in a war, at least not as his career, or by his choice. I was just wonderingis this your career, or is this your choice?"
"Well" I started, then stopped my mouth. "Why the hell should I tell you? Who are you?"
"I'm Jennifer Vigneault, and I just want to know, Sir. Please?" In that moment, she couldn't have been more than five years old, what with the look she was giving me.
"Well," I said gruffly, "All right. Just...I dunno, stop staring at me, or somethin'. I didn't come into the Army by choiceI was drafted, after I blew my ride to Stanford
Jennifer let out a long, low whistle. "Damn. Stanford. You'd think you'd talk smarter if you were going to somewhere like that."
"Yeah, well, since I never did go, I figured I might as well talk as dumb as possible. Then I'd fit in and be able to keep my head down, ya know? I wouldn't have any friends at all if I talked like I used to. Not even Billy over there." I motioned with my thumb over my shoulder at my pudgy friend, and Jennifer's eyes followed it, quick as a whip. "You're sharp yourself."
"I'm all right," was all she said, before pouncing on another question. "So youre still drafted? On your third tour?"
"No," I said. "Back a few years ago I figured if I was going to have to give up my career to be a military man, I might as well give it my all. For the benefits and everything, ya know? So I did. I stayed in." And it was the worst decision of my short, stupid life, how do you like that, little girl? I thought.
"Huh. And now you're on your third tour."
"Yeah, okay, will ya stop repeating that? It's grating on my nerves."
"You have a lot of pent up anger. How does the war make you feel?"
"Whatwhynow, how am I supposed to answer that? How do ya think it makes me feel?"
Her eyes bore into mine the same way mine had Laura's, only there was nothing sexual or manipulative in this gaze. "I think you're scared," she said. "And lonely. A little sad, and a whole lot angry. Is your mom at home?"
"Yeah, what's she got to do with anything?"
"Are you worried about her?"
"Naw, she's got her own life."
"Without you? That must be tough."
"What are you, a psychoanalyst or somethin? What do you want, really?"
"I just want to understand how the war makes you feel. What are your goals, after it's over? Your dreams, aspirations... Do you want a family?"
"A family? Look, kid, I" I was saved the trouble of answering this touchy question by the Army bus coming to pick up me and my comradesThank god, I thought, rolling my eyes and turning away from Jennifer.
"Hey! Specialist!" she called right before I'd reached the hospital entrance.
"Yeah?" I grunted; I didn't turn around, but my hand stalled on the door handle.
"What's your name?" she asked more softly, but I could hear her voice clearly.
"Name's Bridges," I said, a grin forming as my voice got deeper. "Lewis Bridges."
"Talk to you later, Lewis," whispered Jennifer.
No chance in hell, I thought.
"What did the kid want?" Billy asked as he sat down next to me on the bus. I'd tried to spread my leg out a little so it covered more than half the seat, but I didn't really want to deter him from sitting; I just didn't want him to think I wanted him to sit there. Our relationship was a fine one, for sure.
"The kid you were just talking to, man!"
"Oh, that kid. Uh, I dunno. She was some Flower Power hippie-chick. Wanted me to say I didn't believe in the war effort."
"Not believin' in the war effortyou? Pah! You're the most patriotic dude I know!"
I pivoted in my seat to look at him. "Billy," I said, astonished. "Was that sarcasm?"
Billy smiled proudly and puffed out his chest. "I've been practicin'."
"I've been rubbin' off on ya, huh?"
"No!" he said indignantly, snapping his suspenders against his chest, having just removed his army coat. It was pretty hot on the un-air-conditioned bus; I removed mine as well. "Shut up!"
"Smooth play, Shakespeare," I said for the second time in twenty minutes. "Smooth play."
So I shipped out after my briefing.
The ship is, I swear to god, the same ship I departed on last timethe same exact fucking ship. I can tell because I'm stuck in the same bunk. I wrote my name on it last tour, convinced I wouldn't make it back and wanting to leave a little reminder of my existence, however petty.
PRIVATE LEWIS BRIDGES
JUMP OFF THE BOAT WHILE YOU STILL CAN, SONNY
Ah, I was a good ol' time back then on my second tour. I wasn't so optimistic as my first time in Nam.
On my first tour, when I made that glorious decision, I figured the army was actually a good plan, seeing as I wasn't going to Stanford. Yeah, folks. I actually willingly stayed the fuck in. Third Tour of Duty? You think regular shits with their wits about them say yes when theyre asked to go on another tour? Naw, man. They only make you serve one. The rest of them are reserved for the real idiots who get called baby killer when they get home to Byrnes Mill, Missouri, and feel like they deserve it. For the guys who left their balls back in Nha Trang and welcome the spit hacked on their boots.
They come back to Nam with their guns slung over their backs like they're dragging a dead body along with them. Or, in my case, a shitload of little dead bodies, their little fingernails dragging in the dirt behind me because there just wasnt enough room on my back for them all.
I wasnt as cynical as I was now, either, on my second tour. See, then, the whole "death wish" thing was just a ruse to get respect among my comrades.
This time, it was the real deal. I wasn't going to live through this one, even if I wasn't shot or blown up or diseased. And Nurse Laura had taught me that I could get away with itI was sure I wasn't special; I saw seventeen-year-old kids get killed left and right, up and down on my second tour. This was after the Tet Offensive, when everyone thought they were gonna be let off easy. You know, theyd come over, get their medals, get to be heroes, but never actually have to fight. I mean, of course the Vietcong blew all their resources after that big show of theirs! All we had to do was sweep in there, clean up the brain guts they left after shooting themselves in the head, and pretend like it was our doing! Sounds like a plan, right?
No go. The plan came shooting down like a moaning minnie on a hot n' humid Saigon day and exploded on half of those suckers heads as they ran for their cowardly, worthless little American lives with their tails between their legs and their arms over their heads. It wasn't like I had any more idea what Charlie was capable of than they did, I just had no faith in what "everyone was saying," and knew that, over here? Yeah, it can get a hell of a lot worse. I just had to sit and wait.
So the third tour started off as a fuckin' trip. I was having flashbacks all the timeBilly overreacted and said I should talk to Doc Alberts. I told him that it was just all of this déjà vu messing with my head, and what would they do anyway if I complained about it? Send me home and straight to the psyche ward, that's what. I'd be stuck in there with a lot of psychos doped up on Thorazine and I'd be sitting there drooling all over myself just like them. No, I was staying right where I was.
I felt...bored. Not scared, not angry, not impatient for some actionnot like all of the other soldiers. I knew what would come, and I also knew how it was going to endme, bleeding out of my head as consciousness slowly ebbed away, and all I could feel was the wet warmth enveloping me. I hoped I'd be aware enough to die smilingthat'd be a real kicker for whoever carried my body off.
"What's he smiling about? Do you think he's dreaming?" one soldier would say, moving to check my pulse.
"Naw, look, half his head is gone, idiot! He's dead. Musta...musta just been thinking about his girlfriend, or somethin'."
"Yeah..." And then they'd carry me off, my knuckles dragging in the soggy dirt, just like the dead babies on my back, to my awaiting chariota shiny, black casket with a specially folded American flag, just for me.
I felt bored, that is, before I received my first letter.
Dear Mr. Bridges,
This is Jennifer Vigneault. I don't know if you remember meI was the girl who talked to you the day you were getting your shots in the hospital, do you remember? I have long, blonde hair?
I think you remember. Anyway, I asked around and found out what troop number you were in, and I already knew what rank you were from your badgeso here we are.
I'm going to be your pen pal! Your anchor to the real world! I think, in time, you'll find me a valuable and indispensable resource.
You can ask me about my life and tell me about yours - I'll sympathize as best I can, but as a girl, I don't think I'll ever get the chance to experience what you're experiencing first hand. Im not saying Im jealous, but, man, I wish I could do something that intense. Ill never be a hero, not like you.
I'm in ninth grade, I'm fourteen, I want to be a pediatric doctor or a fashion designer or maybe one of those girls who waves the flags at NASCAR games (that's what my mom did when she met my dad, and my dad's a good guymy grandma says I'll be lucky to get a husband as good as my daddy, but then again, I dont have much of a figure yet) but I don't know, really.
I cant wait for your first letter!
That little girl actually got up and stalked me? Thats all I could thinkshe looked up what troop number I was inin Saigon, Vietnamand wrote me a letter. Asking me to be her pen pal. I crooked my head around and saw Riley writing to his wife and kids back homeHey, could I borrow a sheet of that? No, no, just one sheet, thanks.
Dear Miss Vigneault,
I don't remember giving you permission to contact me. Please stop writingI have plenty of people writing, namely my mother and my GIRLFRIEND, Lisa. I don't need nine-year-olds, too.
Specialist Lewis Bridges
Ha, take that, little girl! No, Lisa wasnt my girlfriend. She was that bunny Id left behind in high school. But this Jennifer Vigneault didnt know thatshed probably nursed a little crush on me and now would feel heartbroken and leave me alone, I thought, indulging myself. Yeah, she probably thought I was one slick guy when she first met me, all dapper and tall.
Perhaps, even then, she did think I was slickbut she was never the type to be heartbroken without a fight.
To be continued in Part Two...