By Suzi Pignataro
He’s been watching me for about forty minutes from behind a creased and dog-eared trade copy of Don Quixote. I guess a hippie chick stirring a pot of wax over an open fire on the beach might be more captivating than a self-deluded Spaniard – especially if you’re a young dude who’s obviously a long way from home and most likely chasing after an impossible dream or two of his own. Midwestern farm boy of German extraction is my guess, judging by the Wrangler jeans, faded flannel shirt, close-cropped blond curls and naturally tanned skin. He’s long and lean with surprisingly delicate hands. Hmm…Maybe not a farm boy after all, maybe just some small-town kid hitch-hiking through California. His Converse sneakers look new, as does the Padres cap: probably threw away his cowboy boots and hat at the border.
With the boy trotting next to me – flustered and chanting, “CRAP-crap, CRAP-crap” to the rhythm of his footsteps – I run down to the shore, flapping my blistering hands and crying out, “AhGhee! AhGhee!” like a wounded bird. We squat at the water’s edge where I bury my hands in the cold wet sand.
The boy scrubs his face with his shirt sleeve. “I am so sorry. I should have known I’d startle you.”
He’s not from the Midwest: not with that voice, and not with quoting Shakespeare. The game is still in play in my head. I need him to keep talking.
“No sweat,” I reply. The salt stings my skin; I feel the wax tightening as it cools. “So, why Don Quixote?”
His hands flutter toward the water. Long straight fingers lightly tap the surface. He laughs. It’s almost a girl’s giggle, and one at his expense. When he looks up at me, I see his eyes clearly for the first time. They’re the color of a Greek Island cove flecked with gold coin.
“It’s comforting to find a dreamer crazier than myself, I guess,” he confesses.
Hmm…Educated, articulate, wry humor, and no discernable accent. Grew up in various parts of the country, maybe even the world.
“You’re a Navy brat,” I declare triumphantly.
The boy rocks back on his feet, which, like mine, are soaked. He hugs his knees and frowns at me. “How do you know?”
“And not just any Navy brat,” I continue, ignoring him. “One with a high ranking dad – maybe even some mucky-muck in Europe, hence the Spanish novel and Macbeth – and you’ve had some private school education.”
He eyeballs me, taking in the long expanse of patchwork velvet and lace, the black army boots, the braids framing my face, and beaded earrings dangling from my ears. He wants to be amused, annoyed or curious. He settles for curious. “I take it you are not a Navy brat.”
“Well, I’m definitely a brat,” I reply evasively. I begin to peel off the solid wax from my hands. Underneath, the skin is puckered and red.
The boy furrows his eyebrows. “You need to have that looked at.”
I wave a blotchy hand. “Nah. It’s okay.”
“No,” he persists. “You don’t want it to get septic.”
Hmm…Make that Navy surgeon of high ranking. Possibly head of a Navy hospital in…where would it be…Gibraltar? Marseilles? Where do we have Navy hospitals in Europe? Are we in Europe?
“Your dad a doctor?” I ask.
The boy shakes his head impatiently, but a smile begs to break out on that handsome face. “You lose.”
Two fighter jets roar over our heads, their wheels dropping in preparation for landing at North Island. I look up to watch, but the boy ducks his head. He seems unnerved by the planes and their bone-jarring shriek. He takes me by the elbow. “Let’s go back to your cauldron, witch.”
After tucking Don Quixote into his knapsack, the boy joins me at the fire where I demonstrate how to make sand candles. He gets a little misty-eyed when I tell him they’re a parting gift for my mother: a reminder of her daughter away at school. He confides that he didn’t leave his mother anything to remember him by when he left home.
“And where is home?” I prod, as I pour sunset colors into a mold in the sand.
The boy shrugs into himself as another jet screeches overhead. I wait patiently for its blast to pass, then observe, “You may be Navy, but you’re not naval air.”
The boy chuckles nervously. “How can you live with that?”
I return the pot to the fire and throw in more paraffin. “I can’t. Where I’m moving to has no military bases; just rolling hills and redwoods.” I look him in the eye. “So, where are you from?”
The boy watches the wax melt. “I’m taking some time off before I go to Columbia.”
The boy didn’t answer my question, did he? Twice now, he’s evaded it. I turn and face him, digging my fists into my waist.
“Are you going to tell me where you’re from, or are you going to continue to drive me crazy?” I demand.
The boy laughs, but there’s respect in his voice when he says, “You’re something else, you know that?” He takes the spoon from me and stirs the wax. “It’s like you said: I’m a Navy brat. I’ve lived in lots of places. And for your information – because you’re dying to know – I don’t like tons of metal and weaponry flying right over my head, and my dad is not a doctor.” He extends his free hand. “I’m Jay*.”
“And I’m Suzi,” I reply. I offer my own hand. He accepts it, carefully avoiding the burns.
“Nice to meet you, Suzi.”
Jay drives a blue and white VW bus, which he insists upon using to transport me and my candle paraphernalia back home. The bus bears Virginia plates. A Navy duffle bag inscribed with the name, “J. R. Hess”, lies on the floor in the back, along with the accoutrement necessary for camping. Some sort of Native American crystal-and-bead mumbo-jumbo hangs from the rear view mirror by a circular webbing of rawhide strips. Questions percolate. This guy’s pay dirt.
“So, where did you live in Virginia?”
Jay turns the engine and signals to leave the curb. “The usual Navy brat places,” he replies absently while checking his side mirror.
“Why the Navy bag with your name on it? Are you full German?”
Jay collects his patience and directs it into his white-knuckled fists. They relax. “It’s my dad’s. We share the same name. And, no, I’m not full German. My mom’s family is Dutch and English.”
“Oh.” I flick my finger at the crystal-and-bead hanging. “And what’s with the Indian whatchamacall–”
Jay slams on his brakes as three sailors dressed in whites run right in front of us. I grunt on impact with the dashboard; my fingers grab the hanging for purchase and wrench it – along with the mirror – from the windshield. Jay yells and gesticulates. The sailors flip us off and call us “dirty hippy freaks” with jaw-dropping originality. Jay and I look at each other, then at the amputated mirror, and laugh.
“I’ve heard worse,” I say, settling back into my seat, the mirror and hanging sitting in my lap as we finally make our way down Ocean Boulevard toward the Del. “They really hassle the local girls. I mean it can get pretty scary.” I point at the Navy ships anchored just past Point Loma, the helicopters practicing maneuvers out over the waves. “This war. It’s not just being waged over in Nam. It’s being carried out here, in my own home town, between the swabbies and us.” I turn to Jay. He’s watching me with an intensity that makes me feel exposed. I look away.
He clears his throat. “Have the sailors hassled you personally?”
I grimace. “I’ll answer you if you answer me.”
“Answer you what?”
“Why do you have your dad’s duffle bag, and what are you doing in Coronado?”
We drive along the beach in silence.
I am but a tiny thread in the timeless spinning of my family’s yarn, and we are but a minor yarn in the ever-expanding fabric of the human race. Yet, without me – and those threads that came before me and will come after me – the fabric would bear a miniscule hole. Too many of those holes and the fabric would fray, unravel and fall apart into a grimy heap of unimportant tissue on a blue planet. The fabric needs my thread, my parent’s thread, my children’s thread.
All my life, I’ve wondered about my family’s contribution to the history of humankind and who I carry in my blood: Germans, but what type: Teutonic? Franconian? Angle? Saxon? Or, like Jay, Hessian? Celts, but what tribe: Strathclyde? Gael? Pict? Were we Welsh farmers always, or did we also mine coal? And when did my Scots ancestors transplant to Northern Ireland? And why?
By the time I meet Jay, my thirst for such knowledge has reached beyond my own kin. I now seek it from everyone. So, I ask questions. Sometimes, people invite me to climb their family’s tree with them, introducing me to each and every limb; other times, they push me out and I land on my ass.
I want to know the who, what, when, where, why, and how of this person called “Jay”, and who he carries in his blood.
“Jolly! Your name is Jolly?! That’s what the J stands for? What does the R stand for? Friggin’ Roger?!”
“You’ll have to excuse my daughter. She’s not exactly the queen of tact.”
We’re standing in my kitchen with my mother, who beams at Jay as if Monty Hall’s personally delivered him from behind door number three. Jay looks like he’s just licked a banana slug, and I’m fantasizing about shoving chicken guts down my mother’s polyester pants suit. All in all, it’s a weird moment.
Jay walked through my kitchen door and right into the sticky web that’s my parents’ Everything-Navy world. As soon as I introduced him to my mother – standing at the counter frosting a cake while singing along with Andy Williams on the radio – he was caught and wrapped like a prize fly. Recognition lit up my mother’s blue eyes, as she exclaimed, “Not little Jolly Hess!” Jay blushed and shuffled his feet, and gave up any hope of flight.
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, no and yes,” Jay stammers in reply to my ill-mannered question. “It’s Jerald Roger. I couldn’t — ”
“He couldn’t say his name — ‘Jerry’– as a little boy,” my mother interrupts with gusto, pointing at him with a spoonful of gloppy Ganache. “He called himself Jolly, and it stuck.”
I’m counting the seconds before the Ganache slides off the spoon and onto her fastidiously polished white sneakers.
“And just precisely how do you know this?” I ask; but I’ve already guessed the answer, and it’s pissing me off.
“Because your father and I know Jolly’s parents – Admiral and Mrs. Hess – and met Jolly at their home in Honolulu.” My mother waves the spoon and fails to notice that chocolate goo now decorates her blond head. There is a god after all. “You were eight,” she says to Jay, then turns to me. “And you were seven. Remember that time your father and I went away for a second honeymoon and left you kids with your grandmother?”
Jay doesn’t recollect meeting my parents and he apologetically admits as much to my mother. She forgives him with a laugh and a smile, and invites him not only to dinner but to sleep in my sister’s old bedroom rather than suffer another brisk night in the bus. Jay accepts, but I can see it on his face that he’d rather not be corralled by family friends.
As for me, I’m about to burst an aorta. I’m eighteen years old, and as far as my parents know, I’ve never had a boyfriend or even a date. This is because they warned me that only jocks or Navy officers’ sons – preferably one and the same – would be accepted into their good graces. With my attraction to liberal males with long hair and peace signs, I’ve had to keep my love interests a secret. The only reason my mother is fawning over Jay is because he’s NAVY. I’m pretty sure she’ll be planning our engagement party over dessert.
I abruptly excuse Jay from my mother’s clutches and lead him to the farthest corner of the back yard, where I hide the candles in the firewood bin. I turn to him, wringing my hands.
“I am so sorry about this,” I cry. “I had no idea she knew you. You don’t have to stay.”
Jay stares at our lemon tree as if it’s the Burning Bush; but there are no heavenly words of wisdom coming forth from its yellow fruit. Not even a “Hey, life’s a bitch, pal,” from the ghostly remains of our pets buried beneath its branches.
“If it’s all the same to you,” he replies after a moment, “a home-cooked meal and warm bed sound awfully good right now.”
I bury my face in my hands.
Dinner is a culinary success and a social disaster. My parents hold their own naval court from their respective places at the bow and stern of the table, while Jay squirms in his seat like a foreign dignitary keeping one anxious eye on the gangplank. My dad subjects him to a ruthless interrogation; my mom plays “good cop”. I quietly eat my beans and potatoes, praying for a swift and painless death.
“Columbia,” my dad repeats, making a face. “Why would you want to go there? It’s for bastard Commie intellectuals.”
And he’s off!
Jay coughs behind his fist, stealing a glance in my direction. I shrug back. I can’t help him. Once out the gate, there’s no holding back my father. Jay will just have to deal with it.
“I didn’t know that, sir. I’ll reconsider my options,” he remarks diplomatically. Not a bad liar; he just might survive this.
My dad lays his own fist on the table. Not a good sign. “Why aren’t you attending the Naval Academy like your dad?” he challenges, tight-throated. “If you’ve got the grades to get accepted into that hotbed of Bolshevik potheads, you’re smart enough to be a naval officer and serve your country. Don’t be an idiot.”
“Anyone for cake?” interjects my mother with false cheer. She’s worried my father is ruining her only chance at becoming true Navy aristocracy.
I stand up, grab my plate and silverware and look Jay in the eye.
“Later, Mom. We have a date.”
We sit at the shore admiring the last purple-hued breath of sunset. Everything Navy has disappeared for the time being; Coronado is once again a quiet town of locals and tourists, floating on an emerald lily pad.
We escaped my parents by car. Gunnar choked into life like a grumpy old man and reluctantly carried us to the Del. From there we walked along the water’s edge until our legs gave out, laid down an old quilt I keep stashed in Gunnar’s trunk, and fell wearily on our butts.
I’ve apologized for my father’s rudeness so many times, I’m sick of the words. I move on to a happier subject.
“I want to live on a farm, with lots of animals and a huge veggie garden,” I say. “I can’t think beyond that.”
Jay nods. “I can see it. I hope you get everything you want. I really do.”
“Thanks. And what about you?”
Jay sifts sand through his hands while carefully considering his response. He’s taking so long I grow impatient.
“What’s that impossible dream you think is so crazy?” I prod.
Without looking up, Jay replies, “Suzi, there’s something I need to tell you. I should have told you right off.”
I feel all tingly, and not in a good way. “Sure.”
Jay turns to me. He lays his hands in his lap and composes himself with a deep breath. “The bus belongs to my oldest and best friend who’s ship is coming into North Island from Nam in a couple of days. I drove it out from Virginia Beach for him.”
I laugh from relief. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? I mean he’s coming home, right? And you got to go on a road trip before going off to college.” Then it dawns on me. “Oh, shit. I’ve been talking trash about sailors, and your best friend is –”
Jay holds up a hand and I shut up.
“He’s shipping in and I’m shipping out.”
The clock on my nightstand says it’s 5 A.M. I stare at it and decide it’s old-fashioned – and not in a cool way. I pick it up and chuck it toward my trashcan. It clears the sides and lands on a pile of papers with a thud.
I’ve been lying awake all night carrying on a battle that leaves me spent but wired. I’ve thrown mental grenades at everyone – my parents, Jay’s parents, Jay – only to wail over their broken bodies. I’m pissed off and sad and scared. I want this fucking war to be over. Despite my pacifist leanings, I want Jay to go to Columbia to study journalism and reach his dream of becoming a war correspondent, just as he’d stated to me on the beach, the night before.
“But why put yourself through this first?” I’d yelled at him. “What’s being a sailor going to do for you that will come to any good?”
“It will give me the perspective of the men at the bottom of the ladder, rather than the one I’ve always lived with: that of the men at the top,” he explained, his voice steady and patient. “And it will help me find out if I can really handle being around war.”
“You’re just doing it for your father!” I accused. “You’re placating him!”
“Not at all,” Jay responded evenly. “If that were the case, I’d be at Annapolis right now.”
But he’s not at Annapolis, or Columbia. He’s down the hall in one of my sister’s twin beds. In a little while he’ll wake up to the travel alarm he set before turning in. He’ll enter my bathroom, use my toilet, sink and shower; dry off with the towels my mother laid out for him. Then he’ll dress in his whites, which are carefully folded in that cursed duffle bag, scrounge up some food, and leave.
“Will you eat breakfast with me and say good-bye?” he’d asked me last night, in the kitchen, as we ate the slices of cake left out for us by my mother.
I wanted to throw my plate at him. Take my fork and stab him in the arm.
“Of course,” I replied with a reassuring smile. I’m not a bad liar, either.
At dawn I give up on sleep and pad out of my room and into the den, where I’m shocked by the image of my father feeding doves in the back yard. The tenderness with which he talks to the birds and their unconditional trust in him leads me to believe I’m witnessing a daily ritual about which I knew nothing. That, and the way my father shivers against the morning cold brings tears to my eyes. Did I ever know this man? Was he ever this gentle and open with me?
I slide back the patio door, and he turns toward me so casually it’s as if he’s been waiting for me. He continues to scatter birdseed as he asks, “Did you get any sleep, honey?”
I’m unnerved by the consideration in his voice. “Um…well…you know…not really.”
He nods his head in understanding, and I hold back more tears and the urge to run to him for comfort. I can’t remember the last time he held me. Then it hits me. “Wait a minute. You know?”
“I called his dad after you two left last night,” answers my father. “I wanted him to know we had Jolly — I mean, Jay — under our care and” — my father chuckles — “to try to knock some sense into Jerry about his son going to that Commie school in New York. I have to say, I was surprised by the boy’s plan.” He looks me in the eye. “I gather so were you.”
We move back into the house and to the warmth of the den. How often do I sit with my father and talk to him in any real sort of way? Never. We’re like two porcupines unwilling to sacrifice personal comfort for a hug.
“Daddy,” I begin, shy and unsure, “is he going to be okay?”
“Honey, no one can answer that. I’ve been through two wars and was lucky never to be in harm’s way. I was in command of a destroyer in Korea. They’re big and well armed.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be an aircraft carrier. I don’t like tons of metal and weaponry flying right over my head.
“He’ll be a hell of a lot safer than most, I can tell you that,” my father concludes.
“I think he’s crazy,” I gripe.
“Well, you shouldn’t, Suzi. He’s brave, and he’s right. He does need to know how it feels to be in a war, if he’s going to write about it. I wish all these left-wing journalists had half as much courage and forthrightness as Jay has.”
I leave my father to his morning coffee. As I approach the back of the house, expletives explode from inside my bathroom. I knock on the door.
“Oh — sorry,” comes Jay’s sheepish reply. “I didn’t know anyone could hear me.”
“Hey, it’s me.”
Jay opens the door. He’s in white boxers and a T-shirt. He’s cut his thumb while changing razor blades; his blood — and the blood of every ancestor that’s come before him — runs down his raised arm.
“What?” he asks. From the way he says that one word I know he’s been up all night, too. His fear is like a wild animal frantically clawing its way out from inside his skin, desperate to escape his madness.
“I want you to tell me your family history.” I eye the razor on the counter; the open wound. “And I want us to be blood brother and sister.”
Jay takes my hand.
~ ~ ~
* All identifying information regarding “Jay” and his family has been changed.