Let her under your skin
Kimberly Wickstrom is a grateful mother to three lovely daughters, but she lost her own mom when she was only twenty years old, and working through that loss has been the focus of most of her writing. “Let Her Under Your Skin” came from thinking how nice it would be to meet someone who had known her mom when she was a young woman waiting for her life to begin. Kimberly’s favorite thing about writing is its power to create life and the world just as you would like them to be.
I found her crying on the bathroom floor the day her straight black hair first fell out. She had a clump of it in her hand, but a few strands had fallen onto the yellow tile. My mother had beautiful hair. Straight Creek Indian hair.
I laughed when I first saw my mother in her wig. She laughed a little bit, too, but sometimes it hurt her too much to laugh. She used to let me wear her new hair around the house. A Farrah Fawcett wig. “I’ve always wanted to be a blonde,” she told my dad when he came home. “And it’s now or never.” My dad didn’t like it when she talked like that in front of me.
I was only seven. She let me pick out her first wig. We ordered it from a special catalog.
Once I saw the scar where her breasts had been. I ran into her room to ask if I could play with my friends, and she was sitting in front of the mirror with her nightgown unbuttoned. She wasn’t crying. She followed me into my room and tried to talk to me, but I wouldn’t listen. I wanted to go to the park with my friends. They made me happy, made me laugh.
When she finally went into the hospital, my mother wasn’t beautiful anymore. They didn’t let her have the Farrah Fawcett wig, and she was fat. Her belly was so swollen that she looked like she was going to have another baby – another me. My dad made me promise that I wouldn’t stare at her. Her breath was bad, and I wouldn’t even kiss her on the cheek.
Lying in her coffin, my mom had long straight hair again. Like the picture my dad had given the funeral home. Her lips were painted red and her eyes were closed. She was beautiful. My dad touched my shoulder and said, “This is how you should remember your mother, Suzanne.”
Her smell, her scars, her death. These are the things that I know about my mother.
What she was like when she wasn’t sick, before she was too weak to get out of bed, before her arms were black and blue from the needle shots, before she could only drink her food. What made her laugh. What made her happy. What she was like, really.
Her first kiss. The night she lost her virginity. What she thought when she fell in love, when she first met my father, when she had me.
What she was like when she was my age. If she would like me. If she would be happy.
These are the things that I don’t know about my mother.
I come to the city again to see Thomas, my mother’s first boyfriend.
She never talked about him, not to me. At least, not that I remember.
I found the box of his letters in my mother’s lingerie drawer. A year after she died, I was packing all of her clothes into boxes to send to the Salvation Army. “It’s what she would have wanted,” my dad told me, but I knew that he was getting rid of all her clothes because Janice was about to move in. Janice, my new mother.
Still, he couldn’t box them up himself. He called me from his office one summer afternoon and asked. “I’m just too busy to do it, Suze,” he said. But I knew the truth.
The box of letters was underneath her mastectomy bras and silky nightgowns. I lifted the gowns to my nose and breathed their smell in before I dropped them into the box. They smelled like my mom and roses, and reminded me of the days before she sick, when I would crawl into bed with her early in the morning. I would curl into the crook of her arm, feel her breath on my ear, and fall asleep again. I must have been so small.
On the day I found the letters, I read just one of them. They were too full of details – about Vietnam, his company and commanding officers and how much her thought about her.
Just touching them made me feel sad. Sad for my mother.
I remember that as I looked through the box I was careful not to wake her. Part of me was listening for her deep breathing and the rustle of her sheets. I remember waiting for her to scold me for going through her things. But I didn’t hear anything.
I didn’t put the letters in the Salvation Army box. I didn’t throw them away. I didn’t even show them to my dad. They were a secret between my mom and me, the last secret. I tucked the box onto the top shelf of my closet, next to my books and stuffed animals. A safe place.
I was fourteen years old before I touched them again. I was cleaning out my closet, found the box, sat down on my bed, and opened it, holding my breath. I had forgotten how many letters there were. They were tied with ribbon, by season. Spring, summer, fall winter. Another spring, another summer. 1969. 1970. There were so many of them.
I read one each day, just like my mom had. I pretended that I was her. I was my mother when I read about his first day in Vietnam. Things seemed so easy. Green and friendly and easy. He was sure that he could stay the whole eighteen months. I was my mother when I read about the villagers he met, the old man who gave the soldiers water, and the children who gave them massages and cleaned their guns, and I worried about the pretty girls and dangerous men, just like my mom had. I smiled with her when I read about the guy in Thomas’s outfit who taped a picture of Joan Baez to the inside of his helmet. “Thinks it’ll protect him,” Thomas wrote. “Like the V.C.’ll be able to sense one of their own, I guess.”
In my mind, I wrote a reply to each letter. I told him about my classes, about my friends, about how much I missed him, how proud I was of him. And I wondered if he had saved all of my letters, too.
His last letter was written from a base in Washington. He had just arrived there from Vietnam. He would see my mother in a few days, he wrote.
There was nothing else. My mom kept the only reminders of Thomas McPherson tied with ribbon and tucked into her lingerie drawer.
He is a writer now. He still writes about Vietnam, just like his letters. He writes about innocence, about children cleaning guns, and about Joan Baez. He doesn’t write about my mother.
Tonight, like last night, he reads from his latest novel. Another novel about Vietnam. “People will always want to read stories about Vietnam,” the book review in our paper wrote. “Just not the same stories.” The reviewer wrote that instead of buying Thomas’s new book, people should just reread his first one.
Tonight, like last night, white folding chairs cover the back room of the bookstore, and half of them are empty.
Last night I sat in the back row by myself and watched the people surround him after the reading. I help his new novel in my lap, but couldn’t walk to the front of the room to have it signed. I watched him talk with a girl my age, a girl with long blond hair and long firm legs. Talk, smile, listen, then laugh. I watched her sit in the front row, and when the line of people had disappeared, I watched him sit next to her, and I wished that he was sitting next to me. Behind me, someone called his name, and when he turned around, he saw me and smiled.
I didn’t tell anyone that I was coming to see Thomas. They wouldn’t understand.
My dad worried about me. On my dresser at home I have a picture of my mom. I found it in her jewelry box, and I think it looks like me. Once my dad walked into my room and found me looking at it. I was fixing my hair just like hers.
He sat down on my bed and folded his arms across his chest. “Suzanne, honey, don’t you think it’s time you let her go?” he asked. My dad never talked about her much.
I wanted to tell him that I can’t. I wanted to tell him why, but he wouldn’t have understood.
Thomas looks like the picture I found in her jewelry box, in an envelope underneath her bracelets and earrings, just older. He is smaller than I imagined, and he is wearing a baseball cap.
I watch him talking to the lady in the front of the room. He doesn’t smile. He folds his arms, fidgets with his pen and his cap. His eyes are looking over the lady’s shoulder, and I try to imagine them looking at my mom, when she was beautiful. I imagine them reading her letters.
I watch him for a while, and then I sit in the back row as the lady steps to the microphone to introduce him. Thomas McPherson, one of the best writers of his generation, she says. My mother’s first boyfriend.
I imagine that he sees me in the back row, that he sees my mother.
When I was little, I didn’t want to look like my mother. I didn’t want to be bald. I didn’t want to be sick, so think and pale that people could see the blue veins underneath my skin. I didn’t want to have scars where my breasts should have been.
My mother needed people to bathe and dress her. The nurse had to help my mother go to the bathroom. She would hold her as they walked. Sometimes she almost had to carry her. Sometimes my mother couldn’t even wipe herself. “You’re so brave, Lynda. You’re doing really well,” the nurse would say to her. I stood in the hallway, hidden by the door as I watched her shuffle from the bed to the bathroom, and I remember thinking how ugly my mom was. Not brave.
My dad would come into my bedroom at night and stroke my hair.
“Remember how used to be, Suzanne,” he would say to me.
But I couldn’t. My mom was sick and bald and ugly.
Sometimes I wonder if she got sick when she had me.
Sometimes I prayed that she would die.
I remember the May before she died, we made Mother’s Day presents at school. We made stationery, pretty cards and envelopes. I drew hearts and flowers on mine, wrote “I love you Mom,” and “Happy Mother’s Day,” all over them, and threw them away as I walked home from school. My mom was too weak to write letters. The stationery would just have made her cry.
Janice was the first woman I ever saw putting on her own makeup.
Sometimes I would sit in her lap and she would put blusher on my cheeks, color on my lips. She would spritz her perfume on me and drape one of her silk scarves around my shoulders. My mom had pretty clothes too. I would stumble around the house in Janice’s high heels and admire myself in the mirror. I looked so pretty, so healthy.
Janice was the one who took me school shopping. She bought me 501 jeans and beautiful dresses. “I know how important it is for you to fit in, Suzanne,” she said.
Janice was the one who helped me pick out my first bra, who taught me how to shave my legs and pluck my eyebrows. Janice was always perfectly made-up. My dad took her out to dinner every Saturday. “It’s our special night,” he told me. My dad liked to look at Janice.
Janice was the one I went to when I started my first period. It was a Sunday – I’ll always remember that because we were getting ready for church. I was embarrassed about the blood on my panties. I didn’t want to tell my dad. I didn’t want to tell Janice, and I didn’t want to go to church. “I don’t feel good,” I said, lying in bed.
“You look fine,” Janice said. She was wearing the locket that my dad had given her for Valentine’s Day. It fell perfectly between her two breasts, and I couldn’t stop looking at it.
“Come on, Suzanne,” she told me. “You know I’m singing a duet this morning. We can’t be late.”
I held the sheet up to my chin and started to cry. I was the first of my friends to get a period. I was only eleven. I had to tell Janice.
When I told her, she hugged me and started to cry too. She led me to the bathroom and cleaned me up and placed a pad in my underwear. I hated it.
She made me go to church. I hated that more.
I hated having to tell Janice. Not being able to tell my mom.
I hated that nobody ever talked about her.
Every Mother’s Day, the church had a mother-daughter luncheon. The ladies would dress up and wear flower corsages. My friends would tell me about the luncheon the next day, but I never went. “Why do you want to hurt Janice that way?” my father would ask. “After all he’s done for you.” I could hear Janice crying in the next room, but I never answered him.
My mom’s birthdays were the worst. I think my dad and Janice hoped that I would forget, but I didn’t. All I could do was remember.
Thomas reads from his new novel, and it reminds me of the letters he used to write my mother.
I close my eyes and listen, imagining that I am her. In my mind, she is young like me, and beautiful again. She looks like the picture I have on my dresser at home. She has a thick braid of black Indian hair. She is looking at me over her shoulder, and laughing. Her eyes are dark, and happy.
When he is finished reading and looks into the audience, he sees her in me, and that is why he smiles.
He knows, and that is why he smiles again when I hand him my book at the signing table.
“Name?” he asks. He is surrounded by people.
“Suzanne,” I answer. I have the last letter he wrote to my mom tucked into my purse.
“Suzanne,” he repeats as he signs the front page. He looks up at me for a moment, his hand resting on the book.
He waits for me to say something, but I don’t. I just smile.
He watches me as I walk away. I can feel his eyes on my back, and I shiver.
I stand in the corner, his book still in my hand. I don’t talk to anyone, but I tell myself that is all right. “You should be more outgoing, Suzanne,” Janice used to tell me. “A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be so shy.” She thought she was helping, but I like to think that my mom was shy too.
I look down at the bracelet on my wrist and think of my mother. Were there times when she felt uncomfortable in her own skin, and as she walked down did she wish she were invisible? Did she shiver when strange men looked at her? Were there times when she could only smile at people when they talked to her, too scared to say anything?
I wonder how much of me is my mother, and how much of me is the lack of her.
For a moment I want to leave again, but then I see him coming towards me. Thomas McPherson. He is unwrapping a package of cigarettes, and smiling at me.
“Hi,” he says. “Suzanne, right?” He lights a cigarette and takes a long drag off of it.
I nod. “Hi.”
He knew my mom, before she was sick. When she was young, and beautiful. When she laughed over her shoulder at cameras. He knew my mother better than I ever will.
“I saw you here last night, didn’t I?” He stuffs the package of cigarettes back into his jacket pocket. “Good to know someone appreciates me.”
I just smile. Say something, Suzanne. There are so many things that you want to say.
“’Course, I probably wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.” He sits down, and I do too. He is shorter than me.
We don’t say anything to each other. I can feel him watching me, but I don’t turn my head.
“You’re a shy little thing, aren’t you?” He blows smoke out of the corner of his mouth and coughs back a laugh. “That’s a nice change.”
I look at him finally. He looks older than forty-eight. His skin is dry and sallow. Too many cigarettes. Too much war.
“Thank you.” He has nice eyes. Just like his picture.
He looks around the room, now almost empty. “Another small crowd, eh, Suzanne? You should have brought a few of your friends this time.”
I smile, and then say, “It was a wonderful reading.”
Thomas flicks his ashes onto the floor and cocks his head at me. “Hey, at least when she speaks, she speaks the truth.”
We watch a lady hurrying towards us.
“Mr. McPherson,” she begins. Her hands never stop moving, but her face is pretty. “We need you to come over and get your picture taken for our newsletter.” She stares at his cigarette.
He nods his head at her, and she leaves.
“Never write a book,” he says. He leans into me and touches my shoulder with his, as if we are sharing something private. “You end up spending most of your time with a bunch of idiots. He grinds the butt of his half-finished cigarette into the seat of his chair. “Haven’t been able to finish one of these all day,” he says and his voice is hoarse, tired.
“Wait here,” he tells me before he stands up.
I watch him as he poses for the newsletter photograph. He is in the middle of a large group of people, and everybody looks happy. Even he looks happy. Most of the group is holding his new novel. He looks like the picture he sent to my mom. His arms are folded across his chest. His weight is shifted onto his left leg. Except now he doesn’t have a military uniform on. He is wearing jeans and a dark blue t-shirt. A white-sox baseball cap.
After the picture is taken, he shakes everybody’s hand and thanks them. He sits down, takes a piece of paper from his wallet and begins to write on it.
He is writing to me. I know that he is writing a note to me. Linda’s daughter.
When he puts it into my hand, it is folded up into a little ball. “You can read this later,” he whispers. The lady with the moving hands is standing right next to us.
“Okay,” I whisper back.
“Great to meet you, Suzanne,” he says, more loudly now. “It’s been nice talking to you, but the bookstore here is taking me out to dinner.” He smiles at the lady.
I shake his hand and thank him for the autograph.
At the café next to the bookshop, I drink two cups of hot chocolate and read the first three chapters of his new novel. I walk twice around the block, sit on a bench in front of the bookstore and uncrumple Thomas McPherson’s note.
“Meet tonight? Beach Street Hotel, Room 201,” it says. It is written on the back of a restaurant receipt. I tuck it into my purse, behind the last letter he wrote to my mother.
My mom died when I was eight years old, almost nine.
She died the kind of death that no one likes to talk about. You could only tell that she was a woman if you looked at the name on her chart, or if you knew her. She had no hair, no breasts. She looked scary.
Right near the end, before she went into her coma, she couldn’t talk anymore. My dad said that he understood her, but I could only hear grunts and moans. My dad told me the last thing she said. “Take care of Suzanne,” she said.
I’ve never believed that though. I think he said it to make me feel better; make me believe that she was thinking of me still.
When she went into her coma, my mom’s arms and legs would flail about, pulling our tubes and IVs. “See Suzanne, she’s still fighting,” my dad would say. “She doesn’t want to leave you.” My dad liked to sit near her bed and watch her, but I hated it. I was glad when the doctor told him that I had to leave.
Her ugliness, her sickness, her death. These are the things that I remember about my mother.
The rest I have to imagine.
Now, when I lay in the bathtub, after I have washed myself and after the bubbles have evaporated, I feel my breasts, her breasts, for the lumps that killed her. I have my mother’s breasts, and somewhere inside of me I have her cells, the cells that killed her. I wish them away, I pray them away, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I want every part of her, and the disease is the part I that know best.
When I was younger, I would lie on my bed and think about my mother. I would pull Thomas McPherson’s letters from my top closet shelf and think about my mother, the woman who opened letters from the soldier in Vietnam.
I would imagine how they met. His letters never talked about that.
She was just twenty-two when he went to Vietnam, the same age as me. Just twenty-one when she last saw him.
I didn’t have any pictures of them together, so I would place the pictures I had of my mother and Thomas side by side and imagine them together.
They were happy. They talked and laughed. He promised that he would always love her, that he would come back from Vietnam and marry her, that he would never marry anyone else.
I wondered if they ever slept together. Sometimes, reading his letters, I was sure that they had.
I would imagine why they broke up, why his last letter is the one from the base in Washington.
I wondered a lot of things, and I hated wondering. Because imagining isn’t knowing.
I sit in the lobby of the Beach Street Hotel and place Thomas’s two letters side by side on the table in front of me. I lean forward with my elbows on my knees, and read them both, over and over again. The handwriting is the same, just older. Even the ink color is the same. Blue, one more faded than the other.
The bells on the front door jingle, and I turn to look, but it is not Thomas. He must be upstairs already, in Room 201.
My mother’s note is much larger than mine.
I gaze at them, and think. I squint my eyes until the letters blur and cross into each other. Then they become one. Her note envelops mine. My letter disappears, and somehow that comforts me.
When I fold the letters back up again and place them in my purse, her letter is holding my note. My note disappears, like an unborn baby.
My mother was just a year older than me when she read his letter from Washington. She was my age when she last saw him. When he last saw her.
I am wearing pink because she wore a pink sweater on their first date. He thought about the pink sweater every night before he fell asleep, he wrote in his letters, and I wondered how that made my mother feel.
My hair is long and straight and falling down my back because he wrote that he liked hers best that way.
I should go see him now. I’m sure that he must be waiting for me.
For a moment, as I stared in front of his hotel room door, I think about leaving. I look down at my wrist and touch the bracelet that encircles it. Silver hearts dangle from the thin and tarnished chain. The bracelet was nestled in the corner of my mom’s jewelry box, resting on top of the envelope containing Thomas’s picture.
When I knock on the door, the small silver hearts jingle together, and their soft tone calms me.
Thomas blinks a couple of times when he opens the door and sees my face, as if he had been sleeping. And then he laughs. A small laugh. “Suzanne, hi.”
I tuck a stray piece of hair behind my ear. He knows who I am. I think he must. “Hi,” I saw. I want to say his name. Thomas. Thomas. But I can’t.
He looks younger now, at nighttime. In the dark, he could be my mother’s first boyfriend again. In the dark, I would only hear his voice. The voice she heard.
I am still standing in the hallway. “Is this okay?” I ask. “I wasn’t sure if I should come.”
He steps back, opening the door wide. “No, I’m glad you did. I wanted you to come.”
I peek into his room, lit only by a small lamp near his bed, and I shiver. I can’t help it. I know that I should say something. He is waiting for me to say something, and I wait too. He wants to know that he picked the right girl to invite up to his hotel room, that I deserve to be here, he wants to know that I am grateful. But what do I say?
He looks at me funny and says, “You know, Suzanne, I could use a drink, and it looks like you could too. I know a good place down the street, you want to go?”
I don’t really drink, but I smile and nod my head, glad that I don’t have to step into his hotel room, not yet.
“Most of the time, I think everyone needs a drink, Suzanne,” he says as she shuts the door behind us.
We walk down the street, and sometimes as we step our shoulders bump into each other. My shoulder is taller than his, making me wish that I had worn different shoes.
The streets are dark and cold, but he is not wearing a jacket. His cigarette keeps him warm.
“I bet I haven’t been on this street in more than twenty years,” he says. “But before I finally moved away, I probably came to Harry’s every day.”
Harry’s is a corner bar about a block away. I can see its dimly-lit sign flickering.
We cross against the red light and he says, “You know I used to live here Suzanne? Went to high school about twenty miles from the city.”
I lie and say no, even though I know almost all there is to know about Thomas McPherson. I know that he was born here, that he left his girlfriend to go to war, and that he never came back for her. I know that he moved to the West Coast to go to graduate school, that he’s been married twice and is in the middle of a divorce, that he doesn’t have any children. I know that he has written three books – all about Vietnam – and that his second novel won an American Author Award. I even know that he likes younger girls, girls with firm legs and young skin.
“I used to hate coming back here, but it gets easier each time I do. No offense to my good friend Thomas Wolfe.”
He continues to speak and I am thankful for the sound of his voice, the feel of his shoulder next to mine, thankful for his attempts to charm me and make me laugh, thankful that I don’t have to talk, but can just be there, listening, taking it all in, as if I am reading one of his books. And even though I know that I am just another girl to him, that he is probably only thinking of me in his bed, that he has said these things before and will probably forget me next month or next week or even tomorrow, even though I know all these things, I am still touched by his attention.
Harry’s is smoky and deserted, and we sit up at the bar. I would usually be afraid in a place like Harry’s – so quiet and dark – but I’m not afraid tonight.
The bartender raises his eyebrows at us and Thomas holds up two fingers. “Chivas rocks,” he says. “With a twist.” He looks at me. “Is that okay?”
I lie and say yes. Maybe Chivas is what he used to drink with my mother.
Thomas narrows his eyes, watching the bartender. “You know, that could be the same bartender that worked here when I came in all the time.”
“Harry?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “Nobody really knew Harry. Rumor had it that he was forced to leave the country after he killed a customer at one of his strip clubs. But who really knows?”
The bartender sets our drinks down in front of us, but Thomas doesn’t ask him his name, just hands him a ten dollar bill and waves him away.
I sip my drink through the straw; Thomas gulps half of his in one swallow and then reaches for his cigarettes.
“Wanna see a trick, Suzanne?” he asks.
“Sure,” I smile.
He smiles too, and pulls a box of matches from his pocket. Matches from the Beach Street Hotel.
“Magic matches,” he tells me, sliding the box open. He takes a match out and touches it to his tongue. He closes his eyes for a moment, and then stands the match upright on the back of his hand. “Abracadabra.”
The match is still standing when I say, “Thomas, I could do that.” It is the first time I’ve said his name. Magic.
“Sure, but could you do this?” he asks, turning his hand over so that the match is hanging upside down.
“I could if you showed me.” My drink is almost half-finished now too.
He looks at me from the corner of his eye for a moment, then holds his empty glass up to the bartender. “Suzanne here is doubting my talent, do you believe it?”
But the bartender doesn’t say anything, only shrugs his shoulders as he pours more Chivas.
“Show me another,” I tell him before I bring the glass to my lips for another sip.
“You like that Chivas, eh?” His eyes are watching my mouth as I play with the tiny red straw.
I hold the glass to my lips, bite the tiny red straw and smile. “Show me another.”
Thomas nods his head and lights the match that was standing upright on the back of his hand. Holding it in his left hand, he stretches his arms wide and blows down the sleeve of his right arm. The fire on the tip of the match snuffs out.
He flicks the used match into the ashtray and picks up his cigarette. “Abracadabra.”
“Yeah, well, Suzanne, you’d be surprised at all the things you learn when you spend half of your life inside a bar. Isn’t that right, bartender?”
He takes a long drag off of his cigarette and is quiet for a while.
“You liked the reading tonight?” he finally asks.
“You liked the reading very much. And last night’s, too?”
I touch my bracelet under the cuff of my pink sweater and nod my head.
“Is that why you came back a second time?” he asks before finishing his drink.
“Yes,” I whisper.
He grinds the butt of his cigarette into the ashtray. “And here I was hoping that you came back because you wanted to see me again.”
I smile. “That too.”
“Two more Chivas,” he says to the bartender, and when he takes my glass from me, our hands touch for the first time.
“You’ve read all my books, Suzanne?”
“Yes. Every one of them,” I say, tucking my hair behind my ear.
“A true fan.” His knee touches mine under the bar. “And you don’t have any manuscript you want me to read? No story you want my opinion on?”
We turn towards the door as it opens. A young couple walks in. They look happy and cold.
“No, I don’t.” I only have a letter, tucked into my purse. A letter he wrote to my mother more than twenty years ago. The bar is getting colder, and I wrap my arms around my chest. My sweater feels soft and warm. “Should I have one?”
No, I’m glad you don’t,” he smiles, adjusting his baseball cap. “So you don’t have anything you want me to read? Nothing you want me to pass on to my publisher? Then what are you doing here, Suzanne?” He seems younger now, sweeter, and I can pretend that he is just eighteen, that he is leaving for Vietnam tomorrow, and that I am my mother. His first love.
“I don’t know. Maybe I like you.” His eyes are a pretty green color, and I can see my reflection in them. “Why did you invite me to your hotel room?”
He coughs back a laugh. “You think I do this kind of thing all the time, don’t you?”
“Why do you think I invited you up to my hotel room?” he asks. He is not looking at me, but at the box of matches in his hand. “You think I was coming on to you? That I wanted a one-night stand or something?”
I remember the girl at the reading last night with the blonde hair and long legs, and almost say yes. And then I think of my mother, her pink sweater and Indian hair, and I want to say no.
“Maybe,” I say.
“I don’t know,” he shrugs before taking another drink. “I guess it depends on what you want.”
But what do I want? I don’t know. I’m not even sure that I ever knew. I want to know my mother. I want to know what she was like, to feel what she felt. I want to know who she was.
“Suzanne?” he asks, nudging my shoulder. “You okay?”
I try to smile. “Mmm-hmmm.”
“Suzanne, if you just want to talk, that’s fine. It’s been nice,” he says. But if that’s true, we should probably be leaving. Don’t want you to get home too late.”
I stir my drink, thinking. “I want to stay, Thomas. I want to stay.”
“Okay,” he answers.
We are quiet for a while, pretending to watch the television as it flickers in the corner. The new couple at the table behind us are loud and talkative. Laugh. Laugh. They make us seem even more silent, and for the first time I begin to feel uncomfortable. Nervous.
Then I feel it. His knee against mine, then his hand on my bare thigh. Just for a moment, but that is enough.
“I invited you up to my hotel room because you remind me of someone. Someone I once liked a lot.” He swirls the ice in his glass. Signals the bartender for another drink.
Even though I know, I still ask him. “Your wife?”
He winces, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “God, which one? No, not either of my wives. Someone I knew a long time ago.”
“You’re pretty, aren’t you?” he says. Our hands are on the top of the bar, holding our glasses of Chivas, and moving closer and closer to each other. They touch, then separate. Touch, then separate. “You’ve got her hair and eyes. Pink sweater.”
Thomas lights another cigarette. He tilts his head up, closes his eyes and holds the smoke inside his lungs for several seconds.
“I don’t do this kind of thing all the time, Suzanne,” he finally tells me, and I believe him.
“What was she like, this girl like me?” I ask. Our hands are touching now. Back to back, and his are softer than I thought they would be.
“She was just a girl I knew in college, Suzanne. You don’t want to hear about her.”
I slide my chair closer to him. We are touching now, our legs and hands, huddled together against the cold.
“I do. Maybe she’s my long-lost aunt or mother or something,” I say, and he laughs. He laughs.
“Suit yourself,” he says, taking another long drag off his cigarette. He blows the smoke out of the side of his mouth and asks, “So what do you want to know?”
“You went to college with her?” He nods, and I ask, “How did you meet?”
He sets his cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and rubs his eyes. “God, how did we meet?” He turns and stares at me for a long time. “How did we meet?”
My thumb touches the top of his hand. Touches it just like hers would have.
“I met her in college – the start of my second year. I remember because I had just gotten my draft notice.” He smiles for a second. “Probably wouldn’t have met her without it.”
I smile too. “What do you mean?”
“We had a class together. Biology.” He takes a drink. “Linda Bailey. That was her name.”
I know, I want to tell him. I know.
“Linda wore the shortest skirts I’d ever seen. Great legs. She would sit by the window in class and spend the whole lecture gazing out at the trees and stroking her legs. Up and down, like she’d never felt them before. God, I wonder if she knew what that did to all of us horny nineteen-year-old boys.”
Thomas and I are turned toward each other now. Our knees are touching.
He shakes his head. “I was such a kid then. The only things I thought about that fall were my draft notice and Linda Bailey’s legs.”
“Tell me more,” I say as I touch my silver necklace, rub its heart between my fingers. His eyes follow my hand, and I can tell what he is thinking.
“I remember …” he begins. I let go of my necklace, and his gaze returns to mine.
“I would see her playing the piano at lunch every day. We had an old upright in the corner of the cafeteria. She only played one song – “Hey Jude.” She played it every day for weeks and weeks, and could never get it right,” he laughs. “I mean, it’s a simple song. You could barely recognize her version, but nobody really cared. She was so pretty, and it was a good song.”
He is touching my leg now, feeling the small scar on my knee. “You’ve got pretty legs, Suzanne,” he says.
“Tell me more,” I say.
“Well,” he starts. “You’ve got pretty hands too.”
“No,” I smile. “More about her.”
“Oh,” he sighs, still holding my hand. “More about her. Sure.” He glances over at his cigarette, now almost burned out, and picks it up from the edge of the ashtray. “I thought about her all semester, watched her all semester, listened to her all semester, but didn’t talk to her until the last day. That night, a whole bunch of us went to the little bar around the corner from school to celebrate, and she was there. Playing ‘Hey Jude’ on the piano.” He hears my laugh, and looks at me. “Can you believe it?”
“So anyway,” he begins again. “I was really drunk that night. Knew I wasn’t coming back to school. Thought I would never see her again …”
“So you finally talked to her?” I ask.
He looks at me sideways for a moment. “Yeah. Yeah, I finally talked to her.”
“What did you say?” I lean forward as I ask.
“I told her to quit playing that damn song.”
“Did she?” I laugh.
Thomas grinds his cigarette into the ashtray. “Yes, she did. Then she went home with me.”
“Really? Just like that?”
He squints his eyes and nods. “Just like that. We were both pretty drunk.”
He looks around the bar. The bartender is leaning over the cash register. It looks like he might be asleep. “What do you say we get out of here?” Thomas asks.
I glance at my glass, then turn back to him. He looks tired, and a little drunk. “Okay. Just let me finish my drink.”
He nods his head and tosses a few dollars onto the countertop.
“In between sips, I ask him, “When did you go to the war?”
“Just a couple of weeks after that.”
“Did you miss her? While you were there?”
“Thought about her all the time.”
That makes me happy. That he missed her too.”
“Did you write her letters?”
“Almost every day.” His eyes are on my legs, my short skirt. He touches its hem. “You needed to write to someone over there.”
“What happened after the war? Did you ever see her again?”
“Linda? No, I never saw her again.” Both hands are on my thighs now, keeping them warm. “Until tonight.”
“Didn’t you want to see her again?”
Thomas looks at his watch, then down at my glass. “Suzanne, they’re going to kick us out of here soon.”
Picking up my glass, I ask again, “You didn’t want to see her again?”
He stands up, waiting for me. He looks around the bar, not at me. “Course I did. Still would, probably. But no, I never saw her after the war.”
He laughs. A laugh that sounds more like a cough. “Geez, Suzanne.” He takes the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, but it’s empty. “Maybe she didn’t want to see me.”
“Really? Why not? What happened?”
He looks at me from the corner of his eye. “You sure you’re not writing a book?”
“Yes,” I smile. “So you can tell me. She told you why she didn’t want to see you in her last letter, didn’t she?”
“I don’t know. She probably would have, but she never wrote me.”
I choke on the last of my drink. “She never wrote you? At all?”
“Nope,” he says, taking my hand as I stand up. “Not once.”
“Why not?” I whisper, and I wonder if he hears me.
“Don’t know,” he answers. “Don’t know. Is there anything else you want me to tell you, Suzanne?”
“No,” I say as he opens the door for me. The night air is windy and cold, and I shiver, wrap my sweater around me. Tighter.
“Come on then,” he tells me. “Let’s go get a pack of smokes.”
In his second novel, Thomas wrote about the soldier who taped a picture of Joan Baez inside her helmet, hoping it would keep him safe. Jay Holman was a nineteen-year-old private from Paris, Texas.
Joan Baez had been in Jay’s helmet since boot camp. He needed a good-luck charm and didn’t have a St. Christopher’s Medal or a rabbit’s foot so he used Joan. Most of the people in Jay’s hometown hated Joan Baez, but Jay grew to love her. He carried a picture of his girlfriend Becky in his knapsack too, but he knew that it was Joan who protected him.
She made him invisible as he trudged through the jungles of the Batangan Peninsula; she deflected bullets meant for him; she guided his steps as he walked through the valley of the shadow of death. She even kept his dreams safe and happy.
Jay had been in combat for six months when he added a new picture -- Muhammad Ali speaking at a college peace rally. “He’ll keep ol’ Joan company,” he told Thomas. His sister had clipped the picture from their local newspaper and sent it to him along with a box of stale oatmeal cookies that he shared with his platoon.
Thomas was the only one who knew about Jay’s pictures. He and Jay were good friends.
Every night, the first summer in Vietnam, they would climb out of their hole, sit on the cool wet ground, and talk. They flicked the bugs away from their faces and listened to muffled explosions, hoping that they were very far away.
That first summer, Thomas was kept awake by the heat. He would sit outside under the trees and wipe the sweat off his body with an extra shirt. Jay sat with him most nights.
Jay liked to talk about his girlfriend Becky. She had just been crowned the Crepe Myrtle Queen of Paris at the town’s Bastille Days. Jay let Thomas read her letter describing the ceremony and the parade. “Frank Robinson took me to the dance, but don’t worry,” she wrote Jay. “I didn’t let him kiss me and I thought about you the whole time.” Jay and Becky had been dating since they were sixteen.
Thomas liked to listen to Jay talk about their summers together. Every night Jay would walk across his back field to Becky’s house and find her waiting on her porch. She would look up at the sky and point out planets and constellations for him. “Becky’s a real smart girl,” he told Thomas. She and Jay liked to stay out all night and watch for falling stars. In August, when the nights got too hot, they went inside. They would lie on Becky’s hardwood floor in front of the open screen door, turn the fans toward their faces, and suck on ice cubes. Jay described in loving detail the way Becky’s ice cubes melted. She held the cube between her lips, tasted it with her tongue, sucked it into her mouth, and popped it back out again. Jay would watch the melted ice slip from her mouth and glide down her cheek, past her ear, and into her hair. He watched it slide down her chin and collect in a little pool at the base of her throat. “Sometimes the ice and the fan gave her the chills, and I could her … you know, Mac … I could see her nipples through her shirt,” Jay said. “I always wanted to reach over and touch them, but couldn’t. Her mom was usually in the room with us.”
Thomas and Jay sat outside under the trees that first scorching summer in Vietnam and dreamed of girls, of melted ice in the hollow of their throats, and of untouched nipples.
Thomas and Jay had been in Vietnam almost a year when Jay stepped on a hidden mine and was instantly killed. They were walking through a rice field, and Jay had just turned back to Thomas and said, “Mac, doesn’t this remind you of that scene in ‘The Green Berets’ …” when there was a loud explosion and then, nothing. Everything was still and lovely. It was the most peaceful moment Thomas ever experienced in the war, he later wrote. It seemed to last for more than five minutes, and then it too was gone, replaced with panic and nausea. Screaming. The sound of helicopter blades.
“Not quite like ‘The Green Berets,’ eh, Mac?” his sergeant grunted, patting him on the shoulder. Jay was the fifth guy they had lost that month.
Before the medics came to put Jay in his body bag, Thomas pulled the pictures from the inside of his helmet. They still felt warm. Thomas held them in his hands and watched as the medics zipped up the bag and carried Jay to the waiting helicopter.
It was more than an hour before Thomas realized that he was bleeding. A shard of Jay’s bone had gone through Thomas’s jacket and imbedded itself in his shoulder. He bandaged the wound, but never had the piece of bone removed. It is still with him.
Thomas always meant to send the pictures of Joan Baez and Muhammad Ali to Jay’s girlfriend Becky, but he somehow never got around to it, and they spent the rest of the war tucked between the pages of his notebook.
I am awake before Thomas in the morning. I sit on the chair in the corner, put my feet on the bed, and watch him sleep. I tell myself that he looks peaceful. Younger and sweet. But I know that it’s not true. Even in the dusky light of morning, he looks older. His skin is dry, his hair gray. I watch him and wonder when he will wake up.
From here I can see the scar on his shoulder. The piece of Jay Holman that Thomas always carries with him, under his skin. The spot that I kissed last night.
“Does it still hurt?” I asked him.
“No. No, it doesn’t hurt,” he answered. “It’s just always there.” And I kissed the spot again.
I look around the room now, in the morning light. Look for the things that I couldn’t find last night, but all I can see are rumpled clothes on top of a suitcase, notebooks piled high on the nightstand, cigarette wrappers and a couple of dumbbells. Things that mean nothing to me.
Last night, I wanted to tell him that even though she never wrote him, my mother still kept all of his letters. In her lingerie drawer, tied with ribbon. I don’t know why she did. I don’t know why she didn’t write him. But if he knew she thought of him, that she kept his picture and his bracelet in her jewelry box, I thought if he knew these things, it would have made him feel better.
But I never got the chance to tell him. I don’t think I wanted to tell him.
We stopped at a corner store to pick up more cigarettes, and Thomas bought a six-pack of beer. As we walked back to the hotel, he held my hand and told me stories. “Keep your mind off the cold,” he said.
He told me about the night he left for boot-camp. He spent it with my mother. “I hadn’t even kissed her since the night of the party,” he said.
Thomas was in love with her. He wanted to carry her picture in his backpack. He wanted to come home from the war and marry her. He wanted to spend his last night with her.
“We went to an old theater downtown that was still playing ‘The Graduate.’ She sang with Simon and Garfunkel through the credits. The Sound of Silence. Really softly, but I still heard. I spent the entire movie thinking about her tan thighs. Every once in a while, when she shifted in her seat, her leg brushed mine, and it only made me want to feel them more.”
He asked, “You okay, Suzanne?”
I nodded my head, and he put his arm around my shoulders. He didn’t seem as short then.
“What did you do after the movie?” I asked him.
“We went to Harry’s for a while.”
I stopped shivering, and looked at him. “Harry’s? The place we just left?”
“Yep,” he said.
I smiled, and he tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “We need to get you inside,” he told me. “Your teeth are chattering.”
“Tell me another story,” I said. “Keep me warm.”
And he did. He told me about their ride home from Harry’s. They took the last bus home, and sat in the back, even though they were the only people on it. “Linda was wearing a short black skirt and a pink sweater, like this one,” he said, rubbing his hand up and down my arm. “We had been drinking, and she wouldn’t stop talking about her pantyhose.”
“Her pantyhose?” I asked. I could see the Beach Street Hotel from where we were. I was so cold.
He stopped for a moment and lit another cigarette, cupping his hands around it to shield the wind. “Yeah,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. “She had a run in them, she said. Had to take them off. So she swung her feet up on the seat in front of us, lifted the hem of her skirt and began peeling off her nylons. She did it so carefully, like they were silk or something, and as she did I could see the tips of her white panties peeking from under her skirt.”
We were in front of the hotel now, and he stopped me before I opened the door. “Let me finish this, Suze,” he said, holding up his cigarette.
I leaned against the wall, tipped my toes into the air. Looked at him. Not my mother’s first love. Just someone who looked up her skirt. Someone who slept with her once.
He stood in front of me, blew the smoke out of his mouth and kissed me. Warmed me up.
He is not my mother’s first great love. But he knew her once. He knew her when she was my age. When she laughed over her shoulder at cameras and tried to play “Hey Jude” on the piano. He kissed her once. And now he is kissing me.
“You’re warm,” I tell him. “You feel good.”
“Let’s go inside, Suzanne,” he says.
“First tell me what happened next.”
“Next?” he says, touching my cheek. “She fell asleep, and I watched her. I held her stockings in my lap.”
“Did you spend the night together?” I ask, and take his hand.
“My last night? Yeah, we did.”
“Tell me about the last time you saw her.”
“The next morning? She came with me to the bus. In the same pink sweater. She kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘Take care of yourself, Thomas.’ That’s what everyone said. Then she placed one of her stockings in my hand. ‘And take care of these too,’ she said. Not everyone did that.”
“No,” I smile. “And did you?”
“Nah,” he shrugs. “Someone stole them at boot-camp.”
“Too bad.” He is still standing in front of me. Wants to kiss me. “And I remind you of her?”
“Yeah. Yeah, you do,” he breathes, leaning in to kiss me again, and nothing could be nicer than that. Nothing could be nicer than what he said.
The room is filled with light now, but he is still asleep. The sunshine streams across my bare legs and warms them. If only he could see them. But he sleeps so still, and I don’t want to wake him.
I put on my shoes, gather my things and look at him once more. I want to leave him something. But I only have the letter he wrote to my mother; her silver bracelet; the note he wrote to me. Things I don’t want to part with.
I want to take a shower, but am afraid the noise will wake him up. I want to watch the cigarette smell off my skin. Out of my hair. I want to wash his breath off of me.
I peek out the window. The day looks so new and pretty and I want to be out in it, feeling the sun on my skin.
Thomas stirs, and I turn again to him. He is still asleep. He threw the blankets off his body, and I can see the outline of his legs under the sheets. His chest is bare, and I watch him breathe. He hand is over heart, and touches the small scar on his shoulder. Strokes it softly. Even in his sleep.
I kiss him on the cheek before I leave, but he doesn’t wake up. In the middle of the night, strands of my black hair had fallen onto the white sheets. I can see them now in the bright morning light and I brush them onto the floor.
CAPTAIN RON PICKETT
DHARMPAL MAHENDRA JAIN
DR ANGELA JOHNSON
DR. HARMEET KAUR
JOSEPH VITO ROMANO
KEN ALLAN DRONSFIELD
LOIS GREENE STONE
NGOZI OLIVIA OSUOHA
RANDAL A. BURD JR
ROBIN WYATT DUNN
S W BRACKETT
WRITER GO HYEE