|BWS Stories - "Born in the U.S.A."...Childhood Memories|
"Born in the U.S.A."...Childhood Memories - Jim
Carolyn Steele Agosta is a writer of short stories and essays, some of which you can find at her website, http://www.carolynagosta.com. Of this story, she says, “I’m used to writing about true things and dressing them up just enough to call them fiction. It’s much scarier to write true things and let them go out naked into the world.”
JimHe's dead. Jim is dead.
I sit at the kitchen table. My coffee steams gently in its cup, music plays on the radio and next to me, the dog lies snoring. My life is unchanged. And yet … He's dead. Jim is dead.
The obituary in the paper doesn't tell much. "Lt. James Mays, 55, of Seattle, Washington, died November 7th at Veteran's Hospital. A 1969 graduate of Bingham High School and a U.S. Marine, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Bravery in Action in Viet Nam, 1972. He is survived by his mother, Mrs. Beverly Mays, of Bingham."
There’s no mention of a family. No wife, no kids. I stare at the newspaper and think, surely this is a mistake. It must all be a mistake, he can't be dead, he can't have been 55, I can't be sitting here reading this. I turn the pages, fold the newspaper and reopen it, starting fresh. But it's still there and he's still dead and I wonder whether it makes a difference.
He was always getting in trouble. Maybe that's why I was drawn to him - all good girls secretly wonder about bad boys. He was our token hippie, with his long hair and fatigue jacket, covered with peace symbols. At assembly, he refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Just couldn't pledge allegiance when the leaders of the country were so screwed up, he insisted. Only he didn't say "screwed" and he got sent to Detention. People noticed things like that in 1969.
Jim wanted to change the world. He took it all to heart - the black power salute at the Mexico Olympics, Nixon's election, the starving Biafrans. He was tall and good-looking in a rebellious sort of way and he could make dissension look attractive and fun. We painted posters and marched in protests and french-kissed in his beat-up old Falcon.
The day after they had the first lottery for military service, Jim came into the classroom looking green. His birth date had been pulled as the seventh position on the list. If he'd been born just 23 minutes later, he would have been number 307 instead. I didn't know then that Life turns on just such tiny moments. Events swing on a pivot, hold their course a breathless second, and then plummet in a new direction, taking us on a ride into an unalterable arc of centrifugal motion.
He loved me, he said. We were going to spend our lives together. I was 16. I understood nothing, practically nothing. He was facing the draft, military training, Viet Nam, and a quick, muddy jeep ride into desolation. I was choosing a prom dress.
Things were different then. People protected their children from the harsh realities of life. I lived in a Doris Day world where young men were handsome and alive, and girls were virgins until they married. "I could be dead by this time next year," Jim would say to me when I told him no. I'd cover my ears; I didn't want to think about it. He began drinking, doing drugs, skipping school. Someone said he was trying to sow all his wild oats before it was too late. I couldn't understand and I hated the drugs. He was going somewhere without me.
He asked someone else to the prom, Barb Kennedy. I knew why, we all knew why. Barb Kennedy put out.
A week after the prom, he came over. "Please go out with me," he said, and held out his hand. Our break-up had been a bad dream, I thought. He still loves me. When we got to his car, I was disappointed to see that he had a friend along, Dave Markowski. I didn't care for him much; he was a big guy, a wrestler, crude and distasteful. We went to a basketball game but left before it was over. Both boys were high on something. They kept laughing over nothing, teasing me about being squashed between them, and their eyes gleamed with danger.
Jim drove to a deserted road, pulled the car onto the shoulder, and turned off the engine. When he started to kiss me, I protested. "This is stupid, take Dave home," I said. "What do you expect him to do?" Jim looked past me to Dave and grinned.
"You're right," he said, not looking at me. "It's not really fair to ol' Dave." He smiled past me again and I heard Dave laugh. "Why don't we just share?" Jim looked at me and gave a sort of half-laugh, half-grunt.
I felt Dave's arms come around my waist from behind. "I've got a few ideas of my own, too," he said, his breath in my ear, his horrid wet lips on my neck. I stared at Jim in shock. He sat smiling, peaceful. Then he was on top of me, pressing me down, pressing me down. His mouth was on mine, wet and scraping, his lips that always before had been gentle. My blouse was ripped open; I bit someone and tasted blood. I felt hands, fingers, along my thighs, under my skirt, between my legs. I bucked and kicked, struggling to get free, hampered by Jim's weight, Dave's thick, ugly fingers around my wrists. "Pull her into the back," Dave said, and he climbed over the seat. My mouth momentarily free, I screamed, shrilly and hysterically. Jim stopped then, his face going white. I pushed hard with my feet, found the door latch and plunged out of the car. Then I was rolling, onto my feet, running across the field. Cold, wet weeds tore at my legs; I could hear my ragged breath and my pounding heart. My knees gave way and I crawled, panting, to cling to a tree trunk. Pressing my face to the rough bark, I prayed that they weren't still out there, looking for me.
At the memories of that night, I suddenly have to stand, draw deep breaths and look out the window at the bright line of daffodils near the garage. Over thirty years have passed since that night and I can still remember it all – the look on their faces, our rough panting gasps; the vomit in my mouth.
I never told anyone what happened. How I hid in the skeleton of an unfinished apartment building, smelling the raw lumber, watching for headlights. How I saw Jim's car come creeping along, the windows down, his voice calling my name.
I never told my mother, even though she heard me come in and tapped at the bathroom door to ask if I'd had a good time. Fine, I told her, great game. No, I never told. How could I? It was too ugly, too cruel to put into words. The searing flashes of memory were bad enough - Dave's tongue slithering down my neck, blue-jeaned legs scraping against my thighs, the way Jim looked like a vaguely familiar stranger. I scrubbed my skin raw with the rough side of the washcloth and eventually my legs stopped shaking.
The next day my parents went out and Jim came over. He banged on the front door that I refused to open. He called through the window. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! I have to talk to you!"
"Go AWAY!" I screamed. "I hate you! Go away and leave me alone."
He was crying; I could see him. I love you, his mouth said, I'm so sorry. There was no sound, just the shapes of the words.
I didn't cry. I didn't feel sorry for him, I didn't feel anything. I turned and walked away.
I still had to go to class every day. Still had to see Jim in the halls and in History class. His eyes were cold and dead. I passed Dave in the hall, standing and laughing with his stupid friends. He said my name once, and I barely made it to the Girls' Room before I threw up.
The school year finally ended. Jim and Dave graduated. Jim left town. I didn't date again for a long time.
The next time I saw him, it was a year later. I had stayed after school to work on a home economics project. He was alone in the hall, wearing a Marine's dress blues. He stood straight and tall, proud, but his eyes looked old. "How have you been?" he asked quietly. My god, I thought, he had ended up a Marine? What kind of cataclysmic change had caused this? I wanted to hit him.
"Well, I see they've bought you," I said. Barely hearing his quick intake of breath, I pushed on. "I guess you're the Rebel who lost his Cause." He looked down at me, his eyes hooded. Quickly, I walked away. At the end of the hall, I looked back. I could see him outlined against the bright sunlight of the window. I couldn't tell if he was looking at me or not. It didn't matter. I turned the corner and walked away.
I graduated from high school, started classes at U of M. The Beatles broke up, astronauts rode a dune buggy on the moon, and we all stopped being kids. Eventually, the war ended. Women's Lib and Watergate took over the news. I met a man who kissed away my pain. We married, had children, and made a good life.
And now he's dead. Jim is dead. And yes, it makes a difference. I'll never know whether he had regrets, as I did. He'll never know that I've wondered about him, tried to understand. That I've asked myself what would have happened if I'd given him one moment's grace the day he came back, the day I saw so much grief in his eyes. Life has a way of changing you, forcing you to stand in someone else's shoes, feeling the earth turning strange and unsteady under your feet. I’d learned what it was like to believe that all the rules have changed, and how it felt to want to hurt the only ones who love you.
In all these years, if I thought of Jim at all, it was as that 18-year-old guy who broke my heart and taught me about love and betrayal. It seemed impossible to imagine him getting older, changing, and becoming perhaps quite ordinary. For me, he would always be frozen in time, a young man coming of age in a frightening era of change. I often thought that Vietnam ruined him before he even got there. Perhaps it redeemed him, as well.