All the girls cried when the last show was over. Mr Weismann gave them all a half dozen red roses with their pay checks, and sent them on their way. Phyllis dried the petals of one of them and pressed them between the pages of her journal.
She’d had enough of the stage, and the dancing and the late nights. She’d had enough of the people too, the liars and the back stabbers. She had a new purpose now. They’d win the war and Ben would come home to marry her, and then she’d be a lawyer’s wife. And a lawyer’s wife couldn’t be some dumb dancing girl from Long Island.
They all went together to wave Buddy off on his ship, bound for England and army training. Ben told her that he thought Buddy made a dumb choice, that the navy was a much better idea, and Phyllis felt sorry. She’d always liked Buddy.
Sally kissed him so much at the dock that Phyllis had to look away. She hadn’t seen them kiss like that in months.
Then a week later, Sally came to see Ben off with her, and Phyllis could barely see through the tears in her eyes as he kissed her. Sally squeezed her hand so tight as they stood side by side, and Phyllis decided to ignore Sally’s own tears. She didn’t remember seeing any when Buddy left.
Sally went home, to help her folks on the farm. Just for the war, not to stay. They wrote for a while, long letters, but Sally was working hard and she seemed – happy. Very happy, and Phyllis couldn’t bear it when she was feeling so blue.
Mother took her back.
“I gotta do something,” Phyllis said, stirring her coffee at the breakfast table. “Everyone else is out helping the war effort.”
“I ‘have to’,” Mother said. “Not ‘I gotta’.”
“Does that mean I can?”
Phyllis added another sugar and ignored Mother’s eyebrows.
“I have no doubt you will do whatever you damn well please,” Mother sighed. “I can’t imagine for a moment it will embarrass me more than the theatre.”
Phyllis found a job at the airplane factory in Bethpage. There were some men there, too old or too important to be sent out to the war, but it was mostly girls and women, and it reminded her of being at the theatre. She didn’t want to work the machines and she’d never been much of a seamstress, but she had a good hand and so she painted on the dials with tiny brushes, stuff to make them glow so the pilots could see them in the dark. It wasn’t very exciting, not like dancing, but the women laughed and gossiped and for the first time in her life Phyllis felt like she was doing something important.
She wrote Ben every week, and sent him gum and candy and socks. Mother said that she shouldn’t ask him things about the war because the letters would be censored, and his replies would too, so she told him about her new friends and talked about when he would come home instead. He didn’t always reply to every letter and when he did they were short, but he was busy and he did send her a telegram on her birthday.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY PHYLL STOP OFF SHIP TODAY IN PHILLIPINES STOP THINK YOU WOULD LIKE IT HERE STOP LOVE FROM BEN STOP
She kissed the paper and slept with it underneath her pillow.
Phyllis knew she was dumb because Mother kept her dumb, and that was because Mother was dumb too. She knew how to host a dinner party for nineteen people, or how to run a big house, but Phyllis had never seen her reading a book.
Phyllis didn’t like to read but she would have to, because Ben was the cleverest person she knew and she wouldn’t embarrass him after they were married. On Saturdays she started to take the bus into New York, to the big library. It was a long trip but the ladies in the Bethpage library all knew Mother, and Phyllis didn’t want them to laugh at her.
Phyllis started with novels, because they had less pages and the print was bigger. The librarian gave her Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice to start, since Phyllis told her that she thought she’d like books with happy endings.
The librarians got to know her and had more books picked out every week. Phyllis got faster at reading them, and had opinions. She, Phyllis Rogers, had opinions on novels. She liked the Russians best, especially Tolstoy and she could even explain why.
She started to practice the piano again and that made even Mother smile.
Ben would be so proud of her when he came home.
The scream made Phyllis’ hand jerk, and she smeared the paint all over the dial.
“Oh no,” said Doris, who sat beside her. “You don’t think-”
Phyllis did think.
She stood up to see one of the seamstresses, Angela, sat on the floor clutching a telegram, and a sheepish looking pair of soldiers stood beside her.
Phyllis sank down into her chair and nodded. Doris put down her paintbrush and swore. Angela’s husband was a pilot. And they had six kids.
It was the fourth telegram they’d had delivered to the factory in a week, and Phyllis had to bite her lip to keep from crying.
Out of the blue, Sally wrote.
I’m alright, Phyll. In case you wondered, Buddy is alright too. Last thing I heard he was in France, but I don’t know for how long. He says he’s going to barter for a parachute so I can have a real silk wedding dress. How’s Ben?
Working hard. I got a job at an airplane factory and I’m reading novels. Can you believe it? Me, reading. Ben is fine. He’s going to bring me a real jade ring from China.
One time she told Ben how much money she was earning, and how much she was saving for them to start their lives together. It wasn’t much, but every cent she didn’t spend on getting to the library or the museum, she put away. Ben replied to that one, a short letter to say he was proud of her, and Phyllis smiled for weeks.
Then he was coming home, and she wasn’t ready. When she got the letter with the official postmark, she thought her heart was going to explode. But it wasn’t a telegram, and when she sobbed with relief, Mother actually hugged her. Ben’s ship was sunk in a battle, but he was alive. Injured, but alive, and he was coming home to her.
She wanted to bring him home but the doctor said he had to stay in the hospital for a while. The factory gave her some days off – she’d hadn’t had a single one in two whole years of working there – and she took the bus every day to see him.
The first few days were hard. He didn’t feel like talking. He was tired from the journey and the injury and the medicine, but he seemed glad to see her. At least, he held her hand tight whenever she gave it to him, and although she wanted to cry, she didn’t. He was here and so many men weren’t, and she wouldn’t cry.
“Do you still want to marry me?” he said on the fifth day, as the doctor was unwrapping the bandage to check up on his head.
“Of course I do,” Phyllis said, and although the doctor was there, she kissed him. Her poor Ben. Her poor, poor Ben. “I love you, silly. Haven’t I been waiting for you all this time?”
Ben smiled, a little twitch of his mouth and nodded.
“That’s swell, Phyll. That’s really, really swell.”