The nurse managed to get the patient to sit up, by placing her hands on his shoulders. Unlike most other patients of his type, there was never any risk of causing any violent reactions. He was, like he had been since he’d been taken to the clinic, as immobile as if he’d been dead. Nurse Fowler suspected that for all intents and purposes he was. It would just take a while for his body to realize it. Not that his body hadn’t been badly hurt as well. That might explain in part, if not fully, how he had ended up the way he was.
But she didn’t have time to wonder about each and every patient’s background. If she was going to get this one outside, into the spring sunshine before her break, she’d better hurry up. With deftness born from much practice, she managed to get his legs over the edge of the bed. After a doubtful look at him, she reached for the wheelchair and pulled it as close to the side of the bed as she could.
If she’d had to lift him and set him down again, she would have needed the help of another nurse, despite his emaciated condition, but fortunately, he responded to nudges and light pushes. Now she took advantage of that and got him to move over into the wheelchair.
She nodded approvingly. With her hands on the handlebars, she pushed the chair into the corridor, then outside into the yard. The sun was shining nicely, and even if this one seemed beyond help, they could all use a little tan. Of course she’d heard one of the doctors saying something about how sunshine could cause cancer of the skin, but she’d always found that a little sun helped heal most wounds – physical and emotional. Except possibly in the case of this particular patient, a John Doe.
That was a little unusual, because normally no one who didn’t have a private fortune or well-to-do relatives would be sent here. It was a nice place, even if there were those who tried to get a little too much work out of the staff. However, she’d been told that the circumstances this one had been found under, had made some patriotic benefactor take an interest and provided the means to keep the young man at the clinic.
She’d heard that John Doe had been found clutching to his chest, the dog tags of at least half a dozen other soldiers. It had been assumed that they had all fallen in battle and that John Doe had intended to bring their tags home so their loved ones would know what had become of them. Unfortunately, some unspeakable tragedy had occurred and John Doe had lost his mind.
Catatonic, but alive, if badly wounded, he’d been found and taken to a field hospital, then sent back to Saigon, for transport back home.
The parents and family of all the men whose tags he’d held on to had come by, eager expressions on their faces, hoping against hope he would be their loved one, but they had all been disappointed. Nurse Fowler had been there, so she’d seen it herself. It had been assumed that the man had lost his own dogtag, but since he was incapable of coherent speech, his name was now lost.
Now nurse Fowler had no more time to waste on John Doe. There were other patients, most of them in bad shape, but at least capable of speech and – hopefully – of improvement.
Sometimes, nurse Fowler would leave the radio on in John Doe’s room. The others would watch tv or play card games or talk to visitors or other patients. In his room, it was always eerily quiet. All you could hear was his breathing. At times it unnerved her. It was like being alone with a dead body, except, disconcertingly, this one was still breathing. His eyes were open, even if they didn’t focus on anything she could see.
The board of directors wouldn’t approve, but nurse Fowler rather liked modern music, not the pompous band music matron and the older doctors favored. So she left the radio tuned into one of her favorite stations. It would play all the new hit music from the charts. The Monkees. The Beatles – she loved their British accents – Roy Orbison and the others.
She had to go, but she couldn’t help smiling as she heard one of her favorite songs playing from behind her. If You’re Going To San Francisco. She would. As soon as she had saved up enough money, she’d go out there, to the sunshine and the movie stars. Her good friend Dave had a minibus and some day, they’d go out there and camp on the beach. Not in San Francisco exactly, but maybe in Santa Monica or places like that.
She silently hummed along to the song, wishing it had been her day off.
Inside the room, the patient suddenly moved. The movement was so slight, that even if the nurse had been there, she might have missed it, if she was busy. He moved his head just a little bit, as if searching for the source of the song.
Something about it made his mind strain to remember, but like every other time, he shied away from the images that came flooding back. So much blood. Their pale faces. So cold, despite the burning sun that made you wish you were – His hands clenched and unclenched of their own accord. A scream made its way across his lips, but died, as he forced himself to focus on the song’s lyrics.
…be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…you’re gonna meet some gentle people there…summertime, there’ll be a love-in there…
His tortured features relaxed into a semblance of peace. A half-smile fluttered across his lips, then was gone again. Gentle people. Love. He grasped at those words and felt himself follow them, into a memory of another time. Before the blood. Before the burning sun.
Hadn’t he had friends? Friends so close they were almost like a family. Someone else – closer than a friend. Love. Hope. Belonging. He wanted to be there again. The effort of remembering made his body cramp. His lips moved as if he was trying to make a word, but it was lost. The word, but not the memory of sunshine, friendship, love, being at home.
When the nurse returned, she reached for the radio to turn it off. Old sour-faced matron had been picking on her again. Someone, most likely that obnoxious Helen Naylor, had snitched on her. She’d think of something to get back at her.
When the music stopped, suddenly, she became aware of John Doe showing some agitation. It was as if he wanted to listen to the music. After such a long time without any type of reaction from him, nurse Fowler almost felt uneasy. It was almost like in one of those zombie films she and her friend Dave liked to go to. But if it was true that John Doe was becoming more responsive to ‘outside stimuli’ as she’d heard one of the doctors refer to it, then maybe he’d eventually recover. In any case, those old fools could stuff it.
She turned on the radio again, still tuned in to the same station. Was it her imagination, or did the patient actually relax a little? She walked around the bed so she could stare into his face. Unlike all those times before, his eyes actually shied away from meeting her gaze. He was better. More aware.
She put her hand on his shoulder and spoke gently to him.
“Hello. Have you decided to come back? I’m Sally. I’m the nurse who’s been taking care of you for almost a year. If you can talk, say something.”
Nothing. Even so, she really thought she’d been getting through to him. It was only a matter of time before she would gain his trust and make him talk. How cool wouldn’t it be to be able to go to old matron and say – John Doe – he’s talking now. I got him to come back. Of course, that was always assuming he could talk, physically. But if his vocal cords were damaged, she’d find a way of getting him to communicate anyway. There were always ways.
She didn’t have time to stay any longer, so she just patted his hand and left, glancing hopefully over her shoulder. There was no reaction, but she didn’t let that deter her. Sooner or later –
After a few rows with matron, nurse Fowler finally managed to have a tv set put into John Doe’s room. One of the other patients had been sent home, so his set was available. She watched John Doe closely, to see if any particular programs caught his attention. It wasn’t long before she detected a pattern. Music shows mainly, but also some old movies. What that meant, she didn’t know. From time to time, she sat down and tried to make John Doe talk to her, but he never would say anything.
In the meantime, he had the tv set. A Monkees concert made him feel more like himself – whoever that was. He still hadn’t been able to put a name to the uneasy emptiness inside him. Somewhere, just beyond his reach, he knew it was waiting for him. The thought that his name didn’t have anything to do with those other memories made him keep worrying at the problem. He knew it would come to him, eventually.
A newscast showing a demonstration made him snap to attention. Large numbers of young people with long hair, carrying big signs with slogans on them made his mind race. The words on the signs evoked images he had to banish, if he wanted to find himself again. It all reminded him of – that place. With the burning sun and clinging vegetation and the – images of death.
But the people were alive, enthusiastic and they reminded him of – his friends. They’d had long hair. A young man with long blond hair pulled in his gaze. That image called to mind a name. Not a real name, he thought, but one he’d always used. All around the blond man were young women with hair as long as his or longer. Some of the demonstrators were black. They walked proudly side by side with the others.
Names. One or two of the demonstrators had short hair. Someone he once knew had very short hair. Again, a name began to hover on the edges of his mind. This time, the emotions it woke were even stronger. Love. A wish to do anything to please this person. Even – the harsh, burning sun and the visions out of a nightmare. Except they weren’t part of a nightmare, it had been real. He’d been out there and seen those things. Where he would never have gone if he’d had any say in matters.
He slumped back onto the pillows, exhausted by the effort of remembering. The sounds from the tv continued but now he wasn’t paying attention anymore. Eventually, he slipped into a shallow sleep, but after a while, it deepened and he dreamed. In the dream, he wasn’t out there, in the burning sun, under the clinging vegetation that cast a dappled shade across his skin. Skin that was covered in sweat and sometimes other fluids –
No. He was – at home. With his friends. In the park. Riding horses. Gate-crashing a fancy party. Skinny-dipping. With his friends and – someone else. The one he loved, though he knew that his feelings would never be returned. He recalled the sadness that had been underlying all his dealings with the one he loved. Not only would his love leave, maybe never to return, but even if they’d been allowed to stay together, nothing could ever come of these feelings which were – unacceptable to –
Then another person. Sharp pangs of jealousy, but knowing deep down that if he wanted his love to be happy, this other person would be much more suitable. Acceptance. Yet, still wanting to do something to prove his love, even if it would never be returned or even acknowledged.
And it had all gone wrong. Events had caught up with him and – again, the horrifying images returned and he woke up, covered in sweat, eyes wide, breathing shallowly, heart pounding, until he knew. It had all come back to him, in a flash. His name. The name of his love. He recalled his friends’ faces and knew where he was from.
Lying back, trying to pull himself together, he strained his ears outward. So far, it was still silent. It must be too early for the staff to begin their rounds. With recollection, came an urge to return. To his home, and to the ones he considered his family.
He pushed himself up and remained sitting, while he caught his breath. His arms and legs didn’t feel as they used to. Even the minor effort of sitting up had exhausted him, but he wouldn’t give up. He slid his legs over the edge of the bed and waited, while he regained some of his strength. Holding on to the chair beside the bed and the bedside table, he managed to stand. His legs felt weak, but he forced himself to go on.
A pale light came through the window and when he stared at his legs, he realized he was wearing some kind of pyjama. His feet were bare, but there were slippers on the floor. Those wouldn’t do. He had to find something to wear. Slowly, step by step, he inched towards the door and pushed it open. Peering outside, he reassured himself that no one was around. If he moved silently, he wouldn’t wake the other patients. He had to get out of this place.
It took him a while to get his legs to obey him but after a while, walking came more naturally to him. He’d managed to find some clothes in one of the staff’s locker rooms. Finding a door that would open was more difficult. It seemed all the exits were locked and in the reception area, a sleepy nurse was leaning back in her chair, clearly asleep.
In the end, he returned to the staff room. The window could be opened wide enough for him to slip through. Fortunately, the clinic was a low building. Despite his weakness, he managed to drop down to the ground, even though he winded himself and fell to his knees. It was a while until he managed to get going again.
He began walking, hoping he’d catch sight of some familiar landmark.
The clinic had been so far outside the city, it took him hours to reach anywhere he’d heard of. Walking for so long had exhausted him and he had to stop frequently to rest. Eventually, he was able to hitch a ride with a delivery truck. The driver wasn’t talkative and neither of them felt they had anything to say. He was in luck. The driver was going all the way into the city, saving him the need to hitch another ride.
If someone at the clinic had noticed he was missing, they might send out a search party or report his absence to the police. He didn’t have much faith in the authorities, so he was hoping to be able to avoid that.
Once inside the city, he bummed a ride on the subway and found his way back to the park. This time of year, he knew his friends would be out there somewhere. It was just a matter of time before he found them. Before he found Claude. He missed Woof and Hud and Jeannie too, but it was Claude that kept appearing in his mind’s eye. Despite the pain and regret.
Standing over Berger’s grave, Claude hadn’t quite been able to account for the force of his grief. At the time, he put it down to guilt. He was the one who had been meant to go to Vietnam, not Berger. It was only the hippie’s kindness that had made him take his place, allowing him time to say goodbye to Sheila.
After they’d heard the news, he bitterly regretted taking the time to see the girl. She’d enjoyed her walk on the wild side, but before long, she’d missed the comforts of her home and so she’d left him, vaguely promising to come back and see him. Some time. That time hadn’t come yet. By now, Claude knew that it never would and that was fine with him. He had thought he loved her, but that had turned out to be a mistake.
In retrospect, the brief time he’d spent with the hippies, enjoying their friendship, sharing what little they had, now meant far more to him.
Berger – it was odd how close they had become in the short time they’d spent together. Already, it was as if all his life until then had faded into significance compared to the vividness of those few weeks in the city.
When it had emerged that his friend had died, using his name, Claude had been forced to keep quiet. Setting the record straight would only have meant risking prosecution, maybe serving time in prison. At the very least, he’d be sent out there, to the place that had taken his friend from him.
Suddenly, he’d been prepared to throw all his dutiful life away, and become one of the hippies who had welcomed him into their group, with wide open arms. Even though he sensed that partly that had been Berger’s doing. He’d been their undisputed leader.
With him gone, nothing had been the same. They’d stayed together, but now they had no clear leader. Hud had tried to take over that position, but Woof had sharply reprimanded him for that, in a way that surprised Claude. Normally, the blond guy was so gentle and good-natured, Claude hadn’t believed him capable of such a strong reaction.
“How dare you? Berger’s lying there, in his grave, and you’re already scheming to take his place as our leader? Show a little respect. After all he did for us – No one could replace him.”
For a moment, it looked as if Hud was going to start a fight, then he seemed to reconsider. He even looked as if he was sorry, at least a little.
“You’re right. I wasn’t thinking. It’s just that – we’ll need to make some kind of plan.”
“We will. Just – it’s too soon. Let’s grieve him first, then we’ll see what we can do.”
Hud had nodded and accepted Woof’s suggestion. Jeannie had laced her arm with Woof’s and leaned her head on his arm. Caught up in his grief, Woof had hardly seemed aware of the girl’s presence.
Eventually, as it began to grow dark, they’d all crowded onto the bus, then into a subway train and only just managed to escape the guard as he ran after them, yelling about their fares.
Claude had become caught up in the efforts to stay alive. Finding food, a place to squat. Making ends meet. As Jeannie grew larger, she needed more food and care. It was touching to see how seriously Woof took his responsibilities as potential father.
At the beginning of the year, Jeannie went into labor and they all gathered around her, and helped her into the cab they had somehow managed to find the money for. They took her to the closest hospital that accepted patients without health insurance and watched her being wheeled away on a stretcher.
Woof hadn’t said anything when the staff asked who the father was and neither had Hud. The entire experience had moved them to silence. Only Hud’s fiancee knew what to do and after a while, she managed to find out which room Jeannie had been taken to.
They sat down and waited. It was a long wait, but eventually, a man dressed in hospital gown appeared.
“One of you can come inside now. Mother and child are doing well.”
When no one stepped forward, Hud’s fiancee did. She was curious to see who the father was. It had better not be her man, because if it was, she wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t go right back home to her grandmother.
Jeannie was tired, just like she herself had been when she’d just given birth, but that passed. The white girl might as well get used to it.
Glancing curiously at the baby, Hud’s fiancee couldn’t help laughing. Jeannie was dozing off and in any case, she rarely took offense at anything. Hud’s fiancee thought maybe she wasn’t too smart, but then again, it might be those drugs, those white people kept taking. Her man had better not smoke too much or else.
After satisfying her curiosity, she returned outside to her waiting friends and her boyfriend and kid.
Woof’s gaze fastened on hers, an eager, but shy look on his face. What a wimp, that white boy, but then again, wasn’t that what you expected?
“Who – who was the father?”
Hud’s fiancee waited, enjoying the moment, then couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
“I don’t know. No one I know. Maybe you can tell me.”
Claude looked up, astonished at the black girl’s tone. It was as if she was laughing at something. The corners of her mouth were twitching.
“What do you mean? Was it Woof or Hud?”
“What are you talking about? That’s impossible. It has to be one of them, right, Woof?”
“I guess so. You know, I don’t own her.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s a Chinese kid. Or half anyway. I didn’t ask Jeannie because she was so tired, but she can tell us tomorrow.”
Claude looked dumbstruck. He expected Woof to be upset or at least a little surprised, but it seemed the blond guy took the news in stride. As if his mind was still on something else. Claude had thought that maybe Berger could have been the father, but if the kid was Chinese, that wasn’t possible either.
How odd. Jeannie would know, but at the moment, they were all totally in the dark. Another question occurred to him and he opened his mouth to ask. He could see that Hud was looking rather content and his fiancee too seemed to find this excellent news. From their point of view, of course it was.
“What was it? Boy or girl?”
“Boy. A tiny little thing, but cute enough.”
So that had been the end of their waiting. No one seemed to find it the least bit odd that another man had been the father. After getting to know the hippies, Claude no longer subscribed to the beliefs he used to, growing up, but he still found it a little odd that Jeannie would have slept with so many different men. As far as he knew, Sheila hadn’t had that many boyfriends and he, himself – had never slept with anyone but Sheila. Of course, these were city people.
When they’d learned about ‘Claude’s’ death, at first the shock of it all had been numbing. Actually, he was offically ‘missing in action’, but they all knew what it meant.
Claude had felt guilty about his family, but somehow, the risks of being sent to jail had kept him from getting in touch. He felt as if he’d changed beyond recognition and couldn’t imagine going home again.
After a while, they’d got to talking about how Berger deserved a grave. Somewhere they could go and grieve him. Woof had been the one who suggested it, and once the idea had taken hold, Claude had made inquiries at the cemetary.
It turned out it was quite common, to pay for a grave in advance, waiting to have a missing soldier’s body found and shipped home. Many families had used the empty grave as a focus point for their coming to terms with their loss.
A plot at the cemetary wasn’t too expensive. If they tried harder, and used their emergency funds – dollar notes carefully folded up and hidden in shoes or the lining of a garment – that wouldn’t be beyond their means. Paying for a headstone was a different matter.
None of them could ever hope to raise that cash, not as long as they lived from day to day. It soon became clear that this troubled Woof. He became quiet and brooding and one day, he disappeared, without letting the others know where he was going.
Not until late the following day did he return. He clutched a roll of banknotes in his hand, looking torn. On the one hand, he seemed proud that he’d managed to raise the cash. On the other – Claude had the impression he wasn’t happy about the way he’d managed it.
It occurred to Claude that Woof might have stolen them or at least used some dishonest means to get them. Over the following days, Woof eventually admitted to having visited his parents, but would say no more about it, for a long time.
Once the headstone was in place, they’d crowded out there again and again. Berger’s date of birth as well as the assumed date of death had been inscribed on the stone, and Woof suggested that they’d go there on Berger’s birthday.
“When Berger was here, we used to celebrate our birthdays. Not that we could afford much, but we’d get something to drink and maybe we’d find something extra nice to eat. You know. Cake or something fancy for dinner. I think it would be nice if we could still do that. It would be a little as if he was still around.”
Everyone had agreed and as Berger’s birthday approached, they did their best to save up some money for the trip and – if possible – to get something nice to eat. They’d have a picnic out there, and celebrate his memory.
The day they set out for the cemetary, Jeannie had managed to borrow a radio and she carried it almost as reverently as she would her son. This time, Woof had the child. Hud and his fiancee and kid led the way with Claude bringing up the rear.
He was deep in thought. Ever since the ‘funeral’, he’d thought a lot about Berger and even though it had been more than a year, since his friend had taken his place and been sent off to Vietnam, the pain was still as sharp as on that day – when he’d found out the news. In a way, it had felt unreal. To learn about one’s own death was an eerie feeling, but he knew right away, that the news was far more dire than a misunderstanding.
After Sheila had left him, and he found that he didn’t really mind as much as he’d thought he would, he’d wondered at his attachment to Berger.
To begin with, the guy had frightened him. He was different from anyone he’d ever known. So were the others, except possibly Jeannie. She reminded him a lot of his own childhood sweetheart, but since there weren’t many black people out there, Hud had seemed alien at first and men with long hair were practically unknown. As unreal as ‘My Favorite Martian’ or any of the other tv shows and movies he’d seen on tv, before leaving home.
Even so, in the short time he’d known his new friends, he’d become closer to them than any of his old friends from school. And Berger more than the others.
When he realized that Berger had given his life for him, the pain was so intense he felt as if he was choking. It wasn’t fair. Out of kindness, he’d done a favor for a friend and he’d had to pay for it with his life. Claude kept remembering all the things Berger had said, all the things they’d done together. It occurred to Claude that he’d had more fun with Berger in those few short days, than in his entire live until then.
And he missed his friend badly. If he’d had the chance to go back and to live those days over again, he’d –
Once, he’d had a dream that it was all a horrible misunderstanding, nothing more. Berger came running towards him, looking exactly as he had on that day, the last time he saw him. Claude had started running too and without thinking, he’d held out his arms, to embrace his friend. Then seconds before they met, Berger seemed to be hit by something and he began to shake. Blood sprayed from a large hole in his chest and a trickle ran down from the corner of his mouth.
Claude had wanted to scream, but no sound came. He kneeled before his friend, hoping that somehow, it wouldn’t be too late, but the unseeing eyes staring up at the sky told him his hopes were in vain. He’d gathered Berger up into his arms and held him, crying silently over his body.
Then he’d been pulled backwards, as if by an invisible force. He’d yelled out his pain and frustration, and suddenly, he’d been awake again. Jeannie had been sitting beside him, trying to wake him and Woof, too, was there, patting his arm, reassuringly.
What did that dream mean? Was it simply the guilt and loss or did it mean something else, something hidden, that he couldn’t understand? In it, he’d felt that the most important thing in the world had been to find Berger alive and to – he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do. Just seeing him again would be enough. They’d have all the time in the world – except that wasn’t going to happen. Berger was really gone, as surely as if he’d been hit by enemy fire. For all Claude knew, that might be what had happened.
He didn’t want to believe that Berger had ended up in enemy hands. The horror stories of what the prisoners had had to endure had already begun to circulate. It was just too much to bear, imagining the peaceable Berger suffering that kind of torture.
As he thought about it, Claude felt his chest constrict. When they arrived at the cemetary, he wasn’t really in a party mood, but not wanting to spoil the fun for the others, he tried to get into the spirit of things.
Jeannie proudly placed the radio in a place of honor, right beside the blanket they were using for the picnic. Hud’s fiancee was handing out paper napkins that they’d found thrown into a dumpster behind a store. They were a rather dreadful color and looked slightly faded as if the store owner had had a hard time selling them, but they were real napkins, still in the plastic.
There were sandwiches and cake – only a little stale. The owner of the deli where Jeannie sometimes worked would let her take home the stuff that wasn’t sold right away. Woof and Hud had brought beer for the grownups and Coca Cola for the kid.
It was a real picnic, just like in the park on Sundays. Families would come and unpack picnic hampers. Of course their hamper was a plastic bag and some paper cartons, but that didn’t spoil their fun.
An elderly couple stared disapprovingly at them, and directed some angry glares at the radio, which was playing at full blast, but they were all having too much fun to pay attention. After they’d eaten, Hud’s kid began to dance around and run across the graves. Jeannie got up and began to dance. Woof followed her. Hud and his fiancee got up and did the same.
Claude remained sitting, his eyes fastened on the headstone. The name and the dates were a silent accusation. He heard a noise and looked up to find that Woof had returned. The blond guy kneeled in front of the stone and bowed his head for a moment. He turned and faced Claude, a serious look on his face.
“Do you think we should tell each other about our memories of him? Or maybe – sort of thank him for being our friend and stuff?”
“I don’t know. You’ve known him for longer than any of us, right?”
“Yeah, Hud had only been around for a while when you showed up. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think he was going to stick around. He was just hoping to play around, you know? Get away from his woman and kid for a while and just – you know – make love and so on. There were a couple of other girls then, but they left. One of them went off with some guy and they said they were going to California. Wouldn’t you like to go there one day?”
“Maybe. I hadn’t really made any plans. If I’d gone -”
Claude looked away, brought back to the reality of things. Woof sensed his distress and to Claude’s surprise he put his arms around him and hugged him. Claude was too stunned to react in any way and in any case, Woof pulled back and sat down more comfortably, beside him.
“I share your pain. Berger and I were really close. Do you know what I mean?”
Claude looked confused, and was about to ask, when Woof continued. The blond guy glanced around, to make sure the kid wasn’t nearby.
“We were – you know – sometimes we – kind of – did it.”
As the meaning of what Woof had said filtered through to Claude, he felt his cheeks heat up. Oh.
“I thought you and Jeannie -”
“Yeah, of course. I’m not into that really. It was just that sometimes – well, he was all alone.”
“So those other girls -”
“No. Not Berger. He’s never been much into girls. It was me and later on Hud and – they had other friends too. Like that guy she left with – Rosie, I mean. Gina just left anyway.”
“I hope you’re not thinking I’m like – you know – one of those guys who are just into other guys. It was just that – you know – he was my best friend and stuff.”
“Yes. I see.”
“I was thinking that – well, since you seem to know what I’m going through – that you too were – you know – had feelings for him too.”
Claude felt his heart skip a beat. It was the first time he’d heard something like that. He was about to tell Woof – gently – that he really wasn’t into any of that – when suddenly, he realized with a start, that Woof was right. That was exactly how he felt about Berger.
He’d thought that anyone who was like that, would be totally different. That if he’d been one of those, he’d be different and feel differently and he didn’t. He could still recall how it had felt with Sheila. Physically, it had been fantastic. On another level, it hadn’t meant anything, after all. He didn’t know if he’d ever be comfortable about doing something physical with a guy – obviously it would never happen with Berger now, but even if he’d still been around, Claude felt doubtful about that.
Still, he knew that what he felt for Berger was something beyond just ordinary friendship. He was close to Woof and he liked Jeannie and Hud and his family, but – Berger – he’d left an emptiness behind him that had to be caused by something more than the affection you felt for a friend.
“You – could be right. It’s not something I’ve – ever thought about. I hardly know what it is, but – yes. Now I realize it, now that’s it’s too late. I just feel so – guilty. It was my fault. If it hadn’t been for me, he’d still be -”
“Hey, that’s no way to be thinking. Berger wouldn’t want you to. If he’d been here today, he’d tell you not to be sad. He’d want us to be happy and remember him and talk about him. Kind of like we’re doing now.”
Again, Woof leaned over and hugged Claude and this time, it didn’t feel at all awkward. Jeannie returned, sounding out of breath but cheerful. She checked on the baby, who was still fast asleep in his carrier. Smiling warmly, she too pulled Claude into her arms and held him for a while, then began to hug Woof. When she let go of him, she glanced inquiringly at them.
“So what were you guys doing? Remembering Berger?”
Woof nodded solemnly.
“We were talking about him. And earlier I paid my respects at his grave.”
“I saw that. Hold on. I’m going to do that too.”
Jeannie, too, kneeled in front of the headstone and began to speak directly to Berger, as if he was really there.
“Thank you for being with us. For being our friend and leader. I’ll never forget you. When my son is older, I’ll tell him about you and about how we all lived together like a big family. I would have named him after you but it would have a looked a little silly since he’s half-Chinese. Remember that cute boy who used to let us have scraps outside his dad’s restaurant? We kind of – became friends and for about a week, we saw each other every night. Until his dad found out and beat him up. I kind of didn’t want to remember that, and anyway, it was just for a couple of days, so I really didn’t think he could be the father. And then he was. It was kind of funny. Anyway, we miss you a bunch and wish you were here and – I’m going to go now.”
Not the least bit self-consciously, Jeannie got up, brushed her skirt off, and without looking at all concerned with the grass stains on the fabric, she returned to Woof and Claude.
After a while, Hud and his family returned too. Jeannie encouraged them to pay their respects at the grave and after some hesitation, they all went and said a prayer together.
“Rest in peace, Berger, but I hope you’re having fun somewhere. We’ll be seeing you some day, I’m sure.”
Hud grinned as he recalled all the fun times they’d had together, Berger and the rest of them.
Their kid began to look tired so Hud and his fiancee got up and began to pack things up. After a moment, Jeannie and Woof joined them. When Claude showed no sign of wanting to move, Woof crouched over him, studying his face intently.
“You want to stay a while and think?”
“Yes. I’ll make my own way back.”
“Ok. Take your time. We’ll be waiting for you.”
As he saw the last of his friends, Claude got up and went over to the headstone. It was getting dark by now, and the inscription on the stone wasn’t as easy to make out now. Somehow, talking to Woof had made the pain of his guilt feel less sharp. At least now he understood his own feelings. It was too late, but in a way, it felt as if he’d grown closer to Berger’s memory.
He was touched by Woof’s honesty. Not everyone would be as forthcoming, at least he didn’t think so. And he would never think badly of his friend because of what he’d done. It never occurred to him to feel jealous either. What had happened had been long before he came into their lives.
Recalling how the others had spoken directly to Berger, he decided to follow their example.
“I’m sorry about everything. Sheila – you probably knew already what sort of girl she was. If I’d seen that clearly before, you wouldn’t be – where you are now. Forgive me. I wish – I wish I’d tried to get out of the draft. I wish I’d never let you take my place. I wish – I’d known then what I know now. If I could see you again, I – I wouldn’t be afraid to show my love for you. I wish you were here with me. That we could be together. I love you, Berger.”
He’d seen them, from afar. For a while, he’d held back, observing them, trying to think of a way to approach them. They wouldn’t expect him. He’d come to realize that they all believed he was dead. Silently, he inched closer. He heard them discussing some kind of outing. It took him a while to realize that they were going to visit his grave. He almost laughed out loud, then he thought of all those other dead guys, and the innocent natives, and the laughter died.
When they set off, he trailed after them, not sure of what he’d do when he caught up with them. They took the subway to the terminal, then a bus, then finally they walked. For want of something better to do, he followed at a distance, suddenly shy. He’d been gone from them for a very long time. If he just showed up without warning, how would they react? Would they ask questions? Want to know what he’d done? What he’d been through out there?
So he watched them eat and dance and listened to them talking about him. What he heard, touched him. Tears came to his eyes, as he realized how much his friends cared about him. He wanted to go to them, to let them know he was ok, but most of all, he just couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d just learned about Claude. For a second, he feared that he was still lying in that bed, dreaming, a more pleasant dream, but still, just dreaming.
In the end, Woof and the others left, leaving Claude still seated on the ground.
He hesitated. It was clear that Claude still missed him and that he felt guilty about what had happened. If he came forward now, he could tell him that Woof was right. He didn’t blame Claude for any of it. It was his own fault, but most of all, just really bad luck. And besides, he didn’t like to imagine Claude out there either.
Claude got up and approached the grave. It occurred to him that he hadn’t even wondered at that. They had found the money for something like that, because they loved him. Again, he was touched, but he couldn’t focus on that.
What Claude was saying just didn’t make sense. He’d known all along that it was hopeless. A guy like Claude – he’d never even understand his feelings, let alone return them. What Woof had said only confirmed what he’d known all along. His friend had just been trying to be kind. It might have made him feel guilty, except for one thing. They all agreed that sex was only sex. No big deal. You didn’t have to be in love to have sex. That was just stupid. Everyone needed sex, so why not share it freely?
Claude – he’d never imagined Claude would understand what Woof had done, but clearly he had and more than that, he’d –
When Claude had finished, Berger couldn’t hold back the sob that had been building in his throat. He had to come forward. Otherwise it would just be as if he’d been eavesdropping on Claude’s private conversation.
The noise from behind him, made Claude whirl around. Was someone there? Had Woof decided to come back and check on him? Or – Who was that man, coming out of the shrubbery by that huge monument over a hero from another war?
“Who are you?”
That voice. It couldn’t be. He must have fallen asleep and was dreaming again. This couldn’t be happening.
“No. You’re dead. It can’t be.”
By now, the man was so close that even in the rapidly fading light, Claude could make out his features. Even the face was familiar. How was this possible?
Claude hardly noticed that he had to fight to keep his voice steady.
He closed the distance between them and somehow, dream or no dream – he had to do it. So he reached out and pulled the stranger into his arms, knowing instantly that it really was true. What was happening was real. He didn’t understand how it was possible, but somehow, Berger had returned from the dead.
Berger trembled as he buried his face against Claude’s shoulder. How many times had he imagined this moment? Always, at the last moment, he’d shied away, even inside his mind. He knew that Claude couldn’t –
Claude held on to Berger, not quite believing it was really happening. His body pressed into Berger’s and he noticed how frail and emaciated he had become. But it really was him. He had to blink to clear his sight, but inside, he was wildly, exuberantly happy.
He didn’t ask any questions. Not then. The questions could wait. How? Why? For now, all that mattered was that he’d had his wish. He could go back and make things right. This time, he wouldn’t fall for any slumming upperclass blondes.
He pulled back slightly, to study Berger’s face. The eyes were sunken, but the look in them, while haunted, mirrored his own feelings.
“I love you.”
Berger smiled, transforming his face, so he looked a little more like the old Berger.
“I love you too. I just never thought you’d feel the same way.”
“Me neither. I can’t believe I was so stupid.”
“I’m sorry Sheila wasn’t worth it. It just felt wrong that you should have to go out there without having spent at least some time with your girl.”
“Never mind. You’re back. That’s all I care about. And – I don’t care if it’s wrong or right. I just want to be with you.”
“How can love be wrong? It will be ok. We’ll all be together. Like in the old days. You won’t get into any trouble?”
“I’m dead. Dead men don’t get into trouble.”
“No. Just before you die.”
Claude knew what Berger had to be referring to, and he promised himself he’d be there for him, when he relived those memories. He was the one who should have had to deal with that, not Berger, who never wanted to hurt anyone. Not that Claude wanted that either.
“Come on. Let’s get back. Did you see Jeannie’s baby?”
“No. I heard that it was that Chinese kid who was the father.”
“Yeah. If we get going now, we’ll make the last bus.”
Berger nodded, but didn’t move. He kept studying Claude so intently, Claude was wondering what was coming. He wasn’t exactly afraid Berger would try to kiss him. In fact, part of him was hoping he would. But Berger just placed the palm of his hand against Claude’s cheek. It was as if he was acknowledging what an enormous leap he was making.
Claude took a deep breath, then pressed his lips against Bergers. There. It wasn’t bad. Nothing to be afraid of. Berger didn’t move. After a while, when Claude didn’t pull back, he returned the kiss, lightly, then let go.
“Ok. We’d better get going. Do you have money for the bus fare?”
Claude shook his head, then grinned, as he recalled how they’d gone all over the city, never paying anything.
Berger assessed his silence correctly, then nodded, as if approvingly. He hadn’t thought Claude had it in him, but he had been wrong about a lot of things. There was still a tingling feeling in his lips, leaving him wanting more, but he decided that it could wait. He wouldn’t spook Claude, no matter how eager he seemed. Somehow, he didn’t think Claude had ever had sex, just for the fun of it. He’d never guess that kissing a guy would be exactly the same as kissing a girl.
Together they made their way across the now empty cemetary, and to the bus stop. They made it with only minutes to spare. On the subway, they sat side by side, quietly, not facing each other or touching.
Claude showed him the way to their current squat. When they got inside, the children were sleeping, Hud and his fiancee were nowhere to be seen, but Woof and Jeannie lay stretched out on their mattress, arms around each other, asleep, clearly tired out from the day’s picnic.
Claude and Berger tiptoed inside, so they wouldn’t wake their friends and the children. Berger leaned over the carrier, and took a good look at the baby. He smiled, as if at a private joke, then looked around approvingly.
“This is good.”
Claude nodded. They’d been lucky to find it. It was due to be torn down at the end of the year, but it was still in quite good shape and the neighbors were nice. A good place for the kids. He glanced around the crowded room. There wasn’t room for another mattress, and anyway they didn’t have one. In any case, there was no way he could find one tonight.
He pointed towards his corner of the room.
Berger stared, as if he wasn’t sure he’d interpreted his gesture correctly, then smiled again, looking as if he’d just come home. Which he had.
Claude followed him over to the mattress and they lay down together, after kicking off their shoes. It felt great to be able to hold Berger like this. Knowing he was safe and that nothing was going to take him away again. He pulled up the sheet over them and made them both comfortable.
What a surprise for Hud and his girlfriend when they got back. If they bothered to even look over to his corner. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to guess who was lying there with him. It could be anyone, for all they knew, even if Claude hadn’t picked up anyone in the time since Sheila had left.
He knew Woof and Jeannie would be as pleased as he was to have Berger back. It would be just like old times, except better. They’d make sure Berger got his health back and then – maybe they really would go out to California, to the sunshine and the surfers and the actors. They could do anything they wanted.