With this task of breaking my life into manageable pieces I’m going to start easy. This story says something about the kind of person I was. I have changed. I’d like to think it’s not because at my age I can no longer get away with the kinds of things I used to. I’d like to think I’ve changed because, with maturity I came to understand that every other life is as real and as complex as mine, and that each person’s thoughts, beliefs and feelings are as real to him/her as mine are to me. It probably took longer than it should have.
Joe is not his name, but when I think of him, my mind goes through a set of simple male names – Pete, Joe, Ted, Tom, Bill – and Joe is always the first name I think of. I met him in a bar in Asbury Park the summer of 1967. That would have been the summer before my senior year in college, but I had dropped out of college the year before.
I first noticed Joe when he tried to make eye contact with me while I was on the boardwalk outside the bar flirting with someone else. He wasn’t the kind of guy I knew what to do with – that would be the kind of guy wearing jeans and a paisley shirt and long hair. Joe had on green Army fatigues and a plain gray teeshirt and his hair was only about a quarter of an inch long, and I didn’t know anybody like that, so I avoided eye contact. I spent hours avoiding him, but he watched and watched with wide open eyes and half a smile, and toward the end of that first night I walked up to him and said “Okay, what?” His face broke out into the widest grin I ever remember seeing.
Joe had been drafted out of college, and was in his first month of training for the Army at Fort Monmouth. He was a Private. They were sending him to Vietnam. We never had a date, we never even made plans to meet at the bar, but I was always glad to see him there. We had long, serious conversations about Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, the omnipresent Vietnam war, the anti-war movement, college majors, our lives someday – the stuff 20 year-olds talk about. We seemed to agree about a lot of things, but the big difference between us was that he was smitten and I was not. He was a virgin (I didn’t know that at the time), and I hadn’t been a virgin for more than a year.
Having long earnest conversations with Joe wasn’t the only thing I was doing that week. I was going out (and having sex) with a Lieutenant named Richard Noble who also was stationed at Fort Monmouth. At one point, I took off with a third guy to spend a night and a day in his apartment in Greenwich Village. This guy, Scott, had an Austin Healy so beat up that its engine literally fell through the floor on the New Jersey Turnpike – Scott left the engine running, picked up the engine off the road, put it back in the car and said “We can’t stop for ANYTthing between here and New York!”
Last time I saw Richard Noble was a day or so after I got back from New York. He gave me a dirty look across the bar while I was talking to Joe, and threw a quarter at me.
Detour. I have to empty the trash first. Joni Mitchell song:
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café
You laugh he said you think you’re immune
Go look at your eyes they’re full of moon
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies pretty lies
When you gonna realize they’re only pretty lies
Only pretty lies just pretty lies
He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr
And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie
And she said “Drink up now it’s getting’ on time to close”
“Richard, you haven’t really changed” I said
It’s just that now you’re romanticizing some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes but the songs you punched are dreaming
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet Love so sweet
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright
I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase these dark café days.
But this has nothing to do with Richard, that was the last I saw of Richard. This is about Joe. I liked Joe. We exchanged addresses the night before I left for Harrisburg, and we wrote to each other through the end of 1967, when I realized through his letters that he was we they called “serious” about me, and stopped writing. One of his last letters said, “Diane, I sense you are getting ready to go somewhere. I want to go with you.” After I stopped writing, he sent two letters a day for a while, and then I thought he gave up.
Toward the end of 1967 I was doing a lot of things. I was working and living at home with my parents in Harrisburg. I had a regular correspondence with a couple of other people – an Air Force pilot who was about to sign on for his second tour in Vietnam, a guy who was going to rabbinical school, two or three old boyfriends from high school. I hurt every single one of them, and didn’t even think about it until my thirties when I finally realized that they’d all been real people. Just like me.
Sometime in the fall of 1967, I spent a weekend with my old college roommate, and a guy I had dated who was from Harrisburg but went to a nearby college showed up and asked for me at the reception desk. It was a complete coincidence that I was there that weekend; he didn’t know I’d dropped out. His name was John (it really was) and I still think of him as “the handsomest guy in Harrisburg” – a cross between Paul Newman and Jean Paul Belmondo, but tall.
John showed up and I stayed out past curfew, which meant I couldn’t get back into the dorm. We spent the night in a meadow on the campus, and in the morning I took his shirt (oh! his big beautiful blue shirt) into the dorm and ironed it while he waited in the meadow.
I knew I was pregnant within a month. In December of 1967 I took the bus to Philadelphia with $600 in cash in my purse, and had an abortion somewhere in North Philadelphia. The $600 was the money I’d saved, to move to Philadelphia, get a job and my own place there. I didn’t tell John about it. He stopped by my parents’ house a few times looking for me after I’d moved, but I never saw him again.
I did move to Philadelphia in January of 1968. My parents had saved all the rent money I’d paid them for the year I lived with them after college. They gave it to me the day I left. It came to about $600.
But this is about Joe. I stopped writing to Joe in mid-December, and by the end of the month his letters were getting more desperate. He wanted to meet me somewhere, he wanted to come to Harrisburg, he wanted to see me before he went to Vietnam. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever done, but I wasn’t ready for what I thought he was offering, so I stopped writing. I didn’t know what any of them was offering, but my fear of being trapped before I’d seen or done anything was strong; I wasn’t willing to hang around long enough to find out. I made a story of it for myself so that I could live with it.
I often thought about Joe over the years, wondered if he made it out of Vietnam alive. I looked for his name in phonebooks and Googled him after the internet came along, but never found him.
Last year, I searched for his name on Facebook, and his name was there. It’s an unusual last name, so I messaged him, but nothing, he didn’t respond to my message. Three months later, I got a message from the guy with his name. It was his son, and his son was an Army Ranger, and he had just arrived in Afghanistan. We messaged back and forth for about a week, and “Joe Jr” (not really a junior, they had different middle names) suggested that I e-mail his father, who was retired and could probably use a pen-pal. After his son strongly suggested that I e-mail him, I did. Despite the fact that my initial e-mail had been kind of sheepish, I heard back from him the next day.
Original Joe and I e-mailed back and forth for about a month. He told me he’d been married and divorced twice, had three children, that his son in Afghanistan had e-mailed his daughter about me. The daughter had shown Joe my Facebook page and asked if he knew me, and he’d said “How the hell did you know about her? I liked her a lot and always wondered what became of her.” He didn’t tell them what I’d done.
After a week or two of emails, Joe started telling me things that made me want to beat the crap out of twenty year-old me, while at the same time knowing I’d done the right thing for twenty year-old me.
He told me that he’d arrived in Vietnam in April of 1968, and he had kept writing to me but not sending the letters until Thanksgiving of that year, when his fellow soldiers had ganged up on him and told him he was an idiot. He told me that I’d been his hope, that thinking we would get together after the war had kept him sane, for a while. He told me that he had been in a reconnaissance unit, and had walked the highlands with Hmong scouts, looking for Viet Cong, and calling in the artillery when they found them. He told me that it was his job to count the bodies afterward. He told me that by the end of 1968 he couldn’t eat anymore and had lost 25 pounds and was throwing up blood.
He started asking about Facetime and wondering if I knew how to set it up. I told him we could talk on the telephone, and gave him my number. He gave me his number and said I should call him, but he called me the same night. He told me what I’d been wearing the night we met. When I said “But we never even kissed!” he told me that we had, twice, but I’d been too drunk to remember it. He described the first kiss, second by second, and I felt 20 years old again.
In subsequent phone calls, he told me that when he was in Vietnam he dreamed that it was 2 AM on Christmas morning and he was sitting at the kitchen table. I was wearing a blue and gray plaid robe and cheap flip-flops, and said “Move it” which meant he should turn his chair sideways so I could sit on his lap. But then I changed my mind and started up the stairs saying “We’d better get to bed, the kids will be up early.” It was after that dream, on Thanksgiving of 1968, that his friends called him an idiot and he stopped writing to me.
He told me that he had come to Harrisburg instead of his own hometown in the summer of 1969 when he was discharged. He’d sat in the Colonial Park Diner smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee most of an afternoon, until a waitress asked what he was doing, and he told her, and she laughed at him. He’d left after that, realizing that he was “nothing to me.”
He was the embodiment of everything I’d done wrong in my twenties in my single-minded attempts to save myself from lives I didn’t want. I thought he was my chance to make good on at least one thing.
Our phone conversations were long and far-ranging. I learned about his two marriages and his relentless work ethic and how his children reacted when he divorced their mother, how he’d given up his construction company after the divorce because he had custody of the children and needed to spend more time at home. I heard so many stories about his childhood and adolescence that it seemed I knew his life as well as I knew my own, and he knew mine. I knew his eight brothers and sisters by name. I knew the story of his father, who painted icons in Byzantine Catholic churches, and had fought for the Czar in World War I, and fought the Bolsheviks afterward, and come to America around 1920 with one of his brothers.
We were planning to meet halfway in Morristown, New Jersey, but that was postponed because of hurricane Sandy. After that he got very sick. He’d thought he was home free from Vietnam for almost forty years, but in his early sixties was diagnosed with ischemic heart disease – a direct result of Agent Orange in Vietnam. His heart didn’t get enough oxygen, and he was being treated at the VA hospital, taking about 12 different medications, and the medications didn’t interact well; he was always developing deficiencies that the VA took too long to address.
We continued to talk on the phone every night, except for two nights when he was hospitalized for pneumonia and didn’t have his phone or his Ipad. It got more intense between us after I realized that he could die before I ever got to see him.
There were some things we didn’t agree about. He didn’t believe in climate change. He thought the crash of 2008 was caused by environmentalists. His favorite Republican candidate for president was Rick Santorum. He thought that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice. He thought that communism was still a threat, and that the Jews had been Lenin’s secret police. He thought that we were being inundated by immigrants. You can probably guess my opinions about these things, so I’m not going to enumerate them here.
I could go on, but I won’t. In the end, Joe dumped me because I’m a godless liberal. It felt right and good.