I entered the basement after school through the cellar hatchway in the backyard so that her mother wouldn’t see me. My best friend, Laura, waited for me at the bottom of the steps. She was a vision in winter white. Her sleeves were long and came to a point at the top of her hands, and the dress was tea length. A sash was stitched across the front and tied at the back, and a quilted square bow accented the bodice. The fabric resembled silk, but was rayon—war rationing, she said.
The eyeglasses were gone, her green eyes grateful. She wore a veil drawn back behind a Veronica Lake peekaboo hairstyle—a long auburn curl over one eye. A small bouquet of posies tethered both hands.
“Welcome home, Bobbie.”
I wore my father’s olive-drab, wool field jacket and trousers from his days in the 78th Infantry. The jacket was single-breasted, and had two breast pockets with a split pleat in the center and a flap secured by a single, metal tack button. It felt heavy on my shoulders. The sleeves extended beyond the butt of my palms, and the waistband hung loosely around my backside, an inadequate seal against the November cold. From stories he had told at the dinner table, I knew the patch on my left shoulder made me a sergeant. I pretended my black Keds were the boots he wore during the Battle of the Bulge.
We had dressed up since we were young. It was our escape from the world, and on that gray afternoon a flight from grief for me after that terrifying night in the woods with Ray Moretti. He was a high-school senior who picked on me because, I figured, I looked too much like him. I had short bristly hair, wore a leather jacket, and had a habit of using four-letter words. In the hallway, he’d call me a fag, a homo, a carpet muncher. He’d knock the books out of my arms, his buddies laughing along with him as they walked by. In a way, he was right. I did like girls, and I loved Laura, but I wasn’t gay. I was a boy, but with the body parts of a girl. I just didn’t think he would rape me for it.
I lingered on the last basement step, slowly removing my cap. My Mia Farrow cut was as short as Martino the barber would make it. “Belli gli occhi blu, capelli”—Beautiful blue eyes, beautiful hair. By the way Laura looked at me, I felt like a returning hero. She dropped the bouquet and hugged me hard.
“I prayed for this day,” she said.
I closed my eyes and brushed my nose against the nape of her neck, scented with lilac and mothballs. My heart thumped. My father must’ve felt this way after being away from my mother during the war.
“Good to be home.” I pressed my hands into her back. She was like a bird in my arms.
She gave me an air kiss on each cheek—“Like in Par-ee,” she gushed—and held me by the shoulders in mock alarm. “When did you get in? Did you eat? You must be starving.”
“Arrived at Lejeune around midnight. Took the first bus I could. I’ll take a Nehi and Oreos.”
She picked up the bouquet and took my hand. “Come, come.”
“Wait!” I grabbed her around the waist and behind the knees.
“What are you doing?” She laughed as if I were crazy, looping her arms around my neck.
I struggled to lift her. She grabbed hold of my collar. I held my breath and stumbled four or five steps, when she screamed.
“Shhhh, your mother will hear.” We laughed as I deposited her unceremoniously onto the couch. “I should’ve done that before I left.”
“Done what, soldier boy?” She sat up, adjusted her veil, and smoothed out the apron of her dress with her free hand.
“Walked you across the threshold.” I rolled my shoulders and arched my back, the lingering stiffness a remnant of the attack that night in the woods. Ray’s breath was sour and his hair smelled of cigarette smoke. He tried forcing his tongue into my mouth. The roots of a tree knuckled into my back with every thrust, and his stubble clawed at my cheek. I couldn’t catch my breath and panicked at being pinned in the dark. Then I felt a sharp pain between my legs.
“You do that after we get married, silly.”
When I let go of the memory, it registered. We! After we get married. I wondered if she really meant it. I wished that someday I would come home from a job like my father’s and she’d be waiting. I didn’t want to go home and do my homework.
“Hey you, stop dreaming.” She waved her hand up and down in front of my face. “Did the doctors say it would go away?”
“What go away?”
“You know, the shellshock.” She grabbed my sleeve and led me to a table with red and blue balloons tied to the back of fold-up chairs. The basement reminded me of a VFW hall, where my father would take me to hang out with his “brothers.” Card tables and chairs. Fluorescent lighting. Wood paneling on concrete walls. Dusty linoleum floor. A load of wash churned in the corner.
The balloons seemed to be everywhere, as did posters in magic marker proclaiming Victory! and We’re Proud of You and Welcome Back, Bobbie. She had taped a vintage poster of Rosie the Riveter to a pole. I remembered it from a copy I saw stuffed in the trunk with my father’s uniform. Bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread. I took a big bite of mine. She sat beside me and did the same.
My mouth was full. “Not many hot meals on the front.” I took a sip of the milk.
“Now that the war’s over, we’ll have one every night.” She smiled. Bread was stuck between her teeth. “You’re skin and bones.”
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
She held the sandwich in both hands and took a slow bite. She seemed to be thinking of something to say. Finally: “I heard you almost died.” There was genuine fear in her eyes, as if in asking she had crossed a line.
I puffed out my chest, which was lost in that oversized jacket. “I played dead.” I did that night with Ray, hoping he’d get off me, hoping he’d stop thrusting. He didn’t. “The Krauts stepped right over me.”
She forced a smile, as if she were dissatisfied with the answer. A tented postcard at the center of the table edged up against a fake rose in a glass of water. I wiped my hands on my trousers, and took it. In fancy penmanship: Mr. and Mrs. Arthur L. Costello request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their daughter Laura Jean to… As I read it, I was conscious of her looking at me.
“Today? Serious?” I stared at her in disbelief. “But where?”
She slid her fist across the linen and opened her hand. Two soda can rings, shorn of their tabs, fell out. She hunched her shoulders and smiled as if she couldn’t take the excitement. I held it up to the light. It wasn’t a perfect circle, but it instantly became the most important object in my life—more important than my baseball glove and Beatles albums. I reached for her hand. She slowly shook her head and nodded toward the floor.
“Right.” I slid back in my chair and dropped to one knee. “Hold on a sec.”
I went to the record player in the corner and fished through her box of 45s. I placed the disc on the turntable and lowered the volume. As I got back into position, the undulating piano chords of Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling in Love filled the basement.
Her hands were in her lap, one over the other. Her face was filled with expectation. I held the ring up between my finger and thumb, and stared past her. I rested my elbow on my elevated knee, the ring aloft, and dropped my head, desperate for inspiration. How could I freeze up when all I did was think of her?
I felt her hand gently under my chin. She gazed into my eyes. “Take my hand.” She led me to the words that had resided in my heart all along.
“Take my whole life, too,” I said, sliding the ring onto her pinky.
“Yes.” She leaped out of her seat and helped me up. We embraced and I twirled her. I hardly felt the pain in my back. “Wait.” She went over to the record player and put on Moonlight Serenade. She turned off the lights, but the brightness of that gray day flooded the basement and made my bride incandescent. “Our song.”
I extended my hand and she put hers in mine, and we slow-danced in front of the couch. I had danced only once when I was half my age with my uncle. He was the size of Zero Mostel. I wore a sleeveless, ankle-length gown at my cousin’s wedding. Even then it didn’t seem natural. We had held hands and tilted side to side in the same spot during a drawn-out version of Sunrise, Sunset.
I was seized by the thought of being caught. I pulled away. “What about your mother?”
“Don’t worry, she has a bad headache.” She squeezed my hands. “C’mon, let’s dance. We won’t see her until tomorrow morning.”
Despite her assurances, I listened for the basement door. I tried to lead, but we stepped on each other’s feet. She giggled softly.
“I’ll go back to school on the GI Bill,” I said.
“The gallery downtown wants to exhibit my photos.”
“We’ll get a dog.”
“A collie, like Lassie,” she said. I could see her picturing it in her faraway smile.
“We’ll have cookouts and vacations on the Jersey shore.”
“We’ll need to save, though, at first.”
“The Christmas tree can go there.” I pointed to a far wall, barren except for a clock mounted on a Schlitz sign.
She pressed her face into my chest, and I took in the possibilities as we rocked back and forth. She sighed contentedly but when she looked up at me, her eyes were sad.
“Were you afraid of dying?”
I didn’t answer right away, not wanting to think of Ray, not wanting to let go of the good feeling.
“Nah, no time for that in war.” My father had said a good soldier kept a stiff upper lip. I closed my eyes and squeezed her a little harder.
My father had gone looking for me after I didn’t come home for dinner. When he found me, he laid me in the backseat. We rode home in silence, in shock. I buried my face in his chest as he carried me to my bed. My mother pleaded with him to put away the Luger he had taken off a dead German soldier, but all I heard was son of a bitch in a fusillade of angry words and the front door slam. To my relief, he returned home a short time later, telling my mother that he had thought better of it. They argued over whether to call the police, but my father didn’t want to create a “spectacle.” I’m glad they didn’t. I would have denied it, and that would have made the pain and guilt even more intolerable.
My parents never said a word about the rape afterward. They did little things, though. They let me stay up a little later and took me out to ice cream more often. They didn’t make me go to church. But life wasn’t the same. The things that interested me or caused me worry, like baseball and odd looks, no longer seemed that important. I tried comforting myself with the thought that Ray had fucked a boy and didn’t even know it.
Even my parents weren’t the same. They fought over the milk being out too long or coffee made too weak. My mother socialized less with her friends. My father lost himself in projects never completed. I overheard my mother complaining to my father one evening in bed that they hadn’t protected me. I blamed myself. I don’t think anyone in school knew what had happened, but I thought I saw stares.
I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Shellshock.” Her face was craning up at mine. We had stopped swaying to the music.
“Shit.” My breath caught. I stiffened. “You scared me.”
Her head was cocked, her face shadowed with doubt. “You okay?”
“Sure? Your eyes are puffy.”
“Army doc said it’ll take time.” I smiled weakly.
“Okay.” Her gaze lingered for a moment, as if to make sure, and then she led me by the hand to the table. “Here.”
She took my ring finger. It jammed at my knuckle. She started twisting, and I bent my finger, but I took it as a sign. We couldn’t get married in real life. I pulled my hand away and took the ring off.
“What did you do that for?” She snatched the ring back.
“It hurt. Anyway, the whole idea…”
“Stay right there.” She went to the table, and dunked the ring in the water glass holding the fake rose. “Gimme.”
The ring bit into the skin, making it yellowish, but I’d ask my father later if he could widen it. We hadn’t noticed the record scratching. Laura ran over to the record player and put on Doris Day’s Again. Her breathy longing made me want to dream again:
This is that once in a lifetime
This is the thrill divine
What’s more, this never happened before
Though I have prayed for a lifetime
That such as you would suddenly be mine…
We didn’t so much as dance as lean on each other. With her, I didn’t feel the nagging sadness that accompanied the loneliness. I tried to block the night of the rape out of my mind, tried to recapture the pure joy and excitement about life that I used to feel at Christmas, but it was as useless as denying that I was a boy in a girl’s body. In the darkness before dawn when I felt most alone and scared, I didn’t think of dying. I regretted being male.
“Can I tell you something?” I let go and slid my hands into my pants pockets. I wanted desperately to tell her, but I couldn’t bear being laughed at. Her eyes were searching.
“Promise me,” I said, glancing at the floor, then up at her.
“Okay, I promise.”
I took her hands and squared my shoulders. I stared into her eyes, but then lost heart. “You’re my best friend.”
“Is that it?” Her tone was gently mocking.
I smiled demurely. “Uh-huh.”
“Of course we’re best friends, silly.” She held up her ring finger.
I took it and kissed it gently. “To thee I wed.”
She smiled. We led with our chins, tentatively, and pressed our pursed lips together, as if exploring the possibilities, our limits. Hers were soft and full. They smelled like lilac. We giggled knowingly, but as the awkwardness melted away we embraced, our mouths not quite fitting, our tongues darting, unpracticed in love. But in that moment, I felt as if all of the awkwardness and pain in my life made sense. It had led me to her. When our lips parted, she wiped her mouth.
“Wow, soldier boy. Didn’t they have girls over there?”
“Not like you.”