They first met when she was sixteen. He had just enlisted in the Navy --thirteen days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She was dating his younger brother and, when her deep turquoise eyes first met his, all he could think was how sorry he was for him. He was going to take his girl: not exactly the best Christmas gift he could offer. It was, however, the last selfish thing he ever did in his life.
He had engineered the trip to the high school, ostensibly to gather some paperwork that he needed for the recruiter. The grey stone building, electrified with the excitement of puberty, hormones, and fear about a newly-declared war, buzzed. To him, as he walked these halls for the first time since he graduated six months earlier, they glowed. He channeled this electricity and walked upon it as though floating on some newly reckoned atomic power. With some help from the receptionist in the office, he got her class schedule. He could have had any girl in the school that day—including the receptionist whose knees buckled and forearms goose-pimpled as he spoke to her in his baritone which had just recently quit cracking—toweringly brave as he looked in his uniform. The navy blues wrapped around a spotless specimen of man, a recruiting poster made alive, his cobalt blue eyes ripping through everything unfortunate enough to fall into his simple, uncontemplative gape.
Standing outside her classroom when the bell rang, he made no excuses for his presence by the door. It was not his place to make excuses; the commitment he’d recently accepted precluded him from such trifles as appearances or explanations. With clarity of purpose honed by the bravado of a man who had offered his life for an ideal called America, he held his hat in his hand. He watched her as she walked from her desk and loitered by the window for a moment gazing at the newly white landscape in a way that he would watch her gaze for the next sixty years. He watched her, as she steadied herself on the sturdy casement and as she pushed herself off of it. He watched her as she wandered, dreamlike, to the teacher’s desk to discuss—was it last night’s homework assignment or something else—a topic that ended a with smile so big that it pushed her shoulders back and her perky bosom forward. It was far too cold for the skirt she was wearing and far too winter for the blouse. He was glad for both, though he imagined himself a hulking overcoat wrapped around her: already warming her in his storied, electric arms.
She passed through the door last of all, the only one from the class who did not acknowledge him. Deliberately coy or uninterested? He was not sophisticated enough to discern the difference. Had he been, it would not have mattered. He watched her pass, a full head below his own. Her ginger hair radiated a clean he’d never smelled. He summoned the electricity from his shivering ankles and forced it up though his veins, up his legs, through his chest, and finally out his mouth. He whimpered her name. He was limp, deflated, now having shot every atom from his being in her direction. He could not see her misty eyes rolling back nor her freckled face contorting with the light-headedness of having not breathed since she left the window, nor that she was biting her lower lip, nor that her ears were flush.
“Yes?” She looked back. The game was, indeed, coyness. An inexperienced coyness, mostly unpracticed, and certainly never used on her current boyfriend whom she liked well enough but had never occasioned to kiss.
The youngish teacher—whose own core was ablaze and sending a scent which would undoubtedly excite her male students into frenzy during the next period— watched on from the corner of her eye as she wrote on the blackboard in feigned anticipation of that next group of innocents. The deliberateness with which she wrote on that board indicated that it was just a cover. She wanted her name to be on his lips. The chalk cracked and skid along the black slate with a startling screech. Abandoning her task, she walked back to her seat and took another preoccupation as she strained to listen. “Yes?” she whispered to a phantasm before her. “Yes,” she affirmed. She was melting in her cold wooden chair.
Now re-righted and re-energized by the glance she cast back as she acknowledged him, he spoke her name again, audibly. The next words he spoke were unrehearsed and unplanned, but had echoed in his mind with each step since he’d left—with the same singularity of purpose that he’d mustered earlier in the day to the recruiter’s office— his parent’s home. Unconsciously, with the same autonomic power that made him breathe, he started the next sentence, “Will you?”
“Yes.” She interrupted. “Will I?” she echoed first him, then herself. “Yes.”
This was the first time she had even spoken to him. He would love the moments when he heard the sound of her voice a zillion times more. This was the first time she had interrupted him. He would forgive her this habit a zillion times more. She breathed for the first time since walking through the door and her color returned, a pinkish snowy white. This was the first of a zillion times that he would shiver in the presence of her breath. Her heart—once weakened by a year-long affliction with scarlet fever—beat out of her chest. This was the first of a zillion times he would rejoice in that sound. She dropped her books, her lily gaze never leaving his. This was the first of a zillion times he would forgive her weakness.
With that, they were affianced.
They danced in each other’s eyes for a moment, he twirling in the pastel turquoise, she dipping in his steely cobalt: in each other’s skies: clouds together.
The moment stretched along his calloused hands, a farmer’s—now sailor’s—hands along an arch toward her own. With an outstretched finger, he lightly dabbled upon hers. For every bit of rough and work that his hands carried, hers carried an equal degree of supple. The only thing he’d ever felt so soft was the corn silk that he rolled into cigarettes, perhaps a newborn calf. Other than his mother, he had never touched a woman. Truly, he had never touched a woman in the way he was touching this creature.
When asked sixty years later, sitting beside her on their front porch, in their rocking chairs—rocking—to describe the feeling of her skin—that moment—that day, summoning all of the memories he could muster and all of the words he had learned in a lifetime that carried him from Long Island to Missouri to California to the Aleutians, and finally to Central Florida where he built them a home and provided for a family, he nodded deliberately. His creased eyes searching the distance for the perfect words, he smiled a corn-silk, tobacco, and sweet tea-yellowed smile—a smile bowed slightly leftward—and beamed. Speaking with a resonant yet labored voice, at once as a farmer and a father, as a sailor and a husband, as a grandfather and a hero, he said, “It was very nice.”
And so it was: very nice.