El Goodman sat in the dark corner of the small bus depot. A scarf hid her bright chestnut hair, sunglasses covered her gray eyes, a rain coat disguised her figure, slight for a seventeen year old. A supermarket tabloid screamed REDS CLAIM NEW SPUTNIK FINDS LIFE ON MARS and concealed both her face and her taste. Two Marine privates going to or coming from Quantico tried to talk to her, but she said “I’m waiting for my boyfriend. He’s a lieutenant.” They walked away, but she noticed they glanced back.
Which brought her back to her worries. It was not that Phil would forget that today was her birthday. That was one of the days that neither would forget. Rather it was what he would remember what bothered her. She volunteered to select colleges suitable and affordable for both of them. So now, after four years of different high schools, they could go to the same college. El had more free time at Mount Vernon High than Phil had at Newberry Military and she’d used it as she had insisted. She had spent hours reading catalogs in an attempt to find the right school for both of them. She was positive it couldn’t be done. What would this do to him? His last four letters had been full of wondering what it would be like to actually see each other every school day. He’d talked about how friends came and went, how military brats moved from place to place. Maybe this would be like a transfer to him; maybe a little harder, but just another transfer. Having grown up in one house, it seemed strange to El. Maybe he’d take this as a sign that it was finally a time for him to move on. She prayed that wouldn’t be the case, but it fit some of his stories of friends gone forever from his life.
The bus came in, stopped, and the door opened. She could feel her heart race; together again after almost two months. Even with this school thing, seeing Phil would be wonderful. Phil was the first person off the bus, his eyes searching. His gray wool blouse was correctly buttoned and as he stepped off the bottom step he put his flat topped hat square over his crew cut blond hair. He swept the area again and a puzzled expression crept over the smile. A hidden smile came over El’s face as she watched him go to the luggage compartment to recover a suitcase and a heavy paper bag, which he glanced into as soon as it was in his hand. . She could see his eyes pass right over her, and she smiled again, even as he seemed to frown. The Marines, maybe a year older, who had approached her earlier came up to him and said something. Respectfully, they gestured at both the disks on his collar and the black stripes on his sleeve.
She didn’t hear what they said, but his voice came clear and her heart almost skipped a beat. “Newberry Military School. Cadet First Lieutenant. Cadet officers wear stripes on our sleeves plus collar insignia.” She could see them shake their heads, glance around as if looking for her, and turn away as he picked up the suitcase again and walked towards the street door. She got up and followed him, as a cat stalks a bird.
Outside he put the bags down, and, after scanning the parking lot, took his hat off and scratched his head. Her smile turned into a grin, but she bit her lip and drew herself up and sucked in her already thin waist. “Mr. Boydon. Put that hat on. You’re out of uniform off campus.”
The hat was almost back on his head before he turned, grinned and laughed, “El Goodman. You tricked me.” Then he rushed to her and pulled her into his arms. They kissed. Then they kissed again.
“This is a little public, Phil,” she said after what seemed like five or six centuries had gone by. Lord knew what people going in and out of the bus station would take her for. She’d heard that some women loitered around bus depots, particularly those that served military bases. That was the last thing she wanted people to think her to be, especially with Phil.
“I guess so.” He picked up the paper bag. “Where’s the car?” Again he searched the parking lot.
She laughed. “You’re going to have to march, Kaydett. I didn’t want you to spot it.”
El reached for the paper bag, but Phil drew it from her. “Later, Miss Goodman. Lead on.” She took his arm, he picked up the suitcase, and she lead him through the parking lot to her car. “By the way, Happy Birthday. You’re no longer sweet sixteen. But you’re still sweet.”
“Flattery, Phil?” But she knew he was sincere. At the car he paused as though he were trying to figure out driving arrangements. “You drive, Phil. It’s a lot easier getting onto Fort Belvoir if you drive.” He nodded his head and opened the passenger door for her.
As they left the parking lot El said, “You know. This is the first birthday we’ve had together since we met five years ago. We sure were stupid back then.”
“Stupid? Or young? We knew we were going too far. We just thought we wouldn’t get caught. We didn’t expect the punishment to last as long as it did.”
“And we were lucky we convinced our folks we could be trusted not to go so far again.” She paused for a few moments to consider her next words. “I’m glad we’ve never done anything really --well, you know.” Sometimes she could talk about their virginity; however, this didn’t seem to be the time.
Phil didn’t say anything for a long time. “I guess a guy shouldn’t say this, but, yeah.” She thought of responding, but decided to leave it alone. They drove in silence for a mile or two. El saw that they were approaching Fort Belvoir and his current home, his “quarters” in the army talk she was still learning.
“It’s early, El. We could go somewhere.” She knew he meant park.
“For a while, Phil.” She cuddled against his shoulder. “Along the Mount Vernon Parkway. Not back at the pond.” She knew her message told Phil that this was not going to be a serious session. Those were reserved for the pond or up close to Falls Church. She could see him glance at her and there was no grin on his face.
As he eased the car into a vacant overlook off the Parkway he said “How were your SAT”s?” She looked out over the wide Potomac, the Maryland shore showing a few lights and the glow of Washington to her left.
“Pretty good. Especially the math. How about you?”
“The math was maybe a little rough. Been away from algebra. Verbal should have been okay. Have you found the colleges we should apply to?”
The question. She knew it was going to come. Before she said anything she tilted her head and welcomed Phil’s kiss. But even as she responded to lips and tongue she had to remember their history. They had gone together since the summer before high school, but had spent most of their time apart. The first glorious summer ended when Phil’s mom had caught them in Phil’s bedroom. For the next year and a half all meetings had been against parental orders, and, for the most part, short. Then, after being allowed to see each other, each had stupidly taken on a “friend”, and let that relationship get out of hand. They had broken up for five months. Finally, Phil had practically crawled on his hands and knees asking forgiveness, but El knew that if he hadn’t, she would have. Still, he went to a military boarding school a hundred and fifty miles away. She wanted to spend college with him as much as he wanted to spend it with her. But there were their individual plans.
When the kiss died she said, “Phil. I don’t think we’re going to agree on colleges. I think the best we can do is find two close by.”
“What do you mean? Not agree? Close by? El - four years of different schools. I thought....” His voice rose and the words rushed at the end.
“I wish. Think, Phil. You want writing; journalism maybe. Must have ROTC. I want a degree in Nursing. I’ve looked, Phil. Any place that has what you want that is any good, doesn’t have what I want. And vice versa. The best I could do are two about seventy miles apart. In Virginia. State schools, so they’re affordable.” El really wished she felt as comfortable with the situation as she tried to make it sound.
“But El, how many have you looked at? Five? Ten?” Phil moved forward to kiss her and El allowed it, as sorry for him as she was for herself.
“No, Phil. During the time you’re out drilling and marching and yelling at Youngsters up in Leesboro, I sit in the guidance office at Mount Vernon and look through catalogs. Over a hundred. Some are half way to California. No match.” Despite a faint twinge of anger at his comment she kissed him, long and full and felt his hand move off her shoulder.
“Well. How about good writing programs and regular nursing?”
El moved his hand back to her shoulder, forcing herself to keep control. “Phil. You’re the one who keeps saying I should study medicine, not nursing. Why shouldn’t I get the best possible nurse training? Aren’t you asking me to give up something for you? Why don’t you come with me and not take ROTC?” For a moment she wanted to say more, but four years of love and misunderstandings, and solved problems, and separation for more than half the time, by restriction, school location, or their one real break up, kept her quiet. She didn’t want to hurt Phil; they had been through too much together.
“You know how I feel about ROTC.” It had been a long time since she had heard his voice as sharp as it sounded now.
“Yeah. I do. Remember when I wanted you to transfer to a closer school?” Her voice got softer.
“Yeah. And I explained what it meant to me to go to just one high school. That if my dad hadn’t been promoted and given a new job, we wouldn’t have had a summer vacation together; I might be in Newberry during school, but Oklahoma for vacation.” He hesitated, she could tell. “Why?”
“Isn’t this the same thing? I wanted you to give up something you really wanted just so we could be together a little more.” She took his hand and rubbed it. “This doesn’t mean the end, Phil. Just a continuation of how it’s been.”
He unbuttoned his blouse and loosened his tie. Was he about to make a serious move on her? Or just get comfortable she wondered. El tensed. His lips pursed; she could tell that in the dark. “Are you sure? I hate to say this, El, but maybe this is a sign. We’ve been going together four years, separated. Maybe something is saying it’s over.”
He’d said it. Was he was giving her an out? Making it easier for her? The thought that it really would be fun to see a boy friend every day briefly crossed her mind.
No. They had gone through too much. Overcome too many obstacles. Seventy miles was nothing. She knew that.
“I’m not going to give up that easy, Phil. And I’m not going to let you give up that easy, either. College has fewer rules than high school. Especially when one is a military prep school. The bus runs between the two. And the C&O does too. We’ll have weekends. Lots of them.”
“The C&O? The train?” His voice showed his delight even if he tried to conceal it. She bit her inner lip to keep from grinning. His love of trains could be used, after all.
“Yes. Tomorrow I’ll show you the catalogs.” She settled back into his arm.
He sighed. “You’re probably right. And yeah. A continuation, like you said. It’s not like you’re staying here and I’m going back to Japan or something. What’s seventy miles?
“Now. This is your birthday. A happy time. Let me give you something,” he said, reaching to the backseat and the paper bag. “But maybe I should have saved for bus tickets. Or train tickets.” She could hear the relief in his voice.
She laughed. “I’ve been doing that for a long time now, Phil.” She looked at the bag, and put it on the seat beside her. “It’s too dark to try to read the card I see or see what beautiful thing is inside the wrappings. Dark’s for other things.”
“Yeah, but there’s a dome light. I want you to have this now,” he said, reaching up to switch on the light and then produce a large flat package, wrapped in maroon paper, with white ribbon.
El took it from him. “Mount Vernon colors. This my prom dress, Phil? Right size box.” He shook his head and she worked on the ribbon and wrappings and opened it to find wadded up newspaper. She looked up to see his grin, now from ear to ear.
“You’re a bad boy, Phil Boydon,” she said, trying to put anger into her voice. He nodded his head in the affirmative and she moved newspaper to find another box, this time in the dark red and gold of Newberry. El plucked it up and shook it. There was no rattle.
Again she took away the paper and ribbon and again found newspaper. He’d planned a joke on her, just as she had on him? But no, there was another box, small and square, in pure white paper and a thin red ribbon. She snatched it up, tore off the wrappings and found a velvet case. Inside was a ring, the center stone glinting under the light, the smaller red chips bringing warmth to the cold white stone.
“It’s not quite an engagement ring, El. But, if you take it, I’ll ask you August First, 1964.” Their day. The day they’d been found by Phil’s mom back in ‘57, now a day of victory, not shame.
She looked at it, at him. He took the ring and her hand. She could feel her eyes begin to water.
“Shall I put it on, Elaine Dolores Goodman?’ he whispered, a catch in his voice.
She couldn’t speak but nodded. The ring slid on. “I don’t care how far apart the colleges are, El. If this is on your finger, I’m with you. We can do it. I’m sorry I doubted, even for a minute.”
They’d make it work. They always had. They always would. She was sure of that now. She reached up and turned off the dome light. “Now it’s time for other things,” she whispered.
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