All characters involved in sexual situations are 18 years of age or older.
It was the summer of '69. It was the summer of despair.
"The heat waves shimmered in the distance, rising off the sand in an unmerciful display of mother nature's authority. We lay where we had been for hours, in the only good cover around. Off to the left, we heard enemy snipers, the gunfire signaling the start of another day in Hell."
That was part of a letter Joey wrote after his unit fought its way back to base camp. He wrote as often as he could. Sometimes, I'd find a stack of his letters in the mailbox when I got home from work, and then, I wouldn't hear from him for while. Whenever his family got any news, they would call me or visit to share the letter. I did the same for them. I always let my folks and Joey's read what we wrote, including the parts where Joey and I talked about getting married when he got home.
It was the summer of '59. That's when I met him.
Joey and I always liked each other. We were too young to think of each other as boyfriend and girlfriend at first. His family moved into a new house down the block the summer after third grade. I was a tomboy. I loved to ride my bike to the schoolyard to play on the swings, seesaws, and sliding board with the neighborhood boys. Sometimes, we'd play cowboys and Indians on the vacant lots in our development. Nobody thought anything of it a -- me, a girl, playing with a bunch of boys. We were kids. I didn't care about the differences between a boy's body and mine. I knew they could stand up to pee, and I knew why. Big deal. That's the way it was. The boys knew I was different from them between the legs. They knew that made me a girl, but otherwise, I was one of them.
Until Joey moved in.
He was different, maybe a little quieter than the others, more serious, more grown up. He was horrified the first time one of the boys took a leak where I could see him. "Don't look, Sue! Harold, what do you think you're doing? There's a GIRL here!"
"Yeah?" Fat Dennis sneered. "So what?"
"So what? So what? You can't let her see that! That's what!"
Fat Dennis stood up. He always bullied new kids at first. He towered over everyone, even Joey, and Joey was big, in a strong-looking way. "Joey, you moved in two days ago, didn't you?"
"That means you don't tell us what to do. If I need to pee when I'm out here with Sue, I'll walk to the nearest tree or wall or something and do it. We all do. So does she. She has to sit down or squat to pee, though."
"No, she does."
"Not that part! I meant doing it in front of a girl," Joey stated.
"Because it is."
"Says who? You?" Dennis taunted.
Joey stood up and looked at me. "It's also wrong to fight, and it would be real wrong to let Sue see if anything happens."
"You gonna fight me, new kid?"
"I don't want to," Joey said.
"You chicken to lose in front of a girl?" Fat Dennis strutted around, flapping his wings and clucking.
"You know I'd beat you up, don't you, new kid?"
"That's not how it would go," Joey chuckled.
"Big talk," Dennis threatened. "Come here and fight me."
Dennis was pretty worked up by that point, so everyone knew he was going to lunge at Joey. Poor Fat Dennis. Joey side-stepped, ducked Dennis' punch, and flipped him over so he landed on his back. It knocked the wind out of him for a couple seconds.
Joey knelt next to him. "I didn't want to do that. Are you okay?"
Dennis wiped his eyes with his t-shirt, refusing to cry. "What did you do?"
"Stopped the fight. I want to be your friend, Dennis. I know you're the leader here, so I'm telling you -- no peeing in front of her, and if she needs to go, we walk away."
Fat Dennis struggled to his feet, shaking off Joey's offer to help. "Fine, but why?"
"Do you pee in front of your mother?"
"No! Boys don't do that!"
"Right, but why not?"
"You just don't. Nobody pees in front of their mother. Heck, that stops when you're old enough to aim it. I mean, it's your mother!"
"You have a big sister, don't you, Dennis?"
"Do you pee in front of her?"
"NO!" Dennis sputtered. He looked like he was working himself up to a second round.
"Are you trying to start something, Joey? Boys don't pee in front of their sisters. That's wrong."
"Exactly. We don't do it in front of our mothers and sisters because it's wrong. You know why? They're girls."
"Yeah," Dennis said. Then, "Oh."
They shook hands, and with the new rule in place, Dennis suggested a game of tackle-tag. It was his favorite game. To tag someone, you had to knock them down. Tripping or shoving often were enough, but we usually went home scuffed and dirty. Dennis approached the game with brute force. The rest of us responded with agility and speed, so we were fairly matched.
Maybe Joey tried to treat me like a girl. It was easy to get away from him when he was "It." He'd tackle the guys if he had to, just the way they taught him, but not me.
When it was my turn to be "It," Joey was closest to me. He ran, dodging me, until I grabbed his arm and threw myself at him. He landed on his belly with me on his back.
"Holy cow, Sue! You hit hard!"
"Yup. You're "It." I scampered away from him. A few turns later, he was "It" again and came after me. He caught my one leg as I was climbing a tree and pulled me down. I landed on top of him, breaking my fall.
Lying on his back, he laughed and picked me up by my waist to hold over him like a trophy. "Tag. No tag-backs. You're 'It.'"
"I'm not on the ground. To tag someone, they have to land on the ground."
He pulled me against himself and rolled us over, pinning me under his body. "Now you're tagged." He rose up on his arms and looked into my eyes for a moment on top of me, smiling. Then he stood up, helped me to my feet, and ran away.
Joey fit in well enough, but sometimes he'd wander off. I was curious about those times, so I watched him, to see where he went. I followed him after a while and found him sitting on a big rock in the shade, staring down the hillside at the surveyors figuring out where new streets would go. "Penny for your thoughts, Joey."
"Oh!" He jumped like I had appeared by magic. "Hi, Sue."
"What are you doing?"
"Sitting on this rock."
"May I sit with you?"
That was how it started.
Joey and I became friends. We spent the whole afternoon sitting in the shade on that rock, swapping stories and getting to know each other. The entire gang of us "Daisy Drive Devils," as our parents called us, were friends. At least a few of us were always together. The day after Joey and I talked, the Devils played as a group like we always did.
One morning we woke up to a steady, soaking rain. No one ever called each other on rainy days, since none of us was allowed outside because we would catch our death. None of our mothers understood that we would get wet walking to the bus stop that fall, too.
We sat alone in our living rooms and watched Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, and game shows on television. My parents had a big, top-of-the-line, blond oak cabinet best and an antenna on the chimney, but after Joey moved in, I didn't spend much time in the living room, except when "Lassie" was on, Sunday nights.
I was helping Mommy with the breakfast dishes, watching the rain through the kitchen window, when the big black telephone on the table next to the refrigerator rang. Since I was drying, Mommy told me to answer. "Hello, Brown residence."
"Is that you, Sue? This is Joey. Do you want to come play at my house? My mother says it's okay."
"I can come over with a big umbrella to get you."
"Do you want to watch television?"
"We could, or we could play in the basement or my room. Maybe we could trade baseball cards or something."
"Let me ask Mommy."
In ten minutes, Joey knocked on our door. With my shoebox of baseball cards safe and dry under my yellow rain slicker, I splashed down the sidewalk, protected by him.
That first day at Joey's house was an eye-opener. I had never been in a boy's room, but I thought all they did was play with toy trucks and soldiers and Lincoln Logs. Joey did stuff the other boys didn't do. He played the piano. He read books. He drew pictures. He was probably the toughest and strongest kid on the block, even though I did beat him arm wrestling once, but he had another side. Joey showed me different things in life.
He was a collector. He had baseball cards, coins, stamps, and models. I had my card collection and some dolls I took very good care of, since they were going to belong to my little boy and girl some day. I knew the value of things. Joey had some really neat stuff, and he liked things the other kids didn't.
Every time it rained, I went to Joey's house or he came to mine. Our parents liked each other, so our getting together was encouraged. We were close friends. We shared secrets, fears, and dreams. We were never bored or lonely like the other kids seemed to be when the Devils couldn't play outside.
Joey's parents joined our church, so we were in the same vacation Bible school class in August. By the time fourth grade started, the grown-ups saw us as a puppy-love couple, I guess, but we were just part of the gang to the rest of the Devils.
In seventh grade, Mom and Dad let me go to the Friday night dances with the rest of the kids. I always went with my girlfriends, and Joey went with the boys, old Daisy Drive Devils or teammates from the sports he played. At that age, boys stood on one side of the gym and girls stood on the other, both groups talking about members of the other group.
Joey knew my preferences in music. He liked some of the more modern, edgy bands, but I still loved the crooners. I saw him break away from his gang and go talk to the school principal, who served as DJ. I thought he probably requested a Beach Boys song, since he and his buddies liked that stuff, but instead, the principal got on the mike. "I have a song request. Here's your chance, gentlemen. Ask a lady to dance."
Andy Williams sang. Mom and Dad taught me to dance so I wouldn't look awkward, but Joey was the first boy I ever slow-danced with. I still remember all the lyrics to "Moon River." Feeling his hand holding mine as we moved, I knew I wasn't a child any more, and that things between us would change.
Monday in school, it was obvious they had, at least in the eyes of our classmates. Girls I didn't even know told me they thought I had a cute boyfriend. Joey told me that all his buddies referred to me as his girlfriend. All that from one dance. We talked about it the rest of the school year. Our friends were right. We belonged together.
Joey and I started going steady in eighth grade. The locket he gave me for my fifteenth birthday is in its original box in my nightstand. He bought it with money he earned doing jobs around the neighborhood. It's still one of my most prized possessions. He turned sixteen before I did, so he drove us to the mall so I could pick out the dress he would buy me to take me out for my birthday dinner. When he kissed me goodnight on my front porch after our date, he gave me one last gift -- a picture of him to put in the locket I wore whenever I dressed up for church or for him. It's still in there.
All through high school, Joey and I were inseparable. I became a cheerleader, co-captain of the squad senior year, mainly so I could be near him. Our parents were thrilled. My folks loved Joey, and the Ramsey's treated me like their daughter. They trusted us, knew that we had taken a vow in youth group to remain pure until marriage. On my eighteenth birthday he gave me a "sweetheart ring." We were in love, the kind of love that lasts, one built on friendship rather than hormones.
Don't get me wrong about hormones. Joey grew from a cute boy the girls whispered about in seventh grade into one they drooled over in high school. Guys looked at me all the time, too, but everyone knew we were off-limits. I was his girl, and he was my man. Everyone understood. It was how the world was meant to be.
As seniors in high school, we had the grades and credits to get into college. I didn't need to go, since I would be a wife, homemaker, and mother. Joey and I talked about it for years. He planned to follow in his father's footsteps by serving his country. When he was done, we would get married and he would continue his education.
Prom night was the night when a lot of couples had sex for the first time. Joey and I were king and queen of the prom. More than one of his buddies made comments about our plans for later that night, since we weren't going to the post-prom party. One of my girlfriends teased me in the rest-room at the prom, too.
"Are you and Joey going to do it tonight?" she asked from the next stall.
"Do what?" I asked. I had my lap full of prom gown skirt, trying to squat over the toilet to pee.
"IT. Are you two going to do IT tonight?"
"If you mean are we going to have sex, the answer is no."
"Why not? You two have been going together for, like, forever."
"Yes, and we promised we would wait. You and I talked about this."
"I know, but it's Joey. He's like, your world, isn't he? You're going to marry him, aren't you? And he's so gorgeous."
She was right. It was Joey, my gorgeous man, the man who made me feel like a beautiful, well-loved woman. Yes, other couples would have sex that night, couples who would never get married, who didn't love each other like my boyfriend and I did. They didn't understand that real love doesn't need sex. That two people can feel like they have one soul without being physically intimate. I thought about my parents and grandparents. Surely they didn't have sex anymore, but they still were deeply in love. That's how Joey and I were.
Being in love was natural, like getting out of bed in the morning and brushing my teeth. Marriage and family were a given. We knew what some of our friends did. We knew we should wait. Sex was for newlyweds, something we would be when he got out of the Army. He left for boot camp three days after graduation.
It was the summer of '69.
His letters during basic training were so full of love, I thought he might surprise me and ask me to marry him when he got home. I would have. The minister's study would have been good enough for me. We were more in love than ever, having been apart. We both felt it, but Joey avoided any discussion about long-term plans. We lived in the moment.
The night before he shipped out, we were in the basement family room he and I helped Dad build, sitting together on the couch.
"Baby," Joey said, "Do you think you should wait for me? You know there's a chance I'll never come home. I could die over there. Maybe we should break up so you can get started on finding another guy."
"No! There won't be another guy, Joey. I'm yours. I've known that more than half my life."
"I feel the same way," he said, wiping my tears with his neatly folded pocket handkerchief. "I can't imagine feeling like this with anyone else. I thought about asking you to marry me before I ship out, but I decided that's not fair. You're young and beautiful. You're going to be here, and Lord knows where I'll be. Please, Sue, just write back to me when I can write to you."
I wanted to give him my virginity that night. He deserved it. He was the only man I would ever sleep with, and he wasn't trying anything! "Joey, do you want to make love?"
"Please don't ask me that. I do, but I won't. We've waited this long, honey. If I come back, we'll see if we still feel the same."
"You're scaring me. I can't lose you." We spent the night on the couch, kissing, cuddling, and finally sleeping in each others' arms, dressed except for our shoes.
I stayed at my high-school job at the diner. I didn't have any other job skills, but I worked hard. It was good enough. Work kept me occupied and earned some money, a nest egg for when Joey and I got married. I didn't burn my bra. I looked forward to a couple of babies and a nice kitchen. I didn't want a career other than wife and mother. Maybe, when the kids were grown, I would take some classes, but hopefully, being a grandmother would take up a lot of my time.
Joey had been gone for over two months. From the dates on his letters, it seemed like he wrote to me and his parents almost every night, but mail service from the jungle was sporadic. Often, we went for a week or more without any news. The letter about him being being pinned down by snipers was in the last bundle, over two weeks earlier. As always, I was sick with worry, but I knew things would be okay. They always were.
One night, Joey's parents rang our bell. My dad opened the door.
"Joe, Marge, how are...." The smile crumpled off Dad's face.
Joey's father shoved a paper into my dad's hand, and ushered his crying wife onto the sofa.
"Hon, Joe and Marge are here. Come down here now," my dad called up the steps.
Mom rushed into the room, and saw Dad reading a telegram. Joey's parents were holding each other. "Oh my God!" Mom wailed and threw herself at Marge on the couch.
Dad hands shook as he read. "He's M.I.A.? Missing in Action? Joe, Marge, that could be good. That just means he's separated from his unit, or he and some other guys are holed up somewhere with a busted radio, doesn't it?"
Joe, Sr. growled, "It means they don't know if he's dead but they haven't found his body, or if he's injured and dying in the jungle, or if he's in some hospital, so damaged they don't know who he is. He could be a P.O.W."
Marge and Mom started wailing in unison. I did nothing. I probably had the same expression on my face Dad did, since I was so much like him -- stunned silence, no tears, no anguish -- nothing. Numbness.
Finally, Dad said, "Maybe not. At least they haven't found his body, so he must be alive."
Joey's father spat, "Or blown to bits or burned beyond recognition or,..."
"Stop it!" Marge screamed. "Just stop it! This is my baby we're talking about! Mine! I carried him inside my body for nine months, pushed him out of me, and fed him from my breasts! Mine! You're supposed to be making this easier for me! Dammit! You're not helping!"
"Sue, would you get Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey some iced tea?" Dad asked in his dead voice.
Joey's mom wailed, "I don't want any damned iced tea! I want my baby back!"
I'm strong, or maybe I'm slow, but it finally sank in. I might never see my Joey again. I felt completely alone. Mom was awash in tears with Marge and Joe. I looked at Dad. I never saw such a look of pained love from him before. He helped me to the loveseat and held me while I cried. For the first time in my life, I saw him cry too.
Joey's parents went home when Marge ran out of tears. Joe helped her to her feet, kissed my mom on the cheek, shook Dad's hand, and then hugged me. "I'll call you or stop by every day, whether I hear anything or not. I know Joey wants me to do that."
When the front door closed, Mom said, "I need to go to bed." Dad followed her up to their room. I sat on the loveseat blowing my nose, wondering whether I would ever feel Joey's arms around me again. When I went upstairs, I was exhausted from crying, but I couldn't sleep. I paced, looked at photo albums, read his poems, and stared at his self-portrait he had painted for me. I cried for two days, trying to decide whether I could ever be happy again.
On the third day, my boss called from the diner. "Sue, I'm trying to write next week's schedule. Will you be able to come in?"
"I'll be in tomorrow for my breakfast shift, if I still have a job."
I was early for work the next morning, and I stayed for another shift because one of the evening counter girls called out sick. I worked as many hours as I could to keep from brooding at home, earning a lot in tips from people who knew Joey. After a year of burns from spilling hot soup and coming home smelling like fried onions, I had to do something else. I went to the local campus of the state university to become a teacher. Maybe helping children discover themselves would help me wait.