NORTH GEORGIA MOUNTAINS
The funeral was on a dull, grey Thursday morning. My friend Louise was buried in a small mountain cemetery in North Georgia. It was only a few hundred feet from a historic and picturesque Methodist Church and across a narrow mountain road from a field where ancient settlers built the first town in the area.
Louise loved the mountains. She loved to hike the narrow tails and up to her eightieth birthday, when she broke her hip, she still drove up from Decatur almost every weekend to hike or to shop in one of the stores in the Alpine Village.
My wife Carol held my hand tightly as we walked back down the hill to the car. I didn't put the key into the ignition right away. I sat looking at the church and thinking and I felt tears stinging my eyes. Carol put her hand on my shoulder and we sat quietly like that for a little while until she leaned over and kissed my cheek.
"You want to tell me about it, baby," she said.
"I promised her I never would," I said.
"I think I can guess that you and she were together...a long time ago," Carol said. "I don't think she'd mind if you told me now and I think you need to tell someone."
I thought about it a moment and then I nodded.
"Louise saved my life," I said.
1967- Decatur, Georgia
We were two clicks out of Quang Tri Vietnam when a smiling Vietnamese kid walked up to the point man and handed him a live grenade. I was spaced twenty feet back from the point man and the exploding shrapnel that killed him tore chunks of flesh out of my legs and chest. It took them several months to put me back together again and I got my discharge papers from the hospital. They got all the wounds cleaned and stitched but there are wounds in the mind that never go away. I dreamed each night of exploding grenades and men ripped to pieces.
I lived with my Mom in a middle class neighborhood in Decatur Georgia. The homes were mostly brick and ours was one of the houses with a pool in the back yard. The yards were green and well-kept. The men in our neighborhood were mostly white collar workers and the women were stay-at-home Moms, raising their kids and their flower beds. My Mom was a widow who worked in a downtown law office and I spent my days alone out by the pool, soaking up the sun and listening to the Beatles, or the Mommas and the Poppas or Three Dog Night. The hard music of the seventies hadn't yet come along yet and the Beatles were still together and the Mommas and the Poppas were California dreaming and Three Dog Night was telling us all how not to have fun.
A few of my friends from high school came by but it wasn't comfortable with them. They talked about college, about grades and professors, about girls they were dating. I tried to talk to them but the darkness in me seemed to fill me up and spill over, and when they stopped coming by, I was thankful.
I'm not sure when I started thinking about suicide.
I had constant pain in my legs and I wasn't sleeping at night. I was afraid of my dreams. I was given pills to help with the pain and I was eating them like popcorn. I had been warned I needed to walk every day to stretch the muscles and the pain would eventually go away. I wasn't walking except to the convenience store a block away to buy beer. Mom kept the house well stocked with groceries but she refused to buy beer. Mom had been on pins and needles with me, at first, but now she was beginning to assert herself, nagging at me about my lethargy and wanting me to start thinking about my future.
"College," she said often, her favorite mantra. "I can help with expenses if you want to go away to school and the GI Bill will pay your tuition. But you need to decide."
But I didn't want to decide anything. I wanted to continue in my drug and alcohol induced euphoria and let the world go on without me. The world didn't need me anyway. Even before my legs were so badly scarred, I hadn't been the best looking kid on the block. I wasn't the most sociable or the most athletic. I had little success with girls in high school and my first woman had been a prostitute in a pool hall in Okinawa. That one time sexual experience had not been the one I had been fantasizing about. It had left me a little sour and unhappy but at least, as some of my Marine buddies who had been with me admitted, we wouldn't all die virgins.
It seemed funny at the time. Now I was thinking that I would never find the kind of life that seemed so sweet to me before, that mine was going to be an existence of bad dreams and pain and maybe it would be better just to end it all.
Things started changing for me on a Saturday afternoon in late July when my Mom brought her friend Louise home with her after a shopping trip. I knew Louise well. She and my Mom had been almost inseparable during my high school years. Her son Bobby was on the football and track team and the most popular kid in school. He was currently playing football for the University of Georgia and there was talk of an NFL career. He married our high school homecoming queen.
When I was younger, I had developed a terrible crush on Louise. It was not that she was gorgeous. Mom and she were the same age, thirty-seven, but Mom was short and chunky, with dark hair, and Louise was tall, slim, with reddish gold hair that she wore to her shoulders. Her eyes were a light green. Louise was athletic. She played tennis religiously and she ran every morning, and this was before running became so popular with middle class suburbanites.
Mom went into the house with her shopping bags but Louise sat beside me at the pool. She wore white knee-length shorts and a loose fitting green top, white tennis shoes and socks. Her long legs were works of art, deeply tanned and freckled in a few places. She stretched out on a lounge chair and I could see the outline of her bra pressing against the fabric of her top. Her breasts were small but I had spent a lot of my youth fantasizing about them. I looked away quickly. I remembered my severe crush of earlier years and how everyone had looked at me with amusement, even Louise. I was not a kid anymore and I didn't want anyone giving me that look.
"So this is what you do?" Louise asked me. "You stay out here all day listening to music and drinking beer."
"Yes," I said sulkily.
"You could at least put on your suit and take a swim. It would be good exercise."
I didn't answer her. I didn't want to tell her that I hated putting on swim trunks because then the ugly red scars were visible. Mom turned her face away the first time she saw them. I also didn't want to tell her that swimming was painful agony. I did not want to try again. I had no intention of telling her anything but she saw something in my face, some deep-down soul hurt I could not hide. She shook her head and I saw tears glistening in her eyes.
"Oh Bobby," she said miserably. "What have they done to you?"
We didn't talk anymore that day but Mom told me at the supper table that evening that Louise was divorced while I was in Vietnam and it had been really nasty. She caught her husband cheating but the worst part was that her own son blamed her for the divorce.
"But you know Louise," Mom said. "Nothing gets her down for very long. She's the most upbeat person I know."
The upbeat Louise showed up at the house the following morning. I had woken early and was already out by the pool. She had on jeans and a sweatshirt and hiking boots. The jeans looked good on her.
"Come on with me, Bobby," she said. "Let's go explore."
"I don't think so," I said.
"You stay here and you're going to be a vegetable before long," she said. "You're going to take root. Your Mother is worried about you and so am I. Now drag that butt out of the chair and let's get going."
It was not so much that I allowed her to cajole me into doing something I didn't want to do, but simply that I lacked the energy to argue with her. She was like a flash flood sweeping me along. I ended up sitting in her car as she drove me toward the mountains she loved so much. We talked. Mostly, she talked about anything and everything. Her enthusiasm toward life, her vital energy had not been sapped by her divorce or her personal issues with her only son.
I was always aware that she was attractive but during that two hour drive up into the mountains, I became really aware of her as a woman. She wore little make-up except for lipstick. Her skin was very clear. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail like a teenage girl might wear but she wasn't trying for a younger look. Her scent was clean, like soap. I got the sense she was comfortable with herself and not overly concerned with her looks.
"Are you going to paint me?" she asked, and I found myself blushing red.
"I didn't know Marines could blush," she said. "I thought you guys had seen and done it all."
"I'm sorry for staring," I said quickly, and she shook her head.
"I don't want you to be sorry. It's okay. At least it shows you're alive, even if I'm not sure why you want to stare at an old lady like me."
"You're not an old lady," I said.
"Thank you, gallant sir," she said.
She drove us up to the Alpine village and talked me out of the car. It hurt but I went into the first gift shop. We walked down aisles crowded with knick-knacks, paintings, shirts with funny slogans and belts. I walked behind Louise. Walking behind her was kind of nice. Her bottom fit the jeans snugly. A few days earlier I had been thinking suicide and thinking that nothing in life would ever be worth living for again. I know it sounds trite but the view of Louise in jeans was inspiring.
We left that shop and went into another. This one had more belts and some women's tops. Louise held up one for my opinion. It was red beaded and very low cut and I found myself wondering what she would look like in it.
"Why don't you try it on?" I suggested.
She actually seemed to think about it but then she shook her head. "I'd have to take my bra off to make it look right."
I was nineteen years old with one sexual experience and a woman like Louise even saying the word bra sent a shiver through me. I doubted if she knew what she'd done to me and I knew she'd be shocked if she knew what I was thinking, but it went through my mind that I'd damn sure like to see her in the top with her bra off. Or even without the top.
I swallowed nervously as we moved on to another aisle with broad leather belts. She picked one up and shook her head and said, "Look at this," and even her sudden enthusiasm for a belt seemed somehow sexual.
We spent the morning in the stores and at lunch she stopped in front of an old looking building called Mill Creek Restaurant. By then I was really hurting and I stumbled up the stairs and was thankful when the young waitress sat us down right away. I ordered a hamburger and Louise a salad but she picked fries off my plate as we ate.
"I shouldn't eat these at all," Louise said, "I love them, but they go straight to my hips."
I thought her hips looked good but I didn't say it and I didn't mind sharing my fries. It seemed intimate.
After lunch, she drove me back to Decatur and let me out at our drive. I didn't want to get out of the car. Being with her had been the most exciting thing that had happened to me in a while. I felt my nerves tingling and a couple of times had even smiled. I hadn't smiled in a long, long time.
"Okay, this has been fun," she said, "but you're going to have to get out of the car sooner or later."
I reluctantly opened the passenger car door and then she leaned over the car and kissed me hurriedly on the cheek. It wasn't an intimate kiss. It was a kiss of a friend but my skin burned at the touch of her lips.
"Look," she said. "I want you to get into the pool and swim tomorrow. I want you to walk. You need to stretch the muscles. You've made a good start today."
I didn't answer her and I knew she realized that I wasn't going to do it.
I was tired but hungry that night and I slept well, without dreams, but the next morning I was back in my poolside chair watching the water and feeling depressing inch up on me. I was surprised when Louise showed up again, carrying her beach bag. She wore a yellow sundress and sandals and she kicked the sandals off immediately. Barefoot, she walked over and stood directly in front of me. The yellow sundress was transparent and I could see her one piece black bathing suit underneath.
"You're not swimming yet?" she asked me. "I thought we agreed you were going to swim today."
"No, we didn't agree," I said.
"Well, go put your suit on," she said. "I don't want to swim alone."
"I don't want to swim at all," I said.
She sat down near me. "What is it, Bobby? Are you worried about the scars?"
"My own mother couldn't even look at me," I said.
"She couldn't look because she couldn't stand the thought of your pain," Louise said. "It wasn't because she thought you were ugly."
"I don't want to swim," I insisted, and Louise shrugged and stood up.
"Okay, but I wish you'd come in the pool with me," she said, and she reached down and peeled the yellow sundress over her head and dropped it by the pool. Even to this day, I don't know exactly what Louise intended. I don't think she was consciously trying to seduce me, but her peeling the sundress off was absolutely the most erotic thing I had ever seen.
She stood for a moment at the edge of the pool and the tight fitting black one-piece bathing suit fit her like a second skin. She twisted and dived into the pool and I thought about it for a moment before I went into the house and put on my swim trunks. My legs were a pale white and the reddish scars covered my thighs like bad ant bites. It still looked really ugly to me but I walked back outside.
Louise swam up to pool side and she looked directly at me. "They really hurt you, didn't they?"
"They were trying to kill me," I said, and it took a moment before she realized I had made a half-hearted joke and she laughed softly. To me, even the sound of her laugh was erotic and I felt a stirring I hadn't felt in a long while.
I dived quickly into the pool. Being with Louise, I had momentarily forgotten the pain of my first swimming attempt but it came back to me in a rush. My legs cramped up immediately and it felt like a red-hot poker shot up my spine to the back of my neck. I went immediately to the bottom but I grabbed the side of the pool and inched my way back up until my head came out of the water. I was sputtering and gasping for breath. Louise was immediately by my side. Her arms went around my neck and she supported me while my muscles slowly started to relax.
With the pain easing, I became more aware of Louise's firm body pressed close to mine. Her arms were around my neck. I felt her breath. Turning my head slightly, my lips would have pressed against hers but I wasn't brave enough for that. But the stirring I felt earlier came back and suddenly I was rock-hard and I knew she could feel it. Louise let me go, pushed herself back and there was a startled look in her eyes. Then she laughed.
"I was worried about you there for a moment but I guess you're feeling a lot stronger," she said.
Her impish green eyes were laughing at me but this time it wasn't the same "Oh, the little boys got a crush look," that she gave me many years before.
She took off, swimming across the pool with long, easy strokes. She had the grace and rhythm of a natural athlete. I stayed at the edge of the pool for a while, kicking and stretching until the fiery jabs of pain became less frequent. I tried a lap with her and found that I could keep up. She increased her pace, but I was also getting into my rhythm and I had actually been a good swimmer before Vietnam. At the shallow side of the pool she stopped and stretched out on her back with the water just over her. I watched the rise and fall of her breasts against the tight black bathing suit and I could see the outline of her large nipples pressed into the fabric. I felt a stir again and I moved into deeper water to hide my obvious excitement.
"Just give me a second to catch my breath and we'll race," she said.
"Are you sure you want to race me?" I asked. "It could be embarrassing for you."
"Oh, listen to you, bragging now. You think you can outswim me?"
"Sure," I said, although I wasn't sure of it at all. There was a time I'd have been sure of it but I hadn't been using the muscles much since I'd left the physical therapy at the hospital and I was still getting slight twinges of pain.
"You're on," she said. "Just give me another minute and we'll go to the deep end. And you are the one who's going to be embarrassed."
"I think we should have a bet on it," I said.
"Oh really," she said. "Okay, if I win, you have to come over and do yard work at my house all day Saturday. There's a ton of stuff that needs doing."
"That's a serious wager," I said, shaking my head. "But what do I get if I win?"
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I want a kiss," I said.
I think we were both a little shocked by what I'd asked for. Up until the very moment I asked for it, I wasn't sure what I wanted. The words really came out before I could stop them, but deep down inside I knew it was what I wanted more than anything, to feel her firm lips against mine.
"It has to be a real kiss," I said. "Not like you've give a friend."
She sighed deeply. "I think I'd better win this race or we're both in trouble."
We decided the race would start just like the Olympics, with both of us diving in the deep end and then back forth across the pool three times. I felt my heart pounding and I knew I wanted to win this race as badly as I ever wanted anything. We counted to three and we both jumped. I got ahead at first, but I just hadn't been working out enough and I had misjudged my competition. Louis had a quick stoke that cut through the water with an effortless glide. I struggled. She came even with me at the pool edge and when we flipped to go back, she was slightly ahead. Then she left me. She reached the end of the pool two strokes ahead of me and I got there like a great lumbering whale, snorting and slapping at the water.
"I guess I've still got it," she told me. "I used to be top swimmer on my college team."
"I guess I'm doing yard work tomorrow," I said glumly.
She ruffled my hair. "Don't be a sore loser. After you finish your chores, we can go see the new John Wayne movie playing at the Rialto. You can bring a change of clothes and shower at my house
"Like a date," I said.
I saw a quick sadness in her eyes that she quickly hid, "sure, like a date. I haven't had a date in a long while. But remember. There's a lot of yard work to do first."
I didn't have dreams of violence that night. Instead of I dreamed of Louise and of taking the thin straps down on her black bathing suit, and I woke up unexpectedly because I was so hard I was hurting. Moonlight was coming through the window and I closed my eyes again and thought of us at the pool...only this time I got the kiss.
Years later when I thought about it, I realized all the exercise Louise was demanding of me was simply physical therapy in another form. My muscles were stretching as the doctors had wished, and I was becoming less reliant on pain pills. I was starting to feel normal.
On Saturday Louise got her money's worth. I cleaned her pool, cut grass and trimmed hedges. I painted a garage door and pulled weeds from a flower garden. By the middle of the afternoon every muscle in my body was aching but it was a good ache. Louise ran out of chores and we decided to make our lunch popcorn and snacks at the theater, and then do pizza afterwards.
I took my shower and dressed in black trousers and a new blue shirt I hadn't worn before. Downstairs I met Louise and she had also changed. She wore a blue miniskirt and calfskin leather boots that came up above her calves. I had seen her in less material in the bathing suit but damn, miniskirts are hot and they make a woman seem somehow available and vulnerable. I can't explain it but I think she knew the effect it had on me.