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More Than Just A Kiss: Part 11, Admission of Affection & Epilogue

In the summer of 1970, an engaged, Jewish, student nurse and a wounded Vietnam vet from the south met in a New York VA hospital. This chapter marks the end of the beginning of their story.

Mark Cahill’s body tensed at the familiar, rhythmic click of Gwen Kaplan’s footsteps approached his room. Not for the first time, he flashed back to their fight the day before he left town to spend Christmas with his family. He still couldn’t understand why she wanted him to write her or why she’d gotten mad and started to cry when he said he’d rather just call.

Once home, he quickly succumbed to the memory of those tears and sent her a hand written, three-page letter plus several cards. Despite that capitulation, he wasn’t sure what sort of reception awaited him. When he called last night to tell her he was coming back, she sounded happy and said she'd come over to see him after supper. But who knew what things would be like face-to-face?

Mark’s tension eased the moment she strode through the door. Her bright smile and cheery, “Hi, stranger,” sent a clear signal that his previous postal insensitivity was forgiven.

After a quick kiss, she stepped away from his grasp, pulled off her long Monk’s cape and draped it over the back of the bedside chair. It was like watching a present being unwrapped—a very appealing present in a light-blue sweater, khaki mini-skirt, and brown boots.

She turned to face him while shaking out her short brunette hair. Wispy bangs framed her fresh face with its apricot tinted skin, perfect nose, soft, brown eyes, and very kissable lips. Either she’s gotten better looking, or I’ve missed her more than I realized, thought Mark.

Gwen moved into his arms and asked, "So, did you miss me?"

"Only desperately.” Then their lips met and all conversation halted.

Afterward, she sighed and laid her head on his shoulder as their bodies became reacquainted. When she opened her eyes, Gwen noticed an unmade bed on the other side of the room.

"You have a roommate?"

"Affirmative," said Mark. "His name is Jessie and he seems like an okay guy. Says he was a tunnel rat with the 4th Division. He sure looks the part, thin and wiry. Went down one tunnel too many and got an eye messed up which is why he's in here."

"Where is he now?"

"His mother stopped by on her way home. She works at Macy's. They've gone down to the day room to smoke."

"And then they'll come back without warning which, I'm afraid, puts a damper on the reception I had planned for you.”

"Not to worry," he said, reaching up to stroke her hair. "They’ll be back for her coat but then she’s got to leave or miss her train. After that, Jessie's promised to make himself scarce."

"So you two have been plotting, have you?"

"What can I say? Us old beat up 'Nam vets have to stick together."

"Well, in that case, why don't we go out to the lobby for a while? I want to tell you about some stuff that happened while you were gone. And if it’s all the same to you, I'd rather not be interrupted by the return of Jessie and his mother."

A few minutes later, they were outside the ward in a dimly lit sitting area near the elevators. It was across from the deserted outpatient clinic. While an occasional person got on or off the elevators, no one came over to intrude on their privacy.

Gwen sat at one end of an old, green, vinyl couch. Something told Mark she really did want to talk, not make out. To avoid temptation, he leaned against the edge of the windowsill across from her. He glanced out at the traffic on rain slick First Avenue and waited. After a moment's hesitation, Gwen cleared her throat and began.

"While you were gone, I broke up with Johnny, for good. He'd started dealing dope, not working at a real job. He knew how I felt about drugs, and why. So I told him we were through, forever, and gave his ring back.” Her words came out in a series of low, rapid bursts.

After what seemed like an endless silence, she continued. "After crying and feeling sorry for myself, I suddenly realized I'm in love with you. I don't know when it happened, maybe the day you first kissed me, but all I want is to be with you, forever. And I know this all sounds crazy, but I love you so much, I'd marry you today if you wanted to."

She fell silent and waited, stunned by what she’d just said, but hoping for some reaction. There was none. Silent and motionless, Mark stared over her head, then turned and looked out into the cold, January night and tried to think of what he should say. She’s just broken up with Johnny and yet says she’s ready to marry good old Mark. Of course, the idea of marrying Gwen had its appeal. After all, she was smart, cute, fun to be with, and great in bed.

But something just wasn't right with this picture. It wasn’t a question of her being sincere. There was a guileless honesty in her voice. Still, he wondered if her priority was to marry him or just to get married. Was she in love with him or with some idealized notion of marriage?

After a quick glance in her direction, he looked back out the window. "Gwen, you don't really love me. I don’t know, maybe you're in love with the idea of being in love. Maybe you haven't gotten over breaking up with Johnny and need me to come in on the rebound to take up the slack. Who knows, you--."

Gwen broke in, "Mark, I'm in love with you, not with some idea. I know this all sounds crazy, but after breaking up with Johnny, it just came to me that I've been in love with you for, I don’t know for how long. But now I know why being with you always makes me feel so special and why I've always loved making you feel happy. And I have, haven't I?"

There was a momentary silence before Mark turned his head to look at her. With the faintest trace of a smile, he said, "Yes, you've made me very happy, both in and out of bed."

The smile left his face. "Look, let me spell this out for you. Like I've said before, I like you, I really do. In fact, I like you a whole lot. But, I don't think, I don't know, if I love you or will ever love anyone again. What's more, I think you're just infatuated, for whatever reason, not with me, but with some sort of dramatic, battle-scarred, soldier type character that I'm supposed to play.”

Mark turned away from the window and began to pace. "I'm not clear on all this myself. But to me, love is trust. Back in 'Nam, in the bush, you learned fast who you could count on, who you could trust. The only problem was your friends, the people you could trust, had a nasty habit of leaving fast and for keeps."

He stopped pacing and stared off into space. His mind focused on other times, other worlds. With a shake of his head, he looked down at Gwen. "I know this sounds strange, but since getting back, it's like my emotions have been muted, been numbed. Even with my family or old friends, I sometimes find myself thinking about what it will be like when they're dead, when they've left me, so to speak. It's just..." his words trailed off.

“But Mark, I love you. I would never, could never, leave you."

Could he ever be sure of that? Mark noticed the plaintive look on her face. After all, they’d started dating, and then making love, while she was still engaged to Johnny. Now a few days after dumping him, here she was. "Maybe not," he said, "unless things didn't go your way."

She started to protest, but he changed the subject. "And then there's the reality that I'm a half-blind guy who can't drive a car and hasn't even finished college. In here, I'm one of the few guys under a hundred. But, what would you think of me in the real world? I guess that also bothers me."

"Well, none of that bothers me.”

"No, it doesn't seem to," he admitted with a half-smile. "I guess that's one of the reasons I like you, Miss Kaplan. That and your great legs."

Gwen smiled but said nothing, just sat in the dim light and stared up at him like a confused and anxious puppy. Hell, it was worse than her crying. "Look, Gwen, I'm sorry to sound like such a jerk. It’s just that, I’m not sure if what you feel for me really is love. As for me, I don’t know if I love you or, like I said, whether I can ever love anyone again."

He paused, and then broke the tense, serious mood. "Now at this point in the proceedings you may be asking yourself just what in hell does he know? That's a fair question. So for what it's worth, here's what little I claim to know. I do like you, a whole lot. And I like being with you, a whole lot. And I'd like to keep seeing you, a whole lot."

“Me too,” said Gwen. She stood, wrapped her arms around his thick upper torso, and kissed him long and deeply.

When the kiss ended, she looked into his face. "Well, Mr. Cahill, since that’s the case, I promise that from now on, you’ll be seeing a whole lot more of me, a whole lot of the time."

And being a nice Jewish girl from Queens, Gwen Kaplan would keep her promise.

###

Epilogue

Empty coffee cups in hand, Mrs. Esther Katz and Mrs. Irene Goldman stared out at the blustery, early spring weather. They preferred holding their morning coffee klatch on the stoop outside the building’s front doors. Today’s weather however, had forced them to stay inside the building’s small lobby.

They were in the midst of an in-depth discussion of the new washing machines recently installed in the building’s basement laundry room. The sound of a small group leaving one of the second floor apartments interrupted this dialogue. Turning away from the window, they saw Gwen coming down the stairs followed by her sister Margie and her mother Sarah.

"Morning doll. Hi ya doing?" asked Mrs. Katz. "And, Margie, Sarah, how are you? Don't you Kaplan ladies look nice? What brings you out on a morning like this?"

"Good morning," replied Gwen as she finished buttoning her raincoat. "We're just going out to do some shopping."

In a futile attempt to change the subject, she peered out at the overcast sky. "Do you think it's going to rain?"

"The weatherman said there was a thirty percent chance this morning but that the sun might come out this afternoon," chimed in Mrs. Goldman. She took pride in having a small weather station on the fire escape outside her bedroom window.

"In other words, who knows?" said Sarah Kaplan. The tone of her voice matched her sour expression.

"Exactly," chuckled Mrs. Katz. Returning to her original subject she asked, "So what brings you out on a day like this?"

"We're going to look for a wedding dress for Gwen," said Margie. The tone of her voice matched her excited smile.

"That's right, you're an engaged lady aren't you?" exclaimed Mrs. Goldman, beaming at Gwen. "Let me see that engagement ring."

Gwen dutifully extended her left hand while Sarah Kaplan gave her younger daughter a quick glare of disapproval.

"Oh, isn’t it lovely?" gushed Mrs. Goldman.

Not letting go of Gwen's hand, she asked, "Didn't I hear there was something special about where your fiancé bought it?"

"Yes ma'am," replied Gwen. "When I visited his family during the holidays, we went to the same store where his father bought his mother her engagement ring."

"Isn't that sweet?" cooed Mrs. Katz as she bent over to peer at the ring.

Looking up at Gwen, she asked, "Have you set a date yet?"

"It’s in May. We've got all that arranged," interrupted Sarah Kaplan. "Not that it wasn't a royal pain."

"And I'm going to be the maid of honor," said Margie.

Gwen gave her sister a big smile. "Who else, kiddo? You're the only one who can handle both Mom and me."

Finally letting go of Gwen's hand, Mrs. Goldman asked, "Who else is in your wedding party?"

"My three best friends from school. They’ll be getting married later this summer so we’ve agreed to use the same bridesmaids’ dresses."

“Very practical,” said Mrs. Katz with a touch of admiration. “But tell me, what happens after the summer?"

Gwen glanced over at her mother. "Mark wants to finish his degree at LSU, then go to law school. I'll be an R.N. by then, so I should be able to find a job at one of the hospitals down there. We'll probably wait until he's out of school to start a family."

The ladies smiled knowingly. Noticing the expressions on their faces, Gwen began to blush.
"We tried to warn you about all those veterans," teased Mrs. Goldman, recalling the summer when they often saw Gwen off to her job at the VA.

"I remember," replied Gwen with a smile. "But you two only warned me about the older vets, not the ones my age."

"Where are you going for your dress, doll?" asked Mrs. Katz.

"Bloomingdale's," said Gwen, with unexpected emphasis. “Every time I'd take the subway to school, I have to change trains at the station under Bloomingdale's. I promised myself that someday I'd get off there and go shopping."

"Well, if we don’t get going we'll miss the bus and never get there," said Sarah Kaplan. After taking a long, conspicuous look at her wristwatch, she began herding Margie toward the door.

"Just one more thing," insisted Mrs. Goldman, clutching Gwen's hand. "How's your fiancé doing? Didn't he have an eye operation or something?"

Gwen nodded, "Thanks for asking. He had another corneal transplant a few weeks ago and the doctors say he's doing great. In fact, he's seeing better now than at any time since he was wounded in Vietnam."

Giving Gwen an unexpected hug, Mrs. Goldman said, "I'm very, very, happy for you."

"So am I," said Mrs. Katz. After kissing Gwen on the cheek, she said, "Now you better get going. You know how your mother hates to wait."

Wordlessly, they watched Gwen join her mother and sister on the sidewalk in front of the building. Mrs. Katz heaved a big sigh, "Sometimes things really do work out for the best."

Mrs. Goldman nodded her agreement. "There were times when I really worried that she'd end up marrying that other guy, the one she’d been dating for so long."

"Me too," agreed Mrs. Katz. "Me too.”

By now, Gwen, along with her mother and sister, had crossed the street and were walking toward the bus stop.

"What ever happened to him? Her other boyfriend, I mean?" asked Mrs. Goldman.

"My son Arnold says he got involved with drugs for a while but that now he's back stocking groceries and just hanging around the neighborhood," replied Mrs. Katz.

“Is that why she broke up with him, the drugs?”

"That’s what Sarah told me. But just between you and me, I’ve met her new boyfriend and seen how she looks at him. And believe me Esther, he's what really happened to the other one."

Mrs. Goldman, who was as sentimental as her friend was romantic, spoke wistfully. “But you heard what she said. After the wedding, she’ll be going all the way to Louisiana.”

“That’s true,” said Mrs. Katz. “And I’ll miss her. But she’ll be with someone who seems to love her as much as she loves him. So the two of them won’t be traveling alone.”

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