“Ann, are you telling us our straight-arrow, nice-Jewish-girl-from-Queens, Gwen, took some guy she was fooling around with on her ward to the park where they did, God only knows what?”
"Is this stuff animal, vegetable, or mineral?" Ann was cautiously examining several unidentified objects under the wilted lettuce leaves on her salad.
"Yes," said Gwen while methodically stirring her yoghurt.
"Yes, what?" Ann’s voice held a note of exasperation.
Gwen stopped stirring. "Yes, ma'am?”
Looking up, Ann saw the teasing grin on Gwen's face. Her friend had been in the dumps for a week now. This sudden and very lame attempt at humor came as such a surprise she began laughing. Gwen’s grin turned into a big smile and she joined in the giggling.
Their laughter drew the attention of several nearby customers in the plastic and neon world of the hygienic VA cafeteria. They noticed the stares directed their way and tried to compose themselves but kept erupting into fresh waves of giggles.
After a mighty struggle, they managed to regain a semblance of self-control.
Ann wiped tears from her cheeks. "It's good to hear you laugh again. You've been on this real downer ever since that redneck of yours split last week.”
"He's not 'my' redneck. And his having left has nothing to do with how I'm feeling.”
"Don't start freaking out on me." Ann’s voice came from near the floor as she searched for her fork. “Maybe that’s not the reason. After all, he’s going to be back in a few weeks, isn’t he? But if that’s not the problem, what is?”
Gwen let out a weary sigh, "It's Johnny. After our date last weekend, he told me he’d lost his job."
"So what?" Ann brandished the missing fork. "God knows it's not the first job he's ever lost."
"No, it's not the first job he's ever lost," mimicked Gwen. There was a note of irritation in her voice. "But losing this one means planning for the wedding will have to be put off, again. It also means my mother will now be able to go around telling everyone, especially yours truly, that she always told me so."
"I'm sorry about all that grief from your mother. But what the hell, isn't that what mothers are for?"
"It sure seems to be."
With similar problems of her own at home, Ann was genuinely sympathetic with anyone’s mother troubles. Still, no matter how hard Gwen might deny it, Ann knew the blue funk she'd been in had more to do with Mark's leaving than with Johnny having lost yet another job. Calendars don't lie, she thought. Gwen had been acting bummed out ever since Mark left last week, which was days before she found out about Johnny's newest job failure.
Maybe someday Gwen would finally wise up and ditch Johnny. Granted, she had invested four years in the dude, but he was bad news, it was just that simple. As much as Ann might distrust white southerners, she'd rather see Gwen with that honky from Louisiana than with Johnny de-wop's-his-name.
Besides, everyone knew Gwen was too damn good for a loser like him, everyone but Gwen. And sometimes Ann sensed that even Gwen was beginning to suspect the truth.
Time to break the silence. With a dramatic flourish, Ann tossed in her napkin. "This food tastes like crap. I don't give a damn if my butt spreads from here to Harlem, let's go get a candy bar and a Coke..
Gwen gestured toward Ann’s trim, petite figure. "As if that tiny tush of yours would ever expand. But you don't have to ask me twice.”
Two weeks later, Gwen worked her last day on the unit. The staff arranged for a small going-away party at the end of the shift.
Summer employees seldom rated such a gesture, but during her three months on the job, she had become a favorite of both the vets and staff.
Some of the older, long-term patients, who’d become her unofficial fan club, stopped in to say goodbye and to sample the punch and ice cream.
As the party started to break up, Rosy Anding came over and gave her a big hug. "You will come back to see us often, won't you?”
Gwen promised she would.
“Well you better," said Anding with a sly smile. "And if we're too busy to stop and talk, well, I understand Mr. Cahill will be coming back soon.”
"Mrs. Anding, you're the first Filipino yenta I've ever met.”
"Oh, we yentas are everywhere, even in the Philippines. But whether Mr. Cahill is here or not, I want you to be just like General Macarthur and keep your promise to return.”
Giving the woman who had been her boss, mentor, and friend a big hug, Gwen promised to come back.
Minutes later, after a last round of hugs, handshakes and kisses, Gwen Kaplan walked out of ward 4 South for the last time, at least as an employee.
She left the hospital through its sunny, First Avenue exit, turned right, crossed 23rd Street, walked past a large, red brick, institutional looking building, then made another right and entered a sunless, dead-end driveway. On her left loomed the massive presence of Bellevue Hospital and the entrance to its ever busy emergency room.
Moments later, she made her final right turn. As she walked through two sets of heavy glass double doors, Gwen felt a familiar sense of pride, of belonging, and of coming home. While her official residence might still be at her family's apartment in Queens, if home is where the heart is, then for the past two years those doors had marked the entrance to her real home, the dormitory and classroom building of the historic Bellevue School of Nursing.
While waiting for an elevator, Gwen remembered that two of her best friends were supposed to be moving back into their rooms that day. Entering freshmen were each assigned a tiny private room with a single bed, a small desk and smaller closet, plus a lavatory with a mirror. It was an all-female dorm. No man, whether student or visitor, was ever allowed above the first floor.
When students left for the summer they had to strip their rooms bare. The administration said this was for cleaning, repair, and routine maintenance. Displaced students were convinced it was a plot to make their lives miserable and viewed the statement with great skepticism.
Because they had summer jobs at the VA, the school let Gwen and Ann stay in the dorm. This meant they avoided the fate of having to pack everything up and take it home only to bring it all back three months later. Her friends Sue Cangilosi and Robin Porter hadn't been so lucky.
As she stepped into the elevator, Gwen recalled the misery involved with carting everything upstairs, then unpacking and getting your room back in shape.
Hurrying past her own room, she went down the hall and found Ann helping Robin finish the last of her unpacking.
Next door, Sue sat on her unmade bed, staring with hopeless despair at several open boxes. About all she seemed to have done was set up her stereo and put on a Bob Dylan album.
After a quick round of hugs and greetings, Gwen rushed back to her room, changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, and went to help poor Sue. By the time the unpacking was finished, everyone was hungry.
To celebrate their reunion, they went out for supper at Guy Fawkes, a dark, nearby, English-style pub which catered to the nursing students. They, in turn, attracted a large male clientele. The limited menu featured great hamburgers and cheap pitchers of beer.
The streetlights along First Avenue were on when the four friends left the dorm. The group paid no attention to the liquor stores, coin-operated laundries, and small “hippie” head shops along First Avenue. Everyone was in a good mood and talking all at once, a familiar situation no one seemed to mind.
As usual, the bar was crowded and smoky, but they found a vacant booth and ordered burgers and a pitcher of beer. Sue performed her self-appointed duty of filling their glasses. "Can't afford to waste any of this and, as we all know, I've got much more experience than you children.”
They groaned at the remark, and then toasted their reunion. Being thirsty as well as hungry, everyone quickly emptied their glasses. After a quick refill, Gwen asked Sue and Robin the obvious question, "So what have you guys been doing this summer?"
"Nothing interesting, that's for sure," replied Robin with an air of disgusted boredom. "Unless your definition of interesting is working all summer as an aide in a Long Island nursing home.”
Gwen grinned at Robin's reply. Over the past two years she had grown close to the smart, pretty, and very plain-spoken blonde from the suburbs of Long Island.
"About the only really interesting thing I did this summer," continued Robin, "was make it to the Women's Equality Day rally. Maybe you heard about it. Anyway, Betty Friedan put it on a few days ago to recognize the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.”
When Sue gave her a blank stare, Robin patted her on the head and continued. "Don't strain the old brain, Sue. That's the amendment that gave women the vote. Well, the real object was to publicize how bad things still are."
"Sounds interesting,” said Gwen.
"It really was," said Robin, with a hint of excitement escaping her usual blasé demeanor. "Let me tell you, there were a lot of really militant women there who were mad as hell at men. Everybody kept talking about starting some sort of national movement to help end all the crap we still put up with.”
With her long, ash blonde hair, incredible boobs, blue eyes and open, inviting face, Robin might have seemed soft and pliant. In fact, she was the strongest willed, most opinionated member of their group and completely fearless when it came to speaking her mind, especially about the war, the environment, and women’s rights. Gwen decided this rally had been the perfect event for her.
Sue returned Robin’s earlier gesture by patting her on the head. "Robin, you’re way too intense. Spare us all that boring political stuff, at least tonight, okay? Besides, you wouldn't ever catch me burning my bra.”
Robin swatted at Sue’s hand, "I've told you before that was just something the press made up. Besides, now that I think about it, you don't even own a bra."
"Do, too. I've got one back home. If my mother ever caught me going to Mass without a bra on, she'd kill me."
"Mothers can be such a drag," laughed Ann.
"Ain’t it da truth,” grinned Sue. “Well turning the subject to something really fascinating, that’s me, not only did I miss Robin's rally, I also missed the thrills and chills involved with changing bed pans. However, trust me, working in a public health unit has its own special charms which just shouldn't be missed.
"Fortunately, my parents took pity and let me spend a couple weeks with my aunt out in San Francisco. In fact, I just got back yesterday."
Everyone groaned and shook their heads in disbelief. "Only you,” said Robin, ”would manage to get out to San Francisco while the rest of us were back here working like galley slaves. I've got a feeling that if you tell us about everything you did, we might be here all night.”
Undeterred by Robin's comments, Sue continued, "Well, my aunt actually lives outside the city, but we did go downtown a couple of times. We even went to Haight-Ashbury, and believe me, it was a blast. I mean to tell you, it looked just like I'd imagined.
“You can always see a few heads wandering around here, even more down past the Filmore in the East Village. But out there, about the only straight people were the tourists. It was so incredibly far-out to see a bunch of freaks standing around on the sidewalk blowing joints.”
Without warning, she began downplaying her west coast adventure. "But like I said, I was in the suburbs most of the time. Still, my cousin introduced me to some out-of-sight kids who really liked to party.”
When it came to partying, Sue was unequaled among the group. With her long dark hair, olive toned skin, exotic face, and great figure, she had little problem finding guys to party with.
The only problem was, she never let schoolwork interfere with having a good time. As a result, getting Sue through her sophomore year had turned into a major group project.
"But what about you guys?" she asked, looking at Gwen and Ann. Her question coincided with the arrival of their hamburgers which temporarily halted any reply.
They ate in silence until Gwen restarted the discussion of summer experiences. "You remember how Ann and I got jobs at the VA? Well, I was assigned to the ophthalmology ward and it was really neat. Most of the patients were pretty old, but almost all of them were sweet. The nurses were really great and the doctors, believe it or not, were nice. In fact they were a lot of fun and let me help out in the treatment room.”
"Sounds great," mumbled Sue as she chewed on a big bite of medium well-done burger. "What about you, Ann?"
"Well, in comparison to Gwen, I was working on Devil's Island," said Ann, with a rueful smile. "I liked my head nurse, a take-no-bullshit type sister named Opal Jennings. She taught me a lot. But other than that, it was a total bummer. Most of the patients were bedridden, the work was tough, and there were a couple of young residents who kept coming on to me.”
Sympathetic sounds were heard around the table as the group continued working on their hamburgers. "I didn't mind the doctors that much," said Ann. Then after a short pause, she dropped her bombshell. "I just wish one of them had been half as interesting as the good-looking patient Gwen messed around with and even took to the park a couple of times."
Both Sue and Robin stopped chewing and stared in open disbelief at Gwen who was blushing furiously. After a moment's stunned silence, she tried to defend herself. "It’s not like I went on a date or anything. Johnny and I are still engaged—well, kind of. But that's another story.”
“So tell us this one, already,” insisted Sue, gesturing with both hands, including the one holding her burger.
"Well, there was just this guy from Louisiana staying on the ward," Gwen continued. "I mean, he's been up here for practically forever and he’s a long way from home and I just couldn't help but feel sorry for him and I thought it’d be good for him to get out of the hospital. That's all."
The stunned looks on the faces of Sue and Robin made it clear that for them, Gwen’s, “That’s all,” was most definitely not all. “Are you sure about this?” asked Sue, looking at Ann. “It’s just that I’ve never even seen her flirt. And we all know it’s not like she hasn’t had the chance. I mean, guys are coming onto her all the time. Good thing for me all she ever does is give ‘em that smile and say, ‘No thanks. I'm dating someone.’"
Robin placed a hand on Gwen’s shoulder as both tried not to laugh at Sue’s monologue. “Ann, are you telling us our straight-arrow, nice-Jewish-girl-from-Queens Gwen, the one sitting here with us right now, took some guy she was fooling around with on her ward to the park where they did, God only knows what?”
Ann seemed delighted at the response to her news. “You just heard it from her own southern fried lips. I won’t get into any sordid details about what they did on the ward. And by the way, they went to Central Park.”
Sue shook her head. “Talk about something blowing your mind.”
With a mischievous grin, Ann began to elaborate. "Here’s a few gory details. The guy's a ‘Nam vet and a big dude, I’d guess maybe six-foot. He got his eyes messed up over there and has to wear those thick, cataract glasses like old folks do. But he's got dark, wavy hair and a nice smile and I suppose he's not that bad looking, at least not for a redneck."
Everybody laughed. Ann dodged the napkin Gwen threw at her and continued. "But let me tell you, this guy is a charmer. I've met him a couple of times and believe me, if BS was gold, that dude would be a billionaire."
"This is all so, so far out," said Sue, groping for words. "And honest, Gwen, what you're doing with this guy, you know, I think it’s really cool."
Then with a big, teasing grin, she leaned forward and spoke in a loud stage whisper. "But I've just got to know, have you slept with him yet?"
As her friends broke up laughing, Gwen pleaded, "Would you idiots please stop? Of course I haven't slept with him yet."
The laughter immediately stopped. For just a moment Sue, Ann, and Robin stared at one another. Then in ragged unison, they shouted, “not yet!” and began laughing even louder.
Once the laughter died down, Gwen took a deep breath to steady herself, and then doggedly continued. "Look, all I did was get him out of the hospital by taking him to the park a couple of times. Maybe I shouldn't have, but I did what I did because I had nothing else to do and felt sorry for the guy, that's all. It's not like I'm running around on Johnny. Besides, Mark left for home a few weeks ago."
Sue and Robin exchanged knowing glances. Then Sue winked and went into her very bad German accent. “Veddy interesting, Herr Inspector. Now zee fraulein’s new friend, he has a name.”
There was a big grin on Ann’s face. “Gwen’s right. He has gone home. But I do believe old Mark's due back any day now."
"What are you going to do about this guy, this Vietnam vet named Mark, when he returns?" Robin had regained her usual, straightforward, blunt manner.
"Yeah, are you going to see him again?" asked Sue.
"I don't know. Probably not. I mean I'm definitely not going over to the VA and track him down and I doubt if he's going to call me."
"Well, I think he will," said Ann, all the teasing gone from her voice. "And if he does call, you'd be a damn fool not to go see him again. I can't believe I'm saying this, but for a honky, he's not that bad, especially in comparison to Johnny da whoop-de-doodle. And you already know what I, hell, what all of us, think about him."
Sue and Robin nodded in agreement. They shared Ann’s opinion of Johnny and, like her, had often told Gwen any change would be an improvement.
"Look, Gwen, all bullshit aside," said Sue, "I'm with Ann on this. You know I'll always be there for you no matter what you do or who you do it with. So if you enjoy being with this guy, then keep on seeing him. After all, it's not like you're hurting anyone, right? So, well, why not?"
Robin had been listening and nodding. Now, she spoke up. "Gwen, you know how I feel about the war. But, if this Mark character calls and you don't go see him, you'll always wonder what might have been. And knowing you, you’d feel guilty because you might have hurt his tender little feelings. So what the hell, go ahead and see what happens."
"It's decided then. Your advisory council has voted three to zip for your hooking up again with this guy," declared Sue as she poured out the last of the beer. "Now let's finish this pitcher and split, I'm beat."
Later that night, Gwen lay awake unable to stop thinking about Mark Cahill. At Guy Fawkes, she said he probably wouldn't call when he got back in town. Now she couldn't help wondering if she was right.
Gwen knew how she'd react if he turned out to be another Paul Goldstein. She’s met the young blonde god at a party the summer before she started dating Johnny. They danced, then made out in a dark corner of the room. After the party, he even asked for her number, but then he never called.
Nearly five years later, Gwen could still feel the hurt and disappointment.
But she was older now and the situation was very different.
If Mark didn't call she might be disappointed but not devastated. She'd forget about him and go on with her life. There was school. There was Johnny. There was, in fact, no doubt she’d be better off and her life would be a lot less complicated without the distracting presence of Mark Cahill.
But what if he did call? What should she do? More importantly, what would she really do? All her good intentions seemed to vanish around him.
Eventually, having convinced herself it was a problem she'd never face, Gwen dropped off into a restless sleep.
A few days later, the cry of, "Call for Gwen Kaplan," pulled her away from a chemistry textbook. Assuming either Johnny or her parents were calling, she carefully marked her spot before heading for the phone bank near the elevators.
It was almost suppertime, so the interruption didn't bother her, but it seemed unusual to get a call at this time of day.
To her surprise, she found Ann standing by the phones with a big grin on her face. The receiver was in one hand and she used the other to cover the mouthpiece.
Sounding like an officious telephone operator, she said, "If you are indeed the party in question, do I ever have a call for you."
"Give me that," laughed Gwen, making a grab for the phone.
Ann pulled it just out of her reach. "I must make certain you are the party this gentleman caller has requested. Judging from his drawl and the weary tone in his voice, I'd say he's just arrived from the South, possibly Louisiana, and I'm sure he--."
"Are you shitting me?"
"I shit you not, child. The return of the redneck is upon us," said Ann, as Gwen snatched the receiver from her hand.
A few, very, very few, minutes later, Gwen was back in Mark's room and back in his arms. And as her lips met his, she knew that, for better or worse, he was back in her life.
Note to readers: any comments, especially thoughts on how to improve this sucker, would be appreciated ~ rdw