Here is John, beside me again. Sometimes when we meet he gives me a small, courtly bow. Other times he’s tired and he can only muster up a smile as the words “Bonjour, ma belle,” fall out of his mouth. Sometimes his eyes burn feverishly, sometimes they’re dull, sometimes he’s drunk. It depends on where he’s been that day. There are only two things constant about my John: he always manages to smile, and I can always see the fear deep in every line on his face.
Paris is grim; the front is moving closer to the city, and we’re losing more battles than we’re winning. John spends his time here waiting, and afraid. He lost in these brown streets among these brown buildings, as are all the uniformed boys playing soldier.
Only they are not playing, really. Not anymore. Time is short for him, and the front lines rise up and loom in the darkness. He will meet them again soon. He is like a starving man, needing a good meal and a kind word before he is to go meet any number of ends out there between the trenches and the wires and the guns. It is not a hunger of the flesh, it is a hunger of the heart. He holds my hand tight enough that it hurts me, but I let him do it. If it’s love he needs, this simple, easy thing, then who am I to deny him?
I am wearing my peridot earrings and the matching pendant that he got me, because he says they match my eyes, and I know he likes them.
“They are beautiful,” he tells me.
I finger the earrings, “You think so?”
“I meant your eyes.”
It always makes me smile when he says that. It’s wonderful not to talk of the war.
We go dancing, and I let him buy me drinks until we’re both very drunk. He laughs very loudly, like a bark, punctuated with sudden stops. The music is hot and fun and lively, and we are too, with so much drink in us.
He dances so ungainly, and he’s wild tonight. It’s all so funny, everyone’s laughing. The whole world is funny. Three days in Paris on leave is hilarious. John laughs and struts, and the fear of what he’s waiting for out there in the darkness stays stretched over him like a net he is fighting to get out of. It scares me so much to see him with death all over him, but who am I to talk about problems with someone like him? I dance with him, and I let him spin me and hold me and step on my toes. Tonight we have piano, I try to remind him, not the rat-tat-tat of guns.
“You know,” John says, “I had a buddy in my company what could play piano well.”
“Yeah, his name was Joe and he was from Saint Louie. Lord, he could play.”
I do not ask where Joe is, because I know better.
John has stopped smiling now, and he orders another glass of brandy.
I take his big hand in mine. I smooth his hair and do my best to make him smile. “Come on John, dance with me a bit more.”
He follows obediently.
The old world we once knew was a slow, sunny place. John would bow to me in those days, not awkwardly at all, and kiss my hand. We would talk for ages, months maybe, and one night beneath the moon by the lake we might kiss. But there is no time for that now. I feel his hand pressing on the small of my back. The piano is still hot and the crowd alive, but he has gone quiet, and now there is a sense of urgency. His breathing is the quickest thing about him, not his laugh. Soon, flushed with drinking, he takes me upstairs.
It’s not really what I can call lovemaking. It’s too desperate for that. But, it’s what he needs, and I can’t tell him no. There’s a sad little daisy in the vase on my dresser watching over us as we tumble around in bed. It hurts a little and he comes too quickly, and afterwards I lie against him, trembling, afraid to take myself away. Eventually, I sleep.
But late at night he sits upright, and he’s crying; that tight mask across his face has cracked and now the fear floods out in gasps and sobs. Now, more than sex, he just wants another presence, so I wrap my arms around his waist and listen as he tells me what happened to Joe. He tells me what it’s like to see an explosion hit a man and leave nothing but his leg sticking up from one boot. He tells me he lives in an earthen bowel, full of shit and blood. He tries to tell me about fear, about Germans, about anything he can find words for. I listen as patiently as I can.
He gropes in the dark but I know what he’s looking for; from the floor I take the whiskey bottle, and I hand it back to him.
After three long drinks his chest trembles less; his sweating stops even if mine does not. He lapses back into uneasy sleep, stinking violently of liquor, with one arm wrapped around me, holding my breast. I do not sleep again for hours.
In the morning he is gone before I wake, back to Cantigny, or a town along the Marne, I don’t know. It’s always a new place. It is late in the morning, so I am sure he is on a troop train, packed tightly into a small car, with the smell of bodies and exhaust and straw overpowering him. He is hot, I am sure, as I was hot with him pressed against me, unable to stop sweating, and I feel so awful that I cannot stop crying for some minutes. The war is always there in the morning. I am no longer afraid of the dark. I am always afraid of the morning.
I take a long time to get up and take breakfast in my room. I only eat a little of the croissant because I am not truly hungry, and I go back to bed for a while longer. By the time I get up, set my hair and finally dress, it is well past lunch and almost dinner. I feel empty inside, consumed maybe, and I want to rest. That is the problem with John; he is always leaving, leaving, leaving, but he never comes back, never gives back. I don’t think he can, anymore. I go downstairs to the little bar and order a drink; cognac, please, bartender. No, nothing else. Just the cognac. I am tired, I want to tell him. I want to tell anyone. But I try not to talk about myself these days.
I spill a little cognac and a reach for a napkin to clean it up; a hand brushes lightly on top of mine. I look up and here is a young man with surprised eyes, who didn’t realize my hand had been there. He smiles, and I can see the fear behind it, deep in every line on his face.
“Hello, Miss. Par-ley vous Anglais?”
“Oui,” I answer with a smile. “A little.”
“I’m Sam,” he says. “And you are very beautiful.”
I blush. “My name is Emilie.”
“Do you dance, Emilie?”
I stand and he gives me a small, awkward bow, but his eyes are very kind and they never leave me, not for a second.
Here is Sam, beside me again. He is stretched too thin with hunger and waiting, and he holds my hand so hard that it hurts me, but I let him. He’s a little drunk and he’s moving too fast. He holds me too tightly against him, as if he’s afraid to lose me. So I hold him in my arms and soothe him. I’m so tired, but it is nothing compared to the heart- hunger and the waiting that my Sam must endure. Love is a simple gift, how can I not give it?
We go out dancing. He loves my peridot earrings, the ones he gave me, and tells me they look lovely with my eyes. He always does.