by Jacob L. Warner
“Wanna see some feelthy pictures?” asked the sergeant as Jonathan walked into the tent where four soldiers were examining some photographs by the light of the gasoline lantern.
“Sure,” said Jonathan accepting a stack of small prints. They were filthy all right but had been reprinted so many times by the process of paper negatives that they resembled the murky pictures a psychologist uses for testing patients. But suddenly he came to one which was clear and sharp. Jonathan dropped the stack of pictures, rushed out of the tent, and vomited on the ground.
“Well, la di dah,” said the sergeant as Jonathan continued retching. “Isn’t he the delicate one?”
Jonathan blindly sought his own tent and stretched out on his bunk. “What the hell,” he thought. “She told me didn’t she? I knew it didn’t I?”
“Jon,” said his tentmate, “are you all right? What’s wrong?”
“Yeah,” replied Jonathan, “I’m ok. Just leave me alone, will you?”
“Sure, take it easy. I just want to help if I can.”
“God, oh God,” he thought, “I thought I was over it. No wonder she called me a stupid hick. That’s exactly what I am.”
He rummaged in his barracks bag and pulled out a stationery folder from which he took a photo. It was a typical nightclub shot, harshly lighted by a flash bulb. Seated at the small table were Jonathan and a girl. The flash reflected off Jonathan’s scalp which was unprotected by his fresh army haircut making him look nearly bald. The girl was a delicately featured oriental, theatrically dressed and wearing heavy makeup. She was smiling a false, bright professional smile. Jonathan ripped the picture in half and threw it back into the bag and lay down again on his cot and closed his eyes.
In his head, the movie that in the last year had played over and over, but which in the last few months had become infrequent, began again. He groaned and shook his head, but the scenes continued relentlessly.
Jonathan was in San Francisco for his last night of leave before being shipped overseas. Day after tomorrow he and thousands of others were to board a ship in Oakland for no one knew where. For the last week he had been at Camp Stoneman. His feeling of insecurity was accentuated because he did not even know where the camp was located except that it was somewhere close to Oakland. He had been detached from his regular unit, shipped across the country by troop train, and now was about to be sent overseas. Of the tens of thousands of soldiers in the camp he knew not one. Only the impersonal army knew who he was or where he was bound. And the normally self-sufficient Jonathan could not shake the feeling that his very identity was disappearing. He had seized upon the chance to visit San Francisco on an overnight pass.
But he was becoming ever more depressed. A heavy blanket of fog lay over the city all afternoon, and he shivered miserably in his summer uniform. He spent two hours walking from hotel to hotel trying to find a room, and finally resigned himself to having nowhere to sleep. He almost wished he had stayed in camp where at least the hot sun would have kept him warm.
In the early evening he went into a nightclub where outside posters proclaimed an early floorshow. He ordered a drink and a chicken sandwich which together cost more than two days’ pay and waited for the show. Even to his inexperienced eye the show was a waste. The M.C.’s unfunny filth spread sourly over the attractive, but slightly awkward, chorus line.
Then came the announcement: “Now for the star of the show, that oriental beauty, the teasing, tantalizing, captivating Nowell Toi. Now let’s have a great big hand for a grand little gal.”
Jonathan gaped at the dancing girl whose every motion was fluidly graceful and who looked much too young, too fragile and entirely too lovely to seem real. He wanted to throttle the M.C. to choke off his smutty comments. He felt pain in his chest and discovered he was holding his breath. He felt shame and embarrassment that he and the others were seeing her suggestive dance. He was glad when it was over and glad that when she came back to receive her applause she was wearing a robe.
“How can I meet her?” thought Jonathan. He called his waiter over and asked him if Miss Toi would have a picture made with him.
“Yeah,” grumbled the waiter. “She probably will, for a soldier.”
In a few minutes he saw her in her brilliant red silk robe weaving between the closely packed tables toward his table in the far corner. As she came up to the table, she extended her hand and smiled warmly at him. Jonathan caught his breath. He felt utterly overwhelmed by her beauty. Perhaps she was used to this, for she gently pushed him down into his chair and then seated herself. Jonathan could not think of anything to say and, in fact, felt like his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth.
After an awkward couple of minutes, the photographer appeared, aimed his camera, fired his flash, and disappeared. The girl made a motion as if preparing to rise. Jonathan blurted, “Will you have a drink with me?”
She looked calmly at him for a moment, her black eyes seeming to weigh him. “Yes,” she said and settled back into her chair.
Gradually it seemed easier to talk. He realized that she was deliberately helping to put him at ease. Finally she said, “Would you care to dance?”
“I wouldn’t dare,” he protested.
“Ah, don’t worry,” she said. “You couldn’t step on my toes if you tried to.”
After the dance she again made motions toward leaving and Jonathan, in desperation, said, “Please sit down a moment. I want to say something.” She sat down and gave him full attention. “This is either going to sound like a line or completely crazy, but so help me, I believe I fell in love with you at first sight. I didn’t even believe such a thing could happen.”
Her smile changed to an unfathomable, sombre expression. “Jon,” she finally said, “I believe you. I felt it.” She touched his hand gently. “It’s the war. Your last leave. You’re not yourself.” She looked down at her hand on his. “I know I shouldn’t tell you this, but I like you very much. You don’t know how strange that feels to me.”
Jonathan stared incredulously at her.
“It’s all mixed up,” she said. “I had a brother, so much like you. He was killed in action a week ago. In France. Maybe it’s just that.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Look, let’s get out of here and go someplace where we can talk,” she said. “Let’s go to the wharf and have a late dinner.” She correctly interpreted his uneasy movement. “Please don’t worry about the money,” she added. “I know how it is with soldiers, and I have plenty if you don’t.”
“Can you leave here?”
“Yes, they have another girl who can take over my spot in the show.”
Twenty minutes later she reappeared in street clothes. The removal of her stage makeup made her look even younger, but now she looked real, real and somehow vulnerable.
“My real name is Sharon, Sharon Sakata,” she said as they ate dinner. “My father and mother are Japanese and are in a detention camp. It broke my father’s heart when they took him away. He had tried to be so American and was so proud of his American citizenship. He insisted that my brother and I have American names. Charles was my brother’s name.”
“How old was your brother?”
“He was twenty-four, three years older than I am. I’m afraid to see my father. I don’t think I ever meant much to him, but Charlie was the center of his life. He wanted Charles to become a doctor, but Charlie wanted to follow his profession instead.”
“What is that?”
“My father was the head gardener at the Marks estate, a huge place to the north of here. Nothing gives him more pleasure than growing flowers, and I guess he had to be proud that Charlie felt the same way. He was such a wonderful person.” Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. She shook her head slightly. “The war has destroyed us all,” she said.
“Not you.” said Jonathan. “You are certainly not destroyed.”
“Yes, yes, I am.” She stared bleakly and unseeingly at the candle in the middle of the table. “Where are you staying tonight?” she asked.
“Well, maybe at the USO. I couldn’t find a hotel room. If the USO is full, I will just stay up. I have to catch a bus at seven in the morning anyway to get back to camp on time.”
“You can stay at my apartment,” she said. “I don’t mean you can sleep with me, because you can’t. But you can stay there.”
“I didn’t think that,” he protested.
She laughed gently at him. “Oh, I doubt if you are all that much different from other soldiers. Anyway it’s not my virtue that I’m worried about. I may tell you later.”
He whistled admiringly at the luxuriousness of her apartment. Accustomed as he was to army barracks he thought it looked more like a movie set than where someone lived.
“Turn the light off and I’ll open the drapes,” she said. They stood side by side looking down over the city which was dimly illuminated by the full moon. “I guess it would be a beautiful sight if it weren’t for the brownout, but I have never seen this view when the lights of the city were on.” She turned the sofa around to face the window and sat down. “You sit at the other end,” she said. “I have to tell you something. I know you are being honest with me. You couldn’t be that good an actor. I’m going to be honest with you, too. So I have to tell you this. If you’re wondering how I can afford such an apartment, it’s easy. I make lots of money. I’m a call girl, a high-priced call girl.”
“Call girl,” he protested, unable to absorb the words.
“Even a stupid, mid-western hick like you must know what a call girl is. A call girl is a prostitute, a whore. You know what a whore is, don’t you?” She was on her feet and her voice was now harsh and loud.
“Yes,” said Jonathan, “but I don’t believe it. Not you. You couldn’t be.”
“Jon,” she said softly, “that’s one statement you can believe on the face of it. I can’t think of any reason why any girl would ever lie about such a thing.”
He stared into the night, his mind in turmoil. Finally he said, “Listen, I really think I’m in love with you. I’d like to marry you.”
“Jon, Jon, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Have you ever had any experience with women?”
“Well,” he said, “after all, I am twenty-two and I am a soldier.”
“You are a baby,” she said, “a sweet innocent baby. You’re asking to be destroyed too. Believe me it would completely destroy you. You don’t have any idea.”
“No, no. Your ideas about prostitutes come from books. Books written by men. They’re all wrong. Prostitutes are not simple, good-hearted women who can easily be transformed into faithful wives. They’re mean, grasping, lazy, ignorant, beastly man haters. The only worse people in the world are their customers. And even if I could change, you could never live with the knowledge. It could never work.”
“Maybe it could. We could try.”
“That’s crazy talk. You don’t know the things I have done. You can’t even imagine them. I hate men and I hate sex. Everything about men and sex is repulsive to me.”
“But you don’t hate me?”
“No, no I don’t. Since I’ll never see you again, I’ll tell you the truth. I feel a little bit in love with you. I can’t explain it. But I’m not going to ruin your life. That’s for sure.” She put her head down on the sofa arm and cried.
Jonathan put his head on her shaking shoulder and tears came into his own eyes as she kept on crying. “Don’t, don’t,” he murmured.
“It’s you, me, my brother, my father, my mother, it’s everything,” she sobbed. Finally she became quiet. After many minutes she said, “I didn’t cry when I heard the news about my brother, not til now. I never cry. I’m sorry. It’s a hell of a way for a soldier to spend his last leave. Not quite what you hoped for, is it? You can sleep with me if you want to, it’s the least I can do.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to become just like the others to you. Make us a drink, and let’s just sit here and talk.”
“Jon,” she said, “I’m glad you’re going away. If you were going to be around, I wouldn’t have the will power not to mess you up. And it wouldn’t work, I know that.”
They sat side by side with their feet in the low window and talked. With all pretense stripped away, they talked about everything – their hopes, their secret fears, their incomprehension of the mysteries of their existence. They talked with the intimacy of lovers and the freedom of strangers. Jonathan felt that he had never had such a conversation, and that he had never known anyone as well as he knew this lovely, tortured girl. Finally she went to sleep with her head on his shoulder, and he sat unmoving so as not to disturb her. Then he, also, must have slept because suddenly he opened his eyes to see a bright mass of fog swirling over the city.
“Five o’clock,” she said, peering at her watch. “Let me change clothes and fix you some breakfast and get you started back to camp.” She kissed him softly on the lips.
“Will you write to me?” he asked as they walked to the bus station.
“No,” she said. “It’s really over, Jon. I’ll remember you always, but it’s over. You’ll forget me. You are young and strong, and someday you will fall in love with a girl as fine and decent as you are.”
“I’ll never forget you,” he protested. “Nothing like you ever happened to me. And never will again.”
“Yes it will,” she said. “You are going to make such a beautiful, wonderful man that it’ll be a lucky girl that gets you. And she’ll know it. I truly wish it could be me, but it’s impossible.”
They stood looking deep into each other’s eyes. Jonathan ignored the whistles from the bus load of envious soldiers. He said, “I love you, Sharon.”
She came into his arms and held him tightly and kissed him long and deeply. “I love you, Jonathan,” she said and turned and walked rapidly away. She looked back once, a brief glance, and disappeared around the corner.
Jonathan boarded the bus scarcely aware of the many comments offered by the other soldiers and slumped into a seat, put his head back and closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes and watched a little lizard scurry upside down across the canvas ceiling. “Oh, damn it, damn it, damn it,” he said.
Hand set in Deepdene. Unknown cover stock (which had to be scored to fold against the grain) was donated by Tom Rozzell. The paper is 60-lb Warren’s Olde Style. Published and printed by Jake Warner on a 10×15 C&P in an edition of 475 copies.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770