This is chapter one of my much-revised first novel, A BRIEF AFFAIR. It's a semi-autobiographical, sort-of-a-memoir, fictionalized version of how a nice, engaged, Jewish nursing student from Queens got mixed up with a backsliding Baptist from Louisiana.
Any comments and/or suggestions would be appreciated.
==A BRIEF AFFAIR
“In other national news, a Defense Department spokesman said 18,000 of the 31,000 US troops ordered into Cambodia by President Nixon have been withdrawn.”
Gwen Kaplan gave her bangs one last touch. Before this summer, news about Vietnam had been little more than the background noise to her life. She cared—had worked at a student nurse run aide station during the Wall Street riots, and still wept at the weekly list of US fatalities on TV. But the war had never been personal. Now things were different. Now she knew someone who had fought over there, and been wounded.
“Investigations are continuing into the killing of protesters at Kent State and Jackson State universities. Authorities are discounting recent allegations by Mississippi officials that both incidents were started by snipers firing from student dorms.”
Two weeks ago, the south was just a blur to her. Now that was also different. Now she also knew someone from the south. The same patient on her ward at the VA who’d been wounded in Vietnam. Her hair would do, she decided, and put the brush into her purse.
“In local sports the Mets and Yankees both dropped Sunday double-head--.”
She turned off the radio, then got up and gave herself a last check in the long mirror her father had mounted behind the bedroom door. The short white uniform looked okay but, as usual, Gwen didn’t like anything else she saw. Despite visual evidence to the contrary, her self-image was still that of a pudgy schoolgirl with dull brown eyes, drab brown hair, and a sprinkling of freckles across an otherwise nice enough nose.
After dieting all winter, her figure was at the point where she could actually consider buying a bikini for trips to Rockaway and Jones Beach later this summer. Johnny would like that, a lot. She shook her head and glanced at the framed photo of Johnny DeAngelo. The face of her long-time boyfriend was frozen in a self-conscious smirk.
Of course, she’d end up with a more modest two-piece. That still marked a vast improvement over the dowdy, one-piece suits she’d always worn. But no matter how she might really look, what she saw in the mirror never seemed to improve. She sighed, grabbed her purse and suitcase, and headed for the living room.
“So you’re going to miss your cousin Sammy’s party this Wednesday, am I right, and not come home until Friday?” The sound of her mother’s hectoring voice made Gwen cringe.
They had fought all weekend about her decision to skip the bar mitzvah of a particularly unappealing cousin. Gwen felt a little guilty about not going. But staying away from her mother all week was too tempting. “That’s right, Mom. But I’ll call tonight from the dorm.” Not wanting to give her mother a chance to re-start the hostilities, she gave her a quick kiss and then hurried out the apartment.
It was a beautiful, almost balmy Monday morning in the borough of Queens. Birds were singing in leafy oak trees. Spring flowers bloomed in well-kept beds. Clean looking clouds floated in a blue sky lacking the usual load of pollution.
Mrs. Esther Katz and Mrs. Irene Goldman were in their accustomed spots on the front stoop. Deep into one of their non-stop morning dialogues, they appeared oblivious to all these marvels of urban nature. But when Gwen came out the front door, they smiled and interrupted their conversation.
"Morning, doll. Hi ya doing?" asked Mrs. Katz, who had known the newcomer all her life.
"You always look so nice in your pretty nurse's uniform,” gushed Mrs. Goldman. “So tell me, dear, do you still like working at the VA?"
"Yes ma'am," replied Gwen, in a brief, consolidated response to all their questions. Both women had well-deserved reputations for knowing practically everything about everyone who lived in the building. This included Gwen’s summer job as a nurse tech at the Manhattan Veteran’s hospital.
"Those old vets aren't giving you a hard time, are they?" Mrs. Katz gave her a knowing wink.
"You know they are, Esther," teased Mrs. Goldman. "I mean, as cute as she is, especially with those pretty legs of hers and the short skirts all the young girls wear these days."
Gwen felt her skin flush under the appraisal. To cover her embarrassment, she set down the suitcase and began rummaging around in her roomy purse, making sure she had some of the new thirty-cent subway tokens and exact change for the bus.
"Now, Mrs. Goldman, you’ve got to remember, I'm working on an ophthalmology ward. Most of the patients are pretty old and have such bad eyesight they couldn’t tell if I was even wearing a skirt, much less notice its length." A protective instinct told her not to mention the ward’s new patient, the young, wounded Vietnam vet from the south named Mark Cahill.
The ladies laughed and began warning her about dirty old men. The discovery of both tokens and change reprieved Gwen. Giving her tormenters a smile, she said good-bye, picked up her suitcase, then hurried down the steps and across the street to the bus stop.
In Gwen’s opinion, getting on a city bus during rush hour was a form of hand-to-hand combat. People in front and back would be pushing and shoving while you battled to hang onto the handrail and whatever you were carrying plus your tokens or exact change.
Doing all this with a suitcase in one hand and a purse on your shoulder, while trying to keep your white uniform clean and the hem of its short skirt in place, made the experience even more interesting. Sometimes it didn't all work.
Today she was taking the early morning Q65A bus, however, which meant things were easier. To her delight she grabbed an empty window seat near the front. Depositing the small, battered suitcase on the floor, she sat, tugged at the hem of her skirt and strategically positioned her large purse on her lap.
After checking her watch, she pulled out a paperback copy of The French Lieutenant's Woman and prepared to endure another long Monday bus ride from her working-class neighborhood in Flushing to the subway station in upper-crust Forest Hills where she’d transfer to the F train for the even longer ride into Manhattan.
Mondays were busy on the ward. It was after lunch before Gwen had time to begin rubbing a medicated ointment onto Mark's upper torso. The idea was to treat a mild rash, a side effect of the cortisone he took following his recent corneal transplant. For the past two weeks she’s used her best massage techniques to carefully apply the thick, topical medication.
Today’s treatment was to be the last one. To her surprise, she felt some vague, mixed emotions at the prospect of no more back rubs.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, while spreading the creamy ointment over Mark’s back.
“Okay, I guess.” There was a distant, mechanical, almost truculent tone to his voice.
“Is something bothering you?”
The question seemed to annoy him. “No, nothing.”
“Don’t tell me nothing,” she insisted, while still working on his back. “I’ve never seen you this moody. Something must be wrong. Whatever it is, I’d like to know--I really would, but only if you feel like talking.”
After a long pause, Mark began speaking in a low voice. “I met a guy down in the canteen this morning. Turns out, he was with the armored unit working with us the day I got hit. According to him, there was a second KIA. I knew a guy named Tony Doughty got wasted. The last thing I remember seeing was his body being tossed around by the blast. That was bad enough. He was new, a cherry, and in my squad. I felt responsible for him. Now I find out someone else got killed and I’ve got no idea who the hell it was.”
She didn’t interrupt, letting him talk through his emotions. The muscles in his back tensed, then began to ease. A few minutes later, he looked at her and winked. “Thanks. Guess I needed that.”
Something told her the subject of the unknown dead soldier was closed. "Glad I could help.” She smiled and recapped the bottle of ointment. “It looks like that rash is gone.”
"Well, to tell the truth, I kind of hate to see it go.” He rolled over, sat on the edge of his bed, and reached for his pajama top. "I've grown pretty fond of these back rubs."
She washed her hands while trying to think of something to say. "Actually, you can have a back rub anytime you want. It's standard nursing procedure. It, uh, helps prevent bed sores."
Inwardly, she cringed at her lame remark. No patient as active as Mark Cahill was ever going to get bedsores.
"I'll be sure to remember that," he said, while buttoning the short-sleeved top. "Changing the subject from the fascinating world of bed sores and rashes, when you get a chance, could you help me snag a new pair of pajamas? I managed to get that stuff all over these."
“No problem. Let me put all this away and I’ll meet you at the linen room in a couple of minutes.”
In the nurse’s station, Gwen replaced the bottle of ointment, then pulled Mark's chart and dutifully recorded the treatment. After checking with Mrs. Anding, the ward’s head nurse, she got the key and headed for the linen room.
It was located off the main hall in a quiet cul-de-sac which contained several other small rooms used for storing cleaning equipment and other non-medical supplies. When she arrived, Mark was leaning against the door.
She smiled. "Sorry it took so long. Mrs. Anding was on the phone.”
“No problem. I've just been hanging around admiring this scene of old world culture and charm."
She laughed and unlocked the door. Inside, she switched on the overhead light and they began looking for a pair of extra large pajamas.
The VA issued two types of pajamas. Most patients wore the traditional style which came in a choice of either faded or washed-out green. Mark preferred ones called convalescents. They were dark blue and made of heavier material which allowed him to walk around without a robe.
The trouble was virtually every pair they found was old and had no label. They lucked out and quickly came across some bottoms in reasonably good shape with a label saying they were his size. Finding a matching shirt proved much tougher. While Gwen hunted, Mark tried on whatever she handed him.
After more searching, she came across one which she was sure would fit. From her kneeling position she looked up and laughed. "You're not an easy man to satisfy, you know.” She stood and pressed the garment against his bare chest. "But maybe I've got just what you need."
It was a very brief triumph. "As the granddaughter of a tailor, I’m certain it would fit. But now I notice it’s missing a button.” With a sigh, she lowered her hands and began folding the shirt.
When Mark said nothing, she continued, “But remember I told you about my friend, Ann? Well, she’s working on another ward. I'll take this one over there and see if they have one like it, but with buttons."
"Oh, don't worry about it," he said. There was an odd expression on his face.
"I don’t mind. It's about time for my break anyway."
With the help of her friend, Gwen’s mission accomplished. She returned to her ward, checked back in at the nursing station, and then headed for Mark’s room. After handing over her prize, she said, "I'd offer to close the curtains so you could change. But you've already put on the bottoms, so if it's all right, I'll wait to see if this fits."
"No problem," said Mark, who was standing in the middle of the room, putting on the top. To her surprise, he began struggling with the simple task of buttoning the shirt. Trembling fingers gave mute testimony to his growing frustration.
At first, Gwen hesitated to offer any help, afraid the gesture might hurt his feelings. But she was unable to just stand by and do nothing. "Can I help?"
He answered without looking at her. "Man and boy, I've been dressing myself for over twenty years. But, yes ma'am, if you don't mind, it looks like I could use a helping hand."
She came over and took the offending button from his fingers. His voice had been relatively calm. But standing next to him, she could feel his entire body shaking in frustration.
"It's these damn cataract glasses," he said. “They make doing some things pretty tough.” When she finished, he mumbled a thank you, then flopped back onto his bed.
It wasn't uncommon for her to spend a few minutes on slow afternoons talking to Mark. She liked him and liked hearing his smooth, southern accent. Not that he didn’t listen. Under his gentle questioning, she’d told him about herself, including Johnny. Her long-time boyfriend and now fiancé’ had dropped out of high school, washed out of the Navy, and was having trouble keeping a decent job. It could be very frustrating, she admitted, but she assured Mark she still loved Johnny and that once his situation was resolved, they’d get married.
Now, something told her Mark was the one who needed to talk. He’d just finished another long weekend alone on the ward, learned of yet another buddy’s death, and now the limitations of his vision had just been brought home to him.
She turned his bedside chair around and sat down facing him. "Mind if I stay for a minute and rest my feet?"
He seemed startled by the request. Looking in her direction, he responded, "If I ever start to mind that, then I really will be in trouble.” While he’d replied with a joke and a grin, to her, the humor sounded strained and the smile looked forced.
"Things like what just happened, do they bother you a lot?” Normally, she wouldn’t have been so direct. But she sensed that if she didn’t move quickly, he might try to rationalize away the incident and once again hide his emotions with humor.
"Just two times," Mark said, sitting up in bed, "daytime and nighttime.” As their conversation deepened, he told her what it was like to be totally blind for nearly a year and how he struggled to cope with his limitations and frustrations.
“The way I figure it, life is kind of like a poker game. You can’t control the cards you’re dealt, but you can control how you play your hand. In other words, you can either make the best of a situation or crawl away and wait to die.”
After a moment of indecision, she decided to risk asking the question that had always bothered her. “Do you mind telling me why you joined the Army? You had to know it meant going to Viet Nam.”
“Well, the war was out-of-style, very uncool, and I was in kind of a slump, so what else was I supposed to do? Besides, it was the only war around and I wanted to do my Ernest Hemingway thing. You know, check out what war was like.”
Gwen sensed they were circling a much bigger issue. Hoping she wasn’t making things worse, she said, “Mark, it’s okay if you don’t want to tell me, but I’d really like to know what happened when you got hurt.”
“No problem. It was last summer. The guy in front of me stepped on a booby trap. I caught the blast from the waist up and couldn’t see a thing. About a month later, I was flown to an Army hospital in Texas. The doctors there removed one eye and said I’d never see out of the other. And if it hadn’t been for a lot of luck, they might have been right,” he said in conclusion.
The brief story was almost too much for Gwen to handle. Hoping to change the mood, she asked, “Does the government pay for all this?”
“They didn’t at first. The Army said I’d never see again and so the VA had me ticketed for a blind rehab center. But now they’re paying and letting me stay here while I heal up.”
“So how long have you been up here?”
“Since January. I’ve gotten home a couple of times. Short visits. In fact, that’s where I was when a certain nursing student named Gwen Kaplan began her summer job.”
Mark was sitting on the edge of his bed, feet propped on the lowered railing, elbows resting on knees. His voice was so low and soothing, Gwen had to scoot closer and lean forward to hear.
He paused in the middle of a sentence, apparently having noticed something around her eyebrows. In a casual tone, he said, "Close your eyes a second.”
Assuming he wanted to remove whatever he’d just spotted, she obeyed—and was stunned to feel Mark's lips press gently against hers. An intoxicating erotic energy took possession of her body. No hands touched her, but she couldn’t move. As if in a dream, she responded to the unexpected kiss.
The tip of his tongue met no resistance as it slipped between her lips. Once inside, it made slow sensuous love to her mouth, caressing and coaxing her into returning its touch. She felt powerless to resist. All she could do, all she wanted to do, was savor the feel of Mark Cahill's mouth against hers.
Seconds, minutes, hours, days later, she couldn't be sure, he broke the kiss and leaned back. Gwen opened her eyes and saw him looking straight at her. What he’d done wasn’t right, she was certain of that. But what was she supposed to do now? After all, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and she’d loved the kiss.
From somewhere deep inside her jumbled brain came a memory of instructors saying to reject the act, not the patient. Now all she could think to say was, "I like you, Mr. Cahill."
He responded in his trademark soft southern voice. "I like you, too, Miss Kaplan."
Unable to think of anything else to do, she struggled to her feet and somehow managed to reach the foot of Mark's bed on legs which threatened to collapse. "And Miss Kaplan,” she paused at the sound of Mark’s voice and looked back, “someday I'm going to kiss every inch of your body."
Still shaken by the kiss, she couldn’t believe this guy had just told her something so blatantly sexual. Things like that weren’t supposed to happen to nice Jewish girls from Queens, especially when they were engaged.
With her head spinning, she mumbled good-bye and made her way out of room 24. In the empty, neon-lighted corridor, she sagged against the wall. Her addled mind raced with unanswered questions triggered by that unexpected kiss.
How had it happened? She wasn't sure.
Had she, somehow, encouraged him? No way.
Should she tell her head nurse, Mrs. Anding, or Johnny? Definitely not. Mrs. Anding was too professional to approve and Johnny too insecure to ever understand.
What should she do the next time? She didn't know.
Would there be a next time? Possibly? Probably?
She glanced back at the door to Mark’s room. Hopefully?
"You're not an easy man to satisfy, you know," she'd said, with her soft, inviting, brown eyes gazing up at him from under those long, dark lashes. “But maybe I’ve got just what you need.”
With that, she’d stood and pressed a pajama top against his chest. When her fingertips touched his bare skin, it’d been a struggle to keep standing.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, Mark kept replaying that scene, hearing those words. He went over and looked at himself in the mirror above the room's sink. With the thick, milk-bottle glasses he had to wear, the sprinkling of tiny powder burns around his eyes and the small scar on his left cheek, his face just wasn't the sort to tempt an engaged girl to flirt, especially a nice one like Gwen Kaplan.
And yet, back in the linen room, even before she touched his chest, he'd felt something happening between them. He stepped over to the window and stared across the street at the Bellevue nurses dorm and wondered which room was hers. Had she been standing a step closer than necessary? Had she been giving him a sexy look? Was it possible that she'd been flirting? Or was he just wanting to believe a cute girl like her could be attracted to him?
It’d been two years since he’d last felt anything like the emotions which swept over him, first then and later in his room as she buttoned the pajama top, fussed with the collar, and smoothed out the non-existent wrinkles. Looking into her eyes, feeling that touch, remembering those words, his palms had begun to sweat.
Of course, she probably hadn't been flirting. After all, she was studying to be a nurse. Assisting patients was part of her job. That included everything from coming to the rescue when they couldn't even button their damn pajamas to getting them talking about past traumas.
On the other hand, when he kissed her, she didn't jerk away or protest. That's what he'd expected. That’s why he’d hesitated too long in the linen room. They were, after all, practically strangers, and she was engaged, and what he’d said hadn’t just been a line, he really did like her. After a last, thoughtful look at the dorm, he turned and headed back to his bed.
But it had been a good kiss. And when she responded, it became a very good kiss. Very good, hell, it’d been outstanding. There’d been no mistaking the invitation in her moist, pliant lips, an invitation he'd gladly accepted. Nor was there any mistake about his wanting a chance to do it again.
The kiss startled her, he could tell. Of course, that line of his just before she left had probably been a total turn-off. Still, wasn’t there just a hint of a smile on her lips as she said goodbye and left? With his lousy vision, he couldn't be sure.
For all he knew, she might consider this sort of thing just another hazard of the job. Maybe she'd tolerated the kiss because she didn't want to hurt the feelings of a half-blind vet a long way from home.
Maybe. But something in her lips said that wasn't the case. Lying back on his bed, he could still smell her perfume and feel the sweet pressure of her mouth on his. It was a nice memory.
Gwen Kaplan had triggered a feeling he once doubted he’d ever have again. In a way, that was scary. Feeling nothing didn’t hurt. So her being engaged was a good thing, probably. He wondered if this might be the start of something interesting. That seemed very doubtful, but it was a nice thought.
Mark reached over to the nightstand and turned on his small radio. “In other national news, critics of the war in Vietnam are calling for renewed demonstrations over the government’s failure to immediately pull all US troops out of Cambo….”
The radio went silent. Mark released the on/off switch and stared out the window. Lights were still on in several dorm rooms across the street. It’d been a long time coming, he thought. But thanks to Gwen Kaplan, he now had something else to think about, and to sleep on.
Labels: 1970, love story, memoir, New York, novel, nurse tech, nursing student, NYC, Queens, romance, stolen kiss, VA hospital, veteran, Vietnam vet