Your eyes open like clockwork, without an alarm, just the way they’ve done for the past 67 years. The first light of dawn still struggles to carry itself up and over the horizon. You linger for a moment, taking stock of the day’s potential physical aches and pains. You reach back and rub your neck – the side with the propensity to always get a bit stiff when you’ve been up reading for too long. The crisp browning leaves rustle in the breeze outside your bedroom window. You roll from the center of the bed toward the sound. The sky, still dark, holds a single faint star for your view.
Then, as though in a Hollywood motion picture, the oversized camera zooms from your face out toward the constellations and focuses in on that timeless star—the star that you’d gazed upon many years before, on that particular night… When the camera slowly pans back out, the audience finds you firmly situated in that memory which you could swear was happening now.
You’ve left your body in your home on Wisteria Avenue, and your mind comes alive in that balcony in Hamburg. That star hangs above you like a beacon. A high cloud lazily meanders in front. The lower clouds are winning the race, outpacing the higher ones by lengths. A familiar chilly autumn gust blows your silk scarf nearly off your neck. You grasp it and turn around to the soft light of the twin bedside lamps. Under the wool blanket on the bed, he lies, his white t-shirt stretched tightly across his muscular chest. His dog tags hang down from where he leans on his elbow. He catches your gaze with the same golden brown eyes that you fell in love with that day he first walked into the office with his cap in hand, starched suit and official delivery. It’s 1945. The war has ended and your secretarial duties are done. Tomorrow you’ll be headed home. Home. His eyes are sad now. His orders have not yet come through; he won’t be going with you.
The bare branch taps hard on your window pane and you jump up, startled and are hurtled back to the present. You twist the tiny knob of your bedside lamp and when it glows, again, you sink into memory. The mix of post-war nostalgia and end-of-a-dream sadness swirl in you, bringing both a smile and a tear to your weathered face. It’s time to rise and greet another day.
You walk toward the bathroom, white silk pajamas swish smoothly with each step. You pass photo after family photo on the wood paneled walls. Each portrait covers a darker rectangle of the wall’s original color; what’s remained visible is faded with the sun’s age. You glide underneath the looped rope pulley to the attic staircase. You can almost sense the weight of your old treasure box just above you. The box your family has never seen. The box that holds all your secrets: the letters— his letters!—and one single image of you two, alive with joy and fire and life, from that balcony in Hamburg.
Your children are since grown and moved away with their own families now. Your wife has long since passed.
You gaze at your reflection as the fluorescent light flickers on and buzzes gently in your ears. Your hand raises instinctively toward your cheeks and you turn your head side to side and examine the stubble which has grown overnight. You remove your razor from the medicine cabinet and grasp the handle of his old shaving cream brush. It comforts you to know the natural oils of his able hands seeped into the grain over the many years of its use prior to it becoming yours. It makes you feel closer to him. As you shave, your mind floats back to Europe. The voice of Edith Piaf plays in your head. A Victory Day celebration dances its way into your bedroom and he spins you, his white teeth gleaming in an exuberant grin. For a moment, the world has disappeared, and you are happy. And free.
You replace the razor and brush where they belong. Your face looks young again, fresh. You return to your room to dress: blue Levi’s, t-shirt under heavy flannel button-down, wool socks, weatherproof shoes. You look the part that you did not choose for yourself.
You step gingerly down each step, careful not to strain the still intact hip. Mobility is of paramount importance. Your stomach rumbles, but it is not yet time to eat. Instead, you proceed on your way, as you do daily. You exit the front door and the wind picks up. You reach back inside to grab your hat and place it firmly on your head to combat the chill. The sun has just begun to lighten the shade of blue of the early morning sky. The grass blows wildly in its strip next to your driveway neatly lined with brick. The wind dies down again as you turn onto the sidewalk. There is no sound now but that of your feet walking down your block of traditional Tudor homes, sold to you back when only white families could purchase there. You pass the three houses you must on your way to your destination. You cross the street, pick up the newspaper wrapped in plastic which has been flung on the driveway of the Tudor house with the wooden red door. You brush it off with your hands, gently fold the plastic over the top, and place it intentionally, perfectly vertically, at the center of the foot of the door. You never tire of this daily routine which has been yours for more years than you can count because you know that when he opens the door, he will know it was you. You turn away again, away from your past, your lover—the one you could never have. The one who raised a family alongside yours. Your old army buddy, they’d say. But you know all along, he’s the one who got a world—but three doors—away.