By Kristina Rasmussen
The girl is only 18. She wears a borrowed pink sweater that’s too tight across the chest. Poverty, humiliation, acne, peroxide, abandonment, and abuse have damaged her. Still, she is young enough to feel hopeful that this will be her last first date with a sailor on leave. The young men who serve at the naval base like to visit this port town before going overseas, and the girl and her only friend dress up tirelessly for the dance, waiting for their own ship to come in. She has faced humiliation at school for wearing hand me down rags, and believes no local boy would want her. She can be whoever she wants on these nights, but self doubt keeps her quiet. While the girl and her friend apply shared pasty-pink lipstick and powder in the backseat of the ‘67 Nova, the boy in front watches in the rearview mirror. She catches him spying and wonders if he is the one, but doesn’t realize how plainly the question shows in her eyes. She’s surprised when he doesn’t look away first. She thinks she’s found her answer.
The boy believes this girl has the prettiest eyes he’s ever seen. They’re almost black, like his mother’s. Her teeth are crooked, but whiter than the snow back home, and if she covers them again with her gloved hand when he smiles at her, he’s afraid he might turn around and pull her hand off her face. They’ve only met this afternoon, but he’s learned enough about her to know that in a few hours, she’ll pack her few belongings and quietly leave her foster home where her time is up, anyway. He sees her eyes searching his when she catches him staring. In this game of chicken, he doesn’t look away first. He intends to answer every question in her innocent eyes because he knows he has finally found the reason he survived two tours of duty on a riverboat in Vietnam. If there is ever going to be redemption for him, it is through this girl.
Later, after dropping off the girl’s loud, horse-toothed friend, the sailor and the girl walk on the beach and sip whiskey from his flask. Not used to drinking alcohol, the girl throws up. The boy kneels beside her and gently holds her hair out of her face. He doesn’t mind. The boy has futilely held his best friend’s guts in place while waiting for the medics. He’s not squeamish. He gently rubs small circles on her lower back and tells her he’d like to take care of her.
As he drives to the motel that will be their first home together, the girl slumps, exhausted, against his shoulder. They check into a room under a married alias. He sees the makeup wash away, leaving a clean, bright faced girl in a soft, worn ivory flannel nightgown. In the blackest night, she holds the sobbing boy with phantom wounds, huddled on the floor in the corner. For two days they whisper, dream, and cry in room six, leaving occasionally for long meals at the café, until the courthouse doors open Monday morning at nine o’clock. Then, purged of their pasts, they move to the honeymoon suite for one night, where their futures begin.