Aryeh Schulterman places both of his hands on the naked belly of Jane Meehan. He cannot feel the baby, it’s too early for that, but it’s as close as he can get to their son or daughter, and with his orders in his pocket he has only hours left.
There is a very good chance that the baby will be born before he can get back stateside. And there is a chance he will never see him. . . her. . . And the converse, that his child will never meet his or her father.
“What are you thinking, Ary?” Jane asks, placing her hands over his.
It takes him a while to answer and she is patient because she can see that there’s too much going on behind his XX eyes to allow for an easy answer.
His first response is a long sigh. Then, being Aryeh, he tries for a joke. “Just thinking I hope he doesn’t grow up to be a Dodgers fan.”
The line gets the barest smile from Jane.
“Okay, I’m thinking. . . well, will it be a boy or a girl? I’m wondering which I want. I mean, I want one of each but maybe the boy first. I keep picturing myself dropping a little girl.”
“You wouldn’t drop a boy?”
“Sure but he’d be a boy, so he’d think it was fun and want to do it again.”
“That may be a bit old-fashioned, that idea,” Jane says. “Your own sister. . .”
Aryeh smiles. It’s a Hollywood close-up smile. Aryeh Schulterman is a very good-looking fellow, with XX buzz cut, a picturesquely crooked nose, and XXXX.
“Rainy? Well, I don’t know that I’d want to drop her on her head because she’d find some way to get me back tenfold.”
“You always have a certain look when you talk about her.”
“Do I?” He laughs. “She’s my little sister, although I think she became the boss by about age seven. I’ve always looked both down and up to her.”
A silence falls and stretches.
“And I’m worrying about you,” Aryeh admits. He looks around the minuscule apartment. A kitchen that’s little more than a sink and hotplate against one wall. A narrow window looking down onto a noisy street and which, when opened, allows in smells of a nearby brewery and in summer the less welcome smells of car exhaust, horse dung, rotting garbage and human urine. He wishes he could manage a house for her and the baby, some place in Connecticut, maybe, or at least New Jersey. A place where mother and baby could see a tree without needing to ride a subway to Central Park.
“We will be fine,” Jane says. “I can’t have you worrying about us.”
It’s a brave speech, a generous speech, but of course she’s worried, Aryeh knows she’s worried, about him yes, but also about herself. And there’s not a damned thing he can do about it other than exchanging well-meaning platitudes.
The worry stays with him as he crosses the country by train. The trip is alternately boisterous – he’s traveling with a group of fellow Marines, after all – and boring, with long, long periods with nothing to look at but fields of corn and nothing to think about but Jane, alone, having his baby.
At times the emotion just rises up in him, a sudden tornado that scatters all his careful defenses to the wind and forces him up out of his seat to pace back and forth, muttering, his face a twisted grimace of loneliness and worry and shame. Shame because this is not how a father is meant to welcome his son or daughter into the world. This is not how a husband should treat his pregnant wife.
But the choice is no longer his. He is a Marine, and Marines go to war when there’s a war to go to.
In between worrying about Jane he worries about Rainy. But surely, he tells himself, there’s something indestructible about his little sister. And anyway she’s in S2, intelligence, so surely she’ll be safe on some Colonel’s staff, irritating everyone with her effortless superiority. That thought brings a smile at last and he loses himself for a while in an endless gin rummy game played for cigarettes.
He still has much of his winnings – five packs of Luckies and two of Chesterfields – when a much thinner, dirtier, sweatier and jaundiced Aryeh, still shivering from a bout of malaria, is called to his Captain’s tent in the mud and filth of an outpost beyond Port Moresby, New Guinea.
Captain Reynolds – who looks if anything even more starved and battered than Aryeh – is seated in a camp chair beneath a moth-eaten stretch of canvas that was once a tent. It’s pouring rain, pouring with that earth-pounding deluge that is a light drizzle by New Guinea standards, and water sluices down forming puddles within the mud of the floor.
“Well, well, Schulterman, I have good news,” Captain Reynolds says.
“We’re getting rotated out?”
“Mmm,” Reynolds says, shaking his head in the negative. “The generals will have to figure out that we’re still here before they can relieve us.” The tone is bitter. New Guinea and its companion island, Guadalcanal, have not been kind to the Marines.
“Yep. Too good to be true,” Aryeh says. “So what’s up, Cap?”
“This.” He hands Aryeh a flimsy sheet of paper with a scrawled note. It’s from the signal corps, a message relayed from radio to radio.
Aryeh reads. His hands tremble and tears fill his eyes which he must not shed, being a Marine and all, but can’t hold back.
The Captain stands up and offers Aryeh his hand. Aryeh takes it, numb.
Aryeh stumbles back to his buddies, three guys squatting under a poncho. His hoard of cigarettes is a bit damp and quite thoroughly crushed, but he hands a pack to each of them.
“No cigars, I’m afraid. But congratulate me, boys: I am a father.”
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