John stared at the picture longer than he needed to. He had it memorized by now. He had absolutely no business getting jealous, but he found himself insanely so. He continued looking at it as if it would change somehow if he stared long enough. He realized this reaction was probably the intent of the person sending it to him.
She hadn't written to him since he left school in December. He sort of thought she'd gotten over whatever crush it was she had on him. Evidently not. Either that or she was until seeing the picture, making her believe sending it would help her case somehow.
The picture in question?
It was a newspaper picture from their local country club's annual Sweetheart Ball, which was held every year around Valentine's Day. It was, he presumed, a way for the upper class of Shermer to ensure their sons and daughters were exposed to others like them. John knew about it only because he and his buddies used to go to the country club a lot. It was a great place to get stoned or drunk after dark. The weekend of the Sweetheart Ball was always a special occasion to them because the chicks were always dressed to get noticed.
It ordinarily wouldn't have been a big deal, certainly to anyone else reading the local rag the city of Shermer liked to call its own newspaper it wouldn't have been anything out of the ordinary. To John, though, staring at the picture of Claire dancing with someone else crushed a part of him he hadn't quite known existed until the past ninety minutes or so. He didn't recognize the guy, but the photograph was grainy as newspaper photos tended to be and the guy wasn't looking at the camera because Claire was.
Their phone call earlier hadn't helped.
'Hello,' she said.
"Hi," he said, trying not to sound as if anything was wrong.
'Hi. How are you?'
"I'm all right."
'Just all right?'
He shrugged, not that she could see him do it. "Yeah, you know, long day after a long couple of weeks in the field."
'I know. I was kind of surprised to hear from you again today,' she said. He'd called her in the morning since they'd gotten in real late the night before. He'd just wanted her to know he was back safe and sound. It was strange yet comforting for him to have someone to be accountable to. He wouldn't exactly label it as accountable because for the next three plus years he was only accountable to the U.S. Marines. Still, though, he knew she worried about him.
"I just missed talking to you and realized I hadn't asked you about your weekend or anything when I called earlier."
'It was fine.'
'Yeah, you know, the usual.'
"Yeah," he'd said, pinching the bridge of his nose. He fought back the urge to let his foul mood out, not wanting to say something stupid.
'Are you sure you're okay?'
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'll let you go. I'm sure you've got stuff to do."
'Just homework, but okay,' she said, sounding as confused as he felt.
"I'll talk to you next time then," he said.
'I'll be here,' she said, sounding as though she meant it.
He'd hung up feeling like a big idiot. She hadn't sounded any different. Yet, he'd gone back to his room and stared at the picture again. She looked gorgeous. He couldn't tell what color the dress was since the photograph was in black and white, but it was something lighter in color. White, cream, pink, yellow, or maybe even a lavender. Was it one of the dresses she'd mentioned being in her closet she'd worn to school dances? Or had her mother taken her shopping for another new dress for that night?
He'd gotten the impression her parents' were all right with their involvement, but he knew her mom could be a bit flighty. Maybe her trip to see him in January had set off alarm bells in her mother's mind, hinted at being more serious than she really wanted Claire to be with someone like him. Sending him cookies was one thing but expensive flights to North Carolina another story. John could see that logic anyway.
His roommate chuckled softly as John folded the photograph, inserting it back into the letter Samantha had sent with it. He slid both back into the envelope. Her letter, like the others she'd written, hadn't said a whole lot. She told him about her classes and what her family was up to. She asked him when he was coming back to Chicago. He didn't know the answer to that at this point. For all he knew he wouldn't be going back there.
"You find something funny over there, George?"
"Staring at it isn't going to give you the answers you want."
"I'm not sure asking her will either."
John sighed softly. "No, that's not true. She wouldn't lie to me."
"You're just afraid of the answer then?"
"Afraid of it? No," John said, bristling slightly at the choice in words. John was afraid of very little anymore. He'd survived living with his parents, there wasn't much left for him to be scared of. He could care less about the fact she was the one he'd lost his virginity to. He hadn't been holding out for anything in particular so if they broke up afterward he wasn't going to feel used or anything. He didn't like the thoughts seeing the photograph was giving him. Doubts. His father's voice whispering discouraging, insulting words about him not being good enough for the likes of Claire Standish U.S. Marine Corps or not.
"Just ask her. You got back here last night to four letters from her. That doesn't speak to me of someone looking elsewhere, but what I know about chicks you could fill a shot glass with."
"I just wish the person who'd sent it didn't have questionable motives. I don't want to start a fight over something stupid over the phone."
"You think she'd blame you for asking for an explanation?"
"I think I was pretty mad when I talked to her and she said she'd done nothing over the weekend when I had physical proof that wasn't the case."
"Maybe it wasn't anything to her."
"I get dressed up like that, it's something to me."
"Is it to her?"
John sighed. "Not really. I mean, she doesn't do it every day or anything, but it's certainly a normal part of life for her."
"Just call her and ask her."
"She's really going to think I've lost it if I call three times in one day."
"Or that you miss her."
"Yeah, just what I need, her to think I'm clinging to her."
"I don't think asking for clarification on something like that is clinging, man. Maybe she'll like knowing you are down here worrying about her."
John stood from his bunk, not at all sure why he was taking advice from George. George had at least four women writing to him and from what John gathered none of them knew about one another. He had no idea what his relationship was with the women in the real world and John wasn't sure he wanted to know. At least four because there were a couple of other women who wrote him, but George insisted a couple were his cousins. John wasn't sure that was true, and would likely never know. Then again if someone who could balance a handful of women was telling him he wasn't overreacting then maybe he wasn't.
"I'll be back," John said. He heard George's amused chuckle follow him out the door and down the hall a ways.
He stood by the phone for a few minutes before actually picking it up. Fortunately there wasn't a line. Evidently everyone who'd gotten in from the field with him last night had made their phone calls throughout the day. If he called her a third time he'd have to come clean with what was bothering him because she'd know something was up. She wasn't stupid.
Really, it boiled down to he was mad someone – Samantha – sent him a picture of her looking rather cozy with another guy. He was fairly certain it was innocent. She'd probably gone to the ball every year she'd been able to. (It seemed to John you had to be fourteen in order to go, but he wasn't certain on the nuances.) There was one question that was nagging at him, though. One he was rather curious what her answer was. That was what was bothering him, he realized, and it would until he'd gotten an answer.
His mind made up with that last bit of thinking, he picked up the phone and dialed her number for the third time that day. He'd enjoyed reading her letters last night when he'd gotten back. Samantha's he'd saved for today, actually forgetting about it until after morning chow time and his first phone call to Claire had happened.
'Hello,' she said, sounding sleepy and he instantly felt bad.
"Hi," he said.
"Uh, yeah," he said.
'Is everything all right?' she wasn't sounding so sleepy now. Her concern seemed legitimate, sincere.
"Yeah, I guess."
'You guess? Okay. What's wrong? Did something happen? Are you all right?'
Both were quiet. He was trying to figure out not just what to say but how without sounding like the jealous boyfriend he was currently being. Or a jackass. He wasn't sure which would be worse in her eyes. She probably was trying to figure out what was going on with him.
"Yeah, I'm here."
'Not that I'm not happy to hear from you three times in one day, especially when it's been two weeks but if there's something the matter.'
"Why'd you go to that dance?"
"That dance at your country club."
'I,' she paused. 'How did you know I went?'
He snorted. "My secret admirer saw your picture in the Shermer paper and sent it to me."
'Oh God,' she murmured. 'I'm sorry.'
"Yeah, me, too."
'Why are you sorry?'
"I don't know. For being a moron. Why are you, my girlfriend, going to a Sweetheart Ball?"
'I go every year.'
"You didn't have a boyfriend in previous years."
'It was just a dance,' she said.
"Yeah, for future yuppie couples to meet and fall in love."
'I didn't go for that.'
"The picture says otherwise."
'I haven't seen it. I didn't even know there was one of me taken. It was just a dance.'
"So, I can do that then?"
"Get all dressed up and dance with random girls who don't know I have a girlfriend? That'd sit right with you?"
'John,' she protested.
"Well, they don't know about me, do they?"
'I didn't lie about it, no. I mean, I didn't walk around saying I had a boyfriend but if someone asked me personal details it certainly came up.'
'John, I'm positive. I even mentioned you are a Marine, so yes.'
"And you're sure?"
'Yes. I was home and there was nothing else going on. I admit, I kind of like going to those things.'
'I do. What can I say? It's fun to get dressed up once in a while and since it's the guys from the club they know I'm not there for that.'
'Yes! It's the same guys every year. I mean, sure there are a few new ones every year, girls, too. And, no, I wouldn't like it if you did that.'
"Why can you then?"
'Well, I don't know,' she sighed softly. 'Because it's something I did before we were dating.'
"I don't like you dancing with other guys."
'I don't like other girls sending you letters.'
'You think that would stop some guys?'
"It'd stop me. Jesus, what kind of guy do you think I am?"
'I know that you're not that kind of guy. I'm just not sure she knows that.'
"Next time I'm in town I plan on talking to her."
'You haven't told her before now?'
"No, I'm not going to say shit like that in a letter. I mean, what if I'm wrong and it's innocent. I'd feel like an ass. And if I'm right," he shrugged. "I don't want to break her heart either."
"I mean be mean about it. Say she likes me."
'I think it's safe to assume she does if she's clipping photographs of me from the newspaper and sending them to you.'
"Okay. Well, at fourteen, would you have wanted to get that type of letter from the guy you liked?"
'I didn't like anyone when I was fourteen.'
"And I'm very glad that's the case. Put yourself in her shoes, Claire. I'm not encouraging her. I haven't written to her, not once. I wouldn't do that to James, to her, or to you. I will put a stop to it if it's what it appears to be."
"How'd this get turned into a conversation about her anyway?"
'She's trying to break us up.'
"I'm not sure she's aware how together we are or she just knows you were the one who I spent time with that weekend."
'Must be nice,' she said.
"Not really. I have my roommate laughing at me."
'It doesn't sound like he would know what a girlfriend was.'
'I'm glad you're not like him.'
"Me, too. I'm not sure I'd even want to try and keep track of who I've told what to."
'Are we okay?'
"Yeah, it wasn't the picture that bothered me so much. I mean, you go to your parties and stuff, and I imagine there's dancing at some of those things."
"It was that particular event that bothered me when the purpose pretty much is matchmaking."
'It's just fun. I don't know very many who've actually gotten together because of that ball anyway.'
"Yeah, well, I didn't like it. And then you said you hadn't done anything over the weekend."
'I'm sorry. I should've told you. It honestly didn’t even occur to me because it was more or less another night like any other for me.'
"Yeah, I guess."
'I'm glad you called back and I have to admit I guess I'm glad it bothered you.'
'Because that means you care.'
"Of course I care," he admitted. "You think I don't?"
She was quiet.
'No, I know you do. It's just nice to have it demonstrated especially when you're so far away all of the time.'
"I would very much like to demonstrate that for you."
"Yes. Where's Amy?"
'At the library.'
"At this hour?"
'Yeah,' she said. 'You can't really do that where you are anyway, can you?'
"No, it's tempting, though, since you sound agreeable." He'd tried a couple of weekends after she'd visited him to have that type of conversation with her but she'd ended up being too embarrassed. He hadn't pushed because he doubted it'd be quite as fun if he felt as if he'd coerced her. "You think she'll be at the library Saturday morning?"
'I don't know. Why?'
"I was thinking it would be very nice to have that type of conversation with you."
'You were huh?'
"Yeah, but if you were going home or something I won't go through the hassle of getting off-base."
'No, I'll be here and I'll beg her to do something.'
"You will, huh?"
'Yes. I'm sorry about the last time, it just felt kind of strange.'
"All right. I'll figure it out then and you don't have to apologize. Ever. Just talking to you is nice so don't think I'm only looking for that type of conversation with you. I'm sorry if I woke you."
'It's all right. I'm glad you called instead of getting real mad about it. You'd be liable to turn it into something more than it was if you sat and stewed on it.'
"Possibly," he said. "Who knew I was the jealous kind?"
'You're human and probably have more reason than some to have doubts. Unfounded as I think they are because trust me when I say I'm happy with my boyfriend I know it'll take more than a few months to make them go away.'
'I'll talk to you Saturday morning then?'
"Yes," he said.
'I look forward to it even if you're spending money to do it.'
"It's just money and me, too."
"Night. And Claire?"
"I more than just care."
'I know. I love you, too, John.'
For the first time that he could ever remember in all of the times they'd talked she chose this conversation to hang up first so he couldn't have responded to her as he wanted to. He was tempted to call her back, but she'd hung up first for a reason so he hung up the phone and returned to his room.
She'd said she loved him. Of course she said it because he in a roundabout way had been saying it, too, but he wasn't sure he should say that yet. Her hanging up so quickly led him to believe she wasn't sure she should either.
"Everything all right, man?" George asked when John got back to his room.
"Yes," he said.
"See. That girl is going to be trouble for you if you let her be."
"She's not trouble. It's not her fault. It wasn't the picture that bothered me anyway."
"Not the girlfriend, the other one. You need to nip that in the bud or she's going to spend the next four years trying to find a way in."
"It wouldn't happen anyway. She's my friend's sister."
"I'm telling you, man, take care of it before she really becomes meddling. If she even thinks she scored a point sending you that newspaper article she's going to do it again and the next time she may find something that will do the trick."
"She's not going to find anything."
"You sure about that, man? Nobody's perfect."
"I'm sure because I'm not looking for perfection. The next time I go home I plan on taking care of the problem."
He really hadn't expected it to go this far. He just assumed after a few months of him being gone she'd move on to someone closer to her. Evidently not. He got the appeal of the bad boy. He'd perfected the image and gotten his fair share of girls interested in him over the years because of it. He grimaced slightly at the thought of having any type of conversation with Samantha. He really hadn't wanted to.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com