He'd entered Boot Camp with less nerves and apprehension. This was different somehow. No one but him would've known if he'd failed there. Well, no one he knew anyway since no one knew he'd enlisted.
He wasn't here by himself or even for himself, though. He was part of Claire for tonight. That meant everything that he said and did would be associated with her. Good or bad. He'd never had that type of thing weighing on him before.
She suggested he drive for whatever reason. Odd only because she knew her way around town and where they were going better than he ever would. It gave him access to her left hand, though, and he found himself toying with the ring he'd given her while he drove.
It was a pretty nice ring, even he knew that. The six diamonds were there for decoration more than anything and were pretty tiny. He hadn't bought it for them, though. The opal was a different story. It was good sized and to his untrained eye nice looking. It had cost him a good chunk of the money he'd saved up since enlisting even with the pretty generous discount the jeweler had given him. He would wager part of the reason for the discount was due to John being a serviceman. Not everyone did those things, but the towns and businesses that existed because of military bases usually did.
He hadn't bought it near base, though. He'd been with some guys at the next larger town's mall when they had a Saturday to kill. One of them had a vehicle. John had accepted the offer to tag along really not having been away from base since October. He didn't count the bus ride from California to North Carolina. The place he found the ring wasn't the first jeweler he'd stopped in that day. He'd taken some ribbing from one of the guys because John had insisted he and Claire weren't serious enough for him to worry about jewelry. He'd really been looking to get an idea of what he liked and how much what he liked cost. He'd known in October, though, he needed to give her some token of their relationship that was tangible, physical. Her agreeing to be his girlfriend was one thing, but staying that way for the next four years with no promise of at least the potential for more was asking a lot.
When he'd seen this ring, though, he'd known. Crazy because it was just a piece of jewelry, but still he'd known. Another jeweler had tried to sell him on all sorts of weird shit: fire opals or black opals. He didn't want that. He liked just regular ones, but evidently he wanted a very specific one because none of the others he'd seen had appealed as much to him.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
She shrugged. "You're toying with my ring as if you're debating about taking it back."
He scoffed. "Not a chance. I would have given it to you earlier, but sending it to you in the mail seemed … What's the term people like you use? Uncouth."
"Hmm. Okay. So, nervous?"
"A little, I guess. This is a first for me on so many levels. I don't know any of your friends. I have no idea what you've told them about me. I just don't do well in crowds of people. There was a reason I was a loner in high school for the most part. And most of all I'll bet your friends won't have hickeys all over their bodies."
"They've also seen their boyfriends since January."
"There is that," he mused.
"John, I knew what my dress was like, how low cut it was the night you got here. I could have stopped you after the first one. I didn't stop you from leaving any, even the real dark ones that are visible but not on my neck."
"Yeah, I'm sorry about those. I was trying to be somewhat considerate and leave those bigger ones somewhere people wouldn't see."
"It's okay. God, I liked getting them and I liked getting dressed seeing which ones were visible. There's one that's not completely visible and it's so obvious there's more to it. I mean if I saw you every day maybe I wouldn't like them so much."
"Yeah," he said agreeing. He'd never had the desire to leave not just so many but visible ones before. Always in high school there'd been parents around, so it was new to him to have free reign so to speak on where and how many he could leave. It was more than that, though, behind his giving them to her. He wished he could understand it. Sure, he'd left them before but usually it'd been more or less accidental.
He liked her having them, knowing they'd be there when he left tomorrow for a few days afterward. If he had anything to say about it there'd be a couple of more after tonight, but he wasn't the one who had to drive to Indianapolis and back after a late night so he wasn't going to take offense if she checked out on him early tonight.
She gave him spot-on directions, which he appreciated having no clue where he was going. He'd driven with people who were all like "turn right" five feet from the intersection when it was too late for him to safely do it. She wasn't like that at all. He parked the car and stepped out, placing his cover on before going around to her side to open her door for her.
He'd never had this kind of date before either where things like opening doors and offering her his arm were expected. He knew what he was supposed to do in situations like this he'd just never had to put the knowledge to use until tonight. He'd made her promise on the way here if he didn't do something he was supposed to she needed to clue him in instead of getting mad or looking bad in front of her friends.
He'd met some of them the night before when they'd been out for dinner. A few had been at the same restaurant. They'd seemed all right, but John had a hard time putting aside his thoughts about sorority girls and fraternity guys. He was keeping himself in check, but it was an entirely different world to him. One Claire evidently wanted to be a part of. He knew she wasn't as shallow as she let on in high school. He'd found out the day of detention to some degree, but her letters over the past eight months also clued him in to the fact that there was more going on in the mind of Claire Standish than most people gave her credit for.
"I think people will take one look at you and understand completely, so I'm not worried about it."
"You say that, and I think you believe it, but I'm not sure I do."
He ran a fingertip along the edge of the one she'd mentioned the dress hiding part of. It was clear there was more to it, though, then what was visible.
"Understand why I give them to you."
"Is there a reason you need to understand? Beyond both of us like it?"
"I guess not. It's just never been a thing for me before."
"Yeah?" he smirked a little at that.
She shrugged. "It means there's a reason you want to whether you understand it or not."
"I'm not sure want is the right word."
"How do you mean?"
"It's more like I need to, you know?"
"There's good possessive and bad, I think anyway."
"And this falls under which category, Princess?"
"Good because I don't mind. You seem to need that physical reassurance, proof that I'm yours."
"Yeah," he agreed.
"Since you've never wanted let alone had a girlfriend before I suppose it's natural you want to. I don't know. If we saw one another every day maybe you wouldn't feel that need."
"You've put some thought into this."
"Sure," she said as they started toward her party. "I've asked myself why on me they're fine. And more than one! In high school, I thought anyone with one was a slut. The guys I didn't pay much attention to, but the girl giving the guy one got the same thought as a girl with one herself. So, what does that make me?"
"Not that! Geez, Claire!"
"I know that, though I felt a little weird going to the Health Center in October for the pill when I had no commitment from you."
"You had a commitment from me last March, Princess."
"At least it's an easy anniversary date to remember."
"It's the only time I ever had detention!"
"So, in other words, you don't expect me to remember?"
She shrugged. "I think I consider October the start anyway."
"That date I can remember, but I remember the other one, too, you know."
"They're not that important anyway, John."
He scoffed. "Right. You say that."
"Now if we got married and you forgot that date I'd be mad."
"I'll just have to figure out a way to make that happen on March 24 and I'd be golden."
"You would do something like that."
"I think you give me too much credit."
She laughed a little, which was good because he wasn't quite sure how the conversation turned to marriage.
The dance wasn't at the sorority house. It was at a hotel in one of the banquet rooms. It was a pretty nice setup, actually. They had gotten two rooms, using one for the dinner portion of things and the other for the band and dancing. There were some tables on that side of the room, too, but they'd left a good amount of space for the dance floor.
"Why didn't we just stay here this weekend?"
"Because they weren't willing to let me off the hook with the reservation if you couldn't make it last minute."
"Really?" That surprised him.
"This isn't open to just current members of the sorority. Anyone who's joined the sorority can come. So there are a lot of people from out of town. Or, like you, a boyfriend flies in from out of town. Plus a lot of couples get rooms for the night so they don't have to drive later."
"Right. I get it."
"So, they were basically full. If I canceled at the last minute they might not have been able to fill the room already having turned people away."
"Gotcha. I'm sorry."
"There's no need to apologize."
Dinner went all right. There was assigned seating with little cards with their names at their spot on the table. He'd never in his life been to anything formal like this. He'd heard stories of functions at her dad's country club and prom, but this was his first time seeing it in person.
He didn't talk much. He participated in the conversation as little as possible. He answered questions asked of him and stuff, but mostly he listened. He only knew about college what Claire told him in her letters. She at least gave into his request to keep her sweater on through dinner. She didn't button it all the way, though, so it was still pretty obvious what they'd been spending their time doing since he got into town. No one said anything, so either they didn't care or were too nice to say anything.
"Oh God," she said during one of the slow songs he was willing to dance with her to. He hadn't braved a faster song yet and as he didn't seem to be the only guy doing that she didn't mind dancing those with her friends.
"Remember I wrote you about my friend Camille and her weird-o boyfriend?"
"God, Princess, I'm not so good with all of the names. You've told me about so many."
"This one you'd probably remember because she walked in on him fooling around with another guy."
"Oh," he said. "Yeah, that one certainly stands out. What about it?"
"She didn't invite him. She invited someone else."
"Hopefully someone who likes girls."
"Be nice," she said.
"I'm talking to you no one else, I don't have to be nice about it. I mean, come on, how could you not know you're not turning someone's crank?"
"Really? So, every girl never faked it with you?"
He shrugged. "How the fuck should I know that? I never caught them lying to me about it if they were. You saying that I don't know what I'm doing, Claire?"
"You sure, because if I'm doing something wrong now's probably the time to speak up before you get pissed or frustrated and think someone else could do it better."
"How did this get turned into being about us and our sex life? I'm happy."
"You mentioned girls faking it with me. I find it hard to believe you wouldn't know. We're talking guys here anyway. There's a difference. We're pretty simple, especially under the hood. We get turned on, we react. We don't react there's probably something wrong like we're not interested. Guys our age uninterested in a girl willing I can count on one hand the reason."
"I don't think they'd gotten to that point yet. They just started dating about the same time we did."
"Oh. So, he's here. What's that mean? Is she serious with the new guy?"
"He's here and not real serious. I think walking in on that sort of freaked her out. You know?" John followed her gaze in the direction of the girl he presumed was Camille talking with the guy he assumed was the ex-boyfriend.
"How much fooling around are we talking here?" he asked.
"What? I told you they hadn't gotten there yet."
"Him and the other guy, Claire? Was it a drunk frat guy thing, jerking one another off or what?"
"God, I don't know! They were in a bedroom together. That's all I know. I didn't ask for specifics, I'm not a pervert."
"You could've fooled me, Princess, with the one or two conversations we had since January."
"Shut up. I am not."
"I'm not complaining, mind you. I love everything about you, and there's nothing wrong with anything we do."
"What could he possibly be saying to her?"
"Begging her not to tell anyone? I would be if it was me I'm pretty sure. He's a freshman like her?"
"His entire college experience could be fucked up because of one stupid thing."
"It's too late anyway. I mean, she hasn't told many I don't think. She told me because we pledged together and got along. Both of our mothers were in the same sorority when they were in college. So we vented to one another a time or two that we had no choice as to which sorority we joined. And what our mothers would do if we didn't get accepted for some reason."
"So, is her date going to intervene or just let some other guy handle her?" The ex in question had grabbed Camille none too politely or gently by the arms.
"I don't know," she said, eyeing the situation herself.
"John," she said, setting a hand at his arm when he started toward them.
"Claire, I can't just sit back while he puts his hands on her. You of all people should be able to understand why I have an issue with it."
She sighed softly, letting go though so she seemed to understand his need to at least try to intervene and reason with the guy. He hadn't always been his dad's first choice. He'd seen pictures of his mom when she was this age, before his dad had choked any life out of her. She'd been quite a looker, even he could acknowledge that despite it being his mother. He hated her yet as much as he hated her and would never understand how she could sit back and let the things happen to her son that did. Well, he knew by the time his father had switched his attention to John, she was probably relieved. And pretty dead inside by then.
"Is there a problem here," he asked. Claire's friend clearly wasn't pleased by the ex's intrusion. Why was her date doing nothing? He didn't get that at all. Serious boyfriend or not, someone put their hands on someone he was with at this type of function he'd be all over stopping it.
"It's none of your business, Soldier Boy."
"Wow. Did it take you all of two seconds to come up with that retort? I'm not a soldier, I'm a Marine. There's a difference."
"Whatever. It's none of your business. Butt out."
"Well, see, my girlfriend likes Camille here, speaks highly of her in the letters she writes to me. I see someone not her date with his hands on her, I think probably I should stop him from doing something stupid."
"You say that, but the smell of alcohol on your breath and the look in your eye tells me you may not know what you're capable of doing right now."
"Who the hell are you?"
"No one," he said, but John knew the look in the guy's eye very well. "Why don't you leave her alone, talk to her some other time? She's here to have a good time with her friends. Let her have that. Don't be a dick."
It took the guy a few minutes, but he did let go of her. By now, John wasn't the only one paying attention to the situation.
"Good choice, but if she doesn't want to talk to you later, take the hint and leave her alone."
"I just wanted to apologize."
"Yeah, I get that, but it seems she might know things about you that you don't want to get around. So it's probably best not to piss her off. Embarrassing her here is probably not a good way to keep her in a good mood."
John had struck home with that comment. The guy probably thought he could harass her into giving him another chance. Why he'd want one if he swung the other way, John wasn't sure. Maybe the guy wasn't sure whether he liked guys or girls yet.
"John," Claire said, touching his sleeve. He hadn't realized she was that close to him.
He stepped away then, letting the other guy make the choice to continue causing a scene or leaving.
"Thank you," Camille said.
"Not a problem," John said.
"Are you all right, Camille?" Claire asked once the guy had left.
"Yes, just surprised. I have no idea why he showed up here. I haven't talked to him in like two months."
"Well, he knew for sure you'd be here and that you'd probably talk to him to avoid a scene," John offered.
"What?" Camille said.
John shrugged. "It's what I would do if I was in his situation."
"Really?" Claire asked.
"Not that I would be in his particular situation, but if I had to beg you for a second chance after being caught with my pants down I'd pick a night you were slated to have fun. Your room, you could slam the door in my face."
"You've put thought into this?" Claire asked.
"A year ago, Princess, you have no idea the thoughts I had about how to get you to talk to me. Or at least listen."
"Oh," she said simply, leaning in to kiss him.
"What did you do that for?"
"For being you."
"It was a brave thing to do. You had no idea what he was capable of."
"I can't stomach seeing someone hurting anyone they supposedly care about."
"I know, and I'm sorry you even know what it's like. I love you, you know."
"I love you, too, Claire," he said.
"Are you going to be all right, Camille?"
"Yeah," she said, leaving them to talk to someone else. John presumed it was her date.
"Where was he when that was going on anyway?"
Claire shrugged. "He probably thought it was none of his business."
"I don't get that way of thinking."
She leaned toward him, sliding a hand along his chest to his shoulder.
"Do me a favor?" she whispered against his ear.
"I can try, Princess."
"Remember this moment the next time you doubt yourself or think that you don't deserve this. Us. Because, believe it or not, it's what I saw in you that day of detention. And why I got mad you just gave up on us to begin with."
He slid his arms around her, drawing her closer against him. "I can try."
"I hope the fact I love you helps."
"Good. Now if you're done being the good guy," she said.
"I think I am."
"Then follow me so you can be a bad guy for a little bit."
"Where?" he asked, knowing he'd follow her anywhere so it was stupid to ask.
"Really, Princess? The coat closet?"
She shrugged, her back resting against the door she'd just closed.
"We have a room. You do remember that?"
"It's not here."
"We could leave."
"I'm not done dancing yet."
"There's no music in here, so no dancing."
"What can I say? I want to do a different type of dancing with you for a little bit."
"Yes, I want you. Is that simple enough for you?"
She reached for him then, the front of his trousers. "I've been sure since I saw you get dressed this afternoon. I told you I wanted to get you out of your uniform."
"Yeah, I figured you meant later, in our room."
"There's no time like the present. Besides, heroes get rewarded, haven't you heard that?"
"You know I can't say no to you, Claire."
"Then shut up and get over here."
"Remind me to defend your friends more often."
"Every day at least," she whispered, meeting his mouth eagerly.
The rest of the night went by uneventfully. For the first time since October they did nothing but sleep when they got back to their room. Evidently, sex in coat closets wore her out or something. He didn't miss out on the chance to mention that to her. She'd told him he could walk to the airport if he wanted to. She joined him in the shower in the morning, more than making up for falling asleep on him. He noticed tears in her eyes when they'd finished. He'd kissed them away, saying nothing because he was pretty sure he didn't want to hear the answer to his question. Instead he'd told her he was going to miss her, too.
"Thank you for coming," she said while they were seated at his gate, waiting to find out if he'd get bumped to the next flight or not. Since it was Sunday and she had nowhere to be she was going to stay with him until he actually got to board an airplane.
"You don't have to thank me for visiting you, but you're welcome. Let's try to pick something this summer that doesn't require me wearing that uniform again, though. Okay?"
"Sure," she said.
She'd been pretty quiet after that. They made small talk about the people he'd met the night before, putting faces with the names she'd written about more than anything. He supposed it was a good thing he'd come if for nothing else at least now he had an idea of who and what she was talking about in her letters. When he'd been there in October she'd showed him around campus but she'd glossed over it so much that it was kind of a blur. This trip she'd focused on the buildings where she had classes and stuff so he had more specifics to go with her letters than before.
"Christ, don't do that," he whispered when it was time for him to get on the flight. Of course when he didn't want to be able to get the first seat he'd chosen he did.
"I can't help it. I'm going to miss you."
"I know, but I hate seeing you cry just the same."
"Call me when you get in."
"I can from the airport, yeah, but when I get back I'm not sure if I will be able to."
"I will over the weekend, though, for sure."
"For sure for Marines is different than for sure for me."
He chuckled, tilting her chin up a bit so he could kiss her. "You're right; I could be stuck in the field for the next two weeks. So, I'll do my best to call you over the weekend. Is that better?"
"Much," she said. He kissed her cheek, wiping away her tears with the pad of his thumb. "I didn't think it would be this hard."
"I'm sorry, Princess. Maybe next time…"
"Don't you dare say I shouldn't bring you to the airport the next time. I wanted to bring you here today and I will want to bring you the next time and the next. You knew I would cry."
"Yeah, I figured, but I didn't think I'd hate seeing it this much."
She sniffled and he kissed her again before heading into the walkway that would take him back to the Marines.
His flights back didn't take as long as getting there had. Since they'd gotten to the airport so early he was able to get a seat on the first flight that was headed in his general direction. It seemed most people chose to travel later on Sundays than earlier, or at least today they did.
He called her when he got back as he said he would before catching a ride back to the base. There was always someone heading in that direction, today was no different so he didn't have to wait too long there either.
"Good weekend, man?" his roommate George asked him.
"Yeah, it was."
"You knew which fork to use and everything?"
John chuckled. "It turns out it's not that difficult if you pay attention, watch what everyone else is doing."
"That's right," George said. "Good to hear it. Glad you're back even if you're not. I've heard the first leave is the hardest if that makes it better."
"Not really, but I can see that, yeah."
"She going to go away with you this summer?"
"She's got to ask the parents' permission."
"Good luck with that."
"Right? I suspect I'll be heading to Chicago and sleeping in her brother's bedroom."
"Well, she doesn't have to tell her parents you're coming into town, does she?"
"Find a place to stay somewhere there. She maybe couldn't spend the night with you, but they can't stop her from going out during the day. Come on, you just spent three nights with her, you want to visit her next time with rules and curfews in place."
"Well, they could," John said, but George was right, of course. He just hated the idea of spending the money on a hotel when free lodging was available to him either through her parents or at James' house. "I'll see what her parents say first."
George was right, though, going from sleeping with her this entire weekend to being down the hall from her but not being able to would suck. He'd do it if he had to, but he liked sleeping with her even without the sex.
"See you at chow?"
"Yeah," John said, preparing to resettle himself in while George did whatever he did on-base.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com