Excerpt from Nothing Left to Lose
Anne stood on the steps of the dormitory and watched the boys, many of them her husband’s students, on their way to class. It was cold, the middle of January, with fresh snow on the ground. A chill went through her, the blouse offering no protection, and a youthful face going by looked at her, curious, as if wondering why she’d be out without a coat. She cupped her elbows in her hands and thought of her own boys, so much like these before they went away.
She lifted her head and closed her eyes against the sun bright in the sky, and summoned into her mind the simple, hopeful device she had invented to calm the ever-present fear of losing Joshua, now in the midst of war, and Andrew, soon to graduate from college and follow the path laid down by his father and then his brother. She felt the warmth of the sun on her face and calculated it was tomorrow in Vietnam. She imagined herself drifting in the air just above where Joshua threaded his way through the jungle, the air thick and hot, or across some grassy highland or beneath a dark and starlit sky, the strap from his helmet swinging gently back and forth as he walked and hummed a little tune. Tomorrow, she thought. The miracle of the International Date Line. It comforted her as she played in her mind with the idea that if it was always tomorrow there and yesterday here, then somehow they were both protected from today, where everything happens, the present held at bay somewhere in between where it could do them no harm.
She went inside to finish the breakfast dishes. She stood at the sink, looking out the window as she had so many times before, and her mind wandered back to the spring evening in 1966, almost two years ago, the shattering of glass and her body sinking down, her heart pressing on everything below.
There was no snow outside the window then, open a crack to admit a breeze coming from the west across the great lawn that fronts the school that had been her home since the end of the World War II. She was doing the dishes while Joshua and Andrew sat at the table behind her and talked with their father, their voices easy and light. The air moved the curtains as she looked out at the sky streaked with pink, her face smooth and full of thought, her hands occupied, her mind free to roam and wonder.
And then something happened.
There was William clearing his throat and saying, “So, you went ahead, then?” and Joshua’s chair creaking beneath his shifting weight and his voice, soft, “yes,” speaking down into the table, “I did.”
There was something about the tone of it, the hesitation wrapped inside a tightness in his throat, the strained little beat after each word, that combined to still her hands in the air, the glass held lightly in her fingers. She had missed what went before and didn’t know the context for the rest. For an instant she imagined he’d changed his mind as he’d done so many times before that they took his announcements with a grain of salt, yet another girlfriend, or changing his major just one more time, so it wouldn’t surprise her if he’d decided against going to law school and was set instead on politics or medicine or teaching like his father.
But as the silence took on depth and weight she knew it was something more.
Joshua spoke, his voice earnest and low, and she missed all but the opening “I” and then heard the word that made her forget what she was doing.
“What?” she said over her shoulder, and then he told her he’d joined the Marines and that was when she dropped the glass. She looked down and saw it fall before it left her soapy fingers. She knew what was about to happen and yet did nothing, as if she were suspended above herself, watching herself watch it slip away from her and shatter against the hairline crazing in the old sink.
There was a long silence after Andrew jumped up to ask if she was all right and William chimed in wanting to know if she was hurt. But she said nothing, noting how Joshua’s silence rose up to meet her own.
“What about law school?” she said at last, still looking down at the broken glass.
Joshua cleared his throat. “It can wait.” He looked at his father and then down at the table, pressing the tines of his fork into the place mat.
“For what?” she said, turning to lean back against the sink. “Why can’t this wait? You can be a lawyer in the Marines. They do have lawyers, don’t they?”
“It’s what I have to do.”
“I figured something like that,” she said. “But why, for God’s sake?”
“Anne,” said William, “go easy.”
“Easy?” she said. “You want me to go easy? My son announces he’s going to Vietnam and you want me to go easy?”
“Mom,” said Joshua, “I’d probably get drafted anyway.”
“It’s true,” said Andrew.
She shot him a hard look and his face darkened as he looked down.
“You don’t know that,” she said, turning back at Joshua. “The draft board isn’t going to yank you out of Yale law school.”
Joshua stared at the table and pressed harder with the fork.
“How long have you been thinking about this?” she said.
“A couple of months,” said Joshua, glancing at his father without lifting his head.
She looked at William who sat calm and self-contained, his lips parted as if to say something, but silent as he returned her look. She tried to imagine what he was feeling, but couldn’t tell, his face so smooth, as always, and the light over the table reflecting off his glasses, obscuring his eyes. She felt suddenly nauseous and laid a hand across her stomach.
“Did you know about this?”
“He mentioned it.”
“And you didn’t tell me.”
“I asked him not to,” said Joshua. “I wasn’t sure and I thought you’d worry.” Anne glared at her husband, her eyes hard and full of light. She sighed as she turned to Joshua.
“And you didn’t think it would worry your father.”
A stillness filled the room, edgy with risk.
“I forbid it,” she said, shaking her head and looking down at the floor.
“Anne,” said William. “It’s already done.”
“I forbid it,” she said, gritting her teeth against the tears filling her eyes.
“Mom, I’ll be all right.”
“You don’t know that,” she said, the words catching in her throat. “Tell me, please. How can you know that?”
“Well, you know. You never know. I could get hit by a truck tomorrow – ”
“That doesn’t mean you lie down in the road and wait for it.”
“I’ll be careful.”
She shook her head. “Joshua,” she said, “don’t do this.”
“I have to.”
“That isn’t true.”
“I took the oath. It’s done, Mom. Like Dad said.”
She looked at him, but he wouldn’t meet her eye.
“Well,” she said, stiffening, “no need to talk it over with your mother then, since war is none of my business. That’s for the men to decide, isn’t it. And since you didn’t bother to tell me until now, I won’t have to worry, will I. What a relief.”
“Mom,” he said, but she was already halfway down the hall and into her bedroom, slamming the door behind.