Chapter 24—"Time Is On My Side"
Hook answered the door wearing only his boxer shorts, hook off. I’d never seen him without his hook. “You were right,” I said through my tears.
“About everything. About Jeff. About R.J. About the fact that gin is all about luck. About the fact that using a fork is not an efficient way to kill cockroaches. About the fact that I am not very good at skipping stones. About the fact that in order to win at slap jack you have to have a hook.”
“I never said that last thing.” He took my hand and led me into the living room. I took off my jacket and sat down on the edge of the easy chair.
He left and came back with jeans and an undershirt on, a glass of water and a red bandana in his hand. He handed me the water. Then he wiped the tears off my face with the bandana. “Keep it,” he said. “You might need it again.”
Hook always knew just what I needed.
He let me cry, didn’t ask what happened.
When the tears were done I put on the brown leather jacket and headed for the door, the red bandana in my hand. “Hook, I better go. You’re my best friend and I love you but you don’t deserve this. You don’t need me and all my shit.” I put the red bandana on the bookcase by the door.
Hook stopped me and put me in a whole body hug. I let him hold me. I felt all of him hugging all of me. “Don’t need you? I would die without you in my life.”
“What is wrong with me?”
“Nothing. You are one of the best people I know.”
I pulled back and looked at him. “Look at me. I’m a mess.”
“True. But underneath it all, you are amazing.” He took me in his hug again. “Don’t leave.”
“I miss him, Hook. I miss him and I hate him for what he did.”
He rocked me back and forth in a soothing dance. “Sssh. It’s going to be all right.”
“Make love to me, Hook,” I said.
“Now’s not the time, Becky.”
“Why does everyone always say that to me? What does it even mean? And when is the time? I need to be loved by someone who really loves me.”
“You are,” Hook tightened his embrace. Then he let go. “You hungry?”
We found crackers, a half-jar of peanut butter, one brown banana, a rotten carrot, some applesauce with mold growing on the top, two slices of baloney and some left-over macaroni and cheese. “Interesting breakfast,” I said to Hook. We tossed the banana, carrot, and apple sauce into the trash and put the macaroni in a pan to heat up.
“I’ll make it up to you. I promise. I’ll cook you a perfect dinner tonight.”
What happened that morning, sitting at the table, eating baloney, crackers, peanut butter and macaroni and cheese was about finding those perfect moments of beauty and joy where you are. It was about finishing the pain, sadness and rage. And it was about the things that keep us going because we put one foot in front of the other.
Late that morning I headed home to clean up. Water was boiling on the stove when I got there so I sat to have a warm cup of tea with Peter who sat on the couch with Suki and the pups.
“You look different somehow,” Peter said.
“I am,” I replied. I paused and looked at Peter. “You were right about R.J. I’m sorry I’ve been so hard to live with this semester.” I poured too much honey in my tea and handed the jar to Peter. He shook it away.
“You were doing what anyone does who ever lost someone they love.”
“Were you that crazy when your girlfriend died?”
“I left home when I was sixteen because my dad disagreed with every choice I made in life. One day he told me that if I didn’t cut my hair I could find a new place to live so I did.”
“It felt like that at the time. The only thing that got me through was my grandmother. She supported everything I ever did. Still does. When my girlfriend died I didn’t talk for four months. Then I found this starving mangy dog wandering the streets of San Francisco. That’s when I started to get sane. She saved my life.” He scratched Suki behind the ears and put his arm around the puppies asleep on the couch beside him. “Let’s never talk about R.J. again.”
I got back to Hook’s house in time to watch him make dinner. He opened the door wearing an apron and a chef’s hat. We went into the kitchen where I leaned against the counter and watched him chop, sauté, stir, season. I felt content. “I didn’t know you could cook. By the way, I like the hat.”
“Thanks. I found it in the baked goods aisle at the grocery store.” He reached up and rearranged the hat on his head.
“It’s not quite as sexy as the red bandana but attractive in its own way.”
“What way would that be?” he asked. He put a chopped carrot in my mouth.
“I guess any guy who cooks is attractive in pretty much every way.”
Hook went back to his chopping. “Anyhow, I gave the bandana to someone who needed it.”
After dinner, he gave me a foot massage while we listened to Dylan on the record player. “How come I didn’t know you gave such great foot massages?”
“I am a man of multiple talents. You haven’t even begun to discover everything I can do,” Hook massaged between the big and second toe then put lotion on each toe.
He stopped massaging my foot. “You ever been somewhere where something happened and you knew your life could be over and some kind of miracle saved you?”
I thought for a moment. “I was hiking along the cliffs above Herrington Lake right outside my home town. I slipped and was heading down the cliff when I saw a tiny tree branch growing out of the rocks. I grabbed it and it stopped my fall.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t know how I survived Vietnam except for those small miracles.” Hook started massaging my foot again while he kept on talking. “I drop my canteen, stoop to pick it up when sniper fire goes over my head. I’m four minutes late to a place that just got blown up with a land mine. My buddy dies because he’s a foot away from me. I don’t get why I’m alive right now. What’s the purpose?”
I put my hand over his, not to stop the foot massage. I never wanted that to stop. I wanted to somehow let him know that I had no idea what the purpose was but I was glad he was here, alive, massaging my feet, being my friend, helping me heal. I guess that was the purpose. “Maybe it was because somehow, somewhere, someone knew I would need you some day. You had to stay alive for me.”
Hook squeezed each of my toes, patted my foot. “Someday I’ll give you a one-handed back massage. That’s my ultimate purpose. I give amazing back massages.” It didn’t surprise me. I could sense it in his hugs.
Reluctantly I put on my socks. “Is it the time now?” I smiled at him.
“Patience, Becky. We have all the time in the world.” he replied.
“Well, then, I better go. Tomorrow I want to hear about your other talents.”
He handed me my jacket and gave me a hug. “Tomorrow afternoon, stone skipping.”
“I already know that talent,” I said.
“True. Let’s walk to the lake anyhow. Tomorrow night I’ll show you my magic tricks.”
Hook only made six skips at that lake the next afternoon but that night he gave me magic. “I used to be great at slight of hand card tricks but I kind of lost that ability.” He held up his hook. And then with his other hand he pulled a quarter from behind my ear.
“I can still do one card trick.” Hook spread a deck of cards on the coffee table. “Pick one,” he said. The eight of diamonds. He told me to double the number, add three, multiply by five and then add either one, two, three, four depending on what suit it was. “What’s your number?”
“You drew the eight of diamonds.”
There was nothing magic about it but I was still impressed. That was it for the card tricks. “You lured me over here for one card trick? I was promised a night of magic.”
“Yep,” he said. For a moment I thought he was going to kiss me. That’s what I wanted. To be kissed by perfection. To be kissed by loveliness. To be kissed into loveliness. To be loved by loveliness. Instead, he leaned over and gently caressed my cheek with his thumb. How did he always know just the right thing to do?
“Why didn’t I listen to you? Why didn’t you stop me from being crazy?”
“You’re here now. That’s what matters. Shit, what you did doesn’t even compare to some of the crazy stuff I did back home. The only crazy thing you did was love someone.”
I reached over and took his hand. I brought it to my lips. “Tell me everything.”
“I will but first let me get some tea.” I let go of his hand. Letting go of his eyes was harder. He bought me a cup of tea and began. “In high school I got on my skate board and grabbed on to the bumper of a car stopped at a light. When the light changed, they pulled me through the city, most of the time not knowing I was there.”
“Not smart,” I said.
“Once I rode drunk on the hood of a pick-up truck through a field of cows. I ended up sliding off the hood right into a cow. The most stupid was driving drunk at two o’clock in the morning on the fourth of July, I guess it was the fifth by then, waving lit sparklers out of the window.”
I laughed. “Shit, Hook. You could have killed yourself,” I took a drink of tea, felt the warmth slide down my throat. “Tell me more. I’m beginning to feel better about myself.”
“When I was a senior in high school, four of us got drunk and sneaked into the chemistry lab at school at night and caused a small explosion.”
Hook told me crazy story after crazy story. Once he climbed to the top of a tree and jumped from the branches to the roof of his house, found his way across the roof to an attic window that he pried open. Another time he created a Tarzan rope swing in an oak tree. At the highest point of the swing, he let go, trying to land in the leaf pile he raked below.
Laughter came easy. And with every moment that passed I healed a little. Time became my friend.
Finally, I had to go. I had an early class and then needed to spend the day working on the paper. “Come over tomorrow night.” He said goodbye with a hug.
The next night when I arrived he said, “I’ve got something to show you. Remember when I told you I was sending back my medals? I did. Look what I got in the mail today.” He handed me a box. It held his purple heart and bronze star.
“The letter said, ‘The United States Government does not accept medals of any kind and, therefore, we are returning yours forthwith.’ I can’t even get rid of these damn things.”
I looked at the medals. Looked at Hook. I started to laugh.
“I want them to go away.”
“Throw them in the damn trash can,” I said.
“I want the government to know I’m throwing them away. They won’t know if I throw them in the trash can.”
“So now you’re being particular about the disposal of these medals that you are dying to get rid of.”
That’s sort of how the conversation went except that we both laughed so hard as we talked that it was difficult to understand. Every time I opened that box it started all over again. I pinned one to my sweater. “What do you think?”
“It looks great. I bequeath it to you. Now it’s yours to get rid of.”
I felt completely alive.
I took a breath. “I am sorry I laughed at your plight. It’s like you try to do the right thing and the world won’t let you do it.” I took the medal off my sweater and put it back in the box and put it on the counter. “I am unbequeathing it to me.”
He leaned over and kissed me as he had done a thousand other times. Then he looked me in the eyes. He started to say something and stopped.
“What were you about to say?” I asked.
“Listen, my friend. You can say that about Vietnam. You know the old, ‘It don’t mean nothin’.’ But you can’t say that about us. What were you going to say just now?”
His right hand tucked the stray hairs back in my braids. “It’s not important. The important thing is that you are here. Do you want something to drink?” He turned and walked towards the kitchen.
“Everything you say is important. Wine?”
“You hate Ripple and that’s all I have. I drank up all the good stuff last week. I’ll heat up water.” He opened the cabinet and pulled out a couple boxes of herbal tea. “Peppermint or lemon?” He turned back to look at me and started to say something again.
“Peppermint,” I got two cups out of the cupboard and turned back to Hook. “What were you going to say?”
He hesitated. “How come you never loved me like you loved Jeff or R.J.?”
“I think I loved you the first time I saw you at the table in Commons. Maybe even before that, when you walked away from our orientation group.”
“But not in that way. Not in the way that counts.” He put a teabag in each cup and wouldn’t look at me.
“You were always my best friend. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“It counts for everything. But I’m damaged goods.” He held up his hook and smiled. “When I take it off there’s only a stump. And it’s not very pretty.”
“I’ve seen your stump and it doesn’t matter.”
He slid his shirt over his head and took off the harness that held his hook. He stood there in his undershirt, the hook on the table.
I picked up his handless arm and kissed it. “You are the most gorgeous man I ever met in my life. Inside and out. Hand and stump. You are perfect.”
Hook put his hand on one side of my face and the stump on the other. He lifted my face to his. And there I was, staring at the most gorgeous person in the world. Hands down.
The week gently rolled by. No wine. No dope. No sex. Just Hook giving me time. Just me healing and waiting for the time. Just stone skipping at the lake, lunch in Commons between classes, guitar-playing in Hixson Lounge, ice cream sundaes at the snack bar while listening to “All You Need is Love” on the juke box, games of gin, slap jack and war, dinner and easy conversation, and long sustaining hugs.
On Saturday, we took the train into Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. We stood holding hands for more than an hour to watch a baby chick hatch, neither of us saying a word, sensing the miracle. We caught the late train back and walked from the station to his place.
As we sat drinking tea Hook said, “You never told me what brought you here last week at 6:00 in the morning.”
“Doesn’t really matter anymore. Besides it was closer to seven.” I looked at his face, reached over and touched his cheek, rubbed my fingers on his lips. “When I first met you, you had the scariest look on your face.”
“I was pretty fucked up at the time. I don’t know why you even bothered to become friends with me.”
“I had no choice. We kept running into each other. You always seemed to be standing in the hall when I went to visit Jeff. You stopped by the anti-war table every time I was there. And besides, like I already said, you have the most gorgeous face I ever saw in my life.”
“Me being in the hall when you came to visit Jeff was no accident. I would ask him, ‘Becky coming over tonight?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah.’ I’d say, ‘What time?’ and he’d tell me. And there I would be, waiting for you. I needed to make sure you were safe and happy.”
“You knew he was an addict, didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to so many times. I am so sorry I didn’t.” He took my hand and kissed it. “I thought it should be his choice not mine. I regret it and hope you can forgive me.”
“I wrote a paper in high school in support of the Vietnam War. That’s a bigger regret than your regret. I forgive you for not telling me.”
“And I forgive you for that paper you wrote, Anyway, you are wrong about my face. Yours is the most gorgeous.” He rubbed his thumb on my cheek.
“Did you ever even look in the mirror?”
The evening wore on with easy banter, a couple games of gin, a game of slap jack, a game of war. “You don’t deserve to be miserable,” Hook suddenly said right after I won a war of kings. “I hate Jeff and R.J. for what they did to you.”
“I deserved everything I got. It serves me right, what they did to me.”
“I’m never going to ask you what happened with R.J. but you don’t deserve to be miserable. Don’t you ever again say you deserved it. You are amazing.” Hook turned over a seven. I took it with a nine.
I picked up my cards, shuffled them, then wiped away my tears. I looked at him. “I’m not sure that’s true but thanks away.”
“I will spend my life proving that to you if it takes that long.” Hook handed me a Kleenex. He took to buying Kleenex brand tissues after I informed him early in September that his choice of tissues was a disgrace to the human race and if I was going to visit, he would have to replace all his boxes with Kleenex brand.
We were still talking at 2:00 a.m. when Hook suddenly said, “Shit, I forgot, there’s one of those cool astronomical things going on tonight, a full moon, with Venus and Saturn both visible. Put your shoes on. We’re going out.”
I loved astronomy. In fifth grade my teacher built a space ship in our classroom, floor to ceiling. It was only when I realized that astronomy required math that I gave up my idea of being an astronomer.
Hook put his arm around me. I put my head on his shoulder. We stared at the planets. We were in heaven until the cool November air drove us inside.
Back on the couch I dozed in and out. We talked. I slept. Every time I woke up, Hook was at the other end of the couch looking at me. Once I said to him, “How could you even stand me this fall? I can’t figure out how I got so crazy. What happened at Stinson’s house, that wasn’t even me.”
“You going to tell me about it?”
I paused and looked at him. I didn’t want him to know, not yet. Someday I would tell him, my final confession. Someday when the healing was complete, if that ever really happens, then I could say, “You’ll never believe what happened.” Not now. I wasn’t ready. We weren’t ready.
“Someday I’ll tell you when it’s funny instead of simply pathetic. Think of it this way. Your story about driving drunk with lit sparklers out the window? That pales in comparison to Stinson’s. What was I even thinking?”
Hook rearranged the blanket that had fallen off my feet. “You were thinking that if you ran hard enough and fast enough the pain would go away. It never works that way.”
“What were you like when you got back from Vietnam?”
“I’ll tell you someday,” he said. “When it quits being so painful to talk or think about.”
The next time I woke up it was past 4:30 and there was a bowl of popcorn on the floor next to me. I looked at Hook. His hook was off, on the floor next to him. “Have you slept at all?” I asked.
“I’ve been in and out. Sleeping will only make this perfect night end sooner.”
I reached for Hook and pulled him to me. We rearranged ourselves on the couch, his left arm draped around me. I was encircled by one of Hook’s hugs and that was more than enough. I was safe and happy.
I woke up when Hook started to move, trying to move off the couch without waking me. “What time is it?” I asked.
“Shortly after seven. I’ll put coffee on then I’m taking a shower. I’ll make you breakfast when I’m done.”
I was on the couch drinking a cup of coffee when Hook came out of the bathroom, jeans on, undershirt on, harness and hook on, hair washed and combed back, freshly shaved.
“God, that harness is sexy on you,” I said.
Hook laughed then he walked over and kissed the top of my head. “Didn’t think I’d ever hear someone say the harness is sexy.”
“Well it is. Turns me on a little bit.”
Another lazy Sunday playing cards, laughing, reading jokes out of the ‘Saturday Evening Post,’ stabbing cockroaches, doing homework, editing articles for the school newspaper.
We took a break in the afternoon to walk to the lake knowing that in a couple weeks winter would hit Chicago.
I tossed a stone. “Four skips,” I cheered.
“Pathetic. I do four on a bad day.” I ran to him, jumped up on his back, my feet wrapped around his waist, my arms around his neck.
“I challenge you to five skips with me hanging here.” He tossed the stone that was in his hand. Eight skips.
“I’m trying to make it skip forty-six times.”
I slid off his back. “Why forty-six?”
“That’s the year I was born.”
Back at his place, I worked on a paper while he cooked me dinner. “Dinner’s ready,” he called. I went into the kitchen and Hook was standing there, leaning against the cabinet, his arms crossed over his chest. He had an amazing grin on his face. I could tell he was truly happy.
That night I slept in Hook’s bed, Hook next to me, his arm draped around me. I woke up the next morning when Hook sat down on the bed. He handed me a cup of coffee. “I’ve got to go soon to catch the train into Chicago for a VA appointment. I’m going to shower. There are doughnuts in the kitchen.”
He found me in the kitchen drinking the coffee and eating doughnuts. He sat down and we drank and ate and looked at each other as the minutes ticked by.
Hook said. “I’ve got to go. Don’t want to miss the train. Stay as long as you want.”
“One more doughnut,” I handed him a glazed one from the bag. I didn’t want him to leave. He took it.
It was time. We stood at the door holding each other. I didn’t want to let go. I never wanted to let go again. I needed that hug to hold me throughout the day, throughout my life. I thought back to the hug Hook gave me at the Democratic National Convention after my arm was injured. It was the hug that made me know that one day I would be okay again. One day I wouldn’t be so sad. Here was that day.
How long did we stand there? I’m not sure. Long enough to know that it’s never long enough. Long enough to know that something perfect happened and it would be with me forever. Long enough to know that for a weekend we had magic. He looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ll see you later.” I watched him go, my heart full, the hole in it ever so tiny, smaller than a pinprick.
I washed the dishes and cleaned the apartment a bit. I brushed my teeth with his toothbrush and left it drying in a cup. I wrote a note that I left on the counter. “Give me a call when you’re home.”
I walked out the door. When I shut it behind me I stood there holding the doorknob. Sometimes things in life are perfect.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 35,523