“Jack! Hey, Jack! Wake up, there’s someone to see you.”
“Ohhhh… go away, Martin. I’m dead.”
The man on the bed didn’t bother to face Martin in the doorway or even open his eyes. Instead, he rolled to his left and curled up. Undeterred, Martin rushed to the bed and shook Jack with vigor, then bounced back to the doorway and swayed hanging on the doorframe, knees bent.
“Jack!” Martin wasn’t about to give up so easy. “I think you want to see who came in today.”
“No one’s coming today. Not that I know of at least. Go away and fix my funeral.” He curled up even tighter and pulled the covers over his head.
Martin let out a disgusted sigh and returned to the task at hand. “Jack – she flew in on the Trans-Oceanic last night, and now she’s here. She stayed at Sir Randolph’s guest house overnight at Tulagi and they brought her here just now. She says she knew Don. She wants to talk to you about Don Wheeler.”
Martin pulled the covers off Jack’s head to reveal an unkempt, unshaven man in his early thirties, hangover incarnate. Martin shook his head. “You should know better, Jack. Never ever drink with the Headmen. Their beer is not of this world. Besides, you need to get up anyway. No time to sleep all day.”
Jack tried to force his eyelids open, but now Martin was standing against the bright morning light flooding the hut from the open doorway. The blacksmiths in Jack’s head accelerated to full speed. The blood rushing between his ears sounded like a mighty furnace bellows, driven on by a feverish pulse.
“Come on, you want to see this lady. She’s not here for a holiday.”
Pushing himself up, Jack sat upright on the bed. With unfocused eyes, he tried to stand but fell back on the mattress instead, hitting his head on the curve of the corrugated iron wall. With a strained effort Jack finally stood up and managed to train his eyes on the porch bathing in the brilliant Solomon Islands sun.
A lady in a light dress with flowers stood there, on the porch. In her hand she held a purse and beside her was a leather Gladstone valise. Pushing Martin’s extended arm away, Jack dragged his feet to the door, painfully aware of the finesse his appearance lacked this morning.
“Jack McGuire?” The lady smiled. “So nice to finally meet you. I’m Kay Wheeler.”
The lady held out her hand. Jack took it and felt her firm grip. He tried to fix the name with someone Don might have mentioned when they flew together way back when, but his brain flashed “No Match”. But then, that morning, even his mother’s name might have pressed him hard.
“Hello,” he managed. “Have a seat.”
Martin stepped in, sparing a disgusted glance for Jack. “Would you like something to drink? All we have is gin and tonic, and some local beer, I’m afraid, but I think the gin would be safer.”
Kay nodded. “That would be great, thank you. It’s so hot already, it’s not like this in Boston. ” She sat down on a rickety director’s chair on the porch. Martin nodded and went inside to the small wooden cabinet to make her a drink.
By now Jack had his head a bit clearer, and he was running it double time. Boston? Don had never mentioned Boston before. Meanwhile Martin had returned to the porch and had passed the drink to the lady, who smiled her thanks and had a sip.
Jack was stunned. Was he meant to accept that this was Don’s wife, then? As far as he knew, Don Wheeler was the archetype of the womanizing fighter pilot. Indeed, his wallet was among the thickest Jack had seen, not because of greenbacks but because of phone numbers hastily scribbled on the backs of restaurant bills, napkins and any other stationery available on the move.
“I always thought Don was from Washington,” Jack ventured.
“Yes, he was born in Seattle, but I met him in New Mexico in 1939. We married in 1940, and you sailed out with him in July 1942.”
Jack was now even more stunned. Don had married this lady, was living with her in Boston, and yet had collected such a walletful of acquaintances? He’d been even faster than Jack had imagined. Besides, it was not possible to be a married aviation cadet, at least assuming regulations were followed.
A response of some sort was in order. “Ah. Well, yes. Right. Ummm… How did you find me? Can I help you with something?” Stupid, Jack thought, but he could not help it.
“Well, that’s why I came, you see. Don used to talk about you when he was on leave, telling me how you always flew together.” A brief shadow crossed the woman’s face. “And when the official letter came, just saying he was killed in action, I needed to know more of his death. But I couldn’t get started. It took me years to get to this point.” She paused for a moment.
“So last year, when I finally decided to do something about this, I went through his letters again. I found some names and tracked down John Radner. He said that you were with Don on his last flight and I should try to find you.”
“Bunny Radner? Is he still in the Marines?” Hearing his squadron commander’s name felt odd to Jack, like an echo in a corridor of closed doors.
“No, he’s out on a…. medical discharge due to an accident he had in ’45. He has an office supplies shop in Manhattan now. But he thought you could help me – he sent his very best regards to you. It so happens he had a newspaper clipping on his office wall, New York Times? It or some other paper sent a reporter here.”
Jack tried to remember a reporter visiting the area, but could not. He merely nodded in agreement because he found no useful comment, and let Kay go on.
“… and he passed through the Solomons on his way to Japan to see how the South Pacific was recovering and stayed with you. Now, I knew the part of the world you were in. The rest was easy – I just wrote to the British authorities here and they knew you.” Kay’s face had returned to normal.
Jack’s head felt like a vacuum. “How did you get here? Sit on a copra ship for a week?”
“No, actually I flew to Sydney and went to the harbor to find a ship for the last leg. I was told that besides ships, I could try and see if the Trans-Oceanic Airways was headed this way soon. I was in luck, and only waited three days for a flight. A cruise would have been just as fine though,” Kay added with her head held high, looking every bit the adventuress.
She looked around. “And now I’m here. Is this place Tulagi? I thought I’d stayed overnight at Tulagi – the British administrator was very kind and offered me the guest house. The boatman talked of Hale… Halava? Something like that?”
“Halavo Bay, that’s the bay down there,” said Jack, pointing west down the gently sloping hill towards the deep-blue waters gleaming between the trees. “Tulagi is where you landed. I just thought to call my place Tulagi Hotel because nobody would know Halavo, but someone may know Tulagi, at least those who were here in the war.”
Jack studied her face intensely, trying to remember her from somewhere, to pin a label on her, but gradually felt ashamed of scrutinizing her. Kay was not a stunning beauty, but her delicate eyes glinting with intellect and curiosity and high-angled eyebrows caught Jack’s eye, and for a brief moment he felt he had achieved complete contact with her.
He decided to return to the original conversation. “And yes, I flew with Don. I mean, I was his wingman. And he was my wingman. Always. We never flew with anybody else.”
Jack sounded stupid to himself, but Kay encouraged him with her eyes, so he went on.
“I was his wingman when he died. It was an even day. On an odd day he’d have been on my wing. It’s a long story, really.” Jack looked over Kay’s shoulder into the bay, where his OS2U Kingfisher floatplane was moored, aligning itself with the light wind.
Kay settled to a more pleasant posture in her chair, which let out snapping sounds of imminent structural failure, a counterpoint of suspense to Jack’s prologue.
“I’m not sure you want to hear it all,” Jack said, hoping she’d agree.
“I would very much like to hear that story, if you’d tell me, please. I need to know how it all happened. I’ve spent so much time wondering if he suffered much.” Kay let her gaze traverse the lush surroundings and paused a moment on the beautiful woodwork decorating the window of the hut. Then she fixed her light-blue eyes on Jack’s bloodshot and black-rimmed ones.
Jack’s head swung as if he’d been hit.
“No, I don’t think he knew what hit him. It was a routine mission from Munda to Bougainville, nothing special.” He picked up a half-empty beer bottle from the floor, had a sip of the stale contents, flicking the loose and torn label with his thumb. He needed a tangential focal point to recall that single mission which had become an almost unreachable part of his memory, fossilized by the sediment of dead emotion.
He was about to embark on a voyage to dark waters.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As if in a waking dream, Jack stood at last outside Kay’s apartment house on Joy Street in Boston. Five months had passed since she’d left Tulagi to go home, and Jack had never written so many letters in such a short span of time. He wasn’t alone in the loop; more or less every time, the mail boat had something from Kay for him. He’d snatch the letter from the mail-boat driver, drop whatever he was working on, and rush to his solitary spot on the top of a hill with a view to the sea.
Jack read each letter many times over, imagining Kay sitting at the porch of his lodge talking to him about the things in the letters. For the first weeks he could easily conjure up her sweet, tingling voice, and even to catch a whiff of her flowery perfume, but as time went by, it became increasingly and painfully harder to do so. He did have the stack of pictures she sent right after her visit, but he didn’t look at them for fear of seeing shadows in them.
The change in him was gradual, but unmistakably powerful. At sunrise or sunset he’d stop to admire the view on the beach and turn to share it with her, and then would remember with a shiver that he was alone. In the night he’d lie awake and walk the paths of Halavo with her in his mind, and once more feel desolate and stranded.
Jack fought having to confess to himself just how much he missed her, until he had no choice but to take the long trip Stateside. He wondered long and hard how to put the case to Martin. He couldn’t just say straight out, “I miss Kay so much, I got to go and see her again, or the rest of my life will be hell.” Could he, now? One day, as they were working on the engine of the Kingfisher, he thought he’d hit on a good excuse.
“It’s a good thing to get the gearbox in shape. By the way, I think we need new gauges for the instrument panel, too. I didn’t think the altimeter would start acting up, but only last week, I was at 10,000 feet, and all of a sudden it read 3,000. Then it jumped to 12,000 and when I landed it was still at 3,000. And the compass was stuck the other day. Too bad I didn’t buy spare gauges then at the Navy Yard, ‘cause now it’s kind of hard to get them… I don’t think they have a mail-order service. Maybe I should pop over to San Francisco and get some, eh?”
At the conclusion of this hasty monologue, Martin stared at him a full count, then laughed so hard that he almost fell off the wing of the Kingfisher.
Jack started to backtrack on his travel plan right away, worrying about the expenses: “Naaah, never mind…. It’d cost me an arm and a leg. We have some spares in Sydney, and with good luck there’re gauges in that crate I never opened.”
Martin controlled his face just long enough before cracking the widest grin ever. “Look, Jack, this thing with Kay – so far, it’s cost you a heart and a brain, so why start cutting corners now?”.
Jack started packing that evening.
It was a long trip, Tulagi to Sydney to Fiji to Hawaii, and on to San Francisco. Then a cross-country train trip took him to Boston, and he eventually settled in at the Back Bay hotel. He hadn’t written to Kay he was coming, and it was only when he signed in at the hotel did it occur to him that letting her know he was coming might have been a good idea. He didn’t phone Kay to tell her he was in until the next day so he could relax after the long trip.
Nevertheless, now he was finally at the door of the apartment house on a Saturday at noon, double-checked the address from Kay’s latest letter, and went in. Kay’s apartment was on the fourth floor. In the stairwell Jack found himself slowing down as he got higher, not for lack of strength, but lack of willpower. The last eighteen steps were the hardest to take, but at the end of the trek he stood at her door.
He checked his bouquet and wondered whether he should unwrap it already, but then thought the wraps would be problematical to hide. He straightened his tie and pushed his hat jauntily to the side, then re-thinking, pulled it back to the businesslike look.
And during his deliberation, Kay opened the door, looking radiant in her skirt suit cut to measurement – to Jack, the sight of her was tantamount to a blow on the head. Her eyes flew open and the eyebrows, which Jack loved so much, arched above them, black and trim and expressive.
“Jack! What are you doing here?” She rushed into his arms. He hugged her without a word, then pushed her to arm’s length, and enjoyed a second helping. She giggled and kissed him on the cheek, then pulled him inside the apartment for more hugs. Jack managed to keep the bouquet unharmed and presented it to her when her wave of amazement gave way.
“So I managed to surprise you?”
“And how! What lovely flowers too! How did you know I was going to wear red today?” she cooed as she ransacked the cupboard for a suitable vase.
Jack took a look around the apartment. It was furnished to a high standard, even he could tell that – but maybe Kay had not had the final word in all the furniture selections. The hum and honk of traffic carried through open windows and Jack remembered how different the sounds of the city were from his jungle. The door to the bedroom was slightly open and he caught a glimpse of a vast bed with all kinds of accessories thrown over top the spread. Maybe it hadn’t been so easy to pick today’s colors, he thought.
“Where are you staying?” Kay yodeled from the kitchen, over the noise of the running tap.
“The Back Bay,” Jack answered.
“Oh, that’s very convenient!” She entered the living room with the flowers and set the vase on a round glass table, then propped the flowers this way and that way, until she was satisfied with the arrangement.
“I do wish you have a week or two in your hands? I won’t let you leave in a rush!” she declared. “Unfortunately, you just caught me at a moment when I need to go downtown and meet some friends. Will you join me? Oh, please say you will!”
“I wouldn’t feel too comfortable barging in on your appointment,” Jack admitted. “But if you’re free in the evening, maybe we could go and have dinner somewhere? I have no idea where, but you probably know a nice, cozy restaurant in the neighborhood, eh?”
Kay thought just for a second. “I’ll think of something. Why don’t we meet in the lobby at Back Bay at around… eight?”
Jack smiled. “I’ll be there. Let’s go now, or you’ll be late for your appointment.” They went down the stairs as fast as Kay’s heels allowed her, and Jack hailed her a taxi. She leaned towards his cheek and left a very red stain with her kiss, then rubbed it off with her handkerchief. “Eight it is! Oh, I’m so happy you’re here!” she told him from the open window, and then the taxi merged into the traffic and bore her away.
Jack stood still for a moment with his eyes closed, inhaling the city scentscape and letting the vibrations of a big city permeate his body. Car horns honking, the clatter of heels on the sidewalk, a police whistle – all of this merged in his head and welcomed him back to civilization. Then, opening his eyes and tipping his hat to a passing old lady, he started towards his hotel with a wide grin on his face.
He was ready for Kay by six thirty, and thought he’d go down to the lounge bar for a drink while he waited. “A martini, please,” he said to the tuxedoed barman, whose moves he could only envy as he remembered how haphazardly drinks were mixed at Tulagi. He selected an armchair at the back of the lobby and sat down to enjoy his drink.
Time crawled. He glanced at his Navy-issue watch every three minutes, and yet the wait in itself was wonderful. Here he was, thousands of miles from home, awaiting the company of a wonderful woman. When Kay sailed in through the doors, dressed in a blue off-the-shoulder dress with a cover-up jacket, Jack felt his heart take a few triplet beats before settling to an even, yet accelerated, pace. Kay was stunning, as always, and for once in his life he enjoyed being the guy in the lobby she singled out from the crowd.
“Hello again!” She kissed him on the cheek. “I thought we’d go to Parker’s Restaurant for dinner.”
“Anywhere with you suits me just fine,” Jack told her, coaxing the smile he’d wanted.
“It’s a twenty-minute walk, but we can take a taxi,” Kay said, leading him out of the lobby. Jack wanted to walk, to prolong the time with her, but it was cool outside, so he suggested they take a cab. He’d have her attention for the whole evening.
Once they had selected their meals from the extensive menu at Parker’s, and had tasted the wine, Kay rested her arms on the tablecloth. “It’s so wonderful to see you here. When I left Tulagi, I was hoping to get back as soon as possible, but you know how it is, with work and all.”
“You know,” Jack mused, “I have to admit that I never asked you a thing about your life. I don’t even know where you work!”
Kay smiled demurely. “We’ve had other things to discuss. Anyway, I’m a financial administrator at the Boston Public Schools. Much as I like what I do, Don and I were going to open a flight school after the war, with him teaching and me managing the place.”
Jack reached into his pocket. “Speaking of Don, once more, I have something for you.” He took a small book from his pocket, leather-bound and read a thousand times, and handed it to Kay. “I took this from Don’s belongings after he was lost. I don’t really know why. I’ve read some of it. Must be the first book of poems I’ve read since high school.” He handed the book to Kay.
“Well, well, well,” said Kay, sinking back into her chair. “I never expected to meet Mr. Khayyam again.”
Jack smiled. “Then you know this book was sort of an owner’s manual for Don. There was an endless supply of wisecracks and pieces of immortal wisdom in it, and he dispensed them whenever the opportunity arose.” From the shadows moving through Kay’s face, Jack was starting to wonder whether bringing the book had been such a good idea.
Kay looked at the book for a long while. “Operator’s, not owner’s,” she said finally. “Don had no owner, and he made that very clear to me. But yes, this book is full of little stories which appealed to him. This one is the Fitzgerald edition, the ‘field companion’ so to speak, as you can tell by the stains and worn edges. He had the Whinfield edition too, a very beautiful hardcover book, but that was only read on Sundays. He used to compare the two and pored over them for hours on end.”
Kay browsed for a second and read to Jack:
“Ah, with the Grape my fading life provide,
And wash the Body whence the Life has died,
And lay me, shrouded in the living Leaf,
By some not unfrequented Garden-side.”
“That’s quatrain 91, one of his favorites.” Jack nodded as he recognized the words. “He usually recited 91 whenever he’d been out drinking and only felt the escapades of the night the morning after.”
Kay tilted her head. “Did he never say anything about ‘having a 74’?”
Jack racked his brain to remember.
“As in, ‘I think it’s better to have a 74 tonight and not try to decide on the house’?” Kay clarified.
Jack heard Don’s voice echoing the words as Kay said them. “That sure rings a bell. He sometimes threw in numbers which seemed kind of random, but with us not having the code book, we just ignored them… I guess now it makes perfect sense, though.”
“Have a look.” Kay tossed the book to him. “See if now you can crack the code.”
Jack leafed through the stained brown pages until he found the page:
YESTERDAY This Day’s Madness did prepare;
TO-MORROW’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you not know whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.
Jack smiled. “That’s pure Don speaking, with or without numbers. That last line is something I can especially remember hearing at Altitude.”
“While in the air? Really?”
Jack smirked. “No, Kay, Altitude Bar was our favorite haunt in training… we hung out there an awful lot.”
“I see.” Kay smiled mirthlessly. “Unfortunately, I also found out that Mr. Khayyam can be pretty nasty sometimes. When I wanted to plan for the future, or create a schedule of sorts for our life, or talk about starting a family, I was told that I was a nagging 55.”
Jack again turned the pages, this time with much less enthusiasm. He read it to himself instead of reciting it out loud:
You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a Second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.
Jack shook his head. “I’m so sorry. I know he was a bastard sometimes, but to treat someone like you like that… I never would have thought it possible.” He managed to cut his statement short before saying something foolish like, “I would never do that.”
Kay had a sip of her white wine. “He wanted me to be as carefree as he was, to harvest memories and create as many of them as possible, but someone had to keep us firmly rooted on the planet. It had to be me, since he couldn’t even balance a checkbook. I tried to take his behavior as a token of love, but I know now that he wanted to hurt me for being so orderly and sensible and boring.”
Jack had to protest. “I won’t buy that, Kay. You’re anything but boring. You’re the most stimulating company I’ve ever had!”
Kay smiled and thanked him, but reminded him: “With Don on the scene, anyone was boring, wouldn’t you agree?”
Jack shrugged his assent. They fell silent for a moment. Jack told himself that there was very much more to his late friend than he’d ever thought, and he also had to admit to himself that being with
Kay was a delicate mixture of pleasure and pain. He had to work hard not to fall all the way for her. It was torment.
Once more they managed to turn the conversation away from Don, to safer waters. Kay asked all about Jack’s recent projects at Tulagi, how the hotel was doing, and how Martin was, and a million other things. Jack had intended to find out when Kay would return to the island, would she marry him, and would they stay together there happy ever after, but true to form, he never managed even to introduce the most innocent of these issues. He felt the same, intense frustration as always in these situations, only this time it was more bittersweet than ever before.
The dinner was wonderful, and they stayed until late. Then Jack walked her home, which was only a few minutes away. At the doorstep, Kay took up the poem book once more. “Don gave me a single number when he left the last time. ’45’, he told me, and then he said that it might take until 1945 for him to get back for real. We both knew he was referring to Mr. Khayyam, and I knew what he wanted me to do with it. His mother never forgave me, but I did put it in the newspapers. Goodbye, Jack – I’ll call you tomorrow!”
Jack walked back to his hotel, just to revel in the enjoyment.
In the morning he went out to find a bookstore. He asked the taxi driver for an antiquarian bookstore, and was driven to Brattle Book Shop on West Street. Jack went inside, and headed straight to the poetry section. He found a few copies of Khayyam; Quatrain 45 in the illustrated and leather-bound Whinfield edition did not strike him as especially meaningful, but when he read the Fitzgerald edition, he had to sit on a stool for a while, so much of Don entered his mind at one flash:
‘Tis but a Tent where takes his one day’s rest
A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest;
The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash
Strikes, and prepares it for another Guest.
He bought the book. It was a long, slow, thoughtful walk back to the hotel. The little book weighed heavily in his pocket.
For his daytime entertainment he went on an aimless stroll. The busy streets and multitudes of people rushing by him were a source of enjoyment for a while, but he also found it tiresome; while at
Tulagi, he had not stayed alert for long periods of time, except when flying, and even then only if the weather demanded it. Dodging taxis was fun for a while, but when he had lunch at a basement cafe, he found himself longing for the sound of the palm trees in a gentle wind, and the lapping of water on the float of the Kingfisher.
But then, when Kay phoned him around three, he was full of energy and anticipation, and the prospect of meeting her again filled him with joy. This time she said she’d meet him at the lobby in fifteen minutes, if that was fine. Jack was game, and was downstairs in ten. Kay barged in through the revolving doors, raising her eyebrows once more. “Jack, I just thought of something. I’ll tell you in the taxi.” She tugged at Jack’s arm and he complied.
They sat in the cab outside the hotel, Jack watching her with expectation. Finally she cleared her throat. “At first I thought we’d just go for coffee or something, but then I thought I should ask you this: would you like to visit Don’s grave? We don’t have to if that’s not what you’d like to do,” she added, solemn for once.
Jack had never considered the possibility that Don would have a grave. After a second’s thought he felt sure he wanted to see it, mainly because Kay seemed to want him to. “Yes, I would like to do that,” he smiled.
“It’s just that it occurred to me I haven’t been there since I came back from Tulagi. Driver – Mount Auburn Cemetery, please.” As the taxi joined the flow of traffic, Kay fumbled in her purse for a lipstick and applied it to her flawless make-up. Jack could see the gesture was a smokescreen and left her in peace, until she would speak to him. The remainder of the trip they talked about the places they passed and of life in Boston.
They bought a small blue and white bouquet at the flower shop in Mount Auburn, then walked slowly down a wide road and up a succession of smaller ones, until they came to a little hill. There, on the top of it, was a slab of white marble, almost featureless except for an arched top and gilt letters which read, “Don Wheeler USMC” and the dates of his life. Kay placed the flowers on the ground in front of it.
Jack stared at the little headstone for a good while. “It’s just like I think he would have liked it, no frills,” he said and looked at Kay. She gave a short, sad little smile to him and pulled out a handkerchief from her purse.
“He abhorred the self-absorbed monuments some people have here. We never talked about this, but I just knew what to do. My mother wanted one of those car-sized ones, but I put my foot down.”
Jack was struck by a thought, and he worked it through out loud. “You know, that’s the first headstone I ever saw for a wartime friend of mine. It’s not for want of people who needed them – I think we lost maybe thirty, no, forty pilots during the war… but they all just failed to return. One of them died on the ground in a landing accident when a plane landed on his, and we got to bury him, but all the others just faded from my life. Seeing that grave…I don’t know what to say.”
Kay took his hand. “I hope I haven’t brought you down too far.”
He looked up into the green trees and realized it was the first time he’d heard leaves in Boston, and it made him feel better. “No, I’m glad we came.”
“Maybe you now understand why I looked you up in Tulagi? I came here for years to see this grave, and to find some solace. For a few years it worked, but the day came when I decided I simply must find out what happened. Burying a picture of him and me, and the leather-bound Whinfield edition of Omar Khayyam wasn’t enough, but when I met you and heard what had happened, it really set me free.”
They stood there for a moment longer, two people at the headstone of a third, united by war and divided by it. Then Kay offered him her arm. “Shall we?”
Jack took hold of her and they left, not looking back.
All too soon it was time for Jack to head home. They spent their last evening together at the Hi-Hat restaurant, enjoying a fabulous meal and entertainment by Erroll Garner. When Jack walked Kay home, they stood at the doorway for a long while, staring into each other’s eyes. “Would you like to come up for some coffee?” Kay smiled that smile Jack had come to love.
Jack was certain coming up could not make his life any harder. He’d fallen for her so bad that the thought of the trip back home was already killing him. “Sure,” he agreed, and they went upstairs. They kissed when they closed the door behind them, and kissed their way into the bedroom. When they lay together in the bed, her skin soft and warm on his, Jack felt a contentment like never before. As he found the way to make her feel good after some insecure fumbling, all his thoughts were for making the moment last forever.
He was aware of the singular nature of the event. This was something that would never be his to have, like being shown the Promised Land from a mountaintop then only to be turned away and made to descend the other direction. When she was fast asleep, her head on his chest, he lay awake wanting to commit everything to his memory: the way her body responded to his touch, the scent of the skin on her neck, the soft caress of her lips, and the complete satisfaction they’d shared.
And yet he knew he had to turn and walk away from her. He had nothing to offer her that would make her his own. She was a city person who belonged to the rush-hour traffic and downtown shopping and business lunches, and his world had none of that. His heart was already splitting up in tiny bits, and he prepared himself for the morning, when he would depart and never see her again.
He woke up when she sat on the bedside in her morning gown. “Here’s the coffee I promised you,” she smiled, setting the tray in his lap. Jack had a sip of the steaming coffee and grinned. He applied some butter and jam on his toast and munched it while studying her face intently.
“Why are you doing that, Jack? Watching me, I mean. I’m not exactly at my freshest,” she said with mock coyness.
“I need to take in the prettiest sight in the world,” he told her. “I have to bring something of you back to Tulagi.”
“I was going to ask you about that,” she said. “Will you stay there all your life, or would you consider moving back here to the States?”
Jack held his breath for a while. “No, Kay, I don’t think I’ll be coming back. Somehow I feel my home’s now there. When my father died, he asked me to live my life my way, and right now, that’s how my way feels.”
Kay’s disappointment showed on her face for a fraction of a second. “But you just have to come and visit me again! Or I can come down there, if there’d be a cabin free for me?”
Jack was happy she let him off so easily. “You know cabin number nine is always free for you.” He could almost feel the pieces of his heart rattling around in his otherwise-empty chest.
After they took turns showering, he bade her farewell. The last kiss, and the last hug, and the letting-go emotionally and physically were a strain, but he’d gone through so many times already.
When the door closed behind Jack, Kay was at a loss as for what to do next. She sat down for a while and tried to read, but soon enough went to the phone and called her mother. She was happy to hear Kay wanted to have lunch with her; she needed to hear what Kay had been up to.
They met at Parker’s Hotel. Kay didn’t talk at all about Jack, but kept on chitchatting of everything else. Finally, Mrs. Willis couldn’t take it anymore. “Well? What about this Jack? Is he still here? Will you bring him for us to see, for dinner maybe?
Kay shook her head. “No, he left this morning. He wanted to go by the Navy yard to see if they had some parts for his plane, and then he’ll leave for the Solomons.”
Frowning at this, Mrs. Willis wanted more. “I hope you’re not harboring any fantasies about joining him down there, dear?”
Kay struck back immediately. “And why would that be such a bad thing?”
“Oh, come on, you know what I mean. You’re not cut out to live in a jungle, for heaven’s sake. You’re a city person, you couldn’t possibly be happy living in a treehouse.”
“It’s not a treehouse, you saw my pictures and know perfectly well how nice the hotel is. Besides, he’ll work on the main lodge of the plantation and renovate it when he has the time.”
“Oh, Kay. I do wish you’d find a nice man right here in Boston and settle down once and for all. A man who’d make you feel safe and content so you could finally start a family. I mean, first Don Wheeler, and then that Max Jeffries, and now this Jack… what is it with these pilots?”
Kay snapped with some venom: “They can make you fly high.”
Her mother rolled her eyes up to the restaurant’s ceiling. “Sometimes you’re just impossible, Kay. I feel I have to warn you – don’t start squandering your future building romantic castles in the air, or in the South Pacific for that matter. Let this man return to Fiji, and concentrate on your life, which is here with us.”
Kay backtracked a little. “I’m not moving to Tulagi right now, no need to worry. But I will say this: when I find a man as good as Don was, I will act on a hunch if need be.”
Her mother poured some more wine. “That’s fine with me, but please – find a man who stays on the ground for a change.” Kay gave her the briefest of smiles, and then buttoned her lip for the rest of the lunch.
When they parted, she wanted to walk home to clear her head. She was quite sure she wanted to remain in Boston, as certain as Jack seemed that Tulagi was for him. But his presence still seemed to walk beside her, as if they were back on the island paths, and she kept looking over her shoulder to see him. Already she missed him, but hoped the feeling would fade away as time passed.