The Birthing and Dying of Love

He met her somewhere just west of San Francisco as the train eased into the darkness of a late winter afternoon. He had spent the last two years walking across the battlefields of Europe, carrying a rifle, battling the snows of winter, the harsh heat of an unforgiving summer, and an occasional German soldier who wanted to kill him. And now, Ronald Gilbert was coming home.

From the Faye Crawford Collection

He had left as a boy, two months shy of his nineteenth birthday, a high school diploma stuck away in the top drawer of the family den and possessed by a blind ambition to see what the world was like on the far side of the earth.

Uncle Sam wanted him. He wanted to go. After all, war was glorious.

That’s what he believed.

And then he saw his best friend die.

He sat and held Freddy’s hand all night long and promised to write his parents and tell them what a courageous soldier he had been and how bravely he had met death.

He didn’t. It didn’t matter.

Freddy was dead long before the promise had been made.

She was sitting alone in the dining car, sipping on a cold cup of coffee and staring out the window, watching the desert of California speed past, a patchwork of dirt, sand, rocks, salt pans, bramble brush, and Joshua trees. The heat was shimmering off the dunes, and the distant mountains were fading into the back edge of a dust storm.

Her red hair fell in thick curls around a face shaped, Ronald thought, much like a valentine. She was small boned with large green eyes that looked similar to a patch of sea off the coast of Hawaii.

He smiled.

She smiled back.

He asked if he could sit down at her table.

She said he could.

He said he was going home.

She shrugged and said she was, too.

He was a soldier. “That’s nice,” she said. “You been in the war?”

Her accent was definitely Southern.

“France,” he said.

“I hear France is beautiful,” she said.

“Not now,” he said.

“How about Paris?”

“I got there after the bombs,” he said.

He thought he saw a glimpse of sadness edge its way into her eyes.

“I’ve always dreamed of Paris,” she said.

“The part I was in is still burning,” he said.

The sadness in her eyes grew deeper.

“Maybe you can tell me about Paris,” she said.

He did his best. For the next three days, they were seldom apart. She was lovely, Ronald thought, and as pretty as any girl he had ever seen, even those in France. That’s what he told her, and she believed him. Her smile grew wider, and she smiled more often, and by the time the train reached Salt Lake City, the sadness had all but vanished from her eyes.

“My friends told me I was pretty,” she said.

He assured her that she was.

“They thought I could make it in the movies,” she said.

“You can,” he assured her.

“I tried,” she said. “It didn’t work out.”

“You shouldn’t just quit,” he said.

“I had enough money to last out in Hollywood for two months,” she said. “I had three auditions and no call backs. When all I had left was enough money to buy a ticket home, I bought it.”

“The next audition might have been the one,” he said.

She laughed.

“I’ll never know,” she said. “Besides a name like Opal Kravitz doesn’t look good in lights.”

“You can change it.”

She laughed again.

By the time the train rumbled through Kansas City in the dead of night, Ronald Gilbert was in love. No doubt about it. He couldn’t do anything about the name Opal, but he definitely was beginning to manufacture a few plans about changing her last name to his.  It might not look good in lights either, but it would sure look good on a marriage certificate.

Ronald Gilbert left the train in Chicago. His mama would be waiting for him. She still had miles to go. Tennessee was still a long way away.

“I’ll write you,” he whispered as he kissed her before stepping down on the platform.

“I’ll write you back,” she said as she kissed him lightly just before the train jerked to a start and separated them.

He stood and watched her face pressed against the window until the train had passed the tall buildings and was out of sight.

She was alone again.

He felt so badly about it.

“I’ve found the girl,” he told his mama.

“Which one?”

“The one I’m gonna marry.”

He wrote Opal the next day. The letter was four pages long. It was much easier to tell her how he felt on paper. It had been so difficult to do in person and face to face. He told her he loved her. He told her he wanted to marry her. He told her he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

He sat back and waited for her to answer.

He waited while he was in college. He waited when he went to work for an airplane manufacturing company. He waited while he rose from the company accountant to the Chief Financial Officer. He waited for fifty-seven years.

No answer ever came.

He never wrote again. In his mind, he had his answer. Ronald did go to Tennessee once but did not bother to go to her hometown. He had three days with her on a train. No more. She obviously had no interest in seeing him again. He had obviously been more serious about her and she was about him. He did not want to embarrass her by showing up on her front porch.

Ronald never married.

He lived alone and waited.

After awhile, even the image of her face began to fade from his mind. He didn’t even have a photograph of her.

Nothing.

Nothing but time.

And distance.

It might have all been so different. Love might not have been cast aside, replaced by a lonesome kind of pain. She had been the girl of his dreams. She might have been the girl of his life.

But somewhere in a back corner of a Chicago Post Office, a letter lay untouched and forgotten for fifty-seven years.

Love died sadly for the lack of a stamp.

 

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