Among my memories lives a painted canvas depicting a time and a place of which I am too young to have personal knowledge. It retains its vividness yet today because the soldier supplied the brushstrokes.
The scene visualizes a group of buddies. They sit in a small room lit by one dim bulb. Their current station is base camp, behind the lines of a jungle war. Conversation dwindled with the mood. On a table near the door, a record spins on the player. The arm lifts with drill-sergeant precision to play the ballad over and over again.
One of the soldiers occupies a seat at the screened window. He peers out into the night. He’s the farthest from the puddle of lamplight, but I know him because he’s folded himself into a position as recognizable as my own face. His left boot has been drawn up into the chair, his left forearm balanced on the raised knee. There in the dark, where no one can see, the song’s sentiment washes with resounding clarity against the sweet romantic’s heart.
Time passed, and that soldier, deployed overseas while I was but a babe-in-arms, returned to a pretense of civilian life. Years later, Destiny paired us as tennis partners. This partnership was a scant two months old the evening our league of twenty-four finished play. As tradition demanded, everyone stayed behind on the club’s mezzanine to savor victories and moan over defeats.
I was nearby when two men dressed in jungle camo arrived at the top of the stairs. I followed their gazes to my partner’s. His change in demeanor was conspicuous.
I heard the taller of the newcomers tell him, “The mission’s set for tonight.”
I frowned at the words and at the title the newcomer used. He addressed my partner as colonel. I knew him professionally to be an engineer. On occasion, yes, he peddled himself as a super-hero. I laughed at his joke. He did have the shoulders for a cape, and a waist and hips, trim for a man at middle age. My reverie snapped when I heard the trio pound down the stairs. Something spurred me into motion, and I fled down after him.
They were ready to pile out the door. I spewed words that brought them around to face me. The man who was my tennis partner came back a step. He had just spoken my name when an odd transformation occurred. I watched a colonel, unknown to me, set out an invisible barrier. The start of a smile faded; his eyes dulled. With military starch, he forced a common farewell, then turned to lead his men out into an October night.
The door banged shut. The shiver that ran through me was not triggered by the cold air that leaked in to swirl around bared arms and legs. No, I trembled with the eerie premonition that it would be a long time before I saw him again.
He stayed on my mind, out on the fringes, but, more often than I would have thought, slipping through to the forefront.
Five days later, I stood behind my office desk. He appeared in the doorway, shoulders relaxed, hands in his pockets. Five days is not such a long time unless you’ve spent them burning with worry and questions. My knees broke at the sight of him, and I sat down hard. Thank God, the chair was behind me. He wore not a scratch, neither a bump, nor a bruise. His eyes brightened with amused appreciation for my hazy, collapsed state.
He steered me away with an offer for lunch I was not permitted to refuse. How commanding of him, I thought later when I regained my senses and the colonel was back, sitting across the table, giving me a look that said he’d provided an explanation and my probing questions had to stop. I was startled that—perhaps to take the sting out—he extended another invitation to dine, but not as startled as when I no longer felt stung and accepted.
What he told me was that he led an elitist group of four men. What he didn’t have to tell me was that they were civilians attached to no reservist base I knew of.
Around the occasional olive-drab trips out of town, we grew close, and, despite the difference in years, reached our inevitable destination. Age, it seems, has no influence over affairs of the heart.
I returned the next May from a business conference, confident I knew the features of that destination well, but my weeklong absence had its effect on him. It peeled away a layer of camouflage, leaving new skin so deeply sensitive that it exposed his love as if the emotion overcame him for the first time.
The man who came to the airport terminal took my face in his hands as he never did before, gave me a glimpse of lonely eyes, and leaned in with a kiss that claimed me. He perpetuated the tingling moment by whispering a question in my ear, a prayerful one that would become repetitive in my life. Its underlying meaning spoke of his utter vulnerability where I was concerned. My throat tightened as did my embrace.
Spring melded into the hottest part of summer with a decade in between. The course of world events changed. The Cold War and the band of men were no more. I stood at the screen door, looking out to his place on the patio. In the compressing darkness, I made out his form. He sat with a foot up in the chair, an arm laid across his knee. I slipped into the chair beside his. The covered patio protected us from the evening’s monsoon-like downpour. That, in turn, freed a cascade of memories.
The soldier drifted to a faraway time when he crept through a jungle, all senses in play. He spoke to me of the slap of rain on the leaves, their drip through the double canopy so very similar to the one surrounding our woodland home, and, when he sniffed the air, the imagined scent of cordite.
He found my hand and laced his fingers through mine. While his thumb softly massaged my skin, a story bled out of him. It spun on one particular ballad—a wartime love song that had a soldier hopelessly pining for a lover. The words and music worked on the young soldier until his heart held one undeniable certainty and, as I listened, mine with an identical measure of pain. While separated from his lover, this soldier was destined to meet Death alone. In this tenet, the man beside me firmly believed. It was sorely engrained in him, like the grooves of an old forty-five rpm.
Numb at the revelation, I struggled to understand the dedicated soldier and the soldier’s fear. One seemed incompatible with the other. The virtue that finally reconciled the struggle was courage. Wanting to speak, I stumbled around in my thoughts for any response profoundly equal to his confession. It was devastating to realize that no words I owned could fight his fear and win. Every phrase of comfort seemed minimal to the task; no promise I could make, an absolute. Vested with this sacred trust, I accepted life’s final mission.
I kept the vow I made to myself. Death did not take him while he was alone.
I rose in the predawn of Veterans Day and wrapped myself inside a robe as if it were impenetrable armor. No force of man or nature could stop me from playing the recording that defined his life as I remembered it. I put Unchained Melody in the changer to repeat.
For the first dozen times it played, I attributed the lyrics to the soldier with an inescapable loneliness for his lover. Infallible in its planning, Destiny patiently nurtured the young and protected the brave until time and circumstance sifted to its precise blend.
Tears streamed my cheeks, and yet I crooned the bittersweet words. They spoke of a longed-for homecoming, to the detrimental passage of time, and with an inconsolable plea for reassurance that had been whispered in my ear more times than I could count.
As gradient light rose in the eastern sky, I watched him step through scenes in my life—a changeling at the bottom of the stairs, filling my office doorway, late night at an airport gate.
When I could sing no more, when it was I who ached with loneliness, but could feel his presence like a fathom limb, I succumbed to the mighty musician’s melodic sway. The rhythm built to a cymbal-crashing crescendo that buckled my knees. And he was there once more, pulling me near. I leaned on his inner strength as I had when it was I who held his face in my hands, when he slipped away with a sigh of words on his lips.
“Oh, my love, are you still mine?”