She double-checked the date, place and time for the five-hundredth time once she was under the covers. The covers, like everything else in this motel room, were just satisfactory. Two steps away from the Bates Motel – certainly not far away enough for one not to be stabbed to death during the night – but close enough to the base that the next day’s event meant the rat-hole was practically full. She worried that it was too full and too close for him not to laugh at her when she saw him the next day. But what the hell did it matter, he’d been clear enough. He hadn’t had anyone there to greet him the last time he came home. He had seemed nonchalant about it, but she still didn’t like the idea.
The alarm on the pitiful clock radio was set, as was her back up on her cell phone, set for 5 minutes after just in case. The rental was already full of gas, she knew how to get to the base, and her clothes were laid out for the next morning. She wondered again if she was being stupid as she watched the commercial for Jo-Bob’s Pawn Shop for at least the 7th time that evening. Could it be that he didn’t want anyone there to greet him? Could she be over-stepping some boundary she wasn’t aware of? Well, if she was he was certainly free to avoid her. When was the last time they’d seen each other? That ill-starred trip she’d taken to New York several years ago to see a mutual friend of theirs, when he’d changed his plans to see them both. It wasn’t as though they lived in the same place and a gaffe on her part would make for general social discomfort. If she were wrong, avoiding each other wouldn’t be a problem.
She’d felt the nervous tension in the town. She was hardly the only person excited that the boys were back home. Every car, tree and mailbox wore both the red, white and blue and yellow ribbons. She wondered if her clothes for tomorrow were alright. Tight cream-colored v-neck sweater and fitted blue jeans. She’d wanted to seem casual, but not sloppy. Should she wear a dress? Was a skirt more de rigueur? She tried to think of the homecoming videos she’d seen on TV. She was sure she’d seen other women wearing jeans, so why not? After all, she was not a wife or a girlfriend. She was just a friend surprising another friend. Things should remain a bit relaxed. And she had other options if it seemed like a skirt or something more feminine would be appreciated later.
What if he didn’t recognize her? Her hair was much shorter than the last time he’d seen her. He had been one of the first people to tell her that she’d look good with very short hair. He’d mentioned it long before she’d even begun to imagine it could be a possibility. But he had been correct. She was pretty sure he’d recognize her figure, but he would be so tired and so ready to go home. What if he somehow avoided the reception area? What if he’d been injured and wasn’t coming home with everyone else? What if he had a new girlfriend she wasn’t aware of and she showed up like some stalker? What if he was angry that she’d just showed up like this?
All this ‘what-if- ing’ was keeping her from sleeping. And she knew she needed to sleep to look her best. No matter what else, she was going to be there, ready to greet someone tomorrow. And she wanted to look good doing it.
The next day turned out to be a test of her ability to be a proud citizen. She discovered that her patriotism was strong up to the point of hearing ‘the Grand Old Flag’ for the fourth time while tolerating another woman’s children crawling into her lap with sticky hands. She tried to be supportive, really, but if one cannot keep one’s infants under control, perhaps one should consider other contraceptive methods, she thought. Three hours after their anticipated arrival, the loudspeaker crackled with the announcement that the regiment was preparing to enter the gym. Everyone began cheering and shouting. The woman with the five hundred children attempted to huddle them together to look toward the large empty space in the middle of the room. Jen opened her purse and did a final check of her makeup. Everything looked good from what she could see in the little compact. She spritzed a little perfume and decided to move away from the heard of children. She wanted to be close enough to see him, but far back enough in the crowd to move around to get to him before he made his escape.
Suddenly a voice could be heard outside, calling soldiers to attention. The room became silent, in spite of the eight hundred or so adults inside accompanied by countless children. Jen noted the door the men would enter by and decided to get closer to the presumed exit.
After what seemed to be an excessively long series of announcements and blather, the troops were released to be with their families. Jen had tried to find him, but the uniforms made it much more difficult than she’d anticipated. Just when she thought it was hopeless, she heard a junior soldier mention to his wife that he wanted to introduce her to his commanding officer. Jen was looking for that commanding officer. She followed them until she recognized the man she was looking for. Once the couple had made their introductions, she moved in.
“Don’t tell me it’s been so long that you don’t recognize me anymore,” she teased.
“Jen! What the hell are you doing here?!” He let the bag he’d started to throw onto his shoulder drop.
“I’m here to welcome you home, soldier,” she said in her cheesiest southern belle impression.
“You are, darlin’?” he answered with an equally cheesy drawl.
“Why yes I am.” She fluttered her eyelashes and pretended to look demure.
“Oh, come here,” he said quickly, and grabbed her up into his arms before she could be sure that was a tear in his eye. He felt so good to hug. She hadn’t realized it, but she’d been very worried about him. Keeping in touch had been sporadic over the years, but one thing she valued about their friendship was that they always picked up right where they’d left off, as though they’d been separated for a few hours, rather than years.
“It’s really good to see you,” he said, putting her back down on the ground. Jen had been so wrapped up in seeing him again – in being able to hug him – that she hadn’t really noticed he’d picked her up.
“I’m happy to see you, too,” she managed. No kidding, or hint of irony. He still had his arms around her and she’d slid her hands to either side of his face. They stood for a moment, foreheads touching, eyes closed.
“It really means a lot… That you’d come to greet me,” he said. All around them, people were hugging and kissing and crying. They were human, getting caught up, too.
“Well silly boy, when you told me that no one had been here to greet you the last time…” She trailed off. She was a surprised as he was at the sob she choked back.
He took a step back so he could get a good look at her.
“I didn’t tell you that to make you feel sorry for me, or that you were obligated to come.”
“Oh please. You know I love you. It’s only natural to want to see you and to be here to greet you.” She reached up to hug him and again and he bent down to let himself be hugged.
They stood still in the midst of the commotion for a while. After a time, he spoke.
“We better get out of here.”
“Why – is there something wrong? Did you have something else planned? I didn’t mean to hold you up.”
“No, nothing wrong. But I don’t want to let go of you, and if we hold each other much longer, I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do. The guys think I’m single, they’ll feel like I lied to them.”
She remembered then how protective he was of his privacy and reputation.
“I understand”, she said, letting go of him and putting a little space between them.
“You know, it’s nothing personal.”
“No, no, I remember.” She sounded more hurt than she meant to.
“Come on, let’s get out of here so we can catch up,” he smiled.
“You don’t have anything you have to do? I don’t know how these home–comings work… I didn’t plan much past surprising you here.” Jen felt even more sheepish having been reminded how private he was. She hoped she hadn’t put him in an awkward situation.
“Nope,” he said, leaving a hand on her shoulder, then sliding it down her back as he moved to start walking beside her. “I’m done here. I’d planned to spend the night at the base, and rent a car to drive home tomorrow. But nothing’s set in stone. Do you have some time?”
Outside, Jen lead the way to her car.
“I took a four-day weekend, actually. I figure half a day to drive home, so a couple days to kick around with you, if you’d like.”
“Really? I get Jen all to myself for the whole weekend? How spoiled am I?”
“Not that spoiled. You didn’t even get the traditional ‘welcome home soldier’ kiss.”
They were in the car, Jen about to put the key in the ignition. She’d looked at him, teasing with her last comment, but the look on his face was not what she’d expected.
“Well, I’m not gettin’ gypped. I want my kiss.”
“Chris, you’re silly. Stop playing around!”
“I’m not. I want my kiss, woman!”
“What? ‘Woman’?!” Jen started to tell him off, but her mouth was suddenly quite occupied.
Her heart was pounding before he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her hard and deep. It had been more than 10 years since the last time he’d kissed her. They had both been 13 and it wasn’t as though either one of them had really known what they’d been doing. But, he had been a damn good kisser then and had somehow managed to improve with time. By the time their lips parted, she wasn’t exactly sure what was up and what was down.
When he sat back in his seat, they were both a little flustered.
“Well…” the word drifted out of Jen’s mouth.
“Well, well…” Chris seemed elsewhere, too.
She backed out of the space and began to leave the parking lot.
“That was some kiss. You’re even better than I remember – and you were pretty good back then. Makes me wonder what else you might be good at.” The truth had flown out of her mouth faster than she’d recognized the thought in her mind. But he just smiled and said,
“That could be arranged.”
Jen missed a stop sign and almost ran into a family crossing the street.
“Sorry!” she mouthed out the window. She didn’t turn to look at Chris, but said, “Careful. We aren’t in middle school anymore. You get me all hot and bothered, then don’t do something about it, I’ll have to hold it against you.”
“Hold what against me, exactly? That hot little body of yours? I hope that’s a promise.” He was teasing her, and laughing hard at her shock. She swatted at him, but didn’t say anything. The wave of heat that came over her made it tough to concentrate on driving.