It still scares me to think what might have happened had the strange Marines not showed up when they did.
Appearing in this issue are the remaining three winning entries in the 1983 Reader writing contest — the first award-winner and the last two honorable mentions. (The second-award winner and three additional mentions appeared in last week's issue.) Also included this week are several entries that did not win cash awards but which we are pleased to be able to publish. More noteworthy stories that did not receive cash awards will appear in subsequent issues, space permitting.
The contest announcements invited nonfiction accounts of "amazing" events that transpired in the San Diego area. A total of 439 stories were submitted, most of them written by women, and their length varied from quite long (6500 words) to quite short (79 words). The most popular subject was the adventure of moving to San Diego from elsewhere in the country.
FIRST AWARD WINNER: Claire Kelly
A couple of years ago I almost got married. Came as close as you can, with all the proper people and trappings in place and the mechanisms of ceremony greased and rolling forward. An engagement ring on my hand, a date set, invitations mailed. Parents and friends flying in from out of town. Maids of honor in matching dresses. Groom’s guys in tuxedos. Four-piece band. Caterer. Preacher. Me in the wedding gown my mother was married in. And in top hat and tails, the groom, the man of my dreams — a real jerk.
It was 1975 actually, and looking back on the time I realize I didn’t stand a chance. Fresh out of nursing school, I was new in San Diego, here to take my first big job as an RN at Scripps. I was young (twenty-four), impressionable (raised and schooled in rural Vermont), and suddenly and gloriously on my own with a car and a steady paycheck, ready for adventure in a brand-new city.
Plus it was springtime, and the birds and bees were doing the deed everywhere, and the squirrels and the skunks, and the dogs and cats, and even the flowers, for chrissake. What was a girl to do? The air was fogged with pheromones, invisible tentacles of sex stretching out on the breezes and touching us where we lived. And I but an innocent, ripe tomato looking for a good pluck.
I met Richard at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Officers Club, a Friday-night meat market that makes the bars in Mission Valley look like so many ice cream socials. He was tall, blondish, tight through the hips, with a sharp chin, strong shoulders, and long lean fingers that usually mean something else — and in his case did. He was a Marine pilot who flew F-somethings . . . thirteens, fifteens, twenties, I don’t know. Everything about his work seemed to be described in numbers and it was hard to keep it all straight. He was from Virginia, talked with a slight country drawl, and though he was nobody you’d mistake for a Phi Beta Kappa, he was so damn good-looking that his ability to speak English relatively well was enough of a meeting of the minds for me.
A tempestuous affair followed rather directly, days and nights of intimate aerobics of a kind you won’t find in Jane Fonda’s workout book. It was exquisite, my first seriously mad love affair, but it was brief, and therein rustles the rub. Three weeks after we met, Richard left on a five-month tour of duty in the western Pacific and I was left standing at the dock heartbroken, watching through teary eyes as the aircraft carrier pulled away, vowing to pine in chastity, and not realizing that in the flush of all that rushing blood over the past few weeks I’d hardly gotten to know the man — nor could I guess that it would cost me. Nope, I was a stonewall of love, a prisoner of passion, a love-struck duck with the sobering rainwater of common sense slipping unnoticed off my back.
Within a month Richard had mailed a marriage proposal and a ring. I’m not entirely sure why he did it. I’ve been told in the years since that the main cause of marriage among military people might be neither true love nor accidental pregnancy but the abrupt separation of lovers, particularly when men are removed to ships at sea. Something about the large, lonely ocean that gets these boys thinking about serious things, about filling up hollow places in their lives. That could have been part of it, but more likely it was that Richard was a man who seemed to like commitment for the security it brought him, without caring that he, too, was expected to contribute. Also, he liked the ceremony involved, the drama of saying, “I love you, I want to marry you” — though he wasn’t interested in whatever work would result from such proclamations, in the same way that he loved his uniform and the idea of being a Marine officer much more than he did the job itself.
I took the bait greedily and set about to make the arrangements. Richard wanted to be married as soon after he returned as possible, so we made it October 16, about two weeks after his late-September ETA. The whole show would happen at the house I shared on Lippman Avenue with another nurse, Ruth. She had friends who catered parties and her brother played in a band, so we would have both food and music at reasonable cost. There would be no churching, but a local pastor agreed to come to the house to seal the deal. Both sets of parents were to fly in, as would three of my best friends from Vermont, who would join Ruth as my bridesmaids. Richard’s best man and three other buddies would fly from Virginia to wear the ushers’ tuxedos. There were a hundred other maddening and expensive details, but I tended them gratefully, as labors of love for my beloved.
Richard flew into Miramar on the last day of September. Our reunion that night was everything I’d hoped it would be, but it also carried a foreshadowing of things to come: a tattoo high on his left arm that read “Suzie” over a scramble of blue flowers.
“Where did you get that?’’ I asked.
“I’ve always had it. You’ve seen it.”
“No, I haven’t. I don’t remember it, anyway.”
“Ain’t love blind?”
“I guess so.”
“She was a girlfriend I had in flight school.”
“Funny, I don’t remember it.” “Do you remember this?” he asked, demonstrating.
Was I wrong for not taking more of a stand? I don’t know. Ass over teacups in love like I was, it was easier to fault my memory than my white knight flyboy. But I grew progressively uneasy, for there were other things. Richard and I had shared plenty of wine when we were courting, but drink never seemed quite the center of attention it was for him after he got back. He didn’t see a single noon I knew of in the two weeks before the wedding without an open beer in his hand. And by evening he was good and drunk. One night after dinner, he leaned over to me — fell is' more like it — and slurred a whisper without the qualifying hint of a joke. “Just think, honey,” he cooed. “After the sixteenth, I’ll never have to do my own laundry again.”
Then his friends arrived from Virginia. They were loud and drunk and lacking the brains among them that God gave a gopher. Richard settled quite comfortably among them and even began to act as if he were their natural ringleader.
I pushed gamely onward. All the bridesmaids stayed at my house, and my parents, too. The boys took Richard out for a bachelor’s party the night before the wedding, agreeing to have him and themselves back by nine the next morning to help set up for the ceremony scheduled for two in the afternoon. But it wasn’t until 10:00 a.m. on the morning of the big day that they finally staggered in, hung over, and without Richard. Where was Richard? They were vague on this count. He’d gone out for a nightcap. Alone? Yes. No. He went with the hostess. Hostess? Yeah, the broad we hired to tend bar and bring the food, you know. Did I?
An hour later a Ford Pinto pulled up in front of the house. A sign on the door read something like “Mimi the Party Girl Serving All Types of Occasions — Food, Drink, Dance.” A heavily made-up platinum blonde was driving and the passenger was none other than my husband-to-be. He strolled up the walk as if he were returning home from a satisfying day’s work; all was well.
“Richard, where have you been?” I asked as I met him at the door.
“Honey, I love you,” he said and kissed me. I remembered a brewery tour I’d taken once. “I’m sorry I’m late, but I went out for a last drink as a free man with Mimi there, and the poor girl started telling me her life story. She practically had a nervous breakdown at about four this morning. I had to stay up all night and just listen and hold her hand. Her father was a drunk who beat her and molested her when she was a little girl. If she’d had a decent old man, she wouldn’t have ended up as a stripper. It was awful.”
“Yeah. She’s good, too, but it’s not what she wants to do. She’s ashamed. She’s rather do colonic irrigations. She’s a health nut. Death begins in the bowels, she says. But her father turned her into a slut. Have we got any beer? ’ ’
To this day I’m not sure what my best move would’ve been, so you’ll forgive me if I tell you I did nothing. I didn’t want to know. It was too late for the truth if it was going to be bad.
Richard and his cronies gathered in the kitchen and proceeded to light into a case of beer like they were all dying of thirst. I didn’t like the looks of it. We were already well behind schedule, there was much work to be done, and these worthless goats were stalling. Worse, they had my father. The normally quiet, sweet, teetotaling old guy was in the middle of that crowd of scum, laughing, telling dirty jokes, and drinking beer straight out of the can. He was charmed with Richard. (So was my mother, for that matter, just as I had been. Beauty’s only skin deep, this I’ve learned.) No good would come of this kitchen conclave, but as I moved in to break it up and to remind them of all the folding chairs that needed unfolding and the rest, Richard noticed a drip from the kitchen faucet.
“Claire, have you got a wrench around here?”
“For God’s sake why, Richard?”
“The faucet drips.”
“It always drips. It always has.”
“Not after I’m done with it.”
“Jesus, Richard, would you leave it? I’d much rather have you set up the table for the food. The caterers will be here any time.”
“Dear, forgive me. But as the husband I have a responsibility to see that things get fixed around here. I want to show you what a swell handyman I’m going to be for you.”
Someone scrounged a few tools from the garage and Richard crawled into the cabinet beneath the sink to shut off the water to the faucet. A minute later the kitchen floor sank underwater. Richard had managed to break the cutoff valve right off the incoming water line, and a high-pressure jet of cold water blasted freely out of the cabinet. A riot of confusion followed as we searched frantically for the valve that would shut off the water from the street to the house. My father finally found it beneath an overgrown bush in the garden, but not before a flood had drowned not only the kitchen but much of the thick shag rug in the dining and living rooms. It was a Sunday, and it took a half-dozen phone calls before we could locate a plumber, though he wouldn’t be able to come for at least a couple of hours. It was already noon. Counting myself, my mother, and the bridesmaids, there were six women who needed to shower and dress before 2:00 p.m., but there would be no water in the house until at least then.
Ruth called a woman we knew from work and arranged for us to go to her house in La Jolla, some fifteen minutes away, to shower and dress. We took two cars, mine and Ruth’s Volkswagen van. My plan was to shower first and then return to the house right away to make sure that things were getting done. On our way out, the caterers were coming in. A hundred yards up the street, we passed the band.
I showered and did the best I could in ten minutes with my hair, then raced back to Lippman Avenue at around 1:15. The first of the fifty-some guests we’d invited had begun to arrive. Richard and his pals constructed the outdoor chair and table scene with a listless ease that would make city road crews look energetic, drinking twice from their beer cans for every movement resembling work. My father appeared out the bushes, zipping his fly and saying, “The toilets don’ work, hun. Richardsh a beautiful boy. I’m gaining a shun.” The caterers, who had another party to do at eight, and the band, who had a bar gig at nine, inquired politely about the schedule. “Everything will be fine,” I lied. More guests arrived and soon a pretty good crowd was sloshing around the soaking house, looking for places to pee. Pastor Raymond from one of the local churches — I forget which now — made a cautious entrance, worried, no doubt, that the woman he was to see wed in less than a half hour had greeted him at the door in her sweatshirt and jeans. The plumber showed up, finally, and went to work among the caterers in Kitchen Lake.
At ten after two Ruth called.
She’d stopped for gas and couldn’t restart the van. It was a chronic problem with the car that supposedly had been fixed two days before when she took it to her mechanic. But there they were, dead in the water at a gas-only, no-service service station. Sit tight, I told her, I’ll come for you. I found Richard, who was now drinking beer with the band, and explained the problem. He had a van of his own, and I told him I wanted to take it to rescue the girls. He insisted that he and Jack, his best man, would go. I should be getting dressed, shouldn’t I? He was right. Never underestimate a devil’s facility with logic.
By three o’clock,'when Ruth called again, all the guests had arrived, the band was tuned up, the food was out on display, the water worked, and the plumber was helping my father get increasingly bombed. The girls were still stranded. They’d not seen hide nor scurvy hair of Richard. Stay put, I told Ruth. Richard had left nearly forty-five minutes ago. He had to be there soon. Maybe he was lost.
“We’re losht,’’ said Richard over the phone five minutes later. From the background noise, I guessed he was calling from a country-and-westem bar. “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” on the juke. “I forgot how you told me to get to the gash shtation.”
The son of a bitch. I told him again, with enthusiasm.
“Honey, I love you. I’ll shave those broads if it’s the lasht thing I do.” Down in the west Texas town of El Paso . . .
At around three-thirty my father commandeered the band’s microphone and announced that the bar was open (in truth it had been active all along), that people should eat as they wished (nibbling had already begun in earnest), and that the band would play. He then proceeded to open the champagne, and the reception was on. The band played all the traditional wedding favorites. People danced and ate and drank as if some great thing had just happened, like a wedding. There were toasts and more toasts. Two cases of champagne of the six my father had bought were drained in the first fifteen minutes. My father danced with Richard’s mother. Richard’s father insisted on dancing with me, even though I was still in my sweatshirt and jeans. The plumber, drunk already and wet and dirty in his work clothes, offered a ridiculously maudlin toast to me and Richard, and to my father, whom he called “the greatest man I’ve ever met,” though he’d only known him for two hours. By rights I should have been locked in my bedroom crying hysterically, but the situation was too absurd for tears.
An hour later I nearly did cry, out of relief, as my mother, Ruth, and the other girls finally walked in, but the sight of policemen who came in with them ruined my respite.
Richard had never showed, and in desperation my mother called the law and bawled pitifully over the phone until two patrol cars were dispatched to transport the fully bedecked bridesmaids and mother of the bride to the wedding. The cops were courteous and kind, and I thanked them profusely as they left. They were just getting into their cars when Richard pulled up, and it took every angstrom of my self-control not to scream, “Arrest that man!” Instead, I gathered together my resolve and, through gritted teeth that ached to bite his perfect nose off, growled to my teetering sot of a fiancé, “In fifteen minutes I will come down those stairs in my mother’s wedding dress. You will take my arm and walk me to the altar, where we will be married without delay. After that, I will never speak to you again.” Even through the pea-soup fog of his beery cloud, he seemed to get the message. I had become dangerous and I think he knew it. I bolted upstairs, followed by the women, all of whom were fighting tears of exasperation.
We regrouped and at the appointed interval descended the stairs with all the aplomb we could muster, each of us trying to pretend that we were being escorted into the backyard by gentlemen instead of by the stinking deadbeats who actually had our arms. A shout rose from the delirious crowd as we entered. I suddenly realized what the bull must feel like as he is let into the arena before a throng that has come specifically to see him get wiped out. Braced against a tree, my father smiled at me and tried to wink, but it was hardly noticeable as his eyes were already all but shut. Beside him, the plumber wept like a leaky pipe. The last plumber I ever call who can’t hold his liquor.
Pastor Raymond was as pale as a cadaver as I walked and Richard lurched the last few steps to the front of the gathering. The pastor turned us to face the audience, and he bade everyone sit. The best man missed his chair by a foot and fell like a broken bag of groceries. My father slid a notch or so down his tree. The plumber kneeled in a prayerful pose, still dripping. At the back there was a small commotion as four uniformed Marines, two enlisted and two officers, seemed to rush in and then stop suddenly when they reached the back yard. I might have been one of only a few to notice them, but I just figured they were more of Richard’s worthless friends and chose to ignore them.
“Dearly beloved,” Pastor Raymond began, and followed with his version of the usual spiel, editorializing in a way that sounded practiced rather than spontaneous. He was accompanied by hoots and cheers from the crowd that reminded me of the night of my high school junior prom when, after drinking too much Bali Hai, I climbed onto a table and started taking my clothes off.
As safely removed as I now am from the possibility, it still scares me to think what might have happened had the strange Marines not showed up when they did. I probably would have killed him. Richard, that is. But I was saved from what the newspapers would have called a crime of passion — which would more likely have been a sober, rational, and proper assassination of an enemy of the state — by a handsome Marine captain named O’Brien, who took Pastor Raymond up on his offer “to speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“I’m truly sorry to do this,” Captain O’Brien began, “but at least I’m in time enough that I don’t have to make the arrest I came to make.” He turned to me and took off his hat. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but your fiancé is already married.”
Without further ado, Richard dropped to the ground, passed out. I wanted to kick him in the head so badly my toes hurt.
“Two months ago,” O’Brien continued, reading now from a paper he’d pulled from his pocket, “it seems he married a woman named Elaina Lolan, also known as Suzie Good. The wedding was performed by a Marine chaplain in Olongapo City in the Philippines. Word came around through the squadron that he was planning on getting married again here, and one of the pilots brought it to our attention. I’m very sorry. We might even have been able to forget about it — these boys do some strange things when they ’re on liberty in foreign countries — but we also learned that his wife is on an airplane right about now, headed for Los Angeles.”
I should have married the plumber. He couldn’t drink, but at least he was sincere and knew how to fix a sink.