by Michael C. Ahn
Seeing her allure was like discovering a beautiful nun shrouded in heavy habit. She kept her glasses on even though she didn’t need them for driving, and her honey brown hair was wound in a swirl, strands escaping as if she’d just gotten out of bed. Her figure had not changed much since her college years—still slim, but with a fullness that separated her from the girls. When she walked the hallways, she clutched books against her chest. The boys didn’t bring her up in locker room talks as they did the younger teachers.
In 1962 Franklin High had hired Elizabeth Shelton to teach English with a one-year contract and an option to extend. I learned later her husband was a Navy captain stationed in Norfolk some twenty miles away, and as a matter of Navy practice, he was relocated every two years. By age 32 she had taught English at American schools on military bases in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan.
On the first day of Mrs. Shelton’s class, I studied her face and heard little of what she had to say. She had no makeup, not even powder. Her lips were swollen red, the upper lip larger than the lower, and her wide eyebrows weren’t plucked; her black pupils contrasted with her pale blue eyes. Though she didn’t sit like the other teachers or hide behind a podium, she moved little as she stood in front of the class. I watched her every gesture, only listening to her words when I studied her inflections. When she looked my way, I’d quickly look down to my desk thinking I’d be unnoticed. A month into the semester I knew Mrs. Shelton’s favorite dress and color.
With few friends I was probably labeled a loner, my reflective nature obvious to others—maybe because I was never without a book. I read before morning classes, during lunch, and sometimes in class. Even in grade school I had learned to fake attention to the teacher with a book balanced on my lap. I liked people but I was most comfortable with myself.
The Scarlet Letter was the first assignment in Mrs. Shelton’s class. She talked casually of Hester Prynne’s adultery and sin. Back then, such things weren’t discussed in Tidewater country, in or out of class, especially by a woman. She spent a week on the book, and I was hooked by her discussions. I was not always at ease in class, but I looked forward to the assigned essays and papers where I could try out my literary insights. She wrote little praises on the backs of my papers, which I guarded like secret notes between friends.
Even on weekends Mrs. Shelton wouldn’t leave my head. I thought of her on the bus, at my desk, and in my bed. I suspected my mother noticed me at times, gazing at or playing with my food. I’d had crushes before but this was different. She was older and married, but she consumed me fully. At times I felt as if I were a chess piece, sitting on a square with a finite number of moves that led to nowhere.
Spring came early that year, the azaleas blooming before Easter vacation. I landed a job in the library shelving books, perfunctory tasks taking a small portion of my last period. One March day I looked out the library window and sighted Mrs. Shelton sitting on the steps to the football field. She was marking papers with her ballpoint pen, inattentively repositioning her hair. I stood motionless and stared, bothered by perspiration under my collar. I knew I’d go to her, but like a deer hesitating before taking steps to a pond, I lingered.
“Mrs. Shelton,” I said.
“Thomas,” she said, looking up. She scanned the unclouded sky. “The sun is wonderful. Have you been working in the library? Sit down.”
I thought she must have noticed me in the library. I asked her assignment questions and she was more than polite; I was sure she welcomed my company.
Days drew out as I waited for my last class period, waiting to see if she would be sitting on the steps. When rain fell, I solaced myself with thoughts of her next class. On other days I waited by the window, careful to join her infrequently, not to risk her not coming out at all. When I left my duties to talk to her, I had ready a clever excuse.
By May Mrs. Shelton spent little time in the faculty lounge, preferring her free period outside the library steps. I imagined she even anticipated me, but I was cautious and spread out my visits. On the days I refrained, I shielded myself in the stacks and watched her as if she were my favorite character in a staged play.
“I wish you were going to college in the fall,” she chided me one day. “You’re uncommonly intelligent, Thomas.”
Sitting next to her, I caught a faint whiff of her cologne or maybe bath oil. I stole a glance of her cotton skirt, of the outlines of her thighs. My breathing elevated, I inhaled deeply to slow its tempo. A yellow butterfly floated by.
“Well, I’ve already signed up for the Army. I’ll be heading out to Fort Bragg for basic training two weeks after school,” I said with some pride. “Besides, there’s no money. Miss Gregory told me the G.I. Bill should help once I get out.”
That past fall I had talked to Miss Gregory, the guidance counselor, a former gym teacher who had been promoted to a desk job when her obesity prevented her from her duties. She wasn’t very knowledgeable or encouraging, but she touted the advantages of a military career, with no mention of SATs, scholarships or other academic options.
“Thomas, there are funds for students like you now,” Mrs. Shelton persisted. “There are government scholarships and grants, especially from the major schools. I wish we had talked earlier in the year.”
“Well, maybe after the Army,” I said.
“Please promise me you’ll take the college boards next year. I think you’re gifted, Thomas. Would you consider studying English, or literature?”
I had not given thought to college. The few and the wealthy ended up at the University of Virginia or William and Mary, and others went to teachers colleges. But the majority of students left school for jobs at local retail stores, construction work, gas stations, or the military. Before I left school, Mrs. Shelton had agreed to extend her contract another year, and I promised her I would write.
In the summer of ‘63 the war in Vietnam wasn’t front page news. The nation started to take notice of the civil rights marches, waited in line to see Dr. No, and listened to Jan and Dean. After basic training, soldiers were sent to Germany, Korea, Japan, and other parts of the world, but I was assigned to the 9th Logistic Command, part of MAAG—Military Assistance and Advisory Group in Vietnam; the Army placed me in their motor pool in Saigon. At the time Americans were in an advisory role, there were few casualties, and the war was still limited for GI’s. If I were to create a job for myself, I couldn’t have done better. I wasn’t required to carry a gun, march, or stand guard duty. At eighteen I supervised a dozen Vietnamese who were skilled mechanics, some of whom were old enough to have been my father.
I sat at a gray steel desk, handing out work orders, tracking schedules, and writing weekly reports. My only supervisor was a Sergeant Stickles, a beefy semi-literate from Georgia who was glad to have me doing all his work. Stickles told me, “Hanson, I’m a firm believer in keeping my desk without no papers. And your ass is to make sure of that. Hear?” And then he’d slip off.
The Vietnamese motor pool workers were men, save one—Luong Tuyen. She spoke French but she had also picked up English from her father, an accountant who had worked for an Australian trading company. As a childless widow who supported her mother, she was grateful for the job with the Americans.
Tuyen became more of a mentor than an assistant to me, guiding me in weaving through the bureaucracy, ordering equipment, and dealing with worker problems. She even showed me how to handle irate colonels demanding unscheduled drivers. “Toma,” she would call me as a Frenchwoman would. “Never say no to lieutenant colonel. Say yes. Always. Then we figure something out. Sometimes we just forget. Then say yes again. Better that way.”
I liked her wit and sarcasm, which was more American than Asian. She was tall for a Vietnamese, delicate and thin, unlike the more curved American women. Her straight black hair was permed at the ends, mimicking Western styles, and her facial features were subdued. Her Oriental eyes were more triangular shaped than other Vietnamese, imparting a look of sadness. She had an unclear smile fixed on the corners of her mouth.
I was sure Tuyen liked me also. Once during a break she told me she was glad I worked in the office and that I was like a waft of fresh air, different than the other soldiers who were affable but just plain slow. A year and a half after my arrival, she invited me for a Vietnamese dinner at her house, and for the next six months we became secret lovers. At first my callow flesh insisted urgent and immediate satisfaction, often leaving her exhausted and silently unsatisfied. And again she became my teacher. “Toma, woman satisfaction more important to you than your satisfaction.” Another inscrutable aphorism, I thought, but I eventually got it. She guided me—my tempo, cadence. I saw her tensely wound body spasmodic then limp, and for days the feelings lingered, a quiet satisfaction. I hardly remembered my own.
I saw Tuyen on weekends and even during work days. She lived on a street wide enough for a couple of bicycles, more like an alley, crisscrossing like paths in an ant farm. Saigon was replete with such backstreets, crowds flowing through day and night with nonstop commerce and commotion and the pervasive aroma of strange spices and the stench of open sewage. And I didn’t feel conspicuous among American GIs roaming the winding passages covered with strip bars and street walkers. Though she never left my thoughts, Mrs. Shelton was ten thousand miles away. Tuyen was with me now, but we both understood our affair would not be permanent.
I wrote Mrs. Shelton three times during my first year in Vietnam, and she responded promptly, asking me questions of my Army life, the war, and the Orient; and she didn’t fail to remind me about college applications. The following spring she wrote that she had agreed to another year with the school. Her husband was to be assigned to Subic Bay in the Philippines in February, and she would finish out her teaching year and join him afterwards.
I took the SATs offered on the army base and applied to colleges in Virginia and New York. In April the APO (Army Post Office) delivered a couple of thick packets in Saigon which began: “We are pleased…” And as Mrs. Shelton had predicted, financial packages were also included. When she opened my letter that spring, she immediately wrote back how wonderful the news was, how proud she was, and how I would love college. She also wanted to see me before she left for the Philippines in June.
I had left Virginia almost two years ago. In her last letter Mrs. Shelton had given me her number and told me to call her as soon as I arrived. The bus depot had one pay phone, and I was relieved when I heard a dial tone. When she answered, I swallowed to wet my throat.
“Wait at the depot, I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” she said.
Her voice hadn’t changed, and her image became clearer to me as I pictured her lips pucker as they sometimes did before talking.
I sat outside on an old wooden bench. Two men sat across from me, smoking and chitchatting about their connection. The late afternoon sun began to lose its strength and I considered calling my mother, but she would have to wait; besides, no one knew my schedule.
A beige ‘61 AMC Rambler drove up to the curve and Mrs. Shelton stepped out. She wasn’t wearing her glasses. “Thomas!” she called.
I was about to say Mrs. Shelton, but I caught myself. “Hello, Elizabeth,” I said as I picked up my duffle bag and moved towards her. She held both of my upper arms and kissed me on my cheek.
The last time I’d seen her on the library steps, my heart pounded just being near her; this time it raced but the school boy anxiety was gone. She had driven twenty miles to see me, I thought, maybe she looked a little older than I remembered though she was still beautiful. No, she hadn’t changed much, but I realized perhaps I had. I eyed her movements as she walked on her high heels to her car.
“Have you eaten, Thomas? You must be hungry,” she said, putting her car into gear.
I inhaled her scent, arousing feelings from the past. The car windows were down on Highway 58, and I felt the twilight air, still humid and warm. The pastures with unending fences seemed foreign, and I could make out farm animals moving aimlessly. The Virginia countryside was so vast, I thought—I had forgotten. I smelled cut grass and wild onions, memories of my youth dashed through me, and I took a deep breath. It was good to be on an American highway, but I thought it was even better sitting next to Elizabeth.
“You’ve changed, Thomas, you’ve filled out a bit,” she said smiling. “You move differently, slower.” She paused. “Well, we better get you some food. There’s a good Italian restaurant in my neighborhood.”
Elizabeth did most of the talking in the car. She asked all the expected questions of Army life, the fighting, and college plans. I wanted to ask about her husband, but I didn’t. There was little I knew about her: Why were there no children? What was she doing married to a military man—a Navy captain obviously much older than she. It seemed to me she should be married to a college professor or a lawyer. But I was glad to be with her and had difficulty subduing myself.
“We’re fortunate in our timing,” she said. “I have to take this car to the pier tomorrow to be shipped to the Philippines. The apartment is in shambles, everything is boxed up. All paid by the Navy, thank goodness.”
“You’ll be taking off the day after tomorrow?” I asked.
“Believe it or not, I’ve done everything I am supposed to. I’ve closed my bank account, gotten my passport, finished the Navy paperwork, filled out the change of address at the post office… everything. I do have to take the car to the pier. They’ll come in the morning and move everything in the apartment. Then, all I have to do is get myself to Dulles Airport with couple of suitcases.”
“I guess I just made it,” I said. “I mean, a day later and I wouldn’t have been able to see you.”
“We’re almost there,” she said, turning off the highway.
I watched her lips move. It was painful.
“You’ll like Gino,” she continued. “There are not many Italian restaurants here. In fact I think it was the first Italian restaurant in Norfolk. I hope you like Italian.”
The restaurant was full and Elizabeth was right. It was comfy, with red-checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in old wine bottles. I smelled garlic.
“Elizabeth!” Gino yelled out. “How’s the captain, have you heard from him?”
“Good evening, Gino. I received a letter just a few days ago.” She introduced him to me as one of her students who’d just come back from an Army tour. Elizabeth asked for a glass of house Chianti, salad, and veal; I had never heard of veal. I ordered the only Italian dish I knew—spaghetti and meatballs. I wasn’t a drinker, probably the only one in his barracks back in Saigon.
Elizabeth could not hear enough of my stories, occasionally breaking her attention to sip the Chianti. Her attention pleased me, and I narrated my life in the Orient like a journalist returning from an assignment: the tense political state, the coming war, the confused countryside, bizarre customs, steamy city backstreets, the people. I did mention Tuyen, but not our relationship.
The single candle flickered as I sat across from her, and I was unaware of the blurred chatter of others in the room. Our eyes met regularly during the evening, and I thought Elizabeth looked away as if to conceal her feelings. I was sure I was right.
Gino approached us. “How about some dessert, Elizabeth? We have your favorite spumoni.”
“Thomas, would you like one? Smooth Italian ice cream with nuts and fruit.”
“No, I’m full.”
“No, Gino. But I’ll have just one more Chianti,” she said.
She’d already had two, I thought, and I began to think I might be sleeping at Elizabeth’s tonight. Maybe. Where else at this time of night? She wasn’t going to drive me anywhere in her condition.
At 10:30 Gino and his help began their close-up routine. Elizabeth turned to Gino, raised her finger and silently mouthed for the check.
“No, Elizabeth, the dinner is on the house,” Gino said. “We won’t be seeing you for a while.”
She stood up, and after their “please write” and “I’ll see you when I return,” she thanked Gino and kissed him on the cheeks. Elizabeth told me it was late, and she may have drunk more Chianti than she should have. Then she offered me her living room couch for the night, quite matter-of-factly. She would drive me to the bus depot in the morning.
The apartment complex had quadruplex units, Virginia red clay bricks and white window frames with Jeffersonian touches. The humid night air was still, except for crickets chirping.
“Ok, we’re home,” she said and turned the keys to kill the engine. No other words were spoken. She led me up the stairs and I followed with my eyes fixed on Elizabeth’s back. When she unlocked the door, a single floor lamp lit the living room—bare walls, strewn moving-cartons, and scattered furniture everywhere. I smelled fresh cardboard boxes. She took several steps into her apartment, turned and held out her hand. She led me through the short hallway to her dark bedroom, and passing the room’s light switch, walked towards the nightstand. I stood by the door.
Fragments of light passed into the bedroom through the Venetian blinds, and with the living room light sneaking in from the hallway, I could make out her eyes looking at me. In silence Elizabeth unbuttoned her cream-colored blouse, and without pausing, unhooked her brassiere. Her pear-shaped breasts were disproportionate to her narrow shoulders, the tips proudly pointing to the ceiling like forsythia buds in April. Her skirt dropped to the floor.
I stepped toward her. I unbuttoned my shirt and bent over to slip my legs out of my khakis as she stared at me. Before straightening my back, I gently kissed her stomach. Holding my head with both hands, Elizabeth let out a sigh. I rose to take her lips.
The room was muggy, the smell of two bodies sweltering in ceaseless flux—the windows opaque, condensed frenzy. Echoes of our intensity reverberated in the room and our breathing slowed. Elizabeth’s left arm was wrapped around my neck while I faced down on my stomach, and within minutes she fell into a deep sleep. I laid motionless—tracks of perspiration rolled down my back like raindrops skidding down a window pane. The electric clock showed midnight, the long hand droning. I looked at the beautiful woman lying beside me.
When I opened my eyes, I was alone in the bare room, mourning doves calling outside the windows. I moved slowly off the bed to pick up my pants lying on the floor. Elizabeth? I walked to the bathroom in the hallway and relieved myself. I lowered my head to the running faucet and gulped to quench my dried mouth, and then I dashed my face with the water and grabbed a towel from the rack. When I wandered into the living room, skirting the mountain of boxes, the front door opened.
“Oh, good morning, Thomas,” she said.
“I ran out to the 7-11 to get some coffee and glazed donuts. My kitchen is totally bare.”
Sipping my coffee, I looked at her, searching, and she returned a smile.
“Thomas, the movers will be here early, in about an hour. I’ll have to be here, so I’m afraid we should move along to the bus station soon.”
I’d expected her to mention the previous night, or our new consonance. But there was no discussion.
“Sure. That would be fine,” I said, “You’ve got a lot to do.”
During the fifteen-minute ride to the bus station, she talked of her memories of college, her education, and the happiness she felt for the coming changes in my life. There was no mention of exchanging mailing addresses.
As the Rambler slowed to the curb in front of the terminal, she put the gear into park. She reached for the glove compartment and removed a wrapped box. “For your trip,” she said, placing it in my hands. Then she said softly, “Thomas, you are an unusual young man. You’ll make some woman very happy.” She then leaned towards me and touched my cheek.
“Good bye, Elizabeth,” I heard my voice say. I lifted my duffle bag from the back seat, looked at her once more, and walked toward the depot.
The parting was somber, I thought, an empty closure. The Greyhound bus smelled of cigarettes, and I took a seat in the back, looking once more out the tinted window. She had already disappeared but her last words lingered. I examined her gift—a book, I guessed, and tore off the wrapping. A gilded leather-bound copy of Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. She had probably recouped it from a box in her living room, I thought. A handwritten card was placed in the book, a note telling me to move on: “We have our fixed paths/ Look forward dearest Thomas/ A summerly life.” It wasn’t much of a consolation, I thought, but still she had signed it, “Love Elizabeth.”
Still in bed I stared at the roving black spider on the pockmarked wall. My throat smarted as I turned my groggy head to the unmade bed across the room and smelled my new roommate’s stale cigarettes in an ashtray on the floor. Muffled voices penetrated the door. My alarm clock hummed—I thought I’d turned it on but wasn’t sure. The dorms, I was in Baker Hall. A familiar discomfort nagged me. I thought of Elizabeth, my eyes scanning the ceiling. Elizabeth.
I considered smacking the spider, splattering its innards on the wall, but instead decided to get up from my bed. I sat in front of my desk and reached for a half–drunk Coke, fizzless and warm. The gilded covers of Thomas Wolfe’s book glistered, a corner of the note card visible; Wolfe was one of Elizabeth’s favorites. I had brought the book with me but had not opened it. I pulled out the card and stared again at her cursive writing from a fountain pen:
June 3, 1965
We have our fixed paths
Look forward dearest Thomas
A summerly life
I had not understood the poem on the bus, but now I thought that she might have meant our moments will always be part of my life. So the meaning was in the Haiku—a last secret note between friends.
Published 18 February 2014.