Saturday, May 25, 2013

Arlington Waltz

Arlington Waltz
Linda Basinger

            Jennifer Arden made her way across the sea of white crosses in Arlington National Cemetery. She breathed in the perfume of the fresh-cut roses she carried. Her husband Jim would have loved these, cut from the bush they’d given her parents to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Never did it occur to her that one day she’d be bringing bouquets from that bush to Jim’s grave. But here she was. She visited every Wednesday.
            Jim had been gone a little over two years, but a painful lump still arose in her throat when she approached his grave. Sighing, she pressed the bouquet to her heart.
            “I keep hearing how it’s supposed to get easier, Jim. Hurt less.”  A tear trickled, unchecked, down one of her cheeks. She sniffed. “It isn’t, though. It – it just isn’t. Maybe it never will.”
Finding a crumpled tissue, she blew her nose. “I’ve done all I know to do. Everything the counselor told me to try, too. I don’t know what else there is.” 
She arranged the blooms in the vase attached to the stone. “I brought these from the bush we planted for Mom and Dad. God, that was such a perfect day. A peace rose,” she mused, “planted with our hopes and prayers for a quick end to the war in the Middle East. Ironic, me bringing them to you here, a place of peace and tranquility. But the war just goes on and on.” 
Pulling bottled water from her purse, she watered the bouquet. “I think I’m making my friends and family crazy because I can’t seem to stop grieving. Your parents have even suggested that I consider taking off my rings. They think that would help me feel free to find a way forward. To go on with my life. They say you would want me to move on. Oh, love, I know you’d want me to get on with my life. But I don’t know -- I just don’t know. Maybe when the time is right…”
The soft breeze carried a low, soft-spoken male voice to her.
“I’m sorry, man. I should be the one in there, Gary, not you.” 
The voice sounded familiar. She pictured one of the soldiers she visited when taking hand-made gifts to Walter Reed. Why did this particular man, a sergeant, stand out in her memory so vividly?  He’d lost the lower part of his right leg, but there were many amputees. And she’d visited a lot of soldiers and veterans over the last year. Her counselor thought the visits would help her recover from the soul-wrenching grief that refused to release its hold on her. Clearly, the counselor was wrong.
The voice continued from a short distance behind her. “It’s just not right that I’m the only one of the squadron to get out alive.”  He coughed. “I saw your folks last week. They told me to stop thinking I should have been killed, too. But, Gary, man…”
She heard him choke back a sob. Knew she couldn’t turn around now and risk him knowing she’d overheard his outpouring of grief. Hearing him clear his throat and start talking again, she turned slightly to see who’d made the comment.
The man stood a slight distance to her left and on the row immediately behind her. He was tall, and jeans clad. From his bearing and posture it was clear to her that if he weren’t active duty now, he’d been recently. It might be the sergeant. The jeans could be covering a prosthetic leg. She decided to speak to him, but before she could, he turned and left. His smooth and easy gait convinced her it could not be the sergeant she’d met at the hospital. She suddenly became aware of a twinge -- something she hadn’t felt in a long time. Disappointment?  Over not seeing someone she didn’t even know?  Hmm. Maybe she should rethink Jim’s folks’ suggestion.
Standing at Gary Sylvester’s grave, Eric Wyatt mentally chided himself. Good God, man – pull it the hell together. You sound like a little kid. He looked up from Gary’s cross to refocus. At that moment, a woman at a grave just ahead of him turned toward him ever so slightly. The light breeze blew wisps of her soft brown shoulder length hair away from her face. Immediate recognition jolted him. He took in a sudden, short burst of air.
His beautiful angel, his inspiration!  She’d visited the hospital several times while he was still in a wheelchair. Often bringing hand-made gifts to the GIs, it always made his day to see her. He’d dreamt of dancing a slow, tender waltz with her. It was his motivation. He’d endured pain and frustration, and worked his ass off countless hours to master using his artificial leg. He’d managed to bring his stride to near perfection. He owed part of it to her, and knew he should thank her.
The sun glinted off the diamond on her left hand. Hell. He’d known all along she was off limits. Still, his fantasy of dancing with her had worked miracles. With it, he’d conquered his physical wounds. Maybe one day he could stop the nightmares, too. The medics kept telling him it was PTSD. He knew better. He was just weak. And it was unacceptable.
Jennifer brought flowers with her to the cemetery the next Wednesday. She wasn’t too surprised that no one else was in her vicinity.
            “Jim, I brought peace roses again.”  She’d just started talking about family news when she heard a man’s voice. It came from about the same place as the previous week. It wasn’t the same voice, though.
“Survivor’s guilt,” he said. “A kind of PTSD. He won’t accept it, though. Thinks he’s just being weak.”
She turned subtly, so as not to stare. A rather frail-looking, pale older man stood at Gary’s grave. He leaned heavily on a cane. Jennifer thought he was none too stable on his feet, and wondered if she should see if he needed some assistance. Maybe he should sit.
She thought she heard the old gentleman say something about love, but about that time a carriage drawn by six white horses in the distance distracted her. Carrying a black casket draped by the American Flag, it took her back in time two years. Seconds later, an intense reflection from the afternoon sun assaulted her eyes, ending her reverie.
The old man was gone. So frail an old man couldn’t possibly walk away so fast. She walked to the grave he’d been visiting. Searching in all directions for depressions that would have been made in the grass by a cane, she found nothing. As heavily as he’d leaned on the cane when he stood at the grave, it would definitely leave marks. It was almost as though he’d dematerialized. Could the stories of the ghost of the unknown be true, she wondered. She saw a single red rose on Gary Sylvester’s grave. It lay on top of a piece of paper which said, “Changing of the Guard, Tomb of the Unknowns, 10:30 Wednesday.” 
The next Wednesday, Jennifer arrived at Jim’s grave earlier than usual. A single red rose lay there.
“Jim,” she began, “I’m taking this as a sign. I think you’re telling me it’s time.”  She stabbed her fresh-cut rose bouquet into the vase. For the first time, she realized she didn’t have to talk around a painful lump in her throat. Yet another sign. Dabbing away threatening tears, she placed her wedding rings in her purse. Then she picked up the single red rose, and headed to the amphitheater.
Jennifer scanned the crowd, trusting that her intuition would guide her if nothing more substantial did. It was easy to spot him near the middle of the crowd. He stood proud and tall, waving his red rose aloft to get her attention.
“Sergeant?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Sergeant Eric Wyatt. Or at least I was last month. Now I’m just Eric Wyatt. He smiled broadly and extended his hand.
She took his big hand in both of hers, feeling vulnerable without her rings. Even so, it was time for her to begin living her life again. She’d never been so sure of anything, and she beamed up at Eric.
“Jennifer Arden,” she said. “I remember you from the hospital.” 
His eyes, turquoise under mahogany lashes that matched his thick hair, gave her hands the once over. Then they took on a dreamy quality. “I remember you, too, Jennifer.”  He smiled broadly. “Better than you might ever imagine.”
The ceremony interrupted their banter. It brought tears to her eyes, as usual. She noticed Eric also allowed a few tears to moisten the corners of his eyes. She remembered how rigid and stern he’d seemed at Gary’s grave just the week before.
Maybe, she thought, he’s making some progress, too – like me.
He put his arm around her. “I’d like to take you to dinner this evening,” Eric said.
She smiled up at him. “Okay. Sounds fun.” 
In her peripheral vision, she caught a fleeting glance of the old man, a red rose in his hand, near the tomb. But he vanished as quickly as he’d appeared.
When Eric escorted her onto the Potomac dinner cruise, she was glad she’d dressed up. The gleam she saw in his eyes told her he definitely approved.
“D.C. at night is gorgeous” he said, “but not as beautiful as you.”  He took her right hand in his and brought it to his lips, delivering a tender kiss. We’ll be cruising by a lot of the most notable places in town,” he added, “Including Arlington.” 
His arm draped protectively around her shoulder as they were shown to their table. Mmmm. He smelled so good.
Once they were seated, he reached across the table to hold her hands in his. “I have a confession to make,” he said.
Oh no, she thought. Please don’t say something bad. Her eyes widened. At his questioning look, she said, “Please. I – I just don’t want anything to mar our evening.”
He rubbed the top of her hand gently with his thumb. Gave her a lopsided grin. “Since the first time you visited that group of us at Walter Reed, I’ve thought of you as my angel. My inspiration.”
Now her eyes grew even larger. A big smile stretched her cheeks. “I never imagined,” she said.
“Thinking about you got me through a lot of hours of hard, frustrating work learning to get around with this.” He slapped his prosthesis.
“Oh,” was all she managed to say.
“I needed to thank you,” he said.
Her shoulders drooped. So that was it. A thank-you dinner, and that’s all. She’d foolishly let herself believe he might have feelings for her. “I see.”  She said.
Jennifer pasted on a fake but cheerful smile during the delicious meal. There was even wine. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d received such sumptuous treatment. She should have been happy.
            The band began a slow waltz. Eric rose, extending his hand toward her. “Jennifer, may I have this dance?” 
            Her eyebrows rose toward her hairline. He could dance with his prothesis?
            As if he could read her mind, he added, “Trust me, Jen.”
Swirling gently around the small dance floor, she found herself humming along with the music. Good Lord – she hadn’t done that in years. Another sign, she decided. His arms around her felt so good. So right.
“Fantasizing about you, about us, dancing like this, is what got me through,” he whispered. “I think that’s when I fell in love with you, Jen.”
“Oh, Eric.”  His words went straight to her heart. She nestled her cheek against his shoulder, loving every tender moment of the slow waltz, of being in his arms. She was ready to move on, to find a new love. With Eric.
“Jen, do you know that guy?” Eric gestured toward their table.
“What guy?” 
“An old man. He’s putting a red rose on the table.” 
Jen smiled softly. “Do you believe in ghosts?”  


  1. Welcome to Wild Okie Writers, Linda! This is a wonderful addition to the series. :) You've written a sweet story of love the second time around.

  2. Love this story. It made me hold my breath waiting for the ending.

  3. Awwww, so touching. Great job, Linda. Love the way the two connected and how she can finally be free to love again.

  4. Wow! Linda, I am so happy to finally have the opportunity to read your work. Fantastic job! This story is so special and real. I loved every word, and will remember it for many, many memorial days to come.

  5. Another touching story! I'm so glad I finally got time to read these. Yours is lovely, Linda.