My girlfriend—get this—keeps asking me to take her back to my place.
Aren’t you rushing things? I say. You may be twenty-eight but I’m nineteen. We do have a good time, don’t we?
We walk up and down the Strand, enjoy the sea air and go into stores, like Colonel Bubbie’s, where they sell the military surplus equipment from all over the world.
My girlfriend knows my dad was in Vietnam and that I’m interested in military equipment and uniforms. She buys me a beret from the old Communist Bulgarian army. We visit the art galleries and fancy dress shops she likes. At night we go into the upscale bars where my girl—Sarah’s her name—orders a glass or two of house white and I sneak my share of sips.
You’ve been to my place, Sarah says. She works at Sealy Medical as a copy editor for a medical magazine and lives in a garage apartment in the neighborhood. You’ve been in my bed, she adds, curling a smile on her lips and turning her head slightly. We can’t I be in yours?
You know I live at home, I lie for the hundredth time. You know I haven’t moved out, for financial reasons. What’s the rush anyway? We’ve known each other for two months? My mom and dad are cool but they’re not so cool they’d let me bring a girl home to bed.
There’s nothing wrong with me meeting your parents, is there? She asks.
We’ve had this conversation fifty times. You are nine years older, I mention again, gently. You are a high school English teacher.
What I don’t dare tell her is I don’t have an actual place to stay. I belong to a gym where I shower, but I don’t have a regular job. I guess you could say I live by my wits. I work part-time sticking advertising fliers in people’s doors for steady cash.
Sarah thinks I am a freshmen student at the A&M campus here. I guess you could say I am a student, a student of life. I moved down from Dallas and have been in Galveston a year. Sarah and I met in the Sealy Library on a rainy April Sunday. I was reading a book of Philip Caputo stories on Vietnam. I read a lot on Vietnam since my father died a year ago of complications, at forty-two, from exposure to Agent Orange. My mother’s drinking got worse, and I left when I couldn’t get her to stop.
Sarah was reading the New Yorker magazine. I liked the way her turquoise eyes peeked out from her thick bangs of brown hair, and asked if she read the articles or just enjoyed the cartoons.
Sarah says early on a Saturday night while we’re listening to a bad Austin band in a club off the Strand, says with slow tears running down her cheeks that she won’t be seeing me again after this lovely June evening, unless I take her home to meet my mother and father. She says I need to be more open about my life, that if I love her I can’t be afraid of our age differences.
And so Sarah and I catch the green trolley to the Seawall. We ride down the Seawall north till we get where there are few stores and hotels. It is still light and the evening is cool enough with a sea breeze blowing. I take her hand and we walk out on the sand through the brush and then around a hill. I get my flashlight out of my backpack and lead her through a cement doorframe inside an old World War II bunker. You know how I am interested in war, I am explaining to her.
The bunker smells of mold and salt and damp, but to me it’s not that unpleasant.
They were worried about an invasion by the Axis powers by sea, and so the government built three of these bunkers on the island, I say, and they’re still here. Isn’t it amazing? Here it is 1982 and these bunkers must be forty years old. You can see in the floor (I shine the light) where the big artillery could rotate. The big guns pointed through this large horizontal slit here out to sea. Behind some of these steel doors they kept the ammo.
Sarah is mostly quiet. She does say the place is not romantic like the beach where we often take walks at night. She asks if I am thinking of enlisting in the military and I say no way, they already got my father.
Over here is where the soldiers lived, I add. I pull down on a big latch on a steel door and push the heavy rusted door open.
This is where I stay. I shine the light inside. I’ve got three suitcases full of clothes, a sleeping bag, a pillow, and a foam rubber mat. I’ve got an old pistol for protection but it’s so dark in here I never get bothered.
Sarah doesn’t say a word. I can’t make out her face, but I am thinking how much I love her, how she is my first love and I will love her till I die. At nineteen I do not care much for the world. I have no plans beyond enjoying the freedom of the day to day. Deep inside the bunker we can hear the trickle of water.
Sarah is still holding my hand. She gives it a squeeze and puts her other hand over mine and makes a sigh. I hear sniffles and surmise she must be crying again, or maybe it’s just the sound of water dripping.
After a long moment standing there with the flashlight lighting my home and belongings, Sarah says quietly, Can we go?
Now you know, I say. Now you know how it is.