The answer was there six hours later when he checked his e-mail.
It was from Ruth Lee; He had known her as Ruth Portman, the daughter of Dr. Portman, an eminent dermatologist. In her e-mail she wrote that she was just curious about what happened to him and had "googled" his name. She also added she was glad to hear from him and hoped he was well.
He replied he was as well as could be expected for a man his age, and he asked if she were well.
He was aware that neither of them made any mention of their spouses, which was not necessarily "a sin of commission or omission" but rather, he preferred to think, the awareness on both their parts--more on his part than on hers, since she had been engaged to be married and he had not yet met the woman who was to become his wife--that their spouses had played no part in their lives the last time they were together.
Using the convenience of e-mail, they exchanged innocuous information about themselves, about their children and grandchildren; about some of the places they had visited during their lives and some of the people they had mutually known when they attended Erasmus.
Harry was flattered by her initial contact. Over the years, he would sometimes wonder what happened to her. She was his first love--a teenage crush would be a more accurate way of describing it. But to them at the time, it was love with a capital L; the real thing came later with his wife, Rita.
Once before, Ruth had entered his life. He was in Camp Le Jeune, North Carolina, waiting to be discharged from the Marines; it was May of nineteen fifty-two. Her call came to Battalion and was transferred down to his Company. The CQ told him he had a call. He assumed it was from either his brother or his sister. His parents were dead; both died while he was in Korea.
After he said, "Hello," a woman on the other end said, "Hello Harry, or should I say, hello Lieutenant Kerner."
He recognized her voice but was too stunned to answer.
"That's not much of a greeting," she chided.
"Where are you?" he finally managed to ask.
"In the Camp's Headquarters building."
"You have a three day pass--"
"Stop the joke," Harry said. "I'm in no mood for jokes." And indeed, he wasn't. Too much had happened to him and those men with him from Pusan to the Frozen Chosen and the subsequent bloody battle to break through the Chinese lines.
"Not one three day pass," she chirped, "but two back to back."
"It's still a bad joke," Harry said.
"It's no joke, Harry; I'm here waiting for you." Her voice was darker than he remembered; she was serious; it wasn't a joke. Dr. Portman, he remembered, had political connections, and now she probably had them too.
They drove to the coast, Emerald Island, rented a cabin near the beach and spent a lot of time in bed; they were young and the physical attraction between them was enormous. She was a real redhead, but he knew that from the time they were high school, when he first saw her nude. Then, as now, he was captivated by it.
He still wasn't used to the luxury of having a bed, much less having a beautiful woman sleeping next to him. When she first saw his scars--the one on his left shoulder; the other on his stomach, just above his pelvis--she wanted to know how he had gotten them. He wasn't about to tell her; she wouldn't have understood, really understood. No one would have understood unless they had been where he had been, or had been in a similar situation.
So he simply said, "My luck ran out."
Not much of an explanation, but it was enough for her to begin kissing the scars, licking them. No woman had ever done that to him before, and none had done it afterwards, not even his wife.
The days and nights passed quickly. Late one afternoon they were sitting on the beach watching the waves come in. He liked the roar of the breakers and the hissing sound made by the water as it pulled back into the churning sea. A red flag was up on the beach, indicating that it was closed to swimmers because of the dangerous surf.
Offshore, about a thousand yards out, a couple of battleship gray LPDs were maneuvering into position to disgorge their personnel carriers. He knew the drill. She knew he did and wanted him to explain what was happening. He wanted to leave the beach; he didn't want to have any part of it, even as an observer. But she wanted to watch the exercise.
The personnel carriers were already moving in tight circles around their mother-ship. He told her she could stay if she wanted to; but he was going back to the motel. She went back with him.
He was unaccountably angry and paced back and forth, smoking one cigarette after another and taking several long pulls on a bottle of bourbon. She didn't attempt to speak to him or stop him from either pacing or drinking.
The demons that came to live inside of him after he left Korea would be with him for several years before he could master them; even now they sometimes grabbed hold of him, inflicting great pain.
On their last night together they had dinner by candlelight; taking hold of his hand, Ruth told him she was getting married in two weeks and wanted to give him part of herself and have him give her something of himself.
That night their lovemaking was more violent than it had ever been; exhausted, they finally fell asleep.
Harry returned to Camp Le Jeune, and Ruth passed out of his life until she e-mailed him.
They continued their e-mail correspondence. She revealed more about herself than he. The picture he was getting was that of a wealthy spoiled woman who divorced her husband after twenty of marriage and had several disappointing affairs.
Then, for no accountable reason Harry could understand, her e-mails stopped abruptly. His first thought was that she might be ill. But after a few weeks when she didn't reply to his e-mails, he was determined to find out whether she was dead or alive and began an investigation, first on the Internet, and then by using the services of a private investigator. Neither was successful.
The absence of her e-mails created a definite hole in Harry's life. As a retired widower, he had more time to get lost in memories than was healthy. By nature he was a solitary person; though when the occasion would call for it, he could be convivial. But his preference was to walk along the river's edge and think. Perhaps, if he were lucky he would come up with an idea for a paper worth writing. It happened less frequently now that he was close to becoming an octogenarian.
Weeks went by, months followed, more than a full year passed. By then, he was sure Ruth was dead--a thought that gave him pause to look at his own mortality; such musings only strengthened his nihilistic view of life.
Then, on a particular day in November, similar to the one described in Poe's The Raven, he was reading the part of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that deals with Inquisitor, when the phone rang.
He seldom received phone calls unless they were from his sons or friends, and those were infrequent because most of his friends were gone. He let the phone ring three times before he answered with the customary, "Hello?"
"I'm in New York," Ruth said and without missing a beat, she added, "and I want to see you."
Proverbial shades of the past, only now they were old, their lives were almost over. For Harry, though the passion might still be there, the power to execute the act was a sometime thing.
They agreed to meet in the hotel's cocktail lounge at five-thirty in the evening. That she was staying at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, diagonally across from the building where he lived, was definitely not a coincidence.
Because he couldn't concentrate any longer, he left off his reading and walked along the river. It was colder and windier than he expected, so he stopped at the Winter Garden and treated himself to a cappuccino and a cranberry muffin. He found an empty table near the large window overlooking the Hudson River. The wind roiled the river water into small whitecaps.
The prospect of meeting Ruth set off whole truckloads of memories. He was the boy from "the wrong side of the tracks." He had nothing; his family had nothing. She was a princess.
A long time ago he had managed to cross the tracks. But underneath the veneer of culture and moderate wealth, he was still "a boy from the wrong side of the tracks," at least in his own head.
The last time they had met, he had been wounded, not only physically but psychologically. The nightmares had persisted for years and so did the anger and the guilt for having lived when so many had died. Eventually he had found his way out of that morass and slowly morphed into the man he was now.
By the time Harry finished his coffee and muffin, a light snow was falling. It was time to go back to the apartment and get ready for his meeting with Ruth.
Though he knew it was absurd, his mind was filled with images of what she was when they were young. Beautiful didn't even begin to describe her. It was that that held him in thrall. But even when they were together for those six days before she married, Harry realized they could never make a marriage work. His experiences in Korea had changed him in ways he had yet to understand and to come to terms with; she was still a spoiled young woman, who hadn't the remotest idea of what he had become. She was doing something she always wanted to do with him, and he was hungry for a woman, especially for her at the time. Neither of them had given any thought to her future husband; but now it was different--he was widower and she was divorcee.
He dressed as if he was going to meet a friend for lunch, comfortably and casually.
At five-thirty, he entered the cocktail lounge. None of the women he saw, old or young, remotely resembled Ruth. He asked the hostess for a table near the window overlooking Wagner Park and the Hudson River beyond, now sheathed in darkness except for the running lights of boats. The snow was now wind-driven.
When the barmaid came, he ordered a Stolie on the rocks, knowing it would mellow him out. He expected her to make a dramatic entrance. The Stolie began to have its effect on him; he was beginning to feel loose.
He wondered what she expected of him, and he wasn't at all sure of what he expected of her; perhaps nothing more, at this stage of their lives, than friendship.
By six o'clock, she still hadn't come; and he was on his second Stolie. His anticipation was slowing changing into annoyance. He disliked being kept waiting; he would not stand online for anything.
He went up to the bar, something he should have done earlier, and asked if there was a message for him and of course there was. He knew she wasn't coming. He went back to the table and opened the envelope. Her note was written on hotel stationery; it read; "I love you; I have always loved you. I have seen you many times as you walked passed the hotel. I have seen you, probably, for the last time. But I don't want you to see me. Again, I have always loved you--Ruth."
Harry folded the note and slowly tore it into pieces. After a lifetime, all of the fantasies were gone. He had never loved her, and that thought saddened him. For a moment his vision blurred, but when it cleared he saw a middle-aged man coming toward him.
In an instant he realized that Ruth had set him up to meet their son.
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