Manhattan Project #8 (Berman goes in search of the blond-haired girl from the bus)

One of the worst times was the road trip I decided to take to Boston, hoping I could somehow find the girl from the bus. It was the middle of the week, two or three months after I met her, and I was thinking if you’re lucky enough to cross dotted lines with someone who seems so right you should check it out. I know it sounds goofy. I mean, what are the chances of finding this one girl at some unknown college in a place as big as Boston. But when you’re that age, things like that can make sense. So I jumped on a bus in Portland and headed down I-95.
When I got in the city, I found my way to the library on Boylston Street to see how many private all-girl colleges they had. The reference librarian helped me find three: Wellesley, Emmanuel, and Simmons. On the bus, my blonde-haired friend had said she went to an all-girls school I probably never heard of, and I had heard of Wellesley, so I figured that wasn’t it. It had to be either Emmanuel or Simmons. Emmanuel was a Catholic school, but we hadn’t talked about that stuff on the bus, so I didn’t know if she was Catholic. Considering what we did, I guessed she probably wasn’t. Turned out Emmanuel was right beside Simmons, on a street called The Fenway, which is a sort of strange name for a street, but it’s actually the name of a whole section of Boston, not too far from Fenway Park. It took me about fifteen minutes to get there. I decided the first place to look was Simmons.
Part of me was thinking what a stupid idea this was, but another part still believed I’d find her. Simmons was a pretty nice campus, for being in the middle of a major city, lots of trees and wide sidewalks running between the buildings. I spotted the main building right away from a picture the librarian showed me. It was three stories and fairly long, with a limestone façade and a bench on either side of the wooden front doors. Lots of young women were going in and out of the building, cradling books in their arms, with woven bags, much like the one my friend had on the bus. In fact, as I watched them, I realized many of them looked very much like the blonde girl. I panicked a little thinking I might not even recognize her if she walked right past me. But her face was still burned into my brain, and the color of her hair, and the cut of her bangs. I sat down on one of the benches and stared at every girl who went by. It was early afternoon when I got there. I smoked a few cigarettes while I waited. No one seemed to mind; some of the girls lit up when they came out of the building. That’s a sign of how much things have changed since then.
Around three-thirty, I spotted a fairly tall, blonde-haired girl walking toward the building, her long blonde hair blowing around her face and flying out behind her like a golden flag. I know it sounds corny, but I felt my heart jump at the possibility that it might be her. She was carrying a woven bag in her hand and striding along in almost exactly the way the blonde girl walked away after we said goodbye at the bus station. Seriously, it looked so much like her that I had a little trouble breathing, I was so psyched. For this wacky plan to actually work would be one of the best things that ever happened.
And then she was coming straight towards me. Actually, I think she was just heading for the door, but I was sitting on the end of the bench closest to the doorway and from that angle it looked like she was going to walk right up to me. I stood up and waited for her to get close enough to be sure. The eyes were right, the bangs were right, the hair was right, the bag was right, even the jeans looked right. Without even thinking about it, I waved my hand at her and yelled, “Hey!”
I really regretted not getting her name that night on the bus; it would have been easier to get her attention. The sidewalk was full of girls milling around. She didn’t look in my direction when I yelled. I figured she couldn’t hear me over all the other voices, so I took a step toward her, waved both hands, and yelled the only thing I could think of that might really get her attention.
“Hey, Scranton, over here!”
She stopped and looked over at me, but I didn’t see even a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. The little voice inside me that had been telling me how dumb I was to do this was screaming now, telling me to turn around and run or find a hole somewhere I could crawl into, that this whole escapade was a gigantic mistake. But I refused to believe that. I took a step toward her, and then another, until I was standing in front of her. She looked right at me, a puzzled expression on her face.
“I’m sorry, “she said. “Do I know you?”
“Are you from Scranton?” I asked, and then held my breath, waiting for her response. When it came, it cut through me like a bayonet.
“No. I’ve never been to Scranton in my life.”
I felt like someone had sucked all the air out of me. But I wasn’t ready to give up. I clung to the last shred of hope I had left, and asked a really stupid question.
“Are you sure?”
She didn’t say anything for a couple of very long seconds. Then she said, “Is this some kind of joke? Am I on Candid Camera or something?”
“No, this is no joke. I’m from Scranton and I’m pretty sure we met on the bus a couple of months ago when we were coming back to school. I’m at a little school in Maine. And we met on the bus, and talked about war and stuff. You told me you thought maybe we were soul mates.”
I was in about as deep as I could get. But it wasn’t working. She just shook her head and smiled at me.
“I think you’ve made a mistake here. I’m from Worcester, and I don’t ride the bus. I drive here in the BMW my dad gave me for high school graduation. Sorry.”
She smiled again and shrugged her shoulders.
“If you don’t mind, I need to get going. I’ll be late for class.”
With that she gave her golden locks a shake, like she was erasing something from an etch-a-sketch, stepped around me, and walked into the building. The door had swung closed behind her before I could even think of anything else to say. I walked back over to the bench and sat down, with the butts of the cigarettes I’d smoked in great anticipation scattered around my feet. I felt so bad I didn’t even want to smoke. But I still wasn’t ready to let go of my fantasy. I sat there until it was almost dark, then wandered over to the dorms, still sure I was going to find her.
The dorms were all four stories tall and red brick, neatly arranged around a grassy quad with sidewalks running through it to the buildings. From the sidewalk, I could watch everybody going in and out. So I positioned myself about equidistant from all the front doors and kept rotating to catch any new arrivals or departures. It was getting dark, the campus lights came on, and my hopes were starting to fade. And, like they did at the main building, so many of the girls had long, blond hair and carried a bag that looked a lot like the girl on the bus.
Just before it got too dark to really see their faces, one of the doors swung open and a girl came out. She looked a lot like my fellow traveler, the hair was right, she seemed the right height, and she had that bag. But she had something else with her—a guy in a military uniform. He was tall and broad shouldered, and she kept looking around at him and laughing a lot as they came in my direction. She really seemed to enjoy the guy, and he kept grabbing her like she was a toy, which told me he enjoyed her a lot, too. Considering what she’d said about the Army on the bus, I figured it probably wasn’t her. But I stood there and waited for them to get close, just to be sure. And every step they took, I was more convinced I had found her. When I could hear her voice, I was absolutely sure.
I knew what I had to do, stop her and talk to her. But, as usual, the shy kid in my head wanted to turn around and run. I had quite a raging debate in my mind in the few seconds it took for them to reach me, and the side that had convinced me to make this goofy road trip won. When they were about a yard away, I moved in front of them and held up my hand to get their attention. They both stopped, but they had that look on their faces that you get when some weirdo on the street tries to talk to you or bum some change or something. I figured I better say something quick, before they brushed me out of their way. He could have flicked me off the sidewalk with one hand, he was that big.
Once again, I came up with a pretty lame opening line.
“Hey, don’t I know you?”
They both stared at me like I was some kind of freak. So I stumbled on. I pointed at her and said,
“Didn’t I meet you on the bus from Scranton? I was the guy with the derby and the peacoat.”
This time, unlike the girl outside the classroom building, I saw a little glimmer of recognition, so I kept going.
“Do you remember? We wound up sitting together and we talked about a lot of stuff? Like the war and how neither of us likes it very much?”
As soon as I said that, I realized I might be in trouble. I glanced at the guy in the uniform. His face had clouded up. It might have even gotten a little red, but it was too dark to see that. I looked back at the blond, really hoping she was the right one, and also hoping she’d save me if this guy decided to make an issue out of it. She was looking right into my face.
“Yeh, I do remember you. You’re from Scranton, right?” She smiled that warm, sunny smile I’d first seen on the bus. “What in the world are you doing here?”
That’s all the big guy needed to hear. He took a short step so he was sort of between me and her, and tried to take charge of the situation.
“Wait a minute.” He turned and looked at her. “Gwen, do you know this guy?”
She grabbed his arm and pushed him aside so she could see me, and told him, “At ease, Bob, I do know him. He’s from Scranton and goes to school somewhere up in Maine.” She kept looking me straight in the eye. “Right?”
Part of me was still dealing with the improbable fact that I had actually found her, so it took me a moment to say something. I wanted to keep talking to her, and I didn’t want this guy to get too tense about the whole scene, so I nodded and smiled at her, then looked at him and extended my hand.
“She’s right. I’m Jed Berman,” I said, as pleasantly as I could.
Bob seemed a little confused about what was happening, but he took my hand and gave it a hard shake. “Nice to meet you,” he said, with absolutely no enthusiasm, at all. And he didn’t offer any other information, like a last name.
I turned back to her, eager to bask in that smile.
“Yeh, I decided to take a mid-semester break from the books and check out Boston, and once I got here I remembered that you said you went to school here, and the library told me about the all-girls schools, and I thought it would be cool if I actually ran into you and said hi.”
She let me babble a little bit more, then stopped me.
“Whoa! So your name is Jed. I didn’t pick that up on the bus. Can’t believe you did this, but it’s always nice to see a fellow Scrantonian.” She laughed a little, at the designation she’d made up. “Listen, Bob and I were going out for some pizza, want to join us and have a mini-Scranton reunion?”
You don’t have to guess my response. We walked-Bob on one side of Gwen, gripping her arm firmly, and me on the other, wishing I could put my arm around her and kiss her-a couple of blocks to a restaurant, ordered a pizza, and tried to talk. I say tried because Bob clearly didn’t appreciate this joker from out of nowhere horning in on his date. While Gwen and I chatted about the bus ride, without touching on the four-foot high club or any of that stuff, Bob sat there in his uniform, a glum look on his face.
Since I really didn’t have any claim on her, other than a totally random encounter on a bus, I thought it might be a good idea to get Bob into the conversation.
“So, Bob, how long have you been in the Army?”
“I’m not actually in the regular Army, yet,” he told me. “I’m in ROTC at Boston College.”
I nodded.
“That’s interesting. I remember Gwen told me on the bus her father is in the Army.” I didn’t mention she also told me she wished he wasn’t. “How’d you decide to sign up for ROTC?”
“Because they’re paying for my education, for one thing. Then I do a quick few years of active duty, and Gwen and I can get on with our lives.” He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her close to him.
I looked at her to see if that’s what she was planning. She nodded, and gave me a weak smile. It still wasn’t adding up for me that she could say the things she had that night, about war and the military and her dad, and then end up with a soldier. Of course, I have to admit I hardly knew her, soul-mate or not. I began to realize the soul-mate part was mostly in my head, and probably not much in hers. And, if she was already this involved with old Bob when we hooked up on the bus, it probably didn’t mean nearly as much to her as it did to me, the sex or the conversation.
I’m not saying she was a slut or anything; a lot of people had a lot of sex in those days with a lot of people. It didn’t need to mean you’d professed some eternal commitment to each other. Hell, my roommate in college didn’t even pretend he loved the women he did it with. He set out to seduce every really attractive woman on campus, which was an ambitious target, given that our campus had a ton of really attractive women walking around and he wasn’t all that great to look at. But, he had a line as smooth as silk. As I recall, he pretty much pulled it off.
It was interesting, though, that some people who obviously wanted to have a lot of sex still talked like they had to feel something more than just horny to get it on. A female friend of mine used to say she wouldn’t sleep with a guy unless she loved him. She proceeded to get drunk and fall in love with somebody new every Friday night when we hit the bars. I always felt sorry for her, ‘cause she ended up bringing home some pretty sad specimens. Once in a while, if I got up early Saturday morning, I’d see her rushing them out of the dorm before anyone got a look at them.
Okay, you’re probably thinking: why I am I telling you all of this stuff? It doesn’t have much to do with the big question I started out with. But just hang on, because the little discussion I had with old Bob-O did.
After he let me in on the plans he and Gwen had, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, and a little pissed that she basically used me on the bus. I had wasted a lot of money getting to Boston to live out my sad, little fantasy about this girl. I knew it wasn’t very nice to do, but I decided to give Bob a little shit about stepping up to do his military duty when most people our age had a pretty dim view of what was happening in Vietnam.
“So, Bob,” I said, trying to sound like I was honestly interested, “Anything else attract you to ROTC, besides the money, I mean?”
He didn’t anwer, at first, just sort of squinted at me like he had me in the sights of his M-16. He looked at Gwen, and then turned back to me.
“Well, Jem.”
I interrupted him.
“It’s Jed. Jed Berman.” I tried to get a little steel in my gaze, too.
“Well, Jed,” he said, overenunciating it, like it was a tremendous effort on his part to even answer my question.
“Well, Jed,” he repeated, and then continued in a really condescending voice, full of I’m-a-brave-American-soldier-and-you’re-a-fucking-hippie jerk, “I took a serious look at what’s happening in this world of ours, and it seemed pretty obvious that somebody needs to step up and protect our way of life from those godless gooks over there. Serving through ROTC allowed me to do my duty and keep moving on my education at the same time. And when I’m done here, and they want to send me to Vietnam to help stomp those little pajama-clad pinkoes, I’m damn well ready to do it.” He finished with real emphasis on the last part, all but slamming his big, meaty fist down on the table.
It was a pretty forceful speech, one I suspected old Bob had already given a few times, maybe just before he threatened to beat the crap out of some war protester in front of the federal building. Maybe he was just trying to impress Gwen with his courage, or try to make me feel bad for not joining up, too, but if he really meant that stuff, I figured I might be able to wind him up a little more.
“That’s very interesting, Bob,” I said, adding a little extra attention to the way I said his name. “But, can I tell you what I always have to think about when I hear someone talk about military service like that?”
I peered into his eyes, oozing sincerity and concern. Gwen just sat there; she had leaned a little bit away from Bob, but his thick hand still clutched her shoulder.
“Sure,”he said, “what do you think about, Jed?”
“Actually, a couple of things,” I said, springing the trap. “For one, did you ever stop to think about how much the reasons politicians are giving us for bombing Vietnam back to the stone age are like the ones they’ve given us for just about any war we’ve ever fought? I mean, do you really think that little Asian nation, that peninsula populated with rice farmers, is about to sail across the Pacific and take down Uncle Sam, with his nuclear bombs and AWACS planes?”
Bob opened his mouth to say something, but I was on a roll. I waved my hand at him, like a traffic cop in traffic, and kept on going. I sat up close to my side of the table and gripped it with both hands, my eyes locked on his.
“And the other thing I think about, Bob, which I wonder if you ever have, is whether I could actually kill somebody if I had to, if an officer, like you’ll be pretty soon, jumped up and shouted, let’s take this hill, men, and take no prisoners. If I came face-to-face with a dark-haired guy holding a combat rifle a lot like mine, with his finger inching toward the trigger, but with a look in his eye that said, I’m not really into this any more than you are, but my captain just said I should kill you, so here goes, could I blow him away, and if he didn’t die right away, how would it feel to yank out my knife and slit his throat? How do they cover that in basic training, Bob?”
I was spitting the words out, now. Gwen looked toward Bob to see how he was handling my verbal assault, all intended to indict the young man before me for the atrocity that war, no matter how apparently justified, seemed to be. When I stopped, Bob was more than ready to jump in. He practically gritted his teeth, he was so cranked.
“You yellow-bellied little shit,” he snapped. He’d pulled his arm back from around Gwen, and had both hands on the table, making a squeezing motion. I thought he might be imagining wringing my neck.
“How can you call yourself an American with ideas like that? No one ever said war was a pretty picture. It’s hell. We all know that. And we don’t do it, at least not in this country, unless there’s a damn good reason. Have you ever thought what it would be like to live under communism, where someone else tells you when to take a shit or what you’ll do with your life?”
“No, I don’t look forward to killing other soldiers. I haven’t run into anyone since I signed up who does. The thing is, if we don’t deal with nations and governments that threaten us, we won’t have any of the freedoms we believe in. Hell, we’ll all be speaking Vietnamese, you know?
He leaned toward me, his expression menacing.
“ See, Jed, if people like me and all the brave soldiers in this man’s army weren’t willing to risk our lives to defend this country, you might not be looking so hip in your derby, and your peacoat, and your stringy long hair, and your fucking cool striped bell bottoms. Do you think all of that freedom comes for free? Is that what you think the word means? Nobody has to do a damn thing to make sure we can live the way we want to? Is that what you think, Mr. Hipster?”
“Well, if it is, you’re even dumber than you look. I’m just doing what any real American should do, my duty. And, yes, I’ll kill as many gooks as it takes to make sure this country stays the way it is, with the exception of draft-dodgers like you, of course. And after I’ve done it, Gwen and I are going to get busy having two kids, a house with a two-car garage and a picket fence, and a really good life, thanks to the men and women of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and, of course, Marines. Right, Gwen?”
He sat back, puffed up his chest, and turned his head toward Gwen, looking very proud of himself. She raised both hands, almost in a self-defense posture, and looked at Bob, then at me, and back at Bob. She spoke in a low, quiet tone.
“You know, I’ve lived with this shit all my life. My father was mostly not around because he was off doing his duty. Do I think everything I have, everything I am able to be, is thanks to war and the military? No.”
“Do I have a higher opinion of someone because they volunteer to serve? No. Do I think we have any business kicking the shit out of the people of Vietnam because Dean Rusk says the dominoes are going to keep falling toward communism if we don’t? No. Do I want to be married to a military officer who’s so into spit-and-polish –and discipline—that they cast a murky shadow over anyone who tries to think rationally about these things? Hell, no.”
“But, Bob,” she wrenched herself around in the narrow space of the booth to look straight at him, “you and I have never had this conversation. We’ve never really discussed these things, and you haven’t ever told me how you feel about all this stuff.”
“But here’s the most important question. Do I want to be married to a guy who says he’ll kill as many people as it takes so long as he gets what he wants out of life? I know this isn’t the time or the place to reach this decision, but I’ve only just heard you say that, and the answer to that question is: No!”
She looked at him, something close to horror on her face. She punched him in his big, muscular arm, but not in a friendly way.
“Bob, how could you say something like that? Aren’t you the guy who told me you hate to step on ants on the sidewalk? Where is that guy, that kind, gentle guy, going to be when you’re ripping the heads off Viet Cong soldiers? I don’t know which direction the dominoes are going to fall, or if they’re going to fall at all. What I do know is that I’m going back to my dorm and neither of you needs to come with me.”
She pushed Bob with both hands until he slid out of the booth and stood up. He didn’t say anything to her, just watched her run out of the restaurant. The door slammed shut and Bob was about to sit down again, when he realized what he was doing. Instead of sliding into the booth, he leaned over the seat, grabbed his coat, and pulled it on. He looked down at the bill lying on the end of the table, and slowly up at me. His face was blank, no expression that I could read. He stared at me for a few seconds, then pointed toward the bill.
“Nice work, dipshit. This one’s on you.”
He walked away, leaving me sitting on the other side of the table staring at the pizza. As it turned out, that was the last time I ever saw Gwen. I guess I hope she’s had a nice life, but I don’t really care.


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