I lived in a duplex unit behind the apartments so filled with Navy men. I shared my own space with another Petty Officer from my class. We weren’t especially fond of one another, but we stayed mostly out of each other’s way.
I spent a great deal of time on the porch, a 6-pack next to me and a book in my hand. If I wasn’t on base or running around town, I was on that porch and happy as could be. I would gaze up at the apartment facing me from the second floor and wonder what she was up to. I thought myself in love, but it was probably more nostalgia and homesickness than anything. She was a cute little burnout chick straight from my memories under “The Ramp” back in high school. Long, dark hair and curves aplenty, her raspy voice took me home when she spoke. I, of course, was the one sailor to never visit her shores.
Oh, she loved me back, just as all the girls in my life. And just like all those others, it was my fawning attention they craved and nothing else. I obliged with vigor. I even looked forward to sitting on the floor with her snuggled up between my thighs as I brushed her hair, and always too damned terrified to try to take it any further.
I’d spent my entire life up to boot camp as a chubby guy. I have a clear memory of a girl spotting me over the low racks in a drug store. Her eyes sparkled a bit and she moved my way. I watched her smile fall away the moment she was able to see that the even features and hard muscles up top were supported by a chubby gut. My confidence in my looks could be measured by that plummeting grin, and so I did and always will. Even when I came out of boot at 185 pounds of nothing but toned muscle, I saw a fat guy in the mirror.
And so it was that I became grateful for whatever attention I could garner. I wasted a solid year on Tonya, letting her use my kindness to ease her day before she used the night to take another sailor to bed. And Betty? Well, Betty was her roommate.
Betty had big, beautiful eyes that one could gleefully drown in, and long, dark, gently curling hair. She, too, had curves everywhere, but the biggest curve was on her belly. She was several months pregnant, thus my attention went to Tonya. Who am I to hit on a pregnant woman? Instead, we became good friends and spent many evenings talking. She was a delight. Deeply intelligent, witty and brash. And, of course, she had that voice.
The first inkling I had of her affection toward me was in the back of a friend’s car, on a long drive back from a concert. Never more than cuddling, but it was pleasant and a surprise. The wheels began to turn, ever so slowly, in my naïve mind, and I began to look at her a bit differently. When I learned that the father of her child had requested and received a transfer to the other side of the country, I felt anger. When I learned that she was using a private adoption to give her child a chance in life, I felt anguish.
It was a goodnight hug that turned into us racing down the steps and across the grass to my front door, that ended my virginal status in life. It was everything I’d hoped for and more, which is a rare result. My love blossomed that night, as it would, but I enjoyed the happy accident of having it returned in full. This still didn’t prevent me calling my closest friend back home to tell her of my new status. She told one of her friends who, upon hearing that my partner in bliss was pregnant said, “Fertile little fucker, isn’t he?”
A short while later, someone angry with our landlord tossed a molotov cocktail into the basement where he kept the parts for his beloved Mustang. The basement below my apartment. I was out drinking with a buddy and came home to police and firemen swarming my home. I stood leaning against Tonya’s apartment building and watched it burn. Luckily, the response had been swift and much of what I owned survived, but the building was no longer suitable for habitation. I moved into an apartment on the second floor of the next building over, delighted to find a murphy bed hidden inside the wall. A good thing, since the firemen had stomped my air mattress to death in the fire.
My new apartment consisted of three rooms, counting the bathroom, which had the only dividing wall. I suppose, if I wanted to be artsy, I could have called it a loft. The murphy bed gave me endless amusement for reasons I still don’t understand. My only decoration was a poster I named Trish. It showed a beautiful woman with big dewy drops running down her bikini bottom clad body, her arms crossed over her breasts, a beer glass in her hand. Beneath were the sage words “Man cannot live by beer alone.” I loved it, horny fool that I was.
The apartment was a couple hundred bucks more a month than my old place, and it didn’t take long for my superior financial skills to cause me to lose all utility services. Luckily, we were in California and a cold night in the Bay Area meant little to this Michigan boy.
I invited Betty to dinner one night. I had no utilities, so I prepared Mac and Cheese and hotdogs on a camp stove someone let me borrow. We ate by candlelight and had a wonderful time. To this day, Mac and Cheese with hotdogs is our comfort food, though we forego the camp stove now.
I took Betty to her to doctor appointments and essentially stood in for the asshole who had run so quick and so far from her side. The prick. When she was going over paperwork and came to the space for the father’s name, I offered my own, but she chose to leave it blank. If her child ever asked, she’d give her his name, but Betty didn’t want the guy to have any legal hold over the child he abandoned.
Soon enough, the day came for Betty to give birth. Her labor was induced so there is no comical race to the hospital to relate. I came with her, of course, but it was Tonya who went into the birthing room. Betty and I were still unsure what we were just yet, so it wasn’t yet my place to stand by her side.
We were all that Betty had, Tonya and I, since her father told her, I shit you not, that it would be too hard for him to see a grandchild that was being adopted out. Too hard. For him. Unforgivable. And I have yet to forgive him. I’ll die hating that man.
The irony is that it was his fault that Betty made her decision. She raised herself from age 14 on. She went through most of what you might imagine for a pretty 14 year old girl living on the streets in a shithole city though she managed to avoid the very worst of the choices in front of her.
She was eventually taken in by four gay men who shared a home, one of them a Master Chief. If you don’t know what a Master Chief is, just know that they are the guys gods look to for permission. They took care of her, kept her safe, though one of their friends kept stealing her clothes for himself.
With the very basics covered, she was able to get herself through high school while working full time at Nachos, a Mexican fast food joint. She was a manger by the time she graduated with a good enough GPA to earn a scholarship from most any school, if only she’d had the means to take advantage of the offers. She hadn’t just beaten the odds, she crushed them and buried them under mounds of determination and hard work.
She and her best friend Brenda came into the barracks one night while I was on watch. They asked me to get one of my buddies from his room. When I found him, he told me to tell them he wasn’t there. I was confused. Why wouldn’t he want to go talk to two absolutely gorgeous women?
The end result is that the very first thing I ever told Betty was a lie. Even then I was looking the wrong way, with my eyes glued to Brenda’s curvy ass as they left. Betty left my mind until that acid fueled night that her voice pierced my soul. Soon after our chance meeting, she discovered she was pregnant, and her boyfriend ran for the hills. I didn’t come in until 6 months later.
By then, she had made her decision, and was well into the process of private adoption. When she got pregnant, she was working in a welding shop for a pair of drunk twins. She made decent money for the time but payroll wasn’t big on the twins list of priorities, so her real income was unstable.
All she knew was that she was alone, and didn’t want her child growing up desperately poor like she did. She didn’t want her to have to face the choices she did as a child. She wanted a good life for her daughter and knew that if she kept her the only guarantee was hardship and poverty. So, she made the most difficult decision of her life, and arranged for the private adoption.
She made her second most difficult decision after Elizabeth, named after Betty’s grandmother, was born. She wanted to hold her daughter while she recovered from the difficult birth. The adoptive parents allowed her two days with her daughter. I stayed by her side as much as I could.
It is difficult to describe what I saw. Picture the joy and soul deep love a first-time parent holds in their expression as they gaze into that tiny, perfect face. Then picture eyes that know that this moment will soon end, that all the pain in the world is about to come crashing down. Pepper it with the tiniest of doubts, formed by a budding relationship that maybe, might, but probably wouldn’t, allow you to keep your child.
Betty accepted it all, so she could know her daughter her first days of life, so she could guarantee Elizabeth a good life. She took all of that pain knowingly, purposefully, when she could have spared herself much of it by never gazing into her daughter’s eyes, never feeling that tiny weight on her chest, never facing what she was giving up. But such is not her way. Betty is the bravest person I’ve ever met.
I drove her back from the hospital, and brought her to my home. I held her as she cried for a solid three days. She cries still, from time to time. It is a pain that never eases, a gift that never ceases to be right. Sometimes I wish we could have met sooner, could have been stable enough for her to change her mind. But it was just too early for us for anything to be certain. The best I could do was be there while her heart shattered again and again. And so I was, and so I still am. Will always be.
Read Part One: The Ballad of Betty and Bruce:Begin
Read of Lupus and its Challenges