Today, many offices are closed in observance of Veteran’s Day, so I thought I’d provide those lucky folks who get the day off a little reading material. Here’s a short story called SNAPSHOT that was published in the first episode of Fictionvale magazine.
I never told anyone I was the girl in the picture. There wasn’t any point. The kiss didn’t mean anything at all. He was just a fella cast adrift in the big city at a time when everyone wanted to hold their loved ones close. I was just the girl who was close at hand.
And I happened to be married at the time.
At least, I believed I was.
Sixteen months had passed since Joe ejected from his plane somewhere over France, and I had no idea if I’d ever get to kiss the man I loved again. The end of the war meant there was still a chance he’d come home to me. I hadn’t given up hope, but I had given up kissing for the duration.
Until that day.
I never forgot that stranger’s kiss. How could I? It was near perfection. The only thing that could have made it better was if the guy had turned out to be Joe. Either way, the man had some chops. I can still feel the scrape of five o’clock shadow against my chin and cheek and taste the whiskey on his lips. But it wasn’t sexual or even romantic. That brief, hard press of his mouth to mine was nothing more than a punctuation mark on a war that had seemed like it might turn into a life sentence. A potent cocktail of relief, jubilation, and frustration served up by a pair of warm, soft lips.
It was just what I needed to remind me that I was still alive.
That brave, crazy, possibly drunk man gave me a taste of light in the days when the darkness felt so thick and heavy I thought it might smother me. I was grateful for it at the time. I didn’t know that kiss had the power to change my life forever if I let it.
To be truthful, I didn’t appreciate the notoriety. Unlike these kids today with their computer videos and their need to expose themselves and their dirty laundry on television shows, I had no desire to have fifteen minutes of fame. I only wanted my husband back. The photograph caused a hubbub when it was first published, but most of us didn’t give it another thought. We had bigger worries. I saw it and knew right away it was me, but I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I remember one of my fellow nurses going on and on about how romantic it was, and how she wanted to be kissed like that. I also remember feeling a little smug that I could say I’d been kissed like that, but I didn’t say it out loud. It seemed silly to gloat over a kiss. And there were more important things to do than moon over a foolish picture.
It wasn’t until years later that people started calling it “iconic.” I’ve always thought it was embarrassing. After all, I was a married woman, and there I was kissing some strange man in the middle of the street. As good as that smooch was, my mother would have said it was unseemly, and she’d have been right. I’d only kissed one other man before that day, and God willing, I’d kiss the same one again.
Like most people at that time, I lived in fear of the Western Union delivery boy. Thank goodness my neighbor, Jackie, was nearby the day the telegram telling me Joe was missing arrived. I’ll never forget her hugging me tight and telling me the only thing missingand killedhad in common was a single I. I clung to that shoestring of hope long after the Western Union boy pedaled away.
Later, I told Joe that semantics kept me sane. Semantics and pure, blind pigheadedness. I was not about to accept anything less than the life I’d planned to have, and I’d vowed to spend my life with him. Until someone told me that wasn’t possible, I was sticking by my word. Joe used to tease me about my stubborn streak, but I liked to tell him it was my stubborn streak that brought him home.
And it did.
I sent a six-foot-two-inch Colgate football player off to war, but the man who returned to me was barely more than a shadow turned sideways. I told myself it didn’t matter. Joe was home. He was safe. He’d gain the weight back. The toes he’d lost to frostbite were a small price to pay. He would heal. Eventually. But being on American soil wasn’t anything like coming home.
The world had changed. I was very different from the naive young bride he’d left shivering on the railway platform. I’d swapped apartments with another nurse because her husband came home and she needed more room, while I, on the other hand, had far too much space for my own good. I’d lost weight while he was gone, though it wasn’t nearly as extreme as Joe’s loss of bulk. Still, by the time he made it home, the letterman’s sweater he’d left behind had patches where my elbows wore holes through the wool. But those things were easy to fix. The hard part was healing the wounds no amount of home cooking could soothe. Joe had seen and done things that left scars that ran far deeper than the marks on his skin, and I hadn’t the faintest idea how to piece our lives back together.
I fed him and coddled him, using every bit of my famous stubbornness to hold on tight until he began to rebound in both body and mind. Like many women of my generation, I set aside my own ambitions and willingly handed the reins of our life back over to him. Day in and day out, I plumped his battered ego and massaged away his fears and worries. And I can honestly tell you I never gave that picture or the man in it a second thought.
Little by little, bit by bit, my Joe came back to me, complete with the slow, shy smile that made my heart turn somersaults. There’s no way to describe the pride and joy I felt when I watched him emerge from the shadow of death and stride right back into life like the conquering hero he was. There was also no way I’d risk shattering his fragile confidence. Not when we’d both worked so hard to rebuild it.
How could I tell my proud, quiet man that the woman he loved had made a fool of him on a national stage?
We were at a cocktail party the first time someone said I looked like the woman in the magazine. I remember feeling blindsided. My life was so different from the way things had been that day in Times Square it was hard for me to put two and two together. I remember I wore my hair up for the party even though Joe liked it down. I was nervous and anxious about making a good impression on his colleagues. My dress happened to be white. The man who’d made the observation let his eyes linger a too long on my hemline. I felt my husband stiffen beside me.
I laughed it off, telling the small knot of Joe’s curious coworkers that the guy I liked to kiss was a soldier and not a sailor. To my relief, Joe laughed too. Pride and admiration shone bright in his dark eyes as he slipped his arm around my waist and gave me a gentle squeeze.
He could never know. I’d make sure of it.
If you haven’t figured me out yet, I’ll clue you in on a secret—I’m a woman who always gets what she wants. I never said a word about the picture. In all honesty, I rarely ever thought about it. I didn’t have time. A year after his return, I was pregnant with our first child and feeling miserable twenty-three hours out of the day. Joe had landed a job with a life insurance company and was working his way up the ladder. We’d moved out to the suburbs.
Despite the rocky start, we had a very good life. Our three boys ran wild on a street where it was safe for them to ride their bicycles and play catch. I’m happy to say they grew into men as honorable and true as their father, even if my youngest did turn out to be a bit of a hippie. Joe mowed the lawn on Saturday mornings and took the trash to the curb on Tuesday evenings. I finally learned to cook something other than pot roast, and I volunteered two days a week at the Veterans’ Administration hospital. It was a perfectly ordinary, terribly predictable existence, which was just fine by us.
Every few years, some yahoos with a little grant money and too much time on their hands start waving that silly picture around and spouting cockamamy theories as to the identities of the kisser and the kissee. They make the talk show circuit, and a passel of old guys and gals crawl out of the woodwork claiming they might be the ones the photographer captured in that clinch. I have no idea if one of the fellas might actually be the one who kissed me. I never wasted much time thinking about it. In truth, I couldn’t care less.
Joe and I shared thirty-seven more years before cancer took him from me far too soon. Day after day, I held his hand in mine as that horrid disease waged war on his body, but each time he opened his eyes, he somehow found the strength to give me a smile.
The night he died, I sat in that darkened hospital room with his gnarled fingers snug between mine. The whir and beep of machines measured our last moments together. His breaths grew impossibly shallow while my heart beat strong and relentless. His foot moved beneath the thin sheet. He turned his head and spoke his last request of me, tender and sweet.
So I did. Desperate to mingle his last breaths with mine, I kissed the man I loved. Fat, hot tears streaked down my cheeks. They wet our lips and blessed his departure. The second I drew back, he slipped away from me, taking my heart with him.
That was the kiss that told the story of how the war was won. A simple brush of his lips against mine. A caress packed with the kind of innate goodness that can be never be thwarted by power-hungry madmen or even cancer.
If you ask me, that was the kiss that counted.
I just wish there’d been a photographer around to capture it.