My first husband abandoned me for a childhood friend. He began leaving me alone during the hot Chicago evenings, going for walks he said. When fall’s blustery winds began, there were whole nights he did not return. After work, afraid to go back to our lonely room, I walked downtown by the river. Sometimes I stopped to look down into the black water, tempted, but I could hear my dead father’s voice above the wind. Dad never approved of suicide for any reason.
My husband was a young nineteen and I, almost twenty-one. It was late 1969 and President Johnson had escalated the undeclared war in Vietnam with the first draft lottery since the Korean War in 1950. As I look back on my younger self, some fifty years later, I think about the other wars that followed: the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, the Syrian Civil War, the Libyan Civil War, the War on Terror. I can’t remember all of them. Vietnam was only the beginning.
My young husband and I were injured with wounds from our pasts. Mine was the death of my father in a car accident. If only I had taken time to return Dad’s kiss that last time I saw him. My husband was estranged from his parents for reasons he would not explain. He did not miss his Dad, but sometimes at night in his dreams, he cried out for his mother. We had dropped out of college, against the advice of our families, to get married. He was looking for a job; I worked for a typing service. We lived in a closet-size rented room with a shared bath down the fetid hallway, eating on the floor and sleeping on a mattress we found left on the street. Outside our one window, the Chicago elevated train shook our building every time it screamed by.
In addition to ten one quart canteens of water, food ration, an air mattress, a poncho, and an extra pair of socks, an infantryman in Vietnam carried a rifle or machine gun, ammunition in a full magazine or bandolier, and a supply of hand grenades, on his back. The average rucksack weight was eighty-five pounds. The guilt and grief we carried from our young secrets weighed more. Like soldiers, we carried our guilt in extreme humidity, through knee-deep mud, and up bug-infested hilltops through the jungle of our marriage when, like a bomb, the draft papers arrived.
Certain deferments were available: College men, for example, or married men with children.
A few days after he got the draft papers, an unmarried woman at work found me crying in the restroom. Unhappy herself, she confessed to being pregnant with a child she did not want. She had hooded eyes, like those of my love. It made it easier to ask her. After she agreed, she said “This baby might as well be good for something.”
I still hear her saying this.
Home pregnancy tests purchased at the drugstore were unheard of then. I went to a clinic. I carried this kind stranger’s pregnant stream in a Mason jar with a screw-on lid which I had bought at the Goodwill. It leaked in my purse leaving a strong ammonia smell on my cloth wallet, on my handkerchief, on my makeup bag. I poured what remained into the specimen cup in the secrecy of the clinic’s bathroom.
Sitting in that clinic, presenting my faked sample, I worried that they would notice my hands shaking. I worried my guilt would show in my frightened face. I worried that somehow they could tell it wasn’t my child in that fluid. I worried that that even if the government didn’t find out my lie, my dead father would know. God would know.
Even after I washed my hands I smelled her urine on my fingers. Afterwards, I ran all the way to the bus stop. When I got home I threw away the purse and all its contents.
It was not a war protest as I pretended. It was a last cry for his love.
He did not die in Vietnam. Proof of his impending fatherhood gave him a pass and he was not drafted. We never had children. After the divorce, I never saw him again. He might have died from AIDS in the 1980s. He left me for his best friend from childhood, a man whose name I cannot say.
I should not have been concerned about my war-time lie: A film about the Vietnam War is currently streaming on PBS; it claims that the President, the military leaders, and the Vietnamese all lied to us.
About the Author: Flash fiction and longer stories by Jeanne Althouse have appeared in numerous literary journals. Her story, “Goran Holds his Breath” was nominated by Shenandoah for the Pushcart Prize. A collection of her flash fiction, Boys in the Bank, will be published this year by Red Bird Chapbooks. "Big Lies,” a finalist in the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction contest, is nonfiction from her Flash Memoir, a Chapbook in-progress. She lives in California and loves reading Lydia Davis.