December 22, 2007
I saw her from across the huge department store — beautiful, and tall, with shoulder length blonde hair. The place was decked out in the kind of Christmas excess that American department stores are known for. Beautifully decorated white Christmas trees on high pedestals flanked the crowded aisles. Having been away for the last five Christmases I reveled in the sights and sounds and smells of Christmas in a big store in a wonderful city that held so many memories.
All my life I had been blessed with 20/15 vision. That meant I was always the first to spot a beautiful girl. It also had saved my life more times than I cared to think about. Taking the king's coin meant that over the last five years I had been in harms way more often than not.
I was in Chicago on my way home from Iraq, a newly minted first lieutenant in the Marines. I hadn't been home for Christmas in over five years and the only reason I was on my way home to Decatur was because I was recovering from wounds received in Iraq — actually that wasn't quite correct, I received my wounds in Syria, although officially I had never been there.
I had just been released from a short stay at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. My parents knew I was going to be home but not exactly when. I decided to spend a couple of days in Chicago visiting old college friends and doing some Christmas shopping for my family. I had just finished my last purchase, a cashmere sweater for my younger sister Beth, and I was walking through the huge store just taking it all in like some farm boy from the sticks — which I was. I had always loved coming here when I was a kid — Marshall Fields on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Now it was called Macys and owned by some conglomerate call Federated Department Stores. My mother refused to set foot in it since the sale a couple of years ago.
Anyway, my parents would load the four kids into the mini van and make our annual pilgrimage to the big city. We would drive the 183 miles north, out of the heart of Illinois farm country to spend a weekend before Christmas shopping and taking in the sights. My parents owned a farm and they grew corn and soy. The farm had been in our family for generations and provided a good living. Farm is kind of a misnomer; actually it encompassed over a thousand acres of flat black earth, and was part of what is called agribusiness. In fact the largest agribusiness company in the world, Archer Daniels Midland, is located in little old Decatur, population 81,000. My mother had worked for ADM for over twenty years.
The beautiful woman was across the store from me, slowly heading my way through the crowded aisles. She was magnificent with legs that just wouldn't quit. Dressed in a gray suit with a skirt that came to her knees and a red silk blouse, and very high heeled black pumps, she looked like she had come from the runway in Paris or Milan. She had a red and green sunburst broach on her lapel. In 28 years I had seen a lot of beautiful women but she topped them all. She had two other women with her, a striking brunette in a black skirt and sweater, and a redhead in a clingy dark green wool dress. They would stop at a display and the beautiful blonde woman would point to something that needed correcting and one of the others, actually the stunning redhead, would scribble notes in a leather folio. The tall blonde was obviously in charge and carried herself with an air of confidence and authority.
I just stood there and watched as they approached, enjoying the sight of three beautiful women. As I focused on the blonde the long suppressed memories flooded my mind - memories of warmth and love and memories of arguments about stupid little things. We had once been engaged for six months. We were young. She had been my Jess, and I had made love to every inch of her and had thought we had a future together. I was mistaken.
How long had it been since I'd seen her?
I knew exactly ... it had been June 2002 and it was at our graduation party from the University of Chicago. We had been engaged since Christmas Eve 2001. I had loved her like no one before or since. Our love-making had a passion that bordered on feral ferocity. But it hadn't been enough.
Then one night it had all come crashing down and she broke up with me in a very loud and public way. I was crushed and humiliated and gained a four-inch scar that ran from my hairline to my right eyebrow.
I packed up and left Chicago and instead of heading for Silicon Valley and my new job I found myself on my way to San Diego for Marine Corps boot camp. One of my Marine friends called it America's Foreign Legion — just like in those old black and white movies where the jilted hero joins the French Foreign Legion to forget, and to become a man. The Marines had certainly made a man out of me but I had not been able to forget Jessica, despite my best efforts.
Since then I had only heard from her once — in the fall of 2004, a letter of apology and sorrow at our parting. I read it on a wind-swept ridge in Afghanistan and three weeks later, just before Christmas, I had answered in what I thought was a very calm manner, but also in such a way that I knew would hurt her greatly.
As I watched her make her way toward me I wondered if she hated me, or even if she cared at all. It occurred to me that she could be married. And why wouldn't she be married? She was beautiful and intelligent ... and I had to admit utterly fantastic in bed.
The brunette headed off to do whatever she was sent to do and now just Jessica and the redhead moved toward me.
I figured after all this time I should at least say hello.
Jessica pointed to something on the other side of me and her eyes swept across me, perhaps only seeing a man in a dark green uniform in the crowded aisle carrying several packages.
She said something to the redhead as they moved to within about five feet.
Suddenly Jessica stopped. It was almost comical as the redhead kept walking heading past her.
If this was a scene from "A Christmas Carol" Jessica was the beautiful "Ghost of Christmas Past", haunting me with views of past happy days ... and sad days.
Jessica just stared; her dark blue eyes a mix of emotions.
"Hello Jess." I smiled at her.
She just stood there taking me in. I had aged five and a half years and my face had picked up an additional scar thanks to a Syrian grenade. At six one I was always tall and thin but I was currently stick-thin and my dark hair was close cropped. Plus she had never seen me in uniform. I was wearing my USMC winter forest green wools. Actually with the uniform and the scars and all, I thought I looked rather dashing.
She, on the other hand had made the transition from young woman to woman — gaining those few extra pounds that took her from bony and angular to fabulously beautiful.
"M ... Matt..."
She took a step toward me as if to hug me and then suddenly caught herself.
"I ... I ... How are you?"
The redhead had reappeared. Out of the corner of my eye I caught her giving me a quick appraisal. She smiled.
"I'm fine Jess ... on my way home for Christmas ... thought I'd stop in the big city and do some shopping."
"How? I mean ... I'm surprised to see you. It's it's ... been a long time."
She was trying to smile but her eyes gave her away. Her reaction to seeing me was odd ... she was genuinely surprised to see me in her store in Chicago ... but there was something more.
The redhead couldn't stand it anymore. She moved closer to me figuring that Jessica wasn't going to introduce us.
"Hi ... I'm Pru Denning."
I shook her hand.
"I'm Matt O'Connell ... pleased to meet you."
Pru seemed to have difficulty letting go of my hand as she continued to smile at me.
This elicited a small frown from Jessica.
She finally stepped back, but not too far. Her rather nice chest seemed to want to stay within my personal space. I didn't mind at all.
"Pru ... isn't it time you get working on that list?" Jessica pointed to the folio.
"Oh ... yes ... I suppose it is. Nice meeting you Matt. If you need anything from the store ... anything at all ... please let me know." Her eyes were filled with promise.
I smiled and nodded.
I dragged my eyes away from her firm backside and gorgeous nylon-covered legs as she moved away and turned to Jessica.
I caught her, just for a second, staring daggers at Pru.
She then looked at me with the kind of look I used to get when we were together. Her look was love and perhaps longing. I wanted to just grab her and hold her and do one of those movie reunion kisses right there in the main aisle of Macys. And we would get back together and live happily ever after.
My heart really wanted to despite the fact she had ripped it out and stomped on it years ago. Since then I had been very cautious around women. I had learned my lesson.
My brain flashed to the night she broke up with me and so I resisted the urge.
She caught the change in me and I saw a dark cloud pass quickly over her face.
"How long will you be in town?" She said neutrally.
"I plan to leave in the morning ... my folks know I'm coming but not exactly when."
"Ummmmm ... where are you staying?"
I thought it odd that she didn't ask about them. She had only met them once but they loved her. They had been hurt and disappointed by our parting. I had never told them why.
"I'm over on Lake Shore at Tim Richardson's condo — fabulous view."
"You remember ... Tim "Van Wilder" Richardson?"
Tim really was like the title character in the Van Wilder movie which had come out in the spring of 2002, and I had actually met Jessica at one of his parties. Somehow the chemistry between us was magic — the downstate farm boy and the Chicago super model.
Everyone eventually started calling him "Van". We had become friends somehow, despite the fact I was the science nerd farmer and he was the sophisticated wealthy city kid who viewed college as one big party at his parent's expense.
We both paused at that point remembering that our break up was at the big old house Tim rented near campus at the out of control graduation party he was hosting. I was late as usual and there was Jess, drunk and being fondled by a football player. Actually he was doing more than fondling.
After a few awkward moments of unhappy memories I jumped in,
"Funny thing ... Van's now a surgical resident at Cook County General ... finally got his life together ... and engaged too ... she's a teacher. He's not long back from Iraq. His reserve medical unit got called up. He's got a condo in one of those high-rises overlooking the lake. We always stayed in touch. Even saw him once over there."
I was babbling so I shut up.
She looked at me, the touch of sorrow at the mention of Van's place still in her eyes.
"I'm glad for him ... he really did seem like a lost soul more times then not. It's nice to hear about people who finally find what they're looking for ... and are happy."
I only nodded wishing it was me she was describing.
We stood there in that awkward silence for a few more moments, neither of us knew what to say but neither wanting to break the connection.
Finally she said,
"Matt ... do you have plans ... I mean ... are you and Van ... err Tim doing anything tonight?"
I didn't know where this conversation was going but I also knew that suddenly I wanted to be with Jessica.