The alarm clock rings out, a hollow liberty bell noise, pulling me out of sleep and into the suburban world just south of Boston. My eyes open slowly as I take in my surroundings. This is the same room where I’d fallen asleep; the nightly war zone horror had vanished. The same fan’s monotone gum fills the room with drabness. My eyes follow its metallic blades slicing through the air; its steady beat lulls me into a trance. The dream had felt so real, the battle cries, the guttural screams, the sounds of the Luftwaffe engines from the Movietone News, a pilot, dark hair swept across an angular face, caught within the midst of a deadly crossfire, My Karl. A memory flashes through my mind of Karl’s face enveloped in a different frame, in a different time, just after his enlistment. His face had looked so proud, so hopeful. If only he had known what was coming for him.
Rolling over, I shut off the alarm. Morning again. Mourning again, the pain all too fresh, the same raw wounds, and the same melancholy that encompasses me in a cocoon of fog.
I bury my head in my pillow, refusing to cry again. A few tears roll down my face, finding my already damp pillow. “Time to get up.” I remind myself, dragging my legs over the bedside until my bare feet feel the cool touch of the wooden floor. I sit on the edge of the bed for a while, studying my nightstand. The telegrams still sits there, wrinkled, but its message is clear. Missing. I may never see him again. I look at it often, feeling like if I stop looking, I’ll lose Karl for good.
I eat my oatmeal standing; I’m late. My carpool will soon arrive. The girls. Annette, Darlene, and Bonnie. I work with them in a factory, as a “Rose.” Their husbands are alive and still exist beyond the words of the telegram. The chatter about the letters they get, the news. Karl used to send me letters telling me all about being a fighter pilot, escorting the American and British bombers over Germany.
I move to the shower and let the hot water, and all my misery, pour over and down my face in a steady stream. Afterwards, I towel off, throw my clothes on, and sit down at my dressing table. I sigh at an open tube of lipstick, a bright burst of red; I barely have it in me to cover up my tearstained cheeks, let alone wear such a color. I exhale, feeling my soul split open with grief, again. A horn sounds. I put on my good morning smile and walk out. The mail boy approaches, offering me a letter. It has faded writing, as if it’s come a long way. “Thank you,” I say quickly, tucking it away gingerly into my pocketbook. “Isn’t it a beautiful morning,” Annette says in the driver’s seat, smiling at Darlene sitting next to her. Bonnie is in the back, leaning forward, gesticulating wildly about some latest piece of gossip. Annette and Darlene have bandanas in their hair. On their lips they wear a light splash of color, a pretty pink. Bonnie sports her bandana and cherry lips proudly. Darlene, Bonnie, and Annette all greet me with smiles filled with cheer and perhaps even a flicker of pity. I give them a quick hello, staring out the window as they walk, choosing, as usual, to nod and let them know I am listening. They are satisfied. Outside it is drizzling, a dull gray. Karl has sent me letters describing London. He has told me it is always drizzling there. “I hear that place is supposed to be terrific,” Darlene says as we pass by a new diner. “Really? Doesn’t look like much,” Bonnie sniffs. “I hear their shakes and desserts are to die for,” Annette pipes in. “Why don’t we head there for dinner after work and see?” Annette says to the back seat, looking over shoulder, not noticing the turn ahead. “Sounds fun-Oh, your turn!” Darlene yelps. “Oops,” she says, as they all explode into laughter. I laugh along quietly in my place against the window. The girls exit the car and make their way into the factory, their hips winging in rhythm to their lunch pails. They are pragmatic and feminine at the same time, the ideal women. They are “Rosies”, perfect girls with patriotic attitudes who toil all day to support the boys on the front lines, yet still live up to society’s standards of beauty for them when they come home. Karl always liked my in dresses and heels. I look down at myself, denim, boots, and all. Would he even recognize me now? My uniform is baggy and practical, and I shift around some. The rough fabric reminds me of my parent’s expressions when I had showed up at their house one night for visit. Their words had been a combination of disbelief and skepticism. I can barely make dinner, they had reminded me. Not to mention I lived with my parents my entire life until I got married. Maybe they are right, that I’m not cut out for factory life. It is a distraction from the pain though, and that is all I need. The factory is loud when we enter. We get to work, our hands carefully fixing metal sheets together with think metal pins, the red on our fingernails a stark contrast to the overall dullness of the factory. Sometimes I think that this work is saving me. If I had decided not to come I would have caved in on myself eventually. After our shift, we go to the diner. We sit down at a little booth in the corner, and the girls all gush out news they didn’t share at lunch. “Hi ladies. My name is Robert, and I’ll be taking your order tonight,” a middle aged waiter says, whipping his pen out from behind his ear. “What’s it gonna be?” We all put in out orders with lots of giggling and comments over each other’s meal selection. “That is a lot of food,” he says, squinting at us. “Where are you coming from?” “We work at the B17 factory down the street,” Darlene replies. “Oh,” he says, going silent. I glance his way and see that he is one of those people like my father, who really don’t like women working in the factory, even though it is necessary for us to do so. “I’ll put this in right now,” he says, turning to go. “Oh, some waters a well,” Annette calls out after him, completely oblivious to out waiter’s disapproval. He gives us a hasty nod before heading off to the next table. The food comes out fast, and our waiter wastes no time slapping it down in front of us. “Enjoy,” he says, moving off. We dive into our food as soon as the last “thank you” is chorused, and for a while there is not talking, which is peaceful after Bonnie’ shrill reenactment of a Marx Brothers comedy act. The waiter comes up to our table again. “Any dessert tonight?” he asks, hands folded in front of him. “None for me, thank you,” Darlene chirps, with a tilt of her head. “For me either; this year I’m fitting into that dress from Sears,” Bonnie says confidently. I want dessert, but go along with others. “I think I’ll pass, too,” I say regretfully, clasping my hands in my lap. Annette nods. “My missus likes to watch her figure, too.” He smiles at us, his former friendliness slowly returning. “Pretty gals like you gotta keep that figure; it’s good for the moral of our boys overseas,” he says, closing up his notebook. Someone yells his name from the kitchen, and he runs off. “Would you excuse me? I think I’m going to head to the restroom,” I tell the girls. They still seem blind to the waiter’s attitude. Darlene swirls her straw in her soda, Annette sucks on her cherry from her shake, and Bonnie talks animatedly while rubbing lotion on her hands. Once in the restroom, I lean against the wall. My pocketbook rests just next to me, and I glance at it out of the corner of my eye. The letter peeks out. Curious, I pick it up. Karl Beckson. Tears fill my eyes; my heart speeds up. I am back in my dream from this morning, hearing an alarm go off. I cant decide whether I want to open it or not. I decide, instead, to study the back of the envelope in detail. The ridges on the stamp, his handwriting, the worn corners… they all distract me until I realize I have to open it. My finger traces the seal before I carefully pull out the letter, all that might be left of Karl. The handwriting is sloppy, as if he’d written it in haste. At first the words blur, but then I get control of myself and begin to read.
My dearest Evelyn, I will be blunt with you-things are becoming more dangerous. I go up most nights. Sometimes fighting the Germans themselves isn’t as frightening as the realization that one the pilots near me might not make it back. I don’t let myself think the unimaginable, that I might be that pilot. Because I have to come back… I have to. I think about you all the time. You’re always on my mind, even when I’m up in the skies and trying me hardest to survive. I think more and more about all the time we’ve spent together. Gathering up all those moments, replaying them in my mind, dwelling on the ones that make me especially happy. I remember all the times you’d win an argument and get that triumphant look in your eyes. That look all people get when they have the world by the tail. I want you to always have that look, when I’m with you and when I’m not. I know I said that the unimaginable would be for me to die here, but really the unimaginable would be for you to turn into a broken frame. I don’t want you to lose hope that we’ll be together again, but even more, I don’t want you to lose sight of yourself, for whatever reason, when I’m not there. If the worst happens, if I don’t make it home, promise me to keep going. Live life on your own terms, and carry with you my belief in you and love for always until the day we are together again. Promise me, my Evelyn, promise me; don’t give up and never, ever change from who you are. If you did, I’d never forgive myself. Someday we’ll be together again… someday. Forever Yours, Karl
I bite my lip and feel a sensation of happiness deep within me. It surprises me at first. Happiness is one of those things you don’t realize you have until you lose it. I inhale deeply and make myself promise that I won’t five up, that I won’t lose sight of myself, and the I won’t ever let life tear me apart. As I exhale, replacing, the letter in my purse, my fingers brush against something familiar on the bottom. I pull it out. It is a tube of lipstick. I slide off the cover, giving the tube a twist, revealing a dazzling shade of red. I stare at it as if it holds all the answers. My promise to Karl echoes in my mind. I swipe the lipstick across my lips, and gaze into the mirror. I like what I see. For the first time in a really long time, I smile, a real smile. I walk out the door, eyes meeting the future straight on. As I continue to walk forward I bat away all of the thoughts that usually consume me, everyone else’s opinions, and every comment that has plagued me. Those words, as small as they may be, have defined me my whole life. No dessert Evelyn, it’ll ruin your figure; no Evelyn you don’t have what it takes to be a “Rosie.” A bell rings at the counter. I feel like that cocoon of fog has finally lifted. I walk up to the counter where our waiter is filling a drink. “Hello, what can I do for you?” “I would like some dessert please.”