Paris, Spring 1943
After the Germans came to Copenhagen, the WAC packed us up and moved us to France, where none of the men wore hats and all the women did. When I got to the hospital in Paris I treated mostly British soldiers; there was a company stationed just across the river and they managed to get into scrapes even a hundred miles back from the line. I remember a fellow came in my first week missing most of his right arm, cut clean off by a loop of fishing line on a drunk night trawling for catfish in the Seine. He grinned at me around a mouthful of crooked teeth and asked for a pen and paper so he could write his mumsy, tell her he was coming home. He was right handed. I wrote the letter for him, and he leaned back on his pillow and told his mother that he planned to open a vineyard in Tuscany after the war. He told me I was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen and I told him I didn't have a clue about cricket.
Captain McCall's unit, Charlie Company, Eighth Army, showed up at my hospital just about the time MacArthur opened up the Pacific Theater, after Patton's 2d Armored Division planted the flag in North Africa. When the war got big and no one wrote home and Paris was a rich happy lie.
McCall's boys were good boys, not afraid of a little whiskey and a little grab-ass behind the lines, but good boys. They made some of the other nurses nervous, the French girls and some of the Americans, but mostly we were glad to have them around, and they were ten times as glad to have us, and have us they did, some of them twice.
I'd been in the habit of a twice-weekly poker game, with the doctors and some of the other girls and whatever soldiers still had their fingers and weren't blind on morphine at the time. We had a table out behind admit, and while the swing shift did triage we knocked back all the booze we could handle and played seven-card stud. Corporal Jeremy Goodwin, a mousy little Jew boy from Massachusetts, was the first of the Americans to join us. After that, I didn't let the rest of Charlie Company kiss me anymore, and when Goodwin was on patrol I sent sandwiches with him in the jeep and when he came back at night we held hands by the river and watched the stars in the big French sky. They stayed all winter.
"What are you gonna do when he goes back to the front?" Major Whitaker asked me. We were out in the February sun, shaking bedsheets out to dry on the line because the laundry truck couldn't make it past the roadblocks.
"Marry him, I suppose," I said around the clothespin in my teeth.
"Give up your career?" She asked. The Major was big on career. "Go back to the states and set up house and start popping out babies?"
"Maybe," I said. "The day I met him I knew that was the boy I was going to marry."
"Hmpf," said Major Whitaker.
As soon as I'd said it, I realized there was no sense in waiting, and I figured I could wire my mother in New York for a ring and a wedding in Paris would be romantic. I found Jeremy out behind post-op to tell him the good news.
"I'm going to marry you, Corporal Goodwin," I said, taking off my nurse's hat. He gave me a funny look.
"Yes," I said. "I'll have my parents wire us money, we can have a big wedding here and then another when we get back to New York. You'll move to New York, of course. We have a place on Central Park South. You'll love it. My mother has impeccable taste."
"And all the fur coats you can shake a cat at," Jeremy said. "Nurse Hurley --"
"Lieutenant," I corrected him.
"Natalie," he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. "I can't marry you. Your life --"
"What about my life?"
He crinkled his brow and looked like a man who was trying to decide what to wear. "Your life. Your family. Your big, rich, Protestant family --"
"So you'll get a Christmas stocking," I said. "I'll be sure to put coal in it so you can suffer adequately."
He looked at his boots, which were round-toed like little dinner rolls. "No," he said. "I'm sorry." I put my hat back on.
That night I held a poker game even though it wasn't Wednesday and I didn't invite Jeremy.
"He loves you," said Corporal Rydell, around his cigar. "I'm in."
"No talking about Goodwin," I said, around my cigar, which I gnawed on unlit. "Call."
Helen had a straight, but Lieutenant Wrales had a full house, tens over sixes. I shuffled and dealt and when I looked up Corporal Rydell was looking past me at the door to the post-op ward. I turned around. Captain McCall was standing there, leaning aganst the jamb with his hands in his pockets. He wore the pants to his dress uniform and a t-shirt, which gave him the appearance of being half-dressed, or half-undressed, depending on which direction he was going. Since it was close to midnight, I figured it was the latter. "Care to join us, Captain?" I asked.
The Captain worked his jaw a little before he spoke. "Corporal Rydell," he said.
Captain McCall worked his jaw some more. "The promotions list just came out, Danny. You were passed over."
"Again," Rydell said, tapping the side of his cards against the table. "That's three times now, Captain."
"You --" Captain McCall said, and then stopped.
"Nah, it's all right," Rydell said. "Really. It's just fine. Let's get back to the game. What do you say, Nurse Hurley?"
I looked at my cards. Red ace and nothing. I looked at the Captain again. "Are you sure you don't want to play?"
"It's real money and everything," Rydell put in. "Which it looks like I'm gonna need even more, now that I'm not getting that raise."
"High stakes," I said. "Have a seat."
But he didn't. He left, instead, and Rydell raised and raised again on trip queens and by the end of the night he was down over a hundred bucks and I was up sixty and we were out of whiskey and I still hadn't lit the cigar. Nurse Beck left and then Lieutenant Wrales left and then the enlisted men left and it was just me and Rydell and I started to fold up my scrip.
"One more hand," Rydell said. "C'mon, Lieutenant."
"You can call me Natalie," I said.
"C'mon, Nurse Hurley," he said. "One more. No limit. Nothing wild."
I stood up. "I should really get some sleep."
"One more hand," he slurred, and he stomped his foot and when his knee came up the table shook and his empty glass shimmied and nearly fell over the edge. "Show that sonofabitch Goodwin you don't need him to have fun."
"First," I said, coming around the table so I could look at him. "That sonofabitch is a fellow officer. Second, nobody talks about Jeremy like that when I'm around, you hear me?"
"I hear you, Lieutenant," he said.
"I mean, I hate his bleeding guts, but I love him like I've never loved anyone," I said. "You hear me?"
"I hear you, Lieutenant," he said, and pulled me down so I was sitting on his lap. "Are you tired?"
"No," I said. "Are you?"
He kissed me instead, and I was drunk, and he was broke, and so I kissed him back.
A week later, Charlie Company was called back to the border for ten days of reconnaisance, which turned to twenty, and then to fifty when bad weather in the Alps held the relief troops. The supply lines were cut, and after the first month, the letters stopped coming. When Charlie Company came back to Paris in April they were light 82 men and stacked with replacements who were barely out of high school.
When they came back, I learned Corporal Rydell had gone AWOL for nearly 72 hours, and Captain McCall had to flush the woods to find him, and Rydell was busted to private and Jeremy got a field promotion to sergeant and outranked everybody, and none of that mattered because on the way back Rydell had been capped in the leg and he was bleeding so profoundly by the time we wheeled him in that there was nothing we could do but amputate.
When they got back, it was the Jewish festival of Passover, and so, in an Allied hospital in Vichy France, we threw a party.
We held the party in the post-op ward, because Rydell was Jewish and wanted to celebrate, and when he asked to make a speech we didn't say no. He held on to his IV rig to keep his balance, and I stood on his other side and he kept his arm wrapped around me and he was so far gone on morphine I didn't know if he would make sense, but he did.
"It seems to me that more and more we've come to expect less and less from one another," he said. "I'd like to change that."
I looked at Jeremy, but Jeremy didn't look at me. Rydell looked at the Captain, but the Captain didn't look at him. So I looked at the Captain, and the Captain looked at me, and licked his lips, because he was a man who'd been on the line for three months.
"We need each other badly," Private Rydell said, and he hopped a little so the hip with the missing leg pressed up against my hip. "Badly," he said again, and then he said it one more time, but it was probably the morphine talking. Then he was very tired and sat down.
"Captain," Sergeant Goodwin said. "Permission to read from the Hagaddah."
"Permission granted, Sergeant," McCall said.
And then Jeremy picked up a book and started reading in Hebrew, and I sat on the bed next to Rydell and we both looked at where his leg should have been, and we both cried. When Jeremy was done, Captain McCall came over and sat down on the bed and looked at Private Rydell.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Like I'm missing a leg," Rydell said. "They're gonna give me a hook."
"We're taking good care of him," I said.
"The presence of a pretty girl never hurt the recovery process," McCall agreed.
"I'll leave you boys alone," I said, and I went outside.
Motorcars idled in a long snaking line behind the ambulance bay, and their drivers honked and cursed through rolled-down windows at the two ambulances blocking the Rue Marie Stuart. I kept a little apartment just a few blocks away, a flat I shared with three other nurses and some rats. It was just one room, with a common bathroom for all the tenants on the hall, but in the early mornings before I left for work I'd watch the sun come up over Paris through the skinny window and I'd think it was the most beautiful place in the world. And then I'd go to work and I'd dig around in bleeding flesh for bullets, and at night I would drink until it didn't matter where I was anymore.
I sat on the curb and watched the motorists blare their horns at the empty ambulances and remembered that first night, back when Rydell had both his legs and I'd won sixty dollars at the poker table.
"You should have let him play," Rydell had said to me. "Corporal Goodwin."
"Don't you mention his name again," I said, toasting with a half-glass of some wine we'd found.
"You could fix things with him," Rydell said. "If you wanted to."
"We could end this war if we wanted to," I said. "But there's that Hitler problem that still needs dealing with."
"I'm going to tell you a secret," Rydell said. "I hate this war. I hate war in general."
I thought about that for a minute. "I believe in the cause," I said. "Jeremy doesn't know that. He thinks I'm some trust-fund baby here out of some misguided noblesse oblige."
"Aren't you?" Rydell asked, and he reached his arms around to work at my zipper.
"Probably," I agreed. "But I do my job well. I do it damned well."
"I wouldn't argue with that," Rydell said, and he didn't.
Rydell was lumbering through the doors, leaning on his IV pole and a crutch. He looked ridiculously white in the glow of the streetlamp, like a gimpy ghost.
"That's my name," I said. I stood up and then helped him sit down, and he had to swing his arm around my shoulder because the IV tube wasn't quite long enough for him to rest his hand on his lap. It was warm for April, and it was Paris, and the war felt far away. I moved closer to Rydell anyhow.
"This war's still on," Rydell said. "But yours is over. Talk to him, Nat."
I looked at him. "You had a hard time out there, didn't you."
"We all did," he said, and for a minute he was far away and I thought he might have fallen asleep right there on the curb. "I'd be dead now, you know that? If Captain McCall hadn't brought me back. I'd be dead right now."
"It was nice, the ceremony tonight," I said.
"We can't make love any more," he said. "You and me, I mean."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because the war's still on," Rydell said, and I closed my eyes and thought of Paris in the mornings, so still and perfect, before the blood and the screaming and the drinking and oblivion. "But yours is over. And he loves you. He's been gone for three months and he still loves you."
"Wars aren't won anymore," I said. "And there's no winner in love."
We sat for a moment, but his eyelids were heavy and getting heavier and his arm was heavy on my shoulder. I helped him back to his feet, and I steered him down the hall, back to bed, where I tucked him in and slipped a chocolate bar on to his pillow. He was asleep before I pulled up the sheets. I crossed the room and went to turn out the lights and there was Captain McCall, just sitting there all by himself in the dark.
"You startled me," I said.
"Figure I'll keep an eye on him," McCall said, nodding at Rydell. "On all of them. They're my men. It's my job."
"He says you saved his life," I said.
"He told me you did," he said.
"Stick around a while this time," I said. "April's beautiful in Paris."
"I agree," he said, and he smiled at me, and I smiled back, and then I left, but I didn't turn the light off and I stopped for a drink with the girls instead of going home.