Lamplights flickered in the lanes of Washington.
In this vast, intricated labyrinth of streets, the buzzing sound of cars and voices that reverberated across avenues, the trouble of finding Captain Steven Rogers' pen pal among the multitude of people running in and about past each other, was that you couldn't.
She wasn't there yet.
But the question is, how would he know?
The tall, young military captain lifted his face, narrowing his deep-sea blue eyes as he searched in every nook and crevice of the park to make sure he hadn't missed her walking in the wrong direction or to his. His heart began to pound, his broadened chest expanded as if it was still even possible. He had waited for so long, for their enemies to finally find its downfall – a thousand nights to be exact, and now, three days after his troops decided to land home on D.C., Captain Rogers hastily (and excitedly) wrote a quick letter – perhaps his final letter – telling her to meet him at the famous Potomac Park. His pen pal replied him with a simple Dear Steve, Yes, we shall. Meet me during sunset in her elegant handwriting he had become much familiar with. In a moment, though time windingly rolled, he was finally going to meet the woman he dared to call his first love, someone who now also holds a special place in his heart other than his best pal Bucky and his Ma, of course. The woman he had never even seen, not a single photograph was tucked in her letters, yet admittedly, her words were the beacon through the long tunnel of darkness.
Steve painfully evoked the memories of that day when his squadron – the Howling Commandos – barely came out of the Nazi Base as they were set trapped once they have landed their feet on their camp. Still shaken, he unwittingly confessed in one of his letters that even when he was entrusted as the Captain, encouraging his men to fight dutifully with his words, he wasn't immune to fear. Just weeks before the devastating world war broke, he received her reply, with high hopes to finally find a photograph of her.
Of course, you fear. All brave men do. It's something natural, ironic to say but that is nothing to be afraid of. If it helps, imagine I am reading this to you, "Though I walk through the valley of shadows of death, I fear no evil…"
Steve was Catholic and perhaps she had figured to quote a verse from the Holy Bible. He was familiar with that verse from Psalms, a book of sacred songs or poems that instead of plainly reading it during Mass, the lectors often put a solemn tune along for worshipping. He was grateful for it and by that, he had a newfound strength and hope. But alas, there was no photograph in that letter.
A sudden spark ignited; he was finally going to hear her voice. His thoughts ran miles, it was six minutes before dusk.
Steve remembered how their… affair began. It was by coincidence that in one of those The New York Times newspapers they receive in their barracks every Wednesday (though the Colonel wanted them to read the news every Friday to know what was happening back at home, they decided that Fridays must be all about reports and regrouping), he, much to his surprise, found a book together with the newspaper slipped inside its pages. He best recalled he didn't request it, the book that is, but the old mailman said hurriedly, "I deliver parcels. That, my lad, was given by a dame named Natalia. Yer good lady back home, eh? Prolly your jolly lover. Sign ‘ere, please." But before he could inquire who the woman – Natalia – was, the mailman was already off to send another batch of letters to the second camp nearby. Not having much choice, he accepted this unexpected gift from a stranger, from someone who was named Natalia. He didn't have this name from his lists of people he knew back in Brooklyn, not that he knew many people since he used to be scrawny and short and shy and no dames would bat their eyelashes at that, certainly not even someone named Natalia would. It sounded just out of her character and he was… out of her league.
He asked his bunkmate what day it was, he answered that it was Wednesday. For that night, he left the newspaper on his makeshift bedside table and cracked open the book instead. The book was Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, a Russian literature dubbed as his greatest work and his finest piece in the literary scene. It must have been Natalia's personal copy, the book was worn out, its hardbound covers, front and back, were chipped on its sides but still held its purpose. The blank page there wrote her name (or perhaps it was her pseudonym, he was thoughtful), Natalia R. In between the pages were her side notes, her thoughts on certain lines in every chapter written in simple cursive using a pencil. He read the thousand-page book before he says his prayers, with the lamp that had emitted faint glow as it was slowly burning out and was enthralled at how thought-provoking her perspective was. Steve reckoned that Natalia must be a literature student, or maybe a scholar, or an emerging novelist at par with the famous writers soon. At the back of it, he saw another note: Whoever finds this book, return it to this address. If you find yourself interested and absorbed into this book, then it is yours. But if you want, we can discuss our insights through exchanging letters, perhaps?
So, Tolstoy's book was not sent to him intentionally, by any means or ways. Nonetheless, it kept him occupied amid his difficulty to sleep at night and the echoes of screams of his men when they woke from a nightmare.
However, one day, he decided to send her a letter through the address she freely wrote. With every word he wrote his heart beats loudly, the periods and commas, the indents and curves, he poured all his feelings in that single letter as Steven. At first, he hesitated to write his real name and, instead, coin a pen name but decided to let it be as her name sounded too pure and he had put his faith on Natalia. He wrote then she replied, and so there it bloomed: the start of something new. The first letters dwelled on the book and what it was about but as the days went by and as the conflicts worsen, they began to exchange words of comfort and somehow, affection found its way. Natalia always started her salutations with Dear Capt. Steven but when the two had become acquainted with each other, he felt special when she began to address him as Steve.
Natalia devoutly replied to his letters even when time and distance didn't favor him to send her one for months. She sends him one anyway and that's when he realized he had fallen in love with her. Steve hoped she felt the same way.
A woman brushed past him that brought him back from his reverie and the Captain stared. She was pretty and blonde and wore dog tags around her neck, but it wasn't the dog tags that he sent to her, he recognized quickly. Besides, the woman looked younger than he imagined Natalia would be. She wrote "I am in my late 20's," to which he replied, "I too am." But he turned thirty when his homeland celebrated the Fourth of July. His answer should have been "in my early 30's". But what of it? They agreed upon that when it was their time to finally see each other, Natalia would wear the dog tags for Steve to know that it was her he had been looking for. Four days after he and several of his men survived the invasion of the German troops to their central base, he sent a letter to her together with his dog tags. In case that something will happen to me, or the inevitable of the music I must face since I joined the military, I want you to have this piece of me. You have been wonderful to me, Natalia, and this is my gift for you. For the meantime that is because I am clinging to this hope that I will make it out safe and sound. I was thinking of buying you a necklace when I get home, fit for such a beautiful woman like you.
But how could he claim that Natalia was beautiful if he hadn't received any of her photographs?
Captain Steve Rogers trusted Natalia, there was no doubt about it, and he made it clear to her as well. He remembered in one of those letters, just right after he felt a certain emotion stirring in his heart, Natalia devotedly refused all his pleas to send him a photograph. He received her reply, explaining, if your feelings for me is sincere, what I look like won't matter, Steve. Suppose I am beautiful, had it been that your intentions for me weren't as pure as it seemed to be for you only love me for what I am on the outside? If that is, then love is such a strong word for you to declare. Suppose that I am plain – which is I am convinced that you think of me that way, then I cannot help but think that you have been keeping in touch with me just because you are lonely. I am sorry but no, my letters will remain as it is. Do not ask for my photograph. When we meet in Washington, see me, then that is the moment you will have your decision.
And he respected that; her decision and Natalia as a person.
One night when he laid back on his bunk bed, his limbs sore and tired from the rigorous training, Steve imagined what Natalia looks like. He read that letter for the nth time; her words imprinted on his mind, but he couldn't help himself but wonder about her enigmatic persona. His calloused fingers itched to draw Natalia in his sketchbook that had laid untouched in his duffel bag and failed immensely, it made him frustrated. He closed his eyes. He pictured her in a vibrant sundress, her lustrous hair flowed freely to its natural length as the autumn breeze hits her plump cheeks. Her eyes were probably the shade of hazel but held emotions that were fathoms deep, they would twinkle in delight as she passionately shares her ambition or the book she just finished reading. She would sweetly smile at him whenever he attempts to humor her whilst she shakes her head in playful dismay at his hopeless and sappy romantic self. She was a woman with fire, wit, and wisdom that no man, not even him, could stop her from doing what she wants and defy society's norms.
Steve knew, deep in his heart and at the core of his being, that Natalia was truly beautiful.
A tinge of orange and pink swirled in the heavens as the sun was slowly retiring for the night, a minute left.
This time, a young woman, a bit older and mature than the first one, made her way toward his direction. Her figure was petite, but she walked with such grace; her mid-length auburn hair flowed, the tresses of her curls tucked neatly behind her ears, her emerald-hued eyes were sharp but glinted like the jewel, her features were delicate, but she held her chin with firmness. Her full and plump lips were tinted with red. She wore a flowy sundress in pastel, and she was a ray of walking sunshine.
Mesmerized, Steve was pulled to her like a magnet but almost forgot the minuscule detail that she wasn't wearing the dog tags around her slender neck. He abruptly stopped on his steps as the woman sent him an alluring smile that tugged on her lips.
"Going my way, soldier?" she muttered. Steve blinked to regain back from his daze and then there, behind the woman, was Natalia.
Natalia was rather plump, short, and the locks of her hair were turning gray with the map of wrinkles on her face, told of the most incredible journey and of worries past and worries present. Her doe-like eyes were soft and earnest. And she wore the dog tags Steve sent her. It was the exact ones.
The young woman was walking fast away from him.
However, Captain Steve Rogers was torn, his heart yearned to follow the lady in pastel, but his mind had whispered that the woman he had been waiting for, his muse, was now standing in front of him. Her smile was sincere and warm, and Steve found himself mirroring her expression. Never mind the disappointment, the slightest of it, that flashed in his eyes as he swallowed his nervousness down. As he fiddled into his pocket to find the twin dog tags that indicated that he was what she was looking for, he stood in honor and made a salute, handing the dog tags out to her.
"I'm Captain Steven Rogers," he sputtered, "and y-you must be Natalia. I… I have waited for so long. Now you are here. May I take you to dinner, Ma'am?"
Without missing a beat, the woman's face broadened in a tolerant smile, "In all honesty, I don't know what this is all about, son," she was puzzled, "that young lady in that light dress pleaded me to wear this dog tags for her favor. This was a test, she said. And she noted that if you asked me to go out with you, I should remind that she's waiting for you in that jazz club you promised her, said you owe her a dance."
And so, Steve thanked the elder woman, she gave him his dog tags back and politely said his farewell to her. He found himself bolting fast to that jazz club across the street, and there, now without his eyes missing, Natalia was sitting in one of the tables, an empty seat that was most likely reserved for him. He approached her and when then they met halfway, among other things, Steve kissed her for the very first time, finally feeling her warm body against his; she tasted like how he just imagined her, sweet and addictive as drinking in nectar. They broke free and when the night came, they swayed to the soft mellow of the song and whispered promises and declarations of love in each other's ears.
The rest had been their history.
And even when decades had gone by and in between those years they fell in love, got married, lived in the peaceful suburban in Brooklyn, had two children, and their children had their own children, they had kept the letters that were passed down to generations, forged into a story of a former military man and a Russian immigrant. The letters were the witness to the blooming romance they had; a love so fortuitous yet beautiful.