It’s my first day without you, and I’m writing this letter. It’s absurd. I know you’d laugh at me, if you were here. But you’re not here. Which is why I’m—
Margret crumples up the paper and almost throws it in the wastebasket. But she’s not in her tent. She’s in post-op, during a particular quiet night shift, and she’s writing the letter on the back of some form she’d normally care about filling out but can’t bring herself to care about right now. She realizes no one would look twice at some crumpled up army form lying in the trash, but she’s overcome with the irrational worry that someone will pick the letter out of the trashcan, read it, and learn—what?
That she and Helen were—are—friends? There’s not much revealing in the letter, aside from the fact of her having written it at all. Margaret’s not used to it, to letters. She’s not used to friendships continuing after someone moves away. Growing up an army brat, Margaret feels like she’s somehow managed to say, “Goodbye” to more people than she’s said, “Hello” to. With a lifestyle like that, it doesn’t make sense to try and stay in contact with anyone. There’s simply too many people who have come and gone from her life throughout the years; how should she choose who matters most, who to write to? The answer is, she doesn’t. She chooses no one, and no one chooses her, and she waits until fate (or the army) lands her back together with someone years later, or she simple never sees them again.
The last person she’d tried writing to consistently had been—well, it had been Donald. Margaret doesn’t like drawing the comparison in her mind, the one between Donald and Helen. For one, Helen’s a hell of a lot better person than Donald ever was. She wouldn’t leave Margaret like Donald did, because, well—there’s nothing to leave. Nothing between them that comes close to the sacred vow between a man and his wife, right?
You can’t break an oath you never took.
And still, Margaret’s writing to Helen. She tells herself it’s the drinking—Helen’s drinking. Margaret’s a nurse. Of course she’d want to provide any support that she could for a friend going through something like that. And it’s true, she is a nurse, and she does want to provide something like that, but, well.
That’s not all it is. Something, somewhere, deep inside Margaret—some part of her knows that’s not all it is, and that part of her is threatening to claw its way to the surface here in this quiet minute in post-op. And it’s that part of her, and Margaret’s fear of that part of her, which makes her smooth back out the crumpled letter, fold it into fours, and place it, almost guiltily, in her pocket.
Besides, maybe she’ll finish the letter later.
Margaret’s so startled by B.J. saying her name that she jumps and almost screams. “Yes?” she snaps, before remembering that they’re both on duty, and a patient might need something. “I mean, yes?” she says again, this time in a tone that’s, if not gentle, then more neutral at least.
But to Margaret’s surprise, instead of telling her a patient needs her, B.J. sits down next to her and says, “How are you doing?”
“How am I—you’re supposed to be checking in on the patients, not me.”
“Who says I can’t do both?”
“Well, I’m fine,” Margaret says.
“Helen just left, Margaret.”
“That’s right,” Margaret says. “She left to get the help she needs, the treatment we—we didn’t have here, what we couldn’t do for her here. That’s a good thing.”
“It is good,” B.J. says. “Doesn’t mean you have to feel fine about it from day one.”
“She was going to leave soon anyway, B.J.,” Margaret says, kind of softly, in spite of herself. “She was always going to—she was always going to leave.”
To her surprise, instead of pushing her any more, B.J. says, “One day, this war is gonna end. One day, we’ll all go home.”
Easy for you to say, Margaret thinks. I don’t know where “home” is anymore.
When Helen shows up at the 4077, Margaret isn’t looking to make friends. She’s sort of given up on the whole endeavor, if she’s being honest. The problem is, she likes Helen instantly. So much so that it scares her. So much so that she would have stayed away, if Helen had let her. But that’s the thing of it. Helen doesn’t let her. That’s the thing of it, is that Helen likes Margaret right from the very start too.
Margaret, of course, gives all new nurses assigned to the 4077 a tour and general rundown of camp activity upon their arrival. Most nurses pretty much act scared of Margaret from the start; whether her reputation proceeds her, or if there’s something about her demeanor they find off putting, Margaret isn’t sure. She doesn’t ask; she’s not sure she wants to know. So she’s expecting pretty much the same from Helen, and gives her imminent arrival at camp almost no thought, aside from adding it to her mental list of a thousand and one other things she has to do that week.
When Helen arrives, and Klinger gets her bags, then lets Margaret know the new nurse is here, Margaret marches over to meet her expecting to get the tour easily over and done with. Helen, whoever, throws her for a loop almost immediately. Margaret marches into Helen’s tent, all business, and says, “Captain Whitfield, I’m Major Houlihan. I’m in charge of the nurses here. If you’re all settled in, I thought now would be a good time for me to give you the lay of the land.”
Helen, smiling, takes Margaret’s hand and shakes it firmly but warmly, saying, “Let me guess. The mess tent’s a mess; we’re understaffed, undersupplied, and usually overbooked; and there’s nothing to do on our time off except get chased around by men with wedding ring tan lines.”
“I—“ Margaret starts. Her first instinct is to snap back some reply about showing respect for rank and discipline, about how the work that they do here deserves to be taken seriously. But something about the sparkle in Helen’s eye—Margaret gets the sense that Helen’s assuming Margaret’s in on the joke. And no one assumes that Margaret’s in on the joke. Margaret finds herself wanting to see what it would be like to be that person, the one who can play along. So she continues, in tone that matches Helen’s, “You’ve pretty much covered it, but shall I give you a tour anyway?”
“I’d love that,” Helen replies, sticking one of her hands in her back pocket and following Margaret out the door. After coming on so strong, though, Helen spends most of the actual tour itself just listening respectfully to what Margaret has to say. But once Margaret sums up post-op duties, walks Helen back to her tent, and tells her that that pretty much covers it, Helen asks, “And what do people around here like to do for fun? You know, if they’re not looking to get chased around by married men.”
“Oh, I’m sure the other girls can fill you in on all that,” Margaret says. Despite her earlier impulse to not come on as too much of a stick in the mud, it’s hard for her to go against all the rigidity that a lifetime in the army has ingrained in her. Well, a lifetime in the army, and a lifetime of being scared of misconstruing the meaning of comments about an aversion to sleeping with married men. Helen probably just means she’s adverse to infidelity; there’s no reason to assume she’s sworn off men altogether.
But Helen ignores Margaret’s attempt to brush off the question. “Oh, I’m sure the other girls could fill me in,” she says. “But I’m curious what it is you get up to.”
The way Helen is looking at her, then, leaning back casually against the door of her tent, Margaret finds herself so flustered that she blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “Play cards, I guess. Any old thing, really. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some inventorying that needs to be seen to.”
“Well, alright,” Helen says. “But if you’re free for a card game later, I’m around.”
Margaret hopes that will be the end of it. Instead, she finds herself surprised the next morning at breakfast when Helen arrives in the mess tent just a little after Margaret and puts her tray down on the other side of the table, sitting down without waiting for an invitation.
“Captain Whitfield,” Margaret says politely. “I hope you’ve been settling in alright.”
“I have been, thank you,” Helen says. “I’d love if you would call me Helen, though.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Margaret says. After a pause, she adds, “You know, I don’t mean to be rude, but most of the other nurses tend to eat together. You know, not with the ranking officers.”
“There’s not any rule against it, is there?” Helen says, and then, before Margaret can reply, she adds, “I mean, do you not want me here?”
That’s the problem, Margaret thinks. I want you here more than I should. Despite herself, she finds that she doesn’t want to be outright rude to Helen, even though that might put an end to all of this much more quickly. So instead, having already eaten a bit of her breakfast already, Margaret finds herself standing up abruptly and saying, “I actually really have a lot of work to do. I hope you have a great breakfast, though.” I hope you have a great breakfast? What the hell am I saying?
“Alright,” Helen says easily, not looking offended in the slightest. “But I’m taking a rain check on this. This and that card game you promised me earlier.”
“I don’t—I didn’t promise you anything, Captain Whitfield,” Margaret says.
“Maybe not,” Helen says. “But I bet I can convince you to play by the end of the week.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Margaret says, already walking away.
“I like my odds,” Helen calls after her. Margaret’s practically out the door by this point, and she blushes, just a bit, trying not to wonder how many eyes have turned to look at why the new captain is yelling after her. And that’s when Margaret knows she’s really in deep. Because despite herself, even with so many eyes on her, all she can think about is the way Helen looked when she asked if Margaret wanted her to stay.
Of course that isn’t the end of it. Margaret does her best to avoid Helen without being outright rude, and Helen does her best to spend more time with Margaret, continuing to try and eat with her at mealtimes and asking after that card game. After a few days of this, Margaret’s in her tent, trying to wind down for the night, when she hears Hawkeye walking by (some tune he’s singing to himself gives him away). She opens the door to her tent to pull him in almost cartoon-style, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust where he was standing just a second ago. “Have you seen the way Helen’s been acting around me?” she demands as soon as she’s pulled him inside.
“Good evening to you too, Margaret,” Hawkeye says pleasantly, immediately going for her bed and sprawling on it, apparently knowing that he’s not going to be able to extract himself from the conversation for the next long while. Margaret, on the other hand, begins to pace as Hawkeye continues, “And I’m sorry, but I think I missed the memo on just what, exactly, the problem with Helen is. She seems to like you, as far as I can tell.”
“That’s exactly it!” Margaret says. “No one likes me when they first meet me. You certainly didn’t.”
“Yes, well, sometimes even I am a poor judge of character,” Hawkeye tells her. “No, actually, I take that back. You were pretty much an absolute nightmare when I first met you.”
“Oh, and you weren’t?” Margaret says, stopping her pacing only long enough to swat him on the arm.
“What do you want?” Hawkeye asks indignantly. “You think Helen likes you too much, you think I don’t like you enough… oy vey!”
“I don’t… I don’t know what I want,” Margaret admits to Hawkeye then, finally stopping her pacing, instead standing helplessly in the middle of her room.
“Oh, Margaret,” Hawkeye says from his seat on her bed, dropping his usual joking demeanor. “So it’s like that?”
The two of them don’t often speak about their shared aversion to heterosexuality, but their mutual understanding of one another is always there, underneath the surface, and easily excavated in times like these where it does need to be referenced.
“I’m afraid so,” Margaret says. “I’m afraid it is like that indeed.”
“Is that really such a bad thing?” Hawkeye says, so kindly that Margaret wants to yell, just so that he’ll snap back at her.
But she doesn’t. She reminds herself of how hard it was, before. Before she opened up to anyone at camp. “It just… didn’t work out that well for me, last time.”
“Last time” means Lorraine. “Last time” means the way that woman swept back into Margaret’s life and convinced her to open back up only long enough to get hurt again. Margaret and Lorraine had been, well… more than friends, in college. Things had ended between them because they’d gotten stationed halfway across the world from each other, and fallen out of touch. Or rather, Lorraine had fallen out of touch with Margaret. Her letters had gotten fewer and farther between, until finally they stopped coming.
And then, years later, there she was again, in Margaret’s OR, flirting with Charles, of all people. When Lorraine had asked what happened to Margaret, Margaret had said that suddenly, there had been no more dancing in her life. She didn’t say, “You were the only one I wanted to dance with.”
But Margaret, despite herself, is loyal. When she falls, she falls hard, and she has a hard time letting go. She holds on to just about every grudge she’s ever had, but for her, there’s a fine line between a grudge and the old affection underneath it, and she found herself forgiving Lorraine almost as soon as she laid eyes on her. It didn’t help that when Lorraine had breezed back into her life, it had become a question of not if but when Margaret’s marriage would fall apart. Margaret, sure as she was that everything wrong with her marriage was her fault, had easily convinced herself that she was to blame for the way things ended with Lorraine, too. And that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was, she let herself think, “Maybe this time, I can do better. Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky. Maybe this time, she’ll stay.”
Of course, Lorraine hadn’t stayed, though. Hawkeye had watched it all fall apart, as much as she’d let him. When she couldn’t take it anymore—the way she couldn’t pick back up right where she’d left off with Lorraine, the way there was barely even a honeymoon period with Donald to miss—she’d come to the swamp and kick Charles and B.J. out, so she could yell and scream about it all to Hawkeye. Sometimes, if it was a really bad night, Hawkeye would offer to let her break a few of Charles’ records.
So she knows that he knows what, “It didn’t work out that well for me, last time” means. And she knows he went through enough of that shit himself, with Trapper. They don’t talk about Trapper, hardly ever—even less than they talk about Lorraine—but Margaret knows. So she can hardly believe he’s standing there asking her if this thing with Helen—whatever it is—is such a bad thing.
She thinks her comment, alluding to Lorraine, will be enough to get him to let up. To her surprise, it’s not. To her surprise, he keeps pushing, saying, “What, so it didn’t work out last time. So you’re giving up? You’re stopping before you even try?”
Now Margaret really does get mean. Hawkeye’s supposed to be her comrade in arms, her commiserater about how unfair the world can be. He’s not supposed to push back. So she says, “Oh, like you’re one to talk.”
Hawkeye raises his eyebrows. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, come on. Don’t play innocent with me. It’s been years of me watching the way you look at B.J., and I haven’t said a damn thing about it to you. Well, if you’re going to sit here and tell me to chase after getting my heart broken again, I think I’ve had enough of keeping my mouth shut.”
“What—that’s—it’s different, with B.J.!”
“How is it different?” Margaret says.
“That never stopped you before.”
Maybe Margaret really has taken it too far this time, because Hawkeye seems to visibly deflate, all the fight gone out of him.
“Yeah, well, like you said, Margaret, it didn’t work out so well last time. And B.J.—he really loves his wife. I don’t think I could be a home wrecker twice. At least with Trapper, there were other girls before me.”
Seeing Hawkeye so defeated takes all the fight out of Margaret. She sits down on her bed next to him and says, “Just what are we going to do with ourselves, Hawk? We’re a mess.”
“I think…” Hawkeye starts, stops, and re-starts. “Look, maybe I can’t say anything without being a hypocrite, but come on, neither of you are married. You’re not married,” he repeats, with more joyful force the second time, leaning his shoulder against Margaret’s briefly, as if to physically nudge her into the realization of her own freedom. “Take advantage! Have fun!”
“It’s never just fun,” Margaret says. “Not for me.”
“No,” Hawkeye says. “You and me can never make it easy on ourselves, can we?”
Margaret’s not sure if it’s just a rhetorical question, but she shakes her head anyway.
“But what if…” Hawkeye says, hesitantly, delicately, “What if, just this once, you tried your best? To just let it be what it will be? To be easy?”
“I don’t know,” Margaret says.
“Come on, Margaret. Do you really think you have a choice?”
And that question is what really does it for Margaret, because she knows he’s right. Just like she’d felt the certainty of her ending with Donald, the not if but when—she feels the same about this beginning with Helen. The falling into the inevitable, the same thing in her that couldn’t help but say, “No,” all those times before, now unable to say anything but, “Yes.”
She marches into Helen’s tent the very next night, after she gets off a long shift. “Alright,” Margaret says, standing there confidently in the middle of Helen’s tent. Just this once, she won’t let herself be small.
“Alright?” Helen repeats, confused, but with a careful smile on her face.
“Alright,” Margaret says. “Deal me in.”
Margaret doesn’t finish the letter to Helen that first night after Helen’s been sent home. Margaret finishes her shift, the letter burning a hole in her pocket the whole time. She and B.J. don’t say much more to each other, but there’s a companionable silence as they pass charts to each other or pass each other between the rows of beds. B.J. doesn’t demand as much from her as Hawkeye does; he makes space for her to share what she wants, which is often nothing, but it’s nice to have the option. Still, at the end of the shift, when B.J. asks if she wants to go get coffee in the mess tent—a rare question, coming off the hours they just pulled—she says no. She tells herself she’s not closing back up—really, she’s not—it’s just that sometimes, she needs to be alone. It’s just that tonight, the only person she really wants to get coffee with is now half a world away.
Still, when she gets back to her tent, she’s surprised by just how empty it feels. Sitting down at her desk, back in her own space, she pulls the letter back out of her pocket, smoothing it out again, as if she can erase all signs that she ever tried to throw it away in the first place. She sighs, trying to calm herself down, to clear her head… something. Then she picks up the pen and writes:
It takes you not being here for me to realize just how much time we spent hanging around together.
But she puts the pen down almost immediately, unable to write anything more. She doesn’t know what to say next, what will convey even a part of what she’s feeling without showing her full hand.
It always comes back to card games, with Helen. Their whole relationship grew out of card games. When Margaret had first marched into Helen’s tent and declared, “Deal me in,” she’d meant it mostly as pretext, as a way into Helen’s life. But Helen had raised her eyebrows and searched her bureau, grabbed a deck of cards, and said, “What are we playing?”
And that’s how it had started. Card games, almost every night. Gin rummy. Hearts. As they played, they’d talk. About their shift that day. About where they’d been stationed before. About what they wanted to do when they got out. About games they’d played as kids, people they’d known and places they’d lived. About books they were reading and music they were listening to. Margaret finds herself telling Helen more about herself in the first few weeks than she’d told anyone else at the 4077 in all the years she’d been here. Well, except for one small detail—Hawkeye knows she’s gay, and Helen doesn’t. Still, Margaret finds herself with about a million questions and a million things to say, all at the same time. The conversation goes almost more quickly than the card games.
And then there are the jokes. Or not even outright jokes, really. But Helens’ got a dry wit about her, and a tendency to make sardonic comments. Unlike with Hawkeye and B.J., whose humor Margaret hates as often as she tolerates it, Helen’s sense of humor doesn’t have that sense of theatricality about it, the seeming almost neurotic compulsion toward the over-the-top. The way B.J. and Hawkeye joke, it feels like they’re covering something up. The way Helen does it, it feels like she’s revealing herself more. There’s some strange joy to it that draws Margaret in.
One night, two or three weeks after Helen’s arrival, Helen walks into Margaret’s tent while Margaret is still fixing her makeup. Margaret puts her blush quickly, guiltily—she always wants to appear perfectly done up without ever being seen making herself up. But with Helen, another woman, after work—she can’t really say why she was bothering to fix her makeup, let alone why she cares if Helen sees.
Helen, seeing Margaret stow the makeup away, gives Margaret that same wry smile of hers and says, “Going out tonight?”
“Oh, no,” Margaret says, feeling unexpectedly flustered. “I was just… freshening up.”
“Planning to get fresh with me?”
“That’s not—I just always look like a mess after OR,” Margaret says.
“We spend fourteen hours helping stitch kids back together, and you’re worried about how you look?” Helen says.
She says it kindly, if incredulously, but Margaret hears the echo of how other people in her life would’ve asked the same question—Donald, her father, even Hawkeye. She hears the implication that she’s vain, silly, too focused on her looks. She hears the implication that she’s too feminine for the work, but also that the work will keep her from ever being truly delicate, everything she should be. Before she can stop herself, she finds herself with her hackles up. “Well, I’m sorry if I care about the way I’m presenting—“
But Helen cuts Margaret off before she can even finish her sentence. Helen laughs, but she does it so kindly that Margaret lets her get away with it. Helen says, “All I meant is, you’d look beautiful without it. You don’t have to do all that for me. But if you want to wear it, that’s fine.”
It’s a simple thing to say. The simplest thing in the world, really. But Margaret feels like she’s been waiting her whole life to hear it.
Before Helen, humor was always fraught for Margaret. Joke around with her father, and she’d get dismissed as a disappointment. Joke around in med school, and none of the men would take her seriously. Joke around with Hawkeye, and it’s just a reminder of when all she was was a joke to him. But the way Helen uses humor—she doesn’t weaponize, dismiss. Instead, it feels like it opens everything up. She points out the absurd in search of something that’ll stick. She makes room for joy.
Because Helen also knows when and how to let her humor fall away into something sincere and sweet. It isn’t a way out, but a way in, for Helen. To who she is. To who Margaret is. To who they could be, together. You don’t have to do all that for me. It’s not that Margaret is too much; it’s that there are so many parts of herself that she holds for other people. Sometimes, it’s hard to make room among it all for who she wants to be. And now here’s Helen, standing in front of her, saying, You don’t have to do all that for me. Saying, What do you want? Saying, I will take you as you are. There is no one else I need you to be.
And maybe Margaret fell into the trap of it, a little. It was such a relief, the way Helen saw Margaret for the sum of who she was and offered no criticism; Margaret wanted to do the same for Helen, and maybe that’s why she didn’t say anything about the drinking, and maybe she didn’t do Helen any favors.
Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe it was just that Margaret didn’t want to say anything that would end up with Helen getting taken out of her life. Maybe she hadn’t been protecting Helen at all. Maybe she’d only been protecting herself, per usual.
In her tent, with the second attempt at a half-written letter in front of her, Margaret suddenly crumples it up and throws it away.
Margaret wakes up the next morning, and the first thing she’s aware of is the absence of Helen. It’s funny—it’s not like she ever woke up next to Helen. It’s just that, for the past few months, what’s been getting her out of bed has been knowing that Helen’s face will be one of the first things she sees when she steps out of her tent. They almost always ate breakfast together, even if one of them was headed to bed while the other was about to start a shift. If they got really busy, they’d let lunch or dinner together slide, but not breakfast. Margaret liked drinking her shitty coffee and eating her shitty eggs and looking at that beautiful woman just there across the table from her, somehow there in the middle of the war. Look at the place I chose to have a marriage, she’d told Hawkeye, what felt like ages ago. Well, this time, it felt like she hadn’t chosen it. It felt like it had fallen into her lap, glorious and remarkable and impossible to turn away from. Helen was impossible to turn away from.
Often—and she never told Helen this—but she’d sit across from Helen and picture the two of them somewhere halfway across the world. She’d picture them in some shitty cheap dinner in Anywhere, America, the two of them on a road trip to nowhere, coming in out of the heat off the cracked tar of the parking lot to the jingle of the bell above the door, and the waitress would seat them in some corner booth with a view out toward the highway and the blue sky, and the vinyl would stick against their legs as they slid into the booth. And Helen would push her bright red sunglasses—heart-shaped—up, and pick up the laminated menu, and raise her eyebrows at Margaret, and say, “Well, Houlihan? What are we having?”
Margaret would picture them during Christmas time, running into some diner out of the rain, the kind with big glass windows that got fogged up and a little too cold whenever it rained. Helen and Margaret would hurry in from Christmas shopping, take off their rain jackets, and pull their sweaters tighter around themselves. And the one Helen would be wearing would be one Margaret knit her a few Christmases ago, one that’s just a little too big, because Helen likes them that way, and they’d order coffee and cider and French toast with strawberries, and Helen would end up dipping her sleeve in the maple syrup even though Margaret tried to warn her.
And sometimes, Margaret would picture herself and Helen making breakfast together in an apartment that was all theirs. Home. Putting Ella Fitzgerald on the record player on a Sunday morning, nowhere to be, nothing to do but make eggs and bacon and coffee and tea. They’d get so caught up in laughing over something they’d burn the toast the first time through, and they’d put in two more slices, and they’d each have one burned and one golden piece. They would share everything, passing each other creamer and sections of the newspaper without having to be asked.
But this home that Margaret pictures for herself, after the war, is one that doesn’t exist. When Helen was here, she could trick herself into the dream of it, but with Helen gone, it’s hard to feel anything but cold and sober reality. Margaret doesn’t let herself stay in bed and dwell on it long. There’s work to do here, people who need her. So she gets up and dressed and puts on a full face of makeup, because there’s no one here to tell her she doesn’t need it.
Margaret’s perfectly prepared to eat breakfast on her own. In fact, she’s even relishing the idea of a little quiet before she has to work. But it looks like she won’t get it, because who should sit down next to her but Klinger?
“What do you want, Klinger?” Margaret snaps.
“Nothing, major,” he says, totally undeterred from sitting down across from her. He makes a face as he pokes at his eggs.
Margaret waits for a moment, sure that in a minute, he’ll try to get her in on some harebrained scheme of his. He doesn’t usually choose to spend time with her unless he needs something.
To her surprise, though, he just raises a cup of coffee to her, saying, “The finest cuppa joe in New York City,” before taking a sip and making a horrendous face, then coughing.
“It can’t really be all that bad, can it?” Margaret says. Then she takes a sip of her own coffee and nearly spits it back out. “Oh my god,” she says. “What did they make this with? Grounds they found in the compost?”
“What’s the best cup of coffee you ever had, major?” Klinger says.
“What?” she says.
“I think for me, it’s gotta be the stuff from this corner store right next to where Laverne used to work.”
“Oh, really?” Margaret says, not really interested, but pretty sure Klinger isn’t leaving, regardless of what she says.
“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Klinger says. “The coffee tasted horrible. Almost as bad as this stuff.” He holds up the mug. “The guy who ran the place always used too many grounds, and he’d let it sit for way too long. But it was my favorite stuff in the world, because Laverne would run down on her breaks and drink a cup of that awful stuff just to see me.”
Margaret just gives him a tired look, still not entirely sure why they’re having this conversation. Then Klinger continues, “I think I saw you drink more bad coffee in the few months Helen was here than the whole rest of the war.”
Margaret can feel her face flush. It’s true that as soon as Helen had showed up at camp, Margaret had found herself finding more excuses to take breaks. Having five minutes to herself hadn’t seemed to really matter before, but having five minutes to see Helen smile at her, to feel Helen’s fingers brush past hers as they grabbed their cups for the bad coffee—Margaret had made time for that.
But she doesn’t tell Klinger any of that. She snaps, “I don’t see how my coffee-drinking habits are any of your business.”
“Do you feel the same about Helen’s drinking habits?” Klinger says. “Major, I… I know she was your friend, is all, and I… I didn’t like being the reason she got sent home, but—“
But Margaret cuts him off before he can even finish talking. “You weren’t the reason she got sent home. She’s the reason she got sent home. Someone… someone had to say something.”
“I understand why it wasn’t you,” Klinger tells her. “We don’t blame you for that, major.”
Suddenly, all the anger and annoyance she was feeling goes out of her, and all Margaret feels is profoundly tired. She drains about half her coffee in one swig. “What do you want me to say, Klinger? I know why you did it, but I’m not exactly about to say thank you.”
Klinger, who’s been making quick work of his breakfast, seems to get the hint, finally, and starts to stand, tray and coffee cup in his hand. “I don’t regret it,” Klinger says, as he’s about to go.
“I already told you I understood why—“ Margaret starts, but Klinger interrupts her.
“No, I’m not talking about that. I mean, I don’t regret marrying Laverne, all the way out here in the middle of a war, even though it fell apart. It was nice while it lasted. It was nice to think there was someone I was going home to, for a while. It was worth it, to try for that, even though it didn’t work out.” After he finishes speaking, he starts to walk away, not waiting for a response.
Margaret sighs. “Klinger?” she says.
He stops, turns back around. “Yes, major?”
There’s one day, a few weeks into Helen being at camp, where she doesn’t meet Margaret at the mess tent for breakfast. Instead, Margaret wakes up to a knock on her tent door. Before she can gather herself to say anything, she hears Helen’s voice on the other side of her tent saying, “I’m coming in! I hope you’re decent!” Helen pokes her head in through the door, then, and barges right on in. “Damn,” Helen says. “To tell the truth, I was hoping you’d be at least a little indecent.
Helen walks over to Margaret’s bed, then, smiling. Margaret, in her groggy, half-awake state, is sure, for a minute, that Helen is going to give her a kiss good morning. It feels, for a moment, like it would be the most natural thing in the world.
But Helen doesn’t, of course. When she gets over to Margaret’s bed, she says, “Look what I found,” and pulls something out from behind her back.
It’s a small box of strawberries. Small, perfect, perfectly real strawberries. “Helen!” Margaret says, grabbing the box from her in delight. Helen grins even wider.
“Scoot over,” she says, as Margaret is still marveling at the fresh fruit.
“Wha—“ Margaret starts to ask, but Helen is already climbing right into Margaret’s bed.
“My feet are cold,” Helen says. Margaret realizes that Helen had made the trek over to Margaret’s tent in some sort of flimsy slippers, which are now lying abandoned on the floor of the tent. It’s early enough in the morning that it’s quite cold out still, the chill permeating the flimsy tent walls. Helen starts to snuggle up to Margaret, which would almost be too romantic of Margaret to bear, except that Helen then presses her icy feet against Margaret’s bare legs. Margaret’s so startled she lets out a short shriek.
“See?” Helen says, laughing. “What did I tell you? My poor cold feet.”
“Get your ‘poor cold feet’ away from me,” Margaret says, using her hand that’s not holding the box of strawberries to give Helen a playful shove. She puts a little more force into it than she means to, though, and Helen, still not quite settled in Margaret’s small cot, nearly goes toppling out of it. Margaret lets go of the strawberries, then, reaching out to grab onto Helen and pull her close, to keep her from falling. Helen laughs again, righting herself, then staying close to Margaret, maybe even closer than the small size of the cot necessitates.
“Oh, no!” Helen says. “The strawberries!” They’ve toppled out of their box and onto the covers.
As they work to pick them all back up, Margaret says, “Where did you get them, though?”
“I asked around,” Helen says. “Zale had some connections. My mom sent me a whole box of stuff last week. Traded away some of it, got these strawberries in return.”
“I thought we could have a picnic!” Helen says.
“Have a—what? A picnic?” The suggestion of a picnic feels absurd to Margaret. She and Helen spend almost all their free time together at this point, playing cards and making the most of the spaces between what the war owns of their lives, but to escape off into the hills for an entire morning, for a picnic, feels downright decadent.
“Come on,” Helen says, as if reading Margaret’s mind. “It’s the first full day we’ve both had off in forever. There’s no casualties expected, we’re not on shift… why shouldn’t we?”
Because I shouldn’t be this happy, Margaret thinks. Not here and now. Because you’re leaving. Because you’re going to break my heart.
With anyone else, she would’ve found an excuse, something around camp that needed doing, socks that needed to be darned, a sweater that needed mending. But it’s Helen. So all Margret finds herself saying is, “I don’t know. Why shouldn’t we?”
They escape into the hills a little while later. They don’t tell anyone they’re going. Margaret has the strangest thought. She thinks: Helen is the only one in the entire world who knows where I am right now. The realization grounds her.
By now, the day has warmed up. They find a spot under a tree. Most of the food they’ve brought with them is just standard mess tent fare, aside from the strawberries. Something about having coffee in a thermos makes it taste different, though, almost okay. Helen and Margaret trade sips back and forth, sitting there in their shorts and non-regulation halter tops, feeling the sun on their skin. Margaret suddenly realizes it hadn’t even occurred to her to put makeup on that morning, wrapped as she was in the picnicking plans.
“Reminds me of when I was a kid,” Margaret says idly. She doesn’t usually share stories from before she was stationed at the 4077. Or rather, not ones that count. Not ones like the ones she’s about to tell. But with Helen, it feels different. Margaret wants to tell Helen as much about her past as she can, especially the times she felt… less constrained than she tends to now. Almost as proof that she wasn’t always this closed off. As an apology for it. As a way to find her way back to an easy honesty about who she is again.
“Oh really?” Helen says. “You were in Korea as a kid?”
“No,” Margaret says. “Just this… stealing away. Making some grand adventure out of a thermos of coffee and some strawberries. I had this friend, Elaine, another army brat. We used to run away together. Or, pretend to run away. We never went far. Our dads were stationed together, and we’d wander as far into the forest as we could without losing our way back.” Margaret pauses, expecting a question or interjection from Helen, but Helen just stays quiet, listening, as if she suspects there’s more to the story. So Margaret keeps talking.
“The only time we ever really—after about nine months, you know, her dad got re-stationed. She’d been there a lot longer than me; we always knew it was coming. But when my parents got off the phone with her parents, broke the news to me—I threw just about the biggest fit of my life. Said I hated them, that I was leaving home.”
“Did you?” Helen asks.
“I did,” Margaret says, “and I walked over to Elaine’s, but her parents were expecting me. My parents must have called them. We didn’t—you know, I know we were kids, and we were always going to have to say goodbye, but I’ve always sort of regretted that we didn’t get one last afternoon out in the woods together. We saw each other plenty, while they were getting ready to go. But it wasn’t the same as being out where no one knew where we were, feeling like we’d really escaped and were never going back.”
“Margaret,” Helen says, and the way she says it, Margaret can suddenly feel her heart beating hard in her chest. She doesn’t know what Helen’s going to say next, and maybe Helen’s not sure either, because she stays quiet a minute after that, almost looking like she’s making some sort of decision. But just as Margaret’s working up the courage to speak, to say something herself, the look of concentration on Helen’s face falls away, and she smiles and says, “When I get my papers, to go home, you know, let’s stick you in my suitcase and have you come with me.”
Margaret feels relief and disappointment twined together. It’s affectionate, the way Helen says it, but it’s so clearly a fantasy. I’ll pack you up in my suitcase. Margaret realizes, crazily, that she’d been waiting for Helen to ask her to run away with her, to really run away, even though Margaret would never. She couldn’t, even if she wanted to.
She tries not to let any of these thoughts show through, though, and she smiles back and says, “Sounds good to me.”
“There’s this chocolate shop—God, I haven’t been there since I was a kid, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I got the orders. They make the best chocolate milkshake I’ve had in my life. God, Margaret, I—I’m gonna drive up there on the weekends, and I’m gonna get one of those, then walk down to the park right nearby and watch the leaves change and the kids playing on the same swing set that’s been there since I was little…” Helen has this look in her eye, as if she’s already there, as if it’s that little park she’s seeing, and not Margaret right in front of her. Margaret wants to reach out and touch her, grab Helen’s shoulder and physically pull her back to her. But she doesn’t. It feels greedy, to want Helen here with her, when fall back in her hometown sounds so much nicer.
But then Helen turns back to Margaret, and smiles, and says, “And since you’ll be coming with me, of course, we’ll have to—we’ll get two straws for the milkshake, like we were little girls. It’ll be just like when me and Cindy McCormick used to walk hand in hand down to it after school.”
“How are their vanilla milkshakes?” Margaret says. “I like vanilla better.”
“Vanilla, then,” Helen says. “Their vanilla milkshakes are good, too. We’ll get vanilla.” And she says it so easily—if that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll get—that Margaret feels like it’s some gift Helen is giving her, even though it’s just from some imagined world.
Margaret expects Helen to want to go back to camp, after they finish eating, to find something to do. But to her surprise, Helen reaches into her bag and pulls out a book. “A little poetry to help the digestion?” Helen says.
Normally, Margaret doesn’t care for poetry. She finds it all a bit… frilly. Superfluous. A waste of time. But with Helen, she wants to waste time. To do nothing but everything they aren’t supposed to do.
And Helen wants to read to her. So in the same tone of voice that Helen said, “Vanilla, then,” Margaret says, “Read to me.”
“Alright,” Helen says. “This one’s by Elsa Gidlow. ‘For the Goddess Too Well Known.’” She starts to read:
I have robbed the garrulous streets,
Thieved a fair girl from their blight,
I have stolen her for a sacrifice
That I shall make to this night.
I have brought her, laughing,
To my quietly dreaming garden.
For what will be done there
I ask no man pardon.
I brush the rouge from her cheeks,
Clean the black kohl from the rims
Of her eyes; loose her hair…
Margaret remembers Helen in her tent, telling her she doesn’t need the makeup. And now here’s some other woman, saying that she needs no man’s pardon, saying that she’ll wipe the rogue from her lover’s cheeks. This has to mean what she thinks it means. She has to say something to Helen, something before Helen goes home and it’s just another goodbye to add to Margaret’s long history of goodbyes.
But she doesn’t want to break the spell. She wants to stay in this afternoon forever, listening to Helen read, away from camp and responsibilities and anyone who knows some version of who she used to be. And so she stays quiet, and lets Helen read.
As Helen keeps reading, and the sun rises in the sky, and the day warms up with nothing to do but be here, Margaret feels herself getting sleepy. It’s as if, finally given a minute to rest, her body is forcing her to realize just how hard she’s been working. She fights it, not wanting Helen to think she doesn’t appreciate the poetry—she does. But she’s just too tired, and the grass looks so inviting. Margaret can’t help it. She goes to lay her head down.
“Oh no!” Helen says, and Margaret snaps her head up at once, worried she’s broken the spell after all. But then Helen quickly says, “You’ll mess your hair up, lying down in the grass like that. Why don’t you—I mean, you could lay your head in my lap, if you’d like.”
If I’d like. Helen—Helen, who tells Margaret she doesn’t have to do herself up for her sake, is now telling Margaret to lie her head in her lap because she’s worried she’ll mess up her hair. But Margaret’s not going to question it. “Alright,” Margaret says, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. What if you just let it be easy? Hawkeye had said. Well, she’ll give it a try.
“Oh, look,” Helen says. “You did get grass in your hair.” And as Margaret lies there, Helen begins to run her fingers through Margaret’s hair, as she begins to read again, and Margaret’s not entirely sure that she didn’t fall asleep in the grass a moment ago, because this is a dream. She must be dreaming.
That was how it was supposed to go. I’ll pack you in my suitcase, Helen had said, and, well, okay, Margaret had known that wasn’t going to happen. But—let it be easy. So she had pictured for herself and Helen—she had pictured an easy goodbye. Something sweet. Something to hold onto.
Not a drinking problem coming to light. Not Margaret feeling useless, unable to help. Not an unexpected departure, no time to say everything she’d meant to. Day two of Helen being gone, and Margaret spends her whole shift trying not to think about Helen. But her conversation with Klinger, and the letter she tried and failed to write, rattle around in the back of her mind all the same. It was nice to think there was someone I might come home to.
Let it be easy, Hawkeye had said. And Margaret had. It surprised her, how easy it had been, to fall for Helen. But now here’s the hard part.
It’s Potter who finally talks some sense into her. “So,” he says, as they’re getting out of OR, stripping off their surgical gowns and washing their hands, “have you written to her yet?”
“Not yet,” Margaret says.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks, a little chiding.
“I don’t know,” Margaret says. “It’s only been a few days, and I don’t know what to say…”
“And you think she does?” he asks her. The question cuts through all the doubts and one-sided worries she’s been having. He continues, “I know this isn’t easy for you, but think about how Helen must feel. She needs a friend like you now more than ever. Someone who will show up for her.”
The way he says it—someone who will show up for her—he makes it sound as if Margaret could click her heels together (There’s no place like home) and walk into the sanitarium where Helen is. Margaret wants to laugh. It almost comes bubbling out of her, a genuine hysteria at just how much she wants to be there for Helen and just how impossible that is. “I just don’t see what I can say in a letter that…” she can’t even finish the sentence. What does she even want the letter to do?
“You think I always know what to say to the missus back home?” Potter says. “Hell no. But I know as long as we’re talking, that’s what matters. I say the wrong thing, I apologize in my next letter. But what I don’t do is say nothing and trust her to know I miss her when I haven’t said a damn thing. Tell her you miss her, Margaret. That’s a start.” And then, as if sensing that the intimacy of the conversation, of the nearly-fatherly advice, is threatening to overwhelm Margaret, he claps her on the shoulder, once, like Margaret’s seen fathers do with their sons, and says, “Well, this old bird better make his way back to his roost to get some shut eye.” Before he goes, though, he turns, pausing in the doorway, and says, “I know you’ll figure something out, Margaret.”
After he goes, Margaret makes her way back to her own tent, pulling out a new piece of paper and starting again:
I miss you. How silly is that. It’s only been a few days, but I miss you. I used to miss you when you’d take the night shift and I’d take the day shift, and I keep imagining you marching into my tent, still in your scrubs, and complaining to me about the little things that went wrong in your day. I’d give anything to call you up and just hear you complain… kvetch, as Hawkeye would say. He told me once you’d quite mastered the art.
Maybe it’s silly, to write about missing your kvetching, but that’s as far as I can let myself imagine. Picturing all the best nights, the times neither of us were tired, and for once, nothing had gone wrong in OR, and we’d stay up talking and laughing… it hurts too much. I hope you’ve found other people to play cards with, there. But I wish it could be me, there with you, arguing over the hand.
Margaret stops and stares at the page. It’s a short letter with an abrupt end, but she knows if she lets herself think about it any more, she’ll end up throwing this one away, too. So instead, she pulls on her robe, and, letter in hand, makes her way across the compound to Colonel Potter’s office.
She bursts through the door. “Klinger!” she says. Klinger, who had apparently been sound asleep, fumbles around, mumbling a bunch of half-formed words and blinking as Margaret turns on the light.
“What is it!” he finally says, looking mostly awake and mildly alarmed as he sits up and pulls on his pink robe.
Margaret goes over and presses the letter into his hands. “I need to mail this letter.”
Klinger groans. “You wake me up to mail a letter? The army may be using WWI preserves, but they no longer rely on the carrier pigeon system for their mail. There’s no little birdy I can give this to to take away at midnight.”
“I just…” Margaret says, making sure he takes the letter. “Can you hold onto it for me? Make sure it goes out first thing tomorrow?”
Klinger turns the letter over, looking at the address, then gives her a look more knowing than Margaret likes. But all the annoyance has gone out of his voice when he says, “Scared you’ll get cold feet if you hang onto this one yourself?” Margaret opens her mouth to defend herself, but Klinger says, “Don’t worry. I’m not Radar. I don’t read the mail, I just send it. I won’t ask any more questions about this.”
“Radar read our—“ Margaret begins, but Klinger cuts her off, sticking the letter into the pocket of his robe and lying back down to resume his sleep.
“I’ll call him up and you can complain tomorrow,” he says, closing his eyes. “I don’t mind interrupting his sleep. But I need my beauty rest.”
“Right,” Margaret says. “Of course.” She’s just glad the letter’s out of her hands. It’s out of hands now. She does her best not to look back as she makes her way to her own tent again. Sleep well, dream of nothing.
She gets Helen’s reply almost immediately. Well, as immediately as army mail allows for. Klinger delivers it when she’s at breakfast in the mess tent, and she finds herself ripping it open without waiting for the privacy of her tent.
Hey Margaret, the letter starts, and even with just those two words, Margaret can feel the full force of Helen’s personality leaping off the page. She can picture, so clearly, Helen’s face. Helen, laughing at Margaret just a little, when she got her letter. A laugh that’s full of affection, one that would melt away all the anxiety Margaret had felt about writing it. Of course Helen wrote back. Of course Helen misses her too. She keeps reading:
I miss you, too. I miss you like hell. Trust me when I say I’ve got a lot to complain about. It feels like the last few years are finally catching up to me all at once, and I miss you, and the food here is lousy. Almost as bad as army food. Well, I shouldn’t say that. The eggs here aren’t powdered.
But the real thing I’ve got to complain about is no one is as good a card partner as you. In fact, I’d rather say I’m off the market.
Mostly, I’m doing crosswords now. But I keep wanting to turn and ask you for answers that I just know you’d get. So I’m doing the next best thing. I’m including a half-finished one here. I’m hoping you’ll finish it up and send it back to me. I wanna see your handwriting next to mine, honey.
Margaret finishes the letter and immediately reaches for the crossword. Unexpectedly, she feels herself tearing up. Seeing Helen’s messy handwriting crammed into the tiny boxes, the places Helen wrote answers in next to the clues, adding a question mark, waiting for Margaret to verify what she thought. The coffee satin on the edge of the clipping. The wrinkle in the bottom corner. Somehow, even more than the letter itself, this feels like a piece of Helen. Helen’s letter, like Margaret’s own, feels more full of things left unsaid, made up more of the spaces in the margin than the words on the page. The letter, as glad as Margaret is to have it, feels like a reminder of the distance between them.
The crossword, on the other hand, feels somehow more intimate in its insignificance. You do a crossword with someone to pass the time, in bed on a Sunday or as you’re making dinner after work. It’s a bit of the shared domestic, landed in Margaret’s lap all these many miles away.
But B.J. and Hawkeye, who were giving her distance up till then, seeming to have guessed that it was a letter from Helen she was reading, pounce upon seeing a crossword. They sit down on either side of her, Hawkeye taking the crossword right out of her hands before she really has time to react and saying, “Is this a genuine New York Times crossword puzzle I see before me, or do my eyes deceive me?” Then, oddly, he sniffs it.
Margaret gathers herself and snatches it back from him. “What on earth are you doing?”
“It’s got that genuine newspaper musk to it. Smells like the big apple.”
Margaret turns and gives B.J. a look, as if to say: please do something about him. But she should have known that the one thing that would make B.J let such strange behavior from Hawkeye go un-commented on would be a crossword. Trying a different tactic than Hawkeye, B.J. gives Margaret his most winning smile (which, she has to admit, is pretty winning) and says, “Come on, Margaret. Think of all the good times we’ve had together, and let us in on this one too.”
“Absolutely not,” Margaret says. “Helen sent this one to me. Besides, it’s already half done anyway. I’m not letting you two have a single part of it.”
B.J. and Hawkeye give each other a look, over Margaret’s head, and say, talking over each other, “She did half of it, then sent it to you? She sent you a half-done crossword?”
“What’s so odd about that?” Margaret snaps. “It’s better than no crossword.”
“No, Margaret,” Hawkeye and B.J. say, again talking seemingly over and around each other and in perfect unison at once. “No, she—she wanted to do the crossword puzzle with you. That’s—that’s very sweet.”
“It’s very nothing,” Margaret says, but she feels herself blushing.
She does the crossword in bits and pieces over the next few days. It’s a Saturday crossword, which Margaret thinks is harder than Sunday, because there’s no trick, just hard clues. She knows she could figure it out if she sat down and did it all at once after her shift, but she likes it better this way, in bits and pieces. It feels, just the smallest bit, like having Helen back here, like all those minutes between everything else when they’d find time to make it just the two of them, to grab coffee, to complain, to conspire.
Margaret likes carrying the crossword around with her. It feels almost like a locket, like some token of affection, except that, fittingly for them, it’s not shiny and static and ultimately useless. It feels like a conversation, almost, like an argument that she’s having with Helen, but the fun kind. Erasing a few of her answers, agreeing with some of her tentative suggestions in the margins, writing them in in full, cursing Helen for leaving certain clues blank that are also stumping Margaret.
Funnily enough, the only person she ends up letting help her with the crossword is Klinger. She doesn’t even mean to, really. Everyone else has been practically falling over themselves all day trying to convince her to let them help, and she’s finally taken to perching on a crate outside Potter’s office on one of her breaks, just to get some peace and quiet.
Klinger walks by on his way back to the office with a huge pile of paperwork and, leaning very casually over her shoulder, says, “What’s that, a crossword?” Reading one of the clues aloud, he adds, “ ‘Famous Olympian who once played for the Mud Hens?’ Come on, Margaret, that’s Jim Thorpe!”
Margaret finds, to her surprise, the unrequested help doesn’t annoy her. For one thing, he so clearly couldn’t care one way or the other if she lets him in on the crossword; for another, that one had really been stumping her. “Oh, you’re right!” she says, filling it in. “Klinger, it fits perfectly!”
“Happy to help,” he says, and starts to walk away.
“Wait!” Margaret says. “How about… take a look at 27 down.”
Twenty minutes later, Klinger has pulled up a box next to Margaret and is using his pile of paperwork as an armrest, seemingly having forgotten it’s even on his lap.
“Where did you get this crossword, anyway?” Klinger says.
“Helen sent it to me,” Margaret admits, smiling just a little.
“That’s nice,” Klinger says, then points to 94 across. “Come on, we only need two more letters for this one! I bet we can figure it out!”
Margaret smiles at Klinger. “I bet we can.”
Margaret finishes up the crossword a little later that day, and sticks it in the mail to Helen, along with a new letter. She tells Helen, among other things, about how jealous B.J. and Hawkeye were, and when Helen’s next letter comes, it’s with two crosswords; one half-finished, for Margaret, and one blank, for Hawkeye and B.J. “No cheating off us,” Hawkeye says, jealously guarding theirs as he and B.J. start to work on it at the breakfast table. He’s acting childish as all get out, and full of glee, with no hint of gratitude. Margaret loves him for it.
“As if,” Margaret says. “I’ll look at yours if I want to eliminate wrong answers.”
B.J. rolls his eyes. “I can’t hear myself think over the sound of you two fighting.”
The letters, along with new crosswords, come quickly after that. They don’t slow down. In one letter, Margaret writes, Even though you’re halfway across the world, you still always manage to be the best part of my week. She wants to hear everything Helen’s doing—the books she’s reading and movies she’s seeing. Almost every letter she sends, Margaret asks Helen what’s on the radio. She says, I want to know what it is they’re listening to, back in the states. What she means is, I want to know what it is you’re listening to, so I can picture dancing around the kitchen to it with you. Helen writes back, “Little Things Mean a Lot” by Kitty Allen. I think you’ll like it. I’ll play it for you when you come home.
Helen’s written in the lyrics below:
Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I'm not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot
Give me your arm as we cross the street
Call me at six on the dot
A line a day when you're far away
Little things mean a lot
Don't have to buy me diamonds and pearls
Champagne, sables and such
I never cared much for diamonds and pearls
But honestly honey, they just cost money
Give me your hand when I've lost the way
Give me your shoulder to cry on
Whether the day is bright or gray give me your heart to rely on
Send me the warmth of a secret smile
To show me you haven't forgot
Now and forever, that always and ever
Little things mean a lot
Months pass. Helen finishes her program. She stays in Boston and gets a job as a nurse at a local hospital. (Still more gunshot wounds than I want to be treating, she writes. But not enough to drive a woman to drink, yet. I’ve been doing good, Margaret. I want you to be proud of me.)
When Margaret gets that particular letter, it gives her pause. She knows what Colonel Potter said to her, all those months ago after surgery. She needs a friend like you, now more than ever. But somehow, it hadn’t really sunk in, until now. The thought that Helen—wonderful, beautiful Helen—would be worried if she were enough for Margaret. Of course I’m proud of you, Margaret writes back. I was always proud of you.
Months pass, and then one day Margaret gets a package from Helen marked “fragile.” Klinger gives her a curious look as he drops it off in her tent, but he doesn’t say anything. Margaret shoos him out, barely registering as he goes.
It’s an Ella Fitzgerald record. Must be a new one. Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. There’s a letter along with it.
I got tired of driving around this lonely town with no one to turn to in the passenger’s seat every time a song came on the radio that I knew you’d love. So I’m sending you this, so you can hear at least one of them. Track number four—I want a glass of sparkling cider in one hand, my other hand around your waist. I know it’s crazy, but I don’t have a date for New Year’s this year, so—if you’re up for doing me a favor—maybe you can pull yourself out of bed at five a.m., put this record on, and dance around your tent like I’m still there.
—Helen Wishes You a Swinging Christmas
Margaret sits and thinks for a long minute. It’s a while before she can even put the record on the player, scared, somehow, of what she’ll hear. That it’ll be too much, or not enough. When she finally lets the needle hit the vinyl, she doesn’t skip straight to track four. She wants to hear the record in full. It’s a thrill to hear Ella’s voice on new songs. She sits there in her tent with her eyes closed and pictures Christmas in the states, snow and eggnog and gingerbread men, and Helen right there next to her.
And then in comes Ella’s voice on track four. It’s a simple song, four short stanzas, but wrapped up in the plain lyrics is the full force of Ella’s voice, the emotion she can pack into the smallest stanza. A question repeated, amid doubt and hope and embarrassment and affection: What are you doing New Year’s, New Year’s Eve?
It’s the opening lines that really stick out to Margaret, though: Maybe it’s much too early in the game / Oh, but thought I’d ask you just the same.
Margaret knows she’s probably imagining things, but she can’t help thinking back to when she and Helen first met, the card game pretense for, “I want to get to know you.” She thinks of their first few letters back and forth, how Helen had said, “No one is as good a card partner as you. In fact, I’d rather say I’m off the market. ”
She thinks, until she can’t think anymore, and then she marches determinedly into the swamp, letter and record in hand.
B.J. and Hawkeye are playing a game of whatever screwball version of chess/checkers it is they’ve invented. Charles is lying on his cot, trying to listen to some symphony or another. When he sees Margaret come in, he lifts his head and says dryly, “Oh, good, I didn’t want a quiet evening anyway.”
“Oh, shut up, Charles,” Margaret says. At this, both B.J. and Hawkeye look up from their game.
“What brings you even-more-abrasively than usual into the swamp tonight?” B.J. says pleasantly.
“Look at this,” Margaret says, wanting to throw the record down in front of them forcefully, but not wanting to break it. Instead, she sets it gently in front of them and thrusts the letter at them. B.J. takes it, reading it silently to himself, Hawkeye looking over his shoulder. After they finish it, they look up at Margaret, not saying anything.
“Yes?” B.J. says finally.
“Yes, what!” Margaret replies. “I mean, just what the hell is this supposed to mean!”
Hawkeye and B.J. glance at each other briefly. It looks to Margaret almost as if they’re holding back laughter, which only makes her more irritated. “I think it means exactly what it says, Margaret,” B.J. says. “She wants you to be her date for New Year’s.”
“Yes, but—“ Margaret says. “I mean—“ and here she lowers her voice a bit, even though even Charles knows by this point that she’s not exactly heterosexually inclined. “I mean, does she want me to be her date date? I mean, is she asking me out when we’ve got about seven time zones and an ocean between us?”
“Are you—wait, are you not—Margaret, we all just kind of assumed you’d been seeing each other this whole time,” Hawkeye says. “Are you telling me you’re still not sure whether she fancies you?”
“Yes!” Margaret says. “What do you mean you all thought we were an item!”
“Well, can you blame us?” B.J. says. “The letters every week, the crosswords, not to mention how much time she used to spend in your tent before she left…”
“We were playing cards!” Margaret says.
Hawkeye snorts. “If that’s what you want to call it, that’s fine.”
“Oh, like you two can talk!” Margaret says. “What with your chess/checkers nonsense! Like that’s not pretense for something.”
“Now, I don’t see what our wonderfully inventive new strategy game has got to do with—“
Charles, however, cuts B.J. off, sitting up wearily one more time, and interjecting, “I find myself forced to agree with Margaret on this one. Margaret, the only thing more tiresome than watching you dance around the truth is watching these two do it.”
B.J. and Hawkeye are immediately distracted from all thoughts of Margaret and Helen. Grinning his most repressed grin, B.J. gets up and goes over to sit next to Charles, saying, “Now, wait just a minute, Charles. Just what exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“I know you gentlemen are dullards, but I should think that even you two could figure this one out.” As he says this, Charles puts on his eye mask, although it’s much too early for him to be going to sleep, and lies down with his arms crossed.
“Now, now, Charles,” Hawkeye says, grinning his own concerning grin and going over next to B.J. to poke Charles in the side. “You don’t just get to put out a defamatory comment like that and be done with it.”
“Do you really wish to discuss the matter any further, Pierce? Don’t provoke me.”
As the three of them continue to argue, Margaret gets up and slips out of their tent, intending to go back to her own. On the way, though, she passes Klinger on guard duty.
“What are you doing on guard duty?” she asks him.
“Some idiot went and got sick, and his replacement just so happens to be sauced out of his mind, so Potter stuck me with it.”
“I kind of miss seeing you out here,” Margaret says. “No one else is quite as fun to yell at when they ask me for the password.”
“Speaking of…” Klinger says.
“Don’t you dare ask me for the password, Klinger.”
“Just doing my best to relieve the old days,” Klinger says. “Sure I’ve already got on your bad side for the night, I might as well ask: just what was it that Helen sent you?”
“A record,” Margaret says. “She asked me to be her date for New Year’s.”
“Huh,” Klinger says. “Will you look at that. At least someone in this camp will have a date.”
“I’m not sure I’m going to say yes,” Margaret says.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Didn’t you ever—after Laverne—didn’t you ever wonder if that was it for you? If that was the best you were gonna get?”
“Well, sure,” Klinger says. “But if some dame showed up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got better,’ I wouldn’t say no.” He pauses. “Besides, you know… what happened between Laverne and me… that’s her problem, you know? It’s not anything wrong with me.”
“I can think of a few things that are wrong with you,” Margaret says, but only to cover up what she’s really feeling.
“Ah, but that’s how I know you’re not the girl for me.”
“Sorry to let you down,” Margaret says.
“As long as you don’t let her down,” Klinger says, giving the record in Margaret’s hands a significant look. “Come on, major. In light of me having gotten on a Ham radio to get married, does having a date for New Year’s who’s back in the states really seem that crazy?”
“I guess not,” Margaret says. She pauses, then says, “You know what, Klinger? How would you like to get out of guard duty?”
“The words every boy wants to hear,” Klinger says. “Maybe you are the one for me, after all.”
“I need you to send a telegram to Helen, from me. Just one word: Yes. No, tell her, Yes, it’s a date. ”
New Year’s Eve in Korea rolls around before it does in the states, of course. Somehow, miraculously, they don’t have many patients coming in. Charles gets expensive champagne flown in by his family, and even though he tries to keep it secret, of course Klinger, who delivered it, lets Hawkeye, B.J., and Margaret in on the secret. So Margaret finds herself in the swamp an hour or two before midnight, where Hawkeye and B.J. are hell-bent on cajoling Charles into sharing his champagne. “Come on, Charles,” Hawkeye says, “We’ll trade you some of our homemade gin for it. This gin probably has more alcohol content per ounce than that champagne costs. If you ask me, you’re getting the better end of the deal.”
“The point of drinking this, my dear friend,” Charles says, looking like he wants to kill Hawkeye, “is not to ‘get bombed,’ but rather to savor the delicate flavor.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Hawkeye says. “We’re in a MASH unit in Korea on New Year’s. The only point of drinking is to get bombed.”
Margaret and Klinger are not involved in the argument, as they have already taken Hawkeye’s last statement to heart and have, indeed, gotten bombed out of their minds on bad gin. Klinger, wearing his fur coat and his highest heels, had produced a tiara from somewhere, and declared that he was going to crown someone the “King of the New Year.” When Hawkeye, B.J. and Charles wouldn’t stop arguing long enough to put in their bid for the crown, Klinger had shrugged, turned to Margaret, and crowned her instead. The two of them are now humming some sort of made up processional while parading around the tent. After they’ve walked over and on top of all the furniture about three times, exhausting themselves, they collapse onto Hawkeye’s cot laughing.
“Now, major—I mean, your majesty,” Klinger says, looking at Margaret very seriously. “Now that you bear the crown, I hope you will use your new position responsibly and bestow on me a most dishonorable discharge.”
“I’ll do you one better,” Margaret says. “I’ll end the whole fucking war.”
“That’s the spirit!” Klinger says. “I knew I crowned you for a reason.”
“You crowned me because none of those other lugheads were paying any attention to you.”
“But you’re doing a very good job,” Klinger says. “You know, if you’ll allow me to be sentimental for the moment, I must say that you’re looking particularly handsome tonight. Regal, even. Helen doesn’t know just how good of a date she’s got herself.”
Margaret can’t believe that Klinger, of all people, has her choked up. Even though her “date” with Helen isn’t until midnight on the 31st back in America, Margaret had still found herself very purposefully setting down her makeup brush in her tent earlier tonight. Not makeup, no dress, just a Hawaiian shirt she’d pulled out from the way back of her closet. And now here’s someone, not even Helen, telling her she looks good like that. Seeing her, just maybe, the way she wants to be seen.
“Oh, where is that damn champagne!” Margaret says, standing up. She’s having the kind of night where she’s gritting her teeth and determined to have raucous fun. Determined not to think about how much she misses Helen, and how insane the circumstances of the war are.
“I will not be sharing any of this champagne with you heathens,” Charles says. “Max and Margaret are already far too intoxicated to appreciate it.”
“Charles,” Margaret says, as threateningly as possible, “if you say another world without sharing that champagne, I will rip the bottle right out of your hands and pour it onto the ground, and then nobody will be able appreciate it.”
Cowed, Charles hands the bottle over to her. She takes a swig, then hands it off to Klinger. B.J. and Hawkeye cheer, and then, through an effort that must have been coordinated through unspoken glances, they lift Margaret up onto their shoulders, chanting, “Margaret! Margaret! Margaret!”
They carry her into the officer’s club, where the rest of the camp is already celebrating, Father Mulcahy playing one tune after another. Margaret thinks Hawkeye and B.J. must know that she’s missing Helen in particular that night, because they’re being nicer to her than usual, luring her into dart games or asking her to settle petty arguments, anything to distract her. And for most of the night, it works. Margaret finds herself drawn into the energy and fun of the crowd.
But when about 11:55 rolls around, Margaret finds herself ignoring whatever it is Klinger had been saying to her, instead just staring out at everyone dancing, all the couples. She’d be content enough to let midnight pass her by like that, truth be told. No one here’s as good as you, Helen had written. I’d rather say I’m off the market. There’s a bittersweetness to it; she’d much rather miss Helen than not have her in her life to miss.
Just as she’s thinking this, though, B.J. breaks away from where he and Hawkeye have been kidding with Father Mulcahy about something or other, and makes his way over Margaret. Smiling, he extends his hand to her, and says, “I’ll ask you a similar question to the one you asked me a while back: I’m not Helen, but will I do?”
Margaret smiles a little. “Oh, I don’t know if I want to dance.”
“Well, as your doctor, I’m prescribing it to you,” B.J. says, hand still extended. “One night of dancing. Come on, Margaret. It won’t kill you.”
“Oh, fine,” she says. She takes B.J.’s hand, letting him drag her up and into the crowd. Hawkeye, meanwhile, gets a much more willing Klinger onto the floor to dance with him. Margaret’s not usually one for dancing, especially not slow dancing. What she really wants is to dance with Helen in the kitchen, no makeup, no crowd, no one else around. But dancing with B.J. is, to her surprise, quite the nice substitute. Margaret allows herself the excuse of the slow dance to lean into him, rest her head on his shoulder.
“How do you do it?” Margaret says, as they’re dancing.
“How do I do what?” B.J. says.
“Miss her like this. Hold onto all the good of it without letting it overwhelm you.”
“I’m not always good at it,” B.J. says. “But it’s nice to have someone to miss. I wish I had a better answer for you.”
“Let me know when you figure it out,” Margaret says.
“As long as you promise to do the same, if you figure out first,” B.J. says.
Suddenly, the music stops, and around them, people stop dancing and begin to count down to midnight. Hawkeye dances Klinger over to B.J. and Margaret, and the four of them turn to look at each other, not counting themselves, buoyed by the energy around them without being fully in it themselves.
“Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!” everyone cheers. Klinger, winking at Hawkeye, gets up on his tip toes and gives him a kiss on the cheek. B.J., seemingly on a last minute impulse, leans down and gives Margaret a kiss on the forehead.
“Well,” Hawkeye says, as the cheering dissipates and the music starts back up again, everyone around them dancing once more, “next year in Jerusalem, huh?”
Five a.m. the next morning is a much more quiet affair. Margaret gets up and puts the record on, low enough that just she can hear. She feels silly slow dancing by herself, so she ends up just sitting on her bed, thinking about all the times Helen had sat beside her, playing cards. Wondering exactly what it is Helen’s doing now. Is she standing among a crowd of people dancing? Or is she alone, too? Margaret is surprised by how close she feels to Helen in that moment. Again, across the silence, across the distance, somewhere in between the bars of Ella’s voice, some understanding breaks through.
Things are different between them, after that. Margaret stops worrying about what Helen means, about what she’ll come home to. She knows what she wants. She knows what she wants to try for. She writes Helen a letter. She says, I’m hoping, whenever this is all over, your face will be the first one I see when I get off the plane.
She gets a telegram a little while later. One word. Well, a few. Yes. Yes, of course.
It’s a warm spring day when Margaret gets on the plane that’ll take her home. She’s got the telegram in her pocket and one last crossword to keep her occupied on the plane, to keep her absolute nervous energy at bay. She keeps her attention on everything Helen’s written, all the notes she left in the margins, and assures herself that she really will be waiting when Margaret lands.
And, sure enough, when Margaret gets off the plane, there Helen is, smiling. Almost laughing in disbelief. And holding a basket of—what is it? As Margaret gets closer, she sees that it’s strawberries.
“Helen!” Margaret says, then just sort of stands in front of her, not sure what to say or do next. Luckily, Helen solves the problem for her, taking Margaret into her arms. I’m home, Margaret thinks.
“Margaret!” Helen says. “I can’t believe you’re here!” They don’t pull away for a long time, but finally, they break apart, laughing. “You must be exhausted,” Helen says. “I won’t be offended if the first thing you want to do is sleep for about two full days. I remember how it was when I got back.”
“Actually,” Margaret says, “I’m starving. Let’s get breakfast.”
“I know just the place,” Helen says, and she’s still smiling, and really there, right in front of Margaret. They make their way out of the airport and into the sun, and then they’re in Helens’ car with the windows down. Helen puts on her sunglasses (not red or heart-shaped, but big yellow ones; they’re perfect). Then she turns on the radio and turns to Margaret. “This is one of the songs I wrote you about!” she says, pulling the car out of the parking lot and onto the highway. She turns the radio up and begins to sing along. Blow me a kiss from across the room / Say I look nice when I'm not / Touch my hair as you pass my chair / Little things mean a lot.
It’s cheesier than Margaret had pictured it sounding, the strings a bit overdone, but the way Helen sings it, a bit exaggerated, to show she knows it’s corny, but sincerely enough to not discount everything the song’s saying—it’s sweet and silly and so, so Helen.
Soon enough, Helen is pulling into the parking lot of a worn-down diner, and the waitress leads them to their table, and then there they are with coffee cups in hand and eggs and bacon and French toast on the way. It’s everything Margaret imagined and not. It’s more sharply real, a thing all its own. There are more pauses in the conversation, and the sun is getting in Margaret’s eyes, and the air conditioning is almost too loud to hear over, and Margaret loves every minute of it.
“So,” Helen says, hands around her coffee cup. “Civilian medicine, huh?”
“Civilian medicine,” Margaret says. Of course Helen is diving right into it.
“I have to say,” Helen says. “I’m surprised. Delighted, but surprised.”
“I don’t know,” Margaret says. “I sort of figured I’d had enough of doing what everyone else wanted me to do. I sort of wanted to do what I want to do.”
“And just what, exactly” Helen says, leaning back and raising her eyebrows, “is it that Margaret Houlihan wants to do?”
“I don’t know,” Margaret says. “I guess I’ll have to figure that out.”
“But leaving the army is part of that.”
“Yes, leaving the army is part of that.” Margaret pauses. “And so, I hope, are you.”
Helen smiles. “Of course I am,” she says, easily. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world. What if, just this once, you let it be easy. So she does. Not to say that there won’t be hard times ahead. Not to say that they’ve got it all figured out. But this, this knowing who it she wants to argue and dance and joke and cook with, this is easy.
There’s a lot left to say. But Margaret knows this is the first day of so many more to come. She feels time stretching out before her in a way it hasn’t quite ever before. Time for breakfasts and picnics, card games and crossword puzzles. Time to figure the rest of everything else out, with Helen right there beside her. She thinks back to what she said to Helen that very first day. Alright, she thinks. Deal me in.