I was glad that it rained. Not just a drizzle but big furious drops that lashed against us and danced at our feet. Our discomfort seemed somehow appropriate, all of us standing there with tears and rain washing down our taut faces, overcome by so many names. The clouds were just right too, dark and solemn as they marched slowly past, heavy with grief. But what got me most were the birds, dozens of them in every tree, loud and insistent. I remember listening and thinking how familiar they sounded, so that I couldn't close my eyes for more than a moment without tumbling back.
It was my first trip back to France. I had taken a train from Paris to Reims, where I rented a car and drove five hours, getting lost twice. Charlotte stayed in Paris with our son Sean, who was three then, and her sister Margaret, who had traveled with us from the States. I knew Charlotte wouldn't join me for the service; she had no tolerance for battlefields or military reunions and rarely asked about my experiences at the front. I didn't blame her though, and I was glad that she didn't complain when I told her that I'd be gone for six days.
I never did come back. Not completely.
That was in 1928, a time when thousands of memorials were still being erected across France and Belgium: great big arches engraved with row upon row of names; small plaques and crosses in little fenced-in plots; solitary obelisks and statues in village squares; every one of them attended by mothers and fathers and wives and lovers who still remembered; vividly.
Page and a few others were there, dressed in their old uniforms, subtly altered. I didn't bring mine. Charlotte said I looked foolish when I tried it on, but that's not why I left it. Standing in front of the mirror and looking at myself, I decided I didn't want to see myself that way anymore. Not ever again.
"It feels sort of strange to be here, doesn't it?" said Page, lighting his third cigarette in a row and cupping it in his hand to protect it from the rain. I thought he looked much older than his age and wondered how many years a war takes off a man. "I wasn't sure if I should come."
"Glad you did," I said.
"Makes me sad, thinking of the guys."
"At least this time we get to see France."
"Yes, at least we can do that."
I proposed that we meet in Paris on that Friday for a night out but he was leaving the next morning on a family vacation. Just in case, I gave him the name of the hotel where Charlotte and I were staying and told him to call, though I didn't think he would.
The monument itself, a long granite rectangle four feet high, was draped in a white cloth. Nearby, two small tables were covered with food provided by a local committee of mostly overweight French women, who smiled incessantly and kissed our cheeks with great delight. After a few speeches the cloth was removed and a wreath placed at the base. During a moment of silence I closed my eyes tight and let the birds take me. When I opened my eyes I saw her.
I knew right away, though I'd never seen her before. All the long nights listening to Daniel describe her; straining to see her face as he read her letters out loud, his voice mixing with the muffled cough of distant artillery.
I stood up on my toes to get a better look at her, craning my neck above the small crowd. She stood farther back than anyone; I think she might have arrived late. I couldn't catch her eye but I could see her profile clearly. A little taller than I had imagined; darker hair, partially hidden beneath a scarf.
When the ceremony ended, she walked slowly over to the monument and rested both hands on it, as though praying. Then she leaned forward and searched through the names.
I stood immobile, watching. It had to be her. Julia. The woman Daniel had planned to marry. The mother of the child he never lived to meet. I remembered Daniel telling me how he felt the first time he saw her; how he just knew. I watched as she slowly ran her fingers along the granite, stopping at Daniel's name, then carefully tracing each letter. I looked at her slender hands and her narrow shoulders and the side of her face and her dark brown hair and the way she tilted her head slightly, as though adjusting to the sight of Daniel's name in stone.
Finally I approached her.
She turned quickly and I saw those bright green eyes, and even in her sadness they were smiling, just like Daniel described them.
So it was her. And how perfect she looked, more perfect than I had imagined, with the kind of face that you instinctively want to touch and kiss and gaze at for hours. Even now as I recall her features: her sharp jawline, her small nose and pronounced cheekbones -- what I remember most is the searing sensation of looking into her eyes for the first time, eyes that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
"I'm sorry, I should introduce myself. I'm-"
"But wait, I know who you are."
"Patrick. Patrick ... Delaney. Am I right?"
"Yes, but how did you know?"
"I've heard a lot about you, from Daniel's letters." She offered me her hand. "I'm glad to meet you. I never expected..."
"I didn't either."
The rain started to come down faster and soon people were hurrying to their cars. I saw Page wave at me as he struggled with an umbrella.
"You're wet. Should we go?" I asked, wishing I had an umbrella to offer her.
"I don't mind it," she said. I watched a drop of rain run slowly down her cheek, hesitating at the corner of her mouth. I struggled not to stare.
She wasn't glamorous. There was even a certain plainness to her appearance -- no fashionable bob or plucked eyebrows -- but that's what made her so appealing. Her warm, soft features were strikingly natural, as though she'd look the same whether just getting out of bed or going out to dinner. Meanwhile, her shy smile and flashing eyes -- what life they held! -- suggested an interesting combination of strength and vulnerability. When I caught myself staring, I forced my gaze away.
I'm still not sure. Not completely. Too many holes. But I keep asking the same question, asking over and over until I am limp with exhaustion. And I always come back to that first day I met her; to that face looking up at me with those sad beautiful eyes and those trembling lips and that soft struggling voice.
I always come back to Julia.
I can still see her clearly, even with these fading eyes of mine. Not for much longer though. You see, I am eighty-one now and everything hurts, sometimes all at once. Feet, knees, hips, lower back, stomach, head. One false step and smash, old man Delaney will splinter into a thousand pieces of brittle bone on cold cement. Then pneumonia and slow suffocation with concerned faces staring down at me like I'm laid out under glass; thick, heavy glass pressing against my wheezing chest. And finally, a forced retreat through drug-induced mists with voices calling fainter and fainter and me unable to scream until Patrick Delaney, loving father of two children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; failed husband to one failed marriage (long long ago and mostly my fault); lover of many (but not nearly enough, which causes me tremendous grief); fiercely loyal friend to a few (all dead now but one, who can barely hear); disappears with a last shallow and putrid exhale.
I've planned the funeral. Nothing starchy or pompous. Just a few words of comfort to mislead the survivors (no use dwelling on what's in store for them), a few of may favorite songs -- If Ever Would I Leave You, There's a Place for Us, "Shenandoah"; I keep a list -- and an absolute ban on holy pabulum, since I don't believe a bit of it anyway. My ashes are to be discreetly scattered in the vineyards of Napa Valley -- a deep, velvety cabernet, I've requested -- giving me one last shot at the lips of an appreciative woman. The instructions, handwritten on two pages, are in an envelope in the top drawer of my bed stand. Waiting.
So am I, though with scant enthusiasm. The fact that I still floss is simply my way of saying, "Up yours, Lord; you can destroy my spirit but not my gums." Not yet.
Strange how we labor all our lives to preserve our teeth -- the one body part most likely to reemerge a few million years later from beneath the sands of the East African Rift, our incisors the subject of award-winning documentaries. I look at my teeth and remember how, as a boy, the whine of the dentist drill and the sickly taste of enamel so rudely challenged my adolescent sense of immortality. Head back and mouth open in an animallike snarl, I squeezed the hand rests and struggled not to cry.
Where are you, boy? I stare into the wood-framed mirror just above the small oak dresser in my room, searching. Some days I catch just a glimpse of him in the corner of my eyes, a small and frightened youth now buried beneath the rubble. Come back here, boy!
Sometimes I see him in my hands, now gnarled and splotchy but still, unmistakably, his hands too. I see them fumble with a ball, work a mitt, dig in the sand for hours. He's a kind boy, shy and uncertain yet full of yearning. Baby fat still hides the knuckles. He runs with the awkward gait of a newborn colt. Always running. Come back!
Other days the hands look older and filthy dirty with broken nails and lacerations and I see them tremble as they grip a rifle. The noise is tremendous and I want to warn him but I can't and I watch as he scrambles up the dirt with those hands clawing to the top and he staggers to his feet and runs, running madly until he disappears into smoke and horror. Careful!
And me? Ha! I look like I'm 120, give or take. A small ember from a once-roaring fire. The older I get, the more out of place I feel, like a weekend guest still loitering around the cottage on Sunday night because he's got no place else to go. How awkward, to feel a burden. Better to pack my things and move on. But please, before I go, isn't there supposed to be some sort of resolution? A denouement before the final curtain? Redemption? Atonement? Extreme unction, perhaps? I feel none. Just loose ends that snap and crackle like downed electrical lines.
Some mornings when I confront the mirror -- it's always a bitter confrontation -- I recoil, shocked by the once-ruddy face that abruptly (at least that's how it feels) turned ashen gray before sagging into layers like cheap shingles on a tear down. My hair, once light brown and thick, is a deathly gray, not a color really but what remains when there is no color left; the stuff on old corpses that are disinterred so that promising Ph.D.'s can examine whether the poor bugger was poisoned with arsenic after all, which of course he was.
Staring at the gaunt silhouette in the mirror, which stares back with imploring eyes, I realize my body has abdicated. The anarchists are on the palace grounds.
You can't see me, can you? Not if you are young and still unbeaten. I am black and white fading to gray; you are living color. I am driven by pain; you by passion. I am a shadow, diaphanous and bent. An OLD MAN. A SENIOR citizen. A GERIATRIC. At best, I've devolved into one of those quaint caricatures, Grandmas and Grandpas with fishy breath and worn to the nub buttoned-down sweaters (buttoned down because we can no longer manage a pullover).
To you, I look as though I have always been old, a permanent disfigurement upon the human landscape and a painful reminder of the road ahead. (Though you don't really believe you'll ever look this bad, do you?) To me, the face in the mirror continues to torment long after the initial, degrading changes, like being convicted and punished daily for the crime of simply hanging in there day after day.
Grant me that I did hang in there, never boarding a doomed plane, never inhaling a deadly virus, never crushed by a car. For eighty-one years I have ducked and dodged the slings and arrows of outrageous bullshit. Missed me, bastards! Six months on the Western Front and the whole goddamn German Army -- the jack-booted J?gers, the Landwehr and the Sturmtruppen, the Scharfsch?tzen and the Flammentruppen and the Prussian Guard -- couldn't lay a fucking finger on me. (Well, maybe a few fingers, but not enough to do the job.) Kiss my ass, Ludendorff! (You butcher.)
Yet finally, I am brought to my swollen knees by a hundred thousand indignities, small slices of the blade that have drained the blood from my face.
And I'm so tired.
Excerpted from LOSING JULIA © Copyright 2000 by Jonathan Hull. Reprinted with permission by Dell, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.