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by Namaste

FAMILY HOUSING
by Namaste
Finished 6/17/06


Marine Corps Air Facility Kaneohe Bay


They are in Hawaii when Greg is born.

Blythe and John had celebrated their first anniversary just a month earlier at a luau someone from the base recommended. She had been hot and tired -- her feet swollen and a headache building. But John had insisted that it could be the last time they would have time together, alone.

“Before you know it, we’ll be up to our elbows in kids -- half a dozen of them at least,” John teased.

They both came from good-sized families. Blythe is one of seven children, John one of six.

Blythe watched John rather than the fire dancers on the beach, feeling dizzy from the heat and the rum in the fruity drink John got for her, but mostly by the night itself.

Two years ago, she would never have imagined herself here, in this place, with this man. Blythe’s father was a high school English teacher, who never seemed to have enough money for anything beyond the basics for his family.

But he taught her to read before she even started school, and together they explored the world through the pages of library books. They saw England through Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Italy through Byron and had Paris brought to life by Victor Hugo.

Blythe went to work at the local diner when she was 16, waiting tables after school and on weekends. After graduation, she began working full time. She watched as her girlfriends got married and began to have families of their own. Her own younger sister got married straight out of high school.

She thought it was a foolish thing -- girls pledging themselves forever to a man they barely knew. She had plans to save up enough money for college, to become a teacher like her father, to make a life of her own.

Her friends told her she was being picky.

“You expect the man of your dreams is going to ride in on a white horse and sweep you off your feet,” they teased her.

She is 22 when John comes into the diner one night. He is wearing his dress uniform and has a day pass from the air station nearby in Pensacola. He tells her he is going to be a pilot.

“Is that supposed to impress me?” she asks.

“I was hoping it would,” he says.

John spends more than three hours at the diner, lingering over coffee and asking Blythe about herself.

A week later, he is sitting at a table when she gets to work, and she smiles when she sees him, feeling a flutter in her stomach when he smiles back at her.

John sends her long letters from Texas, where he is sent for further training. The first time he gets leave, he comes back to Florida and asks her to marry him.

His first posting after the wedding is Kaneohe Bay. Blythe looks it up on a map at the library, finding a tiny spit of land northeast of Honolulu. Blythe packs just the essentials for the two of them. He is flown on a military transport. She follows on a ship.

Their base housing looks out over the blue waters of the Pacific, past green palms and black cliffs. It is only a few rooms made from concrete block and filled with rented military issued furniture, but everything seems bright and new. It’s nothing like she expected. She feels overwhelmed by both the military attention to detail and the sweetness of the fruits that grow on the hills around them.

She and John explore the island together whenever he has a break, walking through thick forests and along sandy beaches. Blythe finds a copy of Mark Twain’s writings from the islands at a used book store and sends a copy to her father, along with her own notes on what has changed and what hasn’t.

They have been there only a few months when she tells John that she’s pregnant. He holds her tight and lifts her off her feet, spinning her around until she tells him to stop.

That night, he tells her all his plans. How he can help with contacts their son will need to win a place at the Academy.

“What if he doesn’t want to go to Annapolis?” Blythe teases.

“I suppose I could live with West Point,” John says.

“What if he wants to be a teacher, or a doctor or a lawyer?”

“For four generations, the men of my family have been in the military,” John says. Blythe knows how proud he is of his family history. She had heard him list off the men, their duties and their ranks. “It’s in his blood.”

“But what if he’s a girl?” she asks.

John kisses her lightly. “Then she’ll make the perfect general’s wife,” he says.

It’s a tough pregnancy. Morning sickness hits hard. Blythe has problems with dizzy spells. John tries to tell her she should go home, stay with her family back in the States where she’ll have more support.

The base hospital is small, he points out. If something goes wrong, Honolulu is miles away -- and even that territorial outpost of a town probably doesn’t have everything she’ll need.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “I’m pregnant, not dying. Besides, I want you there when our daughter is born -- not 8,000 miles away.”

“Our son needs you happy and healthy,” John says.

“I am,” Blythe insists.

The delivery is difficult. John sits alone in the waiting room. It’s four hours, then five.

The door opens and the nurse calls his name, but leads him to a private room where a doctor tells him there are difficulties. He says he’ll have to do an emergency Caesarian section.

“Is my wife all right?” John asks. “Is the baby all right?”

The doctor nods and gives a slight smile that John thinks is supposed to be reassuring.

“We have excellent facilities. This is just a precautionary measure, to make sure everything goes smoothly. You shouldn’t worry.”

The nurse leads him back out. There is someone else in the waiting room now. John doesn’t recognize him, but thinks that he should. It’s a small base, and most of the pilots he knows are single.

John watches the hands on the clock tick past another hour and keep going. He is watching it round the bottom of the dial before the nurse calls John again. He is sent back to the doctor.

“You have a healthy son,” the man tells him.

John feels like he can barely breathe. “And my wife?”

“She’ll be fine,” the doctor says and John sinks back into the chair. “But I should warn you, I don’t think you should try to have another child. I don’t know if she’d survive.”

John sits forward again. “Why not? What’s wrong?”

“It's ... complicated,” the man says. “She lost a lot of blood. Listen, I can give you the details later, but it comes down to this: some women are not designed for childbirth.”

John leans forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands held tightly together. He stares down at his intertwined fingers, seeing calloused skin and the line of veins beneath them. He remembers holding Blythe’s hand when the labor began.

“Don’t overwhelm yourself with worries now,” he hears the doctor say. “Just enjoy what you have.”

Blythe complains that John is treating her too delicately when she’s finally allowed to come home. He arranges for a neighbor to look in on her and the baby during the day, and is making arrangements to bring her mother in for a long visit.

He is reluctant to leave, but he finally does. In the bedroom, Blythe listens to his footsteps and the sound of the door closing, then turns her attention to her son.

They’ve named him Gregory, after John’s oldest brother -- dead for more than 15 years now. His eyes are open and he seems to be looking back at her. He has blue eyes that seem to see everything.

She knows what her mother will say -- she’s heard her caution her other daughters about their babies when they were born --the color of their eyes will change, her mother always says. They aren’t really looking at anything, her mother will say. Newborns can’t focus on anything.

Studying her son, Blythe doesn’t agree. Gregory is different. Gregory is the exception. Gregory knows.

She runs her fingers lightly over his face, pausing over the deep hollow beneath his nose. She remembers the old story, about how before they are born, babies have all the wisdom of the world, and an angel will place his finger over their lips, leaving behind the outline of his finger as he locks away those secrets forever.

The hollow above Gregory’s lips seems deep to her and Blythe tells herself that he must have seen so much the angel had to press harder to hide the truth from him.

-------------

Camp Pendleton


They are in California when Greg has his third birthday. John buys him a tricycle and a football.

Greg rides up and down the driveway, then out onto the sidewalk. He is halfway down the street before Blythe can catch up with him. John tosses him the football, but Greg’s arms are too small to hold it well and he moves on. Blythe reassures John that he’ll grow into the ball.

Greg rarely has much patience for any one toy for any length of time. Blythe notices he doesn’t like to sit still for long. He explores every room of the little duplex they have been assigned.

He pulls open drawers and cupboards. He opens the refrigerator and stares into it. If Blythe leaves her purse on the counter, Greg will open it and dump its contents out onto the floor, then study everything that was in it. She comes back from a quick stop in the bathroom to discover he has scribbled across the linoleum with her favorite lipstick.

When John buys a secondhand TV set, Greg nearly tips it over, trying to see what is behind the screen.

John gets frustrated. “He needs more discipline,” he says, but Blythe doesn’t agree.

“It’s just a phase,” she tells him. “He’ll grow out of it.”

The only time Greg seems to keep still is when she turns on the radio. He stands there, next to the counter that holds the set, only the tips of his fingers and the top of his head visible, blue eyes staring at the wood and chrome, swaying slightly in time to the music.

Blythe hears him humming a popular tune one day and wonders if it is possible to get base housing with a piano.

She becomes pregnant, despite every doctor’s opinion she wouldn’t conceive again. Blythe beams while John is torn between worry for her and the joy of having another son -- or maybe a daughter for Blythe this time. He thinks it will do Greg some good to have to share his mother.

Six weeks later, Blythe miscarries. She cries through the night and into the next day. For another week John sometimes catches a glimpse of her wiping her eyes as she cleans or cooks, insisting every time that she’s fine and he shouldn’t worry.

Greg is no longer curious about the television. Instead he sits on the floor, watching his mother.

----------

Athens, Greece

When Greg is five, John gets a temporary assignment with the Marine Expeditionary Force covering the Mediterranean.

John tells Blythe she and Greg should stay home. There will be no base for them there, just a year of travel assigned to a carrier that will leave port at a moment’s notice, possibly for weeks at a time.

“And Greg is ready to start school,” he argues. “There’s nothing for you there.”

Blythe remembers the photos she has seen of the Parthenon. She thinks of the Odyssey, and the philosopher kings.

“Maybe we’ll have to live without out you for a week or two at a time,” she tells John. “That’s better than an entire year without seeing you at all. And I can teach Greg at home. It’s only kindergarten. He won’t be missing anything but milk and cookies and naptime.”

They find an apartment not far from the embassy, where there are plenty of other Americans in residence.

Greg already knows how to read, but Blythe works with him every morning on his spelling, on simple addition and subtraction.

In the afternoons, she takes him to the markets and to museums. He runs through the ruins, past marble columns and up worn steps.

Blythe picks up a few words of Greek -- enough for shopping and to ask for directions and help. Greg seems to slide in and out of the language easily. She’s not sure how he learned, but one day, she hears him talking to another boy in a Greek that seems fluent to her ears.

She finds a copy of Aesop’s Fables and reads them to him before bed each night.

----------

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point

John’s first tour in Vietnam is the first time Blythe and Greg cannot come with him. Blythe and he decide that she and Greg will stay at the North Carolina base where they have spent the past six months together.

Many of the other wives in John’s squadron decide to spend the year with their families back home. They pack up and are gone within just days, moving with the efficiency learned from years of military exposure.

She tells John that it will be better for Greg to stay at the same school for two years in a row. They both are worried that he hasn’t been making many friends.

And Greg has access to a piano here -- an old used upright that her parents bought for her last birthday. She has been teaching him scales and simple tunes from a piano lesson book she bought at the music store. He has begun to pick out the songs he hears on the radio, repeating the melodies almost flawlessly.

John signs him up for Little League, and manages to catch one of Greg’s games before he is shipped out. He cheers when Greg makes a base hit, and brags to the other fathers when Greg catches a pop-up to shortstop for the final out.

“What did I tell you, he’s a natural, just like his old man,” John tells Blythe as they watch the other boys gather around Greg and slap him on the back. “And he’s part of a team now. He’ll have lots of friends, just watch.”

But Blythe notices that Greg sits by himself at the end of the bench during most games. While the other players cheer him on, and they all enjoy ice cream after the game, they never seem to talk to him once the game is over.

Only to herself, Blythe admits she can’t stand the idea of packing up John’s things as if he won’t be back, won’t ever need them again. She’s seen the government-issued sedans that appear in the residential districts at all hours of the day. She’s seen the way every woman holds her breath and hopes it doesn’t stop in front of their house.

If his things are still there, still in front of them every day, she can tell herself that he’s just out on a short deployment, that he’ll be home any day, ready to pick up where he left off.

Greg is in the second grade now, and spends one long rainy afternoon carefully writing out a letter for his father, fingers wrapped around the large school pencil. He bends low over the paper, his tongue sticking out between his lips as he concentrates.

He hands it over to Blythe and asks her if it is all right. He has written about his latest game, where the coach had him fill in for the pitcher. He tells John that the class hamster died. He tells John he misses him.

Some of the words are misspelled, and sentences end and begin without warning, sometimes trailing off with no end in sight. Blythe smiles at him. “It’s perfect,” she says. “I’ll send it today.”

Three weeks later, her letter from John includes a second envelope addressed to Greg. He opens it in front of her when he gets home from school. There is a snapshot inside taken of John at the local market, holding a monkey. Greg reads it over once, twice.

He takes it to his room.

That night he is asleep when she checks in on him. The envelope is on the dresser. Blythe tells herself she should leave it alone, but then takes it with her out into the living room, greedy for any word from John.

John has told him a story about the monkey in the photo. He tells him about how much it has been raining. He tells Greg he loves him and reminds him to be a good boy. He also tells him he needs to pay more attention in class during the spelling lessons.

A week later, Greg brings home a spelling test with a perfect score. He asks her to send it in her next letter.

There’s another letter for Greg in John’s next package home.

“I knew you could do it,” John writes. “I’ll bet you could get a perfect score every time, if you try hard enough.”

----------------

NATO Defense College

John is the most junior officer in the class at the defense college, set up in temporary quarters in Rome. One of the faculty pulls Blythe aside as a cocktail reception the first week.

“He must have made a real impression on someone high up on the chain of command,” the man tells her. “A stint here is a real stepping stone to leadership positions.”

She thanks him, and says she’s always believed John would do great things.

John confides to her late at night, though, that he isn’t certain this is the path he wants to take.

“I hate desk jobs,” he tells her. “I’d rather be out in the field.”

“You always complain that the men making decisions don’t understand what it’s like out in the field,” Blythe reminds him. “This may be your chance to change that.”

They rent a small apartment on the Aventine Hill. Blythe takes Greg to the park at the top of the hill, and points out the winding Tiber River below them and the dome of the Vatican beyond.

Each morning she and Greg take the bus to the international school that is home to children of the embassy workers. In the afternoons when the skies are clear they walk. They pass through the ruins of the Forum, Greg jumps along the crooked paving stones and running through the arches of buildings that were once the center of the known world, but have been long since destroyed.

Then they pass the Coliseum. Greg has found a history book, and he loves to tell her every horrific story he’s read about the combats and sacrifices that took place on the bloody sand.

As they pass Circus Maximus, Greg runs along the remains of the track, and tells her about the chariot races that were once there.

--------------

Cairo, Egypt

Officially, John is assigned to the embassy’s security detachment in Cairo. But when Blythe asks what his duties are, he tells her he can’t go into details.

Every few weeks, he tells her in the morning that he won’t be home that night.

“Work,” is all he’ll say.

She learns it doesn’t do any good to ask for more than that. Some days John tells her he’ll be home in time for dinner the next night. Usually it’s just a guess. “A few days,” he says. “By Friday at the latest.”

Blythe finds herself more worried about him now than she was during that year he was in Vietnam. She begins to wonder if John wasn’t right this time -- if maybe she and Greg would have been better off staying at home.

But then she wakes up on a cool morning, the windows open to catch the breeze, and she hears the lilting melody calling the faithful to prayers. She can see the top of the great pyramid in the distance beyond the haze of the city.

She and Greg have discovered figs and dates. In the markets, he takes in the colors and sounds. He stands with his head cocked to the side while he listens to street musicians. He reaches out to touch the smooth fabrics, the rough stone of the buildings.

Greg runs around the pyramids during a visit to Giza, climbing over stones and watching the Egyptians who handle camels for the tourist trade. When they stumble across an archeological dig, he sits staring at the artifacts they’ve found. He picks up Arabic nearly as easily as he did Greek and Italian.

She has bought her father a used copy of T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and has been writing her own notes and observations to send along with it. When Greg sees it, he tells her he wants to do it to.

“Egypt is not as hot as I thought it would be, except in the desert,” he writes. “I have been looking for a mummy, but have not found one yet. They have them in the museums here. They were buried with gold and jewels and food and even their servants. Dad keeps saying I’ll find my mummy in the kitchen cooking our supper. I told him that joke is so old they store it with the rest of the fossils.”


---------------


Pensacola, Florida


Blythe sits on the front porch with her mother and her sisters, snapping green beans for supper. They talk and laugh and Blythe watches Greg with his cousins. He is shirtless and tanned, wearing cut-off blue jeans and an old pair of canvas sneakers.

He is riding an old red Schwinn along an ancient path that snakes through the tall grass and into the trees, past the pines that fill the woods behind her parents’ house.

Her mother had been surprised by tall he has grown. Blythe has seen his growth spurts, has been the one shopping for his new clothes almost every month, it seems. But it has been two years since Greg has seen his grandmother.

Blythe still loves seeing new places, discovering cities and cultures, but until they came back here, she had forgotten how much she missed this. Missed home.

They landed at Pensacola nearly a month ago to the news that base housing wasn’t available for them yet. Blythe’s cousin offered up his mother-in-law’s cottage, located not far from the water and only a fifteen-minute drive from the base. The house has sat empty since her death six months earlier, and it is still filled with comfortable furniture, pots and pans and canning jars.

There is a front porch with a swing. The paint is faded from exposure to the hot sun. The floorboards squeak under her feet. There are raspberries growing in the back of the property, lilacs at the side of the house and a peach tree in the front yard.

Greg’s room is painted yellow and John finds the bicycle in a shed out back. It takes him only a few hours to fix it up.

They agree to rent the house for as long as they’re in town, and take their names off the waiting list at the base.

Blythe can hear Greg’s voice as he calls to her sister Judith’s oldest boy, telling him to hurry up, and she thinks to herself that this is the only place in the world where he can have this -- a sense of family beyond the three of them, a sense of where he comes from.

She hears Judith and her other sister talking softly, and hears Elaine mention Greg’s name.

“I’m sorry, I was daydreaming,” Blythe says. “Did you say something?”

“It’s nothing,” Elaine says. She takes a sip of sweet tea, then looks over at Blythe. “It must be hard on Greg, moving all the time.”

“I wouldn’t say so.” Blythe tries to remember if Greg has seemed upset by the moves, but nothing comes to mind. “He always likes exploring the cities, and he’s used to it. Why do mention it? Has he said something to you or your kids?”

“No, no. I’m sure he’s fine. It’s just my imagination.”

Elaine falls silent and sits back in her chair, but Blythe’s mother speaks up. “He never seems to smile,” she says. “And I don’t think I’ve heard him laugh since he was a baby.”

“He’s just serious about things,” Blythe says. “He always has been. You just haven’t been around him enough. You’ll see.”

In the weeks that follow, she watches Greg more carefully. He smiles to himself as he lies in the shade and reads. He laughs when he watches cartoons on a Saturday morning. She sees the joy in his face when he hears a favorite song on the radio and when he helps John change the oil in the car and slides out from beneath the engine with grease on his hands.

Greg is happy, she tells herself. Once they get to know him, they’ll see that for themselves.


-------------

Camp Pendleton


The second week they’re at the base, Blythe nearly walks into the wrong house. She has confused the duplex they lived in eight years ago for the one they’ve been assigned this time. It’s Greg who points out her mistake, and she wonders how he remembers it. He hadn’t even started school the last time they were here.

Now he’s struggling in school. Not with the classes.

He comes home late after his third day there, a bruise beginning to show on his cheek, blood on his shirt and a cut still visible on his lip. He won’t tell her what happened, and John can only get the bare outlines of the story.

John says he won’t punish Greg, but insists on taking him to the base gym so he can teach him how to box.

“The boy’s got a smart mouth,” he tells Blythe. “He’s going to have to learn how to fight or how to keep his mouth shut.”

She wonders if her sisters were right, if he’s unhappy because of the move. In her mind, she’s come to think of the cottage as their real home, and she wonders if he resents leaving it. When she asks if he’s mad about leaving though, he just stares at her.

“It was just a house, Mom,” he says. “Geez.”

Blythe finds him a new piano teacher. He does well in his lessons, but spends more and more of his time at the piano playing back the music he hears on the radio. He’ll hunch down over the keys, picking out melodies, then adding chords and flourishes. Blythe offers to get him a book with popular tunes in it, but he says he doesn’t want it. It’s more fun to figure it out on his own, he says.

He’s at the piano one Sunday, working out another tune when John stops and puts his hand on his shoulder. He’s got Greg’s football tucked under his other arm.

“Come on,” he says. “Enough of that. If you’re going to be a quarterback, we’ve got to work on more drills.”

Greg looks up at him, his eyebrows drawn together as he studies his father. “Football season started before we got here,” he says. “They’ve already got a team -- quarterback and everything.”

“I know, but next year we’ll be ready.” John prods him up from the bench. “Then you’ll be part of the team, and a team sticks together. You’ll have more friends. You want friends, don’t you?”

Greg shrugs. “I guess.” He follows John out into the yard.

---------------

Pensacola, Florida


Blythe worried the first time John went to Vietnam, but then the war seemed somehow smaller, more confined. When he’s sent there for another year, it’s a different war -- larger, bloodier. Every time she watches Walter Cronkite, the television screen is filled with images of the wounded and dead.

They show footage of POWs, men who were shot down from the safety of the skies. One time John pointed to one of the emaciated figures who sits silently before the camera in a striped shirt and he says he knows him.

Blythe needs to be near her family this time when John leaves, and she and Greg head back to Pensacola. The cottage was sold years ago, but they find another small house they can rent, just a few blocks from her parents’ house.

John helps them set up their few things in the rooms. The night before he’s to ship out, her family wants to have a big party, but Blythe kindly turns them down. Instead she plans a quiet dinner -- just the three of them. She’s told everyone that John has to get up early, but admits to herself that if something happens, she wants this memory of the three of them.

Together.

Just as they have always been.

Just as she tries to tell herself it will be again.

But the night is strained. John means well, Blythe knows. He begins by telling Greg about how he needs to behave himself, how he has to be the man of the family while he’s gone.

The lecture goes on. He talks about school, about how he expects Greg to make the team during the junior high school’s football tryouts next week, about how Greg needs to pay attention to the coaches, about how important it is that he learn leadership skills.

“Why?” It was always Greg’s favorite word when he was younger, always wanting to know more. But there’s a different tone to his voice now.

“What do you mean, ‘why?’” John’s own voice changes, takes on a harder edge.

Greg doesn’t answer, just stares into John’s eyes. He doesn’t turn away as he would have even a few months ago.

“Because if you can’t lead men on a football field, you’ll never be able to lead them into battle.”

Blythe feels her stomach clench at the thought of Greg in uniform, in battle. She’s had a hard enough time seeing him learn to take hits during football practice. He’s grown tall, but is slender, taking after her side of the family, rather than the stocky build of John and his brothers.

“Maybe I don’t want to lead anyone anywhere,” Greg says. He still has his eyes fixed on John. “Especially into battle.”

“You’re too young to decide what you want, boy.” Blythe can see John gripping down hard on the side of the table. “You’ll do what I tell you do to.”

Greg and John sit there staring at each other until Blythe reaches out. She puts one hand on John’s arm, the other on Greg’s leg. “We’ve got plenty to time to talk about Greg’s future later,” she says. “Let’s not fight. Not tonight.”

John turns away from Greg and nods at her. “Of course not,” he said. “We’ve got years and years yet.” He gives her a smile and reaches over with his other hand to give her hand a squeeze.

Greg’s eyes flicker from Blythe to John and back again. Then he picks up his fork and continues eating.


--------------

Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station

Greg’s voice changes during the year John is gone. It has dropped from the alto of boyhood to a baritone. Some mornings, John hears Greg talking to Blythe, and he doesn’t recognize it. He wonders for a moment who the stranger is in his house.

His first week back, he takes Greg to the barbershop. Blythe has let his hair get long while he’s been gone.

“It’s not that bad, John,” she says and Greg protests that everyone has long hair now.

“Not in my house, they don’t,” John says, and prompts Greg out of the house.

At least Beaufort is a military community. As they drove up from Pensacola, John smiled when he saw the sign welcoming visitors to “Fightertown.” They’re back in base housing, where everything is neat and orderly, easy to understand.

Every day he leads squadrons out on tactical training runs past the South Carolina barrier islands and over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and he knows his family is safe within the base’s borders.

The world outside isn’t safe. It changed when he was gone. On the news, he sees kids who are angry, shouting at Marines like him and like his pilots, calling them murderers. He’s heard the stories of men who have been spit on while they were in uniform

He hears their music coming from Greg’s room, and he finds Greg sitting there cross-legged. He has a record cover in his hand. John doesn’t recognize it. He can’t make out the words in the song, but it doesn’t matter. He knows it’s one of their bands.

“We’re not going to have room to pack that the next time we move,” he says.

“What?” It’s not just the pitch of Greg’s voice that has changed. It’s got more of an edge to it and it sounds to John as if he’s picking a fight every time he opens his mouth.

“We never have enough room, you know that. You better not expect to hang onto that for long.”

“We always have enough room for anything you want to keep,” Greg says.

“You sassing me, son?”

Greg seems to size him up. John can sense Blythe walking along the hall and can feel her coming to a stop behind him. Greg looks away from him.

“No,” he says.

“No, what?” John prompts.

“No, sir,” Greg mutters.

Blythe tells him later that he shouldn’t be so hard on Greg. “It’s just his age,” she says. “He’s a teenager now. Don’t you remember how it was when you were 14?”

“When I was 14, I knew to respect my elders,” John says. “You’ve been letting him get away with too much.”

Blythe just sighs. She walks into the kitchen and comes back with two glasses of lemonade. “He’s a good boy,” she tells him, as she hands John one of the glasses. “He gets good grades. He’s never complained no matter where we’ve moved. He does his chores ... so maybe his taste in music isn’t the same as yours. Is that so bad?”

“I’ve seen his grades,” John says. “I’ve also seen his marks for citizenship and deportment. He mouths off to his teachers.”

Blythe shakes her head. “He’s just curious, and he gets frustrated when they can’t answer his questions,” she says.

“He needs to learn respect,” John says.

When he gets his two-week leave, he takes Greg and Blythe to visit his family in Ohio. In his parents’ living room, he points out the photos and medals that have collected there over the years.

There is the side arm that belonged to a great-grandfather during the Spanish-American war, his own father’s medals and photo from World War I, and finally the flag presented to his parents after his brother Greg’s death, along with a frame of the gold star emblem that hung in their living room window throughout World War II.

Greg takes it all in, though he seems to be watching John, rather than taking in the details of the items he is shown.

-----------

USMC Air Station Iwakuni

John fought every attempt to send him to Japan, but when Greg is 15, he runs out of excuses.

John glares out the window of the car as they’re driven the short distance from the airport to the base.

He refuses to leave the base except when absolutely necessary. He tries to forbid Greg from exploring Japan, but Greg ignores him.

To John, this will always be the country that took his brother from him. John was only 10 when the letter came, telling his parents that Greg’s plane had been shot down somewhere near Iwo Jima, his body lost beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Now his son, his brother’s namesake, defies John and skips classes to explore the nearby city with its narrow streets and tightly packed buildings.

While John can only see his brother’s murderers, Greg is fascinated by the country -- the way so many people fit into such small places. He spends hours looking through windows in the business district at the electronic gadgets, the cameras, the cassette players, the games.

At dinner he talks about what he’s seen, about the food he ate, about learning to use chopsticks and how he’d like to try out one of the scooters that whine their way down every road and alley.

One day the school makes its annual field trip to Hiroshima, less than 30 miles away. When Greg gets home that night, he doesn’t have anything to say. He sits quietly through dinner. Blythe recognizes the look on his face as the same one he has when he’s working out a new song or solving a math problem.

Blythe buys Greg a transistor radio for his birthday. It is small enough John can’t complain about the problems of packing it, and comes with an earphone so Greg can listen without bothering John.

--------------

Marine Corps Air Station Yuma


Blythe didn’t realize how much of her life was spent near the ocean until she was far from it. In Arizona there is desert and mountains. The base welcome packet boasts that the city is an oasis, but Blythe can’t see much green beyond the yards tended by the enlisted men. The road to the base is called Pacific, though the only water in sight is the brown of the Colorado River.

The state line with California is on one side of town, Mexico is just to the south and west.

The night after Greg takes his SAT exam, he asks for permission to go with some of the other members of the baseball team to the movies. John is out of town, in Washington for a briefing, and Blythe tells Greg to have fun. She knows he has been working hard, with John tracking every minute he’s spent studying.

He tells her not to wait up, that they may go grab some tacos after the show, but she can’t sleep until she knows that he’s safe. It is after 2 a.m. when she hears a car stop outside and Greg shouting his goodbyes.

A few moments later, she hears a crash in the living room and goes out to find Greg standing there, glassy-eyed and holding himself up against the wall with one arm. He has a grin on his face. He is so obviously drunk, and trying so badly to hide it that Blythe is torn between anger and amusement. She turns away so he won’t see her smile.

The next morning he only leaves his room for aspirin and emergency runs to the bathroom. He begs her not to tell John and swears that he didn’t know the other boys planned on crossing the border.

“They said they were just going for tacos,” he says. “And the best place was in Los Algodones.”

She hands him a glass of ice water and orders him to drink it down. “And, what, there was nothing else to drink but beer? Or was there tequila too?”

Greg looks at her out the corner of one eye. “They were buying,” he says. “And I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Of course not,” she says and opens the blinds. Greg moans and puts the pillow over his head. “Because you never would hurt anyone’s feelings.” She pulls the pillow away.

Greg throws one arm over his eyes. “You’re always telling me I need to improve my manners,” he mumbles.

“Today is not a good day to try my patience, Gregory,” she warns.

He uncovers one eye to look at her. “No ma’am,” he says.

“Your father will be back on Tuesday. I’ll decide then whether he needs to know about this. In the meantime, you’re not going anywhere. Are we clear?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Greg is on his best behavior for the next two days, coming home immediately after class and even helping Blythe clean the living room and kitchen as well as his own room.

He is at the table doing his homework when John gets home Tuesday night.

John gives Blythe a kiss, then pulls a thick envelope from his suitcase. “I’ve got a surprise for Greg,” he says. “Where is he?”

“Kitchen,” she says, and follows him into the other room.

Greg looks up warily, looking between his parents. “Hi Dad,” he says. “Have a good trip?”

“How’d the test go?”

Greg shrugs. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” he says.

“Good.” John tosses the envelope onto the book in front of Greg. “Open it.”

Greg studies his father for a few moments before he reaches for it. He unseals the flap and reaches inside, pulling out a packet of papers. He looks at the top paper, then flips past it and looks at the next, then the next. He sets the stack back down on the table. “Annapolis,” he says.

John pulls out the chair next to Greg and sits facing him, sitting stiffly in his dress uniform. “I had time to stop by Ashbrook’s office while I was there.” He turns toward Blythe briefly. “He was Navy you know.” Then he turns back toward Greg. “I told his staff all about you. I showed them your transcripts. They were impressed.”

“Dad ...”

“They’ve only got five nomination slots for Annapolis, but you’re already a front runner for one of them.”

“Dad ...”

“We’ll have to wait until your SAT scores come in, but you can start with the other paperwork now, so we can get it out right away.”

“Dad ...”

“What?”

Greg looks down at the papers. “Dad ... I don’t want to go to Annapolis.” He glances up briefly, then back down. “Or West Point.”

“Sure you do. This is what we’ve been working for all these years.”

Greg shakes his head. “No,” he says.

John stares at Greg, then smiles again. “You’re just nervous you won’t get in.” He puts his hand on Greg’s shoulder. Blythe notices Greg flinch slightly at the touch. “Don’t be nervous, son. You’ll do great.” He takes his hand away again. “Even if the worst happens and you have to go someplace else, that’s OK. I didn’t get in either, and look how things turned out for me.”

Greg looks away from the papers, but still only manages a slight glance at his father before looking away again, this time out the window. “I’m not you, Dad. I don’t want to be in the military.”

“Son ...”

“I hate this place, all the moving, all the inspections, all the rules. You’re never allowed to question anything -- just follow order, keep your mouth shut and your gun clean.”

Blythe watches as John sits back in the chair, then stands and looks down at Greg.

“So what, you figure you’re too good for the military? That the Marines is fine for your old man but not you?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Think you’re smarter then the rest of us?”

“Yeah, it takes a lot of smarts to drop a bomb or two,” Greg mumbles, and John leans down, his face just inches from Greg's, one hand on the back of Greg’s chair, the other on the table.

“You want to repeat that?”

Greg looks down at the table and doesn’t say anything. Blythe steps forward and softly puts her hand on John’s arm. He looks up at her and after a moment moves away from Greg. He stands at the edge of the table, his hands on his hips, staring down at Greg. “I need to stow my gear,” he finally says, and walks back into the living room.

She sees John pass the doorway with his suitcase in his hand and heard the bedroom door shut behind him a moment later.

Greg hasn’t moved. He’s still staring down at the packet of papers on top of his homework. “I’m sorry, Mom.” His voice is quiet. “I know it’s what he wants, but I can’t do it.” He shakes his head. “I can’t.”

“That’s all right,” she puts her hand over his. “He’s disappointed, but give him time. He’ll understand.”

“Doubt it.”

“He will.” Blythe puts her other hand on his shoulder. If he was still little, she would have pulled him toward her, let his head rest against her shoulder, but he’s grown so much. He stands a full head taller than her now. He’s even taller than John. “All he really wants is for you to be the best man you can be.”

Greg shakes his head slightly, then pulls his hand away and begins putting the papers back in the envelope. She can see the envelope shake as he holds it, then he puts it down on the table. Blythe can hear drawers slamming shut in the bedroom and she stands and pushes the chair back under the table.

Greg’s quiet voice stops her before she steps away.

“And what do you want from me, Mom?”

Blythe smiles. “Oh honey,” she says and gives him a quick kiss on the cheek before he can react. “All I’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy.”

Greg looks up at her for just a second or two, then looks away again, out the window once more. Blythe watches him there, slouched down in the chair, then she walks down the hall and into the bedroom.

------------

Marine Corps Base Quantico

John hates leaving the combat units, but finds that the teaching assignment at Quantico suits him. The Corps agrees, extending his stay there first by two years, then three.

He has regular hours, and usually stays close to home. No more weeks and months of carrier duty or classified assignments away from home. But their house seems empty to her.

Blythe keeps one of the bedrooms ready for Greg, though he rarely comes for a long visit. The only time she knows she’ll see him is at Christmas, though he sometimes turns up for a few hours if he can borrow a car and drive the short distance from Baltimore.

She has gone up to visit him a few times, watching the transition from the dormitory to off-campus housing. She has been amazed at how much he has managed to collect in just a few years. When he left home, everything he owned fit into a footlocker. Now there are records and an oversized stereo system filling one short wall.

He has been teaching himself how to play guitar, but says he still plays the piano when he has a chance. There are practice rooms at the university, he says, and he can usually find one if he wants one.

Whatever grudge about Annapolis John might have been carrying melts when he sees Greg in his short white coat at the hospital when they meet him there for a quick lunch on one Mother’s Day.

Greg seems happy, settled in Baltimore, and both Blythe and John are surprised when he turns up one day to tell them he has transferred to Michigan.

“I thought you were going to be going to Mayo this summer,” John says. Greg doesn’t offer an explanation. He just says that plans changed.

--------------

Marine Corps Air Station El Toro


Blythe returns from lunch to find a message on the answering machine when she gets home.

“Hi, this is James Wilson. I need you to give me a call as soon as you can.” Blythe’s stomach drops and she can barely breathe as James’ voice rattles off his number.

Her hand shakes as she dials the number, and she misdials twice, and has to start again. She hears James’ voice pick up the call from the other side of the country.

She doesn’t understand everything, just that Greg is sick, that there is something wrong with his leg, and that it’s serious.

James assures her that he’ll make it through, but warns that they expect some long-term complications.

“Like what?”

“It’s too early to say for sure just now,” James says. “We may have a better handle on things once you get here.”

“Can I talk to him?”

“He’s sleeping just now,” James says.

Blythe wonders why Stacy didn’t call. She had been happy when Greg found someone, though she hadn’t been quite satisfied that Stacy was the best choice for him. But Greg had been happy, so she was happy for him.

It takes her two hours to track down John, and another two hours before they find a flight. Blythe packs and repacks as John works the phones. He has his staff checking both military and civilian flights between Los Angeles and New Jersey.

He finally turns up two seats on a United flight leaving that evening, direct to Newark, and his people say they’ve made arrangements for a car. She can hear John on the phone, praising his people for their fast work.

It’s not fast enough, though, Blythe thinks. Their flight won’t leave for three hours. It’s at least another six in the air, and another hour of driving to get to Greg. She promises herself that she won’t ever let herself be so far away from him again.

John squeezes her hand as the plane takes off and tries to give her a smile, but she can see the fear and worry in his eyes. She thinks of all the times she’d worried about John, never considering that they might lose Greg first.

-----------------

Marine Corps Base Quantico

John pulls strings to get them back to Quantico for his final assignment before retirement. It hadn’t been hard. He had done well there before, though men of his rank would usually fill a post further up the chain of command.

In the months after Greg’s illness, Blythe had cried each time they’d had to leave him to fly back to California, and John asked for the change. If anyone had asked, he would have said it was for Blythe. But he finds his own nerves calm once he gets final approval.

Blythe takes the train north at least every other week after the move. Sometimes she spends the night at a hotel near Greg’s condo, but most days she’s there just long enough to have lunch. She takes comfort just in seeing him, finds herself reassured by the simple act of buying him a sandwich, watching him eat, listening to him talk about his day.

James joins them sometimes, and Greg seems happy to led James lead the conversation, almost as if he’s relieved by not having to carry the burden of small talk on his own. Greg has never been one to share his feelings, and Blythe doesn’t expect him to start now. She thinks to herself that he doesn’t have to say anything -- that she’s always been able to tell what he is thinking just by looking into his eyes.

John’s retirement is coming up soon. They’ve set aside money to buy a place -- their first home of their own, after more than 40 years of living together. But they haven’t decided just where that place will be.

Blythe took a quick look at the real estate listings for Princeton, but the lunches and visits have steadied her. Greg isn’t going anywhere, she knows, and maybe it’s time that she and John go somewhere of their own choosing for once. Pick a place that they want to be.

One day she arrives at the hospital early. She can see Greg in his office. The blinds are partially open, and she can see him when she stands at an angle across the hall. He is talking to someone. She doesn’t recognize the man, but he is wearing a doctor’s coat. The door is closed, and she can’t make out the details of the conversation, but it’s clear that Greg isn’t happy.

She winces as she sees him stand and walk past the man to get something off of a shelf. Blythe still hasn’t gotten used to the idea of his disability, of his limp, of his cane.

He’s speaking constantly, a volley of words. She can tell from the other man’s slumped shoulders that the words are not kind. She wonders where this anger came from, if this is new or if it has always been inside Greg and she never recognized it before.

She wonders how much more there is to Greg that she doesn’t know. When they’re together, she still sees the boy he was. She is beginning to understand she there is much she doesn’t know about the man he is now.

Greg turns toward the window and sees her. He stops and looks at her. She waves and walks up to his door, as if she has just arrived. He pushes open the door for her and she steps through, gives him a slight hug.

“Hi Honey, I’m early,” she says.

“I figured that out.”

“Dr. House, I’ll go get that report now, if you still want it,” the other man says.

“I can come back if I’ve come at a bad time,” Blythe says, but Greg shakes his head.

“You’re fine, Mom,” he said. “Walters, on the other hand, has some work to do, don’t you?”

The doctor, Walters it would appear, slides behind Blythe and out the door. “On my way,” he says as the door closes behind him.

“Greg, you don’t need to be so tough on him,” Blythe says.

“And how would you know?”

The tone seems to match the expression she’d seen earlier, the one she didn’t recognize. “I’m sure he means well,” she says.

“And what if it was your test that he forgot to run? Or Dad’s?” Greg eases himself back into the chair behind the desk, and Blythe sits across from him. “When doctors screw up, people could die.”

Greg sorts through the papers on his desk. He pulls out one sheet of paper, reads it over, then puts it back down. Blythe watches his hands, remembers watching him as he sifted through sand in Egypt, as he reached out to touch the marble at the Parthenon and as he found the right keys on the piano in town after town.

“Will someone?” she asks.

Greg looks up at her. “Will someone what?”

“Die. From his mistake.”

Greg shakes his head. “Not today.” He shrugs, the slight motion she’s seen him make since he was a toddler. “And if he learns his lesson, maybe not tomorrow or the next day either.”

He finds whatever it was he was looking for and folds the paper in half, then in half again before putting it in his pocket.

“You staying for long?” He stands again and takes his cane from where it was leaning against the desk. He braces his right arm against the cane and holds out his left hand to her. She smiles and takes it as she stands.

“Not long,” she says. He holds the door open for her and she passes through, then waits for him. “Will James be joining us today?”

“Nope.” Greg stops in front of the elevator. “He’s with a patient. It’s just us.”

Blythe nods. “Good. I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.”

Greg cocks his head at her. The elevator opens and she enters. Greg doesn’t move at first, studying her instead. “Come on,” Blythe says, and he finally steps in.

“Something important?”

She smiles at him. “I’ll let you try to work that out for yourself. I’m not saying anything else until you buy me dessert.”

They end up in the cafeteria, as usual, Greg with his favorite sandwich and a side of fries, Blythe with a cup of chicken soup and a salad. Greg grabs two cookies from the display next to the cash register and puts them on her tray. “OK, dessert,” he says. “Now spill.”

Blythe laughs. “Not until we sit down.”

Greg gives an exaggerated whine. “But Mom,” he says. “I did everything you asked.”

She just takes her tray off to one of the nearby tables and Greg follows her, his tray balanced carefully on his left hand.

She waits until he’s seated before she says anything.

“And how are you feeling, all right?’

“Mom ...”

“You’re eating more than just sandwiches, aren’t you?”

“Mom ...”

“Because a mother worries, you know.”

“And apparently, my mother also specializes in torture,” he says, ignoring the sandwich. “Now get on with it.”

Blythe laughs again and reaches across the table to put her hand on his arm. “All right,” she says. “You know your father and I have been talking about where to settle down after he retires.”

Greg winces. “It’s not here, is it?”

“Would that be so bad?”

“Do you want me to answer that or to lie?”

Blythe smiles again and reaches for her soup spoon. “No dear, not here,” she says. She takes a sip of the soup. It’s too bland for her taste, but then she’s come to realize that hospitals don’t use enough salt. Greg hands her the salt shaker before she can reach for it.

“Thank you,” she says and adds just a touch to the soup and stirs it in.

“So where are you thinking of going?”

“Pensacola,” she says, and he nods. “It’s where we met, where my sisters still live ...”

“Where the hurricanes blow,” Greg adds, then takes a bite of his sandwich.

“God knows neither one of us wants to spend a winter in Dayton.”

“Who does?” Greg mumbles, his mouth full of meat and cheese.

“Besides, it was the closest thing we had to a permanent home when you were growing up,” Blythe says. Greg nods slightly.

Blythe takes a few more spoonfuls of her soup while Greg swallows his bite. “You thinking of buying someplace out near Elaine’s farm?”

Blythe shakes her head. “No. I don’t really want to be tied down to a house, and your father’s not anxious about taking up yard work at his age. There are some condos we want to look at -- then we can still travel if we want to.”

“Haven’t you traveled enough?”

“There’s still a lot more to see,” Blythe says. “Besides, your father never had the chance to see everything the way we did. While we were exploring, he was running battle drills and filing personnel reports.”

“Bureaucracy knows no borders,” he says.

They eat in silence for a few minutes. Greg finishes his sandwich and is dipping the last of his fries in ketchup.

“Do you regret it?” Blythe says, and he looks up at her.

“Regret what?”

“Not having a home. It’s something I could never give you when you were a boy.”

Greg shakes his head. “We had plenty of homes,” he says. “Some of them weren’t bad.”

“They were houses, not homes.”

“That’s not what Dad used to say,” Greg says and imitates John’s Corps indoctrinated accent. “’Wherever we Houses are, that’s our home.’”

“Your father says a lot of silly things,” Blythe reminds him.

Greg pops another fry in his mouth, then pushes the plate away. “What’s to regret? That I didn’t see the same idiot kids year after year in school? That I didn’t have a yearbook full of lying signatures claiming we’d be ‘best friends forever?’”

“For starters,” Blythe says.

Greg looks her in the eye, and she’s reminded of how clear and sharp his gaze seemed even as a baby. “Regret is stupid. It’s useless. There’s no use regretting something that no one could have changed anyway. It’s a wasted emotion.”

Blythe pushes her luck, phrases the question in a different way. “Would you have been happier?”

Greg glances away from her, looks out to scan the rest of the room before he answers. “There’s no way to know,” he says. “So there’s no reason to even ask.”

He pushes his chair back. He’s finished, with lunch and the conversation. “You ready?”

Blythe nods. She wipes her mouth and leaves the crumpled napkin on the plate. She stands and walks with him out the door and into the hallway. They’re in the elevator before she says anything else. “I told John we’ll have to have a guest room in the condo,” she says. “I expect you to visit.”

“I’ll try.”

“You’ll visit. Or you’ll have to learn to put up with me coming to visit you,” she says. “I’ll even bring up the grandchildren question a few times every day.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Good.”

The young man from before is in Greg’s office, looking anxious when they arrive. Blythe pauses outside the door.

“Aren’t you coming in?” Greg asks when she doesn’t follow him. “You don’t have to leave right away, do you?”

“I’ve got some things I need to get done, and it looks like you’re busy,” she says, nodding toward the door.

Greg glances inside, then back at her. “This won’t take long, if you want to stay.”

Blythe smiles at him, then steps closer. He leans down for a hug and she gives him a kiss on the cheek. “You’ve got things to do, and I’ve got places to be,” she says. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” he says. He takes a step inside, then pauses, the door still open. “I’ll see you later?”

Blythe nods. “In a couple of weeks. I’ll call and let you know.”

Greg tilts his head slightly, halfway between a nod and a shrug. “You know where to find me,” he says.

The door swings shut behind him. “I always do,” Blythe says. She watches him walk across the room before she turns and heads for home.

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