Sometime had passed, a couple of years ago, before she was even born, when Ben Wyatt held the newborn infant up in his arms, as though lifting a treasured piece of jewelry to the light for inspection. The image seemed rather odd to everyone who saw. Nobody had ever thought of Gen. Wyatt as a proud father. He was indifferent enough to Cristina's birth. The members of the household had figured him for an apathetic parent.
Of course none of them suspected that the fathering instincts of the man would only wake to a son. But now that everyone can see the sparkle in eyes suddenly alert, and the gigantic grin breaking the weathered face, there was no doubt left as to which child would prove to be the father's favorite, or which one would throughout his life deal with Ben's attention. Yet Carmela was not worried. In fact, she adored the way Ben seemed to be taken with their son.
Leo grew up to adore his father. He sought ways of pleasing him the way almost every boy does in his young life. Leo seemed such a gift to the family. Far from Ben's brooding habits, of staying in his library with a glass of brandy and recalling the days he had spent as a young soldier earning glory by rising to the ranks so fast, so early, Ben as Leo's father was a lighthearted man who found time to play catch, and watch games outside. The son who much enjoyed his father's presence would spend his playtime as an effort to impress, and he honed his skills so sharply that he could take every game easily. The boy found that the essence of all the play hours was competition, and did he compete. There was no team that would rather not have Leo at their side, no opponent who would not quiver when faced with the Wyatt boy. And watching all this made Ben proud, for the Wyatt boy was his.
In Ben's eyes Leo could do no wrong. He was exactly the way his father was at that age, he would often claim. And although Carmela might think it unhealthy to tell the boy this, Ben over dinner every night would ruffle the boy's hair and grin, telling him that he could do no wrong, and that he was to their family a blessing. And the boy… Well the boy over time expected the assurance so much that he lived every day as some sort of prelude to dinner time, and his father's proud eyes and warm hand on his head. This she learned from Leo's mother, who told the story years after the fact, in front of more than fifty people, most of whom were in uniform.
Today she met for the first time Leo's father. He was just how she had pictured him to be, after months of listening to stories told by the young man as they walked together to classes, and dormitories, or cafeterias. He was tall, taller even that Leo, and his bearing was dignified and still, and she deduced that this was because the man was retired from the army. Bearing so regal, as taught in the military, never left a man even in his old age. Ben Wyatt was not old by any means, but at this instance she could see that he seemed older than the fifty-four years she was told he had.
She approached him, although it was customary to address the mother first. She preferred it this way since she could not stay long, and most of the guests have followed tradition and was with Carmela, thereby insuring that she is occupied for several more minutes.
"I'm sorry," she offered to the man. She had come so far to see this father, to know what he was like. For days after she had received the news, she was filled with hatred for Ben Wyatt, hatred that also brought with it guilt. She had not met the man, merely listened to an image of him portrayed through Leo's words. She needed to witness first hand, needed to watch how he dealt with a tragedy that he had wrought on a promising young man.
She still recalled the last time she spoke to Leo, when inside she knew that it was bound to happen. And every time she questioned his decision, the answers all came back to one man so powerful an influence she could say nothing to gainsay him.
The cold drops of rain caused her to shiver. Heedlessly they fell on her, causing the linen blouse to stick tightly to her skin. The young man a few feet away from her watched her silently as she turned her face up to the sky.
He did not ask her to step under the cover of his umbrella. He did it once and was ignored. He knew her enough by then not to insist.
How many times have they said goodbye? She knew that this was not the first. Every year since their first encounter in the hallway they would say their farewells and go their opposite directions—she up north to her parents and he down south to work for next semester's tuition.
Leo could very well go with her if he so preferred. His family had enough to support him, if he had bothered to ask. But his choice of going to medical school had angered his father so much that he was never again able to come home. And although he hid it well, she could see in his eyes the longing to hear his father's words of congratulations. She knew this though the lightness of the tone he used when he told he of his childhood. She pictured in her mind so well how difficult it had been for a child to grow up and realize that instead of training to kill, he would rather to learn how to save lives. Even more difficult was telling a father who had expected from the moment you were born that you would follow his footsteps, that you chose a different career. The hurt look in his eyes, and that desperate wish to be accepted showed clear through him whenever he regarded her.
It was a standoff between Leo and Ben. Both men held fast to their beliefs, and so Leo continued his education without contact to his father, his only link back home the letters he exchanged with his sister, and the occasional one from his mother. Leo worked and saved during the summers enough to take with him back to university when classes began.
Why was this any different then? All those other times they would walk down the paved walkway hand in hand and speak of their plans for when they were reunited. Then they would laugh and promise trinkets from their holidays. Then there were vows of affection that would not wane through the test of time and distance. Then they were no tears. She knew the rain was falling stronger now. She could hear it pouring heavily. She could feel the cold drops drenching her getting colder and colder.
No matter how much he respected her choices, he was a sensible man. She felt the warm dry coat around her shoulders and a firm hand take her arm. He urged her to walk under the protection of his black umbrella.
The palm trees lining the avenue waved and bowed, commanded by the strength of the harsh wind. This was no night to be out. But for what was between the two, it was the perfect dreary world.
They used to stroll down this very avenue on sunny days. Her head would rest on his shoulder as he regaled her with marvelous tales of the future he was laying out. After he had finished med school he would buy a cozy two-storey house in the suburbs and raise a family. At times she would tease him about where he would find a woman to take to wife. And he would lunge for her but miss when she runs away. A chase would then ensue, broken by fits of giggles and catching breaths.
A tear slipped down her cheek. He handed her the handkerchief she had given him two Christmases ago, the one she had personally embroidered with his initials, together with a rasped, "Don't cry." She did not even know how he found out. She was wet from the rain. When she had gone to the university against society's norms, she had thought excitedly how she, the new woman, would find her true self in the academe. Growth, experience, maturity, liberation—all these words have filled her head. It never once occurred to her to consider the term "fulfillment."
But this was what he had brought into her life. She knew now that every action, place, sound or thing would remind her of him. Each day would be an effort. Why did this goodbye have to come?
They passed by a stone sculpture at the side of the road. One could hardly make it out in the dark but both of them knew what it was. She turned her gaze away although it would serve no purpose. After all, there was no light to see it with, and the image was starkly clear in her mind's eye.
She could still remember that sunny October of their freshman year when his shoelaces had come untied on their way to class. They both saw the big block of gray stone. He stepped on a hole at the center of the stone to retie them. She found the marker a couple of feet away and pulled him away from the sculpture, sure that they were desecrating a national treasure. He took her hand, stepped back several times and regarded the slab of stone seriously.
He was the first one to break into laughter. He gasped the words "national treasure" in between bursts of hilarity. Soon they were both in hysterical giggles, holding onto each other for support. When the amusement faded, they had looked into each other's eyes and knew that the time had come. He had drawn her against him and pressed a kiss against her lips.
His hand on hers tightened, and she knew at once that the same memories were running through his mind. She stepped on a puddle on the ground. She did not care. This was too important to mind the muddy water creeping into her shoes and wetting her socks. How to tell him not to go? How to beg him not to leave her? How to do this without stifling the person that he is, the man that she loves? The unspoken words between them hovered in the air. She could feel the silence choking her. One could take a scalpel from the laboratory and cut through the tension hanging between them. Why did he have to leave?
Had he not, months ago, met her outside her last class and invited her to come and take a cup of coffee with him at the little cafeteria at the side of the building? Had he not then intertwined their fingers and silently walked by her side? They had been wrapped up in each other's declarations of love, without even having to speak. That night perhaps was the most memorable they would ever share, for it was then that he had handed her a simple gold chain that would link themselves together forever. It's not much, he had told her, just a little trinket. She should wait until he had become a doctor, and then he would buy her a prettier one. But it did not make a difference to her. She had loved the simple necklace as much as she would love the world, as much as she would love anything else. That was the first time that he had turned to her and whispered the beautiful words that she had been waiting to hear, I love you. He had been too embarrassed to speak, and she had spent long minutes trying to cajole him into speaking her mind. Again and again he would refuse, saying that it was too cliché and did not need to be said. But then she had turned to him and held his face in her hands, clearly enunciating her own I love you's. And he had finally capitulated and voiced his own admission. He had then sworn that they would have forever, and that they will never part.
Had he not done all these? Are these memories purely imagination? She was sure that he had. Why then are they taking this walk? Why then did he agree to leave her? Why then did he almost appear eager?
They have almost reached their destination. She looked up at the dark sky and wondered where the stars have gone. They have always been her companions, her confidantes. She could whisper every torment and every joy to the bright twinkling lights and they would always listen. Where are they now? Did the sky correctly guess the tragedy that would occur this night and hid away its little charges so they would not be exposed to such despair?
He let go of his hand and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "The stars are there, and they can hear us," he told her, as though he knew her heart. "And they are so very high that though you and I may be a thousand miles apart, the same little one can see us both at once. We can tell the star what we would like the other to know. And if we listen closely, with eyes closed, we will hear each other's voices. And we will be happy." She is not as positive in her line of thought. What good would a twinkling light do when he is where he's heading? Everyday she will frantically worry about him. Everyday she will blame herself for letting him go, when in fact she had no choice.
The grassy walk gave way to a cemented pavement, and each step on the hard ground reminded her of the hurried dawning of an unbelievable truth. She could almost hear the quiet laughter coming from the men gathered yards away. She trembled and grabbed at the hand on her shoulder. "I do not want you to leave."
And his hand shifted that their palms lay face to face. "You know I must if I am to be the man he wants me to be. To be the man I need to be."
"Why risk your life for a dream not yours, but another man's? Do you control your life?" Together, much closer than before, they continued their walk forward. Her eyes had cleared a half dozen buses lined along the avenue met her eyes. Young men bawdily joked to relieve their tension, and they greeted the two the moment they arrived.
"I do. And this is my choice. I want to be the son that my father deserves, because he is a good man, and I have disappointed him enough." He tried to change the subject, but the hurt was there in that gaze again, though he may deny that it was his reason for doing this. "Think of all the lives I can save out there. I must be where I can truly help."
"Do not go halfhearted," she cautioned.
"I am going with my entire heart hoping," was his answer. And she knew that this was true. Leo, with his heart and soul, prayed that this action would somehow erase the failure he perceived himself to have become in Ben's eyes.
"Well," she said, as they neared the line, "here we have arrived." She turned and touched the beloved face. "And here our story ends."
"Maybe it does. Maybe it does not. Perhaps this is just the beginning."
"You are leaving me. And now we are saying goodbye."
"Goodbye. The word is too final. I do not like it."
"We'll see each other again? Fare well? We will soon meet?"
He nodded. "Anything but goodbye. Don't forget me." He dropped a chaste kiss on her lips.
"I shan't." Her gaze followed him as he strode towards the group of men behind the last bus. They laughed and slapped at each other's backs, almost sure they were embarking on some adventure.
The young men trooped up the bus and he found a place at the window seat. The vehicle roared to life and prepared to roll away. As it moved, he held an arm out to her and waved. She blew him a kiss and he caught it. His smile was one that would forever be stamped in her mind.
And then half a year later she received in the mail a manila envelope that contained these dog tags that reflected back to her a dull light and empty numbers that served to identify young men's bodies should they die scorched and burned. A note accompanied the metal tags, one that said Leo asked him, a Matt James, to send these to her address should the dreaded event take place.
In anger she kept the plates and coldly, calmly decided to come to his home. And after she listened to Leo's mother, she fixed her eyes on the man she knew had caused it all. "I'm sorry," she had told him. She was sorry that Leo had to have him for a father.
Ben Wyatt did not seem to see her, for he stared straight ahead at the brown box wrapped in flag that proclaimed his son a hero. Where she expected to see victory, his eyes were empty.