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Chapter no 26

The Women

1972. And the war raged on.

More deaths, more grievous injuries on the battlefield, more helicopters shot down, more men sent to Hoa Lo Prison or missing in action.

Frankie, like most Americans, watched the nightly news in horror. Last year, the Winter Soldier Investigation, a media event sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, had exposed the dark underside of the war—American atrocities in the jungles and villages and on the battlefield

—and Lieutenant William Calley had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the My Lai massacre. America had invaded Cambodia. All of it increased the anger and disgust shown to returning veterans.

Sometimes, when she watched the news, Frankie couldn’t stop crying.

It could be over nothing. Hell, sometimes she cried in her car when a song made her think of Finley, of Jamie, of Rye. Every tear reminded her that her stability was fragile at best.

No one believed America was winning the war anymore; even on Coronado Island, among the conservative, wealthy, Republican elite, doubt was expanding. “We need to be done with this,” Frankie often heard her father say to his friends, as if the war were an expensive vacation gone bad.

When her mother was improved enough to drive and be alone, Frankie was forced to reach for a life of her own, at least a semblance of one. She took a job at the medical center hospital. Her education and experience landed her a surgical nurse job on the day shift, and once again nursing

gave her life purpose and structure, both of which she desperately needed. She made sure to keep busy; she wrote endless letters and manned the League of Families booth when she could, and worked long, grueling shifts in the OR. Anything that would occupy her mind and make her tired enough to sleep.

But she knew that none of it would help tonight. The Fourth of July.

Frankie dreaded the holiday. In the past few years, she’d remained cloistered inside on the Fourth of July, with the music cranked up loud, just trying to make it through the loudness of the night. Barb and Ethel had always allowed her to hide out in Virginia, and last year her mother hadn’t felt well enough to host their annual party. This year was a different story.

A party at her parents’ house was the last thing Frankie wanted to attend, but she had no choice. Following fifteen months of therapy and hard work, her mother was finally set to make her glorious return to Coronado’s social life, and Frankie’s attendance was mandatory.

I’m fine. I can do this.

She dressed in purple hot pants and a filmy white blouse, pulled down off her shoulders, then ironed her now-long hair down from a center part, and put on makeup. All of it a camouflage.

At dusk, she left the bungalow and walked on the beach toward her parents’ house, toward the iconic red roof of the Hotel del Coronado. Lights twinkled from its eaves, lighting the way.

All around her, life went on. Families, kids, dogs. Shouting and screaming, people splashing in the waves.

She stayed on the sand for as long as possible, then crossed Ocean Boulevard, which was buzzing with activity on this warm evening: drivers looking for parking spaces, men unpacking trunks, women herding dogs and children to the beach, looking for a place to set up their chairs.

The Tudor house loomed above the brick privacy wall, its mullioned windows glittering with light. Lanterns hung from the branches of the live oak tree. Red, white, and blue bunting decorated the food table and outdoor bar. Frankie closed the gate behind her.

Independence Day had always been her father’s favorite holiday. The family celebrated it in the way they did every social event. Full tilt. An “Americana” buffet was set up on the patio—trays of barbecued ribs and

juicy hamburgers, buttered corn on the cob, potato salad, and, of course, a tricolor cake with ice cream for dessert. Everyone brought something to the party, and the women of Coronado sought to outdo one another.

The guests had obviously been here for a while; the volume of their voices hinted at copious alcohol consumption. She heard a man boom out, “Who does Jane Fonda think she is? Anti-American, I’d say.”

Off to the left, a three-piece band was playing a bad version of “Little Deuce Coupe.”

Taped to the patio walls was a sign that read GOD BLESS AMERICA AND OUR TROOPS.

“As long as they’re men,” Frankie muttered.

She released a slow breath, trying not to be mad. Or hurt.

If only Barb and Ethel were here. Frankie hadn’t seen her friends in too long. Ethel and Noah had recently welcomed their daughter, Cecily, into the world, and Barb was marching somewhere this weekend, gearing up for some top-secret VVAW “event” that so far she’d only hinted about.

Frankie moved through the crowd, offering a fake smile to the people she knew. She heard snippets of conversation, well-dressed men talking about “soldiers, hopped up on heroin, bombing villages,” and women in brightly hued dresses shivering at the thought of Charles Manson being kept alive: “… lock our doors now. They ought to have put him to death. Darn liberals.”

Frankie concentrated on her breathing, trying to stay calm, until she reached the bar. “Gin on the rocks with a twist.”

As she was handed her drink, her father peeled away from the crowd. He commanded attention with ease, as he always had. He flicked his wrist and the band stopped playing. Frankie saw his million-dollar smile, the one that had returned with his wife’s recovery. But there was a new shadow in him, too, a realization that money couldn’t buy good health or safety from its opposite. He wore striped pants with a wide belt and a polyester shirt with large lapels. In the past year he’d grown out his wide sideburns, which were coming in gray, and let his curly black hair grow long enough to comb over to one side. His new glasses were big and square. “I want to thank you all for coming. As you know, our Independence Day party is a tradition here on Coronado. We first invited our friends to celebrate America’s independence in 1956, back when Elvis’s moves were a scandal.”

The crowd laughed at the sweet memory of a different world.

“I don’t think my childr … my daughter remembers a life before the McGrath Fourth of July party.” He paused, seemed to struggle. “But last year, we sent out no invitations. You all know why. And I thank you all for your letters and flowers. It was a difficult time for us, after Bette’s stroke.”

Mom appeared at the patio doors, her back straight, her chin held high. She had begun dyeing her hair to conceal the new white streaks in it, and that had led her to cut her hair short in perhaps the trendiest fashion choice of her life. With her flawless makeup and fashionable pantsuit, she looked as stunning as ever. She stepped cautiously over the threshold. Only someone who knew her well would see the slight frown in her forehead or the hesitation in her step.

Dad turned, reached back, took hold of her hand to steady her.

Mom smiled at her guests. “It’s been a long road back, and I can’t express how much you all encouraged me. Millicent, your casseroles were lifesavers. Joanne, I still don’t understand mah-jongg, but the steadying sound of your voice stays with me. Dr. Kenworth, thank you for saving my life, pure and simple. And Connor.” Here she looked at Dad, then looked out to the crowd again. “And Frances.”

She saw Frankie and waved. “You two were my rocks.”

Frankie saw the way Dad tightened his hold on her hand, then kissed her cheek.

The guests applauded; someone yelled, “Hear, hear!”

“One last thing,” Dad said. “Before we eat and drink and dance, I’d like to welcome home Lieutenant Commander Leo Stall. He’s just home from Vietnam and Walter Reed.” He lifted a glass. “To the men who serve! From a grateful nation.”

Frankie slammed her empty glass on the bar. “Another one,” she said as the band struck up again, playing “American Pie” so slowly it was barely recognizable.

The men who serve. A grateful nation.

She felt a surge of anger, downed her second drink, and looked back at the gate.

Could she leave yet? Would anyone notice?

her.

Her hand was shaking as she lit up a cigarette. A grateful nation.

“We’ve got to stop meeting this way,” a voice said.

Frankie turned quickly, almost stumbled into the man who stood beside

He caught her.

“Henry Acevedo,” she said, looking up at him.

His hair had changed: he still wore it long and layered, but the night’s

humidity had given it volume. He had obviously shaved for the party; there was no five o’clock shadow darkening his jawline. Long sideburns narrowed his face.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, easing a step back, trying to steady herself. “This is hardly your crowd.”

“Your mother and her Junior League friends spearheaded a fundraising effort for the hospital’s new therapeutic drug and alcohol treatment center. She invited several of us board members tonight.” He shrugged, smiled.

“You don’t look like a board member of anything. And that’s a compliment.”

“It was either this party or my sister’s out-of-control family in the suburbs.”

“I would have chosen the suburbs.”

Henry smiled. “You’ve clearly spent no time in the suburbs.”

Frankie heard the distinctive whine of a mortar rocket and the crash of its explosion.

She screamed, “Incoming!,” and dropped to the ground. Silence.

Frankie blinked.

She was sprawled in the grass in her parents’ backyard. What the hell?

She crawled to her knees, feeling weak.

Someone had set off a firecracker. A bottle rocket, probably.

And she’d hit the ground. What was wrong with her? She knew the difference between a firecracker and a mortar round.

Oh my God.

Henry knelt down beside her, touched her shoulder with a gentleness that made her want to cry.

“Go away,” she said, humiliated. This hadn’t happened since the country club, years ago.

“I’ve got you,” he said.

She let him help her to her feet but couldn’t look at him.

“Those idiots who get their firecrackers and bottle rockets from Mexico should be in jail,” he said.

Was he saying it was normal to hear that and hit the ground?

“Will you take me home?” she said. She heard the words and knew they sounded like an invitation, which wasn’t what she meant. She didn’t want him.

Or maybe she did.

She didn’t want to be alone right now.

He slipped an arm around her waist to steady her. “My car—” “We can walk.”

She led him to the gate, opened it.

Ocean Boulevard was a madhouse of traffic and tourists. The wide swath of sand was crowded with families, kids, students, Navy personnel. All mingling together. Dogs barking. Kids laughing. Tired parents trying to keep their broods close. Soon they’d start setting off more of the fireworks they had bought just across the border in Mexico. Bottle rockets. M-80s. The sky would look and sound like they were under attack.

On the sidewalk, Frankie kept close to Henry, realizing at some point that she had forgotten to put her sandals on when she left the house tonight. She had walked here in her bare feet.

Frankie didn’t know what to say to this man beside her, who kept his hand on her waist, a steadying pressure, as they walked the few blocks to her house.

There, she came to a stop.

The bungalow looked silver in the falling night. The shiny red door, the white-painted brick wishing well. All at once, she saw it for what it was: a home from another era, for a different kind of life. Kids. Dogs. Bikes.

It scoured her with sorrow, that realization.

“I’ll bet you played on Coronado Beach when you were a kid, probably rode your bike on Ocean Boulevard with cards clothespinned to the spokes. What a childhood.”

“With my brother,” she said quietly. She turned, looked up at Henry. “Thank you.”

He gave a dramatic bow. “At your service, milady.”

Frankie felt a surprising spark of desire. The first in years. A desire to be touched, held. Not alone. “Are you married?”

“No. My wife—Susannah—died of breast cancer seven years ago.”

She saw the sadness he’d been through with his wife, an understanding of loss that eased her loneliness, or shared it. “How old are you?” she asked, although right now she didn’t care.

“Thirty-eight. And you?” “Twenty-six.”

He had nothing to say to that, and she was glad. This—they—weren’t a thing that needed words. Words meant something; she wanted this—them— to mean nothing. “Come inside?” she said quietly.

He obviously understood the question, all of it, and nodded.

She opened the back gate, led him into her backyard, which she’d meant to fix up and never had. Grass ran wild, yellowing in places from the summer heat and her lackadaisical watering. The barbecue she’d bought secondhand had never been used and the oak tree branches longed for a tire swing. The backyard, like her life, was empty.

She closed the gate behind them, and the tinny click was like a starting bell. He drew her close, pulled her into an embrace. She felt the power in him, the desire for her, and it made her feel the same way—wanted. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time.

He drew back, looked down at her.

She held on to his hand, led him into her bedroom. There, she let go, stood back, and faced him, wishing she had made her bed. There were clothes scattered on the floor. Empty glasses on the nightstand. Had she drunk too much last night and stumbled to bed? She couldn’t remember.

He took her by the hand and led her to the bed.

She felt like a virgin again, uncertain, afraid. Slowly, she took off her hot pants and pulled off her top.

She wore a lacy white bra, white panties, and the gold Saint Christopher medal Mom had sent her in Vietnam.

“I’ve only … been with one man, and it’s been a long time,” she said, unsure of why she said it. “And I don’t want … more than this. I don’t have it in me.”

“What don’t you have in you, Frankie?” “Love.”

“Ah.”

“I’m in love with someone else.” “Where is he?”

“Gone.”

He pulled her close. She softened in his embrace; their lips touched, tentatively, the kiss of strangers.

At first she could think only of Rye, and what the kiss wasn’t, who Henry wasn’t, and then she lost her hold on that and felt herself falling into a new, slow building of passion.

“There,” she said in a harsh, throaty voice when his hand moved down her bare skin, slipped inside her panties.

It wasn’t love, but for a beautiful moment her body came alive, vibrated, hummed, and it was close enough.

 

 

When she looked back on it, which she did often in that summer of 1972, she wondered how it was that she and Henry had begun actually dating.

In her mind, they had never really started a relationship. They’d simply merged somehow; two people walking on different paths that had somehow

—inexplicably—become a single road. It started that first night in her bungalow. Henry knew about pain and loss; after the death of his wife, he said he’d fallen into darkness, drunk too much alcohol, and stumbled. Frankie knew about that kind of stumbling, how hard it could be to right oneself and how careful life needed to be thereafter. They were lonely, both of them, and brokenhearted. She saw the sorrow in his eyes when he mentioned his wife and she knew her voice broke when he asked about Rye, about Jamie, about Finley.

So they stopped saying the names, stopped talking about true love, and let almost-love—passion—into their lives. Frankie went to Planned Parenthood for birth control pills. She tried to feel modern and sure of herself when she walked into the clinic, but when the doctor asked if she was married, her cheeks flamed. She nodded quickly, then shook her head. The doctor had smiled kindly and told her she didn’t need to lie anymore. It was finally legal for single women to get the pill. He wrote her a prescription.

She and Henry met after work for drinks and even sometimes for dinner. Henry was often busy with fundraising for the hospital and its proposed new clinic, and Frankie had no desire to join him at the events.

Neither was ready to merge so completely into the other’s life. Or at least she wasn’t, and so he didn’t push it.

Frankie didn’t tell her mother or her girlfriends about Henry because it felt vaguely wrong, immoral maybe, to touch a man you didn’t love, to sleep in his arms for hours and watch him leave before dawn to go to work.

But she couldn’t stop it. After so many years of loneliness and grief, Henry brought sunlight into her life. And she was afraid to go back to the dark.

 

 

August 1, 1972 Dear Frankie,

Enough is enough. Do you think I am an idiot?

In case you answer incorrectly, I’m not. Your mother called me last night. She tells me that you’re acting even stranger than usual, and you’re wearing perfume again. I know what this means, girlfriend.

Sex.

Who are you getting it from and how is it? Please tell a friend so she can live vicariously.

Life in Chicago is good. Not lonely, never lonely. I am in constant motion, but it’s tough to be a woman in a man’s world, even when you’re working for change.

The next man who asks me to make coffee for the group or type up a flyer—because I know how—is going to get his ass kicked.

Ethel, on the other hand, tells me that all her clothes now smell like baby puke and she can’t remember what sleep is like.

We all have our challenges, I guess.

I’m going with the VVAW to the Republican National Convention in a few weeks. I hope there’s no violence, but good

God, enough of this damn war.

Ok, I’m pouring myself a drink. The phone better ring the second you get this letter.

Stay cool, sister

Luv ya B

 

 

A hot morning in the third week of August. Sun shining through a dirty windshield, “Nights in White Satin” blaring through the speakers of Henry’s Chevy Nova.

“I’m not sure about this,” Frankie said, staring at the endless line of cars and trucks and motorcycles in front of them, seeing more in the rearview mirror.

Vietnam veterans, mostly, but not all.

They’d begun this caravan three days ago in Southern California, as one of about twenty cars, but more vehicles had joined the motorcade in a steady stream: VW buses with painted slogans and curtained windows, battered old trucks, souped-up Camaros, motorcycles with military flags flapping from the tail bars.

Now over a hundred vehicles strong, the group drove into Miami, honking their horns and flashing their lights, men leaning out of open windows to wave at one another.

Henry turned down the music. “Barb asked us to do this.”

“Well. She asked me to do it. I thought I said no.” Frankie crossed her arms, feeling mulish but trying to hide it. After a month and a half with him, she remained on her guard around Henry, concealed her irrational mood swings and inexplicable anger as much as she could. Otherwise, he’d ask probing questions that she refused to answer. He had no idea she still sometimes cried in the shower for no reason.

In a park, they found thousands of protesters already gathered—not just vets. Every conceivable protest group was here: hippies, college kids, feminists. The VVAW group followed the lead car to an unoccupied corner

of the camp, where they set up their own domain, which was protected by veterans with walkie-talkies, who patrolled the perimeter. Frankie and Henry pitched a tent by their parked car.

By nightfall, the VVAW camp was a full-fledged party, where everyone was welcome—wives, girlfriends, supporters, former nurses, and Red Cross workers.

The leader seemed to be a man in a wheelchair—Ron Kovic, who’d been paralyzed from the chest down in ’Nam—and he called the upcoming march their “last patrol.”

In the morning, Barb showed up, stood in the messy camp, and yelled, “Frankie McGrath, where are you?”

Frankie saw her best friend and ran for her, almost knocking her over with the exuberance of her hug.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” Barb said. “Where is Henry? He promised to get you here, and here you are. He must be a magician.”

“He is,” Frankie admitted reluctantly.

Back at the pup tent, Henry was making coffee over an open flame. Frankie saw that he’d brought three coffee cups, and at that a feeling that was almost like love, at least a watery version of it, opened up in her.

He stood, smiling with the ease of a man who had a clear conscience. “Hey, Barb. Our girl has missed you.”

Barb smiled, looked him up and down. “I’ve met you somewhere.” “Washington, D.C. At the bar in the—”

“Hay Adams,” Barb said. “A fellow revolutionary.”

“Time to go!” someone yelled out over a bullhorn. “Remember: Silence.

We want those bastards to know we think there’s nothing left to say.”

The three of them moved forward, holding hands, merging into the crowd in the park. Leading the march were wounded veterans: men in wheelchairs, on crutches, blind men being led by brothers who could see.

They walked up Collins Avenue in silence, more than a thousand of them. Spectators lined the streets, witnessing the march, taking pictures.

Frankie felt Henry let go of her hand. She turned.

“This is a veterans’ march. I don’t belong here, babe,” he said quietly. “You do. You need this.”

“So, you—”

“Just go, Frankie. Be with your best friend. I’ll be at the car when you’re done.”

Frankie had no choice but to let him go and keep moving with the crowd, her fellow veterans, holding on to Barb’s hand, toward the convention center, where the Republican National Convention was under way.

Frankie felt the power of it, their silence, as she had become silent about this war. They were the men and women who’d been there, and with their silence, they said, Enough.

Frankie was surprised at the pride she felt in being here, in marching, in seeing the fists raised but the voices still, the thud-thud-thud of their feet on the pavement, some, like Barb, in combat boots.

They stopped in front of the hall; the wheelchairs stilled. Riot police stood in a straight line, blocking their entrance.

Within the marchers, platoon leaders gave hand-signal commands; the veterans fanned out, quietly blocked three lanes of traffic.

Someone—Ron Kovic, Frankie thought—yelled through a bullhorn: “We want to come inside.”

They waited. Silent. Shoulder to shoulder.

Frankie saw photographers snapping pictures and a TV camera rolling film. National Guard helicopters whirred overhead.

The tension rose. Frankie felt a sense of danger; she thought all of them did. But surely the riot police wouldn’t be set on military veterans?

“You might have taken our bodies, but you have not taken our minds!” someone yelled.

A congressman came out at last, to the cheers of the spectators.

Frankie pressed up onto her tiptoes, trying to see the front of the line.

The congressman escorted three vets in wheelchairs into the convention center.

The marchers couldn’t get into the building without risking their lives and creating exactly the kind of scene they didn’t want.

Frankie didn’t know how long they stood there, packed in, blocking off traffic, but in time, the march that had begun in determination ended with more than a thousand vets walking back to the park, amid the cheers—and jeers—of the crowd, watching from the sidewalks.

“They won’t hear us,” Barb said. “Not if we scream, not if we’re silent.

They want to forget about us.”

“I don’t know,” Frankie said. “Look at the troop withdrawals. Maybe something is working.”

They kept walking.

“So, he’s cool,” Barb said. “Henry.” “Yeah.”

“Why would you keep him secret? I tell you about every guy I even think about kissing.”

“I have a flowchart of it, in fact.” Barb hip-bumped her. “Seriously.” “He’s just … fun.”

“Girl, you are hardly the princess of fun.” “He’s helping with that.”

“Do you love him?”

“I don’t want that anymore. I don’t think I can survive it again.” “Not all love goes bad.”

“Uh-huh. This explains why you’re married with kids.”

“I don’t want that life.” Barb put an arm around Frankie. “I am pretty sure he loves you.”

“Why?”

“Who drives a woman cross-country to make sure she marches in a protest and then says he doesn’t belong? Kind of a kick-ass move, in my book.”

“He’s thirty-eight. Already been married.” “That’s your answer to why not?”

Frankie hated to tell Barb the truth, but she knew her friend would keep digging until she did. “You’re a damn wolverine, you know,” she said, sighing. Quietly, she said, “Rye.”

“Wouldn’t he want you to be happy?”

“Yeah, sure.” People said that all the time. All it did was make Frankie’s loneliness worse. “That’s what I’m doing,” she said. “This is me happy.”

 

 

The next day, the newspapers and news broadcasts were full of the story: three Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs had rolled into the National Convention just as Nixon was giving his acceptance speech. They’d shouted, Stop the bombing.

They’d been escorted out quickly, taken away by police, but the images made the news. The veterans had shouted so loudly that the President had had to stop his speech.

 

 

Medics run past mecarrying men on litters. Someone’s screaming.

Frankie came awake with a startled cry and sat up, breathing hard.

It took a moment to remember that she was in her house on Coronado, in bed, with Henry sleeping beside her. She reached out a trembling hand, touched him, needing to know he was real.

“You okay?” he mumbled, not quite asleep, but not quite awake, either. “Fine,” she said, touching him until he went back to sleep.

Easing out of bed, she went down to the living room. On a top kitchen cupboard shelf, she found a pack of cigarettes and lit one up, standing at the sink. Images of Vietnam crowded in on her, demanded she remember.

It was the march.

All those veterans together, reminding each other of their shared past.

All the pain, the loss, the lost, the shame.

She wasn’t supposed to think about any of it anymore. She was supposed to soldier on.

Forget, Frankie.

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