The memorial service ended and the mourners filed from the chapel. Chaplain Michael stood at the door offering words of comfort to those who had come to say goodbye. George, Otis, Marie, Sister Arnalita, Sister Annabelle, Sister Mary Ann, Little Lucy, and Senior Chief Kelly walked together to the dark-blue Navy van that would carry them to the orphanage where the sisters were providing lunch, a memorial meal for their two friends who would not be there. George carried Little Lucy.
They spoke little during the short ride. Most preferred the solitude of thoughts to conversation. They spent the time looking from the windows of the van, seeing little, remembering much. The wholly unexpected loss had been a devastating blow to those who had been together through so much in four short months. From their initial meeting to the memorial service, it seemed as though a lifetime had passed and a close family member had died, too young, too soon. They would long remember Sam’s cheerful smile and bushy, red beard.
Frank’s wounds would take months to heal and his recuperation longer. Medical discharge from the Navy he loved so much was a possibility. The MedEvac C-130 had flown Frank from Cam Ranh Bay to the Naval hospital at Subic Bay. It had taken several surgeries to repair the damage to his chest. He would remain in the hospital for several weeks. Marie visited every day, prayed for his recovery, and prayed that he could remain in the service.
She held back telling him of Sam’s death, but eventually he asked. He took it hard, of course, knowing Sam had died saving him.
“Why Sam? Why couldn’t I have been the one to die, Marie? Why?”
“I don’t know, Frank. I don’t know. Maybe he had to die. Maybe Susanna wanted him, and he felt her want. I think we die when we are meant to. It was Sam’s time, Frank. Now he’s with Susanna.”
“Maybe, Marie. Maybe. I can believe he went to Susanna. He wanted to be with her. I feared for him after she died. He couldn’t understand how someone so full of life could die so needlessly. Did I show…no. I don’t think I did. Hand me my briefcase, Marie.”
“Where is it?”
“Over there. On the desk.”
Marie retrieved the briefcase and handed it to Frank. She sat on the edge of the bed while he opened the briefcase and withdrew a sheaf of papers.
“This is an essay Sam wrote after Susanna died. I asked him if I could keep it as a reminder of the two of them. He asked me not to share it, but he would have wanted you to read it. This is how they were, the way they acted with each other. Sam didn’t glamorize their relationship; he described it perfectly. I’ll read it to you.”
Frank smoothed the sheets of paper, adjusted the pillows behind his back, and read aloud:
“Susanna plucked a shrimp from the paper cone clutched in my hand and held it over my head like a seal trainer. She laughed as…
…I leaned back and opened my mouth. I struggled not to laugh as I wagged my tongue at her. She brought the shrimp to my mouth and I captured her long, graceful fingers between my lips. She hesitated and gazed at me and her laugh turned into a smile. Oh, my heart beat fast and I marveled at this beautiful Spanish woman and sucked her fingers into my mouth and my tongue savored the flavor of two-thousand years of Spain. I was faintly aware of the seagull circling overhead crying with anger at the meal it had missed.
We bought the quarter-pound of fresh shrimp from the fish market on the plaza and then walked under an umbrella along the cobble-stoned waterfront of old Puerto de Santa Maria. The rain stopped after a while and we sat on the quay overlooking the ancient harbor where Christopher Columbus provisioned ships for his voyage of discovery. The sun came out again and steam rose from the puddles of water dotting the quay. I lay back with my knees bent on the old wall of crushed shells as Susanna leaned over me, shielding my eyes from the bright sun. She smelled of orange blossoms. Susanna always smelled of orange blossoms. I breathed deep in the fragrant hollow behind her ear before the musty odor of decaying sea wrack intruded, and the salty fragrance of the vast great ocean, the granite-like permanence of the old city, the brilliance of the deep blue dome of sky overhead, the whole of the world spread before us.
Susanna. Our life together lay ahead. I swallowed the shrimp and reveled in the beauty of her green eyes as she slowly slipped her fingers from my lips. Her long, silky black hair framed her snow white face and fell onto my chest. I sat up then and we sat cheek to cheek, wordless, the closeness of her tiny, frail body a comfort. I tightened my arm around her slender waist. My pulse throbbed as love for this beautiful woman raced through my veins.
“Come, Susanna. Let’s walk along the beach. Give me your hand.” I helped Susanna down and we walked onto the shingle between the seawall and the sandy beach. The wind tore at the frothy crests of the waves and I tasted sea salt on my lips. The sea spray stuck to my skin in the humidity and I took my shirt off and carried it in my hand. I paused while Susanna took her shoes off and dug her toes into the fine, warm sand. I held Susanna’s sandals as she dipped her toes in the water of the bay.
“Oh, Samuel,” she cried with a laugh. “Dance with me, my love.” Susanna held my fingers in hers and danced around me on the beach between the sea wall and the sea, in front of a dozen other lovers walking along the shore. I dipped my head as I shook it and smiled. Oh, she was so lovely in her gaiety. Her wrap billowed from her body in the wind and her black hair whipped about her white face and her face glowed with joy as she twirled and danced about me. I held her hand high and she dipped beneath my arm and spun around and around and around, laughing all the while. I spun Susanna into my arms and I held her close as we danced together in the white sand of the beach beneath the bright yellow sun of a Spanish autumn afternoon.
“I want to live forever, Samuel!” She was so happy.
I kissed her cheek and let go of her hand and ran away up the beach. She laughed aloud as she ran for me but I eluded her. Then I stopped and turned and flung the remaining shrimp from the cone as high into the sky as I could and a cloud of seagulls converged above Susanna and picked the shrimp from the sky. Susanna raced for me under the cloud of crying sea birds, her face bright and her lovely laugh ringing in the salty air as waves crashed upon the beach and sea gulls dipped and flew around her as they darted for the remaining morsels. I caught Susanna as she leapt into my arms and we fell into the sand. We laughed as we fell and we fell silent as our eyes fastened upon one another and we breathed hard in our excitement and Susanna pressed her hands into my chest and her lips onto mine. Oh, the lovely softness of the flesh of Susanna’s lips. I feel them now and I feel her feather-soft flesh pressing upon mine as though time has not intervened between reality and memory.
Time passes, and grinds mountains into rubble and erases history into dimly recalled, tentative tales and fables, but it cannot erase the memory of the love a man and a woman feel but once, the love of a lifetime, the love of the ages. The love for which the heart burgeons into a breathless burst of yearning and passion and tenderness and fulfillment. A wished-for love for others; a true love for us.
As we lay together in the sand, the fine, warm sand, Susanna’s body pressing into mine, I held her in my arms and her life beat in her chest, and her life beat in my chest, and I knew how wonderful she was, and how fortunate I was, and I knew, too that I loved this woman, so passionate, so tender, so fulfilled, and I wanted this moment in the fine, warm sand beneath the bright yellow sun of a Spanish autumn afternoon to last forever. I was so happy.
Frank folded the sheets slowly, remembering his best friend, and Susanna, whom Frank had loved dearly. He drew a finger and thumb across his eyes, then replaced the papers in the briefcase.
“That’s how they were together. Had it been any other couple you might have said it was too much, too good to be true, that they were acting. Not those two. Not Sam and Susanna. There were times they were together when they grew oblivious to anyone else. They could be completely alone in a roomful of people.”
“That is so beautiful.” Marie dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “I miss, Sam. I will always remember his sacrifice. Oh, Frank, we must carry Sam with us always. We must always honor his memory, and Susanna’s too.”
“We will, Marie. We’ll remember them both. Always.”