Blaze of Glory
The walk from the platform was peaceful. Though it wasn't particularly late, most souls were already warm and cozy in their rooms, shuttered away from the post war ruins. The few people still in the streets smiled quiet, secret smiles, but they kept to themselves. Hank smiled back and wondered if they could tell where he'd been in his uniform, if the ethereal change he could but couldn't identify shone bright for everyone else to see. Or maybe they simply assumed he'd been out chasing skirts because what else would the young American soldier be doing heading to base at such an hour?
He got to the main plaza just outside the base, and paused. A lone figure sat near the broken fountain, hunched over in the moonlight. Hank was tired and wanted to lay down, but his two day furlough meant he didn't have to rush back to the base to stay in his sergeant's good graces. And he couldn't just walk away from the hunched figure cowering in the dark without checking.
He gave the person a fairly wide berth, and approached from the side. "Are you alright?"
The figure unfurled a bit and twisted to look up at him. "Oh," she said a bit breathlessly. "Hello, Hank."
Hank frowned and came closer. "Hello, Gretchen." He sat down, careful not to crowd her. "I thought you were going back home. Are you alright?"
She smiled weakly before quickly turning away. "Sure," she said. Her voice warbled, and and she sniffled.
"Did someone bother you?" Hank felt his ire spike, and he pressed in closer.
She shook her head vigorously, before scrubbing her eyes with her too long sweater sleeves. "No, no. It's silly." She sniffed and tried another smile. "I'm okay Hank, really."
Hank frowned and put an arm around her. "Well I would feel better escorting you home. I don't like the idea of a young lady being out this long without someone to watch out for her."
"Oh, nobody will bother me. I'm not the bothering kind."
"You're a vulnerable young woman by herself, preoccupied with some unknown problem. That makes you very much the bothering kind, Gretchen. I'm not leaving you alone out here, and that's that. If you don't want me here, then you're going to have to walk me back to the base, because I'm not going to bed without you."
She laughed at that, until a sob escaped, and then slapped both hands over her mouth. Hank could just make out the muffled oath she whispered into her sweater hands.
"Hey," he said. "That didn't come out right. I'm sorry."
She gave up the pretense of not crying. "What if that came out exactly the way I wanted it to?"
"What do you mean?"
She shrugged and sniffled and sobbed a little longer. "I mean I'm probably gonna be an old maid and die a virgin, and I passed on my one chance to at least see what everyone is talking about, because I thought I wanted to be with someone special the first time. But anyone who looks twice at me is fucking special," she wailed.
"You're wishing we'd had sex," Hank said blandly. She nodded and twisted her whole body away from him. He sighed and leaned closer, resting his chin on the top of her head. "I can understand wanting to save it for someone special, though," he said. "I think that's nice. And you're a real pretty girl. You'll meet someone one day."
She huffed. "I don't think it's so nice right now. If I could go back, I would be all over you."
Hank nearly choked on his laughter. "Thank you?"
She shrugged. "It's just the truth."
Hank kissed the top of her head, and squeezed her pityingly. He wondered if he'd have been satisfied with her, if she'd have been satisfied with him. He wondered if she'd have found him bland and disappointing, if he'd have been able to keep it up for her. He wondered if he was as broken as he thought he might be, or if he could live a normal life with a nice girl.
He wondered if he should make the offer again.
"I guess I should go home," Gretchen said softly.
"Okay," Hank said just as softly.
She twisted in his arms and he leaned back to look into her eyes. They were puffy and bloodshot and made her look like she'd been stung by a whole beehive. He wiped at the track of tears that streamed down her cheeks, and then kissed her forehead softly. She smiled slightly, before surging up to capture his mouth in a demanding kiss.
Kissing Gretchen in Munich wasn't much different than kissing the handsome stranger in Zurich.
All at once, desire flooded Hank, a warm rush that made him giddy and hot and just a little impatient. He squeezed her ample body close to his. It was a very different experience - not bad, just different. He decided he needed to experiment a bit, to see if maybe he could live a normal life.
"Sorry," Gretchen said when they parted, and she tried to pull away from his arms.
Hank squeezed her close again. "If I ask you to spend the night with me, are you going to turn me down again?"
She looked at him suspiciously. "I... why?"
"Because I'm thinking of asking again. But I don't want to be shot down again. So. Should I ask? Or should I just walk you home?"
She smiled shyly and shrugged. "You can ask."
Hank didn't ask. He just led her back to the hotel where his friends had tried to deflower him, and spent what little pocket change he had on Gretchen's dreams and his curiosity.
The hotel room was much larger, the bed was much softer, and the staff was far gentler than the one in Zurich.
Just like Gretchen.
Hank was surprised that he was just as nervous following Gretchen into the room as he'd been with the Swiss stranger. Had his encounter counted for nothing?
She turned down the bed and flicked off the light before Hank could get the door shut. "I can't see where I'm going, Gretchen."
"Put your hands out and walk forward. I'll grab you."
Hank laughed and did as he was told, but when he felt her fingers lace through his, he pulled free and turned the light back on.
"I want to see what I'm doing, Gretchen."
She shrank back a little and clutched at her collar. "It's too bright, Hank."
He was nervous, but he could see that his nerves were nothing compared to hers. He sat down and tugged at her hand until she sat stiffly next to him. "You don't want me to see you."
"I don't even want to see me."
Hank patted her leg. "My mother sometimes talks about not being a young woman anymore, and my father always tells her that doesn't matter. He didn't fall in love with the young shell she used to live in, he fell for the soul inside."
Gretchen snorted. "That's great, but we don't even know each other."
Hank smiled. "No, we don't. And we might not ever know each other." He went to the window and pulled the curtains open wide. "Come here." She hesitated, but she joined him at the window. "Look at those stars, Gretchen. Look at this universe. It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"Now look at me. I'm an overgrown stork with a pair of St Bernards for eyebrows." She laughed deeply at that, and Hank felt his heart swell at her joy. "I'm not the most beautiful man in this world. I don't know if he exists. But I'm the man here in this room with you, and I'm willing to do what people have been doing since they first looked up at those stars. What makes you think you need to be the most beautiful woman?"
She sobered. "It's different for boys."
"It's different for everybody. Everybody's got a cross to bear. If you knew mine, you'd go running for the hills, and that's a fact."
She looked at him oddly. "I doubt that."
"You would. But lucky for me, you don't know mine. And if yours is that you're a little chubby, well, that just means you'll be fun to hug."
She wrinkled her nose. "I still don't want to see myself. I don't even look at myself in the mirror."
"Okay. Okay." He looked out the window once more, at the twinkling stars that winked in the inky sky. "Turn it off." The light went off instantly.
But the room didn't turn pitch black. Thin moonlight filtered into the room, and left just enough light for Hank to make out the outline of everything in the room. He made his way to the bed, peeling out of his uniform with a confidence he didn't quite feel, until he was standing belly to belly with her. "You can leave, if you don't like the window open. But I want to see you."
She looked at the floor, before shyly tugging at her sweater. "This is what I came for," she said quietly.
"I'll try to make it nice," he said just as quietly.
She looked up at him, and the moonlight caught the glint of straight white teeth in her broadly smiling mouth. "You already are, Hank."
Hank awoke alone in the sumptuous room. He didn't mind. He hadn't actually intended to stay and sleep all night, but Gretchen had been pleasantly warm and insisted on playing with his not-quite regulation length waves until darkness took him.
He sat up and stretched. So. No longer a virgin, not in the way that would count with the boys in the barracks. He thought about her soft touch, and how she eventually grew demanding and aggressive, and how the real difference between boys and girls was what got damp when and where. She was a pleasant memory.
She was not a strong, silent boy in Switzerland.
The memory of Zurich sent a now familiar heat and heft down to his groin, and Hank laughed in spite (or because?) of his despair. He could be with a woman. He could make the moves. He could please her. He could take pleasure with her. But he was never going to crave a woman's body the way he was craving the hard, flat figure pressed hard to him in the late afternoon, a train ride away.
"Well if that don't take the tar off the roof," he muttered, and rolled out of bed.