The Women: Part 2 – Chapter 34


It was remarkable how quickly a turbulent world could calm. In early 1974, with the war over, the country seemed to release a great exhalation of relief. The fight for rights went on, of course: Civil rights and women’s rights were a constant battle and the Stonewall riots had put gay rights in the news, too. Equality was the goal, but no longer in that hold-a-sign-and-march kind of way.

The Vietnam veterans disappeared into the landscape, hiding in plain sight among a populace that either held them in contempt or considered them not at all. The hippies changed, too; they graduated from college and left their communes and cut their hair and began to look for jobs. Even the music changed. Gone was the angry protest music of the war. Now everyone sang along to John Denver and Linda Ronstadt and Elton John. The Beatles had broken up. Janis and Jimi were dead.

Frankie was fighting for a metamorphosis of her own. She had come to the inpatient center unwillingly, or maybe not that, exactly. Unconscious was more like it.

By February, although she felt stronger, she was well aware that she could relapse in an instant, fall again to her knees. Sometimes it felt overwhelming, to think of what her life would look like from now on. So much of what had filled her up in the past few years was dark—memories, love, nightmares. She didn’t know who she was without the pain or the need to hide it.

But sobriety—and therapy—had given her the tools to heal. One day at a time. For the first time in years, she was sometimes able to imagine a future that didn’t include pain or pretense. She didn’t believe in “soldiering on” anymore and knew that trying to forget trauma only gave grim memories a fecund soil in which to grow. She accepted the loss of her nursing license and hoped to someday get it back, but she didn’t take that future for granted.

She still had nightmares, still sometimes woke on the floor of her dorm-like room, especially following an emotional therapy or rap session. She still longed for people who were gone from her life and whom she’d lost, but as Henry and Dr. Alden each reminded her often, regrets were a waste of time. If only was the bend in a troubling road. She learned day by day how to navigate through life, keep going, keep moving forward.

Surprisingly, of all her pains and regrets, those that had driven her to drink too much and get hooked on pills and lose her nursing license, Rye had been the easiest to exorcise.

She’d begun her treatment devastated by her choice to have an affair with a married man and destroyed by her belief in him and his love. She’d learned that she was weak, a sinner, but at the bottom of it all, deep down, she’d believed that Rye loved her. Love had somehow given her latitude to recast her terrible choice in a prettier light.

Until the day Dr. Alden had asked, “When did Rye first tell you he loved you?”

The question brought Frankie upright on the sofa. Had Rye ever told her he loved her?

She scrolled through her memories; what she found was this: I’m afraid I’ll love you till I die.

At the time, she’d seen it as romantic, sweeping, epic. Now she saw the sentiment for what it was. The dark side of love. What he’d really been saying was, I don’t want to love you.

It had never been real love for him. Oh, he’d shown up in Kauai to romance her, thinking that she was leaving the military within weeks and their affair would be a bit of fun before she left. She’d believed every moment with him.

Worst of all, his lies had exposed an immorality in her that she could have sworn hadn’t existed before him. She’d begun by believing she was stupid and learned slowly that she was just human.

From now on, she would always know there was a fragility in her and no matter how strong she became, she would have to guard against it. “I worry I don’t believe in love anymore,” she told Dr. Alden once.

“But lots of people love you, Frankie, don’t they?” Dr. Alden had said.

She closed her eyes, thought of the best moments of her life—with her dad calling her Peanut and lifting her into the air, her mother holding her tightly while she cried, and Finley teaching her to surf, sharing his secrets, holding her hand. Jamie, teaching her to believe in herself, to try. No fear, McGrath. And Barb and Ethel, always there for her.

“Yeah,” she said quietly, and let those memories be her shield, her strength, her hope.

In the end, the hardest aspect of her recovery wasn’t Rye. Neither was it the pills or the drugs.

The thing she still grappled most violently with was Vietnam. Those were the nightmares that haunted her. She talked about it with her doctor, told him her stories, and hoped for a kind of resolution, and while talking helped, she knew that Dr. Alden didn’t understand. Not really. She saw the way he sometimes grimaced at a memory, heard words like napalm and flinched. Those moments reminded her that he had never been in war, and no one who hadn’t been in the shit could really understand it.

She knew, too, that when she left the safety of the inpatient center, she would be thrust back into a world where Vietnam veterans were supposed to be invisible, the women most of all.

Now, though, regardless of how she felt or how the world felt about her or whether she felt ready, it was time for her to leave the center. She had been here too long already, extended her original stay, and Henry had very gently told her that she was taking the spot from someone else who needed to be saved.

“You’re ready,” Henry said from across the desk.

Frankie stood up. She didn’t feel ready. By any method or measure, she had failed in the world after Vietnam. “So you and Dr. Alden keep saying.” She walked over to his bookcase, picked up a picture of his nephew, Arturo, in uniform.

“Look at that smile,” she said. So like Finley.

“He learned discipline, that’s for sure,” Henry said. “My sister says she could never get him to make his bed or fold his clothes before Annapolis, now he likes everything just so.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a little discipline,” Frankie said. She picked up a framed photograph of Henry and his fiancée, Natalie, who were soon to be married in some woodland retreat. They were a perfect match; they spent their weekends hiking and camping and never missed a political event. She hosted fundraisers for the clinic. “You’ll invite me to your hippie-dippie wedding, right?”

“Of course. You’re leaving the center, Frankie. Not leaving me. We are friends. You can always call me.”

She turned to look at him.

He sat back in his tufted leather chair, his graying hair pulled back in a loose ponytail.

“Thank you,” she said. “For all of it. And I’m—”

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Frankie laughed. “What a crock of shit. Then again, I’m hardly an expert on love.”

“You know love, Frankie.”

He moved toward her, pulled her into an embrace.

She held on more tightly than she should have, but in the last months, he’d become her lifeline, her anchor, her confidant. Not her doctor, but her friend, as important in a way as Barb and Ethel.

“I’ll miss you,” she said.

He touched her face. “Just don’t come back here the way you did, okay? Ask for help when you need it. Count on the people who love you and, mostly, count on yourself. One day at a time. Get a sponsor. Find your passion. You’ve got this.” He paused, didn’t look away. “You deserve to be loved, Frankie. In that forever kind of way. Don’t forget that.”

Frankie stared at him for another long moment. She could tell him all of it again, how she’d learned to understand her own weakness, and her own strength, how she’d come to believe that Rye was not just a liar, but selfish and cruel as well. But none of that mattered anymore; Rye didn’t matter. If she saw him on the street, she’d pass him by with nothing but a pang of sad remembrance, and Henry knew all of that. “It was a lucky day when I met you, Henry Acevedo.”

“Lucky for me, too, Frankie.”

She bent down and picked up the old, banged-up travel bag her mother had packed for her months ago, when Frankie’s world had collapsed.

Down the hall, she saw that Jill Landis was conducting a group session: eight new people sat in a horseshoe in front of the therapist.

A young man with long hair and slumped shoulders was saying something about heroin.

Frankie paused, caught Jill’s gaze, and waved. Goodbye.

Here, just like in ’Nam, people came, did their time, were changed in existential ways, and moved on. Some made it in the outside world, some didn’t. It was especially bad with Vietnam vets. The statistics on their rates of suicide were becoming alarming.

Frankie didn’t go back to her room, vaguely afraid that, once there, she would find a reason not to leave. She walked through the front doors, out into the cold day.

She saw her mother’s black Cadillac, parked beneath a jacaranda tree.

The driver side door opened. Then the passenger side. Dad and Mom stepped out, stood at their respective sides of the car, looking at her.

Even from here, she saw their joy. And their anxiety.

She had given them so much to worry about in a few short years. Vietnam. Trauma. The miscarriage. Rye. The drunk driving. The pills. She knew how hard all of it was on two people for whom reputation and standing in the community were vital. She had no idea what they had told their friends this time. Maybe drug and alcohol treatment had become tagging penguins in Antarctica.

Either way, she wouldn’t ask. Having discovered her own failings, she was less inclined to judge others.

Her parents didn’t understand her, perhaps, and certainly they didn’t condone most of her choices, but they were here.

You know love, Frankie.

Frankie walked across the gravel parking lot.

“Frances,” Mom said at her approach.

A look passed between them, a sharing of emotion between mother and daughter. “You look good,” Mom said. “Too thin.”

“You, too,” Frankie said, walking into her mother’s arms, being held in the new, fierce way that Mom had developed. Like Frankie, Mom had learned how capricious life and one’s own body could be.

When Mom finally let go—with tears in her eyes—Frankie turned, looked across the shiny black roof of the Cadillac at her dad.

She had aged him, she knew, taught him that success and money couldn’t insulate a family from loss or hardship. Walls around a house were no guarantee of safety, not in a world that was constantly shifting. He’d changed with the times, in a way, grown out his sideburns, and traded in his custom suits for knit bowling-style shirts and double-knit pants, but there was no denying the wariness in his eyes when he looked at his daughter.

She remembered him carrying her out of the water that night. The memory of his crying would always be with her. What he’d learned about her that night, about them, could never be erased. She knew a part of him would worry about her forever. And that he would never say a word about it. He and her mother were of a quieter generation. They didn’t believe in words as much as they believed in optimism and hard work.

“I think you look great, Frankie,” he said.

“Thanks, Dad.”

She opened the back door, tossed her bag in the backseat, and slid in next to it.

When Dad started the engine, Perry Como’s voice sang through the speakers and pulled time away. Suddenly Frankie was ten years old again, sitting in the backseat of the car, sliding across at every turn in the road, bumping into her brother.

“That bag still smells mildewed,” Mom said. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“Monsoon season,” Frankie said, staring down at the black, soft-sided bag that had gone around the world with her. “Everything was wet. Nothing ever dried.”

“That must have been … unpleasant,” Mom said.

The first real conversation they’d ever had about Vietnam.

Frankie couldn’t help smiling. They were trying, hoping to change in small and meaningful ways. “Yeah, Mom,” she said with a smile. “It was unpleasant.”


They pulled up in front of the small gray beach bungalow, with its old-fashioned wishing well out front and the American flag hanging over the garage door.

“You could stay with us,” Dad said in a gruff voice.

Frankie understood his worry. No one wanted to leave an addict alone for long, but she needed to stand on her own. Or fall. And if she fell, she needed to stand again. “I’ll be okay here, Dad.”

She saw the way he frowned. Nodded. He reached across for Mom’s hand, held it.

Frankie nodded, grabbed her bag, and got out of the car and stood there for a moment.

Mom got out of the car and hugged Frankie.

“Don’t scare me again,” Mom whispered.

Frankie felt a surge of love for her mother, a kinship. She thought suddenly about what it meant to lose a child. When Frankie was young, it had bothered her, her mother’s sturdy impassivity, her calm demeanor. But now Frankie knew better. You survived a day at a time, however you could.

Tomorrow Frankie would begin the work of day-at-a-time living: she’d find a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and get a sponsor. Then she’d send Mr. Brightman a check for a new bicycle—the first step in her lengthy reparation process. She would not seek to reinstate her nursing license until she was sure of her recovery.

Mom laid a hand on Frankie’s cheek, looked deeply into her eyes. “I am so proud of you, Frances.”

“Thank you, Mom.”

Letting go of her mother, Frankie turned and headed for the cottage. The deed—in Frankie’s name—lay on the kitchen counter. No doubt her father had put it there to remind her that she belonged here, on Coronado.

She went to her bedroom and tossed her bag on the floor, where it landed with a thunk and slid bumpily across the wooden planks.

Then she walked down the hallway to the nursery.

When had she last opened that door?

She opened it now and stood in the doorway, staring at the yellow room. For the first time, she let herself remember all of it, here, in this room where she’d once been filled with hope.

A different version of her.

A different world.

As she stood there, letting the pain in, remembering the whole of her life, she realized suddenly that she was young. Not even twenty-nine.

She’d made some of the most momentous choices in her life before she had any idea of consequences. Some had been thrust on her, some had been expected, some had been impetuous. She’d decided to become a nurse at seventeen. She’d joined the Army Nurse Corps and gone to war at twenty-one. She’d gone to Virginia with her friends to run away from home, and when her mother needed care, she’d come home.

In love, she’d been too cautious for years, and then too impetuous.

In retrospect, it all felt haphazard. Some good decisions, some bad. Some experiences that she would never trade. What she’d learned about herself in Vietnam and the friendships she’d made were indelible.

But now it was time to actually go in search of her life.


Summer, 1974.

The air smelled of childhood: of the sea, and sand baked by the sun, and lemon trees.

On Ocean Boulevard, Frankie tented a hand over her eyes and stared out at the wide blue Pacific. She imagined a pair of black-haired, blue-eyed kids running across the sand, carrying surfboards; kids who’d thought they had all the time in the world to grow up, who didn’t know what it meant to be broken or afraid or lost.

Hey, Fin. I miss you.

She walked along the sidewalk, on her way home from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, with the long white beach on her left. A tuft of greenery capped the rise. In the distance, boats moved across the horizon. Tourists and locals filled the beach on this hot August day.

A jet roared overhead, probably a pilot from that new fighter jet school at Miramar. The roar of the engines was loud enough to shake the ground. She knew that no one on Coronado cared; they called it the sound of freedom.

At the gate to her parents’ house, Frankie paused, steeled herself for what she was sure would be a battle, and opened the gate.

It had taken months of hard work to get to this place, and still it was just the beginning. Often, as she’d begun to contemplate her future, she’d panicked, felt weak, thought, I can’t do this. On those hard days, she either went to a second—or third—meeting or called her sponsor and found just enough strength to keep going. Keep believing. One day at a time.

Today the yard was awash in summer color.

Dad was on the patio, smoking a cigarette.

She closed the gate behind her and walked around the pool to stand in front of him.

She fought the urge to say she was sorry. Again. She’d said it to him dozens of times in the past few months, and she knew how uncomfortable it made him.

At first she’d hoped her apology would be a beginning, the start of reparations, maybe, a healing that could only come through conversation. She longed to tell him he’d hurt her and understand why he’d been so cold and dismissive about her service in Vietnam.

But it was not to be. He had no interest in talking about it. He wanted to pretend the war had never torn this family apart. Dr. Alden had taught her to accept that, accept him. That was what family meant. Sometimes hurts didn’t quite heal. That was life.

“I need to talk to you guys,” she said.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

Frankie smiled. “I know how you love to talk.” She took hold of his hand, squeezed it.

He squeezed back.

Mom came out onto the patio, a glass of iced tea in one hand.

“Our girl wants to talk to us,” Dad said.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Mom said.

There was something to be said for consistency. Frankie led her parents into the living room, where a sofa and four chairs were gathered around a huge stone fireplace.

Frankie sat in one of the big wing chairs.

Her parents sat together on the sofa. Frankie saw her mother reach out to hold her father’s hand.

Frankie thought—oddly—of that night, long ago, when she’d dressed with such care for Finley’s going-away party, in a lavender sheath, with her hair teased to an improbable height. She’d done everything to make these two people proud of her. It was why her father’s dismissal of Vietnam cut so deeply. But those were the needs of a child. She was a woman now.

“I love you guys,” she said. That was the starting and ending point in life: love. The journey was everything in between.

Mom paled visibly. “Frances…”

“No fear,” Frankie said, more to herself than to her mother, who was obviously imagining the worst. She took a deep breath, exhaled. “I’ve had plenty of time to think in the past few months. I’ve worked really hard to become honest with myself and to see my own life clearly, and maybe I still don’t, maybe no one ever does until it’s too late, but I’ve seen enough. I need to find out who I really am and who I want to be.”

“You’ll get your nursing license back. Henry says he’ll write you a recommendation. You just have to start the process,” Mom said. “And you’ve gotten your driver’s license back.”

“I know that. I hope to God I can be a nurse again, but I have to plan for the worst, too, that they deny me.”

“What is it you’re trying to say, Frankie?” Dad asked.

“I’m moving,” she said.

“What?” Mom said. “Why? You have everything you need right here.”

“Can you make it on your own?” Dad said. “Without your nursing license?”

Frankie had asked herself the same thing. She’d never paid rent or found her own place or lived alone. She’d gone from her parents’ house straight to her hooch in Vietnam. The last time she’d lost her shit, Barb and Ethel had bailed her out and given her a place to live. While she’d been in recovery, her father had hired a lawyer and gotten her DUI downgraded to reckless driving and gotten her driver’s license reinstated. She’d never even had her own credit card. “I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m looking for, but you know what? That’s okay. It’s supposed to be frightening to make your way in the world, to leave your family.”

“Oh,” Mom said, looking hurt.

“I need quiet,” Frankie said. “Everything has been … loud since Vietnam. Before that, maybe, since Finley’s death. I need to live someplace where all I hear are leaves rustling and winds blowing and maybe a coyote howling at the moon, where I can focus on getting well. Strong. I want to have an animal, a dog, maybe. A horse.” She paused. “I just want to breathe easily. Thanks to both of you, I have the cottage. I’d like to sell it and use the money to start over somewhere new.”

Her parents stared at her for a long moment.

“We’ll worry,” Mom said at last.

Frankie loved her for that. “It’s not like I’m going to war,” she said with a smile. “I’ll be back. And you’ll visit, wherever I end up.”


On a hot, late August day, Frankie packed up her repaired Mustang and went back into the bungalow, tossing her keys on the counter. She looked around at the empty room. She hoped a young family bought this place and raised their children here, letting them run as free as she and Finley had, that they loved the tree swing Henry had put up in the backyard and had birthday parties on the beach.

At last, she left the house, closed the door behind her for the last time.

Outside, Barb stood against Frankie’s Mustang, with her arms crossed. In front of her was a FOR SALE sign stuck into the lawn. “Hey,” she said.

Frankie laughed out loud. “Who called you? Mom? Henry? I’m surrounded by snitches.”

“Uh-huh. You didn’t think I’d let you go in search of your life alone, did you?”

“You’re married. With stepkids. You don’t have to sweep in and fill my empty life with your own, you know.”

Barb rolled her eyes. “You’re my best friend, Frankie,” she said.

And that was it.

“Ethel wanted to come, but she’s pregnant again. On bed rest. She said to tell you she’s here in big, fat spirit.”

An ice-cream truck drove past, bells jingling. The neighborhood children wouldn’t be far behind. Frankie turned, tented her eyes; for a split second, she was ten years old again, running along behind her big brother, trying to keep up, both of them gilded in sunlight in her memory.

Frankie laughed and hugged Barb, then jumped in the driver’s seat and started the car. The music came on loudly: “Hooked on a Feeling.”

A few blocks later, Frankie eased her foot off the gas.

Her parents stood in front of the gate, arms around each other, hands in the air. How long had they been there, waiting to catch a glimpse of her as she left town? They’d said goodbye a dozen times and in a dozen ways in the last month.

Frankie waved and honked the horn in goodbye—to her parents, to Coronado, to her childhood, and to Finley. The Mustang rolled through town and onto the bridge, past the boats anchored in the harbor. Frankie saw the postcard beauty of Coronado Island in her rearview mirror.

With no destination in mind, Frankie and Barb drove north, listening to Creedence, Vanilla Fudge, Cream, Janis, the Beatles, the Animals, Dylan, the Doors.

The music of Vietnam.

The music of their generation.

At Dana Point, Frankie turned onto Highway 1 and stayed on the coast, with the endless blue Pacific to her left. In Long Beach there was an accident, so she turned onto a freeway, and then another one, just taking exits when it felt right.

She let the complex web of California freeways become her will; she let them lead her, this way and that. With the new fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit, she had to constantly check her speed.

She drove through downtown Los Angeles, with its graffiti and gangs and chain-link fences, and found herself on the glittering Sunset Strip, a world of lights and giant billboards and music clubs.

They drove up the magnificent California Coast, spent a few nights in the Santa Ynez Valley, staring out at the rolling golden hills, and Frankie said, “I like the open spaces, but I need more, and horses, maybe.”

“Northward,” Barb said.

This was how they made decisions; on the fly, by corners turned and roads taken and not taken.

In Carmel, the afternoon fog was too heavy; in San Francisco, there were too many people. The wildness of Mendocino called out to her, but the giant Sequoias hemmed her in somehow.

So, northward.

In Oregon, the green was vibrant and the air was clean, and still there were too many people, even though the towns were few and far between.

They bypassed busy Seattle, listened to radio reports of missing college girls, and turned east, passing through the empty endless wheat fields in the eastern half of Washington, which felt lonely to Frankie, desolate.

Montana.

When they drove into the town of Missoula, singing about time in a bottle, the sky was a vibrant, searing blue that explained the Big Sky Country moniker. A few miles out of town, and the view was stunning: hay fields that stretched toward jagged, snowcapped mountains, their peaks draped in snow, the wide blue Clark Fork river meandering by.

FOR SALE. 27 ACRES.

She and Barb saw the sign at the same time.

It was stuck on a slanted post, looked weathered by time. Behind it: an endless green field, the river running along it, a ragged barbed wire fence in need of tending, a dirt road that led to a stand of tall green trees.

Frankie looked at Barb. “It’s beautiful.”

“And remote,” Barb said.

“A girl could breathe here,” Frankie said. She turned onto the dirt road, followed it into a thicket of trees and out again. Beyond the trees lay another vibrant green field, with the mountains rising behind them into the blue sky.

Frankie stared through the dirty windshield at the peak-roofed farmhouse with a wraparound porch, at the fenced horse fields, at the big old once-red barn in need of a new roof. There were outbuildings, too, some of them collapsed, more barely standing.

“This is a shitload of work,” Barb said.

“Fortunately, I know how to fix stuff.” Frankie turned, smiled. “My friends and I spent almost two years rebuilding a bunkhouse.”

“It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

“Look at the map. Missoula isn’t far. Hospitals and a college, too. It’s closer to Chicago than San Diego is. I know I can find an AA meeting here, get a new sponsor.”

“You’ve made up your mind.”

Frankie turned off the radio.

Quiet.

She looked at Barb, smiled. “I have.”

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset