Whither Thou Goest
by Andrea Lena DiMaggio
Wherever you may be, I'll be beside you
Although you're many million dreams away
Each night I'll say a pray'r
A pray'r to guide you
To hasten every lonely hour
Of every lonely day
Chosin Reservoir, South Hamgyong Province, North Korea, December 2, 1950…
The blare of the horns visited them in the dead of night once again. Sounds meant to invoke terror, but the men in the foxholes had steeled themselves to the horror they faced almost hour by hour, even if the sounds would have set anyone else to frightened cowering. The boy hunkered further down in the hole, trying to keep from being a target like his buddies.
Between the long row of trees and their foxholes lay unattended bodies; left alone, covered by new snow while the peril still threatened each of the survivors. Help was due, and would come, they knew. The timing was the only hitch in their hope, since it still felt like help would not come in time. There had been an almost soothing predictability to the noise, however. So long as the horns blared, it seemed, it would be safe. When they ceased, the inevitable onslaught of the Chinese would come down on them with a vengeance. The boy tucked his head tight against his chest and prayed.
“Now I lay me down to sleep….”
Visions of being home and safe only a few years before filled his head as the blare of the horns seemed to fade at the gentle intrusion of the Andrew Sisters. He smiled as his vision was filled with a scene long held dear but desperately held secret. A tall woman was in the middle of the living room, dancing with her teenage daughter. The prom was just about a week away and she wanted her girl to be ready, even though no knock would ever come at the door with flowers and candy. It was a quickstep version of the same dance they did for just a few years after the head of the family lost his life on a beach in Sicily.
“I’d vote for you if I could,’ the mother said to daughter. Prom Queen would have been a great honor and a delight for both, but in 1947, it wasn’t something to hope for...ever. The girl nodded and smiled. Going to the prom would have been wonderful, but there, at that moment in her home, just being herself was a joy, even if that joy never left their living room.
“Maybe someday, honey.” Her mother held back tears. Loving, protecting, motherly tears that shed nearly every night for her child. She kissed the girl on the forehead and stepped over to the phonograph. In a moment, In the Mood wafted through the room as she resumed the dance with her daughter……
The music abruptly stopped; both in the daydream and in the cold real dirt and mud of the hillside that night, only to be followed by the loud crack of wood and steel hitting flesh and bone. The sound was quickly replaced by loud shouts and gunfire and screams in another tongue; unmistakable if unknown as a retreat signaled the departure of the Chinese soldiers.
“Jacobsen? Hey? Joey? I made it,’ the voice called from the foxhole only yards away. The young man was lifted to his feet from the grime and mud by one of the men responsible for his deliverance. He rushed over to the other foxhole in excited glee only to find his best buddy lying face up with sightless eyes. He knelt down, but there wasn’t any urgency in his gesture as he cradled the boy in his arms.
“Gee, sorry, kid,” the older man said as he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“That’s….it’s okay, Sarge. I….” The tears began to spill; mostly from grief, but a great deal from relieved peace as he kissed his best friend’s forehead.
“I think he’s okay.”
“I’m sure he is, kid.” The man said, squeezing the young man’s shoulder once again even as his own tears spilled onto the cold ground. He looked down at the boy in the young man’s arms and it looked as if he was sleeping peacefully; a smile just barely noticeable beneath a smear of blood and dirt.
“I’m sure he is…..”
Kelly’s Tavern, South Shore, Staten Island, New York, December 23, 1953…
A lone figure walked into the tavern; a slight-looking young man dressed in a khaki trench coat opened to reveal green garrison uniform. Scanning the room, he spotted what he sought and walked past the bar. Looking around for a moment, he stepped in and sat down; closing the bi-fold door of the phone booth at the back of the tavern. Pulling out a small, dog-eared note book, he opened it and ran his left index finger down the page until he came to the number he sought.
“Please be home ….please be home?” He mouthed as the phone rang on the other end. A moment later a woman’s voice greeted him with a soft ‘hello.’
“Excuse me, is this the Jacobsen home? Yes? I’m sorry…. I … I knew your son. I just got back stateside and I wanted to meet you, if that’s …what? I’m sorry, Ma’am. Please forgive me?” Bobby stared out the window of the phone booth into the bar. He had lost track of time, and the hour was a bit late for a visit.
“Yes? Tomorrow? Oh, yes, Ma’am….Lunch? Oh you don’t have to…well, okay. Yes, Ma’am. He was a very good friend. Tomorrow then….around noon? Okay? Ma’am? Yes….I miss him too.” Bobby hung up the phone and sat leaning back against the wall of the booth. He closed his eyes.
“It’s okay, Bobby. Mom would want to meet you.”
He heard Joey speak from somewhere off to his right. He turned to find a brown-haired woman staring at him through the booth window. She pointed at her wristwatch and he smiled, opening the door. She stood almost shivering even in the warmth of the tavern, and had pulled her lapels closed with a long grey-green muffler wrapped around her neck and her Maroon wool hat pulled down over her ears.
“I’m sorry, Miss. I’ve been trying to get a hold of my Army buddy’s mom.” He looked at the phone and she nodded.
“It’s okay. I just have to let my Mom know I’m working an extra shift today so I can meet her for lunch tomorrow.” She smiled and he stood up. Stepping out of the booth he offered his arm as she sat down.
“Thanks…. Sergeant?” She stared at the three stripes on his sleeves. He nodded and smiled back.
“My brother was in the army….Korea….I guess that’s where you were?”
“Yes. I’m one of the lucky ones.” At the word lucky, the girl winced a bit and bit her lip. She lowered her head and began to cry softly.
“Jeez, I’m so sorry. I should have known.”
“It’s okay. You couldn’t have known...Joost would have been twenty this year… There isn’t a day that goes by where we….My Mom and me….where we think about my brother.”
Her voice seemed to grow weak and she leaned against the same wall that he had used for support only minutes before. He stepped back; feeling awkward, helpless and almost ashamed at his own fortune. Both he and the girl would have realized just how much in common they had as survivors, but it was growing late and he still needed to make more plans and she needed to make her call.
“I’ll let you go, Sergeant….?”
It had occurred to ask her name or even tell her his, but she hadn’t offered and he was still too embarrassed to inquire. He nodded and smiled.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” He said; tipping his hat finally as his face grew red and hot.
“Thank you, Sergeant. Mijn medeleven.” He didn’t understand the words but she patted her chest over her heart, which left him accepting the too-sad commonality of her sentiment.
“You’re welcome. God bless,” he said, backing away as she slowly closed the folding door. He walked away feeling uncomfortable and disappointed that he didn’t get her name or number. As he paused outside the bar, the thought came to him quite roughly that getting her name and number would do nothing but lead to frustration and perhaps worse. He looked down at himself; practically swimming in his uniform, which made him look all the less attractive and shamefully comfortable at the same time. He sighed deeply before walking down the street to the rooming house where he was staying….
Eylandt Street, South Shore, Staten Island….the next day.
A Yellow Cab pulled up in front of a row of houses. Bobby got out of the cab and handed the driver the fare.
“Keep the change,” he said.
“Thanks, Sarge!” the driver said as he waved and drove off.
Bobby walked up the steps of the porch of the house; a semi-attached, white two-story that was the near-twin of almost all the other houses on the block in a nice neighborhood. He was about to knock on the door when he noticed the sound of music coming from the open window next to the entry. Mary Ford, he guessed. He stepped back and listened for a moment before the front door suddenly opened. A tallish woman wearing a light blue cotton dress stood wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“You must be Bobby? Please, call me Mieke. I am so glad to meet you,” she said with a very thick Dutch accent. He stood back and waited until she offered her hand, which he shook gently but firmly.
“You and my Joey were good friends. Come in, Bobby, please?” She opened the door wider and ushered him into a short hallway which opened to a living room to his left.
“Let me take those, please,” she said as he took off his coat and hat. Hanging them up on a rack on the wall of the hallway, she returned her attention to him.
“Lunch will be ready in a few minutes. Nothing fancy. Just soup and sandwiches, okay?” She needn’t have apologized. Bobby was glad for the meal, but so much more for the company. He had so much to tell Joey’s mother, and lunch would likely make things easier for what he had to say.
“Thank you, Mrs. Jacobsen. I’m very glad to be here and I consider myself blessed to meet my best friend’s mother.” He turned away and sighed almost under his breath. His own mother had become gravely ill while he was still in Korea and he had lost track of his father after he left the family for the third and final time in 1948.
“My Joey used to write about you and what a wonderful friend you were to him,” she repeated. Bobby nodded and smiled.
“He said you were like family. I cannot thank you enough for loving him like he was your own.” She wasn’t an impulsive woman and certainly more reserved most of the time, but she pulled him into an awkward hug; patting him on the back.
“Let me get lunch ready, okay? I’m sorry, but I only learned just yesterday after we talked, but we won’t be alone.” Her voice practically trailed off as she walked into the kitchen. By now the radio was playing Al Martino singing “Here in My Heart,” which felt awkwardly ironic. And things got even more awkward as the front door opened and a voice called to Mrs. Jacobsen from over his shoulder.
“I picked up some of that good bread from Meeuwsen’s, Mama.” Bobby turned to find the girl whom he had met at the phone booth the day before. She smiled and held out her hand.
“Please forgive me, Sergeant? I didn’t realize we were both talking about Joey.”
“Oh, Anneke. This is Bobby. Joey’s friend,” Mieke said as she walked back into the living room.
“Pleased to meet you, Sergeant?” She smiled weakly and shook his hand again.
“Ye….yes. Sergeant LoBianco. You can call me Bobby, if you like?” She nodded but did not offer any encouragement about his name nor encouragement about her own.
“I’ll make the sandwiches, Mama. You can visit with the Sergeant here, she said. She nodded to her mother and looked away when she noticed Bobby gazing at her. Too many words in too many letters between siblings meant too many secrets shared. They weren’t bad to her, but knowing her brother’s secrets meant knowing more of his friends than she could handle at the moment. She wanted to blurt out what she knew because she felt burdened and didn’t know what to do. But she bit her tongue and walked into the kitchen.
“My Joey….He loved you.” Mieke said; almost matter of fact. Bobby blushed at the endearment. Surely most parents wanted to believe that their soldier sons loved their comrades. What else could she mean? She tapped him on the arm.
“Oh, not that way, dom kind….” She laughed; a sweet laugh that reminded Bobby of his mother. She understood him? Did Joey’s mother ever understand him?
“It was very hard for my Joey when he was little. Joost Jacobsen. He was going to be everything for which his father had dreamed, ja? Like many boys and many fathers and many dreams? But Gott had other ideas. My child.” Mieke’s eyes began to mist.
“Joey was very brave,” Bobby said, looking away. It felt like no one would ever be as brave as Joey; least wise Bobby LoBianco. To face down fears of death and hurt and loss was one thing; as daunting as those things were. But facing life and destruction of another kind merely by opening up and telling a friend. And to find that friend not only sharing a fox hole, but an understanding soul; almost kindred as well.
“Lunch is ready. Kitchen okay, Mama?” Anneke stood at the doorway into the kitchen. The sunlight peering through the kitchen window back lit her and she appeared to have a halo around her head. She wasn’t a saint by any means, but her love for her brother and his trust in her heart had given her the means to help everyone remember Joey in a way that would be healing and filled with joy.
A while later…
Bobby sat across from Mieke, sipping a cup of coffee. The woman stared at him as if he was a long lost friend or relative, and in a way, he was exactly that to her and her daughter.
“Mama? May I show the Sergeant Joey’s room?” Anneke said as she put the last of the dishes in the cupboard. Mieke’s eyes grew wide in question. Anneke nodded slightly and smiled.
“I wish to help our new friend get to know more about Joey, ja?”
Anneke moved her gaze back and forth between Bobby and her mother. Mieke went to shake her head no, but something seemed to brighten just a bit in Anneke’s eyes; almost comforting. Whatever would come of how Bobby saw Joey once the day had ended, it would be all good, since Joey was who he was, and the love she and her daughter had for him would overcome anything that might arise from the truth. And Anneke knew much more about Bobby than Bobby knew about Joey. Mieke nodded; her reluctance pushed gently aside as Anneke’ smile reassured her that everything would be alright.
The two walked up the steep stairs to the second floor of the house. Anneke pointed to her left.
“That’s my room. I thought about striking out on my own when Joey came home,” she said almost without emotion, but the tears in her eyes belied her words. She turned around and faced the other way, pointing to a closed door.
“This is Joey’s room….” Her voice trailed off. She shook her head and sighed. Bobby noticed her turn her face away. He wanted to hold her…to comfort her. But who was there to comfort him? Who was there for his heartache; feelings unspeakable and unholy and wrong. Anneke stepped past him and opened the bedroom door.
“This is Joey’s room,” she repeated absent-mindedly. She walked inside and without warning grabbed Bobby’s hand; guiding him along. His face grew hot; feeling both uncomfortable for her touch and for entering the room. Almost like treading on holy ground. She noticed his face reddening and let go of his hand.
“I’m sorry, Sergeant. I did not mean to be forward.” She began to tear up once again. He avoided the temptation to provide solace and just nodded silently.
“Joey loved to play. Dr. Steen said to Mama that he could have been a virtuoso,” she pointed to a violin case lying on a threadbare throw covering a chair in the corner of the room. Bobby looked around and noticed that the room seemed almost pristine; as if it had been preserved. She noticed his expression.
“We haven’t had any need to touch anything, so it’s pretty much the way he left it.” She used her hand in a broad gesture to display the space. Bobby stared at the curtains, which looked more suited for a girl’s room than a young man’s. And then he noticed the bed, which was covered in a soft green spread, with large pillows that supported several stuffed animals. He stared at the teddy bear in the center and frowned as he remembered his last talk with Joey…..
“I can’t wait to get home, Bobby. I know things won’t be easy, but I have a feeling it will be alright. Can….can you keep a secret?” The boy blushed and Bobby nodded nervously, wondering where the conversation could lead after all the boy had already shared to his own peril.
“I ….I have a teddy bear. Back home. On my bed.”
“Your Mom won’t get rid of it, huh?”
“Oh no….. She doesn’t mind at all.” The boy looked off to the horizon, as if by staring hard enough he could see all the way across the world to his bedroom back home. He bit his lip as tears spilled off his face and into his canteen mug. Bobby took a deep breath; as if by listening further he himself was jumping into the deep end of a very murky pool; dirty but smooth enough on the surface to reflect his own shame.
“If we get back okay, I want you to make sure my sister takes care of him.” Even as the words came back, the light seemed to brighten and he found himself staring once again at the teddy bear.
“He…. He wanted you to have him….” Bobby pointed to the bear on the bed and Anneke put her hand to her face as she began to cry.
“I’m sorry, Miss Jacobsen. I didn’t mean to make you cry.” She continued to hold her left hand in front of her face even as her right hand reached out blindly to grasp his. She gasped and spoke.
“Not him…. Her.” She pointed in the general direction of the bed and Bobby stepped closer even as he continued to hold her hand. Reaching over, he picked out the bear from the pile of stuffed animals and only then noticed that the bear wore a dark blue skirt and what looked like ballet shoes.
“Anna Bearkova,” Anneke said with a sound that sounded like a laugh blended with a sob.
“I’m sorry, Sergeant. Our Joey was very different than probably every boy his age. He wanted so much to be…. He was, actually….. Our Joost was a boy to everyone outside this home, but when the doors were shut behind us at the end of the day and the windows were closed from listening ears, Joost was Johanna. Please forgive me?” She shook her head no at the prospect of Bobby’s rejection, but her hand slipped from in front of her face as her frown turned almost flat before she nodded.
“But then you already knew that?”
Anneke looked away, and her tears resumed, but not for her loss or even for Bobby’s grief over his friend, but for what her brother had shared for many months in letters sent and delayed and lost and found. Only after his death did she get a packet of letters that had been misplaced in transit, and his correspondence had become almost like a book to her. Each succeeding letter weaving a tapestry of intrigue and peril and even romance as she learned that Johanna had fallen in love. And that her love was forbidden and strange and wrong and sad and frightening and doomed.
And Anneke learned to love the one Johanna had come to cherish; almost like falling in love with a beloved character in a favorite story or play, but with real life implications because every single word that Johanna spoke in print was about a real, live human being.
“I don’t understand? I’m not following you.” Had Bobby been sharper he might have understood, but his mind was dulled from long sleepless nights filled with guilt over the death of his best friend. A few feet away from survival for Joey had meant also a few feet away from death for Bobby; almost lucky, but no one he knew, including himself, believed in anything but providence.
“Joost left home a man….a kind and gentle man who learned who he was inside by the reflection of character from his….from Johanna’s best friend. Every bit of care you gave Joost….my sister Johanna? It was out of love for her and out of understanding that could only come from empathy and not just sympathy.” Her nostrils flared ever so slightly as she wiped her face with her cardigan sleeve. Bobby stepped back away from her and bumped into the edge of the open door; barring his further retreat.
“I still don’t understand, Miss Jacobsen,” he practically snapped; his voice filled with anxious fear and confusion even as she stepped closer to him. She placed her left hand on his right cheek and felt his tears even as her own continued to fall as she spoke; softly and slowly with soothing and comfort that seemed to brush away his fears as easily as her hand wiped away the tears that rolled off his cheek.
“Johanna told me everything, my dear Sergeant.” His eyes widened in fear, provoking a gentle squeeze of his left hand by her right as she said at last.
“Thank you for loving our Johanna, my dear Roberta.”
Shortly thereafter, downstairs in the living room….
Bobby sat on the couch across from Mieke, who was sitting in a large, comfortable arm chair; holding a cup of coffee with both hands. The temperature had dropped outside and she had drawn the heavy curtains of the bay window closed; almost ironic since Bobby felt like he wanted to shut out the world from their conversation.
Anneke sat on the couch next to him. Try as he might, he was unable to keep any separation from the young woman, who had sidled closer as she held a letter she had pulled from a packet of envelopes sitting on the maple coffee table in front of the couch. He turned away slightly and almost expected her to grab his chin to redirect his attention toward her. She spoke.
I’m sorry I was so forward upstairs, Sergeant.” She smile nervously and put her head down slightly as her gaze fell upon the letter. She continued to speak without lifting her gaze.
“Johanna…. Joost wrote to me from almost the first day he arrived in Korea. But the letters got lost in transit and they arrived almost all at the same time. By the time they reached us the Army had already …..” She gasped and began to cry, but still continued to speak.
“Mama thought it would be good to read them all in order. We had no idea what he was going through….even though much of the first few months were a lot like how he was treated back home. The teasing and the cruel tricks…. The mean, evil things that were said by some of his ….they were supposed to…what’s the expression…. Have his back?” Bobby winced at her words; remembering his own horrible rite of passage that nearly coincided with Joey’s.
“He never once got angry. It was….” Mieke put her cup down on the saucer lying on the small table by the bay window.
“It wasn’t a retreat, but he found solace in remembering Johanna in his heart, and her words came through on the pages of each letter. More and more as the pressure grew for all of you. How horrible it was to read about the death and the loss day after day….For you and her to live it?” Mieke gasped. It was painful to remember, but even in that moment Bobby’s presence was a tangible comfort to them as they reminisced.
“She began to speak of someone she had met. At first it was just two G.I.s away from home and afraid. Not fearful, but just as worried as every other boy who wondered if their next breath would be their last.” Anneke said. She sighed at the thought, since she knew how things would progress through each succeeding letter.
“But the other boy was different as well. Almost like they should have been good friends from the beginning. And the more their friendship grew, the more they grew to trust each other.” Anneke said as she placed her hand on Bobby’s arm.
“I’m sorry if this is too personal, Sergeant, but you need to know just how much you did for Joost…for Johanna. I hope my word aren’t too muddled and confused,” she continued. By now all three names had become interchangeable. Joey…Joost… Johanna? They were all the same boy…the same being…. The same girl that Bobby had come to know in the brief month leading up to the boy’s death.
“It’s….it’s okay,” he managed to stammer even as the tears fell from his chin into his coffee. It had become entirely too personal; too personal not to talk about Johanna. Anneke squeezed his arm in reassurance.
“For her to open up to you in such a way? To feel safe enough to risk betrayal? I’m sorry that you….” Mieke sighed. Bobby nodded and spoke.
“T….toward the end, it was almost easy to be alone together. We spent so much time in the same foxholes….no matter what was going on….from one day to the next and from one hillside to the next?" He paused and blinked back tears.
" No one really wanted to be paired together with us. They didn’t know….they just didn’t like us all that much,” he stammered. Anneke turned away, wanting to comfort the young man and wanting to run from him at the same time. That attachment that had grown over months of reading her brother’s letters. For she had a secret as well.
“Johanna wrote one letter that seemed to be a hallmark of sorts….something that stood out among the last few letters we received. I have it here, Sergeant.” She didn’t bother to ask permission since everyone knew at that point in time that this one letter was meant for all of them to hear aloud; no matter how personal or painful or revealing it would be.
My Anneke…..I am in love. I am so afraid to tell…..Bobbie told me today just who she is. I am not surprised. Something from the first moment made me feel warm and whole and alive since I felt that I had someone beside you and Mama who finally understood me. Because she is just like me. I know it feels funny, since we sit in a hole in the ground up to our hips in snow and mud, but it might as well be us sitting in the living room back home sipping tea and talking about records and music and clothes.
“She doesn’t like boys. I was so happy to hear that, since I feel the same way. If I’m screwed up, I might as well go the whole route, right? Sorry. I don’t mean to tease.”
Anneke’s voice trailed off. Bobby turned around and faced her, noticing her cheeks had grown red and she was wiping the tears away with her hand. He wanted to grab her and hold her, but shame still had wedged itself between the two. She sighed deeply and continued.
It hurts to know that no matter how close we get as friends…. That no matter what fears and hurts and dreams and hopes we two share, we will never get to live our lives. I’m looking at her even as the horns have started blaring again, and all I want for her to do is to hold me. I could face a thousand deaths if I knew she loved me the way I love her. I know it’s silly. Two boys in dirty uniforms but that’s just how I feel. I’m halfway around the world trying to make things okay for people here when things will never be okay for me back home.”
Anneke gasped and sobbed at the last few words; not just for Johanna for the moments in her letter either.
“Go ahead, mijn lieve meisje.” Mieke said softly. Anneke nodded and began again.
Maybe in another time and another world, but I have no future. I would die a happy girl right now since I know I’m not alone, and even if she doesn’t share the same feelings, I finally have someone to love. I can only pray the same for you, but I fear we both will never be happy. I’m so sorry for the truth of that, but maybe someday you and I can both be happy? I have to end this. It has started to snow and the trumpets can stop at any time, and you already know what that means. I love you and Mama with all my heart. Give her a kiss for me and tell her ‘ hallo van uw dankbare dochter ; met veel liefde , Johanna’
Anneke had held it together until the salutation. Two grateful daughters; both born out of time, as the apostle once wrote. Out of place in a world that should know better after so long, but still leaving both girls without much hope. One sought and received comfort and solace if only for a little while. The other feeling hopeless still.
“If I may?” Mieke squeezed in between the two on the large couch and picked up one last letter.
”Dearest Anneke. I do not anticipate a future. Do not weep for me. If you read this, it means that Bobbie has found it and has sent it along. I miss you and Mama and one day we will be together, but for now, remember my love for you both.
And if somehow my dear Bobbie should find her way there to meet you, please greet her. I don’t imagine she will be ready to speak to you about herself. I do hope she will forgive me for breeching her very precious trust in me by my revelation. I had a chance to tell her about you, my sweet sister. I hope that she can find in you what she was unable to find in me.”
“I’m sorry, but she never got to finish this.” Mieke apologized as she turned to face Bobby.
“I found the letter already in an envelope. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, since I knew it was his…..her last communication to you.” He gasped and began to sob.
“She….I’m sorry, Bobby,” Anneke stammered. She stood up abruptly and ran upstairs. The bedroom door closed firmly; not a slam but nevertheless a sound that said please stay away.
“She’s in love with you even though you only just met. Each letter from Johanna was like a good friend telling her about a wonderful person. Not just sisters, but like girlfriends speaking in hushed whispers and giggles. But the more she wrote, the more it felt like she was giving up. Not giving up on herself or even life, but as if she wanted to give you to Anneke. I know it makes no sense at all, but we are who we are. You may be sitting her in my house wearing the uniform of a brave soldier, but underneath it all you are a girl. Can you deny that?” It wasn’t a question so much as a statement of fact.
“We promised each other we would meet after the war. I never thought it would be like this….” His voice trailed off as he wiped his face with his sleeve.
“I felt as if I would always have a home so long as she was alive. We …. We tried to be more than friends, but there was something. A check? A caution? I thought it was fear at first, but we were completely open with each other. Nothing would have prevented us….nothing. I am so sorry to shame your son’s memory like this. I should just go.” He tried very hard not to cry, but it was impossible at that point. He turned away and wept into the coarse fabric of the back of the couch.
“No shame, lieve kind. You honor my sweet Johanna with your friendship and the love you showed to her. She never felt bad about how things began to turn because in you she found a kindred spirit. A sister to cherish as much as our sweet Anneke.” Bobby winced without turning around. Something had happened in Korea to him as well. For every letter Johanna had shared with her sister, she had equally blessed Bobby with every letter from Anneke as well. If marriages and love are made in heaven, the crafting of those can sometimes come from afar.
“You knew about my daughter already?” Mieke’s gaze drifted toward the stairwell. Another statement rather than a question.
“Joey…Johanna shared everything with me. We tried to be lovers. But the more we shared the more we both became convinced that our paths might be parallel, but we weren’t meant to join. And the more we became convinced, the more she urged me to consider….I am so sorry, Mrs. Jacobsen. My life is wrong. I’m wrong. I wish for everyone’s sake that I was never born.”
“No,” a voice came from behind. Bobby sat up and turned to see Anneke at the foot of the stairs.
“It is for everyone’s sake that you were born, Bobbie LoBianco.” It was the first time since they had met that Anneke had uttered the name. Even in the semi-dark of the curtained living room…even as the young man sat on the couch garbed in the uniform of a hero, Bobbie LoBianco had come home.
“Mama? May show Bobbie my room?” She asked, her voice soft and respectful.
“It is your room to show, mijn lieve dochter. You may do as the Lord leads.” Mieke nodded and smiled. Anneke walked over to the couch and lifted Bobby to his feet. She grabbed his right hand in her left hand and slowly led him up the stairs.
Although you're many million dreams away
Each night I'll say a pray'r
A pray'r to guide you
To hasten every lonely hour
Of every lonely day
“You are much prettier than you know, Bobbie LoBianco,” Anneke said. The figure sat on the bed, trembling. A dark brown fall was pinned carefully to supplement her own hair . The girl looked at Anneke; perhaps her first view through her own eyes, in a way. Anneke stepped closer and lifted the girl to her feet and kissed her. It felt wrong and it felt guilty and it felt shameful for the first second until a kiss came suddenly by Bobbie’s right ear, followed by a gentle urge with words.
“A friend of mine once told me we are who we are by the grace of God, my dear girl. I’ve waited for you all my life, and now I’ve found you and you’ve found me. I do not know what the future may hold for us, but for tonight, we’re just two friends getting to know each other, though I feel I know you already. Will you know me as well?”
Bobbie LoBianco smiled nervously; not the nervousness of shame or doubt or fear, but merely the nervousness of wanting to do everything just right for the girl she had loved for so long even if she had only met her the day before. Anneke pulled her close and kissed her again even as the music drifted up the stairwell from the living room below and filled the bedroom with bliss.
But the memories we share are there to borrow
Vaya con dios, my darling
Vaya con dios, my love
Bobbie LoBianco smiled nervously; not the nervousness of shame or doubt or fear, but merely the nervousness of wanting to do everything just right for the girl she had loved for so long even if she had only met her just before New Years a few months before. Anneke pulled her close and kissed her again even as the music drifted up the stairwell from the living room below and filled the bedroom with bliss.
Wherever thou lodgest, I will lodge.
Thy people will be my people my love,
Whither thou goest, I will go!
For as in that story, long ago,
The same sweet love story, now is so,
Thy people shall be my people my love,
“Please, Bobbie?” Anneke pleaded as the young man stood at the bedside, throwing clothes into a duffel bag.
“I’m….” He put his head down even as his face grew red. The dilemma pulled at him painfully.
“Why, Bobbie?” Anneke put her hand on his shoulder. He winced and stepped around to the other side of the bed, pushing past her as softly as he could manage. How could he stay? What could he do that wasn’t shameful? No matter which choice he made, he felt as if he was betraying himself and in so doing, betraying Anneke.
“It….I have to go,” he sighed. He stared out the window to the street below. Nothing he did would be the right thing; only the lesser of two poor choices.
“They need me.” He breathed out a heavy sigh.
“Your brothers can help? Why does it have to be you? We….and you’re just getting started.” Anneke turned and stared at the open closet. In their case, a secret shared was a secret doubled in a way, since she had been helping her lover move past fear’ with an understanding just beginning to form out of news from other places with other, easier sensibilities. And of course, Anneke immediately questioned herself; feeling bad about trying to dissuade Bobby from helping his brothers with their mother.
He caught a glimpse of his reflection as he turned toward the doorway. The mirror over the dresser didn’t lie, but it might have fibbed a bit or maybe he was fibbing to himself. The man wasn’t big or strong or anything his family would expect upon his arrival. Even after only a few months with Anneke and her mother Mieke, the person he had always been emerged enough to at least blur lines and ideas and beliefs, and it was literally a shame that Bobbie was retreating to satisfy someone else even as she had begun to live.
“Bobby must do what Bobby must do, min datter,’ Mieke said softly from the doorway. She opened her arms and welcomed her erstwhile in-law into a farewell hug.
“Wherever you go, Kære we will be right here,” she said, patting the young man’s chest.
“And you here,” she pointed to her own heart. Anneke shuddered at the words the finality of her lover leaving perhaps forever. She burst into tears and pushed past Mieke and down the stairs, leaving Mieke and Bobbie staring at the doorway.
“I believe….We believe…. God zal met u gaan…. And will lead you in the way you should go. I know this is hard for you….maybe harder than before since you came out of your hiding and now you must return. But my Johanna believed in you as the one you have been the past few months….a blessing to my Anneke….and to me. And I will believe for your return. Not just here, but there as well.” She smiled and pointed to the closet door.
A short while later….
The taxi pulled away from the curb and moved slowly down the street. Mieke stood next to Anneke, rubbing her back softly as the girl leaned against the front doorway, sobbing.
“God zal een weg te maken….” She kissed Anneke’s cheek as the girl turned and buried her face in Mieke’s sleeve.
Tuckahoe, New York, several weeks later…
“You okay, Bob?” Tony put his hand on his brother’s back. As close to affection as the family got, since hugging wasn’t something boys did.
“I’m sorry,” Carmine said as he walked into the living room. He handed Bobby a mug of coffee.
“Wasn’t your fault,” Bobby said with a sigh. Both older brothers missed the horror of Korea. Carmine had already served in North Africa and had one good leg to show for it. Tony was stationed state side; serving as security for a munitions plant in New Jersey.
“I….” Tony turned away. The newness of Bobby’s arrival had already worn off and all three LoBianco boys were feeling the stress of the task at hand. Tony had been at home; taking a leave of absence from school. Carmine did what he could, but taking care of their mom had taken its toll on them both, and they needed a break now that Bobby had returned home. Splitting their mother's care was helpful, but who can bear up under the anticipation of grief that comes from a parent who is dying?
“Please don’t be angry at me?” Tony sighed in reply.
“We don’t get to tell our bosses where we want to go. You stayed here because they said so. I understand. Really.” He shrugged. Something was going on that was very apparent to Carmine and Tony.
“Sounds like you’re upset anyway, damn it. I’m trying as hard as I can.” Tony pled. Carmine nodded and Bobby half-smiled; leaving Tony confused.
It…it has nothing to do with you, Tony. Really. Just let it alone, okay?” Bobby said sharply before walking quickly down the hall to his mother’s room. Carmine turned to Tony and shrugged in confusion. Tony nodded slightly.
“We’re doing a really good job of dancing around the elephant in the room, Carm….” He looked down the hall and continued.
“I don’t know what the fuck to think about it, but I’m not about to lose my baby brother. He’s hurt…deep inside, Carm, and it didn’t start when he got to Korea. I don’t get it at all, but hell, you should understand above anyone else. At least when it comes to being over there. The shit he saw? The stuff he went through? And….” Tony’s voice trailed off as he looked down the hallway once again in his own confusion. Between what he was learning in school and what he read, the combat fatigue might be the least of Bobby’s worries, but what could he possibly do? The answer would be fortuitous if completely awkward and heart-rending.
Sunday afternoon, a few weeks later...
“Mommy? You up for some soup? Carm made some minestrone.” He put his hand on the low post of the footboard to steady himself. Patty smiled weakly and nodded.
“Bobby? Are you alright?” she asked. He stopped at the doorway. A long answer might help later and a short answer wouldn’t really do, so he lied.
“Yeah, mom. You mind if I eat lunch with you?” She smiled again with a bit more energy. He walked out and in a few minutes was back with a tray table with two bowls of minestrone. He put the table down to left as he sat down in the folding chair by her bed. Slow, tender efforts at feeding her had little success other than the connection it provided for them.
“Sorry….not too hungry,” she said with a half-frown. She was a proud woman who had worked every day of her life from the time she was little. Always about everyone else and what she could do; a housewife, a mother, even a nurse when the boys were old enough to care for themselves. Bobby turned and faked a cough to hide his tears; torn in two over her impending death and the death of his own soul now that he had returned to his life at home. Hislife.
“Bobby? You know you can’t fool me?” Her voice was weak but her tone was strong; conviction that shoved illness aside at least for the moment as the strong mother he always knew. He took one last stab at fibbing, but she rose up on her elbows and spoke.
“Come here!” She used her glance to point to the empty chair. He walked over and sat down.
“Mommy needs to know you’ll be okay, honey. Okay?” He shook his head slightly and she grabbed his wrist with more strength than he had seen since he came home. She squeezed and then patted his wrist before using her hand to pull his face closer; intimate and precious encouragement.
“We know why you’re sad, baby.” She sighed and he stifled a gasp at the word. He was sad. And he was heartbroken about her and how little time she had left. But they shared a secret that no one else could understand.
“I think…. Maybe I need time with Bobby, okay?” He winced and she patted his cheek softly.
“Carmine will be at work tomorrow and Tony is going to be in school, so we have all day, baby.”
“That….it’s gone, Mom. We can’t.” His heart was pounding and he began to cry.”
“No, Bobby. Not…yet. Please? If not for you then for me? I thought I had lost you. Both of you.”
“No, please?” He continued to cry; ashamed and scared even as his mother’s love began to gently pull away his defenses.
“For me, mi figlia?”
The next day…
The woman stood at the dresser looking at her reflection. She sighed in frustration until she heard a voice from behind.
“Honey, it’s okay. Just think Jean Arthur instead of Rita Hayworth. And I’ve always said that green becomes you.”
“I… I’m not a kid anymore, Mommy,” the woman said; her endearment almost contradicting her. But she was no longer a teen in Bobby Sox but a mature woman; handsome if not pretty in that way.
“No, but you still have so much of you to share. And now? Things are new and people are changing.”
“I can’t, Mom.”
“You may? Who knows, my baby?” Her endearment spoke to her child’s role in her heart. She patted the bed and Bobbi walked slowly toward her. She wore a simple green dress; full skirted with low heels. Clip on paste diamonds and a matching necklace and green pumps completed the look. She sat down and smoothed out her skirt nervously before bursting into tears as she fell into her mother’s arms.
“Mom?” A voice called from the hallway. Bobbi sat up and looked at the closed bedroom door in fear. Patty grabbed her son’s hand even as a soft knock came at the door followed by not one but two voices.
“Is it okay to come in, Mom?” Tony asked followed by Carmine.
“We ran that errand you wanted, Mom?”
“Yes, boys? Please?” Patty squeezed Bobby’s hands even as a look of horror crossed his face. The door opened softly as her sons walked into the bedroom. Bobby shuddered a bit as they approached the bed. Carmine held a bottle of wine and four stemmed goblets in his hand. Tony held a garment bag. He placed it at the foot of the bed.
“I don’t know what this all means, but Mom told us about your letters and how things were with you right after Dad died. How you and she…” Tony paused as his gaze darted back and forth between Bobby and their mother.
“I’m not happy with this at all,” Carmine interjected, evoking a gasp from Bobby.
“I….I still love you, kid. I just don’t understand.” His eyes plead for forgiveness. Bobby went to grab his hand but pulled back. Carmine leaned closer and took his hand anyway.
“I’m not happy because I don’t get it. But you get it, you know? And….you….”
“You’ll know this better than anyone. It’s all crazy, I know. And I hope I can ….” Tony interjected.
“No…no…” Bobby began to sob. He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder. Tony had zipped open the garment bag, revealing a dress. Navy blue with gold piping. Bobby gasped once again as Patty put her hand on his back.
“You always liked this one, honey. Tony took it to the cleaners to spruce it up.” Bobby turned around in disbelief; facing all three in turn as they smiled back at the baby in the family.
“And there’s a few packages we put in your room to go along with a few suitcases for your trip.”
“Trip?” Bobby wiped the tears from her chin with her hand.
“You’ve got a tour to make…. Not like Korea, you know, but just as important. Daddy left some money…a lot of money in fact.“ Carmine smiled.
“Short trip at first. There’s a doctor in the city you need to see. I did a bit of research and asked a few questions. And this….” Tony pulled a newspaper out of his jacket; the head line read ‘Ex-GI Becomes Blond Beauty.’
“You knew?” Bobby turned to his mother who shrugged and laughed softly.
“A mother always knows, baby.”
“We don’t have to figure this all out and we…Tony and me? We don’t have to understand. We just love you, kid,” Carmine said as his eyes filled with tears.
“For me?” Patty insisted once again with a wry smile. Of course it would be for her, but most of all it would be for the baby in the family. Her only daughter, so to speak. Bobby looked at them all in turn once again as they nodded in question. Bobby nodded back before falling back into Patty’s arms once again.
St. Joseph's Cemetery, Yonkers, New York, a few weeks later...
The well-wishers approached the family. Two men dressed in suits and one young man dressed in his uniform at his mother’s last request. A proud mother who raised children of character and caring. Tony patted Carmine on the back and motioned for them to move a few feet away.
Bobby stepped close to the grave and took off his cap and spoke.
“I’m… so happy we had some time before….” He hesitated. Looking over at his brothers, he took a deep breath.
“This isn’t good-bye, Mom. I’ll still be here…” He patted his chest.
“ I love you so much. I’ll see you, okay?” Sgt. Robert LoBianco wiped his face with his jacket sleeve and walked back to his brothers. Carmine stepped close and did something he could have sworn only weeks before that he’d never do. He kissed Bobby on the cheek. Pulling back, he and Tony smiled as Tony spoke.
“Andare con Dio la nostra sorella,”
Jacobsen's Book Dealers, Staten Island, New York, 1957….
The tall woman walked into the back of the bookstore and into the storeroom. Two sets of eyes fell upon her and two smiles greeted her as well.
“Are you two finished with inventory?”
Anneke turned to Bobbi and nodded. Two spinsters who had gained an odd if quiet ‘notoriety’ in the neighborhood as maybe being ‘those' kind of girls. But in Staten Island in their neighborhood back then, it was pretty much live and let live. And so they did. She pulled Bobbi close to her and looked over her shoulder. Mieke turned and walked out of the storeroom, but not before she winked and smiled. She closed the door behind her as Anneke pulled her lover close. And Bobbi leaned closer and bestowed upon Anneke another one of many forbidden kisses that would span a lifetime.
Wherever thou lodgest, I will lodge.
Thy people will be my people my love,
Whither thou goest, I will go!
For as in that story, long ago,
The same sweet love story, now is so,
Thy people shall be my people my love
Whither Thou Goest
Words and music by
As performed by
Les Paul and Mary Ford
Vaya Con Dios
words and music by
Larry Russell, Inez James,
and Buddy Pepper
as performed by
Les Paul and Mary Ford
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.