When I opened the envelope and read the card, I almost lost it again. But losing the man you love in such a senseless and random way makes losing it all again as easy as opening just another envelope.
It was on the Saturday afternoon two months after the funeral, I found the card in the mailbox of our Glendale, Arizona home. It looked for all the world to be another card from someone wishing to extend their condolences on the loss of my husband, Major Jack Smithson. Jack and his best friend, Captain Frank Garrett, disappeared on a backpacking trip when a flash flood turned a usually placid stretch of the Gila River into a roaring killer. The shoreline overhang where they were standing collapsed and they were washed away with it. Their bodies still hadn’t been found.
When you’re the wife of a fighter jock, when the your husband’s squadron commander at Luke Air Force Base chaplain arrives at your door with the base chaplain, you know it’s bad news. A flame-out or equipment failure on a $20 million F-16 can turn you into a widow in nothing flat. But to lose Jack and Frank just as quickly in the most, oh, natural of ways, was a devastating shock.
Now, this card. It read:
“I’m not dead. Meet me Tuesday night at 8:00 at the Bluebird. Tell no one.”
The Bluebird Inn was over on the other side of Mesa, where Jack and I would meet when we started our affair. Yep, I, Cody Blaine, was the “other woman” who broke up Jack’s marriage with his first wife, Mary. But the heart wants what the heart wants and Jack wanted me and I craved him as I had no other man.
It had been sinfully exciting, meeting your lover in a cute little hotel just forty miles from Luke, where Jack was a flight instructor. And, as sexy as a super-confident jock can look zipped into a tight and freshly pressed flight suit with a blue silk scarf dotted with tiny white stars tucked inside his collar, Jack was even more so zipped out of it.
After the divorce, Jack would trot me out for all his squadron mates to ogle. He flaunted me like he did that sky-blue and blood-red Air Force Cross ribbon on his uniform. Just one step down from a Congressional Medal of Honor. I was his second-greatest decoration, but that’s the military for you.
The officers’ wives and girlfriends didn’t take to me too well at first. Not until Frank Garrett’s wife, Lili, who Jack said was about the level of an Air Force Commendation Medal, took me under her wing, so to speak. She was from Germany and she and Frank had met when he was based at Ramstein.
“Oh, Cody, never mind these zees prom queens. Say vill come around eventually. Zee sisterhood of vives is tighter den zee phony brudderhood of squadron mates,” Lili told me.
Without Lili, I couldn’t have made it through the past days and weeks after our men were lost.
And now this card.
All day Tuesday I could barely keep it together at the law office where I worked as a paralegal, mostly matrimonial and tort cases.
Around 3:00, my phone rang. It was Lili.
“Cody, dahling, how would you like to come over for dinner tonight?” she asked.
“Um, that’s very sweet of you, Lil, but I have an appointment later. I’d hate to eat and run,” I said. As if I would be able to sit still, let alone keep this kind of news from someone as perceptive as Lili.
“Cody, dear, I need to talk to someone and those bleach-blonde, Hennen have all gone cluck-cluck home to roost, leaving me alone here. Please come over. choose a bite or even a drink. Say 5:30?”
I held my breath.
“Sure, Lili. I’ll come over, sweetie. Around 5:30? But I can only stay for an hour. This appointment and all,” I said.
“Thank you, Cody, dahling. Zee you then,” she said.
I had hoped to go home and get a fresh outfit and a new face before rushing to the Bluebird, but I didn’t’t want to arouse any suspicion about “my meeting.”
Lili met me at the door in her standard afternoon wardrobe of a two-piece bathing suit and a wrap around her hips. How Jack could call this strawberry-blond beauty a second-rate decoration was beyond me. If I was ever to swing that way, this glamorous Teutonic goddess would top my list.
“Cody, sank you for coming, dahling. Come, join me out by the pool,” she said, and half-dragged me through the house and out under the pergola she had draped in a blue fabric.
“The usual, Darling?” Lili asked.
“Just one, Lili sweets. I’ve got that drive later and all.” I figured I needed a belt to help calm my nerves anyway.
“Zo vot have you been doing with yourself the past couple of weeks? Anything new?” she asked.
I took too big a mouthful of the gin martini she had poured me from a sweating silver shaker she had sitting in ice waiting for me.
“Oh, you know, I’ve thrown myself back into work. I’m sorry I haven’t stopped by sooner, or given you a call. It’s just…” It was all too much.
I understand, dahling. I choose wander around the house, drink by the pool. Too many memories. I sink I’m going down to Mexico for a while. I’m leaving this weekend. Would you like to join me?” she asked.
“Uh, wow. That’s out of the blue. Um, I…I just couldn’t do that right now, Lili. Maybe in another month or so. Plus, work, ya know?” I glanced at the watch Jack gave me for our fifth anniversary. It was just after 6:30.
“Oh, damn it. Sweetie, I really have to get to my meeting. Please forgive me. I’ll give you a call, okay?”
I didn’t exactly hit Mach One on the drive around Mesa, but I know I committed a handful of violations up to and including skidding past a bicyclist as I slid into a parking place.
The Bluebird has a small restaurant and bar, so I rushed into that entrance and stood there for a few seconds letting my eyes accustom to the change in light. But I didn’t need to see all that well when I heard that voice call from the bar, “Cody, over here.”
“Frank!” I shouted and ran to the love of my life, jumping into his arms.
“Hiya, love. What’s new?” he said. He took my hand and led me to our room. Or, more accurately “our room.”
“How? Where? Why? Why did you put me through this, you jerk?” I said through tears.
“When Jack and I got swept away by the river, we were separated and I lost him. Last I saw him he was bobbing behind a cottonwood trunk as it was headed downstream at about forty knots. I’m sorry, honey.”
“His body still hasn’t been found. He was an arrogant and mentally abusive man, but once I loved him with all my heart. I just never knew how much his heart was really into fast planes and golden eagles on his shoulders,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I figure I’ve had enough of the Air Force. About as much as I had of Brünhilde,” he said.
“Frank, be nice. She loves you as much as I do.”
“Nah, she just loves the life, the travel. Not sure she counted on Arizona desert, though. Divorce was dealing the cards and I knew she was going to take me for everything, just as you used to say about other officers’ wives cases you dealt with in your practice. So when Mother Nature slipped me a hole card, I figured being dead was better than being sucked dry for the rest of my life. ‘Cause she sure as shit isn’t going to remarry and lose all the estate, insurance and bennies she got as an officer’s wife. So, here I am, the newest pilot for Trans-Polynesia Airways offering you a ticket to join me in Paradise. what do you say, Cody? Let’s go be a jet-setting Adam and Eve,” Frank said.
“I…I don’t know, Frank. This is so sudden. I mean you know I’d go anywhere with you, but I can’t pull up stakes tomorrow and go all grass skirts and luaus. I need just a little time is all.”
“Well, sure. I gotta get off the mainland by the end of the week, but we have time, Cody. I came back here for you and I intend to be with you as much as I can between now and whenever I really go Tango Uniform, wherever that happens,” Ben said. “Now c’mere.”
And that was that. Frank left Friday via some circuitous, less than legal route. I tendered my resignation at the firm and arranged to rent my house to the family of one of pilots rotated in to fill out Jack and Frank’s slots.
I was collecting my last batch of mail before it was to start traveling to the islands like I was. There among the advertising flyers and shameless investment come-ons aimed at the newly minted widow Smithson, was an envelope with a return address of El Pescadero, Baja California Sur, Mexico. I knew it had to have come from Lili.
With a little sheepishness, I sliced open the envelope and pulled out a card within which was a photograph wrapped in a sheet of notepaper. I pulled the photo out and my knees buckled. Posing on a Pacific Ocean beach was Lili Garrett wrapped around a man with a salt and pepper beard wearing Air Force issue sunglasses. Around her hips, in her barely-there bikini, Lili had wrapped a blue silk scarf dotted with white stars.
On that May afternoon, on that white beach, under the Mexican sun, draped over Jack like that, she looked like a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Here’s my kick-off piece for Story-a-Day May. I was hoping to write something at 1,000 words or less, but the darn first draft took off on me like an F-16 fighter jet on afterburners. The prompt from Julie Duffy’s Story-a-Day site was to use the secret card scenario as a jumping off point. Afraid I really JUMPED.