by Lawrence F. Farrar
Jeff Collingsworth, Ensign USNR, crossed the lobby of the Long Beach Officers’ Club and plunged into the din of the Friday evening happy hour. He spotted Phil Milton propped against the bar drinking beer and trying–unsuccessfully–to catch peanuts in his mouth. Jeff edged through the chattering, laughing crowd to join his shipmate.
“Thought you had the duty tonight,” Collingsworth said and climbed up on a stool.
“I did. But, I needed to get off the ship. You know.” Like a casting director surveying the candidates, Milton nodded in the direction of a pair of thirtyish women who passed through the barroom into the adjacent lounge. “Boy, would I like to score with that blond.”
Collingsworth, tall and lithe, with innocent brown eyes, and close cropped hair, grinned. “So, let me guess. You got Haskins to stand by for you.”
“Yeah. Said he wanted to study his Dutton’s navigation manual. Unlike yours truly, he’s cut out for the monkish life. Not me, buddy. Not me.” Red-faced and squared jawed, Milton lifted weights and, like a professional wrestler, he seemed to have no neck.
“I have to admit he’s pretty straight-laced, and you’re, well . . .”
“Horny, man. Perpetually, everlastingly horny.” Milton shifted his scrutiny to the wife of an officer seated with friends at a corner table. “How’d you like to wake up next to that, Jeff?”
Ensigns Collingsworth and Milton had reported aboard the aircraft carrier earlier that summer following college graduation and ROTC commissioning. The ship was in training for a Vietnam combat assignment in the Western Pacific (WestPac). Both young officers had been assigned to the ship’s gunnery department, and both stood their underway watches on the bridge. They also shared the rigors of living in the junior officer bunk room, located directly beneath the ship’s steam catapults. The compartment shuddered and clattered like a subway station every time a plane was launched.
“WestPac widows. That’s what they were. I bet those two we saw a minute ago were WestPac widows,” Milton said.
Collingsworth gave his friend a puzzled look. “I’m not sure I . . .”
“Where you been, Jeff? That’s all those lieutenants talk about. And, if anybody’s been around, it’s those guys.”
“Well, I did hear . . .” In fact, Collingsworth had eavesdropped in awe while two or three of the officers, playing after-dinner bridge in the wardroom, catalogued their conquests.
“Look, Jeff, the husbands are deployed to the Western Pacific for six or eight months. And the wives get, shall we say, a little lonely. They come here to the club looking for, you know, a bit of male companionship. And if they run into some studly ensigns like us, well everybody’s happy.” Milton spoke with seeming authority. He exuded confidence of a sort Collingsworth wished he had but could rarely muster.
“But, Phil, they’re married women, and . . . it doesn’t seem fair to the officers who are at sea. Besides, isn’t it risky?”
“God, Jeff, were you born yesterday? The husbands are over there screwing some Filipina or Japanese girl every time they hit port. So it all evens out.”
“Maybe, but I’m not so sure . . .”
“Besides not all of them are married. Some are divorcees–just can’t get enough Navy, if you catch my drift.”
“It’s probably just talk. Wishful thinking. Just like all those sea stories they keep feeding us. My guess is that WestPac widows are a myth,” Collingsworth declared.
He quickly worked his way through an ice-laden gin and tonic; a summer drink he’d decided was fashionable in California Navy social circles.
“Let’s go eat. Maybe the action will get better later on,” Milton said.
The noise level had shot up another decibel, and people jostled two deep at the bar. Murky, blue smoke thickened the air. The ensigns greeted two lieutenants from the ship who were playing liar’s dice. Those old salts, in their mid-20s, like minor nobles greeting their vassals, nodded, then returned to their game.
Steering a sinuous course, the ensigns squeezed through a disharmonious chorus of men and women vocalizing around a piano. Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Zamboenga. Oh, the monkeys . . .
In the dining room Collingsworth gulped another gin and tonic, and Milton downed a fourth or fifth beer while they studied the menu.
“Think I’ll ask the waiter if they’ve got any raw oysters. Gotta stay in training you know,” Milton said.
Collingsworth let the reference to oysters go by. “I think I’ll have the prime rib.” He’d acquired a taste for prime rib and Yorkshire pudding after a visit to a Los Angeles restaurant on LaCienaga Boulevard. For a young man from a small Indiana town and an equally small college, consuming such food seemed a mark of distinction. Lieutenants (jg) VanIstendal and Sanborn, Ivy Leaguers who in Collingsworth’s eyes oozed sophistication, had likely long dined on such fare. In uniform or in civilian clothes, they always seemed so sure of themselves. As soon as he had accumulated enough money, Collingsworth intended to buy a jacket at Brooks Brothers, perhaps even a suit.
Milton cleaned up the remnants of a Porterhouse steak, “rare, with all the trimmings.” His mouth full, he tapped Collingsworth on the arm and signaled with his eyes toward the dining room entrance. The two women Milton had flagged earlier had acquired dinner partners, and the foursome waited to be guided to a table.
“Damn,” Milton muttered. “Look who they’re with–a lieutenant commander and a commander. I’ll bet they picked them up in the lounge.”
“Looks like your WestPac widows go for older men,” Collingsworth said. “Guess you’re out of luck.”
“Damn it, Jeff, we should have made a move on them.”
Was Milton’s assessment on the mark? Did these women really come to the club to get picked up? Not likely. Collingsworth could barely make them out in the dimly lit room–one was a tall, willowy, bleached blond and the other a petite brunette. Both had on flowered summer dresses, appropriately modest, in keeping with the club’s dress code.
“Gotta make a head call; beer’s going right through me.” With that, Milton pushed back in his chair, got up, and stepped smartly off for the men’s room.
A server cleared the dishes.
“I’ll wait until my friend gets back to decide on dessert,” Collingsworth said.
He lighted a Marlboro and inhaled deeply. He hadn’t smoked until he joined the Navy. But, it seemed all the officers and enlisted men smoked. They also drank thick black coffee, so he did the same. Coffee, he decided, was like the lifeblood of the Navy. Ensign Collingsworth was navigating his way in a new world.
This ought to get Phil stirred up, he thought. The hostess had delivered the foursome that had been the focus of Milton’s attention to a table just one removed from their own. The lieutenant commander, a large-faced, jowly man, was coming on strong. He struck Collingsworth as the sort of person who thinks he’s smooth, but really isn’t. He spun out jokes, with all the subtlety of a SWAT team battering in a door.
Now that he could see their faces better, gently lighted by a small lamp on their table, Collingsworth could understand Milton’s enthusiasm–the women were lookers. It also struck him they were bored.
He realized he was staring when one of the women caught his eye. She had a pretty face, dark eyes, and shiny black hair that hung down her back. Her expression, when their eyes met, was neither condemnatory nor inviting. Her eyes said, simply, I know you are looking at me.
After Milton returned, the ensigns lingered at their table, deciding where to go next.
“Let’s head over to the Tahitian Village, have a quick one, then go downtown,” Milton said. “Some of the guys are going to be at Miriam Baird’s. They say it’s a great night club. A band, a super-stocked bar, and plenty of unattached girls–what do you say?”
“Well, we’re getting underway pretty early in the morning, and I . . . .”
The brunette stood up and sashayed toward the dining room entrance. Did she move her hips that way intentionally? WestPac widows? Did Milton really know what he was talking about?
Milton tracked Collingsworth’s gaze. “Nice stuff. Probably headed for the powder room.” The restrooms were located just off the club’s lobby.
His resolve galvanized by Morton’s flow of sex-laden talk, Collingsworth made an impetuous decision. He’d kick over the conventions of his upbringing; he’d be no Haskins.
“If I don’t come back, pick up my chit. Pay you later,” Collingsworth suddenly said. He put down his folded napkin, got up and walked purposefully out of the dining room.
“Hey, Jeff, where are you going?” But, a startled Milton got no answer.
Collingsworth stationed himself in the lobby, reading with studied casualness club notices posted on a bulletin board. But, his emotions danced. He felt as if a squadron of butterflies had taken up residence in his stomach.
She came out of the ladies’ room, stopped to examine a concessionaire’s jewelry display, and then started back toward the dining room. She was as attractive as he’d thought; a turquoise necklace disappearing down the scooped neck of her dress made her even more alluring. Collingsworth’s heart went into overdrive; he’d never done anything this impulsive.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Jeff.” Gin-inspired, Collingsworth opted for a direct approach; it worked for Ensign Keith in the Caine Mutiny.
She smiled–an accommodating smile, a sympathetic smile. God, she must be more than thirty years old. He’d never gone out with an “older woman.”
“It didn’t look like you were having much fun there in the dining room,” he said.
“What makes you think that?” She had a silk-soft voice, colored with the hint of an accent he couldn’t place.
“Just an impression.” He reached deep for courage and said, “I was wondering if you’d like to go somewhere else . . . and have a drink with me.”
“Sure. We could go over to The Reef. It has a nice view of the harbor, and . . .”
“Why do you think I’d leave my . . .”
“My car is just outside . . .”
“Why not? Just one drink.” She hooked her arm through his. It was that simple.
After the drink–and two or three more–they drove to her apartment in Brentwood. They never reached the bed, the living room sofa served just as well. Later, rapturous and reluctant to leave her, Collingsworth drove off in the darkest morning hour; his ship was going to sea for flight operations at 0600. Cruising down the Long Beach Freeway through the smog that made LA famous, he dwelt on her lack of inhibition, on her ability and willingness to please, and on the physicality of her stimulating embraces. It had been, he concluded, the greatest night of his twenty-one years on earth.
“So, you latched on to one of those WestPac widows.” Milton peered knowingly across his scrambled eggs in the wardroom. “I have to hand it to you, Jeff, old buddy. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“She’s not one of those women, Phil. No WestPac widow, creatures, which, by the way, are most likely products of your sex-damaged imagination.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah. That’s so. She has an office job at UCLA and came down to the O Club with her friend who works at the base.”
“Is that what she told you?”
“Yeah. That’s what she told me. Those guys were her friend’s friends. It’s true. She’s very nice.”
“Does she have a name?”
“Of course. Her name is Mona.”
“Mona Saunders, if you have to know. Said her folks were originally from Britain, but moved to South America, then here.”
“South America? Really? If you believe all that, Jeff, I’ve got this really nice bridge I’d like to sell you.”
“Why wouldn’t I believe her?” Collingsworth said.
“A nice girl–or should I say woman–who tipped over for you on the first night?”
Collingsworth grinned sheepishly. “Come on, Phil. We talked a lot too. We just hit it off.”
“You’re envious, that’s all. You probably scored a big fat zero.”
“Okay, lover, I have to go on watch.”
The week at sea dragged by. What did Milton know anyway? He probably never encountered a girl like Mona at East Arkansas Tech or wherever it was he went to school. Fortunately, aside from a feeble joke about black widow spiders and an attempt to hum a few bars from “The Merry Widow,” both of which went over Collingsworth’s head like rounds from the ship’s five inch guns, Milton seemed inclined to give it a rest.
On Friday afternoon, guided by tugs, the ship eased alongside Pier Echo in the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Well before the trill of the bosun’s pipe signaled liberty call, Collingsworth, already dressed in civilian clothes, paced about the edge of the quarterdeck. Like a prisoner just paroled, he was eager to hit the beach. He’d convinced good old Haskins to swap duties, so he could be free for the entire weekend. As soon as he could escape the ship, he rushed down the brow and headed for the officers’ parking lot. Mona had promised to meet him at the Pirates’ Cove Restaurant for dinner–their first real date.
He found her waiting on a red leather settee in the restaurant lobby. A host wearing a pirate’s eye patch led them into the Buried Treasure Room. Collingsworth thought the restaurant must be cool; it was a favorite hangout for Milton and others. Suddenly, however, worry seized him; what if Mona found the place too unsophisticated, too hokey?
As if to reassure him, she said, “Isn’t this a fun place, Jeff?” And she smiled encouragingly when the waiter delivered concoctions described on the drink menu as “Caribbean Rum Delights.” Collingsworth abandoned his effort to focus on his dinner, so mesmerized was he by this woman with her alluring dark eyes, provocative lips, and shapely body–like so many homing beacons, all transmitting come hither signals he could not resist, even had he wished to do so–which he did not.
Later, pressed against her on the dance floor, the delicious fragrance of her perfume and the contours of her body stirred him.
“Let’s go to your place,” he murmured into her hair.
“Oh, yes,” she said.
On the way out, she ducked into the ladies room.
“Well, look who’s here.” Just arrived, Milton and two other officers trailed the man with the eye patch.
“Where’s your widow, old buddy?”
“Lay off, Phil. I told you she’s not like that,” Collingsworth said. “You’ve been listening to too many stories.”
“You know what they say about older women?”
“Spare me.” What did they say about older women? He had no idea.
“Okay. Okay. See you later.” The officers hovered at the dining room entrance like birds of prey and wheeled around just as Mona came out. Collingsworth saw them eye her, elbow one another, and laugh.
Envy, nothing but envy.
That night she joined him in the shower–soapy, slippery, and slitheringly satisfying. Collingsworth deemed himself the most fortunate of men. And the following night, before he went back to the base, they parked on a deserted service road in an oil field. The pumps that surrounded them, bobbed up and down in the faint light of a gibbous moon, like a herd of perpetually nodding donkeys. She moved as rhythmically as the pumps. He returned to the junior officer bunk room in a euphoric daze, filled with the experience.
In the days that followed, Mona insinuated her way into every corner of his mind. Collingsworth’s pursuit of this wonderful creature he’d chanced upon was all-out and–save for his military duties–full time. Mona commanded center stage in his thoughts. She told him she’d attended a local school in Buenos Aires when she was a girl. That accounted for the accent. She didn’t tell him much else, but in the weeks ahead he intended to learn a great deal about this woman.
In her apartment she served him cognac–the first he’d tasted. She dazzled him with talk of books she’d read, plays she’d seen. She’d told him she’d recently been to the Griffith Park Greek Theater to see “Coppelia.” He didn’t let on he didn’t know it was a ballet, but he eventually figured it out.
Not only did he consider her cerebral, she had to be the most sexually exciting female he’d ever met–or even imagined. He had only to picture her stepping out of her slip–the rest followed. He’d been involved with two or three girls in college, but none possessed the know-how or just plain enthusiasm for sex Mona did. He happily lost track of the variations.
Four weeks after their first meeting, the ship went alongside at North Island in San Diego, and on Saturday Mona drove down from Los Angeles. They had lunch at the Hotel del Coronado (he had trouble with the menu, and the wine list baffled him), then found a motel in El Cajon. Once more she thrilled and enthralled him.
The following week, they sped across the desert in her convertible to Las Vegas and two nights at the Hacienda Hotel (disastrously inappropriate bets undercut his feigned familiarity with the gaming world). Like someone outside himself, he watched while she played blackjack. He watched while she lounged beside the pool. He watched while she undressed. He watched while she paid the bill. Immersed in a sea of infatuation, he was confident she shared his sense of physical and emotional attachment.
In the weeks since Collingsworth summoned the courage to approach the unknown woman at the Officers’ Club, he’d entered a new reality, in his eyes surely a more sophisticated, more exciting one than any he could have imagined in Greenville, Indiana. And at the center of it all was this enchanting, stunning, soul-grabbing woman who had chosen him, him among all the possibilities, to be her lover.
A few days after the Las Vegas outing, Collingsworth and Milton stood on the carrier’s fantail at sunset, watching flying fishes skim across the ship’s wake. “Hey there, old buddy,” Milton said, “I suppose the next thing you’ll be telling us is that you’re getting married.”
“Come on, Phil, stow it.”
“You sure this babe’s not taking you for a ride?”
“I told you, she’s not like that.”
Collingsworth could barely suppress the smugness. Indeed, although he realized it might be premature, he had, in fact, begun to consider how he would introduce Mona to his parents. She might intimidate them. He’d have to think it through. He supposed he’d need to learn more about her upbringing. They were, after all, small town people, family people.
As he had each Monday through Friday since meeting Mona, Collingsworth endured the five days at sea, brimming with anticipation. On Friday afternoon, as soon as the lines had been doubled up, clutching a handful of quarters, he hustled off the ship to a pay phone on the pier.
“Mona? Should I drive up to LA? Or do you want to meet somewhere?”
“I’m sorry, Jeff. Something has come up.”
“Okay, how about some tennis and lunch at the club tomorrow?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
Collingsworth experienced a rush of terrible unease. His stomach parked somewhere near the bottom of the phone booth.
“Tomorrow night? A movie?”
“Jeff, you are a nice young man. I like you a lot, and you’re very sweet but . . .”
Sweet? She thought he was sweet? His new Brooks tie strangled him.
“But, Mona . . . I don’t understand, I . . .”
“Bob’s squadron is flying in to Los Alamitos tomorrow and . . .”
“I meant to tell you, but . . .”
“Bob?” His heart left him. There was a Bob?
“We’d had a big fight, and I thought we were headed for a divorce. It’s been six months. But, when I heard his voice from Barber’s Point . . . I hope you understand.”
“Maybe I was just running around to get my mind off him, looking for some different experiences. You know.”
He didn’t know. Her words struck him with the finality of a hard-slammed door. The sides of the phone booth, like some fiendish device from the Inquisition, pressed in on him; the power of speech abandoned him. Collingsworth left the phone dangling, struggled with the accordion door, and staggered out onto the pier. Only weeks before, he’d marked the greatest day of his life; now it seemed he’d experienced the most devastating. He suddenly became aware of the briny stink of the harbor.
Shoulders and spirits drooping, Collingsworth stood outside the booth, deciding what to do next. While he stared down at the oil-scummed water, gradually the clear dry air of reality settled over him. There’d be no Purple Heart for wounded pride or naivety laid bare. What the hell–life happened. At least that’s what he told himself.
Collingsworth lifted his eyes. Ensign Milton marched briskly toward him, likely headed for his car.
“Hey, Phil. You going over to the club?”
“That I am, old buddy. I suppose you’re off to see your little honey.”
“Nope. Mind if I join you?”
“More than welcome, but . . .” Milton shot him a quizzical look.
“Maybe we can latch onto a couple of those WestPac widows,” Collingsworth said.
His parents probably wouldn’t have liked her anyway.
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former Foreign Service officer with multiple postings in Japan. He also served in Germany, Norway, and Washington, DC. Several assignments included working with the USMC (and other services), including 3 years as a foreign affairs advisor to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Before the Foreign Service, Farrar spent 5 years on active duty in the Navy, first as a deck officer on a carrier and then as a ComNavForJapan staff officer. His son is a Marine reserve officer with active duty stints in Somalia and Iraq. Farrar is the author of 40 published short stories.