It’s October, 1969. You scrape together enough money for a round-trip flight, Minneapolis to San Francisco, to see him before his Marine unit ships out to Vietnam.
He drives you down the coast to see the sights: Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, Steinbeck country, a six-pack of beer sits between you on the car seat.
On Highway 1, your stomach flips, hands shake. He’s in a stupor. You’re sure he’s going to veer off the tight shoulder, slip over the cliffs, and plunge you to your death in the churning surf below.
You make it to Monterey and stop for lunch, then head back north again to the city.
That night he wants to catch some topless acts on Broadway. The surly bouncer cards you, refuses to let you enter. “I’ll be your girlie show,” you promise.
He finds a room down on Van Ness. Before you head upstairs, he hauls you across the street to buy a jug of cheap, red Gallo.
Once inside the sleazy room, you need to wash up, so you trek down the hallway to a filthy, urine-soaked bathroom.
At your return, his muffled moans sear your heart, as tears stain his cheeks. Fear flames in your belly. “Don’t cry,” you whisper. “Please don’t cry.” Then throw yourself into his trained-killer arms.
“Talk to me! Won’t you talk to me,” you implore.
He’s sobbing now. Words shoot out like bullets: Dirty gooks, jungles, landmines, leeches, rats as big as cats, coming home dead, zippered in a plastic body bag.
You fall to your knees, panicked and confused. After all, he’s the one who quit school, signed up, left you.
The next morning, good-byes are cool. As the airport walkway pulls you away, you turn around once to wave, only to see his red-sweatered shoulders retreat into the crowd.
Back home, you join protest groups, march to the state capitol with new friends. Some weeks later you write a “Dear John” letter you wish you’d never sent.