The Bitter One




People had been contemplating her attitude change since she returned from the war. Even those with the vaguest memories of her noticed that she was not the same young woman she once was.

The term ‘shell-shocked’ was often whispered in conjunction with her name, but most people tossed off that theory since she was only a nurse. Had she been closer to the front lines … perhaps. A few ignorant souls even ventured to question whether or not she had always been a ‘bad seed’ and that it took something as traumatic as war to bring it out in her.

Their speculations never touched her. The fašade she had built around herself was impenetrable by the words of people. In her life there were only two people whose opinions she cared about. They were her older sister Jane and her father. The rest of the general populace could cease and desist for all it mattered to her. She no longer had room for them.

Elizabeth had not always been like this. There was a time when her laughter could be heard above a crowd and her sharp wit made her a favorite of the neighbors.

But, this was long ago. The experiences that had shaped her life had taken created a prison from which she could not release herself. Elizabeth would never be the same and it was questionable if time could heal all wounds.

The fresh faced girl who felt it was her duty as an American to answer the call of her government for nurses in Vietnam never returned. At least, she never returned in spirit.

Only body.

Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was on the record player while Elizabeth tugged at her long hair with a wide tooth comb. In all of the negative that could be said about her since her return, there was one area where no dispute could be had. Her wholesome, becoming appearance only improved with age.

The darkness of her locks combined with her olive skin and matching green eyes left a complete picture that few could not find some degree of beauty in. There was attention, unwanted attention from men due to this, but it gave Elizabeth no joy therefore she ignored the looks and went about her business.

So far she had come from her original self that it was like looking at a stranger in the mirror. Never had Elizabeth imagined she would end up this way—purposely alone in a one bedroom apartment not fit for company. It was if all of the color had been removed from life and all that was left were varying shades of gray. She rarely became excited anymore and even her anger had mellowed with time. Elizabeth was becoming neutral in every sense.

With a towel wrapped around her torso, she rose from her bed and went over to the tiny closet in her room. Living on the paltry salary that she earned as cashier at the local A&P left little at the end of the week for luxuries such as a wardrobe, but she did want to look presentable for dinner at her sister’s house tonight.

A peasant shirt and long denim skirt were brought out from their place in the back of the closet. Surely this would be good enough for an evening with Jane and her husband, considering the alternatives of jeans and tee shirts.

The thought of her beloved sister did bring a slight smile to her lips. There was a not a better soul in all the world. Jane was the most accepting person she had ever known. Jane didn’t judge or attempt to change her. Jane understood without having to be told.

Once a week Elizabeth drove herself out to the suburbs to partake in her sister’s hospitality. At times there were other hand picked guests at these scheduled gatherings, but they were always of the same nature—non-intimidating.

Yes, Jane was too protective of Elizabeth’s feelings and maybe if she would have pushed her the healing Elizabeth sorely needed could have began, but Jane wasn’t willing to risk losing her. Jane had never been a confrontational person to begin with so instead of trying to ‘cure’ her sister she instead offered her a safe haven where no hard questions were asked and little was expected.

Charles, Jane’s husband, followed her lead but it had not always been this way. He had known Elizabeth briefly before she left for Vietnam and after her return, he tried to get his wife to bring her sister back to the land of the living by exposing her to normal life. This all changed one afternoon after he drove to Elizabeth’s apartment building to invite her to dinner.

The street in front of her building was full and Charles was forced to park in the alley. From his car he spied her sitting out on her fire escape, her legs dangling over the edge and a bottle of something between them. Even at a distance he could see her expression and it was one Charles would not forget. There before him was the saddest person he had ever encountered. Whatever the pain was that she held inside of herself was so pronounced that he knew in that instant that he could not help her.

He left that day without disturbing her and never again questioned Jane’s actions. If the weekly outings to their house were good for Elizabeth, that was all he needed. From what he could tell, she did seem to enjoy them and they also made Jane feel as if she was doing something positive for her sister.

An hour later Elizabeth found herself standing in front of her sister’s home admiring the hand carved entry door as she waited for someone to answer. Jane and Charles’s home could hardly be called modest, yet it was not excessive either. Although he worked for a living as a chemist, Charles’s family was well off and he had inherited a nice sum when he and Jane married. The newlyweds, both being of sound mind, used a portion for a new home and tucked the rest away so that Jane may stay home in anticipation of any future children they might have.

“Elizabeth, you know you don’t need to knock. Just come on it.”

“Habit,” she responded with a small, but sincere smile.

“Everyone’s out on the back patio.” Charles led her through the large home.

“Jane told me that a friend of yours from Ottawa is staying with you for a while. How’s it working out?”

“Nice. William’s thinking about moving to California. The Canadian winters are getting to be too much for him.”

“Has Jane taken him to Chinatown, yet?”

“We’re all going tomorrow. Do you want to come with us?”

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders while Charles opened the sliding glass doors, but her real answer would be no when they asked again.

“Think about it.” Charles said before Jane’s voiced called out to her sister for her to join them at the round outdoor table. “Would you like a drink?”

“Please, Charles. The usual.”

Jane embraced her sister before making the introductions. Two of the three people present Elizabeth already knew. Phil and Ted worked were chemical researchers like Charles, and terribly dull men. Their small talk generally consisted of happenings at work and little else. Still, they were harmless folk and spending the evening with them never required much from her conversation skills.

As her eyes passed over the guest of honor, she paused longer than usual in her inspection. He wasn’t an overly attractive man with his stock of shortly-cropped brown curls, but he wasn’t hard on the eyes either.

“William Darcy, this is my sister Elizabeth.” On cue, Elizabeth reached out her hand to shake his.

“You’re a nurse, correct?” He asked her in an assured tone.

“I was a nurse, yes.” The past tense of her statement was not lost on William. “And yourself?”

“Nothing at the moment but I’m a mechanical engineer by training.”

Without anything more to add, Elizabeth seated herself in a chair next to Ted and placed her hands in her lap in an attempt to halt the slight trembling she often experienced. Looking over to the bar, she spied Charles walking toward her with her drink. Relief would soon be in front of Elizabeth in the form of amber liquid over ice.

As was the custom in her sister’s home, Jane and Charles met the needs of their guests without asking for assistance. By six p.m. the dinner dishes had been cleared away and all were settled into insignificant discourse. Charles and Phil were explaining an environmental ruling recently passed and Elizabeth’s mind easily blocked out the sound of their voices as her mind wandered.

She allowed herself another glimpse at the stranger directly in front of her and for the third time this night she caught him staring back. In her mind she reasoned that it must be his newness to their small group that was hailing her attention, and nothing more. Granted, he did display a high level of intelligence when he spoke, and the social grace not to throttle Phil for boring everyone to tears. Physically he was growing on her, too. Where originally she had seen nothing particularly handsome in his countenance, Elizabeth was slowly realizing that she might have been quick to judge.

Still…a man was a man and Elizabeth had long since forgotten the part she was supposed to play in their presence. She spoke rarely and did nothing to invite the good opinion of this stranger. And really, what would she do if he showed an interest? Hide? Pretend not to notice? This was something she was good at, and the habit she had developed over the past two years served her well. She was untouchable.

Phil’s voice came crashing through her inner musings and the look on Jane’s face was one of unease. The topic had obviously changed.

“I say we just pull out while we can and let the Vietnamese solve their own damn problems. Even I can see that this ‘police action’ was nothing more than a military action gone bad. Do you know how much this war is costing the taxpayer’s daily…” Phil continued on speaking while the others remained quiet. He didn’t recognize the cautious look Charles was sending him, and just when he was about to silence his workmate, William spoke up.

“I do have to agree that it appears to be time for the United States to consider other options. You can’t win a war from an office building in Washington, D.C.. The waste has been considerable.”

Elizabeth’s head snapped in his direction and all of the anger she was ready to direct at Phil was about to be unleashed on William instead.

“No offence to you, Charles,” she said while looking straight into William’s eyes. “But what is it with Canadians? I don’t see where you get off passing judgment on what my country is doing. You aren’t out there risking your neck on the front line. No! You’re God damn home, safe and sound letting ‘big brother’ carry the load. And then the ultimate kick in the ass…you harbor our draft dodgers with open arms. Let me tell you something, Canuck, YOU have no right to talk about Vietnam!”

“No right? Is that what you said? I assure you, I have every right!”

Surprise joined anger on Elizabeth’s face as she watched William push his chair away from the table. For a brief moment she wondered if he was going to come around the table and molest her, but another revelation soon dawned on her.

William’s chair was different from the others.

It had wheels.

“You say I have no right, but trust me,“ William turned his wheelchair so she could get a good look at him before continuing. “I’ve earned my opinion, Elizabeth.”

Without thinking Elizabeth stood, knocking her chair over in the process. She had just spent an hour and a half with this man and she hadn’t noticed the wheelchair. No one had given her any advance warning about William…about his condition. Had she known, she wouldn’t have verbally attacked him like she did.

Shame and embarrassment flowed through her veins as she tried to stop herself from starring at the man, but soon the instinct to flee overcame her immobility and Elizabeth ran from the backyard.

Jane was on her feet in a flash, but William quickly regained his senses and pushed himself in her path to stop her.

“Let me go. I did this to her.”

He didn’t wait for an answer as he passed through the gate leading to the driveway.

Elizabeth had forgotten one of the most basic rules of evacuation; when ever physically possible, grab your pack. Or in other words, she left her purse and keys on the table.

Sitting in her car she gripped her steering wheel and tensed her arms. The options before her were few and Elizabeth's mind wasn't clear enough for her to come up with a plausible way for her to get home without having to return to the house.

The disappointment in herself she felt was considerable. Not only had she insulted on of her sister's guests, but also the man she attacked was a veteran. A veteran! One of the very group of people she had verbally defended time and time again since she'd returned home.

An apology was defiantly in order, but how the hell was she going to give it? Surely Charles's friends would be leaving soon now that she had ruined the evening for everyone. Perhaps if she waited until Phil and Ted left, she could go back into the house and speak privately with William.

A tap on her window startled her and she automatically rolled down the window knowing that it was her sister.

"I'm sorry, Jane." Silence followed her apology.

"Jane?" Looking out the window, her eyes made contact with William's. Her knuckles turned white from the increased tension on her steering wheel.

"Elizabeth, I want to apologize."

She began to shake her head, but he didn't cease.

"I knew I was being dramatic in my point and should've stopped myself before I embarrassed both of us." His words were sincere and it tore at Elizabeth to listen to them.

"William, don't. Please."

"Why shouldn't I? This wheelchair doesn't give me the right to be an ass."

"Yes. No. I mean…" Elizabeth stopped to formulate a coherent sentence. "I shouldn't have lashed out at you. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and I had no right to say what I did.”

"You have a right to an opinion, too."

"Yes, but the disrespectful tone I used was uncalled for."

Time passed without either speaking while the apologies they had given went unanswered. Each felt that they had wronged the other to a degree that left them the solo guilty party.

William broke eye contact first to take in a fuller view of the woman behind the door of her Volkswagen.

Charles had told him that Elizabeth had been in Vietnam, and William wondered if she had at one time been as content and happy as her older sister. He watched her in the continued absence of conversation as she pulled a strand of hair that had fallen on her face behind her ear.

"You're shaking." Wheeling back, he opened her car door before moving near to place his hands over hers. "Elizabeth, I didn't mean to upset you like this."

"You didn't. It just happens sometimes."

"Give me your arms."

Taken by surprise by his request, she responded without a second thought and turned to face him with her arms outstretched.

"A buddy of mine had DT." He told her as he took her right arm, pushing the sleeve of her shirt up. "The nurses massaged his arms and hands like this. It helped him calm his shakes. "

His hands roughly ran up and down the length of her bare arm. Elizabeth could have found an excuse, or even denied that she had a problem, but she didn't. She just let him continue on without interruption as she observed what he was doing with caution.

It was a while before William changed arms and repeated the process, pausing only when he saw a long red line on her left forearm. Using his thumb, he traced the length of it.

"Nasty scar. How did you get this?"

"A bicycle mishap when I was a kid."

"Oh," he laughed. "You should see my elbow. I have one the size of a silver dollar. Same reason."

"You know what we need?" William asked casually as he released his hold on her, remembering to return her sleeves to their original position.

"No." she whispered in return, her eyes still downcast.

"A drive."

"A drive?"

Forty minutes later they were on the freeway bound for Golden Gate Park. Elizabeth, who had been quiet except for the occasional direction given, was not quite sure what to make of the chain of events that lead to her being in his van.

He had made a suggestion, she agreed, and once Jane and Charles were informed, they left. Alone.

"Turn here and watch for pedestrians." She said at the gate of the park.

"Do you know where pavilion D is?"

"Yes, about a half mile straight ahead on this road. Any particular reason?"

"I read in the paper that there was a concert in the park tonight. We don't have a lot of those in Ottawa."

"William, are you Canadian?"

"Duel citizenship"

"I see." Nothing else was said until he had parked his van. Between the bucket seats, he opened his wheelchair and moved himself over into it while Elizabeth observed his movements. He obviously had incredible upper-body strength. He'd have to because he was not a small man.

She caught herself staring at him, and a quick glance up told her that he had noticed it, too. In an attempt to throw him off, she said the first thing that came to mind.

"I noticed your chair is one of those new ones without sides."

"Yes, I've had it for a year now. The armrests on the older models kept getting in my way because my arms are long." His voice betrayed none of the feelings he had about a pretty woman like Elizabeth looking at him like, you that.

"How tall are you, William?"

"I'm 6'2"."

"Tall! I bet it's a bear to find jeans that fit."

"It is." Somehow the roles had reversed and it was now her turn to be more confident and his to be slightly unnerved.

It had been a long time since someone asked him that question without wanting the measurement for a medical apparatus of some sort, and the boost it gave to his ego, when combined with her ‘look’, was considerable.

Since the day he had woke up in the hospital groggy from the anesthesia, he had stopped thinking of himself as a sexual being, but more of an asexual man.

All he had known before the paralysis was the hormonal lust of a young man. He was only nineteen when it happened and had not yet had the chance to experience more with a woman. In his youthful mind, the definition of "intimacy" was sex that took more than twenty minutes. This was all he knew--all that time had afforded him.

William was well adjusted in most areas of his life, and the confidence often showed outwardly. But to have what he considered a very beautiful woman eyeing him was throwing him into a tailspin.

Just as the good feeling began to embed itself within him, the little imp that lived inside of his head chastised him for thinking that a woman like Elizabeth would ever show more than friendly interest in him. After all, why take a man like him when she could easily find one that could…that could do a lot more than he could.

The crash came as quickly as the high as his version of reality returned.

"Do we have far to travel to the pavilion?" He asked.

"We have to take this sidewalk through the park until we reach a clearing." Pointing out the window, Elizabeth showed him the path they needed to take.

"Could you get the blanket in the back of the van? I don't want you to have to sit on the hard ground."

She nodded her head and before long they were on their way. Small talk was made as they trekked along the winding path that took them around a mass of trees. There were people going both directions, but the majority was migrating toward the pavilion just as they were.

"Jeez!" Elizabeth abruptly stopped and hopped closer to him.

"I have a rock in my sandal." She said as she held onto his shoulder for support and untied her shoe to shake out the stone. Her mother had bought her the shoes, and although she liked them, they were a hassle to out on. "May I use your leg?"

"Sure?" He had no idea why.

Elizabeth placed her foot on his thigh and reached down to wrap the laces around her ankle. Shortly thereafter she started to sway due to the unnatural balancing act she was attempting to pull off.

"I only had one drink at Jane's." she explained as she attempted to steady herself. "So, it's not that, if that is what you are thinking."

William placed his hand on her lower leg to keep her from falling and this action caused Elizabeth to stop what she was doing. In a manner reeking of prudence she arched her eyebrows high, but the grin on her lips implied mirth.

"I'm only thinking of your welfare, Elizabeth. I can't take you back to your sister's injured." It was true, this was his intention. Of course, he couldn't deny that the leg didn't feel good, but his first thought was honorable.

Rolling her eyes at the innocence he was projecting her way, she finished lacing her sandal. "Shall we be off? One more bend and we're there."

In good humor they continued on before arriving in an area where about two hundred people were spread out on the grass.

Finding a spot under a tree near the back of the crowd, Elizabeth placed his folded blanket on the ground. They spent their time before the music began watching the people around them, occasionally commenting to one another.

Near dusk, a group of four young men sat down near them. Soon it became apparent by the consumption of food and loud giggling that the boys were stoned. With a disapproving scowl on her face, Elizabeth suggested that she and William move further back.

An even nicer area was soon found nestled in the trees. They could still see most of the stage and hear the music from their position.

As she was shaking out the blanket, an idea came to Elizabeth "Would you like to sit down on the ground with me? Oh course, you can probably see better up where…"

"Yes, I would." William replied with a smile before she could justify his staying in his wheelchair.

"Do you need any help?"

"No. I can manage."

Just before he made his decent to the blanket, Elizabeth pointed out a man in the distance. "William, look at that guy on the roof of the pavilion. What's he doing?"

Squinting his eyes he was able to make out the person she was referring to. "It looks like he's climbing up the flag pole. A stupid stunt, if you ask me."

"He's doing more than that! Look again. He's taking the flag down!!"

"Elizabeth!" William cried as he reached out and caught her wrist. "Where are you going?"

"Where am I going? She couldn't believe he had just stopped her when her intentions were so obvious. "I'm going to find out what's happening up there."

"In front of all those people?"

"I don't give a crap about those people. I'm not going to stand around why some hippie freak does God-knows-what with the bloody flag! Let go of me. I'm going to the pavilion."

"No, you're not."

With the same degree of anger she had displayed earlier at her sister's, Elizabeth leveled her eyes at him. How dare he think he could tell her what to do! Especially about something as important as this?

"Look around, Elizabeth. How many people here do you think are going to come to your defense?" William's voice was steady as the grip he held her with remained strong. He couldn't let her go for her own sake.

"I don't care!" She shouted at him.

"I know you don't, but I do. You're going to get slaughtered if you go up there. And I don't just mean physically. They'll take every word and action you use and twist it around to strengthen their cause. You and your anger are only going to become their example of why they're right. All you'll end up accomplishing is handing them ammunition. I've seen it too many times, Elizabeth!"

"So, you think I should just sit here and do nothing while they desecrate the flag?" The words he had just spoken did not penetrate her reasoning.

"They aren't going to listen to you. Not in the state you're in."

"My God, I would think that you would have been the one person to understand!"

"Understand what, Elizabeth?" William locked eyes with her and held his gaze. He knew he was overstepping his bounds by making demands on her, but he still couldn't let her go. Furthermore, he did understand her point. But the execution of it would be fruitless and his conviction about the outcome was strong.

"That every time they burn a flag or hold one of their fucking protests, what they're really doing is spitting in the faces of all that you, and me, and others like us did and sacrificed over there. Those worthless punks spout off about peace and love, but they are just as violent as a guy with a M16 pointed at your chest. Ask Charles, he'll tell you. Ask him about the glass that is still in his shoulder from when they firebombed his lab." Tears began to burn her red cheeks as they fell from her eyes, but Elizabeth would not relent.

"I'm sick to death of people like that getting away with doing what ever they please without having to take responsibility. I have the right to see my flag flying without some idiot who doesn't know the meaning of respect taking it down!"

"So you're going to hate them with a vengeance? Look at what you are doing to yourself! When does it stop?"

"It stops when I'm satisfied that no one will forget." Her frustration came out in short sobs after the heart of her problem was confessed to him.

"Forget what?" He took hold of her other wrist and eased her over to his lap. His voice was now gentle and soothing. "It's alright. Tell me, Elizabeth, what is it that you want people to remember?"

"I want them to remember my men."

"The ones you took care of in the hospital?"

"Yes." Over the next several minutes, Elizabeth gave him bits and pieces of her life since she enlisted. It was if she felt comfortable talking to him since he, too, had been there and saw what she had. The common experience they shared was one that a person could not easily forget.

For his part William listened to her with his arms holding her close, but didn't add any of his personal reflections. He had a feeling that this was the first time she had really told anyone about what she had been carrying around inside of her for so long.

He waited until it became obvious that she was finished before he finally spoke.

"Maybe you need to find a better use for what you're feeling? Other than getting angry?"

"It's not that easy. I just can't turn it off."

"Don't turn it off, redirect it. There are so many different organizations that need someone like you. Take that fire you have and do something useful with it. You're not going to accomplish anything by attacking those who don't agree with you."

She said nothing to his honest statement, but rested her head against his shoulder.

"How long have you been home?" he asked while placing a small kiss on her temple.

"Eight months."

"That isn't long. It took me over a year to get straightened out. There was a time when I felt just as bitter about the world as you do now." Elizabeth did not disagree with him saying she was bitter because it was true.

"How did you cope?"

"I just started living again. I don’t know."

The silence between them became comfortable while Elizabeth thought about what he had said. There was so much truth in it. This man had actually made her stop and think about her actions, and that in itself was an accomplishment.

"I know so little about you." She admitted out of the blue after the image of the boy removing the flag faded from her memory. "I have a lot of questions."

"What would you like to know?"

Sitting up straight, Elizabeth thought for a moment. There were so many choices. Where exactly he was from? What was his family like, what sort of job he was looking for in San Francisco, where he was stationed in the war, how he was injured?

But one question in particular was so basic that it begged to be asked first.

"I would like to know how it feels to kissed by you."

A first kiss was shared under a canopy of trees. It was brief, a little shy, and very controlled, but genuine and soon followed by another. By the third he had his hands on the sides on her face, with his fingers buried in her hair showing a great deal of passion. And after the forth, they took a break.

"I could sit here all night, but I don't want to put your legs to sleep."

"I wouldn't know it." He teased lightly, not wanting her to move from his lap.

"Where does it start?" Elizabeth asked in reference to his paralysis.

He released a nervous breath before raising his hand up. Elizabeth was about to know that there were other areas other than his legs that no longer had feeling and he hoped that it wouldn't make her think differently about him. "About one of my palm's width down from my belly button."

He expected her to say something, but she remained silent. So, William lengthened his explanation.

"I'm better off than a lot of guys, of course. I was hit pretty low and…well, you're a nurse so you know what I mean. The lower the better. But it wasn't quite low enough." His face was twisted in uncertainty as he waited for her judgment.

Her response was only to nod her head and smile.

The light on his watch told him it was 2:34 in the morning. They must have fallen asleep some time ago because the last time he checked it was a little after nine. Carefully shifting his weight, he turned himself to look at the woman breathing softly against his chest. There was just enough moonlight streaming through the treetops for him to see her fully and a touch on a shoulder told him that she was chilled. Reaching over, he tucked the edge of the blanket around her without waking her.

If the police were to stumble on them like this in a public park, they would surely earn themselves a one way ticket to jail. But he wasn't concerned about the authorities enough to rouse her right at this moment.

If her reaction afterward was any indication, what had happened between them a few hours meant as much to her as it did to him. It was so amazing. He had never thought that…

They had made love. Together. And it wasn't impossible. There was a lot of manipulation involved and the technique was a little awkward compared to conventional love making, but it happened. And they were both participants.

While they were joined together sharing this incredible experience, Elizabeth verbally spoke every sensation she felt, sharing the feelings she was having with him. And the mix of those words and his own hormonal rush sent him on a high like he had never had before.

He was not able to physically feel what was going on, but in his mind it was all there and as real as if he had never been hurt. Maybe even better. He never remembered relishing every second like he did tonight.

And Elizabeth…Elizabeth was able to express aloud emotions other than anger and detachment. His need to hear the words had given her an outlet to let go and actually live in the moment. It was a lovely, peaceful, hungry place to be and the longer she dwelled there, the more joy entered her.

Perhaps it was the fact that both had to overcome their own handicaps to be with each other that made it so special. But really, what ever the mechanics involved it mattered little in the end.

They were together now, and yes, they would be together again.



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