Nighthawks – The Woman’s Tale

Nighthawks – The Woman’s Tale

The view from the hotel window was breathtaking. I feed my eyes on it like someone whose sight has just been restored, savouring every detail. It’s June, Nancy, and the trees of Central Park are in full leaf, leaves of every conceivable shade of green. People, mostly couples, appear then as quickly disappear, swallowed up in another cluster of trees. I hope none of them will be separated by war as Joe and I were. My aching legs tell me I’ve left it a bit late, but I had to come here, for a day or two, to be near him. This is the same room where we spent our brief honeymoon, where we made love together for the very first time.

‘Come here Mrs Geraghty,’ he said, sweeping me up in his arms and carrying me over the threshold.
‘Mrs Anna Geraghty,’ I said, relishing the taste of my new name.
He kissed my hand. The slim gold band glinted in the light.
‘Do you know why a wedding ring’s worn on that finger?’
I shook my head.
‘Because a vein in that finger runs straight to the heart.’
I didn’t know if that was true, still don’t, but I liked the sound of it.
Still holding my hand he drew me over to the window.
‘I booked a room with a view. Come and get an eyeful of this before it gets dark.’
The view was as breathtaking then as it is now. Fall was approaching and flashes of red and yellow were visible in the vast green canopy.
‘It’s lovely,’ I murmured.
‘And so are you,’ he said, holding me close.
I could have stood there like that for hours, Nancy, I always felt safe in his arms.
He was still asleep when I awoke the next morning. I pulled on a wrap and tiptoed across to the window. It was a bright day and the sun shone through the window warming my bare feet. I didn’t know Joe had got out of bed until he spoke.
‘Close your eyes and don’t turn around until I tell you.’
I felt his hands around my neck, something cool against my skin.
‘You can look now.’
I opened my eyes. Joe was holding a mirror in front of me. I was wearing a string of milky pearls.
For a moment I was speechless.
‘Do you like them? They were my mother’s’.
‘I love them. No one’s ever given me anything so beautiful before.’
‘They were mom’s favourites. If she’s up there watching, I’m sure she’s smiling now.’

We only had five nights together before Joe had to join his ship, the Arizona, in Hawaii. On our last night we went to a small club and danced. I wore my red dress – Joe’s favourite – and the pearls. The last dance was Artie Shaw’s Stardust, one of our special tunes. I wanted to hold on to Joe, never let him go. There was war in Europe and rumours that we might become involved. He laughed them off saying things would be fine.

We didn’t talk much as we packed the next morning, though we were full of words.
‘I’ll write you often,’ he said. ‘By Christmas, maybe New Year, I’ll be back.’
‘I’ll try and fix the apartment, make it cosy,’ I said.
‘Don’t leave until I’m gone,’ he said. ‘I want to remember you in this room, standing near the window.’

Somehow I filled the days. We were renting a small apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After work, in the evenings, I made drapes and cushions, polished furniture, painted walls. Weekends were more difficult. My folks were miles away, just outside Minneapolis.
Sometimes I’d get together with a girlfriend and we’d go to a movie, but mostly I’d write long letters to Joe. His to me were the high point of each week, especially the one saying he thought he’d be home for Christmas. I spent the following evening writing Christmas cards. It gave me a buzz seeing our names laid side by side.

When I got up the next morning, I didn’t feel too good. I put it down to excitement at the prospect of being with Joe again. However, as soon as I reached work I had to rush to the washroom, overcome with nausea.
Martha Coben was coming out of a cubicle as I wiped my mouth.
‘You pregnant, Anna?’
I looked up from the basin, dumbstruck.
‘I was like that for months when I was carrying Frank.’
The denial I was about to utter died in my throat. Perhaps I was pregnant. I’d been feeling sort of different in ways I couldn’t explain for a couple of weeks.
‘Here. Have a mint,’ Martha said, passing a pack to me. ‘I used to find they helped.’
I made an appointment with a doctor on Fulton Street, and the following week tests confirmed I was pregnant.
‘You’ll be pleased to know you’re going to have a baby,’ he said, extending a large, pink hand to clasp mine.
But I wasn’t instantly happy; so many questions were racing through my mind. How would we fit a baby into our small apartment? Would I be able to keep my job? How would Joe feel?
‘He’ll be delighted,’ my mom said when I phoned. ’Write him tonight.’
‘But we never discussed babies,’ I said.
‘It’ll be fine; you’ll see. He’ll be delighted.’
She was right, Nancy. His letter said he was ‘over the moon’, and from that moment so was I.
I kept quiet about my condition at work. Martha smiled knowingly when some mornings I made frequent trips to the washroom, but she said nothing.

December 1941 arrived. I outlined the day of Joe’s homecoming, the 23rd, in red. I was so excited I could hardly wait. I posted the cards that first week and on the Friday, coming home from work, I picked up a Christmas tree. It filled a corner of the apartment, and I spent much of the weekend decorating it with trinkets and tinsel. I stood back to check it breathing in the smell of pine; all that was missing was a crowning star.
Martha rushed up to me when I arrived at work on Monday.
‘Have you heard the news, Anna?’
Her eyes were large in her pale face. She pushed a newspaper towards me.
US Declares War, Pacific Battle Widens.
I felt the paper shaking in my hands.
‘The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour,’ she said. ‘Your Joe’s there, isn’t he? I’m frightened Frank will be drafted.’
My eyes were fixed on the phrase: 1,500 Dead in Hawaii.
Joe couldn’t be one of those. I loved him too much; nothing could happen to him.
I bought a star on the way home, but didn’t buy my usual newspaper. Reading the bad stuff would only make it real. A letter from Joe was waiting when I got home. I read it over and over; each word was a reassurance.

The telegram arrived the next day. I was leaning up to fix the star on top of the tree when the doorbell rang. When I saw the Western Union boy I knew Joe wasn’t coming back. I wanted to run after the boy, push the telegram into his hands, tell him he’d made a mistake, it wasn’t for me.
I don’t think I slept that night. I remember curling up on the bed, hugging one of Joe’s jerseys, burying my damp face in his smell. I watched dawn shoulder its way through a gap in the drapes, spilling itself like sour milk on the floor. I slept then, waking mid-afternoon convinced there’d been a mistake, that Joe was still alive. I put on coffee and checked the mail. There was one item. I seized it and kissed the broad, strong handwriting. Joe wasn’t dead, here was the proof. I read the letter repeatedly, every loving, upbeat phrase. It was still in my hand when Martha arrived.
‘Are you all right, Anna? I didn’t expect you at work, but I haven’t heard from you. I was worried.’
I told her about the telegram then held out Joe’s letter.
‘He’s written to me. They’ve got it wrong, must have muddled him up with some other guy.’
She glanced at it then hugged me. ‘I’m sorry, Anna, look, 6 December. It was written the day before the attack.’

The next few weeks are largely a blur. I began drinking to get me through the evenings. I knew I should stop, Nancy, but it helped deaden the pain. One night I found myself sitting near two guys in a diner. I was wearing Joe’s favourite dress, the red one. The guy nearest to me moved closer, began a conversation. I don’t remember much – I’d had several shots of bourbon back at the apartment – except that he said he was up from Cincinnati. Somehow I found myself walking with him back to his hotel room. I shouldn’t have done but I let him put an arm around me, whisper in my ear that I was foxy. I guess in my alcoholic state I was trying to pretend it was Joe. It didn’t work. When he put his hands round my neck to raise my face to his I felt the pearls rub against his fingers, Joe’s pearls. I grabbed my purse and hightailed it, hearing him cursing me, calling me crazy. Maybe I was. Out on the sidewalk I sat on a bench and wept properly for the first time. I was emptied out, or so I thought until, Nancy, back in the apartment I felt you move for the first time. That kick brought me back to earth. I got out of bed and poured the bourbon away.

In a week or two you’ll be born. One day I’ll bring you back here where you were conceived and tell you our story yet again. By then you may have heard it so many times you’ll beg me to stop. I won’t mind, I’ll probably laugh, but I hope you’ll love the view. Look! There’s a pair of blue jays with their young in that nearby tree.

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg

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