Thunder peels down the canyons of cement, echoing from the edifices above, stern with the cold sunlight of another March afternoon. The Leathernecks were out in force today, or as Pointman, our dreadlocked Rastafarian warrior-poet would say, ‘on patrol’, as if lower Manhattan secretly harbored a hidden rice paddy or two, freshly remembered from his youth. Ironically, it was indeed Vietnam that drew us out of our toasty living rooms and into the crisp early spring day, although an observance ceremony at Veterans Plaza, and not some somnambulant Tet Offensive sprung from our leader’s teenage memories.
Perhaps it was the solemn nature of the occasion, or reading the letters home, carved in the Wall, from long dead boys stranded on the other side of the world, but we were all more jazzed up than usual afterwards, ready to drown those secondhand nightmares in bourbon and beer and overpriced cheeseburgers. We descended upon the Village like Khan and his Mongol hordes, albeit wreathed in motorcycle exhaust instead of the frozen breath of steppe-raised warhorses.
The afternoon slipped by like a child’s top, spinning faster, a blur of shots and irish car bombs and the sound of raw engines, the freeze frame image of tourists photographing us as we roared through Soho and Tribeca, hopping from one dive bar to another, slowly working our way down until nothing was left but rock bottom and the Brooklyn Bridge, welcoming us home. It was sometime just before that final call, nestled down in the Lower East Side, that I found myself bellied up to another darkwood polished bar, awash with Jack Daniels and perma-grin and the camaraderie of my brothers, and that was when she walked through the door.
In my favorite film noir movies, black and white and sophisticated shadows, that moment would have been frozen, the music stopping suddenly, the camera panning and moving in for that sudden close-up, the blur focusing on her angelic face, transfixed. Perfect. That never happens in real life, of course, but there I was, mesmerized, the shot glass mid-air, forgotten.
She stood perfectly upright, poised, graceful, her delicately sculpted lips moving as she ordered a drink, her voice unheard by my dumbstruck ears, lost in the background music of the darkened bar. And then she smiled, and it was as if sunlight burst into that murky room, real sunlight, not that cruel echo of early spring that clothed the city like tarnished steel, but summer borne, full of life and hope, heavy with the smell of clover and the drone of drowsy bees, rich with the laughter of distant children. It was the kind of smile that makes you smile back, reflexively, even if you are not the subject of her conversation, the corner of your eyes crinkling helplessly, charmed.
I watched her the rest of the time we were there, between the jokes and the war stories with my brothers, stealing glances, amazed, hypnotized each time. Her hair was resplendent in the light from the window, and it was somehow perfect that the only patch of sunlight in the gloom would grace her thin, elfin face.
And then it was time to go. I had to say something, so I stumbled over and asked her name, and I think I smiled as she told me. I have no idea what I said in return, I can only hope it was something appropriate and gracious—hell, I may not have said anything at all, but only careened out of the door after the other Leathernecks.
But as we rode out across the bridge, the wind sharp now, cutting, as the sun dipped into the East River and the Saturday afternoon odyssey slipped into night, one thing kept repeating itself in my mind.
That, and the memory of that incredible smile, and the way it lit up that small dark room, somewhere in the back streets of the Lower East Side.