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The Summer of 1968

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The box of photos tumbled from Ms. Charlotte Winston’s arms, covering the hardwood floor with faded faces. She sighed, and the pastel cardigan covering her elderly frame stretched as she stooped down. Her pale eyebrows knit together, and the pupils widened behind horn-rimmed glasses. Slowly, her hand, calloused and wrinkled from years past, plucked a single picture from the pile. She traced its border, scared to go any further. The ink, printed long ago, had faded, but the entwined memories she held infused it with a new vitality. On the back, his messy scrawl read “Summer of 1968. Charlotte + John forever”. His crooked smile clutched at her heart. John sat there, in all his youthful beauty, cross-legged on her bed. A worn sheet was up around his shoulders; his coat draped over the wooden bedpost. Charlotte sat down on the couch; its plastic cover squeaked. The walls around her were barren and bland compared to her memories of John Crawford and the summer of 1968.
He emerged from the picture window, limbs protruding in every direction. Candlelight flickered, casting dark dancing shadows across the robin’s egg walls. It was the sort of night when the crickets sang opera, and the very air gave birth to capricious whims. The moon was full of promises and unspoken dreams. They both whispered softly, for her father was in the next room. John watched her face intently, memorizing her features with his fingertips. Charlotte blushed and began playing with the fringe of her pillow. The mirror on top of her dresser chronicled their every move; its ancient gilded frame recorded every sound. His head tilted and he leaned toward her. Her unwound curls brushed against his russet face. Their eyes closed simultaneously. Their lips met. His, chapped by wind and work, were gentle and soothing. Charlotte’s mind went utterly blank. It was her first kiss. What was she to do? His arm wrapped around her petite frame, and held her close. Their bodies melted together as one. Her every curve fit his, like two lost puzzle pieces reunited. The walls fell away, and time was no longer relevant. The war in Vietnam was starting, the civil rights movement was ending, and Charlotte and John were falling in love. To the pair, that took precedence over all else.


The watercolor prints on her wall were childish. They held no meaning anymore. If she could, she would burn each one and replace them with pictures of the homeless, the musicians, and the wildflowers. They all were purely free. They did not answer to nagging mothers or ignorant teachers. They lived on what they had, and made do when they didn’t. Everything in Charlotte’s life was so orderly and planned. She yearned for blank canvas and splatter paint, open spaces and bare feet. Even her room, her own space, was not her own. The clothing in the white armoire was hung up neatly, pleats pressed and collars starched. The books on the bookshelf were alphabetized, and the carpet on the floor was carefully swept. Rebellion was a nonexistent term in Charlotte’s household. It was all about symmetry and perfection, pearly smiles and pointy shoes. When John kissed her, she knew that if she had been standing, her knees would have buckled. Her breath was stolen away, and if anyone was swept off their feet, it was her. He pulled away, and a single tear trickled down her porcelain face. She was wanted. Without words, he had made that much clear. She meant something to someone. He kissed her again, this time more passionately. “Charlotte,” he said, “We’re a summer romance your parents don’t approve of. Sooner or later, you’re going to be gone. I’m just going to be a memory, if that. I love you Char, but I’m nothing special. You deserve more. I’m not going anywhere fast. You’re the purest thing I’ve ever known, but I’m not the man you want.” She sat in silence. Her hands once again roamed to the pillow’s fringe. “Johhny, you’re right. You aren’t the man I want. You’re pretty much everything I hate. And that’s what makes me love you. I don’t want you – I need you. You, and only you, now and forever. It’s not going to be easy – you and me. But we can do it.” The moon’s light grew stronger and stronger until it metamorphosed into the sun. She woke up, his taut arms around her, brilliant rays streaming in through the cracks in the blinds. His short blonde hair was awry, with some chunks sticking to his forehead, and others matted to his scalp. He kissed her forehead and ducked out before she could say a word. She heard a soft thud as he landed. Charlotte curled up in her robe and stared at the ceiling for hours, staring at it till she had memorized every crack, line, and watermark. Her mother poked her coiffed head in a few times, but gave up eventually. The teenage mind, she had decided, was too much of an enigma to even consider pursuing its infinite depths. Charlotte thought to herself, in between her contemplation of the ceiling, and had decided upon one truth. She would rather have one kiss from John Crawford and die, then live a lifetime never knowing the taste of his lips.


Fall that year; John had enlisted in the army. That October day, the air was biting and the naked trees stood silently. He had his hair cropped, uniform starched, eyes distant. Their hands linked, and he engulfed her in a hug. Great gasps for air wracked her entire body; the tears were rivers, cascading down her face. Once again, words were unnecessary. She gazed longingly into his eyes, trying to hold him back with sheer willpower. The yellow cab pulled up next to the curb. For the last time, he pulled her close. The moment froze. There they stood, a southern boy in his country’s colors, and a prim young woman, both forever unified; amalgamated by the link of true love. He ducked into the open cab, and it pulled away. The wheels spun and kicked up dust behind them. With that, John Crawford was gone.


Two score and several years ago, Charlotte had truly fallen in love. After he left, she never saw him again. She waited and waited, but no news ever came. Her mother chastised her, telling her she was too young for him, too young for love. The lists of casualties were being posted in the town, but John’s name was never among them. She went to college, and became a nurse for the army. She always cherished the dream that one day, John would end up on one of her nursing beds, and they would get married and live happily ever after. But for five years, no such thing occurred. She received no letters, no postcards, and no phone calls. In 1975, she turned 23. No longer a girl, she moved out of her parent’s house, too hurt to stay in that room any longer. Suitcase in hand, she surveyed the small space that held so much emotion. The light was perpetually flickering, the desk in the corner was all cleaned out, and the windows, the same ones he had clambered through, had dust residing on the ledge.


Her withered palm pressed the picture close to her heart. It was all she had left of the only man she ever loved. Much like that summer night, a single tear made its way across the uneven lines and planes of her face, pursuing an unknown target. In 1998, she had finally found out John’s fate. He had been incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp. From there, he had disappeared. Charlotte had never given up hope. One day he would return. But now, it hurt to bend down, and her entire body creaked like a door hinge in need of lubrication. Love wasn’t as tangible as it had been twenty years ago. She had never found another that could compete with John. He wasn’t just a teenage summer fling, he was the one. The one she was meant to be with. When she closed her eyes at night, his face swam before her, his laugh echoed in her ears. Even his scent came back to her. When she dreamt, everything became real once again, except his touch. Its true essence eluded her, like some torturous game of cat and mouse that she was doomed to play forever. The walls around her were empty; this house was not a home. She needed to go back to where it all began. With a slow deliberation, she tucked the picture inside her pocket and walked out the door. The engine turned over, and Charlotte Winston drove off into the sunrise, to finally be reunited with John Crawford.



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