June 24, 1995
Lisbon is for lovers and I have three days’ leave while the ship is in port, so I’ve booked a room in a romantic posada perfect for a clandestine lovers’ tryst. To reach it, you’d first turn right at the church where “Miserere mei Deus” echoes from the choir loft and the disapproving priest in the black cassock and gold filigrana crucifix is hearing confessions. You’d come to the plaza where the old men sit at sidewalk tables sipping bitter cafés negros from tiny cups. There’s a shortcut through the alley between the third and fourth restaurants whose window tanks hold live lobsters awaiting execution, claws banded so they can’t damage each other overnight in a fit of territorial jealousy. The alley ends across from a wall tiled in blue and white azulejos depicting a bullfight: the bull has gored the matador, who still raises his sword in triumph and prepares to take his brutal revenge. The next right is a straight and narrow street paved in steep limestone steps, their worn centers slick, smooth, and treacherous underfoot. Between the whitewashed houses, crisscrossed pulley clotheslines are hung with unsullied, lace-trimmed sheets. Only the spotless linen is on display; stained and tattered undergarments are hidden between the lines.
At the top, you’d have to call me from the phone box on the corner by the house where the lemon tree grows beside the back door. Tom, the ship’s medical officer, called his wife from that phone last night. He told her about the pretty lemon tree with the sweet-smelling flowers, and said he’d bought her an inlaid wooden box with a surprise inside. (I sent you a box with a surprise inside today, too. Just like the one I received at mail call yesterday. I was so excited when I saw a care package with your return address on it!) Anyway, Tom’s wife had news for him, too. She’s pregnant. And she’s four months along! Of course, since we’ve been deployed for the last seven months their divorce papers are probably following the ship from Haifa to Malta to Lisbon. She said that Tom made her feel undesirable. Less of a woman. At least she told you herself, I said. That counts for a lot. We consoled each other with gin and tonics at a bar on the Praça do Comércio and staggered back to the ship at midnight.
Remember the glamour shot I had taken for our last Valentine’s Day together? The one where they posed me on bubblegum-pink satin sheets, and everything seemed to have a rosy glow? You said you loved my blonde highlights and that negligée, the deceptively silky white thigh-high rayon with the virginal sweetheart neckline. After I gave you the photo we lingered by the dying fire with candied orange peel, and dark chocolate, and extra-dry California champagne. You joked about what might happen if you framed the picture and put it on your desk at work.
I wasn’t expecting the black leather outfit in yesterday’s care package. It’s amazing that the merry widow, the thong, even the fishnet stockings and the garters are all just my size! I was puzzled to find my glamour shot underneath, though. I was even more surprised to see the next photo in the stack. That was quite a naughty French maid costume the brunette with the green cat-eyes was wearing. And the redhead in the third photo sure has an overbite. Did whatever was under her tiger-striped teddy make up for it? The last photo – your wedding portrait, dated Christmas 1993 – explained a lot. And what it didn’t, the nice letter from your wife did. She sent me all those pictures because she wasn’t sure which of the women was me.
And now I have a similar problem. I don’t know if the leather outfit and accessories belong to the brunette or to the redhead. I’m returning them to you, so you can give them to her yourself. I’m sure that she’d rather get them back from you than from some other woman.
Jerri Bell is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She retired from the Navy in 2008; her assignments included antisubmarine warfare in the Azores Islands, sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and attaché duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, newspapers, and blogs. She and former Marine Tracy Crow are the co-authors of It’s My Country Too: True Stories of Women Under Fire from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books in 2017.