Originally published in Oracle Fine Arts Review.
As I sat in my white 2001 Dodge Intrepid listening to “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” in an attempt to stop feeling bad for myself, I heard a tap on the door opposite of me. Through the eerie glow of the car’s clock light, I could see a man in military uniform hunched into the window. The blinding street lamps in the distance turned him into a shadow making it difficult to identify the details of his face, but his fudge brown eyes squinting into the glass were familiar. It was Cleve. I unlocked the door to let him in. He swung it open and plopped his body into the passenger’s seat, the smell of sweat and grass and oil flooding the car. He turned to look at me, the song playing on repeat in the background.
“Hey, there. How was work?” I said, leaning over for a kiss.
“I still can’t find a place for you to stay.” He kissed me then turned to face me, leaning his back against his door and tucking his left boot under his right camouflaged thigh.
“I think I’ve figured out what we could do, though,” he said with a thick Alabama accent, staring at me, reading my face. I expected him to look less eager and a little more defeated than he did but his eyes were wide and determined.
“Hmm. Well, if it’s going to Alaska, I was starting to think that might be the only option, too. It just sucks. I don’t wanna leave you and I really don’t wanna live in the tundra.” My parents lived in Alaska and, though I had been homeless for over a month, I had ruled out the option of moving there up until this point. I was determined to stay in the lower forty-eight, but my options were running thin. I wanted to cry. Cleve and I had only been dating for three months but given our past, things had progressed quickly. I was very much in love with him.
“Hell no your not going to Alaska! No,” he paused to think about what he wanted to say. “I was thinking… what would you think about, uh… I was just thinking the past few days that maybe we could get married or something.” My face went blank. I was in love with him, yes, but I knew marrying him was probably a terrible idea. It was too soon to be considering such a thing. The only problem was that I had no other options.
Cleve and I met in our eighth grade English class at Foley high school in 1998 when we were only thirteen years old. He was an abnormally large for his age and popular football player who had lived in that small town his entire life. I was the awkward new kid, fresh from Florida, who had a painful lack of style, and a glaringly obvious lack of country accent, hence, a lack of friends. We had English class together and before we ever even spoke a word to each other his outgoing personality and abundance of friends caught my eye. Every day before class he stood in a circle of kids I viewed as beautiful and unattainable; his 6’2” frame swayed confidently from foot to foot as he told jokes, everyone hanging onto his every word. I wanted to know him, to be near him. I thought if I could just get his attention, somehow, then maybe I would have a chance.
Cleve sat one row in front of me, diagonally to the left. For months I sat in that English class finding it hard to learn a thing as the back of his head tempted my concentration. Eventually, after many nights of going over the scenario in my mind and mirror pep talks, I decided I would leave him a note introducing myself. What could it harm? I convinced myself. I’ll get up right when the bell rings, drop it on his desk, and leave as quickly I can.
The day after completing my mission, I sat nervously at my desk, wet palms tucked under my thighs, waiting to see if he would reply. As he passed through the doorway into the classroom, I made every effort to avoid eye contact. My cheeks burned with embarrassment as he sat down at his desk, seemingly not noticing me. He reached into his gray backpack, got back up, turned toward me, and tossed a folded piece of yellow college ruled notebook paper onto my desk complete with a melt-me-from-the-inside-out smile. “Hi. I’m Cleve. Are you new?” It was simple and perfect. Many notes were passed, usually scribbled with mindless comments on schoolwork or TV. After a couple of weeks, things were getting serious, for middle school anyway, and I finally gave him a note with my phone number and the words “Will you go out with me – Circle: Y or N?” I wanted to use the same drop-and-run tactic I used for the first note but decided I couldn’t bear waiting an entire twenty-four hours for an answer. I watched intently his broad left hand as it manipulated the blue ink bic pen to draw a perfect circle around the letter “Y.” It was official.
We “went out” for an anti-climactic two weeks then broke up because I thought he had a crush on one of our school’s cheerleaders. Despite the small mishap, Cleve and I remained fairly close friends through high school. We eventually went our separate ways after graduation, losing touch with each other. Then, three years later, we reconnected through Myspace, hitting it off immediately.
I was a flight attendant based in Charlotte, North Carolina and Cleve was a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, only a thirty minute flight east. Our close proximity made it easy for me to visit him, so I did. I did so often that I ultimately lost my job for missing work over it. Being reckless wasn’t new to me. Only two years before, I quit high school and ran away to live on my own in defiance of my parents sudden move from Foley to Tampa. I had never been an extremely responsible person, and I had never done well with authority. As a teen I was always able to squeeze through life despite those facts, but as a newly twenty-something that was no longer the case.
After running out of couches to crash on in Charlotte, I drove to Jacksonville, parked my car at the local K-Mart, and stayed there for nearly two weeks. Cleve did everything he could during that time to find me a place to stay, but he lived in the barracks on base and so did most of his friends. His friend Matt and Matt’s wife Shannon were the only people he knew who lived off base, but Shannon didn’t know me and was rightfully hesitant to take me, a strange homeless person, in.
On January 11, 2006, we eloped at the Jacksonville county courthouse. It was just me, him, and his two best friends, Matt and Tony, as witnesses. I wore boot cut blue jeans, a slouchy tan sweater, and my hair in a ponytail. He wore his desert camis. There was no ring, and there were no pictures. After the ceremony, since I was Cleve’s wife and all, Shannon decided to meet me. We hit it off over a bottle of cabernet and became instant friends. I moved in the next day.
Two months later, on March 10, Cleve’s unit, 3/8, deployed to Ramadi, Iraq. On April 1 around 8 PM I received a Myspace message from Cleve’s brother:
From: Matt Kinsey
Title: Cleve’s been hurt
Message: I don’t know if you know already, but Cleve got hurt. Call if you need to talk 555-5555.
I, very dramatically, stood up and threw the computer chair to the side of the room, screaming for Shannon who was napping in her room across the hallway. She stormed out, dirty blonde hair in a crooked knot on the top of her head, big hazel eyes disoriented from sleep.
“What’s going on?”
“Cleve! Cleve was hurt! I don…”
“Wait, what? How do you know?”
“His brother sent me a message on Myspace! He didn’t give me any details.”
“Okay, slow down. Have you called them?”
“No. I’m about to.”
When I called, Cleve’s brother told me that his parents had received a call hours before from the Marine Corps saying that his Humvee had been hit by an IED, severely injuring his left leg. The Marine Corps couldn’t find me because I had to use my parents Alaska address on our marriage paperwork since I had no home at the time. I also had a new phone with a new local number, and I hadn’t thought to let them know. Cleve’s parents didn’t know we had gotten married until the Marines told them they were looking for me. They weren’t happy with the news and opted out of trying to get ahold of me. That’s when his brother messaged me.
That night, Shannon and I sat on the steps of her back porch smoking Marlboro lights and telling our favorite stories about Cleve. We didn’t bother with sleep. The Marine Corps finally got ahold of me the next morning. They apologized for the mix up and told me Cleve was on a flight to Germany where he would switch to another flight to Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, DC. Shannon wanted to go with me to see him, so we decided to drive the ten hours. We packed her white Sport Trac with a week’s worth of clothes, loaded her six month old son into the car, and were out the door by afternoon.
We arrived at the hospital just before midnight. A liaison officer kindly stayed behind to take me to my husband. The hospital was large and dim and quiet — every footstep echoed as we walked through the winding halls. We reached the fifth floor where the lights were out except the nurse’s station, which glowed fluorescent down the hall. Shannon and I followed SSgt. Brown toward the light, Connor in tow. We passed room after room, most of them black with night, some of them with closed doors, until finally he stopped. He told us children weren’t allowed in, so Shannon had to take Connor to the waiting room further down the hall. SSgt Brown and I had to put on yellow paper robes and rubber gloves before entering the room to prevent catching any undetected foreign diseases Cleve may have contracted while overseas. I wanted to see him alive so badly that I could hardly breathe, and the robe and gloves were hot. We walked in to a dimly lit room with a single hospital bed and Cleve lying in it. Thinking he was asleep, I walked up to him and placed my rubber hand on his. He was warm and curled into a contorted ball. I wanted to see his leg but it was hiding under a thin white blanket that I dared not move.
“I love you,” I whispered. To my surprise he began to turn toward me. His pupils were massive from the Delaudid, hardly leaving any brown left, but his unmistakable smile confirmed that it was him and he was alive. As he turned his body toward me, the blanket moved from his wounded leg. It was wrapped in what looked to be cellophane and colored the deepest blood red I had ever seen.
“Hey… I missed you. I love you, too.”
He was initially in the hospital for three months before we got to go back home to Camp Lejeune. For the next four years we lived in and out of hospitals as he recovered. He eventually had to have his leg amputated, forcing us to move to Washington D.C., and two years after that, on April 20, 2010, at the age of twenty-five, he died from an accidental overdose of his pain medications, leaving me a young military widow.
Looking back now, it is amazing to me how much one person – one decision – completely altered my life. I’ve often considered what my life would have been like if I hadn’t married Cleve and, instead, moved to Alaska, or worse, tried to make it on my own. Every time I consider an alternate life, I realize saying “No” was never an option for me. I needed him, then he needed me, and that was how it was supposed to be. Today I am far from the irresponsible homeless girl I was eight years ago. Perhaps being a widow isn’t ideal, but life has never claimed to be ideal. I’m a student, a traveler, a writer, a volunteer, a military widow, and so much more. I am happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been and all because of a foolhardy and unregretted “yes.”