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THE LAST thing I expected was to fall in love with Matt Holloway. That year was my second, at a university set smack in the centre of streets lined with cherry blossoms and embassies in the nation’s capital. Even before I arrived the previous fall, I’d decided that I was going to transform myself into a sophisticated city girl, to match the college I would be attending. I spent money on a wardrobe my mother couldn’t afford. By spring, I’d moved into a whole different style that mimicked the London fashions all the range then.

From the start, I dated furiously. I’d hooked up with a crowd of rich kids who’d never known anyone who wasn’t rich. I had gone without meals and played hours of tennis to turn thin as spaghetti, so clothes fell like a whisper over my bones. I wore skirts that barely covered my thighs and tights that sparkled silver, and imagined myself as a magazine spread.

Guys I dated were going to step into fortunes before growing old enough to know how to handle all that dough. I never imagined myself marrying any of them, since marriage and kids were not in the picture for me. No. I’d set my sights on a life more cinematic than waking up every day in a house with square-shaped rooms and wall-to-wall carpeting, and a husband and three kids. I was going to travel, dressed in the latest fashions, have affairs with men, who if they spoke English at all, did so with an accent.

So, how in the world could I possibly have fallen in love with Matt Holloway?

The first piece of this story is strange enough. It began because my father came to visit. My father. You must understand that my father is the only way I know how to describe this man, but he was not — and I repeat — not what you imagine when someone says my father. He was not in the least father material. He was, instead, a military man.

I’m not sure if this is true for all of them. I suspect not. But for my father, being a military man was like being a Catholic priest. The priest is in love with God. My father was in love with the military.

At this point, you’re probably imagining my father as a macho guy who lived to kill the enemy and couldn’t get enough of war. Not at all. He was of average height and slender. Almost skinny. His skin was so pale and sensitive, he couldn’t stay out long in the sun. And here’s the strangest part. I’m not even sure that my father owned a gun.

What he loved about the military wasn’t the violence. He loved the life. I never saw this life because my father lived it away from his three kids and his wife. But he told stories, during the rare occasions he deigned to drop in on us. In his real life, my father traveled — from Frankfurt to Paris, Paris to Athens, Athens to Rome, etc., etc. He went out to clubs with his buddies in Tripoli, Libya, and watched belly dancers. He ate raw fish in Tokyo and uncooked hamburger in Paris. He met people in every corner of the world who he found interesting enough to learn their stories, which he would tell us in between taking bites of roast beef my mother had cooked or sipping a Scotch on the rocks he had poured for himself.

Unfortunately, my father did not find me fascinating. Those rare times he came home, he didn’t sit me down and ask what I had been doing while he was gone. He didn’t care to know a thing about me — are you sick or well, happy or sad, a star athlete, an A student, a juvenile delinquent, mad as hell? Nothing. A father who has absolutely no interest in his daughter doesn’t, under normal circumstances, visit her. So, obviously, you would not be out of line in asking, Why did he come?

My father had a meeting at the Pentagon. Why he wanted to waste a perfectly good evening having dinner with me is something I am not able to answer. Except to say this. Perhaps the only way he dared to spend the length of a meal — two hours at least — with me was to bring along his old friend, Matt Holloway.

My father suggested a restaurant on the water and asked if I could find my way there. I called a taxi, that picked me up outside the complex of high-rise dorms where I shared a room hardly bigger than a walk-in closet with my best friend, Ruthie Ginsberg. It was twenty after six by the time the cab pulled up in front of the restaurant. The spring sky was coloured rose, like the cherry blossoms that had popped out just that week. My father was sitting with his back to the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the water and a wooden dock, where several large white boats sat. Matt Holloway was sitting across from my dad.

By the time the waiter led me to the table, it was almost 6:30, a half-hour after my father had told me to arrive. He stood up and so did Matt.

“Finally made it,” my father said, and leaned a tiny way over and pecked me on the cheek. “You remember Matt?”

The man with his back to me turned around and stood up. He had a grin on his face and large blue eyes that crinkled at the corners.

“Can this really be my little Junie?” he said.

His voice twanged like a Dolly Parton song. I felt shaken, seeing this guy, his broad chest covered with a black cotton turtleneck. His face familiar, yet strange.

“It is,” I said and put my right hand out to shake his.

To explain why seeing Matt Holloway was such an unsettling experience, I must take you back to when I was little Junie. I got that name from Matt. My official name was June. The story went that the moment my mother believed the little sperm had wriggled all the way to hook up with the egg that produced the miniature blob that would become my parent’s third daughter, was the very first day of June.

Matt was eighteen the year I met him. I was nearly nine. It’s impossible to remember exactly when my father first brought Matt into our lives. But that whole year, he tagged along with us, as if he’d become a member of the family.

You must have a picture of this before I go on. We lived that year in Hawaii. The air smelled sweet from a delirious mix of plumeria, coconut and papaya, and the rain came down in furious sheets when the sun was still out, painting rainbows at the far edges of the sky. I had fine blond hair that grew lighter in the sun. Matt’s hair was medium brown, straight and short, because he was an airman in my father’s squadron.

To say that I fell in love with Matt Holloway the year I turned nine is to open up a complicated swirl of feelings a girl can have when she’s too young to understand. Matt was my big brother, sitting at the table with us for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, eating seconds and sometimes thirds of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, heading to the living room afterwards, to sit with my father and watch the game. Matt had that Southern accent then but all I knew was that his family lived far away, and we had taken him in.

It wasn’t in the house with my parents and sisters that Matt became the love of my life. He became my guy, afternoons when he babysat me, and we went to the beach.

The impossibility of this next part sounds as if I made it up but the memory is one of my truest. Matt drove us to the beach in a Chevrolet convertible, with the top down. We both sang out loud to the radio, and Matt had that Dolly Parton accent when he talked and called me little Junie and my girl. He was so perfect in every way, tan, with a smooth chest and muscles in his arms, thick legs I could see when he slid out of his khaki-coloured pants on the sand and stood up in a short black bathing suit. He held me up sometimes in the water, and we rode the waves, our voices meshing in shouts of pure fear and delight, when the big waves were about to crash over us and Matt grabbed my hand and yelled, “Dive, Junie. Dive.”

I hardly remember a word my father or Matt said at dinner that night. When my father asked if I wanted a drink, I nodded, though we both knew I wasn’t yet twenty-one and only allowed to drink beer, according to the law. I gulped the sweet whiskey sour too fast, hoping the alcohol would tell me what to say and how to feel. My father ordered me another one before my broiled flounder arrived.

Matt looked like the salesman he said he’d become — neat and clean, handsome in that All-American way. I was dating guys who’d let their hair grow long and started to wear oversized khaki-green jackets they’d bought at the Army-Navy surplus store.

Midway through my second whiskey sour, Matt turned to me and said, “You remember, Junie, when we used to ride the waves at Bellows Beach?”

I made the mistake of looking up at him then, at the face I’d seen as I fantasized, a girl of nine who didn’t know a thing about love or sex but had already begun to learn about yearning. I felt a desire for this guy who under any other circumstance I wouldn’t have given a second glance.

“The waves were so big,” I said then, my eyes still locked on Matt’s eyes. “But you always held onto me. You saved me every time.”

Matt laughed and I heard a sound that took me back to when the difference in our ages meant anything between us would be forbidden and, of course, illegal. But here we were, sitting across from one another at a restaurant with low light, my body warm and ready from the whiskey, and nine years seemed like such a short space of time.

“I’ll take June back,” Matt said to my father, as soon as we stepped out the restaurant door.

We said our goodbyes. My father gave me his usual cheek peck, and Matt and I watched as he walked to his car.

Matt grabbed my hand.

“I’m over this way, Junie,” he said.

He led me to a red sports car on the other side of the lot.

“Top up or down?” he asked.

“Down,” I said. “Like old times.”

We roared through the park, the breeze slapping us in the face. My hair flew around, every which-way. We were silent as Matt drove. I didn’t know what would happen when we got back to the dorm.

His black pants were tight around his thigh. I watched his hand move the gearshift up and down. I was feeling drunk and happy and so full of desire, I thought I might explode.

He parked the car at the side of the dorm, in a dark spot between streetlights. He slid his hand off the gearshift knob and laid it on top of mine.

“Sure has been fun seein’ you, Junie,” he said. “Be fun to do this again, sometime.”

He leaned over and put his free hand on the back of my neck, and we moved together across the gearshift in one motion. His mouth was on mine and our tongues were circling, as if we’d been trying to find ourselves here for a long time. We kissed, hungry for one another. If I hadn’t been living in the dorm, where men weren’t allowed, I know we would have taken things much farther.

Instead, we stopped when Matt said, “I’d better walk you up.” We arranged our clothes and got out of the car.

I never saw Matt Holloway again after that night. He called. Twice. Each time, I lied and said I was busy. He didn’t try to call me again a third time.

Once the whiskey had worn off and I was back in my life, a 19-year-old college student looking forward to an entire world she was aching to explore, Matt Holloway, the 28-year-old building materials salesman who probably wanted a couple of kids and a split-level house in the suburbs, where he could settle down, mow the lawn, barbecue on Saturday nights and watch the game on Sundays, didn’t seem right.

Maybe too, I preferred the memory. Of Matt holding me up in the water. Of the wave rising tall as a house, green like glass, and then curling over, as Matt grabbed my hand and shouted, “Dive, Junie. Dive.”


Image of Patty Somlo

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing) was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Delmarva Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and over 40 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net multiple times. www.pattysomlo.com; @PattySomlo.