I’ve swum with sharks in the Caribbean, jumped out of a plane from 4,000 feet above ground level and shot a basketball from half-court in an attempt to win a million dollars. If I combined the nervousness of all three of these events, it wouldn’t amount to more than one snowflake in the blizzard of anxiety I felt right now. What had I been thinking?
Standing on a crowded pier at Naval Station Norfolk, I waited to meet the man of my dreams. Literally meet, as our relationship consisted of six months and eleven days of emails. We’d swapped pictures, and the sight of him in his dress blue uniform with all those colorful ribbons had sent my heart ka-thumping like a steel drum solo. But photos could be doctored, emails ghost-written, and marital statuses falsified. For all I knew, one of these wives and papoosed infants were waiting for him, too. What had I been thinking?
I’d lied to my parents, telling them I was going on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains with my sorority sisters. I’d also deceived them about my cyber relationship with my naval officer. They had no idea Lieutenant Jake Porter existed, let alone that I had accepted his very romantic cyber-proposal of marriage. What had I been thinking?
And if that wasn’t enough, I’d bribed a workman to sneak me onto the base. What was a poor girl to do? I’d driven 529.9 miles only to discover that security around the navy base was designed to keep terrorists out and was no match for a naïve fiancé, regardless of how hard I batted my baby greens at the young MP. So not only was I going to hell for lying to my parents, I could also be going to jail for slipping an electrician a hundred bucks to let me ride with him in his truck when he drove through the gates.
“Guess you didn’t get the memo on pantyhose,” said a woman standing next to me.
I compared her cute sailor shorts and midriff-baring sailor top, bare legs and matching sneakers against my mint green linen dress, taupe hose and three-inch strappy sandals. She was cool and sexy, I was hot and frumpy. I hadn’t planned on standing for three hours in the heat and humidity that defined southeastern Virginia summer. “This is my first homecoming.”
“I remember my first. Isn’t it exciting?”
“Yes,” I lied. Terrifying would be a more accurate adjective.
I licked my lips and felt the effects of too much sun and not enough sunscreen. Jake’s and my first kiss would be like satin scraping sandpaper. How unromantic was that? One more tick on the “Stupid” side of the scorecard keeping track of my romantic folly. “Can you tell me how this works? I mean, how do you find your sailor?”
“Don’t worry, he’ll find you.”
A cheer erupted from the crowd at the emergence of a great grey ghost on the horizon. The USS MACDONALD inched closer to the pier after her nine-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. A gigantic red, white and blue lei hung from the bow until it just skimmed the water. Sailors dressed in Cracker Jack uniforms stood “at ease” around the perimeter of the deck. The sight sparked a surge of patriotic pride I didn’t know I had.
Tugs pushed the ship into her berth as deckhands scrambled to toss lines and secure her to the pier. The band struck up “God Bless the USA” as the crowd tightened its ranks until deep, nerve-calming breaths were no longer an option for me. Finally, when I thought my heart would explode from my chest from all the excitement, the gangplank was lowered to connect the ship to land and the Captain called liberty.
Sailors rushed forward to meet their newborn babies for the first time. Men swooped women into their arms and spun them in dizzying circles. Female sailors grabbed children they hadn’t seen in almost a year and held them tight. A melee of kissing, hugging, crying and shouting surrounded me. Joy filled my heart as I searched every smiling face for Lieutenant Jake Porter.
An hour later, I stood alone on the pier. My romantic dreams felt like the discarded rose petals that littered the ground.
“Can I help you?” a sailor shouldering a sea bag asked.
“Is everyone off the ship?”
“The duty section has to stay onboard. Usually the bachelors volunteer so the married ones can spend time with their families.”
“How would I find out if someone has duty? I’m, ah, kind of surprising him.”
The young sailor smiled. “The Duty Officer on the quarterdeck can help you. Just go up those stairs and across the brow.” With a tip of his Dixie cup hat, he turned and walked down the pier.
“Thank you,” I called after him and flew towards the ship.
With every step I took up the steep metal staircase and across the gangplank, my emotions flipped between hope and despair. Ensign Singleton approached me when I stepped onto the quarterdeck. “I’m here to see Lieutenant Porter,” I said with more confidence than I felt.
A puzzled look crossed his face. “Your name?”
“Kara Stevens. I’m a friend of Jake’s.”
He nodded. Then silence. Cold stone silence. He seemed to be weighing his words carefully. I prepared myself for the worst.
“Lieutenant Porter is not aboard, Ma’am,” he said.
“Oh.” He must have left without me seeing him. But then I didn’t really know what he looked like, did I? The idiocy of my engagement hit me like a jumping roundhouse kick to my solar plexus. What a fool I’d been to believe in a relationship that was as intangible as the cyber world in which it had been created. This had probably been a game to him, a diversion to help pass the time of the long, lonely days at sea.
I kicked off my shamefully expensive strapy sandals and tossed them into the oily waters of the Elizabeth River before racing across the gangplank and down to the pier. The scorching asphalt against my stockinged feet gave me something to cry about. I’d just allowed myself my first long, mournful wail when the refrain of “Hey There Delilah” sang from my pocket. Last Sunday, Jake and I had declared that as “our” song and I’d changed my incoming ring tone immediately. I reached for my cell phone with the intention of tossing it to be with my shoes, when the caller ID caught my eye. Mom. I’d better answer, but I couldn’t let her hear me crying. Deep breath. Nose wipe against the shoulder of my mint green dress. Sniffle. Throat clear. “Hi, Mom.”
“Kara?” asked a deep male voice. “This is Jake.”
“Oh,” was all I could choke out against the tide of tears that rushed out despite my best efforts to control myself.
“I pulled a few strings," he said, "and flew off the ship a day early so I could get to Cleveland to surprise you. Your mom tells me you’re camping.”
“No, I’m standing beside your ship. I wanted to surprise you.”
* * *
I spotted Jake first as he rode the escalator down to the baggage claim area. The sight of him, standing tall in his crisp white uniform and shiny gold buttons, took my breath away. Our first kiss, where lips met lips and souls met souls, turned my legs to spaghetti. When he dropped to one knee and, amidst the cheers of hundreds of other travelers, presented me with an antique diamond engagement ring, I nearly went into cardiac arrest. I’d doubted this man’s love for me? What had I been thinking?