He always told her that she could have whatever she wanted in life and that she should never waste her time listening to people who told her no. If she wanted to learn to drive an automobile, he would teach her once they were old enough. If she dreamed of being on one of those radio programs that she always listened to, she should take the train to the city and audition. If she wanted to go to work after finishing school, she should ignore her father's incessant bleating that proper girls did not work outside the home and go find herself a real job as a receptionist or maybe even a copy girl. The point was, he told her, that if she wanted something bad enough, she had to make it happen.
Ben told Iris a lot of things over the years as they played in the street or went ice skating on the pond. And as much as she told Ben about her hopes and her dreams, there was one thing she always held back. She never told Ben, or anyone else for that matter, what her biggest secret was. It was the kind of thing that Mama had told her girls should never talk about, especially not to the boy himself. A boy should be the one to come calling on a girl, not the other way around. "The fact is," Mama told Iris as she dropped warm dollops of butter over the mashed potatoes on Sunday afternoon, "that good girls never chase after boys. Your job is to look pretty and smile - if it's meant to be, he'll notice."
Iris took her Mama's words to heart. If she wanted Ben to notice her, she just had to wait. She learned to ply her hair into pin curls that framed her heart-shaped face and she waited. She bought the prettiest rouge she could find at the five-and-dime and she waited. She laughed at Ben's jokes and cheered for him at his basketball games while she waited. But, as Iris learned the older she got, a lot of girls were doing the same things as her and Ben had his choice of any of the girls in their class. He never picked her but Iris waited still because it was Ben himself, after all, that told her anything she dreamed of could be hers. She figured that she had to apply his own wisdom to her situation and that if she was just patient, her time would come.
Everything changed, though, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, no one wanted to wait for anything anymore. The boys all wanted to enlist right away and go overseas to fight. The girls all wanted to marry their sweethearts just in case they did ship off to war. And through all the passion and panic that seemed to sweep through her peers and the entire country, Iris knew that she had to tell Ben how she felt about him, regardless of Mama's dire advice. As far as Iris was concerned, the war meant that the old ways had to be forgotten. Time was short and that meant she had to take matters into her own hands.
Ben told everyone that as soon as he graduated, he was enlisting. Iris knew he meant it and sure enough, the day after they walked across the stage and received their high school diplomas from Principal Manchester, Ben took the train into Manhattan. When he came back, he had some very important news: he was leaving for Army basic training in just three short weeks.
Panic seized Iris' heart when Ben announced it because, even though the war started months ago, she had yet to find the right time to tell Ben that she loved him. As the sun set over her little slice of Long Island, Iris vowed that the very next day, she would tell Ben everything - even the parts that made her face turn red and her cheeks burn.
But the next day came and went and Iris lost her nerve. And the day after that, too.
Three days after he enlisted, Iris looked out her second story bedroom window and watched as Ben and his family loaded several worn suitcases into the back of their Edsel. Panicked, Iris dashed down the stairs and out onto Folton Street, skidding to a stop at the edge of the curb. "Ben?" she called.
Hearing his name, Ben wiped his hands on his pants and walked over to her, his blue eyes twinkling. "Hi, Iris. We're about to head up to my Grandfather's in upstate New York. We'll be back in two weeks."
Iris' eyes widened and she sputtered, "B-but you're leaving for the Army in two weeks, Ben!"
Ben shrugged. "I know, but Pops wants me to spend time with my grandparents before I ship off because they're old and we don't know how long I'll be gone."
Irish could not mask the worry in her voice. "So you're coming home and then immediately leaving for the Army?"
"Pretty much," Ben confirmed as he slipped his hands into the pockets of his pants. "We'll be home on Sunday and I leave the next day."
Iris' chest tightened and she found herself taking a step back from him as her eyes filled with tears. Darting her gaze away, she shook her head and forced a smile onto her face. "Well, I hope you have a nice time and...and I'll see you before you leave, right?"
Nodding, Ben grabbed her shoulder and squeezed. "You bet, Iris. I'll say goodbye before I leave."
Swallowing hard against the burning sensation in her throat, Iris watched as Ben turned and darted back to the family car, climbing into the backseat. He waved as they pulled away and Iris waved back, her heart full of both panic and resolve.
He would be back before he left again, she told herself. She would tell him then. On Sunday night. It was simple. She had no time left so when he came back, she would make her feelings known.
Over the next two weeks, Iris' plan played out in her head in myriad of ways and every single time she pictured herself talking to Ben, his kind eyes smiling down at her, she could feel her tongue twisting up into knots inside her mouth. She finally settled on the idea of writing him a letter. She could simply put her words down on paper and slip him the envelope on Sunday when he got back. Soon, her waste basket was full of crumpled, lavender stationary as she struggled with what to say. She could not find the words. They refused to come out exactly the way she wanted.
By Sunday morning, two full weeks after Ben left, Iris was in a near-panic. She sat by her window, watching for the familiar car to pull up in front of the house across the street. At 11am, she grabbed another piece of paper and moved across the room to her desk. Ignoring the shaking of her hands, she took a deep breath and began to write.
May 12, 1942
I'm writing this letter because I know that if I try to say these things to you, I'll forget or even worse, I'll chicken out. I've known you for 12 years and ever since the day your family moved in across the street when we were just 6 years old, you've been my closest friend. Sometimes, I feel like you're my best friend and I want you to know that it means a lot to me.
Ever since you decided to enlist, I knew that there were things I had to say to you. I don't know the best way to say this so I think I'll just say it as simply as possible: I want to be your girl. I know that you have your pick of the girls because we're all sweet on you but the way I feel is different from the rest of them. They like you because you're handsome and you have a lot of friends. I like you because you are a good friend and you have a good heart.
I know you're going off to war so I'm not asking for a commitment or anything but I hope you will tell me that it's okay if I write to you while you're gone and maybe when you get back home, we can go grab a soda and catch up.
I will miss you and pray for you every day and I hope that you think of me while you're gone.
After reading over the letter a few times, Iris folded it and pushed down into a matching envelope before she could change her mind. As she wrote Ben's name on the front of it in loopy handwriting, Mama called her down to lunch.
Forty minutes later, she was back upstairs, her eyes on the car now parked against the curb across the street. Iris' heart caught somewhere in her ribs and started beating off-kilter, the rat-tat-tat beat so strong that her breathing got flubbed up, too. She looked at the clock and realized that she had plenty of time before she really needed to go across the street so she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and gave herself a few more hours.
The clock ticked by slowly, each hour feeling like two, and when the sun had finally set over Folton Street, Iris decided that she had to do it now. She had to do it now. She had no idea what time Ben's train was leaving in the morning but she knew that if she did not pick her feet up and march across that street right then and there, she never would. After palming the lavender envelope, a shaky-voiced Iris announced that she was running across the street to Ben's house and hurried away, the screen door flapping behind her. She made it across the narrow residential street, up the steps, and onto Ben's porch in seconds and before she could stop herself, she rapped on the door.
A chorus of voices inside told Iris that everyone, including Ben's older brother and sister and their families, were home and the knowledge that she probably wouldn't be able to talk to Ben alone made her hands start to tremble. Just as she was turning around to retreat into the safety of her own home, the door opened and she was staring into Ben's crisp, blue eyes. "Hi, Iris."
"Hi, Ben," she began, "I know you just got back but you're leaving tomorrow and I wanted to see you before you left. I—" Iris glanced down at the envelope in her hand and then shoved it at Ben, letting go once he had his fingers curled around the edge.
Ben looked down at the purple paper in his hand before he flashed her a wide grin and turned away for a moment, shouting something Iris could not quite make out before turning his attention back to her. "That's perfect, Iris, because I was getting ready to come across to see you."
As he spoke, a small woman with hair the color of winter wheat walked up to him and Ben grinned at her, putting his arm around her shoulders. Iris gaped at the intimate gesture she was seeing, the scene not quite making sense.
"Hello there," the woman greeted Iris in a soft, lilting voice.
"Hello," Iris stated, her voice more dismissive than she had intended, her need to talk to Ben by himself outweighing her proper upbringing.
"Iris," Ben said with his eyes on the woman next to him, "I want you to meet my wife, Betty Ann."
Betty Ann extended her hand and Iris took it, her movements stony as shock rippled through her body. Finally, she lifted her eyes to Ben and parroted, "Wife?"
Dipping her head bashfully, Betty Ann nodded while Ben laughed. "Yes, my wife. I met her at the five-and-dime by Grandpa's house the first day of our visit. We spent nearly the whole two weeks together and decided that since I was leaving, we might as well get married because I knew right away that she was a keeper." Ben turned his eyes toward Iris and continued, "So we got married by a preacher last night. She's going with me tomorrow and will stay in town near where I'll be during training. I figure I'll get to see her some, at least until I ship out, and that's got to be good enough for a while."
Iris listened to Ben's words as she fought to catch her breath. All the air had escaped her lungs, leaving her light-headed and sick to her stomach. When she realized Ben was staring at her, a curious look on his face, she nodded quietly and reached her hand out, jerking the envelope from Ben's hand before she could stop herself.
"Iris?" he asked, confusion evident in his voice. His eyes moved from her face to the envelope that she had so quickly taken back from him. When she failed to answer him, he said her name again and let go of Betty Ann, taking two steps toward Iris as he reached his hand out to drop it onto her shoulder.
Crumpling the envelope up into a tiny ball, Iris squeezed her fist around it and flinched when she felt Ben's warm hand touching her. Swallowing against the tears that she knew were going to spill over, she lifted her head and gave Ben a smile. "Congratulations, Ben. Congratulations, Betty Ann." Stepping backwards in a rush, she shook Ben's gentle touch from her shoulder and stumbled over her words. "I...I'll leave you alone now. I just wanted to tell you to be safe and that I hope you can come back home soon."
Spinning on her heel, Iris dashed down the steps and back across the street. She heard Ben call her name once more but she kept moving, only stopped moving once she was standing inside her own bedroom, staring at the waste basket where the now-crumpled envelope had just fallen. Hearing a door slam across the street, she watched out the window as Ben helped Betty Ann into the backseat of the car and then slipped in next to her, grasping her hand in his as he shut the door. Iris watched the car pull from the curb with a numb feeling and, once the headlights had disappeared down the street, she closed her curtains and dropped down onto her bed. Staring at her shoes, Iris sighed and swiped at a tear that had appeared out of nowhere.
Ben had always told her that anything she wanted could be hers. Letting out a sad little laugh, Iris shook her head. Ben was wrong.