Charlie

KATHERINE MILLBANK picked up a bean bag paperweight from the desk and tossed it gently at the sleeping form across the room.

“Up and at ’em, sleepyhead!”

The form groaned into her pillow. “Wha’ time zit?”

“Six-thirty. Starting gun at eight.”

“Why did I ever get into this?” Sarah Franciano threw back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, her elbows on her knees. Her sandy blonde hair fell over her face.

“You mean, why did you let Scotty take you to a party on a Friday night?”

“That, too.” Sarah looked up, suddenly wide awake. “I’ll bet he feels worse than I do!”

“Coffee’s made. I’ll put out some breakfast.” Katherine closed the door on her housemate, and padded in her slippers back to the kitchen.

The two women had shared the apartment in Foggy Bottom for two years. Katherine was pursuing a doctorate in English Literature, but already had published journal articles on little-known women of the 18th and 19th Centuries who were writing ahead of their times. Sarah would finish her Master’s in Teaching about the same time that Katherine expected to defend her dissertation. They had met in the waiting lounge of the off-campus housing referral office and quickly discovered their shared passion for triathlons and teaching. Sarah was three years older, having taught for a while before returning to graduate school. Katherine had taught part-time while pursuing her master’s at Boston University. When George Washington University made her an offer, she jumped at it. Now they were in the last semester of their studies and their lease.

As Sarah came into the kitchen, Katherine put out two bowls of muesli, a tub of yoghurt and a bowl of fruit. The apartment lacked air conditioning. While neither woman minded that, the dripping condensate on the half-gallon carton of orange juice on the table reminded them that the humidity in Washington was high year-round.

“You clean up pretty good,” said Katherine.

“Not so loud. My stomach might hear you!”

“Here. Drink this first. You need some water in you.”

“I know. Why didn’t I remember to drink more water last night?”

“You do get distracted when Scotty is around.” Katherine grinned. “Isn’t he running, too?”

“Yeah. I may come in next to last, instead of dead last.”

They ate their breakfast mostly in silence. Sarah recovered nicely, as young athletes in top form can do. By the time they jogged to Dupont Circle for the start of the amateur half-marathon, both women were ready to race.

Sarah and Katherine competed in the triathlon circuit on the East Coast. They used amateur events like this half-marathon as training days and to socialize. This race was a fund raiser for the League of Women Voters, a cause close to Katherine’s heart. Considered a warm-up for the large marathons later in the year, it attracted both the sports media and the political press.

The air was cool and fresh, and the sun was just clearing some of the lower buildings around Dupont Circle when the starting gun sent two thousand women and men running up Connecticut Avenue. Katherine immediately set into her cruising pace, not feeling like showing off. She found a position just behind a half dozen men she recognized from the Marine Corps Marathon the year before. Running in what looked like the pack, she did not attract attention by being so far ahead of the next woman in the race.

She only sensed the presence of other runners around her, avoiding elbows as easily as road hazards, and using almost invisible spurts of speed to keep her position. Sarah ran with the first group of women. After running uphill on Connecticut Avenue, then down Nebraska to Georgetown, the race made its way to the National Mall.

The pack had thinned out considerably by the time the lead group turned onto Constitution Avenue for the last mile to the Capitol Building. Katherine moved up to fourth place, causing the first six men to glance at her quickly and begin sprinting, perhaps too early for most of them. Her friend Bahari from Kenya never looked back, but she knew that he knew who was behind him, including her. She admired his incredibly long legs as he flowed effortlessly over the asphalt. She did not consider that observers on the sidelines might think that she and Bahari were dancing, their strides being so well matched.

Easing up behind Bahari, Katherine found herself next to a runner she had never seen before. Pale, clean-shaven, maybe late twenties, dark brown hair, cut very short, he looked more like a swimmer than a runner. Another triathlete, she thought. As she prepared to sprint with Bahari for the finish, the new guy surprised her by falling into step with the two of them. Soon the three were running side-by-side. The others fell ten or more meters behind.

As they tore through the tape, each of them grabbed a piece of it. Bahari won the photo-finish, but a tie was ruled for second-place. Maury Cavendish, an Irish junior diplomat, won third place.

At the podium, the race officials suffered a moment of distress in front of the press and the crowd (this was an amateur race, after all). They had extra medals, but only three positions on the podium.

“Get up there,” Katherine said, pushing the stranger to the block. “I’ve seen the view already.”

The man’s face was beet-red, as he mounted the podium with Bahari and Maury, and smiled for the photos. “Thanks,” he said. Katherine stepped back.

He was still trying to get down from the podium when the crowd of reporters surrounded Katherine, taking pictures and shouting questions. She smiled and gave her usual non-committal answers – and swore once again to herself that she was going to give this up somehow. But she knew she could never stop competing: she loved it too much. She just wished the press weren’t there. She missed the single-track races in the Samuel Taylor State Park, where nobody saw the finish but the judges and the racers’ families.

As soon as she could, Katherine slipped into the crowd of runners stretching near the finish, and found Sarah.

“How’d it go?” Katherine asked as she bent down to stretch her back and glutes.

“Not bad. Third woman, twenty-seventh overall. I can see you were out there, as usual.”

“Yeah, well, I like hanging out with Bahari. He’s so shy that I’m going to have to ask him for a date next time.” They laughed.

“Who’s the new guy?”

“I don’t know. Number 1307. We can look it up.”

“Look it up? Katherine, he’s hot! You didn’t introduce yourself?”

“Oh, yeah. I don’t feel like getting acquainted here. Remember the article in Sports Illustrated? That was disgusting. I felt like a piece of meat.”

“Okay. Let’s get out of here. You obviously are not ready for the celebrity pages.”

“Hey, where’s Scotty?”

“He had to go the john after he finished his paperwork.  He’ll meet us at the Metro.”

They pushed further into the crowd and made their way to the Metro below Union Station. Most of the runners had family, friends, or agents picking them up at the finish, but the three of them never bothered making arrangements in Washington. It was easier to get home on their own when they were ready.

Stepping off the escalator onto the platform for the Red Line, Sarah grabbed Katherine’s arm. “There’s Scotty! C’mon.” Katherine stopped suddenly, causing Sarah to stumble.

“It’s him. The new guy.”

Scotty spotted them and waved them over. He gave Sarah an affectionate hug.

“You two did well, I see.” He pulled the man closer. “Sarah, this is Charlie Hampstead. You two met already, I guess.”

Charlie and Sarah shook hands, but Charlie stared at Katherine. “We haven’t met, actually.” He smiled broadly. His handshake was firm and warm.

“Katherine Millbank. I’m Sarah’s housemate.”

“Not Kathy or Kate?”

“Please, no. Katherine.”

“I was stunned when you made me get on the podium. You won that spot.”

“Like I said, I’ve been there. You’re a top runner to pace Bahari like that. Why haven’t we seen you before?”

“I only came to DC last week.”

“Charlie’s a Marine and my best friend.”

Sarah pouted, but her eyes twinkled. “I thought I was your best friend.”

“Sure, as long as Charlie was chasing bad guys overseas. Now he’s my best guy friend. Okay?” He held his hand up for a high-five.

“Okay.”

“Here’s our train.”

They gathered together at one end of the car, a happy, sweaty foursome. Charlie was staying with Scotty while he looked for his own place. He was stationed at Eighth and Eye, the Marine Corps’ base in Southeast Washington.

They got off at Dupont Circle, and walked to the coffee shop at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue. The server smiled when she saw them.

“One of these days, we gotta install a locker room with showers. Over there.” She waved at a corner booth with the coffee carafe. “Be right with you.”

“Thanks, Rosalie.”

After they ordered and started their coffees, Katherine noticed Charlie looking at her with a quizzical look. She suddenly realized that she had been staring at him.

“Sorry. I zoned out there.” She blinked and sipped her coffee. “So, what do you do at – what is it? – Eighth and Eye?” Charlie smiled.

“Nothing. I have to go in each day for some processing, but mostly it’s waiting around.”

“Is that normal?”

“No. My unit was ordered here suddenly, so everyone is in limbo.”

Katherine arched her eyebrows for him to continue, but he looked at his coffee.

“Later, Katherine,” said Scotty. “It hasn’t been a picnic.”

“Sorry. I’ve been told that I’m too curious. Please forgive me.”

Charlie looked up. “Nothing to forgive.” He smiled warmly. “Think we can take Scotty up on that word?”

“Which word?”

“‘Later.’ I would like to see you again, even though I’ve only seen you run. I know nothing else about  you.”

Sarah and Scotty laughed. Katherine sat back, a little shocked.

“Well, why not?” She blinked. “Are you asking me on a date already?”

“I don’t have my calendar in my running shorts. May I call you?”

Scotty and Sarah finally calmed down.

“Katherine, I knew you were fast, but that’s a record, girl.”

Their food arrived, and they concentrated on replacing their carbs and proteins.

****

Seeing Charlie again proved easier than she expected. He called the next day, and arranged to meet her at the library after her Monday seminar. They walked to O Street for lunch.

Over a large, four-cheese pizza, they exchanged the usual background information. He grew up in Oregon. His parents were both teachers. After graduating from the Naval Academy, he had served in Iraq, Hawaii, and Okinawa. He enjoyed racing in triathlons. Scotty had told him about the half-marathon, so he signed up. She grew up in Marin County in California when the mountain bike racing craze was exploding. In college, she found women’s sports too tame, so she turned to triathlons and marathons to feed her competitive drive.

He was fascinated by her athletic accomplishments, but seemed even more impressed by her scholarship. At one point, he looked out the window, as a sadness came over his face.

“I don’t know much about feminism or literature, being a dumb jarhead,” he said, turning to face her, “but I do know one thing. The world would be a better place with the women in charge.”

“That’s a strong statement for a Marine, isn’t it?”

“It applies especially to the Corps. It’s partly why I’m resigning.”

“Oh. So, this is not a routine reassignment?”

Charlie looked down, toyed with his pizza slice, then drank some water. He sighed and looked up at her.

“No. My whole unit was brought back. I’m the CO.” He paused, as if trying to make up his mind. Katherine kept quiet. “Maybe later, I’ll be able to tell you about it.”

He took a bite of his pizza and switched the subject. He had been a varsity swimmer at the Naval Academy, and like everyone else, ran every day. Adding the cycling was easy as triathlons caught on at Marine bases and their local communities. While he was stationed at Kaneohe on Oahu, he signed up for the Iron Man Triathlon. He had usually come in first before, but he placed in the early part of the pack in that one. So it was for any big event where people came from far away.

“I seem to catch up on each leg, but the transitions just kill me. I don’t know how the pros can change so fast.”

“Kind of hard to spy on the competition when they’re changing in and out of swimsuits in a tent, isn’t it?” He nodded. “We can work on that, if  you want.” He raised his eyebrows.

“Are you offering to help me strip and dress?” Katherine gasped lightly.

“Oh my gosh, did I say that?” They laughed. “You know what I mean!”

“How did you go from mountain biking to triathlons?” He listened intently as Katherine described the scenes in Fort Bragg, California, and Boston. They chatted easily until Katherine had to leave for an afternoon meeting with her advisor.

***

They met for a movie the next night, which brought the first sort-of-argument in their 24-hour relationship. They were nearing the end of supper at a casual restaurant near the theater.

“Thanks for lunch yesterday, but I’d rather pay my own way. Don’t go all gentleman on me.”

Charlie looked hurt, “but –” Then he shut his mouth, staring into her narrowed eyes as he considered what she really meant. “I get it, but look at it this way. I’ve got the nice government job, and  you’re a grad student making ends meet. Let me pay the bill. I could be unemployed and homeless next month. What do you say?”

Katherine took a breath as if to argue, then held it, and let it out. “Okay. But let me get the movie tickets.”

“Deal.” He reached out his hand and they shook. She smiled, and squeezed his hand rather longer than a casual gesture. “If you ever want to keep seeing me, let’s take turns paying. This way, the waitstaff doesn’t have to split the bill.”

“Okay.” she said. “And the one who doesn’t pay leaves the tip.”

***

Later, neither could remember which movie they went to that night, because “dinner and a movie” became a pleasant daily experience for them. Katherine noticed that when it was his turn, he chose the more expensive places, and suggested the more casual ones for her to pay. Charlie would often meet her between classes. On the third day, he and Scotty ran into Sarah and Katherine running in the morning. The four friends started running every morning after that, and training on the weekend. Swimming at the University pool and cycling on the bike paths that started at Rock Creek and ran into Virginia and Maryland.

One evening when it was Charlie’s turn to pay, Katherine asked, “You seem very quiet tonight. Is everything okay?” He sighed.

“Sorry it shows. Sometimes it just gets me down.”

“Want to tell me about it? I only know that you are a Marine officer, so I guess you can’t let weakness show at work or something like that, eh?”

He gazed off beyond her shoulder as if gathering his thoughts. The flickering of the candle on the table made his hazel eyes shift color rapidly between green and brown. Katherine stared until he blinked.

“Remember what I said about how I wish the women were in charge?”

“Yes.”

“Half the Marines in my unit are women. We’ve deployed twice together, and the respect we have for one another is total and unconditional. From the beginning, the women have been solid Marines like the men. Some of the guys started out being a little fatherly in their concern for the women — until they got slapped in the head or found themselves on the ground with a combat boot poised over their balls. The first deployment was a learning experience for everyone.” He smiled

Katherine grinned. “I take it you had to be the teacher?” He nodded.

“We were back at our main base after the second deployment. It can get pretty boring between deployments, so we never get any slack at home. One night, we got a call to a local club, where a private party had turned into a drunken bash. The responders called for backup, so I took the rest of the duty section to the club. We found two squads gang-banging a half-dozen women: four of their own Marines and a pair of locals. Everyone was wild-eyed, but it was clear that the women were not having fun. Their platoon commander, a brand new second lieutenant, had passed out under a table. We arrested him and the twenty men and took the women to the base clinic for rape kits, counseling, and interrogation.”

Katherine gasped and forced herself not to talk. She motioned for Charlie to continue.

“It would have been a major scandal, so the major – my boss – did not want it getting out. But I was not going to tolerate sexual assault.”

“You said ‘arrested’. Are you some kind of policeman?”

“Security Battalion. What the Army calls military police.”

“What happened?”

“I was ordered to withdraw the charges while the platoon was reassigned. The brass wanted to cover it up. They said everyone was having fun.”

“And?”

“I refused. So did my whole unit, even the ones who were not part of the original arrest. The local JAG officers — that’s the Judge Advocate General corps, the lawyers — warned the command that the men were duly arrested and charged. One by one, they relieved us of our duties, until there was no one left to withdraw the charges. They flew us to Washington, reassigned everyone they could, and threatened to court-martial the rest of us for insubordination.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. But it can’t stick, so they’re in a bind – all the way to the top. They hushed it up, but now they have a dozen Marines they don’t know what to do with – and a whole chain of command ready to collapse with the next scandal. I’m disgusted.” He paused to take a breath. “I don’t care if it started out as drunken fun. When I got there, the women were screaming and terrified. It was rape, pure and simple.”

“Is this like that Tailhook scandal in Las Vegas?”

“Worse. They were raping their own Marines and local women.”

Katherine felt the steak burn in her stomach. She took a deep breath, and stared at him.

“Why are you sharing this with me? We only just met.”

“Because I think you’ll understand. I don’t know anyone else who would, except the men and women in my unit.”

“Scotty is your friend.”

“He’s supportive, but he doesn’t get it.”

“Really, no one?”

“Not my parents, not the chaplain, and certainly no other Marines.”

“What do they say?”

“Different things, but behind it all, they point out that the women were drunk. As if the men weren’t or that it’s okay for the men to be drunk but not the women.”

“I’ve heard that: blame the victim.”

“When you explained your work, I thought you might.”

Katherine reached over and took his hand. “I’m very sorry. But I’m also impressed by your courage.”

“I don’t feel so courageous right now, unloading my troubles on you.”

“To the people in your unit, you must be a hero.”

“They’re taking it pretty hard.”

“But are they regretting it?”

“Not that I can tell.”

“So, it’s your unit against the whole male supremacy system in the Marine Corps.”

“Pretty much.”

“It’s good that you have each other. It sounds very scary.” She sipped her wine. “What will you do now?”

“Right now, I have to win the fight to make sure my Marines get their honorable discharges. The JAG officers have been great, keeping the Corps from kicking them all out with dishonorable discharges. I told them not to settle for general discharges. But it takes time. Eventually, though, they’ll have to let them all go honorably, or it won’t be a quiet discharge.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll resign my commission and take an honorable discharge like the others. I’ve met my minimum service obligation, so they can’t keep me.”

“It seems sad.”

“I loved the Corps. We all did. This feels like the worst betrayal – to be taught a set of principles, then watch everyone blow them off.”

“And after the Corps?”

“I haven’t gotten there yet. Probably graduate school on the GI Bill. I don’t worry about being unemployed with my resumé.”

“Tough, but it seems that you’ll be okay in the end.”

“Yes, we will.” He took a breath and a sip of his wine. “Thanks.”

“What for?”

“Listening. I’ve never been able to get all this out at once like this. Once I did, I realized that it’s not as bad as it feels. We really can get through this.”

“You’re welcome, then. Please let me know how it’s going. This is the most amazing story. I want to organize something, but that would ruin what you are trying to do, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“It just makes me so mad to see the brass getting away with this. They need to be exposed.”

Charlie squeezed her hand. “They’re not getting away with anything. This will come out someday and bite them badly. But my first duty is to my Marines. Always. I have to see them safely out of this mess, so they can get on with their lives. You see?”

Katherine nodded. They sat back and looked at each other for a while. The server approached the table.

“Want me to box that for you?”

The question surprised Katherine. Charlie was looking at her to see what she wanted, too.

“Actually, not yet. I’m still hungry. Sorry.”

“That’s okay.” The server put a fresh carafe of water on the table, and left.

Charlie smiled and attacked his steak. “Heavy talk. I forgot that I came in here hungry.”

“Me, too.”

***

Two weeks later, Sarah came home and stood in the door to Katherine’s room.

“Charlie wasn’t home tonight. I thought he’d be out with you.”

Katherine hit the ENTER key and stood up. “Me, too.” She stretched and turned to her friend. “He’s having a farewell party of sorts with his unit. They got their discharges today, and processed out.”

“All at once?”

“Yes. And Charlie has lined up jobs for all of them.” Katherine counted off. “Let’s see. Six are joining police departments in their hometowns; four have accepted offers from security or investigations companies; and two are going to college: one to Howard and the other to Sweetbriar, on a combination of GI Bill and scholarships.”

“Wow!”

“Turns out he can write a pretty powerful recommendation letter. Not your usual form reference.”

“No wonder they stuck by him. What about Charlie himself?”

“He submitted his letter of resignation. It may take a while for it to be accepted, because the people who sign off on it are scared shitless. But he has his JAG friends standing by. Charlie thinks that they’ll let him go if they think he’ll go quietly.”

“You’ve been seeing him almost every day. Are you two an item?”

“Gosh, I haven’t thought about it. I like being with him, and he seems to enjoy being with me. I don’t have many people who understand me, and he seems to have the same problem.”

“Well, if you want to bring that puppy home with you, just let me know, because right now, I’m not spending nights at Scotty’s, you know.”

“Yeah, right. That would be nice.” Katherine walked to the kitchen for another glass of orange juice. The prospect of more than good-night kisses with Charlie made her smile.

Sarah called down the hall, “Scotty said that he and Charlie won’t run tomorrow. What time do you want to go?” asked Sarah.

“I want to finish the draft on this chapter, so I may sleep in. Say, eight o’clock?”

“Okay. Good night, Katherine.”

“Good night, Sarah. And thanks.”

===========

© 2020, JT Hine

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