I Never Knew


NURSE CORPS CAPTAIN HILDA PAISLEY felt her legs wobble as she walked to the women’s locker room. It had been a long shift in the emergency room: four auto accidents, a fight on the playground at Vogelweh Elementary, and a suicide attempt that almost was successful. Still not as bad as a day in Bar Kunar, she reminded herself.[i]

Seeing the spare set of scrubs, her service green uniform, and two pairs of shoes crammed into the small locker, she was glad that her “civvies” for commuting took up no room. She loaded the pockets of her bicycle kit with the items on the bench and went outside. The sun kissed her anthracite skin with a frisson of pleasure after the frigid air conditioning of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

The snow on the distant hills (a gift from the cold snap last week) served to remind everyone that winter was coming. Grateful for the warmth, Hilda rode downhill to the flat where she had grown up in Kaiserslautern. Orders two months ago to Landstuhl had come after years of duty in Georgia, North Africa, Iraq, then Afghanistan, first as an enlisted combat medic, then as a new nurse after her commissioning at Fort Hood, Texas. This was the first posting near her hometown.

After locking the bike in the central courtyard of the apartment building, she climbed the stairs to the Paisley apartment. Her father, a former Army linguist, had gone to Stuttgart, “consulting” for the US Africa Command. At least, I hope it’s Stuttgart, she thought. Chief Warrant Officer Tongai (Tom) Paisley had hung up his uniform two years ago, but the frequency of the trips to Stuttgart made her wonder how “retired” he really was.

When he was on active duty, he would deploy for a couple of months at a time, God knows where, probably in sub-Saharan Africa. Long ago the family had accepted that the two-metre-tall, full-blooded Zulu was the only man in the US Army who could vanish into the bush or the jungle and come back alive. The major who commanded Tongai’s special operations unit would call Margareta Paisley only to say that he was out safely when her husband was on his way back.

Depending on where “out safely” happened to be, Hilda’s father could take another month to show up at the air force base in Ramstein. Once he had appeared at their door disguised as a homeless refugee. He hid in the apartment away from windows for an hour before calling in a code word to somewhere and relaxing.

Now he called them himself before coming home, and he walked from the train station.

The smells of Swedish cooking filled the apartment as Hilda opened the door.

“Hello, cära, do you want to eat early or later?” Hilda’s mother spoke Swedish at home. Wednesday nights they had choir rehearsal at the Altakatholische church nearby, where Margareta was the music director.

“Early, please, Mamma. I missed lunch.”

They ate in silence at first, but not in a hurry. After a while, they updated each other on their day. The most important news was no news: Tongai had not called. He had been away for three weeks.

“Have you ever heard from James?” Margareta asked, as she helped herself to salad. “I thought of him today when I saw the poster for Die Zauberflöte outside the Pfalz Theatre today.” Hilda had introduced her high school classmate Jim Weasley to classical music by going to that opera.[ii]

“Not a word, Mamma. I wrote from boot camp after we graduated, then from AIT in Texas and once from Khartoum.” Advanced Individual Training. “I had to give up after that.”

“Such a shame. You two were so cute together.”

Hilda smiled and sighed. More than cute. Jim had been her first and only date in high school and had taken her to the prom.[iii]

Jim had captained the championship basketball team; she had led the girls’ team, which routinely beat the boys in scrimmages. Hilda suspected that her very observant mother knew that they had been lovers during their senior year. Jim went back to Montana every summer, and he did so right after graduation, too.

“It is what it is, but I often wonder, too. When he left, he still had not made up his mind about college or working on his grandfather’s ranch.”

“What about those search things, like Facebook and Google?”

“I tried that in nursing school, but the only thing that came up was a Lamont Weasley at Montana State University. No picture. Maybe a cousin.”

They left the dishes soaking in the sink and walked to the church together.


Margareta was relaxing in the living room with the latest issue of Opera News when Hilda entered the flat two days later. She paused at the door.

“Hello, Mamma. Any old friends in the news this month?” Margareta had sung soprano with the Städtebundopera before Hilda came along. She followed what her former colleagues were doing.

“You mean besides Riccardo, Diego, Luciano, and Renée?”

“What about Natalie?”

“They’re all in this issue, of course, but also, Rickard and Willy were interviewed in an article about the rise of opera in Germany after the war.” To baby boomers in Europe, “the war” would always be World War II.

“They did not interview you?”

“No, dear. I was off the stage before the correspondent was born.” She smiled. “Rickard is the director of the opera house in Berlin now, and Willy runs the one in Munich.”

“I still think of them as Uncle Rickard and Uncle Willy.” Hilda walked to her mother and gave her head a kiss. “Let me shower and change. I want to read that after you.”

As Hilda was drying her hair, she heard her mother shout, “Hilda, can you come see this?”

In the living room, Margareta held the magazine folded back to an article about the Laffont Competition. Hilda took it with a quizzical arch to her eyebrows and read about the nationwide auditions by the Metropolitan Opera, scouting for new talent to bring to their development program. The finalist from the Rocky Mountain Region was the tenor, Lamont Weasley.

The man in the photograph was Jim. The freckles were buried in a healthy tan, and the unruly red hair was appropriately styled for a professional photograph. And, of course, he did not look like a teenager any more than Hilda did.

“He must go by his middle name now.” Hilda handed the magazine back to her mother. “I never knew.”

“It seems that you had a greater impact on him than you suspected, taking him to the Pfalz Theatre on your dates.”


A week later, Margareta came to the hall when Hilda opened the door to the flat. She nodded to the tray on the side table.

“You’ve got mail.”

“Mamma, do you have to sound like a computer?” They chuckled. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a paper letter.”

She put down the pannier from her bicycle and carried the letter into the living room.

The address was handwritten in dark blue ink on the off-white, heavy envelope. The return address was an apartment in New York City. No name. Hilda ran her fingernail under the flap.

Dear Hilda –

We may have lost touch, and I won’t blame you if you have forgotten me. For years, I have wondered where you were and what you were doing, but I could not find you on the usual platforms. I am taking a chance that I have remembered your old home address correctly, and that your parents will forward this if you are not there.

You may not know that you are responsible for my present happiness and the success I am enjoying in life. During my freshman year at Montana State in Bozeman, I decided to take lessons and major in voice performance. One thing led to another, and I have been picking up gigs with opera companies throughout the West since my junior year.

Last year I applied for the Laffont Competition. To my surprise I was the finalist from the Rocky Mountain Region. Even before I came to New York for the finals audition, my career started taking off. I sang Tamino in The Magic Flute in Charlotte for three performances (in English – I hated it!). Then Austin, Cleveland, and Baltimore before the Laffont finals last summer. The Met made me an offer, and I moved here. I’m sharing a flat with a bass from Maine, an Army brat like us.

When my agent told me that the Pfalz Theatre had appealed for new, non-local talent, I told her to apply and gave her the application form and essay in German. The role is Tonio in La Fille du Regiment. They haven’t told me whether it will be a German translation or the original French, but I wrote back in both languages to assure them. When I recorded the demo tape for them, I could not help remembering the night you sang the “Smoking Hell” aria to me. I sent them two tapes, one with ten high C’s, the other as written.

They made an offer. It’s like going home, though my bio describes me as a “farmer from Great Falls, Montana.” Now I must know where you are and whether I could see you and/or your parents when I come to town.

Hilda, you are hard to find. No Facebook page, no AOL, LinkedIn, or Google profile. You don’t turn up in searches. My dad says that you may be in some unit that discourages online activity for security reasons. All I know is that you went to boot camp. I hope you are alive and well, and (too much to hope for?) positioned to be home next month when I come to town. If not, please let your parents know that I will look them up. They, too, are off the grid, but knowing your dad, that does not surprise me.

If you get this, would you please email me at my personal address: jlw@weaslysings.com? My phone is +1-406-886-2323. It’s a cell, so I can take a call anywhere. Please leave voice mail if I can’t pick up.

So much has happened since graduation, but you will always hold a special place in my heart and in my life. I hope we can catch up soon, if not in person, then through email, etc.

Your friend and fan,


P.S. My voice coach had the idea to use Lamont as a professional name when I started performing in college.

Hilda looked up from the letter to see her mother standing there with a glass of Riesling in her hand. She took it with thanks. After a sip, she put down the glass and sighed deeply.

“It’s from Jim.”

Her mother smiled. “About time. You’re not crying yet, so it’s good?”

“He’s coming to Kaiserslautern. Tonio in La Fille du Regiment.

“Oh. My. God. Can he do the eight high C’s?”

“He sent demos with ten of them. I can’t wait to hear him.”

“The Pfalz Theatre has been scheduling a non-German, non-Italian opera each season for the last three years. The idea is to bring in new, foreign talent. James must be this year’s feature.

“We’ll find out soon. He gave me his email and phone number.”

She handed her mother the letter. Margareta read, while Hilda wrestled with emotions that had not surfaced for years.

“Are you still carrying a flame?”

“I don’t know, Mamma. It never occurred to me until this letter came.”

“I guess the Army has not been a party cruise for you, eh?”

“No. And before you say anything, yes, he was the first, and so far, the only one I cared for. But we were just kids. Wouldn’t we have changed too much?”

“A rare chance to find out, cära. Most first loves never come back around.”

“Except in sappy romance movies.”

“Yes, there’s that.” She took Hilda’s empty glass. “You want to let that thought percolate while we fix supper?”

“I’ll go shower, then join you in the kitchen.”


This is silly! Hilda slapped herself mentally to quell the tingling sensation. She could not remember feeling like this since the junior prom in high school. That was with Jim, too.

To stop pacing in her room, she went to the kitchen, where her parents were assembling their supper.

After Hilda and Jim exchanged emails, Tongai, Margareta and Hilda had watched some clips they found on YouTube. The sound quality was not good, but his power and confidence shone.

“Obviously, the excellence on the basketball court gave him a good set of lungs,” said Tongai at the end of a video of “Nessun dorma” from Tosca.

“Not so shy anymore, is he?” Hilda grinned at her parents.

“It’s a performance, dear. He didn’t look shy on the basketball court, did he?”

Jim had asked if he could take her to dinner after the first rehearsal, because the press, the other musicians, and the officials would keep them from meeting before that. Hilda had been tempted to sneak into the theatre from the side door, but she decided against it.

Now she wished she had, because maybe the anticipation would not be bothering her.

Her father stopped chopping vegetables when Hilda walked into the kitchen.

Unotaridzika zvakanaka manheru ano,” You look nice tonight. Like Margareta’s Swedish, Tongai’s native Shona was a language the three Paisleys shared.

Ndatenda baba.” Thank you, Daddy. She took a dish towel from its hook and started drying some dishes by the sink.

“Are you nervous?” asked her mother.

“Yes, which is a surprise. I’m not a teenager anymore, for crying out loud.”

“But you were the last time you saw him.”

Hilda let out a long adolescent sigh, which set them all laughing.

The doorbell rang. Hilda moved first.

“I’ll get it. This isn’t the prom.”

They smiled and began wiping their hands.

At the door, Hilda took a deep breath, then opened it.

Her smile opened to a surprised O as she ran her eyes up and down the man standing in the hall. The blue eyes at the height of hers were not as watery as she expected (contacts?). This man was easily five kilos heavier, carried on a muscular frame and broad shoulders; Jim had been very skinny. His posture spoke of confidence and comfort with his world. The red hair was a little darker and professionally styled.

The mouth turned into a smile that was all Jim Weasley. He spread his hands.

Hilda took another breath and moved into the waiting arms.

The kiss was different. This is a man who knows how to please. They held on until a small cough interrupted them.

“Welcome back, James,” said Tongai as the two friends disengaged.

“Thank you, sir. It’s been too long.” Jim bent to the floor next to the door and brought up a bouquet of assorted flowers, which he handed to Hilda. He stepped into the house and shook hands with Hilda’s parents.

“It’s Tongai or Tom. You’re not a kid anymore.”

“And I’m Margareta.” She took the flowers from Hilda and went into the kitchen for a vase.

Over an aperitif in the living room, the four friends caught up. Margareta looked beyond Jim as he related his experiences living out of suitcase, flying from one medium-sized city to another for five years.

“Mamma, I’ve seen that look.”

“It was easier for me. Just train rides and overnights. I could always be home in a day.”

“But, still, I took you away from that.” Tongai squeezed her hand.

“No, dear, I chose my path. And following my mother as music director has been very satisfying. You were a bonus.”

“The USA is a big country, so it’s hard to reach everyone,” said Jim, “but interest in opera is growing, I think. The Live in HD initiative has been filling movie theatres all across the country.”

Jim and Hilda excused themselves after one drink. Outside, Jim said, “I thought we’d walk to that beer garden across from the theatre, where we used to go after the opera.”



The owner of the restaurant shouldered past the server at the welcome lectern when Jim and Hilda walked in.

“Hilda! A pleasure to see you again.”

Schön, dich auch zu sehen, Dietrich.” Good to see you, too. She continued in German. “How is your father?”

“Enjoying his retirement so much that he wishes I had taken over sooner.” He shook hands with Jim. “You don’t remember me probably, but Father had me in the back almost every time you and Hilda came to us. Dietrich Schultz.”

“Good to be back. I have missed your restaurant.”

Taking a pair of menus, Dietrich guided them to a private table near the back. “Your German is even better than I remember it. Congratulations.”

Danke, schön.

Jim and Hilda swapped stories of the Army and musical gigs during the meal, skirting what they really wanted to talk about until the fruit. They both fell silent as Hilda sliced an apple and Jim peeled an orange.

“Did you ever get my letters?” she asked.

“No. You wrote?”

She recited the address. “Did I get it right?”

Jim’s faced darkened. “Yes. They may have trashed them. When I decided to go to college instead of staying on the farm, Grandad acted betrayed. It wasn’t pretty, and I haven’t been back since July after we graduated.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Me, too. Like I wrote, I knew you left for boot camp the day after we graduated, and I never got an address for you.”

“Partly why I wrote that summer. Didn’t your father retire?”

“The following summer. They’re living in Arizona, near Mom’s parents.”

Hilda sipped her beer.

“What’s your life been like outside the opera house?”

“Pretty quiet until I moved to New York. Ran into paparazzi for the first time there.”

“What was that like?”

“Total surprise. Flashes through the windows in an Italian restaurant off Ninth Avenue. I didn’t think anything of it, until my fiancée waved at them—”

“Wait a minute. You’re engaged?”

Jim blushed fiercely. “Sorry. That should have come up sooner. Yes. I met Anne when I first came to New York. She’s in the orchestra. Bassoon. I proposed just before I found out about the Pfalz Theatre.”

In the silence, Jim’s face burned, while Hilda pushed her emotions down. We were friends for seven years, lovers for one.

“Congratulations.” She smiled. “You can stop blushing, Jim. We’re still friends, I hope.”

“Sorry. I should have mentioned it in my letter, but I wanted to tell you in person. After what we were, you deserved that.”

“Yes. Tell me about her.” Hilda struggled to keep a pleasant face as her heart raced. She felt equal parts of disappointment and something else. Jealousy? She had no idea what that felt like.

Jim drank some beer and took a breath.

“She’s a year younger than we are. Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, but she moved north with her mother in fourth grade. New England Conservatory. She plays for the Met and the New York Symphony, so her career is well-established.”

“When’s the big day?”

“We agreed to figure that out after the Met brings me aboard for a full season.”

“From the YouTube clips we watched, I don’t think you’ll be waiting forever.”

“Thanks. Anyway, sometimes I think it’s for the better. We’ve only known each other since last summer. Heck, I knew you for seven years before, you know, we –.” He blushed again and looked down.

“And we were just horny teenagers, right?” I thought it was more than that, but — 

“I guess.” He looked up. “Thank you for taking this so well. I was worried about it.”


“Because, well—” He looked down again, then back up. “—you were my first, and the only one I cared for until Anne.”

“I used those same words with my mother the other day. Considering how long we’ve been out of touch I expected you to have three kids and a house in the ‘burbs by now.” She sighed. “I thought I was in love, but life moves on.”

“You met no one?”

“No. Surrounded by men, but too busy trying to stay alive.”

“Dad never seemed to feel that way.”

“He was a helo mechanic. Combat infantry gets up front and personal.”

“You said that you were a nurse.”

“But before nursing school, I was a combat medic, always with infantry units.”

“Oh. I never knew.”

After supper, they walked back to her house. They kissed gently inside the main door, then Jim walked back to his hotel.

Upstairs, Hilda paused before opening the door. She did not want to go home.

“You’re back kind of early, cära.” Margareta and Tongai came into the hall to see Hilda leaning back against the door.

She let the grief well up through her chest and released her tears.

“Oh, Mamma, Baba, he’s engaged!”

Tongai put his arm around her and guided his sobbing daughter to the sofa. They sat on either side of Hilda as she cried herself out.

Hilda sat up straight and took the handkerchief that he offered her. After drying her eyes, she leaned into her father and then her mother.

“Thank you, both. I needed to get that out.”

“Was dinner a disaster, then?” asked Margareta.

“No. I kept it all in until just now. He was worried about how to break it to me, but in the end, he just let it slip. I told him that we would always be friends, which we were before we fell in love.

“I want the best for him, and that’s what love is about, isn’t it?”

“Yes, cära. You’ll stay in touch?”

“I hope so. As we talked, I realized that he doesn’t have anyone he can be himself with. He is as shy and introverted as ever, and all alone in New York City. He is estranged from his Montana family, and his parents live in Arizona. He’s only known Anne since last summer. He proposed just before the Pfalz Theatre performance came up.”

“I’m proud of you, dear. You may be glad to have him as a friend in the long run.”

“Me, too, mudiki. You did the right thing.” Little one in Shona.

Hilda yawned. “I feel drained, like after a battle.”

“Shall we turn in?” Tongai asked.

Twenty minutes later, silence and darkness reigned. Hilda stared at the ceiling for a long time, crying silently and resigning herself to the knowledge that she had lost a lover, but still had a friend.


“Mamma, you are dressed for the stage!” Margareta had arranged for a box for the opening performance, so the whole family was formally attired.

“Helmut called this afternoon before you got home. He asked me to present the bouquet to Tonio this evening; he’ll carry the one for Marie, of course.”

“Have you warmed up? Your fans may holler for an aria.” Hilda winked and grinned.

“Stop it, silly. They may applaud, in which case Helmut and I will join the bow and leave.”

Tongai came from the hall with their coats. “Shall we go, ladies?”


Omigod! He is amazing. Hilda sat back and let the perfect tuning and full power of Jim’s singing wash over her. When he sang each high C, Hilda and her parents squeezed hands in delight. After the tenth one, the house broke out in applause and cheers.

During the curtain calls (there were five of them, because the audience would not sit, or stop clapping), Jim was surprised to see Margareta come out. He gave her an affectionate hug, which was not the normal protocol. The crowd began chanting, “Jim! Jim! Jim!” Hilda wondered what Lamont’s voice coach would think of that.

He pulled the longest rose from the bouquet and threw to the near box on the left, where Hilda caught it. The audience cheered and applauded even louder.

Apparently, the story of Margareta Mayer throwing a rose to the tall American sergeant was part of the Pfalz Theater lore.[iv] Hilda knew how her parents met, and she was moved almost to tears to be part of this re-enactment.

After the audience finally began pulling on coats and heading for the exits, Tongai and Hilda went backstage, where Margareta was waiting. They shook hands with Helmut on his way out to the lobby to greet the important officials.

Jim came out of his dressing room and beckoned them in. He continued removing his makeup, with only his undershirt over his muscular chest.

“Nothing you three haven’t seen, is it?”

“No, but the rooms are nicer than when we shared one big area with a curtain between the sexes,” said Margareta. “Wonderful performance, James.”

“Thank you. It felt good, but your opinion is one that counts.”

“Thanks for the rose.” Hilda held it to her nose and looked intently at him.

“How could I let that chance pass, with Tongai and Margareta in the room?”

“It seems that more people remember or heard that story than I realized.”

“I was surprised, too. And why were they shouting ‘Jim’ at me?”

“Your agent may think that Lamont is from Montana, but in Kaiserslautern, Jim is a home-boy. We did go to every show for two years, didn’t we?”

“I never appreciated how well-known you were here. Living on Pulaski Barracks was a different world, but now I realize that Kaiserslautern is my home. You gave me my roots here.” He hugged each of them. “I need to go meet the press in five. Let me call you tomorrow about getting together on off-days.”


The following month, Hilda came through the door of the flat just as her father followed her up the stairs. She took her bicycle pannier into the living room.

“Mail call. I stopped at the Army Post Office just after the magazines arrived.” She passed out the various publications to the persons who subscribed to them. “I’ll be back after I shower.”

When she returned, her mother held out the latest Opera News. “Look. An article about the overseas outreach of Met artists. Most of it is about James at the Pfalz Theatre.”

“Oh, nice. Did you finish?”

“Yes, and there is a great picture of you in it.”


Margareta shook the magazine. Hilda took it and saw a half-page photo of her and Jim at the restaurant, with Dietrich smiling proudly nearby. It was a romantic scene.

“I didn’t see any cameras.”

“Paparazzi just need a smartphone today,” said Tongai.

“I did see some phones out, but I did not think anything of it.”

“Read it then let me finish the rest of the magazine.” Margareta stood. “I’ll check the stew.”

The article focused on the younger artists at the Met. Almost everyone in the company travelled for performances outside New York, but the journalist had focussed on those going to theatres away from the usual big cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome. Only Jim and the soprano Sonya Noora had photos.

Halfway through dinner, Hilda’s phone rang. Normally she would let it roll to voice mail, but something made her get up and go to her bedroom. It was from Jim.

“Hey, Jim. What’s up?”

“Do you all get Opera News?”

“You need to ask in this family?” She laughed. “Are you talking about the article on overseas outreach?”

“Yes. I ditched Anne over it.”

“No! You’re kidding.”

“She blew up over the picture of us at the restaurant.”

“Nice photo, but hardly scandalous.”

“Not the point. She called you the n-word.”

Hilda felt dizzy. Growing up in Germany and spending the rest of her life in the Army, she rarely had reason to think of her skin colour.

“Hilda, are you there?”

“Uh, yes.” She shook her head to clear it.

“I never had an argument with her. But that told me more than I needed to know.”

“Jim, you didn’t need to—”

“Yes, I did. I would have done that if she had called our garbage man that word. I felt personally insulted.”

“I’m stunned.”

“Me, too. Hilda?”


“Please, let’s stay in touch. Between the Army and my music, we may not see much of each other, but I want us to stay friends. You are more a part of me than I ever knew.”

“I’d like that.”

“I love you, Hilda. Be well.”

“Love you, too, Jim. Thanks for calling.”

She floated back to the dinner table.

“Every okay, cära?”

“Yes. I think I’m in a sappy romance movie.”

© 2022, 2023, JT Hine

[i] Bar Kunar https://jthine.com/2020/05/09/baptism-of-fire/

[ii] https://jthine.com/2022/04/02/hilda-discovers-dating/

[iii] https://jthine.com/2022/04/16/hilda-goes-to-the-prom/

[iv] https://jthine.com/2019/10/14/die-diva/

2 thoughts on “I Never Knew

  1. Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. The whole idea of running the stories chronologically means that some will be familiar. The whole series is more than ten years old.


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