From Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul

Tattooed Dreams

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

Albert Einstein

I didn’t like going to the beach, but I had no choice. My boys were at that age where it was best to keep an eye on them. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to sit in the sun and feel ocean breezes tease through my hair, but at forty-five, I felt fat and out of shape. Middle age was not a good time.

Sounds of the old beach stirred up emotions. I sat in the sand chair wrapped like a mummy in a long beach cover-up. Ageless aromas breezed from concession stands carrying memories of my teenage years, especially the good times with Jimmy. We had spent summers on the beach jumping through waves, kissing under bubbling foam, holding hands as we walked under starry summer skies.

Mother never liked Jimmy. Her comments were always laced with negative remarks. “He’s irresponsible. He’ll never amount to anything.”

For me, it was love at first sight. Jimmy was cool. He drove a souped-up Plymouth sedan. He wore chino pants and white tee shirts. His dark, shiny hair dipped across his forehead in an enviable wave. It didn’t take long to learn his tough veneer covered a sensitive, loving person. He treated me like the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Sitting on the old beach, listening to the rhythmic sounds of rolling waves, the toasty sun lulled me back to the past. Sleepily, I eased from my beach chair to stretch out on the striped towel, and then discreetly slipped off my cover-up.

Daydreams wandered off to the time when Jimmy and the guys had gotten tattoos. A flowery heart surrounded my initials, CLG. At first, I was annoyed. I didn’t like my middle name and never used the initial, but when Jimmy rolled up his sleeve, I was proud of the statement his tattoo made: I was his girl.

We made plans to marry right after high school. Then Jimmy broke my heart. He and a couple of friends quit school. “We joined the army.” Mother was thrilled over his enlistment. It was as if her prayers were answered.

He shipped out to the Far East. I spent my senior year alone. During the following summer, Mother found me a promising husband. She promoted my relationship with Chet, an engineer with an engaging personality. At Mother’s urging, our marriage took place, quickly. Chet and I moved across the country to California and began our new life.

Through the years, I had no contact with Jimmy. Every once in a while, thoughts about him slipped through daydreams. When I asked Mother if she’d heard how he was, she’d always cut the conversation short. “Heard Jimmy married one of those overseas girls,” or “Heard Jimmy was MIA.”

I tried to be an attentive wife, but I felt empty inside. Every once in a while, I escaped the confusion of marriage with thoughts of my first love. When I did, it seemed as if Chet could read my mind. He’d become nasty and lectured blatantly about the responsibilities of marriage. He didn’t seem to care how I felt or that past times needed closure. I quietly submitted to his demands and covered up my feelings.

Chet’s controlling directives forced me into a Stepford wife existence to promote his advancements at work. Unexpectedly, my life took a dramatic turn. While away on business, Chet had a heart attack. He died in the Chicago airport.

For the first time, I took control of my life. Somehow, I managed to keep all the balls in the air, except for money issues. Moving back East with Mother had helped financially, but had stirred up the past.

Lately I had been thinking, If I could drop a few pounds and tone up this mess, I could settle down, again. But this time, do it right.

“Ma! Ma!” A panicked call broke beach daydreams. My son screamed as he struggled through the waves trying to rescue his brother, who’d been caught in a riptide. I bolted to the water’s edge. The lifeguard’s chair was empty.

Suddenly, a man dashed past and dove into the water. He swam, hard and strong, out to my son, who wrapped his arms around the man’s neck and almost drowned them both. The man managed to make headway when the lifeguards showed up and pulled them to safety.

My son was fine. The middle-aged man gasped breathlessly. “How can I ever thank you?” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “Saving your son is thanks enough. I only wish the same had been done for me.” His eyes teared.

“Why?” I hesitated, and then asked, “What happened?”

“Several years ago, we capsized off the ’Nam coast. Soldiers pulled me in, my wife and son drowned.” He brushed tears away. The kids and I were devastated. I didn’t know what to say. My boys gathered around and sat quietly with our heroic stranger. His friendly manner eased us into conversation. As I looked into his eyes an old, comfortable feeling washed through my thoughts. I forgot about my middle-aged appearance. I forgot I wasn’t hiding under my cover-up.

As we talked, one of my sons asked, “What’s that picture on your arm?” My son’s directness embarrassed me.

Our rescuer chuckled, “It’s a tattoo.”

“Like Popeye?”

“That’s right. And it had my girlfriend’s initials right there,” he said pointing to the flowery heart. “Under that blue line. I covered them up because I married someone else.”

“That’s kinda like my first boyfriend, Jimmy,” I blurted. “He had my initials tattooed on his arm.” My boys’ eyes widened. “Wonder what he did?”

The kids gasped, then giggled. Our new friend chuckled. For the first time, I took a hard look at our rescuer. His bald head was fringed with gray, and his belly overlapped his bathing trunks. I wondered, Could he be . . . ? I glanced at his eyes.

He grinned. Then his upbeat voice distracted me. “Guess he did what I did,” he laughed.

Something seemed familiar about his tone. I don’t know why I said, “You’re kinda like him.” Our hero filled my nagging emptiness. Maybe daydreams tricked me. I liked not having to cover up my feelings or my middle age. Then, I remembered, through all our conversation, we hadn’t introduced ourselves. I smiled and extended my hand. “I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Carol. . . .”

“Yes, I know,” he interrupted gently. “You’re Carol Lee Gebhardt. And yes, I’m Jimmy. And you haven’t changed a bit.”

As impossible as it seemed, it was true—we had found each other again. Our magical reunion turned into a marriage that has been solid for eighteen years. His wonderful, caring personality won the boys over, and they think of him as a father figure.

When people see the blanked-out area inside the tattooed heart on Jimmy’s arm they think somebody else’s initials are under there. I laugh and say, “I’m really under there!”

Carol MacAllister

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