“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
On his 81st birthday, the eternally cool and forever fashionable Robert Redford in four of his most stylish titles — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Gatsby, Three Days of the Condor, and All the President’s Men.
Set in Nice, France, July of 1918. Thank you for reading as usual. There will be a part two to this piece. Fic was inspired by the way F. Scott Fitzgerald (my favorite author) and Zelda Sayre met in Montgomery, Alabama.
Harry wasn’t angry per se at his hapless luck. He wasn’t wallowing in self pity, nor was he drinking his own body weight on this cloudless evening filled with despair. In fact, under the frustration and agony of the most recent heart ache, the dominant part of his anatomy had already begun to shovel him out of his seat in front of the bar by his collars. One flash of his badges pinned on his shoulder was enough to cause a line of drinks to present themselves in front of him, ready to be swallowed. Free of charge, he refused to take advantage of the drinks. His first glass was perched in his hand, half way empty and utterly disinterested.
The clear drink was suggested by his General who, surprisingly, found tranquility in intoxication due to the pressure of their previous defeat. However the miracle had ceased it’s magic, shutting it’s doors of peace in the young soldier’s face.
He pushed a strand of curly hair out of his eyes, suddenly wishing he had water to slick his hair back. Desperate, he glanced down at the alcoholic beverage and imagined himself dipping his fingers into it, smoothing his hair…
“Do y’have any water?” he inquired the rugged bartender who looked like he hadn’t slept in a couple days. It was expected considering dances like these happened almost every night to thank and rejoice for the soldiers.
When his bunk mates had told him of this event—they seemed to go to there a lot just to meet the pretty girls—he had shaken his head and snorted. Yet here he was with her stuck in his head. She had built a home in his brain. She being this atrocity.
The bartender nodded and ducked down to peer at his ample clear bottles, retrieving one. It resembled a hard liquor bottle. He poured it into a small glass.
“This is water?” Harry clarified suspiciously.
The bartender shrugged one shoulder, a strange spark in his eye. “Do what you must, lad. I won’t judge ya. Ya do enough for us. God knows that.”
Without a second thought, the soldier dunked four fingers into the liquid and then proceeded to slick back his hair. With a new found confidence in his excellent appearance, he stood to his full height and placed a dollar on the counter.
“Thank you,” he muttered. “I’m going to go dance now.” The look of sympathy on the bartender’s face was simulating a feeling of sickness to erupt in his stomach. He needed to leave.
He didn’t know what people found so exciting about these dances. The girls were full fake air, longing to make the men’s last days on Earth worthwhile. One last chamber to get on with a girl before they met their creator—what a sick concept. Rather than praying for their souls or feverishly writing to their mothers, they were drinking to the brink of unconsciousness to feel numb rather than fright.
There was no glory at the end of the day, no shame either. As soon as their heads would hit their pillows, they’d dream of trenches and families with such vigor and anxiety, their chests would quiver and shock would electrify their body. Their fate was set. There was no question about it. Bullet in the head or leg. He had been awake all night trying to figure out which one he’d rather take. After all the trouble of getting in his Private position and tearing families apart by their limbs, perhaps it was a plausible fate: taking one in the leg and bleeding out for a good while. He scanned the room, sending a wry smile to his pal who seemed smitten with a bird already.
They were pretty. All of them. They flashed grins at him and repeatedly beckoned him forward with a crooked finger but he’d only sweetly smile back and shake his head with feigned shyness. There was no awareness. Damn it, they didn’t know. Amateurs on war!
Harry felt a tap on his shoulder and he whirled around to detect the source that needed his attention. There was a petite girl behind him with a cute face and wide eyes, coming just short of his height, around his shoulder. Her dress fell in ruffles down her torso and was paired with heels, the sleeves falling somewhere along mid bicep, exposing the perfectly tanned skin. A bandanna held her hair back wildly and perhaps a little carelessly, maybe due to the copious amount of dancing, since her baby hairs stood out to speak to him first.
Since when had the French girls become so bold in their fashion statements, and why was it so shocking to him? Mortified by her appearance, he suddenly hoped his mother and sister were not dressing themselves up in such ridiculous attires. The thought made him want to rush back home for the millionth time that day.
She held her hands out, palms up and cocked her head to the side innocently. “Shall we, handsome?”
His green eyes darted down to her hands and then her face. If he was not mistaken, there were freckles littering her nose so majestically, he had fallen into a deep state of awe. After an extended period of reflecting on her looks, he opened his mouth. “No thank you.”
Clearly taken aback by his reply, she placed her hands on her hips, eyes impossibly wide. If she had left him be in the moment, exiling him from her presence, he would have found her immensely more attractive, yet she kept her short legs glued to the wood floor.
“What do ya mean?” she said in a small voice.
Harry sighed. “It’s not you. I’m just not in the mood to—”
“Not in the mood?” the girl suddenly scrunched her nose and took a step back. “Nobody is ever in the mood to dance. You have to force yourself. Oh, don’t you know that?”
“That’s not true,” he protested, something under his skin crawling. “I have urges to dance. Just not right now.”
“Why not?” she challenged. For a small girl, she was quite irritating.
“Because I don’t want to,” he struggled to keep his voice even and at an appropriate level. The girl’s eyes narrowed, hands on her hips as if she was trying to appear daunting
“Then why are you here?”
He sighed and ran a hand over his face, suddenly aware that the liquid he had drenched his hair in wasn’t water. It tasted faintly of wine on his lower lip when his tongue darted out to snatch a taste. The soldier waved a hand dismissively in the air and resigned.
“Guess I’m just trying to live a little before I die.”
The girl shook her head and said, “No. You’re not allowed to say that.”
“Why not?” Harry replied scathingly. “I’m closer to death than you are. You wouldn’t understand my position. I am allowed to say whatever the hell I want and if I choose not to dance, then you have no say in it.”
He turned away after that and trudged his way through the dance floor, avoiding the sweaty bodies he encountered, praying to the heavens he wasn’t going insane. He’d never been so rude, and not with such a pretty French girl too! London girls he could manage. Maybe even Irish girls, but French? Damn, he had a weak spot for them in his heart, and here he was, stomping on their hearts.
He found himself by the distant wall, besides the saxophones which he resided his comfort in. The loud blares of the instruments forced his gruesome thoughts to be concealed. It was a song he had heard before, perhaps in Paris? He desperately wished he could instigate his limbs and coerce them to move in rhythm with the beat.
His eyes met the floor, still half depressed by his sullen state and mushed brain. Fists clenched at his sides, nails threatening to break the delicate skin of his palms and bleed. Bleed the blood of the man who caused the other men to bleed. The others who had families. Who were sons and husbands and brothers and fathers. The ones who had the denizens of their countries hopefully gazing out into the sunset as they impatiently waited for the return of their brave neighbors and comrades. He didn’t deserve to live if they hadn’t survived.
What kind of justice of the mind and heart was that? Who had come up with this philosophy and how dare they successfully instill violence in men?
After all, the enemies were humans. They were just as innocent yet just as guilty for representing such a country that spread hatred and diffused chivalry. This was the reason behind every pull of his trigger. They were a part of the reason, therefore had to be eradicated.
However in this moment, staring at his boot clad feet that refused to tap along with the now adjoined trumpets’ melody, the enemy was himself. The sole murderer in this world. The Germans were humans. The Austria-Hungarians were humans. He was anything but.
Scrambling into his pocket, Harry’s hand caught onto his pack of cigarettes and lighter. The stick was shakily placed between his teeth and the lighter sparked in front of him without his permission, hardly confusing him. The lighter lit by itself through his tearful, blurry vision and in that moment, the soldier realized he no longer had control over his actions. God, did he want to be home, nestled under his covers and protection of his mother who cared for him like a lamb. Everyday was a struggle itself as it was becoming increasingly difficult to decipher whether he was fighting the Germans or his fate. The cross necklace felt heavy on his chest and his tattoos for his family throbbed when the air was minimized, bullets bouncing off his helmet. His mind was churning with horrid, graphic images of the battle from two days prior and he swore his hand hadn’t stopped it’s trembling ever since. The cigarette didn’t help his case and he spat it out, holding it with disgust between his forefinger and middle finger.
“Tissue?” A voice said from besides him, a white sheet presented to him.
He turned to the person, heart dropping to the pits of his stomach when he once again saw another girl.
“I don’t need one.”
He threw the cigarette on the floor and stomped on it.
Her dark brows knitted together. “Pardon me sir, but if I’m not mistaken, you’re crying.”
He quickly felt his cheeks and sure enough, there were wet trails streaming from his eyes to his chin. Hastily, he wiped his tears with the back of his hand. In an urgent voice, he said to the girl, “Don’t tell the man in the green army hat about this. I’ll be done for.”
The girl didn’t crack a smile. “Don’t you worry, sir, I won’t.”
She didn’t look much like a dancer; her hair still neatly pinned up. It was nice to see a regular French girl without the bedazzling makeup and short clothing. Not to mention his relief seeing her hackneyed signature hairstyle. It was refreshing. He nodded appreciatively and finally accepted the tissue she still waved in front of his eyes. He dabbed at his skin softly, nodding again at the girl.
“You don’t look like you’re having a good time,” she observed.
Harry’s jaw clenched as he nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders and stole a glance at his General who had begun speaking with an older woman, a flirty smile on his face. “Not my type of setting, that’s all. Too crowded.”
The girl hummed in agreement. “I know what you mean, sir. I tried to get a better place but France only has so much money.”
“You’re the host?”
She nodded brightly. “Yes. The Women’s League of Peace hosted this dance and I was in charge. Sorry it didn’t accommodate to your needs. Can’t please everyone,” she said with a light laugh.
He stared at her. She was kinda cute, although it was getting increasingly more difficult to view her features thanks to the setting sun. She kept grinning up at him, waiting for an equally as witty reply, and yes she seemed intelligent just by this conversation but how much did she really know?
“There’s a war in this country. Turmoil and dead people. You’re here spreading your glow. You know, last I checked, this town is expected to be in ruins too soon.”
Her smile didn’t falter but she shifted her weight onto her other foot. “Well, yes, but war isn’t just two sides of men going at each other’s throats. It’s ugly and horrendous but it’s at home too. We’re here and waiting for something tremendous to happen and most of the time, it’s painful.”
Harry kept his gaze on her. “And that’s okay with you? Celebrating death? All these men that you’re having the girls dance with. Half of them will be dead soon and you’re rejoicing?”
She shook her head and let her eyes wander to the mass of people on the dance floor, holding each other dear to their chests. “No, sir. I’m aware you have a higher rank over a mere resident like me but I must intervene. We aren’t rejoicing. We are letting soldiers and families and the enemies know that we will not back down.”
“And if you die?” he asked earnestly.
“Then we die with honor.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
She huffed, and gestured towards the people. “Look around. We’re making an effort in being happy while at war with numerous countries. I love this.“
He didn’t know what to say after that and decided not to make a fool out of himself so remained quiet. It wasn’t until the cute girl turned back towards him and said, “Sorry you’re not enjoying yourself sir” that his tongue starting functioning again.
“Don’t call me sir. I’m too young to be called that. What’s your name? I’m Private Harry Edward Styles.”
She answered him with a sweet voice. She was well educated in the only topic he excelled in and that made him far more delighted than he expected to be.
Eventually, Harry’s arms were around her waist, swaying her with some violins in the background. They must have brought a phonograph to the event since the only people on the dance floor were girls and their soldier partners. It had taken him a couple exhausting breaths to muster the nerve to ask her to dance, especially after the entire fiasco with the other more eccentric girl he had conversed with earlier.
He learned that all girls danced well but this girl in particular was a wonder all by herself. For one, when all the girls laid their heads on their man’s shoulders, this peculiar girl began talking in a low hushed voice about her plans for the future. She planned to move out to America, which excited him to no end because he imagined bringing her back to meet his mother in Los Angeles. Her family would accompany her and she would pursue her dream career in writing with the occasional ballet fits she had.
There were some parts of her autobiography she left out in those two hours they spent together but he didn’t mind. He had enough information about the girl to last him the months he’d be away from her. By the end of the night, a whooping zero glasses of alcohol later, the sweaty duo released each other and wandered into the night. He laughed as she told him more anecdotes that weren’t exactly funny but he liked the funny tug at his heart whenever she excitedly talked about her brothers.
Harry never asked about her brothers. He didn’t feel the need to because under all the magnificent talk, there was a hint of sadness just at the tip of her tongue. Another thing he learned was that she good at hiding her hurt. And from his knowledge, she was thoroughly pained.
Not a single cigarette was placed between Harry’s teeth that night.
“Hey,” she whispered into the dark night. “You’re going back to the base tomorrow?”
He nodded, grimacing at her words. She made it sound like a goodbye. “Yes. We have a mission tomorrow.”
“Gonna hold a gun tomorrow,” she said mostly to herself, shaking her small head.
She sighed into the darkness once more before turning to him, touching the lapels of his uniform. Her fingers were hesitant but present nonetheless so it was okay, in that moment. Finally, she slid her hands of the material and reached behind his neck to undo his dog tag. With a clink, she dropped it into her pocket and smiled up at him.
“I can tell you think you’re guilty for the redness. You’re doing us a favor and we’re eternally grateful. Next time, I’ll host a ball in America at a larger venue. I’ll take this as a souvenir,” she concluded before turning around, beginning to walk back inside. With one final toss of her hair, she called back, “Oh, don’t forget to write, Private Harold Edward Styles! I’ll be waiting.”