Valerie the Valedictorian
The Immortals epic
……….He was, of course, being ridiculous and picky. “I’m just going to call you out on being too specific with your expectations and narrow in your interpretation of what is fine quality,” I said. “You’ve only ever come here during those times and this is what you expect to show us.”
……….“He’s right, Joe!” said Valerie. “I used to come here all the time as a kid, and that included the winter. I have some great memories of those days. We would build snow forts and take our sleds here, and on top of all that it’s a winter wonderland!” She reached out with a red mitten to grab Joe by the hand and pull him forward. The rushed into the park and tripped, maybe by accident but just as likely by intention. They laid there for a moment, talking.
……….I stood there, since this really was a personal thing between Joe and his new companion. He did, after all, owe it to her to be respectful on this date and give her his full attention. At least, that was how I saw it, but then my beliefs on relationships were a bit old-fashioned, much like Mary Sue’s insistence on keeping men organized out of her womanly virtues.
……….There was a monument nearby. It called itself the North Dakota Medal of Honor Memorial. It was something I never received because I always avoided attention, and also something I never deserved because my commitment never required bravery, but it was still a military memorial. I was drawn to it.
……….There was a central monolith, made out of three white spires, surrounded by a circle of ninteen smaller pillars, each with their own plaque commemorating a recipient. It was actually quite a few for such a small state. In fact, North Dakota had more Medals of Honor to its name per capita than any other state. A flag flew out in front, which in my mind was the most important element.
……….Mary Sue stood next to me. “Well, it looks like Joe was right. There really is something for everyone, even you.”
……….“There are some people who did good things for this country,” I said. Silence. I could think of many profound things to say, but for the life of me nothing seemed just right at the moment.
……….“Did you ever really want recognition?” asked Mary Sue.
……….“When I was young I was just an idealist,” I said. “I think that I sort of wanted something for myself during the Spanish War but…that was not so long after I first discovered I was immortal and I was more interested in taking advantage of it rather than thinking of how I was going to live with myself. No, I haven’t been tempted for a long time.”
……….Joe was different, though. I found in wars with him and we talked about our experiences whenever we were together as an inevitable way of catching up with each other. He had always been tempted. He could get away with slightly more recognition, I knew. Mary Sue knew, and she had helped him with that internal struggle we first met.
……….I sat on a bench along the path leading up to the circle. “I don’t have a whole lot to say about that subject, which is strange. It means my momentum has really slowed down.”
……….“Do you think you’ll ever fight again?” Mary Sue asked.
……….“Someday, eventually,” I said. “When I live forever, things are bound to repeat themselves.”
……….She sat down next to me. “Some things have yet to be tried, though.”
……….I thought it through, because these were very obvious statements. I suppose to a younger person it would have made sense, considering that young people wish to do everything. Yet, I didn’t have the urge to do everything anymore. I just wanted to do the things that mattered. I wanted to find a single definitive thing that brought purpose into my life.
……….In their own time, Joe and Valerie were making snowballs and throwing them at each other. They ran about using the scattered trees about the garden as defenses, all the while laughing whenever one managed to land a shot. It seemed nice, but not my thing. Surely those were fun activities, but as it was with Maysa Arena and earlier still with the French Retreat, what was it other than just “fun”? Maybe it was different with Joe. He was, of course, full time military, unlike me. He had never at any point quit. He always followed his job wherever it took him. He had stopped searching and just enjoyed what calling he had. Maybe that was his secret. Then again, maybe not. I knew where he was incomplete. I knew what would come one day to destroy him.
……….Yes, suffice to say returning to the battlefield was an option. It was the easy thing to do. The only complications would be faking my personal information, which perhaps Joe could help me with. It wasn’t a perfect plan, considering that my appearances were very sharp and distinct, especially with my height, whereas Joe had the upper hand of looking completely and utterly average. I was always afraid that someone might remember me if they saw me twenty years later. It was always a very real possibility. Still, if I waited thirty or forty years between each time I enlisted, it was still something I could regularly do throughout my life.
……….Maybe this depression was only a phase. Maybe I was thinking too much about it.
……….“Do you know what you need?” asked Mary Sue.
……….“Obviously not, but go on,” I said.
……….“I think you need to lead,” said Mary Sue. “Take the reins and plot your own course.”
……….“Mary,” I said, turning to her, “what are you doing on this trip, anyway?”
……….“I’m always there for my boys,” said Mary.
……….“What are you looking for?”
……….“Honestly, I’m out to help my friends. You’ll do the same thing when I’m feeling down,” she said. “Just make yourself happy. Once you’re happy, I’m happy. I want to be there when stuff happens.”
……….“Because seeing someone get over the fact that he’s lived too much is a monumental event,” I said.
……….“It is for me,” she said.
……….Valerie ran up to the monument and hid behind the central monolith. Joe chased after her, holding his arm back ready to throw, but he stopped short of the monument. He lowered his arm and put his hands together in front of him. The snowball went nowhere.
……….She peeked from behind the monolith, and then walked backward to stand next to Joe, following his gaze. “That’s right. You’re in the Air Force. Is this a powerful experience for you?”
……….“Always,” said Joe.
……….There was a long pause.
……….“You know, they raised two-fifty thousand dollars to make this. I don’t get it. It’s just a bunch of geometric objects.” He played with the snowball in his hand and then let it drop to the ground.
……….I stood next to them. Mary Sue completed our row. We wandered around, looking at the various plaques and reading what each had to say. I wasn’t familiar with anyone I read about. Most of them were from the Philippine Insurrection, anyway, which I never cared enough to partake in. I always had mixed feelings on America’s imperialistic conquest. None of us talked much, which was strange because I wasn’t that solemn, but maybe Valerie interpreted our personalities that way, because she seemed to really want to be polite for Joe.
……….“How long have you been in the military?” asked Valerie quietly.
……….“Long time,” said Joe. “I think I signed up sixteen years ago.”
……….“What do you think you’re going to do when you’re done?”
……….“Done?” Joe paused, stopped looking down, and met Val’s eyes. I looked away, pretending I wasn’t listening.
……….“Yeah, in four years you can retire,” said Valerie.
……….“I don’t think I’ll ever be done,” said Joe.
……….I cringed and walked over to Mary Sue. She knew I was listening and I knew she was listening. She was pretending to still be interested in the monument, but she was biting her lip.
……….“Joe, you only live once,” said Valerie.
……….“Back in the old days, they called that Carpe Diem,” he said in a soft, soft voice. “And I believed in it.”
……….“You mean you don’t believe in it now? Please enlighten me,” she said. I pretended to talk to Mary Sue, so I wasn’t looking their way and I couldn’t quite tell how Valerie said that last statement. I hoped it was with a smile.
……….“It’s not how much you do, it’s what you do,” said Joe. “I stopped thinking about the future a long time ago and thought about the present. It gets my mind off of things. I’m never going to get the past back, and I sure as Congress won’t get my childhood back. Yet, I’ll never get the future, and I’ll never be where I want to be, so I just gave up seizing the day and started giving the day away. I’m where I need to be, with my country. It’s my calling.”
……….“You’ve given your country everything,” she said.
……….“Alright,” said Mary Sue. “I’m done pretending I’m not hearing this conversation. I mean, it’s really interesting. I really want to speak on Joe’s behalf, here. Let’s just say you could live forever. What then? You serve the good people of Earth for a few years and then you stop. That isn’t enough.”
……….“Furthermore, if I can add onto what Mary said,” I interjected, scratching the side of my head. “Wait, are you fine with that?”
……….“Let’s go to this extreme, then. In normal circumstances, yes, I understand that you die and it is possible to give everything by virtue that you fill up your life with your works, but let’s carry on this philosophical notion of eternity, which in a sense we experience now, for the present is where our time curve touches eternity. The point is, what is everything when you live forever? You can never possibly fill up your life with your work, because all that you have experienced and done is merely all you have experienced and done up to that point. No matter what, however, there will always be more future waiting for you in need of filling up, no matter how far into that eternity you have reached. Similarly, in actual application, in a normal life anything you have given is merely what you have given up to a certain point. It doesn’t matter what you have given. What always matters is what you can give in the present so that you can continue to do so in the future.”
……….“Okay, but let’s assume there’s something else out there,” said Valerie. “Let’s assume you do give everything but have not love? Then you are but a resounding gong.”
……….“Nice point, but I believe that the exact wording is ‘I gain nothing,’”, said Joe. “Really, though, I understand your point, but the King James Version specifically refers to this love as charity. I think that’s what I’m doing.”
……….“See, this is what I mean,” said Valerie. “You have a big heart. You serve a really high calling and you know where you stand spiritually. I think you’d make a great man for someone someday.”
……….“Val, it’s a little more complicated than that,” said Joe.
……….“No, wait, I’m no longer on your side, Joe,” said Mary Sue. “She just brought up an interesting point about manliness, and I just find this fun to talk about being a woman. I believe that a true man needs to be a spiritual leader. You know my views on this are a bit old-fashioned, but when Valerie mentioned that you have a lot of heart, that reminded me of when I was first seeking romance and I valued a man who could help me lead the family’s heartbeat.”
……….“I’m just going to come out and say that to some extent that I agree with Mary Sue because this was what I was raised with as well,” I said. “I believed that a man needed strength to stick up for others in a very personal way. I remember principally my father and what he means to me. Of course, things have changed a bit now, and I understand that certain social norms for femininity have been rightfully questioned, which is a good thing. It reminds me of the works of Thoreau and what he believed in. Now it seems that we are heading toward an area of balance, but it still stands that I believe there are fundamental ways in which man and woman complement each other.”
……….“See, I stopped believing in that,” said Buzzy. “Women are really strong. They don’t need men, just friends.”
……….“But I like you,” said Valerie. “And part of the reason I like you is because you’re a man. The way that it makes you different from me just feels completing.”
……….“Why are we all talking with such well-organized thoughts?” said Joe.
……….“Okay, I’ll stop, but we’ll give Valerie the final word,” said Mary Sue. By saying “we” she was implying me as well, so I worked in conjunction with her.
……….Valerie looked at Joe and they faced each other full-on. She reached out to his hand and held it, patted it. “I just want to see you go somewhere. I have no idea why it’s the right thing. I have no idea how to justify it. I just know that I see potential for something beautiful.”
……….“That sounds very romantic,” said Joe. “Why does it have to be romantic? I just like being friends with my fellowman. Like what we have here. I just want to sow my friends Minot, and I met you and…I don’t know, I really enjoy this as a date, and you’re right, there’s a basic appeal to this, but it’s not because I’m looking for something. I’m trying to give something. Like – I just want you to have a good time because it seems like a cool idea.”
……….“It’s funny how easy it is to feel that way when you’re a guy,” said Valerie.
……….“No, it’s not because of that,” said Joe.
……….“I think in part it is. It’s okay to admit it. Men like women,” said Valerie. “I totally understand that you can find yourself wanting to be nice me without any idea why. I really like it.”
……….“Okay, but just so you know, I don’t have an ulterior motive,” said Joe. “Really, I don’t. Stop smiling at me like you’ve got me cornered. Stop it!”
……….“How about we save getting too serious and technical for the end of the date?” I proposed.
……….We laughed it all off and walked elsewhere in the park. There was a nice antique train from the golden age of the railway, commemorating the nature of the Magic City’s founding, and a bronze statue of the park’s namesake, Teddy Roosevelt.
……….“Great president,” said Valerie.
……….“I didn’t vote for him,” said Joe.
……….“If only we could have. It would have been an honor,” she said.
……….Then I stopped the group when I encountered a specific jewel out in the middle of a field, a large stone tablet with the Ten Commandments written on them. “Now this,” I said. “This is cool.”
……….“Why?” said Joe. “It’s just a rock.”
……….“Yes, but a jungle gym is just a jungle gym,” I said, putting both my hands down on the stone and circling to the other side to face my compatriots. “What makes this stand out is that it has merit, it has meaning, even though it just sits there and takes up space. Imagine gathering around here in this place. Immediately, there’s something personal about it, because there’s this rock that has words on it, words written by people from long, long ago. And think finally of the higher force this implies, the absolutism of morality. If morality is absolute then there simply must be a purpose in life. Correct?”
……….“What a very meritorious thought,” said Mary Sue.
……….“Please don’t get too organized with your thoughts again,” said Joe. “It gets contagious.”
……….“This coming from the guy who intimidated poor Valerie with big words back at the ice rink,” said Mary Sue.
……….“Hey, all I said was ‘for our mutual enjoyment,’” said Joe.
……….“Why do you guys talk this way, anyway?” asked Valerie.
……….“Well it’s quite simple,” I said. “I have my doctorate in English. Mary has a master’s in education, and Joe just has to watch what he says.” And I had a doctorate in seven other subjects, but that was irrelevant. My very first degree was in English, though. “In some ways maturity has been hammered into us.”
……….“You just used a passive sentence,” said Mary Sue. “How dare you.”
……….“Maturity hammered its way into us in some ways. Better?”
……….“Although in other ways it hasn’t,” I said.
……….“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Valerie. “I’m in my mid-thirties and I still sometimes mooch off of my parents and the like, and as Joe brought out I still like to goof around. It’s weird, because I’ve been an adult for so long and I sometimes have to do soul-searching. It’s like I’m still a teenager after all this experience.”
……….“Amen,” I said, nodding my head from behind the tablet.
……….“Where do you see yourself when you’re an old lady?” said Mary Sue.
……….“Married, I suppose, and happy,” said Valerie.
……….“No longer like a teenager?” asked Mary Sue.
………. “No, definitely not,” said Valerie.
……….“Well there you go. John? Any thoughts?”
……….I paused. Mary Sue was looking at my way with a very – mark my word, very – subtle smile. Somehow she knew I was on the spot. “I’m at a loss of anything good at the moment. Well, no, I take that back. There’s something very predominant I’ve noticed about life and death, and it’s that once you get to that second half of your life you don’t take it for granted. You know your end is coming, and you know you’re dependent. If you haven’t achieved much before then, you definitely wish to use it immediately, because you might not get the chance the next day. The desire to contribute especially applies to the younger generations, because you lived a life – whether or not it was a full one is irrelevant – and you wish to impart the strength of your successes and the wisdom of your failures upon those who need it most, the next generation. The entire mindset changes. I don’t necessarily believe that it’s because you become a better and more selfless person as you age.”
……….“You make aging sound sucky,” said Valerie.
……….“Would you rather live forever?” said Joe.
……….“Well, no, Joe,” she confessed.
……….“Even if you could be with the one that you loved, Val?”
……….“Even if I could be with the one that I loved forever. Unless he was going to live forever anyway, in which case I’d have to be there for him.”
……….“Food for thought, though,” I said. “Perhaps our attitude comes from the inevitability of death, and so our minds and simultaneously our cultures adapt to that to create a worldview that sees death in such a peaceful light. Yet, how would we see death if we knew that it was completely unnecessary and unnatural, such as when people died in the September 11 attacks?”
……….Valerie played with a lock of her hair and asked for a moment to think about it. Her left foot did that thing where it restlessly jumped up and down. “I don’t know. I guess if death was unnatural…no that just doesn’t make sense. Once you’ve completed your purpose, it’s your time. I mean, if we both believe in a higher force, wouldn’t you want to see it someday?”
……….“Yes, well I’m not satisfied with that answer,” I said, now leaning in.
……….“What do you think?” she retorted.
……….“I think the exact same thing you do,” I replied with a smile, my body language a bittersweet mockery of myself, though she could never read that attitude. “Not that I like it, but it looks like we’re both stumped by that one. Even when you get all intellectual, if you could actually live longer than humans were meant to live, you’re going to struggle, because your soul still functions the way human souls were meant to function. It looks like you’re my equal now. Congratulations! You just graduated valedictorian in Dr. John Silver’s philosophy class!”
……….Valerie laughed. Mary Sue smiled as well, looking at me with clear contentment. I took my weight off of the Ten Commandments and returned to my spot next to her.
……….“I graduated with a degree in construction, actually,” she said. “My father was a carpenter. We liked to build things together, things that had meaning to people. Like that gazebo over there.”
……….We began walking when she headed in the direction of the gazebo. It was a modest white thing next to a fence on one side, a gentle slope on the other, and on all sides subtly framed by trees. On the slope there were benches, and beyond that were a couple of artificial ponds, now frozen over, one of which had a small bridge going over it. We crossed the bridge and ran up to the gazebo. Once under its roof she twirled around and held out her arms.
……….“This is the heart of Roosevelt Park Zoo,” she declared. “People hold their weddings here, right next to the green and the winding paths. This is where hearts get locked together forever, where people have had the happiest moments of their life. It’s always been my favorite part of the park. This is the type of stuff I like to build.”
……….“Would you mind dancing?” said Joe.
……….“No,” said Valerie. “Come one!”
……….The engaged each other and circled around the center of the structure. Mary Sue and I just stood on the sidelines watching, enjoying the time they were having together.
……….“Come join us!” was Valerie’s initial invitation.
……….“Funny, but I wasn’t under the impression that this was a double date,” I said. Mary Sue and I remained on the sidelines. This was, after all, this was Joe’s moment. Valerie’s as well. It almost felt too romantic, but at least they were enjoying themselves in a way that they couldn’t have otherwise. They began talking to each other, basically flirting again, speaking of casual things with little meaning, but I could hear something in it, something that showed why Valerie was so quick to accept Joe’s invitation to the park.
……….“My mother was a therapist…” she would whisper.
……….“Yeah, I’m guessing that you didn’t get to see her often,” Joe would say, picking up on her statements. “Just the way you say it, I can sense that there was a divorce. Were you young?”
……….“There must have been a lot of tension throughout your life.”
……….“Yeah. They married too early. Their political and religious beliefs were too different.”
……….“If it’s too impulsive then it’s not love. Love obligates wisdom to guide it and help it make the decisions that are right, rather than those that merely feel right. A wise man once told me that.”
……….“Uta-Napishti. He’s foreign. And when I say ‘wise old’, I mean wise old. I swear, he’s older than the Epic of Gilgamesh.”
……….“Never heard of it. What’ it like?”
……….“Well, it’s a funny story. There was a man, a king, really, and he wanted all the glory in the world….”
……….She was like a child in his arms, completely enamored by a bedtime story, the kind with a beautiful moral at the end that reassures faith in the storyteller as a source of wisdom, but also as a source of comfort for sharing his imagination. It was going to sound magical in such a way that it felt like it was coming from his own experience, him speaking his own heart
……….He completely understood her as a human being.
……….I nudged Mary Sue with my elbow. We walked outside, out onto the miniature bridge.
……….“What do you think, a little too romantic?”
……….“No, he’ll get over her,” she said. “He just wants that sense for the moment and enjoyment for the present. Some people aren’t out for a relationship. They just want to love others.”
……….“What happens the way he wants to be loved?” No answer. “What if he remembers when it was something he would chase and presumably have?”
……….More silence. I didn’t want Mary Sue to answer anyway. It wasn’t something I was comfortable talking about, either, but it was on my mind. I just thought I’d mention it. After a moment, I realized it wasn’t my cup of tea. The silence became equally mine. I looked at Mary Sue, willing her to change the subject, but for a time she held her head down low, looking at the ice sheet below.
……….“How did it feel to talk with Valerie?” she asked
……….“Good,” I said. “She’s an intelligent lady.”
……….“I really think this is for you. You have more doctorates than anyone in the world. You’re so well-educated that you could teach anything, and with the age and wisdom you possess…you could command your subjects and your students like no one else. That’s what I mean by leadership.”
……….I grabbed my silver tie. “I’ve been thinking of something else. I’m not sure.”
..........“To help others find their way. To inspire.”
……….I looked back at Joe and Valerie. “I’ve never been around Joe when he’s on a date. I just brought something to mind.”
……….“To be a father or generations of children, a light in the darkness of doubt. Think about it, you’ve been given such a tremendous gift. Maybe fighting in wars isn’t what you’re meant for. Maybe you can make better use of your blessings by teaching. Maybe you’re not indestructible so you can survive bullets, but so you can be a rock for others to lean on.”
……….“Because you’re unhappy. Because you trusted me to help you, and I want the best life for you.”
……….“What about you?”
……….“I’ll help you get there.”
……….“I know you will,” I said. “You’re always there for me. When you question yourself, though, what then? Mary, I believe that if anyone can accept leadership, it’s you, the humblest of servants. I’ve heard Uta-Napishti talk of you before. He sees something in you, an ability to not lead through strength, but by love.”
……….“Isn’t that what I’m doing here?”
……….I looked back at Joe and Valerie. They were slowing down, even when they were already slow. It can to a full stop. She rested her head against Joe’s chest. A normal man would have been uncomfortable knowing that he would have to say goodbye forever to someone after having what one would can a very romantic first encounter, but he must have had a lot of faith in her ability to understand his intentions, that this was all just a good time. They pulled apart, Valerie holding both his hands.
……….We watched them as one would watch a catastrophe. Nothing had happened yet, but we could feel the future coming. We could feel the future come upon us through revelations in the present.
……….He later dropped Valerie off at the Maysa Arena. She wanted to hold his hand, but he declined. I decided not to intervene during their goodbye.
……….“It was nice knowing you,” said Joe.
……….“You’re a nice person,” said Valerie. “I had a great time.”
……….“You’ll find the right person, by the way, I know it,” said Buzzy. “I really wish could give you more, but my life is just – heading in another direction – love obligates wisdom.”
……….“I know,” said Valerie. “Thank you.”
……….She migrated to her car but looked back for one last moment before getting in. Joe was still there. Well, that must have been the official sign of goodbye, because Joe turned back to us and got into the driver’s seat. We drove off. Mary Sue and I remained silent in the back seat, knowing he had to take the initiative to speak first.
……….“I can’t permanently commit myself to anyone,” he said. “I just try to find someone every day who needs love as a human being. I may not be looking for a relationship, but I really do love her.”
……….“I’ve never been around one of your dates before,” I said.
……….“Yeah, sometimes I make someone feel sad initially, but hopefully they learn to love themselves after being loved,” he said.
……….“Joe, I’ve been thinking something through ever since I saw you dancing with her. There’s some unresolved business I have, something I want to go through with.”
……….“I think I might know what you’re talking about, in which case we’re talking abou some stuff from pretty far back. But I was surprised. During that date you dropped from really old business.”
……….“What was that?”
……….As he turned onto Highway 52, Joe looked back to look me right in the eye. While he neglected the road, I was vaguely aware of a semi coming up to t-bone us.
……….“That was the first time I’ve ever heard you mention your father.”