I blew into my cupped hands as I paced in front of the stone step that led into Adams House. Arty sat with his arms folded across his chest, shivering from the frigid air blowing through campus.
“Why does it always take the girls so long to get ready? It’s not like she’s going on a date. It’s just us,” Arty said through clenched teeth.
I shrugged. “You’re the one with sisters. Women are a total mystery to me.”
Arthur Wendel Adleman was my polar opposite. In any other world, we never would have traveled in the same circles, much less become friends. I was athletic and loved to push my body, while he spent most of his waking hours in a library or sitting at a desk, pushing his brain. I was taller than average; his eyes met my shoulder. While we shared an affinity for quiet times, I could turn on the charm when needed, but social settings made him curl into a ball. Our friendship made no sense, and yet, we’d become brothers the moment he’d awkwardly adjusted his bottle-bottom glasses and shaken my hand.
He chuckled. “Mystery. That’s a good word for them.”
“Are we ready, boys?” The effervescent voice of our mutual best friend drifted through the now open door, along with a fair amount of warm air Arty appeared to savor. “I believe I won our last two outings. Does that double the bet tonight?”
Janie was sunlight piercing a veiled sky. Her brown eyes glittered beneath deeper brown hair that bobbed as she laughed. Despite coming from one of the wealthiest families among all Harvard students in our class, her smile was warm and bright, shared freely with anyone who’d respond in kind.
The three of us had met in 1938, our freshman year. Some of my earliest memories were of my mom and dad talking about Harvard at the dinner table. I was eighteen and, like so many idiots my age, I thought I could do anything, be anything. Attending their alma mater had meant the world to me, but especially to them. My mom tried to hold back tears as she hugged me goodbye that first day. She was never great at hiding her emotions. I remember reaching up and wiping her cheek with my thumb. She’d leaned into my touch, pressing her face against my palm.
That was the last time I saw her.
A month later, I was called from class into the dean’s office, where a stately man in pinstripes informed me I was now alone in the world. Thanks to my mom’s obsession with candles and scents, my home and my only remaining living family were gone.
I nearly lost myself to grief.
I’m not sure I would’ve made it through that year without Arty and Janie. They became my rock in ways I’d never known, never needed. Their kindness and compassion, their gentleness, nursed my broken mind and soothed my aching heart.
Arty’s dad had one of his employees drive me home. Arty came too, and sat by my side as I sorted through what was left of our uncharred lives. His hand rarely left my shoulder. When I found a framed photo of Mom, Dad and I taken the year before and my chest heaved, he threw himself to the floor and held me until I ran out of tears.
In moments of stillness, I can still feel Mom’s face pressing into my palm.
Through it all, Arty and Janie remained steadfast. Their friendship and devotion to me never wavered. I will never understand how I could be so blessed to have such remarkable friends.
For a time, I thought Arty had taken a shine to our Janie. Something in the way he stared a shade too long made me wonder, but in the two and a half years we’d been at college, he’d never asked her out, not even for coffee or a shake. Perhaps it was his own lack of confidence, his social awkwardness, but I doubted that. Janie was our sister, and that was enough.
It was everything.
“Double?” Arty protested as he stood. “I still have to pay for this semester, you know.”
She snorted. Arty wasn’t the heir to a food fortune like Janie, but his family was far from poor. None of us had struggled a moment of the Depression.
“Ten cents then. You can afford that. Consider it my fee for helping you look good tonight,” Janie said, smirking over her shoulder as she led us away from the dorm.
“Helping us look good? I look just fine, thank you very much,” Arty huffed.
I elbowed him. Tussling with Janie was a lost cause.
She whipped around, her hair following a split second after her head turned, somehow landing perfectly on her shoulder. “You look fine, but walking in a door with me makes you look fabulous, and you know it.”
Arty’s mouth dropped, then closed.
Janie winked at me, then wheeled about and continued leading us through the crisscrossing sidewalks that were barely visible under a dusting of snow.
I tried to stifle a laugh, but failed.
“Traitor,” Arty grumbled, despite a grin on his face.
We passed a large group of boys headed in the opposite direction, each snug in the thick olive coats of their army uniforms. Like a rippling wave of green and gold, each soldier tipped a cap at Janie, then gave Arty and me a polite nod.
A half-hour later, we strode into the bowling alley, welcomed by blessed warmth and the sound of a half-dozen balls slamming into pins. Candlesticks was one of the oldest bowling alleys in the country. With six lanes, a robust menu, and a well-stocked bar, it was also one of the most popular hangouts for the Crimson elite.
“Come on. Let’s get a drink while we wait,” Janie said, grabbing Arty by his lapel and dragging him toward the alcohol. I followed on their heels, anticipating the flow of heat a fresh glass would send down my chest.
Janie stepped from the bar, her overfilled sidecar sloshing dangerously in its martini glass, a twist of orange peel threatening to escape with each step. The bartender handed Arty two tall glasses packed with ice, a black tea-looking liquid and a half-dozen lemon slices. I’d never seen the concoction and cocked a brow in Janie’s direction.
She sipped her drink, giggled, and wove her way to a high-top near the lanes.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Arty said, handing me my glass. “She called it a Pimm’s Cup, something she heard they served at Wimbledon this year. When the bartender asked what liquor she wanted mixed in, she shrugged and told him to pick for us.”
“Great. We could be drinking gasoline.”
“Pretty much. Is this how she keeps winning?” He raised his glass, sniffed, then took a sip.
“You didn’t grimace or fall to the ground. That’s a good sign, right?”
His brow rose. “It’s actually good.”
“Of course it is,” Janie said as we climbed onto our stools. “I’m pretty sure he used brandy, maybe vodka too. I love the spiced fruit.”
I took a tentative sip, then a larger draw. “Mmm, this is really good.”
Janie raised her glass in triumph.
Two rounds of drinks later, we finally stepped up to our own lane.
“Are the pins supposed to dance like that?” Arty asked, wobbling slightly as he grabbed a ball. “How am I supposed to knock ’em down when they’re moving like that?”
Janie giggled. “It’s part of the challenge.”
“You’re a little sneak, aren’t you? A dime thief.”
She fanned herself with a hand like I’d said something that reeked. “I’m a lady and I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. Now, step back and let me show you what a winner looks like.”
And she did. Four games in a row.
“Dimes, please,” she said, holding out an upturned palm as we racked our balls.
Arty and I fished in our pockets and our tributes clinked before vanishing into her purse.
“I’ll use these for our milkshakes. See, you didn’t really lose after all.”
“She’s almost chipper enough to hit with one of these balls,” Arty grumbled.
I shook my head and chuckled so Janie couldn’t hear. The last thing either of us needed was for her to think there was a rebellion in her ranks. I watched her weave through the uniformed guys toward the desk, her curls bobbing merrily, almost as much as her hips. Nearly every man turned as she passed. She loved the attention, but not as one who craved adoration. Rather, she genuinely loved seeing people smile, knowing she made them smile. There were plenty of good people in the world. The war was revealing everyone’s character, but Janie stood alone in my mind. She was a beacon of light in a world tumbling toward darkness.
I don’t know how I would’ve made it through the last year and a half without those two. Arty, while entirely too dopey and often curmudgeonly, had a heart of gold and would do anything for his friends. He’d proven that a hundred times. And Janie, well, she was that kind of special that only came along once in a lifetime. If the war didn’t tear us apart, I knew the three of us would be great friends for the rest of our lives.
A handsome guy with the silver bars of a second lieutenant stopped her before she reached the counter. His smile broadened as she laughed and her hand reached up and rubbed his arm. Her cheeks colored at his reaction, and I swear her eyes brightened.
Something inside me flared at that touch, at witnessing her affection. It was the strangest sensation. Janie and I had never been anything but friends; a brother and sister, really. Why would the attention of another man stir … whatever that was?
Arty had found a stool while we waited, so I studied the pair. The man’s jaw was square, almost impossibly so. His inky brow formed the perfect frame for his deep emerald eyes. When he smiled, tiny pits formed just beyond the crease of his mouth, something I was sure Janie obsessed over the moment they appeared. By the look of her hand squeezing his arm, he was fit. In his uniform, he was a striking example of duty and honor.
I should’ve been happy for Janie, for the attention he showered on her, for the respect he showed. I should want her to meet a man who treated her well and offered a brilliant, happy future. So, why did I feel so … jealous?
Was I jealous?
I couldn’t tear my gaze away.
Despite winter’s grip, the guy’s skin still carried a slight tan. He reached up and moved a curl, setting it behind her ear. She giggled, and her eyes fell before returning to his.
My chest flared again.
This was ridiculous. Janie was my sister, my friend.
“Come on, let’s save her before we lose our milkshakes.” Arty’s hand pressed into my back, urging me forward.
“Oh, boys, come here,” Janie called with a wave. “Come meet Charles.”
Introductions were made, hands were shaken, and Janie insisted the lieutenant call on her at Adams House. Thankfully, she was a mistress in the art of hard to get and spun away, leaving poor Charles staring longingly in her wake.
“That was fun. Milkshakes?” she chirped.
I shook my head again, more to try to free myself of whatever that fit of madness had been than anything else. “Milkshakes sound great. I believe the winner pays, isn’t that the Harvard way, Arthur?”
“Oh, quite right, William. Quite right. And we wouldn’t want to shun tradition. Horrible business, that.”
We’d both adopted our highest-brow accents, sending Janie into a fit of laughter that turned more heads than her hips had moments earlier. Without warning, she took one of us on each side, locked arms, and pulled us out into the night.
Thankfully, though bitterly cold, the snow the skies promised had yet to arrive. We walked, arm in arm, for two blocks to Fisher’s Drug Store, where the aforementioned milkshakes waited behind a brightly polished counter.
“God, this is the best milkshake ever,” Janie said, losing all pretense and slurping loudly through her straw. Her eyes rolled back almost as much as Arty’s had when he’d finished his third drink.
“Do you think they’ll accelerate our courses?”
Arty’s sudden seriousness jarred me out of the brain freeze that had threatened to drop me to my knees.
“Accelerate? What do you mean? Why?”
He cocked his head like a disappointed parent watching a child lie about homework.
“The war, dummy.” He motioned around us. I hadn’t paid much attention as we’d entered, but realized nearly every student in the place wore either an army or navy cloak. “They need to make room for more military students. It’s all Conant talks about anymore.”
“Okay, I get that, and we should do our part, I suppose, but to speed up our courses? Would you even be able to start law school now?”
He shook his head. “That’s what I’m worried about. We’re not even halfway through. I doubt they’d even take me into the law program without a full-term degree.”
Janie sat quietly, watching us without really seeing.
I sat back, suddenly captivated by the countertop.
“When did we become so used to them?” Arty mumbled.
“Used to who?” I asked.
“The army guys. Navy too. I mean, one minute the college is normal, then overnight there are more men in uniform than regular students. You remember how odd it was, seeing them on campus that first month. Now I don’t know that I’d recognize the place without them.”
Last May, Harvard president James Bryant Conant had committed the college to the national defense on nationwide radio. Since then, the ranks of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps had ballooned, and the school had not-so-gradually turned into a military training institute. Many ongoing research programs were redirected toward military discoveries. Conant even directed much of the instructional curriculum expanded to include aerial mapping, meteorology, camouflage, and a dozen other wartime topics whose names were never listed but were poorly kept secrets from the general student population.
President Conant made sure we kept up with the European conflict. There was no escaping the radio addresses, bulletins, and lectures.
While Poland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece had fallen, we were still an ocean away, and many couldn’t understand why America had to be dragged into a war that could never reach us.
We’d just survived the Depression and were finally enjoying life again. Why would we want to jump into a war?
That was Janie’s argument, something I was sure she was simply echoing from her parents as they dined on the finest china, using the most luxurious silverware.
I still didn’t know what to think. It all felt so much bigger than any of us. How were college kids supposed to understand war? None of us wanted to.
Arty’s heart had been set on law school since before he could speak, and Janie’s studies at Radcliffe aimed at her future in her father’s business. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but it didn’t include shipping off to fight in someone else’s war.
Everything felt poised on the tip of a knife, ready to fall at the slightest breeze. America had resisted calls to enter the war, even struggled with offering arms and aid, but something had shifted over the past year and my gut churned every time someone turned on a radio.
News was never good.
“And what if we get drafted?” Arty’s voice nearly trembled with the last word. The draft had begun in 1940, requiring all men between twenty-one and forty-five to register and serve if called. I’d seen a few of our classmates drafted, but Arty and I had been lucky.
“Then our lives change. I don’t know what else to say.”
Arty glared at me like he wanted to throw something, then his shoulders fell.
Janie steeled herself and somehow managed to sound as bright as ever. “Alright, boys. That’s enough war talk. Neither of you is going anywhere, you hear me?”
I initially thought this just referenced Janie, so I reworded this to include all three. Also, how exactly did they meet? In class, at the dorms? This is a really meaningful paragraph, but it doesn’t mention how they met, so perhaps a quick intro to that before getting into the parent stuff.