By Shannon Frost Greenstein
*Based on a True Story
“Let it out,” said the doctor, and Greta would have laughed if she wasn’t already fully occupied with crying. It was all so cliché; she might as well be lying supine on a couch.
“No, I’m fine,” she protested through her tears. “I just wasn’t expecting to react like this. It’s been so long.”
“Feelings don’t expire,” her therapist responded soothingly, while Greta resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She was not here for platitudes, nor for a kind ear, nor for a miracle solution to a housewife's malaise. She was here because the panic had started to get the better of her, that burrowing vole in her amygdala causing her thoughts to spin and her worries to cycle overtime.
Greta was no stranger to anxiety. She had raised two children and kept a job and a house and a husband, all with anxiety, and it was only since the children had left for college that the omnipresent noise in her head began to drown out the sounds of daily life.
Frankly, when she came to therapy today, she had been expecting a prescription for tranquilizers, or at least a nighttime meditation on a cassette tape. She had not been expecting to recount her early years in Nazi-controlled Europe; she had not been prepared to reveal her parents’ deaths in the camps. The tears had come quickly and unexpectedly, causing Greta to flush with embarrassment even as the therapist seemed delighted.
“Remember, with trauma, it’s not you, it’s what’s happened to you,” he added, and Greta decided it was time to find a new counselor. She had started therapy at Mischa’s request, weekly sessions with one of his med-school colleagues; she’d let her husband find someone else if he wanted her to continue.
“M-hmm,” Greta agreed vaguely. Deliberately turning her brain from the war, she started mentally chopping vegetables for dinner, a small but vocal part of her soul wishing there were still children for whom to cook.
“Have some grace for your younger self,” the doctor suggested. “Think about what she might need.”
“She needed fewer Nazis,” Greta snapped silently, wishing she was forward enough to speak this aloud. Instead, she made another noise of affirmation and moved on to mentally dressing the roast.
“It must have been difficult,” he continued, “starting in America all on your own.”
Unbidden, memories flashed through her terminally-anxious brain, memories she had fully compartmentalized over the years: Her sisters, when they were children in Austria; the boat to New York, the weeks of seasickness; the lonely years working through school.
“It was,” Greta said slowly, reluctant to agree with the doctor, more comfortable in her resentment of him. “I had to work very hard.”
There was a silence, then, long enough to grow awkward. Greta locked eyes with the doctor, who was regarding her calmly. She felt suddenly like a subject on display in a scientific experiment; discomfort rose hot in her chest. The psychologist was looking at her exactly as she remembered looking at lying children, patiently waiting for the inevitable truth to come to light, and Greta felt a sharp flash of irritation. Like this man could possibly know about the war; like he could possibly know anything about her at all.
“Let’s stay here a minute,” he finally suggested, pen poised over his omnipresent notepad, fingertips stroking his goatee. “When you remember the war, what do you feel?”
“I try not to remember the war,” Greta responded stiffly. “I prefer to live in the present.”
“Yes, but you’re unhappy in the present…isn’t that why you’re here?” the doctor pointed out, and Greta found she had no ready response for this.
“So let’s give it a try. What comes to mind, when you think back?”
Resigned, Greta thought about ghettos and war bonds and her youth; she thought about suffering and sacrifice. She thought about guns and butter, about how there’s never enough money for both, and then she thought about George.
“Victory over Japan Day,” she muttered, mostly to herself, sensing memories flooding her temporal lobe, something she had successfully lodged deep in her memory, something which rose to consciousness only infrequently.
“Ok,” said the psychologist encouragingly. “What is standing out?”
It was always the crowd and the euphoria and the pride; it was always George and the surreal moment when her body ceased to be under her own control.
“Gratitude,” Greta finally managed, her anxiety bubbling up like carbonation, her voice slightly strangled.
“I’m sorry?” questioned the doctor, obviously confused.
“I remember the gratitude. Everyone was so thankful that the war was over…that no one else would have to go to the Pacific to die.”
“Did you know a soldier or a sailor who told you that?” asked the doctor knowingly, assuming – like everyone else – that anything significant in a woman’s life must involve a man.
At this, Greta surprised herself by laughing bitterly.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t.
“Have you heard?!”
Dr. Burke burst into the office, sweeping his hat from his head.
Greta jumped. She had been focused on cleaning instruments at the sink, but whirled around to face the dentist upon his shout.
“Heard what?” she asked hesitantly.
All day, there had been electricity in the air, the charge of anticipation, the aura of auspice. The patients had all been buzzing; there was constant movement on the street below.
“The war is over! The Japanese surrendered!”
Dr. Burke was glowing with joy, the face of an American patriot who had spent the war stateside. But who wouldn’t be joyful, that the boys were coming home, that Pearl Harbor was avenged, that the fighting and the atrocities – at such long last – were finally over?
Greta smiled, the man’s joy contagious, and allowed herself the briefest of moments to revel in her safety; in her privilege. In Europe, for her entire life, it had been a terrible time to be Jewish. But here she was now, twenty-one, a student in New York, paying bills and making art and living on her own. She felt herself start to glow like Dr. Burke – less in admiration of the military might of the United States of America, more in admiration of her own chutzpah – and came over to join him by the door.
“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What wonderful news!”
“Go take your lunch break,” the dentist instructed. “Go celebrate! Take your time!”
He rushed past her into the innards of the office as Greta removed her cap and grabbed her handbag. She left the building, joining the bustle on Lexington Avenue which ebbed organically right to Times Square, an invisible current guiding a euphoric river of bodies. She allowed herself to be caught up in the rush, people laughing, people cheering, people smiling all around her.
There was a jubilant sense of accomplishment, of victory; there was a sense it had not all been in vain.
“V-J Day!” shouted the illuminated news ticker around the Times Building, thousands of light bulbs proclaiming America’s victory over Japan; victory over the world.
Looking up, lost in the crowd, part of something bigger than herself, Greta felt a moment of sheer happiness, something she could not remember feeling since a blurry childhood in Austria. She was proud, in that moment, of her country and her countrymen; she was proud of herself for getting here.
She did not see the sailor coming.
Suddenly, she was looking at the sky, her back arched uncomfortably, her fingers balling involuntarily into fists. A hand was gripping her waist; her oxygen was no longer her own.
Lips were pressed against her lips, a torso resting against her breasts, a hand of ownership against her back. She saw a pair of brown eyes centimeters from her own; the dark stubble of a five o’clock shadow rubbed against the skin of her cheek.
Greta gasped in surprise, but a mouth covered her own. Instead of oxygen, she drew in essence, air entombed from the very viscera of the random body flattened against her chest.
Vaguely, she was aware of life continuing for everyone else in the moment. Voices shouted and running feet thundered and flashbulbs popped, but she was utterly frozen, untethered to reality and mislaid in space and time.
Finally, after a lifetime, hands released her; finally, her body belonged only to her once again.
Disoriented, Greta stood upright, her handbag still dangling from her fist. Throngs continued to rush around her, a stone diverting the flow of water, but she remained rooted to the asphalt, staring at the man in front of her.
He had dark hair; he was jubilant and flushed; his eyes stared through her for a thousand yards, his face a mask of human delight. He wore a sailor’s uniform; his breath had tasted of whiskey.
Then he was gone.
And Greta was left alone.
The session wrapped soon after, the doctor encouraging her to “really feel feelings,” and Greta left in a hurry.
There was even more she could have said – probably should have said – about V-J Day. She could have mentioned Alfred Eisenstaedt; she could have mentioned Life Magazine. She definitely could have mentioned that she finally met the sailor properly, last year in Times Square, almost forty years after he kissed her in gratitude, thinking she was a nurse.
“We had all had enough,” George had told her. “I was at Bunker Hill when the kamikaze hit. I saw nurses working on the Bountiful when we brought in the wounded. I’ve had a soft spot for the uniform ever since.”
She could have mentioned any of this, but speaking of it all did not come easily. Perhaps it was the memory of hopelessness and helplessness, frozen in place instead of fighting or fleeing or fawning or folding. Perhaps it was embarrassment, the inner shame that comes from having one’s private matters made public. Hell, maybe the psychologist was right and it was all related to the war, to her Jewish childhood and the monstrosity of the Third Reich.
Regardless of the reason, speaking of V-J Day in Times Square always made Greta uncomfortable. It was too intimate; it was too raw. It felt like being seen without any clothes, and it had been a monumental effort to recount this experience to the doctor. Part of her didn’t want to give him the therapeutic satisfaction of witnessing her discomfort. The rest of her just disliked thinking about how the kiss made her feel.
“How was therapy?” Mischa asked later that evening, carving the roast Greta had schemed during her appointment. “What did you talk about?’
“Gratitude,” Greta responded after a beat.
“That’s great!” exclaimed her husband, sweetly naïve, guilelessly optimistic. “Gratitude, wow. How do you feel?”
“I feel fine,” she said automatically, a conditioned response spanning decades, and then she actually thought about it. Surprisingly, her brain was quieter tonight. Her thoughts were not whirling through her head like a centrifuge. Greta marveled for a moment in the relative silence, noticing that she was also exhausted. It hadn’t been a busy day, but she felt like she could sleep for a week.
“I do, I feel all right,” Greta confirmed, and Mischa beamed.
“He’s a good doctor, isn’t he?” her husband asked enthusiastically.
Greta considered her past, the things that had shaped her, all that had occurred. She pictured George as she had never known him, somewhere in the Pacific all those years ago, fishing bodies out of the water. She remembered V-J Day, the rapture in Times Square, the elated sailor and his whiskey-scented breath.
“I was just so glad I didn’t have to go back,” George had told her, looking earnestly into her eyes, and Greta had believed him.
“Remember, with trauma, it’s not you, it’s what’s happened to you,” the psychologist had told her, and Greta had dismissed it.
She really did feel a bit better, come to think of it.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe he is.”
Shannon Frost Greenstein:
Guns and Butter" is directly based upon a photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt and published in Life Magazine. It is entitled, "V-J Day in Times Square," and was captured on August 14th, 1945, the day World War II came to an end. Contrary to popular belief, the woman in the photograph was a dental hygienist, not a nurse, and was being kissed by a complete stranger, not a friend or partner. A European refugee displaced by the Third Reich, the young woman was working and studying in New York City when she ventured out to Times Square on her lunch break to celebrate the Japanese surrender. The sailor in the photograph would later recount he was overwhelmed with joy not at the end
of the war, but with the sight of the woman's white uniform and the memory of his own time in military hospital, due to his tremendous gratitude for the nurses who cared for him. He was just so relieved, he would continue to say, that no one else would have to suffer the effects of war. "Guns and Butter" paints a portrait of the woman after these events, a picture of the epigenetics of a life ravaged by war and redeemed by family; it describes one possible future the figures in this iconic image might have realized, because the world will always continue to spin even as our lives play out upon it.
About the author:
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children and soulmate. She is the author of “These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things”, a full-length book of poetry available from Really Serious Literature, and “An Oral History of One Day in Guyana,” a fiction chapbook forthcoming with Bullsh*t Lit. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.