The streetcar rocked, and moaned a little as it approached the end of the line. It was nearly empty, with just the three of us in uniform behind the driver. We were all on the same side. The yellow bulbs in the ceiling were too bright. The seats were red leatherette, and the metal walls were the pale green that the Navy painted everything these days. I figured whoever invented the color must have made a mint by now.
The guy across the aisle wore a pilot’s forage cap. He was off a carrier, but I didn’t recognize him. He looked like Clark Gable, if Gable was twenty years younger, and he was busy eyeing the woman in front of us. She wasn’t hard to look at. Even in the harsh light, she was damn close to gorgeous. The light hair tucked into the service hat went well with her honey skin and dark eyes. She was standing carelessly in the aisle, with one knee on a seat and an elbow crooked around a pole. She looked out the window and paid no attention to us.
When the trolley stopped to let us off, the darkness outside was a relief, and we all stood together for a moment as if undecided about going on. The seaport was spread out across acres of macadam, the hulks of cranes and ships disappearing into the black. It didn’t matter that midnight had come and gone; lights hurried here and there, getting ships ready to cross the Pacific to nameless coral islands. At the edge of the darkness, there were two enormous dirigibles moored to gantries, both nose-in, with their tails out over the water.
“Aren’t they perfect?” the woman asked.
Her voice was happy, and startled me a little. It was beautiful like the rest of her, kind of breathless, the silver sound that I expected from a movie screen.
The gray-skinned airships floated side-by-side in the dark. We were tiny beneath them. Spotlights moved on them, white that blinked and flashed colors. The engines were running, massive and loud, propellers a blur. There was a tiny jet of flame, and one of them backfired. The sound echoed out across the water.
“Blimps are yesterday’s news,” the pilot said. “They hunt for subs, but they’re too slow for the job. Somebody sitting behind a desk dreamed them up. There’s no reason for them… they’re foolish.”
I saw hurt flicker across the woman’s face.
“Why does there have to be a reason for them?” she asked. “Why can’t they just be beautiful?”
Her voice trailed away. He gave her a dismissive eyebrow and walked off. I thought I had an idea what she was trying to say, and I felt bad for her. The airships hung above us, ghostly in the night sky. They were so big and so powerful, but they were fragile. In a few minutes they would be out over the dark ocean, and in a few years they would be gone forever. They made me sad in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. I cleared my throat.
“They’re so goddamned beautiful,” I said, “they make me want to cry.”
She glanced at me with no expression, like she hadn’t heard me over the noise of the engines. I said it again, louder.
“They’re so goddamned beautiful, they make me want to cry.”
I wiped at my cheek to illustrate the point, and the gesture made me feel all at once stupid and awkward. She was staring at me, and I turned to go, embarrassed.
“Wait, wait,” she said. “Do we know each other? Did I see you somewhere?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “If we ever met, it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember it.”
Neither of us said anything for a minute. Her face was completely still, etched in the lights from the docks. Her eyes were so dark they were invisible.
“Maybe it’s a long time from now,” she said softly. “Somewhere else. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet, and that’s what I’m remembering.”
“I won’t say good-bye, then,” I offered.
She thought about it, and nodded. “Or good-bye, just for now.”
Then she walked into the dark, headed back to whatever her life was. I thought she was a strange woman, but I stood for a long time and looked at the place where she had been. Eventually, the airships left their moorings and floated off into the dark. It wasn’t until the sound of them had disappeared that I did, too.