The genesis for this story is the film "Dogfight" but the story is only very loosely based on that movie.
The "dogfight" refers to an "ugly date" contest among a group of men in which they each go out and find the ugliest female that they can, and persuade her to attend a 'party'. At the party the guy with the ugliest date wins.
- Wikipedia on the movie Dogfight.
Billy Cantwell was sitting in a quite comfortable easy chair staring at the dying embers of the fire in the large stone fireplace. Taking another sip of the hot eggnog nicely laced with brandy warmed him more than the remains of the fire. The large glass Christmas ornaments on the tree reflected myriad images of the coals now lightly coated with ashes.
Billy was troubled that night ... once more feeling the shame of that night those years ago, that night with Jenny. And the dance the next day—really a dogfight—how proud she had been when they announced the winners of what she had so naively believed a regular dance contest.
He shifted his leg slightly on the footstool trying vainly to make the phantom pain of the missing foot he had left behind in 'Nam go away. Jenny ... what had happened to her? She just disappeared; he never ran into her again. "God," he thought, "how she must hate me!"
He sensed the presence of another in the room with him. That situational awareness that came from the hell that had been the long siege of Khe Sanh was still with him—one thing he had not left behind. Yes, he knew there was a person in the room behind him, holding still ... maybe a faint smell of lilac—no smell like that in the foxholes. For some reason he was loath to simply turn and see whom it was. There was a feeling of something momentous about to happen in the air. Holding still, hardly breathing, he felt the soft touch of a hand on his shoulder.
"Hello, Billy," came the soft voice that shattered the illusions about his life he had been clinging to.
Billy Cantwell was happy! He had been a tough All-State linebacker and an All-American wrestler at Cherry Creek High School in Denver. Being a moderately good looking guy (in his own humble opinion) and smart as hell—it's not his fault he was so busy partying that he couldn't keep his grades up—and now Iowa State was going to be blessed with his athletic prowess.
The wrestling coach at ISU convinced him to concentrate on wrestling. The coach was desperate for a good competitor in the 184-pound weight class. Overriding his B- GPA was his skill in sports, his extra-curricular activities (driven by his do-gooder mom), and the fact that the Dean of Admissions had been Billy's dad's roommate at Iowa State. So Billy was at Iowa State and was going to pledge for his dad's old frat house: Zeta Eta Theta.
Billy was neither attractive nor unattractive. He did have a certain rugged handsomeness, an undeniable persona that attracted girls like a magnet, and he had a well-deserved reputation for having fun. The girls in his classes seemed to flock to him and he had more of the girls volunteering to tutor him than he could possibly use. This of course made many of the girls unhappy.
One of them, Jenny Lynne, was a somewhat plain girl from Rockford, Illinois. She wasn't really ugly but she sure wasn't getting any dates. She was a bit too tall, a bit too thin, and over-the-top too shy. But she was more than way smart and had a heart of pure gold! Still she had no dates, and less self-confidence. So from afar she adored Billy Cantwell with a passionless love that was as true and as bright as the dawn rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the night.
Billy had rushed right through pledge week. The silly initiations were meaningless and no one really wanted to mess with Billy anyway. His reputation for single minded, even ruthless aggressiveness in the ring was well known throughout the campus even though he was just a freshman.
Then on Thursday night before the pledge party on Saturday, all the new pledges were all taken to the basement of the fraternity house and sworn to secrecy. The key activity would be a dogfight or an ugly date contest. Each new pledge had one day to find a girl for his date and during the dance a committee of three would judge each girl.
At the end of the dance a presentation would be made of an appropriate sized trophy for first, second and third place. The largest trophy—the one Billy fully expected to win—was inscribed: First Place Zeta Eta Theta—Pledge Dance Contest. The winner would get a room to himself for the four years of school—beginning that night if desired (a key to the room would be quietly passed along with the trophy.
The girls, of course, were never to be made aware of what the trophies were really for but the guys would all have a great time laughing.
Now most of the pledges were frantic about finding a truly ugly girl in such short time. Once the girl had been singled out, she still had to agree to go to the dance—and the fraternity didn't have that great of a reputation around the campus. Billy wasn't worried. The president of Zeta Eta Theta, Kenny Ames, was Billy's brother's best friend and had been on the wrestling team at Cherry Creek when Billy was a freshman. Two days prior Kenny had taken him aside to have a talk with him.
After explaining about the contest, he continued, "Billy, my man, I don't want some asshole to get that room so I'm going to fix it so you win. I just ask that you find a girl that's believable. I'm counting on you, Billy!"
So Friday morning Billy started thinking about all the girls that had been sniffing around. Then it came to him—Jenny Lynne. He normally had pretty high requirements for his tutors but he was having problems with his pre-calc class and Jenny was clearly the smartest person in class. So he had broken his rule and asked her to help him out.
Her response had been almost pathetic. She had been so excited she had started stuttering. She wasn't really so bad looking, somewhat mousey, her nose was a little crooked and she didn't use any make up. Underneath her far from stylish clothes she looked like she certainly had a useful body. Unfortunately, every day was a bad hair day for Jenny. He called her and asked if she could come over to his dorm room and help him with the homework assignment.
Jenny came right over but after fifteen minutes or so, Billy called a halt, "My head is hurting too much for this today. Let's take a break."
He took a beer out of his small fridge and took a long swallow. "Here, Jenny, you finish this one and I'll get a new one."
Jenny nodded a strong no, "No ... Bil ... Billy, I don't drink!"
Billy, truly flabbergasted, stared at her, and then asked, "You mean you have never had a drink?"
"That's right, Billy; I don't like to drink."
With a smirk he handed her the can and got a new one. "If you have never had a drink, then how do you know you don't like it?" he said in a forceful tone. "Now be sociable and drink with me."
With that he held the can to her lips and tipped it up so she would have to drink or make a mess. He tipped the can higher and higher until it was empty while he drank his own beer in one long gulp.
"Now that wasn't so bad, was it? And just what else have you never done?" Billy asked, not giving her time to respond. "Here's another beer. Let's have fun."
Jenny was confused and a little fearful. Then she realized that Billy, the boy she loved with all her heart, wanted to have fun with her. She took the can and tried to stay up with him as they drank several more cans. During this Billy had started holding her hands and then put his hand on her knee whenever he made a point.
Leaving his hand on her knee, he said, "Jenny, I think I like you a lot. Could I kiss you?" With that he gave her a long, but somewhat chaste kiss, and slid his hand up a little higher on her leg.
Jenny tensed and grabbed his hand.
"Jenny, Jenny, I guess you don't like me," Billy said as he backed off a little.
Jenny was confused and more than a little tipsy from the beer. "No, Billy. I mean yes, it's all right," she blurted as she turned red and leaned into Billy and gave him what she understood was a passionate kiss.
Billy wasn't going to pass this up. He quickly removed her blouse and bra and started kissing her firm and larger than expected breasts.
By now Jenny was on fire and lost in the passion of the moment. As Billy took her skirt and panties off she offered no resistance ... she even lifted her hips to allow him to get the panties off.
Billy dropped lower, kissing her stomach, nuzzling her navel. Moving quickly he spread her legs a little and started licking between them.
Jenny was lost in the moment and quickly had her first orgasm as Billy went on to take her virginity.
The next morning Jenny was awakened as Billy entered her from behind. She was dry but Billy ignored her faint protests and quickly ejaculated in her.
Later, after they had showered and Billy had shown her how to go down on him, Billy told her, "Jenny, I guess you are my girl now. I'm taking you to a dance tonight so everyone can see you."
"Oh, Billy, you have made me so happy. I've loved you since the first time I saw you." Jenny blushed big time as she said this.
"One thing, Jenny. This is like a costume party. Come by here at six tonight and I'll have some clothes for you. Now don't forget, you are my girl." With that Billy gave her a big kiss and edged her out the door, a smirk not seen by Jenny on his face.
Jenny did come back to Billy's room promptly at six. Billy handed her a bag and told her to put the clothes on.
Jenny started walking towards the bathroom, but Billy grabbed her arm, "No, in here, Jenny. I like to look at you.
Jenny was humiliated. The night before she had been a little drunk and in the heat of passion. Now she was sober and having second thoughts.
Billy made a big thing of looking at his watch, "C'mon, babe. We don't have much time. It's too late for me to get another date.
Jenny tried to turn away as she reluctantly started undressing but Billy just kept circling around. Finally she was nude and took the clothes out of the bag.
"Billy, I can't wear these clothes. They are ... I mean, Billy I just can't wear them."
Billy was quiet a minute. He stared at her ripe body—realizing for the first time that Jenny was better put together than any of the girls he'd been with—and there were a ton of them.
"Jenny, I am dressing Rhett Butler, from "Gone with the Wind." You are going as Gypsy Rose Lee; you know how she dresses. You will be fine. Now get dressed and I'll put your makeup on."
"But why can't I go as Scarlett O'Hara?"
With a big, and seemingly patient sigh, Billy responded, "Jenny, that was what I wanted to do but I couldn't find a costume for that role."
Billy had learned about putting on make-up in several drama classes in high school and now garishly painted Jenny's face. He stepped back and was pleased—she looked like a stripper, no, even like a slut!
He had to almost drag her, complaining all the way, over to the Zeta Eta Theta fraternity house. He was amazed at how much attention she was getting from the other guys. It almost made him jealous. Kenny Ames—that asshole—even suggested that they could have a threesome with Jenny. Billy thought about it for a moment but he was afraid Jenny might freak out and they would all be in trouble.
Jenny turned out to be a surprisingly good dancer and Billy actually had fun. For a while he forgot about the contest until the band stopped playing and Kenny went up to the mike.
"The winners of the dance contest are Billy and Jenny ... or should I say the handsome Rhett Butler and the always sultry Gypsy Rose Lee!" Kenny finished with a laugh. "Can we have the winning couple up here? Let's have a big round of applause for them—maybe we can get Gypsy Rose to display her great talent for us," he finished with a leer.
Billy and Jenny went up and picked up the large trophy. Billy put his arms around Jenny and gave her a big kiss, his hand sliding down the back of her scanty skirt. Jenny wiggled a bit—embarrassed by what Kenny had said about her.
Billy took her up to the room that was now his and had his way with her—several times during the night.
Jenny woke up the next morning a bit disoriented ... and alone. Billy was nowhere to be found. Jenny was upset that he wasn't there but finally gathered her stuff —including the trophy that Billy had told her she could have—and finally walked back to her room.
She had no choice but to walk across the campus to her room wearing the Gypsy Rose Lee clothes. She was totally embarrassed when her English Lit prof passed by and stared at her.
Jenny didn't see Billy for a couple of days but finally ran into him at the student union building. She ran up and tried to kiss him but he turned away.
"Billy, what's the matter?"
"Jenny, you took advantage of me by throwing yourself at me. And the way you were at the dance! You looked like a slut. Now leave me alone or I'll file sexual harassment charges against you."
Jenny was bewildered. She felt like she was having an out-of-body experience. After standing there in shock for a while she finally turned and ran for her room, desperately crying all the way.
Curled up on her bed, she kept asking herself, "Am I going crazy? Oh, God. What did I do?"
She moped around for the next few weeks only seeing Billy from afar. She ghosted through her classes and woke up one morning realizing she had missed her period. She waited for a couple of weeks before going to the campus health clinic to find that, yes, she was indeed pregnant.
"I'll call Billy. I know he will do the right thing for me and the baby."
But Billy hung up on her each time she would call. Then her world collapsed when a girl from one of her classes was visiting her room and saw the trophy. Thinking it belonged to Jenny's roommate she started laughing.
"That damn frat house isn't still having dogfights, is it?"
"What is a dogfight?
"Oh, Jenny—it's an ugly girl contest. Each of the pledges has to find a really ugly girl to take to the dance—and the guy with the ugliest girl wins the trophy and a single room in the frat house."
From Jenny's horrified gasp she quickly saw she had made a major faux pas and quickly left the room.
Jenny lay on her bed crying pathetically. "I'll kill myself," she thought. She spent several weeks thinking of how she would do it ... wondering if she could.
Finally she realized she didn't have the strength to kill herself—or the baby growing within her. She quietly withdrew from her classes and moved home to Rockford.
Billy was pleased with himself. "Man, it's great having this room to myself."
The only cloud on his horizon was pre-calc. He was struggling and finally gave in and called Jenny. She was the one that could help him for sure.
"I'm sorry, but Jenny has left the school," her roommate told him.
In the end Billy cheated on a test—he had to pass pre-calc or he wouldn't be able to wrestle. He was caught, of course, and not only lost his scholarship but was kicked out of school.
Billy was too smart to wait for the draft and be sent to Viet Nam ... he would join the Marines and be an Embassy Guard. A friend of his from high school told him all about it—about how those foreign gals all went for that snazzy uniform. Yeah, it was for four years, not two, but what the hell, it was better than dying in some damn jungle.
The Marines weren't what Billy expected. Oh, it wasn't the physical stuff—he was in great shape and easily handled all challenges. He even set a record on the obstacle course. No, the problem was that Billy was a loner. The Marines wanted teamwork.
His life was made a living hell as the Marines tried to remake him in their own image. Billy was stubborn as hell and paid for it with constant harassment.
In the end, of course, Billy got nowhere close to being an embassy guard. In the words of one Gunny, "That SOB is good for only one thing—killing people. I think 'Nam will make a man and a real Marine out of him ... or kill him."
And that's how Billy became a man and a "real" Marine. Being a charter member of The Siege of Khe Sanh Club taught him everything there was to know about depending on others and having them depend on you.
Six months into his vacation at Khe Sanh, Billy was laying in a trench feeling the mortars burst around him. It was like going to the stock car races. On television you could watch and listen to the race but if you went in person you could feel the race. It was the same with the crashing mortar rounds: you became one with the bombardment.
Billy had learned the best way to get through an attack like that was to just zone out—go to another place in his mind. The image came to him of Jenny undressing in his dorm room. How lovely her body was. For the first time he felt shame for what he had done to her. She had a lovely spirit that he had crushed without a care. As he wondered what had happened to her a random piece of metal found the exact angle to reach out to his in the trench and slice through his ankle.
BILLY GROWS UP
"It's a shame that such a handsome young man has to lose his foot like that."
"Well, when God starts throwing shrapnel around He surely doesn't look to see if they are cute."
"Still though, it's a real cryin' shame. A boy like that with everythin' to live for."
"Did you see..."
The sound came floating to Billy as if in a dream. As he came out of the anesthesia he suddenly worried that maybe the nurses had been talking about him. He couldn't look down but when he wiggled his toes they felt fine. He wondered for a bit about why he was in the hospital but slowly fell into a deep sleep.
He felt a gentle hand shaking his shoulder.
"Billy, it's time to wake up."
He looked up to see a kindly Colonel with the caduceus symbol on his lapel. It took no great deduction for Billy to figure out this was a doctor.
"Okay, Sir, I'm awake."
"How do you feel, son?"
"Okay, I guess. A little woozy. What happened to me?"
"Well, Marine, the shrapnel that hit you pretty well took your foot off at the ankle. All I had to do was clean it up and get it ready for a prosthetic."
"No, Doc, I mean Sir. I could feel my toes wiggling while ago."
With a laugh, the Colonel continued, "Yeah, son, and there will be times you will go crazy with your toe itching, or hurting in cold weather. Don't worry; you will be almost as good as new when we get through with you."
Billy lay there, wondering about that almost.
Colonel Abrams was pleased with his patient. The Marine was doing much better with his therapy that he had expected. He had seemed depressed for a couple of days but one day he wore a smile to his therapy and accepted the challenge of his prosthesis with a humorous determination.
After a couple of weeks of Billy's therapy, the Colonel decided to talk to him about it. They had developed an easy familiarity with each other—in the hospital environment at least.
"Yeah, doc. I was feeling pretty bitter for a couple of weeks. Then I started thinking about my buddies ... so many of them didn't make it. On my first patrol at Khe Sanh, this kid Sammy—I wouldn't have even said hello to him back in the world—dived on a grenade and saved two or three of us. I've been thinking a lot about that. Until I went to 'Nam, I thought I was one of the Golden Ones. I thought the world revolved around me.
"Anyway, I realized I was alive and it wasn't something I had done for myself. It was being part of a team that kept me alive. I wasn't a good person. There was this girl ... well, hell, doc, I guess you ain't a priest. But I didn't treat her right and it haunts me. Christ, Doc, I want to be proud of myself. I'll never see that girl again. But I'll spend my life making it up to her. I'll be the kind of guy that would deserve a wonderful girl like her.
"Ya know, Doc. I was thinking of her when I got hit. I wonder what that means."
The Colonel was proud of Corporal Billy. He was almost religious with his therapy and continually encouraged the other patients in their therapy. All the nurses seemed to be in love with him but he was oddly hesitant.
Once, he asked Billy about it.
"Hell, Doc," he started, almost blushing, "I'm afraid of girls now. I have this dream that I'll fall in love with a girl and she will treat me the way I treated that gal I told you about. I thought losing my foot would bother me but that ain't nothin'. How do I become good, doc? How do I?"
Billy was almost crying and the Colonel could see he really wanted to change. He called a friend of his who was the Dean of students at the University of Chicago.
Billy was so used to his prosthesis by now that he rarely thought about it. It was just part of getting dressed each day. When he had enrolled at the University of Chicago they had asked him if he wanted a handicapped sticker for his car but he just laughed.
It was funny going back to school. Most everyone was younger than him and he watched the shallowness of the relationships and felt sad. But he kept thinking back to the way he had treated Jenny Lynne and vowed that he would always treat women with respect—whether they deserved it or not.
Billy dated some but he was struck by how self-centered the girls were ... almost as bad as he used to be. He was lonely but he wanted a woman with some character, someone he could talk to ... a partner.
It could have gone on a long time like that. Billy was starting to become a loner again—and he didn't like that. His dreams at night were more and more about that stupid dogfight dance at that damned frat house. Sometimes he would see Jenny as she was changing clothes. Sometimes—and these times he would wake in a cold sweat—he would see her face as he said those awful things to her.
He would lie there in the night, thinking about that quote by Elizabeth Bowen:
... it is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence, and once we have lost that it is futile to attempt a picnic in Eden.
That was fine for him but why had he taken the innocence of Jenny?
Then, that fateful day.
Billy had become friends with Tom Crudep. Tom taught one of his classes and was a couple of years older than Billy. They had become fast friends and spent a lot of time together. Over a beer one night Tom invited him to go to Rockford for the Christmas break.
"It will be a lot of fun, Billy. You can meet my family and friends. Rockford is a great little city. You've been working too hard on your studies and you really need a break. Hey, maybe I'll set you up with a date with my little sister, well, she is actually my stepsister, but she is totally smart!
Billy finally gave in and made the trip to Rockford. He would be staying at Tom's parents' house—a room was all set up.
Billy was worried that he might not fit in but everyone was wonderful. He actually felt smothered by the love that was given him. His family had never been close so he was enchanted by the affection they openly shared with each other ... and with him.
The second day Billy was in Rockford, Tom asked him for a favor.
"My little sister is coming over in a bit—you haven't met her yet. We always celebrate Christmas with a big dinner and then open presents. I know you don't have anything to give but don't worry about it. Here, sit in front of the fireplace—I'll get you a glass of hot eggnog. A little splash of brandy work for you? And, Billy, be nice to my sis, she's had a hard life. The rest of us are going out caroling—we do it every year, kind of a tradition. Mom will be in the kitchen doing the final preparation for dinner if you need anything.
So Billy sat there staring into the dying embers of the fire. There were some logs stacked in a carrier so he picked a couple and added them to the remaining coals. Watching the fire rising anew from the ashes he was struck with the analogy: could he resurrect his life as he had resurrected the fire? Could he start over again and fix his mistakes?
He saw the face of Jenny years ago as he rejected her so coldly and she turned away in horror ... and tears came to his eyes.
He felt the hands gently touch his shoulders.
A soft voice murmured, "Hello Billy."
Startled, he turned and gasped with some degree of horror at the beautiful apparition in front of him.
"Jenny! Is that you? But, what? How?"
"Yes, Billy, it's me. I'll explain everything later."
Billy fell to his knees in front of her. Jenny was stylishly dressed and was having anything but a bad hair day. She was beautiful! She had filled out some and had a glow about her.
"Oh, God, Jenny. I'm so sorry, so sorry!"