Romeo Cox had always been teased by his friends for his name, but never more so than when he began spending time with Julia Leonard from across town. When he started seeing Julia, his friends teased him about family feuds and the tragic end that would come to their romance. They would never know how close they were to the truth.
The couple’s parents were polite to each other’s faces, but in reality, they harbored resentment for each other. Mr. Cox thought that Mr. Leonard overcharged on everything at his general store, and the Leonards were still angry about a rumor they swore the gossipy Mrs. Cox had started. They couldn’t understand how Romeo and Julia could care so much about each other. Both sets of parents were hoping that their children were just going through a phase.
Neither Romeo nor Julia really paid attention to what their parents thought of them. In their eyes, they were perfect for each other. Romeo was good-looking, although perhaps not as handsome as his fictional namesake was supposed to be. He had dark hair that was always perfectly in place and his mother’s ocean-colored eyes. He was about medium height, standing just a couple of inches taller than Julia.
One spring night Romeo was preparing to leave for Julia’s house. He found his favorite striped tie in the wardrobe, and he put on his brand new pair of dress shoes. This was a special occasion, after all.
Romeo headed down the stairs of their old farmhouse. That house had been in Romeo’s family for three generations now. His grandparents were pioneers, and his parents were endlessly telling stories about his grandfather chopping down the wood for the house himself and bringing his family through blizzards, droughts, floods, grasshoppers, and just about anything else that can hit a family farm.
“Romeo, did you put the milk in the icebox?” asked Romeo’s mother, Rebecca Cox, a petite woman with long brown hair that was always put up in a neat little bun.
“Yes, I did, Mother. That new icebox works wonderfully,” Romeo answered, as he walked into the kitchen. His younger brother, William, or Billy as he preferred to be called, was sitting at the table attempting to put together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of a Model T Ford.
“Well it better work. John Leonard charged me a pretty penny for that damn thing,” said Romeo’s father.
“Hank, not in front of the boys!” scolded Mrs. Cox.
“Oh, they’re old enough to hear it. ‘Bout time they learn what this world is really like, and just how unfair some men can be,” Mr. Cox said.
Mrs. Cox just shook her head as she finished washing the dishes.
“Father, can I borrow your hat? ” Romeo asked.
“Of course you can, son. Just make sure not to lose this one, too. That’s my good hat. You know, that was the hat I wore when I proposed to your mother.”
The once-pristine dark brown hat was now worn and tattered, with a chunk missing from the back and a larger part flopping down on the right side.
“I won’t. The wind just whipped that last one right off my head,” he said.
Romeo went over and took the hat off of the top of the coat rack.
“Bye Mother, Bye Father,” Romeo said.
“Good-bye Romeo,” said his mother, smiling at him as he walked out the door.
Romeo’s stomach churned a little as he walked through the town. He carried the ring that he had just bought the day before. What if Julia said no? Or, more likely, what if her father wouldn’t allow it? He tried to block those thoughts from his mind and smiled, thinking back to the day when they had first proclaimed their love for each other.
Romeo remembered that he had come over to Julia’s house, carrying a bouquet of daffodils. At that point they had gone out with each other several times, but they had yet to experience their first kiss. He was wearing his best suit and the hat that he hadn’t yet lost. He rang the doorbell, and a few moments later Mr. Leonard answered. John Leonard was not really an imposing man. He was rather short and stocky with a friendly smile. Romeo could hear Julia’s younger sisters, Judith and Mable, giggling in the background.
“Will you have my daughter home by 10 o’clock?” Mr. Leonard asked.
“Yes, Mr. Leonard,” Romeo replied.
Just then, Julia came to the door, and she was as beautiful as Romeo had ever seen her. She was wearing a light-blue flowered dress, and her long auburn hair was swept up with a ribbon that perfectly matched the color of her dress. She smiled, and Romeo could see the twinkle in her bright blue eyes. He loved the way her smile always showed in her eyes.
Julia gave her father a kiss on the cheek and walked down the sidewalk with Romeo. “It is such a beautiful evening,” she said.
The sun was just setting, coloring the clouds above with shades of pink. It was early autumn, and the leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn red and yellow. Romeo looked over at Julia, whose hair was gently waving in the cool, light breeze. They reached the park and sat down on the bench, watching the swans in the pond ruffle their feathers and flap their wings against the water.
They sat quietly for awhile, and then Julia turned to Romeo.
“Romeo, do you believe our country will go to war?” she asked him, with concern in her face.
“I don’t know, Julia,” he replied. “President Wilson says we won’t, but it is getting awfully bad over there in Europe.”
“I know…but would you go if there was a war?” said Julia.
Romeo looked away for a moment. He wasn’t quite sure what to say. The last thing he wanted to do was leave Julia, but wasn’t it his duty to fight for his country? Would he even have a choice? Maybe he would be lucky, and the war in Europe would end before it came to that point. He prayed that would be the case.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, if this country goes to war, I might feel… I just don’t know, Julia.”
Julia just nodded.
“Julia, no matter what happens, I love you,” said Romeo, taking her hand in his.
Julia smiled. “I love you too, Romeo,” she said softly.
They leaned toward each other and kissed, not hearing the sound of thunder in the distance.
Now here Romeo was again, standing at her doorstep. President Wilson had since entered the United States into war, and Romeo had a feeling he might have to go. However, he was determined that he and Julia would walk down the aisle before that day came.
He rang the bell, and Julia’s father again answered.
“Good evening, Mr. Leonard. Is Julia home?” Romeo asked.
Romeo noticed that Mr. Leonard had a rather sad look on his face.
“Yes she is Romeo, but I’m afraid you can’t see her,” Mr. Leonard said.
“What—why not?” Romeo asked, feeling confused. ” I have something important to ask her, actually, to ask you as well.”
“Julia’s sick, Romeo. She has the influenza. She said that she doesn’t want you to see her. She’s afraid you’ll get sick too.”
Romeo was dumbfounded. Julia had the influenza? He had heard of so many who had died of that horrible disease. Romeo remembered Mrs. Garrett standing with his mother, crying and talking about how pale and weak her son had been and how Mrs. Garrett held her son’s hand until it fell from hers.
“Maybe you can just write her a letter, and I’ll take it up to her,” Mr. Leonard offered.
“Alright,” said Romeo, still not believing what he had heard.
Romeo slowly walked away, his legs feeling like lead. He didn’t see those same beautiful shades of pink in the sky as he walked down the street. He didn’t see the twins playing kick the can in Mrs. Johnson’s yard. He didn’t hear the wind rustling the branches of the newly-budding trees.
All he could hear was the sound of John Leonard saying over and over again “Julia’s sick, Romeo.”
He could see her in his mind, her face pale and drawn, the color gone from her eyes. She’s dying, he thought. The love of his life was dying.
He wasn’t quite sure how he got back to his house, but when he did, he went straight to bed, without so much as a word to anyone. He dreamt of Julia that night, and he woke up to the rooster’s crowing. Usually that damn crowing bothered him, but this morning he had something he wanted to do.
He began walking down the street toward her house when he noticed that the general store was closed. Usually Mr. Leonard would be there by now.
He was still walking down the same street when he heard a couple of neighborhood gossips say a familiar name.
“It’s so sad, isn’t it? Poor Mrs. Leonard. She was so close to her daughter, and she was such a beautiful girl. That influenza is just horrible,” said Mrs. Bernard, an old woman who was carrying her yipping toy poodle.
Romeo just stood there, not believing what he was hearing. Were they talking about Julia? They had to be — her father had just told him that she had the influenza, hadn’t he? His mind was spinning. Did she just say “was?” Maybe he hadn’t heard her right. That poodle was still yipping pretty loudly.
“Quiet, Fufu!” Mrs. Bernard scolded the dog.
“Oh, I know, it’s such a pity. That influenza is just horrible — it’s taken one life after another, but I never imagined it would take the Leonard girl,” said Mrs. Conner, a younger woman with a very nasally voice. “I heard that Julia… Ethel, can’t you get that dog to hush up?”
“Oh, she’s just excited. Fufu, be quiet!” said Mrs. Bernard. “It’s so sad when someone dies so young. At least Mrs. Leonard still has… Fufu!”
Romeo had heard enough. Choking back tears, he walked as fast as he could to the army station, determined to get out of this place as soon as he could.
When he came back, he wrote Julia a letter:
I know you will never receive this letter, but somehow it eases my pain to write it. I have always loved you Julia, ever since I saw you running through the park with your hair flying in the wind and your mother yelling at you to come back. You were so beautiful even then, but what captivated me the most about you was your spirit. Nobody could laugh like you, nobody could dream like you, nobody could brighten the whole day with just a smile like you.
Sadly, though, you have been taken from my life. I don’t know what I will do without you, which is why I am choosing to leave. I know you would not want me to voluntarily go to war, but I don’t see any reason not to anymore. Maybe you will read this letter in heaven; maybe I will soon see you there.
All my love,
He left the letter on his dresser, still not quite sure why he wrote it, but knowing that it had helped somehow.
He had asked to go as soon as possible, which meant he was leaving the next day. His family had desperately tried to convince him otherwise, but he refused to hear it. In his mind, his life had ended with Julia’s.
That next day, Romeo was ready to get on the train.
“Romeo, please, at least be careful. We don’t want to get a letter that says…” Mrs. Cox’s voice broke off, and she turned away.
“I will be fine, Mother. I have to go,” Romeo said. He gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek, and he was surprised when his father took him into his arms and hugged him.
“Make us proud, son, and be careful,” Mr. Cox said.
“I will, Father,” Romeo said, turning away and getting onto the train, leaving his father attempting to comfort his crying mother behind.
As he got on the train, he took out the little black-and-white picture of Julia.
“God, Julia, I loved you so much. Why did you leave me?” he said, kissing her picture and turning toward the window as tears streaked down his face. As the train began moving away from the station, he saw the crying wives and fiancées of the soldiers waving and blowing kisses, but no Julia. He would never see Julia again, he thought.
This was true — Romeo never would see Julia again, but it wasn’t because she had died. What Romeo would never know was that it was Mable, not Julia, who had died from the influenza. Julia had recovered from the disease the day after Romeo had left on that train. Maybe he would have found out if he hadn’t died four days after he arrived in Europe. Maybe he wouldn’t have volunteered to be on the front line. Maybe it could have been a happy ending, but no one will ever know what could have been for Julia and Romeo.