By Bruce A. Smith
The following story was told at recent Moth Story open mics in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, and is one part of my collection of true, personal stories titled, Stories from the Journey.
Betrayal spans a wide arc of human behavior, from the most basic of “she’s done me wrong,” to complex manipulations that can destroy a person’s life or family. Or even a country, since this week in July 2018 headlines around the world proclaimed: “President Trump Betrays America in Helsinki,” and banners accusing him of treason surrounded the White House upon his return. Betrayal can carry great weight. In my sixty-eight years I’ve encountered plenty of betrayals, especially in three marriages and divorces, but the keenest view of the depths of betrayal can be obtained by looking at my relationship with Rebecca, my first girlfriend.
We met during our first year in college, in 1967. I was a freshman at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Rebecca attended a small woman’s college in Philadelphia. We were two oddballs that didn’t fit in anywhere, and it was with divine grace that we found each other.
We reveled in exploring the world together—the streets and neighborhoods of Philadelphia, riding the trains, and wandering among the historical sites, such as the Liberty Bell. She introduced me to the wonders of sweet and sour pork in a little eatery in Chinatown, and I taught her how to eat a hamburger with her hands.
Rebecca was a bit quirky. She had been born in New Jersey but was raised in Africa, living much of her childhood in the Belgian Congo. But during its revolution, she had to escape in the middle of the night with her family, escaping to the white enclave of Rhodesia. Most African nations were convulsing against colonial rule at that time, but Rhodesia was still controlled by the British and safe for Americans.
After Rhodesia, Rebecca and her family resettled in Brussels, Belgium, where she went to high school, and where she was living when I met her. Socially, she was more European than American, and ate her hamburgers with a fork and knife. Although she had lived on three continents, she thought going to KFC was a real treat – eating fried chicken with her fingers!
The reason for such an unusual childhood, she explained to me, was due to her father working as an executive for Arrow Shirts. Apparently, he was an important part of their African operation, and at eighteen years of age I didn’t question her explanation. But now it seems suspect.
But back then we had the world to discover for ourselves. We were ecstatic in a deep, joyful way. We called it being “high on life.”
Rebecca spoke perfect French, and I loved her effervescent Parisienne charm. When she was being sweet with me she would say, “Oh, M’sieur Bruce,” drawing out the “u” in a long, slow breath, “Bruuuuuuu…ce.”
When Christmas vacation approached that first year of college, I prepared to head back home to New York and she for Brussels. Before leaving she gave me her address: 25 Avenue Air Marshal Arthur Tedder. “Please write me,” she implored. I did, but before she left I asked her about her unusual address.
“Why is your street named after an English guy? Why isn’t it some French name, or Flemish? That’s what they speak in Belgium, right?”
“It’s a sign of respect. Air Marshal Tedder was a British commander in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and the Belgians are very grateful to the Brits and the Americans for liberating them from the Nazis.”
I wrote a few times to Rebecca in Brussels and was a little surprised that I didn’t receive a letter in return. But, I was certainly eager to see her after our holiday vacation. However, our first phone call shocked me.
“Bruce, I can’t see you any more,” she announced. “My father forbids it.”
“Because you’re not Jewish.”
“No, my family is adamant. My father’s father is a rabbi, and my whole family is torn apart over my seeing you. I’ve told them how I feel about you, but it doesn’t change anything.”
I argued for over an hour, causing great consternation in my dorm because I was tying up the one pay phone for twenty guys. I told Rebecca that I would marry her if that was what she needed to feel free from the grip of her family, but my proposal failed to have any impact.
However, by the end of the conversation I saw a glimmer of my old Rebecca, the soul-mate who connected so easily with me, the young woman who felt free and lived it.
Hopeful, I called her the next evening, but we were back to square one.
“I just can’t see you, Bruce. Please don’t call me anymore,” she said. “Bruce, you’re not Jewish, and that’s just how it is. My father will not budge an inch.”
That was it. I didn’t see her and didn’t call. I suppose my broken heart is a testament to my first betrayal—a loss of a sweet love, the absence of a dear friend. Worse, though, is the deeper betrayal at the soul-level. Rebecca rejected our embrace of living a life free of social constraint. She was choosing not to be “high on life.” Nor was she choosing to fight for me, or even find some means of compromise with her family. I was cut loose, pure and simple.
I was devastated. In a daze I walked for six hours, circumnavigating the vast base of Lehigh’s South Mountain.
But a year later Rebecca called.
“I’d like to see you,” she said. “I’m getting married, and I’d like to see you to…, oh, I’m not sure why. I guess because I can, somehow.”
Rebecca told me that she was marrying a friend of her family, some guy named Steve—Jewish of course—and a rich lawyer who drove a red Corvette. I suppose his conventionality provided enough political cover for her to reach out to me.
Any reason to see Rebecca was good enough for me, so I hitched down to Philly.
We reconnected right away. We laughed, told stories, and enjoyed each other’s company immensely. However, there were times when I went cold. Once, while walking down a street I just veered off to the opposite side of the street and walked alone for a block or two. I guess I was in shock over what was happening.
Nevertheless, something was rekindled. Rebecca told me that she was going to the Bahamas the next week for spring break with her roommate and her roommate’s family. My spring vacation from Lehigh fell on the same week, so I told her I could meet her. A week together in the Caribbean, I thought. WOW.
Rebecca gave me her address in Nassau—a fancy ocean front condominium—but didn’t discuss this plan with her roommate, apparently.
Regardless, I hitched down to Florida and got a cheap flight to Nassau—29 bucks round-trip from Fort Lauderdale on a special student fare.
At 10 o’clock on the following Tuesday night I arrived at the condo. I spoke with Rebecca briefly, and was sent off to spend the night with the roommate’s brother, who had a whole wing of the house to himself. I was too tired to question the arrangements. The next day, I cooked breakfast for everyone in the roommate’s mother’s wing and endured a brief interrogation by her, who incidentally introduced herself as Rebecca’s “American mother.” Afterwards, I rendezvoused with Rebecca at the beach.
Despite the enchanting turquoise greens and the deep azure blues of the Caribbean, my beach time with Rebecca was short.
“You need to go, Bruce. You can’t stay here,” she said.
“Oh, Bruce, you just don’t understand.”
I didn’t, but I left the Bahamas and Rebecca.
But a few weeks later she announced that she had canceled her engagement, was dropping out of school, and returning to Europe with a possible transfer to the University of Strasbourg in France—all of it an attempt to find some emotional relief. I hitched again, this time to JFK airport in New York to see her off to Brussels.
When Rebecca boarded her Sabena flight to Belgium, it was the last time I ever saw her. But over time I began to understand what she had been telling me.
I’ve come to appreciate how mighty the pull of family can be. Plus, I know how deeply religious acculturation can penetrate, weaving into one’s identity and forming a tapestry that supports a family’s life. It’s tough to shake, and it’s taken me thirty years in Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment to feel free of my Catholic and familial influences despite my hippie exuberance back in Philly.
But I’ve never forgotten Rebecca. Through the five decades since I last saw her, I’ve learned a few things that have given me a broader perspective on her, especially her accounts of Africa. After fifteen years as an investigative journalist, and a marriage to a woman who had been a drug dealer in Canada, which made her ineligible for immigration into the United States—and she didn’t tell me her secret until after the wedding, how’s that for a betrayal—I believe I have a keener insight into what might have actually happened with Rebecca, and why.
I doubt that Rebecca’s father worked as a business executive in the Belgian Congo. Rather, it is more plausible that he was a CIA operative, or more likely some kind of political or financial agent seeking to thwart communist advances during the Congolese Revolution. I suspect his goal was to keep the minerals and resources of central Africa flowing to the United States. Of course, he and Rebecca had to flee when the bullets of the Congolese militias started flying, and finding an eventual refuge in Brussels seems a logical place to build a stable home. Brussels is the headquarters of NATO and is currently the center point of the European Union. It’s an ideal place for an American undercover operative to park his wife and kids.
I doubt very much that Rebecca’s father was upset that his daughter was dating a non-Jewish man. Rather, I think it was a ruse to keep her—and himself—safe from my unconventional and liberated energies. If I was allowed into the family I would never stop asking troubling questions or be able to resist from probing, hoping to find “what’s really going on here?” I believe I was considered dangerous, along the lines of “loose lips sink ships.” Blabbing my mouth in the wrong place at the wrong time could get them killed. Hence, I had to be kept at arm’s length, and my lack of Jewishness was just a useful story to keep me away.
But I’m not staying put.
I’ve Googled 25 Avenue Air Marshal Arthur Tedder. The street does not exist. However, I doubt that it is a bogus address as my letters were never returned to me by Belgian postal authorities. Rather, I think the address is a drop box for correspondence to field operatives. I think Rebecca got the letters, and her father learned how seriously in love she was. The drop box worked perfectly from his point of view.
As a result, visiting Brussels is at the top of my “bucket list.” I want to know the truth of Rebecca. I plan to visit the US Embassy in Brussels and make inquires. I’ll hunt for the CIA station, check out the banks and the corporate bunkers, and sniff out economic hit men in the pubs and parking lots.
I’ll be looking for men and women who are too happy eating hamburgers with their hands. Or who marvel too fondly at Odell Beckham, Jr., the spectacular wide receiver of the New York Giants.
I might even find Rebecca.