Monday, August 4, 2008

The Letter

It was one of those days that made you feel like you were suffocating, drowning, dying some awful death that made you feel too close to yourself. The temperature had risen steadily from an early 85 degrees to a stifling 102 by noon. She lifted the brim of her straw hat off her forehead and wiped away the slow rolling sweat that had formed too quickly. Stooped there, in her garden, she could feel the torturous sun peeling away her patience. Suddenly she couldn't stand to be there anymore. She had to get out of this heat.

Her knees popped and creaked as she stood. 67 years of wear and tear had taken their toll on the cushions of life, and now every movement was a reminder of how old she had become. Stretching her back she glanced idly at the glare coming off the blackened pavement. If she had looked down the street she would have seen the telltale glimmer of an oasis, a simple mirage that pointed out, not that relief was coming, but that you were so damn hot you were hallucinating.

She stripped off her hat as she walked up the back steps to her home. It was only just now becoming possible for her not to expect her husband as she walked in the door. It was only now that she was finally beginning to see that he was indeed gone and he wasn't coming back. All of his jokes about death had been leading up to the day when she would have to learn to laugh at the real thing. He’d always said, “When I go I want you to have a big party. No one is to cry, and there is to be no sad music. Everyone will have a drink in their hand and you will lead a toast. You’ll say, ‘This is for my husband, the lucky son of a bitch who got to go first.’”

And in the end she had done as he’d asked. But it wasn't nearly as hilarious as he’d made it sound.

The shocking cold of her air-conditioned home forced a grateful sigh from her lips. She slung the wide-brimmed hat over the coat rack and gingerly pulled her gardening gloves from each finger, the same way she had always done without ever having been told to. Simon snaked his way around her ankles, grating his angular chin upwards against her calf and revving his motor to prove he loved her. She, in turn, bent down to scratch his ears and say to him, yet again, the only praise she could muster: “Simon, you should thank God that you’re a cat.”

In the kitchen, she poured herself a cold glass of water and sat down at the table to pay the monthly bills. The stack of mail stood tall before her so she settled her reading glasses onto her nose, inhaled deeply, and opened her checkbook. As much as she hated the depletion of her checking account after paying her bills, she rather enjoyed the ritual. She loved to feel a job being completed. She loved the idea of progress, of moving forward. Even in the past few dark months she had found some sort of joy in simple tasks; it was as if by completing one she had moved somehow further from her grief. So it wasn't surprising that she found herself humming quietly and smiling slightly halfway through the pile of mail.

It was just as she was sealing the electric bill that she noticed it. Here, among her pile of junk mail and bills, was a letter. It took a moment for her to realize what it was; after all, people just didn't send letters anymore. And it took her even longer to recognize the lack of a return address and the use of her maiden name.

The letter looked as if it had been traveling for years. At least twenty different postmarks littered the dingy envelope and several forwarding orders had been put into effect. But, somehow, even with all its stamped on bruises and signs of wear, this letter was the single most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Her breath became slow and shallow, the same way that, as a small girl, she would breathe in Sunday church service. It was the breathing of a reverent child. It was a sign of wonderment and innocence and all other things that had been lost. She carefully broke the seal of the martyred envelope, and she oh so carefully sidled the stationary from its pocket, laying it to rest in the light of her kitchen under the shelter of her eyes. She unfolded the pages and began to read:

My Dearest Olivia, 9/22/1998

Greetings from India! Oh Olivia, you would be absolutely smitten with this place. Everything here is so vibrant and rich and seemingly expensive…I cannot even imagine your face when I bring you here someday; you will probably do that thing where you light up from the inside and knock my socks off with how beautiful you are. Come to think of it, I probably shouldn't bring you here… the Indian government may be upset if I bring them the one woman who is more perfect and beautiful than their sacred country.

Work is going fine. Some of the action sequences have gone awry, and the narrator still refuses to learn the correct pronunciations of many, many words, but no one ever said being a hit documentary film maker would be easy.

I know it’s probably strange for me to be writing you this letter. I mean, I have only known you a couple of weeks now, but there’s just something about you that I can’t stop thinking about. I am hopeful that when I get back you will still be willing to go on that date we talked about. I am hopeful that at the end of it you may let me kiss you goodnight. I am hopeful that at the end of everything you’ll be my girl and we can celebrate the apocalypse together. I am hopeful that my blatant and, perhaps, premature declarations of love will not scare you away.

I will be home in three short weeks. I cannot wait to see you again.

Beyond Love,

Time no longer existed.

How could it exist when a letter from 42 years ago, from her dead husband, had found its way onto her kitchen table? She felt disconnected from the present. She came unhinged from her senior citizen status and flipped around until she was 25 again. She flipped around to the day they’d met, to the day she had found out what living was really for. She landed back in the late summer heat, back in time, back to the moment she’d stumbled across perfection in the public library.

He was nothing she had ever expected to deserve. She saw him standing amongst the stacks, comfortable, as if he had been grown from that very spot, as if he belonged there exclusively in a world of leather bindings and beauty. He was flipping through a copy of some peer-reviewed scholarly chemistry journal and smirking, looking thoroughly amused by a diagram of something too complex for her to fathom. She was impressed, not by his choice of literature, but rather by his nature. He seemed to glow somehow.

She had never been one for flirting with strangers, but when her search for Ernest Hemingway found her standing only inches from his frame she figured it might not be a bad time to start.
“Have you read this one?” she barely whispered as she held out a copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” for him to regard. He turned to her. His hands dropped casually into his pockets, and his angled frame rocked back on its heels. He seemed to consider his response for a moment, casting his eyes towards the ceiling and sucking in a deep breath. A knowing smile spread slowly across the fabric of his face, and he locked his eyes on hers and said, “I’d like to ask you for a date.”

And that was how it began. That was how it began for them, suspended in a library in a moment too great to be real, waiting for time to clip their heels and tell them to get moving, to tell them that daydreams can’t last forever. But when time’s pursuit never made itself known they both realized that this must indeed be love.

But time most certainly did exist. It caught up with them eventually; it caught up with them as cancer and it killed him as punishment for happiness. Time kills us all eventually. Time wraps its icy hands around your ankles and makes you slow and encumbered. Time takes you away from the bookshelves and summer heat and beating heart you had at 25 and turns you into an old woman clutching an ancient piece of stationary in an outdated kitchen. Time had turned her into this seated statue with the wide, glazed look of a terrified animal. She felt the rising bulge of grief edging up and out of her eyes. She let it all consume her. Slipping from her chair, she collapsed to the linoleum. Pounding, aching sorrow drenched the ancient olive tiles. Ferocious loss, impossible love, and undeniable hurt racked her widowed body. Incapable of speech she seemed instead to hum her pain, the sound of brimming over, the sound of finally breaking and not knowing what else to do.

And Simon, who remained settled on his perch, squinted his green eyes and felt nothing.


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