This story is by Ann Fowler and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Until I saw the dark blood, I swore my old age teamed up with bad digestion. This morning, my doctor squeezed my arm, urging me to be positive. It wasn’t necessarily cancer. A gastroenterologist would know for sure. I’ve wanted to get my affairs in order, but not for this reason. Retirement loomed. Naturally, I wanted more time.
Poor Walter would be home from his fishing trip tomorrow. I hadn’t been worried enough about my appointment to ask my husband to stay home. And my beautiful boys? Dear God, I wouldn’t think about that right now. Earlier, my best friend, Gina, who reminded me of a college pal I adored, begged me not to get hysterical unless test results ‘gave me permission’. Easy for her to say. I didn’t stop sobbing until thirty minutes ago.
At my vanity, I opened a drawer. I’d never considered locking it. Walter, like most men of our generation, refused to wear pink or touch anything he perceived as feminine. I found the envelope and held it against my chest. This letter has been one of my most cherished, non-living possessions. The page has faded in thirty-five years, but the words certainly haven’t. Until now, I never worried what Walter might say about it. If I were gone, so what? Should the doctor confirm I had months to live, there’d be time to burn it. Before I had my biopsy, I needed to retrieve its mate and read those words again.
From the top shelf of my closet, I retrieved a cardboard box. Settling on my bed, I opened the flaps. Three boxes hid within crinkled tissue paper. I’d joined two old jewelry boxes, made of cardboard, with a thick rubber band. As for the hand-carved walnut box, my great-great grandfather made it in 1863. He’d finished it days before he fought at Chancellorsville. I touched one of the hinges, imagining him charging through a grassy field wide-eyed and heart pounding. Facing death as I might be. Suddenly, the gut that might kill me twitched and felt heavier than ever. My sons, Walter, a job I treasured, and a stable group of friends. So much life left to live. As my vision blurred again, I reached for another Kleenex.
I sat up and pressed my fingertips under both eyes. After stretching, I reached for a picture frame on the end table. My precious calico, Mindy. How I’d loved her sweet purr, orange nose and head butts. Just last month, I allowed myself to consider another kitten. When I first brought Mindy home, Walter forbid her from sleeping with us. But what kitten wasn’t spirited, pouncing and biting? Sixteen years later, he’d cried as much as I did when her time came. So did my sweet boys. Soon, would they be wiping away tears during my eulogy?
In the larger jewelry box, three rings and my father’s cuff links nestled between two cotton pads. The Class of 1940 ring had been my father’s. Inside the gold band ‘William C. Graham’ was etched. I slipped it over my thumb. My younger son, Ray, bulkier and taller than my eldest, would get this. So, the walnut box would be Michael’s. He’d collected trinkets as a young boy and stored them in old boxes. Just like his mother.
I put the wedding rings on my pinkie. These bands symbolized the life-long love my mother and grandmother had for their husbands. Thankfully, everyone adored Walter, too. He’s warmed my heart all these years—even if I adore my empty nest when he’s gone fishing. But our love hasn’t been like my parents’ or his parents’. Since my brother died in Vietnam, our boys breathed fresh life in to my side of family. In this simple bedroom, we’ve lived out a practical love. Practical because of me, not Walter. And the letter I’ve never forgotten.
Inside the smallest box, I unfolded a piece of velvet. This silver and turquoise band could’ve been crafted on a Navajo Reservation. Instead, an artist in San Francisco made it. I slipped it next to my wedding band. After admiring my hand, I wiped away fresh tears. This time, I’d keep wearing it. CJ would approve. I wonder if Walter would notice.
I returned to my vanity. Whenever Walter’s fussiness, stress from being a vet tech, or the ups and downs of raising my boys weighed on me, my letter sustained me. A few glasses of Bordeaux worked, too. But after imbibing, my head would be anything but clear. I picked up the envelope and unfolded the page.
The date—May 8, 1969—marked the end of my junior year at Eleanor College. Like most students, I would earn much more than a degree. As I pictured the battleship-gray furniture in my old dorm room, I unfolded the page.
My dearest Julia,
Here we are. At the end of my time here. And a year before you graduate. I know you’ll do wonderfully even though I won’t be here. Not physically, anyway.
What can I say now that I haven’t already? That you’ve been the love I’ve always dreamt of even though our lives are just beginning? You know it’s true and always will be. Knowing how we feel about each other doesn’t make what we must do any easier. I wish it could be otherwise, but that’s not the world we live in, is it, darling?
I pray this outcome won’t be true for the others who’ll follow us in the years ahead, but who knows?
Still, I believe this’ll be a temporary separation, even if it lasts for years. I don’t see myself ever leaving Richmond, so you’ll always know where to find me. And do, darling. Once we’ve completed the expected part of our lives, me with a society man and you with whomever, let’s fade away together. With a view of the Blue Ridge, or waves rolling in at Nags Head. I mean it. I really do. A love as powerful as ours will never die.
I want you to have more than a piece of paper from me, too. I saw this ring at a craft’s fair last month. Immediately, I knew it must be yours. If it doesn’t fit, we’ll get that fixed. Just let me know and I’ll send you the money.
Please forgive me for leaving this in your mailbox, instead of handing it to you myself.
I couldn’t, just couldn’t, bear crying in your arms.
I love you forever,
Cynthia Jane “CJ”
Leaning against the headboard, I looked out my window and suppressed the lump in my throat. Suddenly, we were twenty-ish again. CJ’s dark eyes sparkled from my dormitory bed. And her favorite denim shirt, front pockets embroidered, draped open while a beckoning finger drew me closer. I’d nicknamed her ‘Janis’ after my favorite singer and the unruly hairstyle my two rebel women shared.
After CJ returned to Richmond, and me to Newport News, years passed before I could read her words without my throat constricting, or weeping softly. Whenever I’ve thought of her, it’s been different than my feelings toward Walter and our boys. Like how I’ve loved ice cream—choosing one flavor for different reasons or moods.
Just last year, I found CJ on the Internet, but not through Facebook. I’ve never dug too deep. Was it selfish to worry whether she’s been happy all these years without me? Most first loves fade. Seeing her with her own version of Walter wouldn’t be like discovering she’d found a woman to replace me. While Michael and his fiancé had been working on wedding invitations, I so wanted CJ to be there. But I couldn’t trust my heart, or my expression, had she been nearby. Besides, Walter might’ve noticed the subdued longing in my gaze.
I folded the letter and returned to my bed. Tears welled up as I held it to my chest again. Next week’s biopsy would force me to decide, no doubt. Knowing that, could I allow my college past to die? Or should I knock on CJ’s door prepared for another gut-wrenching goodbye? But dying without seeing her again was almost as bad as dying itself. If fate granted me more time, even years, CJ and me could watch orange sunsets from our cabin in Buena Vista. Just as we’d promised each other decades ago. But would that be worth hurting my faithful Walter and my beloved sons? Wouldn’t my family ache enough as my life ebbed away? Accepting our college ending like the goodbye Rick and Ilsa had in Casablanca might be best. CJ and me already had our own version of Paris to cherish. And nothing, not even my death, would steal those memories from us.