This story is by Kurt Reno and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ray had been a happy baby. In fact, at his birth, after the delivering doctor had announced “It’s a boy,” and spanked him to jumpstart his lungs, he had stopped crying after only a few seconds. “What’s wrong? Why isn’t he crying?” his mother had asked, half in a daze from the ordeal, but focussed enough to sense something out of order.
“Doctor? What’s wrong with him?” she asked again.
“Nothing,” answered the doctor. “He’s just a contented baby.”
Ray’s mother liked that story, and told it often. And it turned out to be mostly true. By all accounts, he was an easy child. And, as he himself remembered, happy.
Happy as a child, happy in school, happy as a teen, always plenty of friends.
Then it came time, as an adult, to pair up. As in, for life. And he did find someone. But that didn’t go so well for Ray. By his own doing. He replayed the details to himself every so often, reliving his mistake. So he became less happy. It stayed that way for many years. And as his friends paired up, they drifted away, slowly.
Now it was early summer, Saturday. He’d gone out for a walk right around noon. The grass was green, the leaves were almost full, and the sun was shining. From the path, he saw two squirrels chasing each other around a tree in a high-speed spiral. He walked around the pond where geese were tending to a dozen or so goslings. ‘Or so’, because the goslings moved around so fast and so haphazardly, it was hard to actually count them. And at the end of the pond where the path came close to the water, he saw a small mass of tadpoles squirming around frantically, in every direction at once. Funny, he thought. All the animals were funny.
The same path brought him home, and to where he was now. Sitting at a table he sometimes used as a desk, facing a blank page.
And so he wrote.
“You would have been an exchange student from Italy, I would have met you at a party. You would have been a dental assistant from Kenya, and I would have been your patient. You would have been a lawyer from Arizona, and I would have been your client. You would have been studying English in Kuala Lumpur, and I would have been your tutor.
It could have been one of those ways, or any other way. But always you, and always me. As it turns out, you were my friend’s new housemate, and that’s how we actually met. The universe was always going to bring us together. It did its part. You found me, that was your part. But I didn’t do my part. Instead, I pushed you away. Out of fear, out of stupidity. And I haven’t been happy, or even alive, since. If I could do it over different, I would. But I can’t.
You loved me once. It would mean a lot to me to know you remembered.”
Half goodbye, half plea. The same letter, more or less, that he’d written about ten years ago. He’d read somewhere or heard from someone that writing a letter addressed to someone specific, addressing something specific, but not sending it, could be therapeutic. So he wrote, and it helped. For a few years. Then he wrote another, and that helped for a couple of years. But when he wrote it a third time, he found it only helped for about a year. He needed to write another one, in the heart of winter.
This time, he’d given in to the urge to write it again after just a few months. And for the first time, needed to fight the urge to send it. He’d never felt that before.
Before his summer walk, Ray had been listening to old music, from his own twenty-year-old collection. He’d gone deeper into the catalog, and happened to hear a song he probably only played once before, right after he bought it. For a change it was the other woman in the band singing. The voice was just like hers. One word was exactly the way she’d said it back then. Probably still saying it that way now, he thought. Only, saying it to someone else.
It came back. It all came flooding back. That one word, in her voice, over and over. He couldn’t get past it. It touched a spot in his mind and in his heart, easing a fear and curing an ignorance. She was the answer, the only answer, and had been all along. The flood rushed in from the past to spend itself in the present.
Wow, he thought. How strong could a single word be? Well, at least that strong, he figured. If he’d paid more attention to that word back then, if his fear and whatever else had been cured back then, he’d be happy now. They’d both be happy. If the universe shows you to your seat, and you take it, how could you be otherwise?
It hit him now, for the first time, that he’d probably ruined it for her, also. That was too much.
He got up from writing the letter. By now he was just staring at it anyway. He walked from the table past the sofa and the TV. Past his tabby cat, who expected to be pet and played with. But only got a quick scratch on the top of his tabby head. Ray kept walking towards the bathroom, and the tabby cat got up to follow. He wanted another scratch on the head, at least. But he knew something was up. Knew something was wrong.
Ray closed the bathroom door, and the tabby cat walked right up to it, inspecting the gap along the bottom, trying to get a better sense of what was happening on the other side. He even stuck his paw underneath to get Ray’s attention, without success. Ray was thinking about something else entirely. He was thinking that when the universe shows you to your seat, you’d better take it. Otherwise, you’re on your own, maybe forever.
The tabby cat was pacing back and forth in front of the bathroom door. There were sounds coming from inside that a person might recognize. But a cat? Who knows what a cat hears?
Can a cat hear a medicine cabinet open?
Can a cat hear the top come off a prescription bottle?
Can a cat hear a cold water faucet come on?