by Joanna Friedman
Outside the Inn’s window, the shutters are aqua blue and the wood splinters off them. The morning sunlight softly steals into our room, to where your soles peek out from under the sheet. They look so innocent now, but last night I think both our feet, in their insistence on accidental touching, knew the truth of what we wanted.
The red rose you bought from the man who thought I was your girl, sits on the desk in a vase next to my hand. Your sweater offers a hint of scratch against my neck and helps me think as I spill myself into words. Your tie, with its tiny pink dots, lies next to your shirt on the chair next to the bed. The buttons are all undone, and truthfully, I wish it had been me who’d undone them.
The sheets are down around your waist and I want to slip in next to you, feel your skin, your breathing. But we’d spent a restless night avoiding just that – you in those thin pajama bottoms, and me in my most sensible nightgown – keeping a distance your wife and my husband would have approved of.
But laying there, in that unconsumed afterglow of hours at the bar, was a new kind of torture. You had nursed a whiskey, and told me why single malts are not good. I sipped on one rum and coke, and reluctantly turned away another. You handed over your cigarette, and I’d taken a drag, while a jazz song played. Amidst the scent of the ocean, crawfish, french fries, I asked if we could dance. Once. It would only be once, but you said it wasn’t a good idea. I knew that, but how do you stop an idea once it starts rolling around? You reached out your hand, just the tips of our fingers touched so as not to mean anything. Not really a hand hold. Our spouses would have approved.
Outside, the landlady waters the flowers. The scent of wet earth and gardenia fills the room. You stir. The sun grows stronger and soon the light on this desk will make its way to the bed, up your pajamas, your skin, shoulders, and stubble. If your eyes were to open, it would be hard to write. It would be hard not to ask you for everything. I’ll just imagine that if I did ask, you would come over to me, lift your sweater, my nightgown, up and over my head, and answer with your lips.
I want to tell you something. I will always be in this room. The shutters shut and closed, no one will ever know what I have felt. Even though we leave today, I leave this letter here, in this desk drawer. Maybe you will find it, maybe you won’t.
I’m driving out on a highway. It’s late, silhouettes of trees flash through northern Michigan as I head toward O’Hare. A sheen of ice slicks the surface of the snow covered fields, a large lake frosted with moonlight.
I’ve pulled over near an old playground and sit on the edge of a merry-go-round to write. I think I know why you want to meet. It’s an option we never had when both of us were married. Neither of us wanted to cause hurt. Now, after twenty years of writing letters, I need more time to consider if meeting in a real place would be a good idea. I won’t drive all the way to Chicago. Not just yet. Not tonight. I’m sorry. Will you be disappointed or possibly relieved? For now, let’s meet like we always have, in our letters, in that room we’ve created.
Or maybe in a dingy restaurant where tables are covered with red checker plastic and root beer is served in overly large pitchers filled with ice, even on a freezing night. I’ll watch you smile as you eat your first slice of Chicago style pizza, thick crust, and covered with cheese, then red sauce (not the other way around!). They have a photo booth at that place, the kind where teenagers fool around to get a picture.
After, we could walk out into the city, in the Chicago slush. Walk past stores, hold hands like other couples. No gloves, even in the bitter cold. I want to feel your fingers in my palm, the swing of our hands as we walk aimlessly, until we stumble on familiar ground – a book store.
Out from the cold, in the yellow light and amidst shelves, you’d pick out a book of poetry for me, and I’d pick out a book on life in Chicago–one with a photo of a couple on the cover of it – for you. A kissing couple. Corny, I know, but that’s who I am. It’s all I can say about kissing you for now.
I know how much you want to meet, but I’m returning to Ann Arbor. If you look out your hotel window and see a young couple that looks happy, imagine us.
You still don’t understand what happened in Chicago. I don’t know if you’ll like my answer, but I suppose I like walking through your city – the one we’ve walked together in your letters – more. Each time you write me, I find my way through cobbled stone streets to your apartment, up to where you’re baking bread, making a pot of tea. Reading, listening to jazz, while the sound of the rain whispers the days plans.
I have this funny idea that if we meet again, we’d not speak to each other, but rather sit across the room. Each of us writing a letter. I can’t imagine what I’d have to say would be more interesting than what I write, but I suppose at some point we would have to speak.
We could do anything, but it would take time to grow more comfortable with touching, finding permission from each other. I’ll share my fear with you. That in the end, you’d find the letter version of me more interesting than the version of me that stumbles over words. The version of me that doesn’t know how to cope with disappointment, mine or yours.
I wouldn’t blame you for stepping out of our apartment, away from our letters, out into a rain. In the spot where I wish you lay, my fingers move to smooth out the sheets. It’s so strange to think now about that time at the Inn, when it had been both of us leaving the sheets to cool.
The sun has set into the quiet waves of the bay by our Inn, where you insist on being for your last days. You want me, not in a letter this time.
But out here on the breakers, the ones that go as far out as the fishing boats, the boaters stare at an old woman, gray haired, wrinkled. Your old sweater still keeps me warm, the scratch of it keeps me awake. I’m drawing attention, so there’s not much time left for me to figure this out. Maybe your sailboat will approach as I write you.
If you pull up, next to the rock I’m on, I’ll walk on board. After years, we won’t have changed. I will look into your eyes, and you into mine. All those lives we’ve lived. Places we’ve been in our letters, will come together in a moment where I will lean into you, touch your cheek–
Text from Paul: Come inside. I found your love letter. Give me a chance to write back.
Your kiss tasted like nothing I imagined. I thought I wrote the better love letters, but it turns out your handwritten one, the one you wrote on my skin still lingers. I can’t imagine life without letters to you. Now, I can’t imagine life without touching you, but at least we will have our room inside the letters.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
This was so delicately beautifully written. The journey you took us on in each letter made me slow down in my reading so that I could experience every bit of it. Thank you!
Thank you for your kind words, Susan. I’m so happy you enjoyed the story.