I wrote this story for a writing contest earlier this year. It did not win or place out of thousands of submissions. I’ve read the winners and admit that they are really fine stories, but I still really like this one. It’s a winner for me. Enjoy.
I wasn’t spying. I was just sorting out all the papers on top of the bookcase. For months, we’d been stacking the mail and newspapers into hazardous towers. We kept on saying that it was time to get serious about going through it all, but somehow never got around to it.
Kelly called just before ten to say that she wasn’t up for yoga class. The rasp in her voice told me she hadn’t been to bed yet – at least not to sleep. I was ready to go sweat by myself when I looked at that pile of stuff spilling onto the floor. It was like I went insane.
I’d tackle the pile, get it all taken care of before Alex got home and we went out to dinner with Bonnie and Gabe. I could make cleaning part of my workout. Since Alex would be at the office this whole Saturday, I’d blast the 80s disco music he hates. When I was done wreaking order, I’d polish the bookcase with lemon oil to make the apartment smell happy. Then I’d go for a long run. On the way home, I’d get a huge iced coffee.
I crank up the music and dive in. I recycle weeks worth of newspapers and menus from places we will never order from again. There are unpaid bills, invitations to events that I didn’t know about, urgent requests for money from alumni associations. I’m whistling. This cleaning business isn’t so bad. It’s going fast. I can already taste the coffee.
I’m at the bottom of the last pile when parchment surprises my fingers. Oh, great, I think, we missed another party because we tossed the invitation onto the bookcase.
This one looks like it would have been a good one, too. It was a champagne and caviar party for a new, high-end sports car.
I’m sliding the invitation into the recycling bin when I see that Alex has scrawled something on the back of it. His jagged, blocky print is unmistakeable.
It starts out with “Dear.” A deep line is slashed through it.
He decided on “A.” We used to call each other “A” in the giddy days when we first started dating.
After that, there is a long dash, dark and heavy like he was thinking hard about what to write next. Then he gets into it. He doesn’t know why or when it happened, but he doesn’t love me any longer. “Any longer” is crossed out and there’s a little arrow pointing to “the way that you need to be loved.”
Then he writes that it’s time to set each other free. He signs it Alex. There’s no “Love” or a little heart like the ones he used to draw on my pancakes.
Well, that’s merciful. I would die if it ended with “Sincerely yours.”
Okay then. This explains late nights at the office and weekends away with unnamed friends. The sudden hang-ups when I walk into a room and the black leather jacket he just started wearing.
What do I do next? I sure as hell don’t clean the fucking bookcase. I drop the letter on the floor.
What I should do is take my books out of the bookcase. I should pack my pots, find my shoes, and take my shampoo out of the shower. That’s what any normal, sane live-in girlfriend would do when her asshole boyfriend practices dumping her, right?
But me, I’m different. I lace on my sneakers and head out into the sunshine. It’s the best run I have ever had. I do five easy miles through the park and I’m not panting and heaving or even sweating very much.
It’s a beautiful day. I am proud that I can notice the swarms of daffodils bobbing happy faces in the stiff breeze.
See, I can take it. I can take a hit that I didn’t see coming and go on. I can even smile. Look at me, smiling at the little girl racing her scooter away from her nanny. I nod to the wino and put ten dollars in his box. I chat with Melina who makes my iced coffee strong and sweet.
Alex is holding the letter when I walk in the door. His brown eyes are dense with feeling. “Adrienne, I…”
I drop my eyes and head to the kitchen. He follows me and leans against the doorway.
“It’s not you.”
I snort. “Don’t give me that. You’re the great big brain around here. Give me something original.”
He closes his eyes and rubs his face hard. He comes over and tries to put his arms around me. I hold up the iced coffee and back away.
“The letter wasn’t meant for you. It’s for work.”
I took a long swallow of iced coffee. I glare at him. How stupid does he think I am?
He shrugs up his shoulders and holds out his hands. His eyes go all round and sincere. “I’m telling you the truth. It’s for work.” He runs his fingers through his hair.
“Look, I know it sounds crazy, but it really is about work. Dave has been such an asshole lately…”
I look at him. Damn, he is such an attractive man. I wonder if I’ll ever find another one this good-looking.
No, I decide. Next time I’ll go for a homely introvert who will love me forever no matter what.
He clears his throat. Again, he’s doing the sincerity speech thing. I can’t wait to hear what comes out next. I mean, where is he going with this performance? Why not just break up like normal people so I can yell and throw things and move on?
“So, that’s what I did to keep myself from going crazy. You know the business has been bad lately. Everyone is out of work or looking for another job.”
His eyes plead. I stare at the gold streak in his right eye that you can only see when you’re up close. I am going to miss that.
He lifts my chin. “Baby, I wrote that letter to Dave. A is for asshole. Get it?” His eyes bore into mine, willing me to believe him. I stare back. I’m not buying it.
He looks into my eyes for a moment and then drops his hand and takes a step back. “Okay, don’t believe me. Just know that I love you. I didn’t want to leave the letter at the office where it could be found, so I brought it home to throw away here. I guess I forgot.”
“That has got to be the lamest…”
He grabs my arms. “No, Adrienne, don’t be like that. I forgot. You know me. I forget things. I lose things all the time!”
I can’t figure out if he’s really mad or just pleading for more time. Get through his brother’s wedding and the twins’ graduation? We’ve been together for three years. It would be a pain having to explain himself at all those family events. Oh, who was I kidding? He’d have a beautiful woman on his arm.
He’s still looking hard into my face. I look back, willing the tears not to spill. Oh, God, he really is telling the truth.
“You do realize that I will never, ever clean anything ever again?” I wipe my tears into his shirt and hold him close.