BY COLIN THORNTON
A longer version of this story appeared in the December, 2019 edition of Blank Spaces. Copyright is held by the author.
I EAVESDROP. Every writer does. But I would never stoop to something so reprehensible as reading another person’s private letter. This was different.
The letter came to me, sought me out, as if it wanted to be read. A love letter, obviously; pain radiated off the page. A man’s handwriting, back-slanted and spiky with loopy Ts and Fs. The left edge was ragged where the sheet had been torn out of a spiral notebook. A greasy thumbprint in the bottom right corner smeared the word “tragedy.”
She dumped him.
And like so many jilted lovers before him, the author slit a vein to let the pain bleed through his pen onto the page, believing that the right string of words would cast a magical spell and – Abracadabra! – she’d come back, and life would be feathery-soft and dewdrop-sweet like it was when they first met.
I brush the dirt and pine needles off the page and read.
I am still me, he writes, I will never change.
Stubborn and arrogant, definitely. Most of all, naive. Time will change him like it changes everyone. But while he was writing, he believed passionately in permanence—he will never change. If only his girlfriend understood that, they’d still be together. There’d be no letter.
You never appreciated my darkness, he continues. Purblind to my observations on the circus of life. I’m cognizant now.
What shade of darkness doesn’t she understand? And why would anyone use a peacock-word like “cognizant” instead of something simple like “aware.” “Purblind”? Perhaps she insulted him, called him an idiot. By flaunting his vocabulary now he’s showing her that she’s underestimated him.
He would never tell her that he’s losing sleep, pacing the apartment at night, obsessively checking his phone for text messages, drinking too much. Or, that when he finally turns out the light and collapses into bed, drunk and exhausted, his internal projectionist fires up that endlessly repeating loop of their final scene. Every image drilling deeper into his dreams like a corkscrew twisting into his skull. It started with an argument about nothing . . .
“I told you, I couldn’t help it.”
“I waited two hours,” she snaps back.
“We just sorta lost track of time.”
“Stoned again,” she says, yanking open the outside door on her apartment building.
She races through the lobby, stabs the elevator button repeatedly. Steps inside. The doors close. She hits six. The stench of cheap perfume makes her want to puke.
“No, not stoned. We were talking.”
She stares at the numbers flashing above the door – 2 – 3 – 4 – and waits for his answer.
“Ummm, well, you know, the Illuminati, alien abductions, vaccines and . . .”
His whiny voice is barely audible over the rushing pulse of blood pounding in her ears.
The elevator jerks to a stop — Ding! — the doors wheeze open.
“Get a grip!”
“Seriously,” he pleads, “there’s some scary shit goin’ on out there. You know why they really put fluoride in our water?”
She bolts down the hallway. Him close behind. His eyes fixed on the red scarf fluttering between her shoulders. Everything moves in slow motion, every detail isolated and amplified. Throbbing music; a bare light bulb encrusted with grease; peeling paint; a cockroach scurries behind a door jam.
“All that conspiracy crap? It’s just paranoid bullshit.”
“So what are you — Sigmund Freud or something?”
“Freud? That’s a laugh.” She pulls a key out of her coat pocket, rams it into the keyhole with sharpshooter precision. “Bugs Bunny could figure you out.”
“As a matter of fact, I am. And you know what? So are we.”
He watches her disappear behind the door, hears the mechanical clunk-rattle of the deadbolt and security chain; then silence . . .
You were cruel and vitriolic, so I won’t hold back my feelings now. Myopic, shallow and self-centred.
How quickly his tone has changed from defence to attack.
New paragraph: It’s your loss not to have seen my potential. He underlines your loss three times, driving his ballpoint through the paper. And now Laura gets to see it.
Laura?The anonymous ex has already been replaced, but before he can be happy with the new one, the old one must suffer. Petulant child! She dumped him, and she’s the loser.
Laura understands, he writes. My world is infinitely different now. Not just because of her but because of me and my response to tragedy.
That’s all. The page is full, the flip side blank. He tore it out of his spiral notebook leaving a ragged edge along one side and a greasy thumbprint on the bottom corner.
Such an outpouring would have left him emotionally spent, limp and exhausted. I imagine him leaning back against a tree trunk, watching the sun set over the far shore of the bay. Breezes rustle the canopy. Light bounces off the water and flickers through the leaves gently lulling him to sleep. The letter slips from his fingers and tumbles across the forest floor . . .
. . . sometime later–an hour, a day, a month — I came wandering through the park. A flash of white caught my eye; a windblown piece of paper wrapped around my ankle. Dirty and damp, with a torn edge and a thumbprint on one corner. I brush twigs and needles off the page. Read it. And smile.
Writers don’t find stories. Stories find us.
Colin Thornton wrote advertising copy for many, many years, everything from four-word slogans to 60-minute documentaries. After retiring, he began writing short stories for his own enjoyment. More fun. Less money.