I want to press your letter between the back pages of a little used book,Shakespeare’s Collected Works, for example, and leave well enough alone, but Beth Ann wants closure. Closure. The very word conjures up zippers, snaps, hooks and eyes. Objects too sharp and metallic to heal old wounds. I think it is more a case of Beth Ann wanting the last word.
She chooses the National Museum of American History for our meeting. “We want a public space,” she tells me. “For safety reasons.”
What we do not discuss on the drive to D.C. is the obvious pains we have taken with our appearance. Beth Ann wears a new pink suit with brown trim, along with new shoes, new blond highlights, and a new rosy makeup that softens the lines around her mouth. I wear a pale green skirt that flatters my legs but will probably wrinkle like balled-up tissue paper. I, too, have colored my hair the same youthful shade it was when I last saw you. I have polished my nails and applied makeup that promises to rejuvenate all that loose skin around my eyes.
Why all this effort for you?
Beth Ann reads my mind. “I want him to take one look at us and fall apart. I want him to appreciate exactly how well we have aged.”
“What about Patrick? What if he looks so old we don’t know him?
“He’ll look the same.” Beth Ann speaks with certainty. “He’s too evil to age.”
By the time we park and then walk for blocks, I am feeling wobbly. Inside the museum, directly opposite the entrance, waits the Palm Court Coffee and Gelato Bar and you. “You talk to him first, Beth Ann.” I prop myself against the wall by the women’s restroom. “You’re braver than I.”
“Give me twenty minutes or so.” Beth Ann checks her wristwatch. “I want to be back on the road by three o’clock. How about we meet right here at 2:40?”
I inch past the display case of First Ladies’ gowns. Like someone facing elective surgery, I want this experience behind me, want sorely to be back in my sun-struck house on my nondescript street with my feet propped on the ottoman and a glossy magazine in my hands. I watch the sizes of the First Ladies grow in increments, and then I retrace my steps down to the lobby and into the Palm Court Bar. I scan the tables for a stylish pink suit on a well-toned body. Nothing. Then I look for a man, any man, sitting alone. No one. Beth Ann is gone, and you, if you were ever here, are gone as well. Have you and Beth Ann gone off together? Have you left me behind?
You were always one for the grand gestures.
“See how the morning light strikes the corner of your house?” you asked that first day we stood in the backyard next to my children’s swing set. We shaded our eyes to follow the sun across the splintery deck. The deck soon to be replaced by your vision of glass and light. You stood at my back, so close your breath ruffled my hair. “As we move into autumn, the sunlight will hit farther down; consider that eventuality, Melanie.” You smelled of soap and coffee and cigarettes. “How high do you want to go?”
“High?” Your face was inches from my own.
“The height of your new room, dear.”
My husband, who reveled in searching out a good deal, was the one to hire you. “Doug says he’s reasonable, and Beth Ann says he has flair.”
“What did Patrick Connelly design for them?”
“Nothing. They met him at a golf clinic.”
Your obsession with the sun, your expansive gestures, and quick, pouncing strides might be interpreted as flair, but not your shirttails coming untucked and your buttons falling like coins, pinging between the boards of the deck. “You want a room that holds the light. You want warmth in the winter and a sense of the outdoors in the summer. You want to go barefoot and bare-shouldered. You want open spaces and room to breathe.”
“Yes,” I said, “that’s what I want.”
So there you were, popping in at odd times of the day to study the light, to take my face in your hands and guide my line of vision toward this corner of the house or that, to run your fingers over my arms. “This room will become your sanctuary, your solace, your source of great inspiration. You deserve the very best.”
I wanted to believe you. I wanted a room to calm me, to inspire me, to make me worthy of your expensive, artistic brilliance, but mostly, as time wore on, I wanted you. When you touched me, I touched you back, and when you started to leave, I held your sleeve until more buttons came undone. “Don’t go,” I whispered. “Please, don’t go.”
When you kissed me, my head began to buzz. “I have to go.” Your lips skipped around my face. “I’ll be back.”
In your absence, I grew anxious and sleepless. I lost my appetite and my ability to reason. I paced through moonlit rooms, whispering to myself. I would leave my husband. I would leave my children. I would leave my ordinary house with its unfinished sunroom. The Solarium, as you called it. I would leave everything behind and move to D.C. or Dallas or North Dakota. Anywhere to be with you.
“Hey, baby,” you said when you called, “let’s go for a ride.”
You were there in minutes, brushing my hair back from my face, tucking me into the leathery cushions of your silvery car. “I’ve missed you,” you said. “I’ve thought about you all week.”
I smiled, careful not to speak foolishly and frighten you away. I studied your profile, your sharp jaw and straight nose, your tousled hair and dark glasses. I sat on my hands to keep from wrapping myself around you. Your commentary on landscape architecture revealed nothing about your destination or your heart’s desire, and I grew impatient.
“Where are we going?” I could not bear one more word about the Chinese Elm.
“Fine.” Why act coy? I was the woman you claimed, a woman worthy of open spaces and breathing room.
You withdrew my hand from under my skirt and held it gently. “Thank you,” you said.
So I would become the woman to tend to your needs, I thought in that moment, the woman to mend your frayed cuffs and replace your shirt buttons. Better yet, I would buy you a new shirt, a soft, fine shirt. And cufflinks! I would scour antique shops for the perfect pair, simple but rare.
The silvery car glided to a stop next to a brick garage with sagging doors. You kissed me, an urgent, beckoning kiss that drew me from the car, down the narrow walk, and in through a rear door. I found myself in a narrow corridor kitchen that was amazingly tidy.
“The bathroom is on the left.” You gestured, your button-less sleeve falling over your outstretched hand.
Lacing my fingers around the small of your back, I pulled myself into you.
Your breath quickened. Your mouth grazed my forehead. “I can’t do this,” you said, loosening my fingers. “I’m so sorry, Melanie.”
While you smoked on the porch, I ran my fingers over your furniture, your books, your clothing, all your meager belongings arranged in orderly, bleak simplicity. I wanted to leave my scent, to stake a claim. You would change your mind. You would come back to me.
I opened a book on the architecture of French cathedrals and noted its inscription:For Paddy, my love, until the end of time. Bess. Then, on the shelf above the window, I found the box, gift wrap fanning around it like a corona. Inside, the fine, oxford cloth shirt in the palest of yellows and a tie embossed with tiny Eiffel Towers. Also from Bess, apparently a woman with more charms than myself.
“You’ve got to call that architect,” my husband ordered me after you left, “and tell him to finish this room.”
“He doesn’t answer.”
“Then call Beth Ann and track him down. We can’t live forever without access to our own backyard.”
Beth Ann’s child answered my call. “Mama sick. She hab a cold.”
“Can she come to the phone?”
“Noooo. In bed.”
“Patrick,” the child said with perfect clarity.
“Patrick?” It was Beth Ann, her voice thick and sodden. “My God, Paddy, where have you been?”
Once I grew past my desire to throttle Beth Ann with my bare, trembling hands, we became good friends. We took our children to the playground, went out to dinner with our husbands, and met for lunch to lament your charm and your deceit and your apparent power over two otherwise smart, sensible women.
You would have loved it.
“He’s not even an architect,” Beth Ann repeatedly pointed out. “He’s some sort of publicist with an art degree.”
We counted ourselves lucky to have escaped.
My husband hired a local contractor to complete the Solarium, but your stunning vision of light and space turned out badly. During the heart of the day, sunlight struck the glass with such force, it threatened to blind us. We hung shades and draperies and then added awnings, which from a distance resembled funeral canopies. You became a legend, the man who took our money, broke our hearts, and then disappeared. Rather like an ill-natured pirate.
Beth Ann and I went on with our lives. We began to speak of you as a humorous anecdote, a mere indiscretion of youth. “It could happen to anyone,” we said. “Like the flu.”
Even so, you lived on in my dreams, dreams in which I was the student and you the teacher, lecturing away with pointer and charts about the rotation of the earth around the sun. After my dreams, your voice echoed around my quiet house as I made coffee, toasted a bagel, watered the plants.
Until the morning Beth Ann pounded on my door. She churned through the foyer to the kitchen and flattened a letter on my countertop. Printed on quality stock, it bore an unfamiliar letterhead: Jacoby and Stahlsmith.
“A tax audit?”
“Read for yourself.”
I read no farther than Dear Bess before my eyes jumped to your signature, a large, sweeping P, followed by a dark, squiggly line. After that, I could not focus, not stop the words from blurring and thumping. “What does he want?”
“Forgiveness. He wants forgiveness. Can you imagine?”
When my own letter arrived, I could find no mention of forgiveness. I believe one can only truly continue one’s life’s journey by contacting those hurt or wronged by one’s lamentable acts. One, you wrote, as if forming a hypothesis. I regret my actions, you wrote, not please forgive me. As far as I was concerned, being regretful and seeking forgiveness were two entirely different matters.
“Why now?” Beth Ann asked. “Why stir up things now?”
“Maybe he’s dying.”
“I doubt it.” Beth Ann splayed her long fingers across the crown of her head as if to hold her thoughts in place. “More likely he’s finally decided to commit to one woman and wants to clear the slate.”
“Why, how many women do you think there are?” I imagined envelopes embossed with Jacoby and Stahlsmith sliding into mailboxes all over Richmond, all over Virginia and D.C. and parts of Maryland.
“A letter is too easy.” Beth Ann began to pace. “He probably didn’t even write that letter. It doesn’t sound anything like him.” Beth Ann paused and turned to face me. “Does it? Is this the Patrick Connelly you knew?”
Now cautious, I shook my head.
“We are going to demand a face-to-face apology. We are not simple, soft-hearted women who can be written off by aging, silver-tongued men, and if Patrick Connelly wants to ease his conscience at this late date, he will have to do more than mail a letter.”
I decide to seek shelter in Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian. I will stay here until Beth Ann returns. Here among the wall of copper-bottomed pots and a white porcelain basket of bananas—normal things—I am less fearful that I have been abandoned. I will be fine, I tell myself as I study the oven capable of roasting two 25 pound turkeys at once, the blowtorch used for crème brulée, and the large assortment of very sharp knives.
“This was the last place I thought to look for you.” Your voice is deeper, more gravelly, but the scent of cigarettes and sweet soap identify you at once.
I turn in increments. Did you truly recognize me from behind, by the shape of my legs, maybe, or the slant of my shoulders? Or did you go to every woman in the Smithsonian making similar claims: I thought I’d find you here by the vintage harvester, or I was sure you’d gravitate to Dorothy’s ruby slippers?
Since I am expecting to see you, I recognize you at once. You’ve grown heavier, a slight paunch pushing over the belt line of your khakis, and older, the lines on your face deepening into crevices, but your hair is thick with curls and only slightly gray. I avoid your eyes by focusing on your shirt collar, which is not the slightest bit frayed, and the mole on your left earlobe, which I would know anywhere.
“It’s good to see you.” You open your arms, and like a lemming, I step off the cliff. “You look so good, Melanie. You feel so good.”
It takes great effort for me to swim backwards, to meet your cool, appraising look.
I glance down, hoping I haven’t spoken aloud. “You look fit, Patrick.”
“I try. It’s an uphill battle.”
What possible direction can we take from here?
“How about some fresh air?” Instinctively, like an artist lifting a brush, you raise your fingers to smooth hair away from my face.
I am happy to step outside, to walk through pigeons and traffic and strangers with you in my peripheral sight rather than right before me. Your conversation is a one-sided commentary on the high cost of housing in the city. We sit on a bench along the National Mall and gaze upon greenery and passers-by. “I’d like a larger place, but I’m not ready for the suburbs.”
I notice the use of I instead of we, but understand that does not mean you are alone. I sense you leaning closer, dismissing your housing crisis to focus on me. “What will it take to redeem myself with you, Melanie? What can I say to make things right?”
Since your letter arrived, I, too, have wondered what you can say. Maybe that you find me charming and lovely and smart and funny. Maybe that you are unforgivably thoughtless and cruel and therefore prepared to rot in hell. But truly, what can any human being say to erase old words? Over the years, your words have hung in my mind like the vintage clothes in my attic, too prickly to wear again, but too significant to discard.
You are on a hopeless crusade. What I want to hear, what any woman wants to hear, has to do with love, and that is too rare a word for either of us to speak. I study your sagging face, your anxious eyes, and decide to be reasonable. This, too, is my one time chance at redemption, and I will play fair. “Tell me what I meant to you.”
“I wanted you and knew I couldn’t have you. And that was that.” You sway towards me.
I slide sideways, catching my skirt on the bench’s rough surface and pulling it to mid-thigh. I tug my hem downward, but that flash of flesh has undone you. You sweep curls back from your forehead with the palm of your hand. “I want you right now.”
Beth Ann is pacing in front of the Palm Court, the heels of her new brown, pink-trimmed shoes tapping out a distinctive beat. Tap, tap, tap, slide. Tap, tap, tap, slide. She loses all rhythm when I approach. “My God, Melanie, where were you?”
“It’s only 2:30. I have ten minutes to spare.”
“But where did you go? What did you do?”
“The Mall. We sat on a bench.”
“Oh.” Beth Ann takes my elbow and urges me out the door and down Constitution Avenue. “I was so worried.” She glances around uneasily. “Do you think he’s gone?”
Beth Ann’s car stands baking in the afternoon sun, and it requires a loud blast of air conditioning to ease us down Fourteenth Street, across the Potomac, past Crystal City, and eventually onto to I-95. At last, Beth Ann grows composed. “So it went well?”
“Good enough.” I direct the air vent away from my face. “How about you?”
“After all these years, he still doesn’t get it, does he? I think he sent those letters to lure us back.” The reflection of her gold necklace glitters in the windshield.
I don’t point out that Beth Ann was the one to insist on a face-to-face meeting. A personal confrontation. A summit for closure. Beth Ann is on a roll and any interruption will only fuel her ranting. I slide lower into my seat, settling my head into the leather.
“You know, I think if I had given him one bit of encouragement, he would have been all over me, but I kept control of the conversation. Told him I was not holding grudges, but he should know he is not the man of great sensitivity he claims to be. Told him I have moved on and was happy to see he has, too. I hope you said the same, Melanie. I hope you didn’t let his hokiness, all those sweet words and soulful looks, distract you.”
“I let him say his piece.” I close my eyes to blot out the glare. “I let him say he was sorry. It was the best I could do, Beth Ann.”
Beth Ann goes on about men like you, men who never change their stripes, men whoenjoy hurting innocent women. I feel myself drifting into that state where what is real and what is dream blend together into one blurred storyline.
I want you right now. Your words hang like fine evening wear, sleek and dark and seductive. I will always want you. Your words become a benediction, an affirmation diffusing light and heat through a wall of imperfect glass.