~My Letter to You~
It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I know; I know . . . a deplorable way to start a note, isn’t it? And yet, it is somehow more apropos than the tired, old-fashioned sort of greeting. We never did stand on formality, did we?
In my mind, you’re standing at the window in your mother’s kitchen, the morning light reflecting off the stainless steel sink only to pool in your eyes—I always loved your eyes; did you know? I used to think that it was a silly sort of notion: the old saying that the eyes were the mirrors of the soul. I used to have a lot of silly little notions until I met you. I’d never met someone who could say so many things without saying a word. What’s the old expression? ‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve’ or some such . . . Yes, that’s the one. That was you, and you were always beautiful to me. Happiness, sadness, anger, disappointment . . . How was it that you were able to make me feel higher than the clouds above when your eyes shone, yet lower than dirt with little more than a quirked eyebrow or a slight shake of your head?
I wonder if you might indulge me for a moment. In the space of time that has broadened between us, I’ve often thought of you; fondly at times, sadly at others, and I wonder if you have those fleeting thoughts; those quiet recriminations when you wonder what might have been? We were just children then—babies, really—but didn’t we think we knew it all? Did we ever really stop to think that maybe we could be our own worst enemies when, at the time, we stood shoulder to shoulder: the best of friends?
I’d said that I wanted to be a writer, telling my tales and spinning fantasy worlds for you; just for you. Constructing universes that had little to do with the one we lived in, you’d sit for hours and listen to me ramble, and I loved you for that, did you ever know? Probably not. As prolific as I might have been with words, I never was any good at expressing my emotions, but maybe you knew that, too . . . I suppose I’d said lots of things over the years—childhood fancy that had evaporated as time had passed. You encouraged me to write down my stories, and I—I’m ashamed to admit—always laughed at you. There’d be plenty of time, wouldn’t there, and the stories weren’t going anywhere; not really. You’d, on the other hand, always said that you wanted to change the world. “Politics,” you’d said, the strength of your conviction burning in your gaze, “is the key! A politician can change the world . . .” You’d be the first woman president . . . that was what you’d said.
Where did everything start to go wrong? I’ve asked myself this so many times over the years. I’ve never come up with a reasonable answer. I’ve blamed myself; I’ve blamed you. In the end, I’ve come to a strange sort of understanding: we were both the cause and the effect, and maybe we were both to blame while standing in complete innocence . . . if that makes any sense at all. You pushed, and I pulled, and sometimes we tugged so hard that we both had to let go, ending up flat on our backs in the grass while we laughed hysterically; while we watched the clouds so high overhead—endless summer days when nothing happened but everything mattered.
I suppose he was the beginning of the end. I don’t really need to name names, right? Of course not. You’ve always known what I was thinking; sometimes before I even really thought it, myself. You thought he was the be-all, end-all, and I . . . well, I didn’t agree. I just wanted him to disappear; to drift away like the summertime storms that came and went without ceremony. He was good for you, but in my childishness, my selfishness, I simply could not see it, or maybe I didn’t want to. That was when the first crack appeared: barely significant but there, nonetheless.
I’ll admit it: I was nasty to him. I wanted to be, you see? Though I never would have copped to as much back then, I was jealous—terribly jealous. Everywhere we went it seemed like he was there, and you . . . well, you liked him more than you liked me—at least, that’s what I had thought.
Funny how things change over time. Odd how the things that we perceive can be altered. I’ve gained a level of understanding that I just didn’t have when I was younger. Maybe you have, too. The weeks you spent in tears because he went away . . . I hugged you and comforted you, and all the while I couldn’t help but be glad. I had you all to myself again, and we could go on the way we had before. What’s that other saying? ‘The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions?’ There’s more truth to that saying than I care to dwell on. I think you saw through my machinations of concern. At the time, I thought I was just so clever. I sensed the distance that loomed between us, and I told myself it was only my imagination.
Seasons changed, and so did we. I had football practice and baseball games, and the stories that had run rampant through my head had diminished. You had choir and drama club, academics that were the cornerstones of your system of beliefs . . . I passed you in the halls one day as we shuffled from class to class. The milling crowds seemed so stagnant; going through the motions without seeing anything at all. You smiled at me—a shy little smile—and I realized then that we’d grown apart. I waited for you after school that day. I ditched football practice just for a chance to talk to you again.
I caught hell for that; I never thought I’d told you. Coach benched me for a few games, but hearing your laughter, being near you again . . . that was worth it. We borrowed my mom’s car and drove down to the ocean, and spent the night lying on the hood of the car like they did in those movies we used to watch that we thought were so cool. For one moment, I thought maybe you’d kiss me. I couldn’t breathe right, and I wondered if my breath stank. Too bad that other car pulled in beside us. I never found out if you really were going to kiss me, though I like to think that you would have.
After that night we were inseparable again. It seemed just like old times. You were voted homecoming queen, and that didn’t surprise me at all. I stood back and watched you shine. You sought me out in the crowd with your gaze, your eyes sparkling, mysterious and deep; your smile as bright as the dawn. I can still hear the sound of your laughter: vibrant, soft, so very alive. You had to hold your tiara; it kept slipping off your baby-fine hair. The yearbook picture might be yellowed and faded from the passage of time, but I remember you in muted colors, in the amber vision of my memories.
All too soon, the familiar twinges of jealousy gripped me, but this time it wasn’t a person that I perceived as a threat. No, it was entirely different. I hadn’t stopped to think that you and I would go our separate ways when it came time to go to college. Notre Dame offered me a scholarship—a full ride so long as I kept my grades up in exchange for tossing around a bit of pigskin on Saturday afternoons. You chose Harvard, or perhaps it chose you. Political science always suited you. While I studied economics, you were set to change the world. The weekend phone calls that we promised we’d make grew more and more sporadic, until they stopped completely, unremarkably. Neither of us really noticed that, either, so wrapped up in our own lives, we forgot how integral we were to each other . . . I got my PhD in economics; took a position at my alma mater. I scanned the papers and watched the news, always sure that I’d hear about you soon; that your dream of changing the world was looming just over that elusive horizon.
The next time I saw you, you were a guest at my younger brother’s wedding—and the irony of that still does not slip past me unnoticed. Your smiles seemed strained, a little too polite, and the tension that lingered in your gaze was palpable. Still I told myself that you were happy to see me, and maybe on some level you were. The bachelor party I threw at a local bar was a wash. I left early, wandering the streets of the city until I stumbled up the porch steps of your parents’ house. I stood there for what seemed like days but was probably only a matter of minutes, my hand poised to knock. Something kept stopping me. I couldn’t put a name to it; not back then. Now I know what it was: that unsettling feeling that turned my stomach. It was fear—unadulterated panic that you’d somehow become this unapproachable being. In the end, I didn’t knock. Bet you didn’t know that I’d been there, did you? Maybe if I’d had the courage to follow through at the time, things would have turned out differently.
It seemed strange. I’d been expected to stand in the receiving line. As the best man, I suppose it was something that was my duty, and I couldn’t help but feel as though I were playing some part in a macabre sort of play. Your polite smile had been thin, weak when you stopped before us. As you congratulated my brother on his marriage, there was something else in your eyes: an unspoken sadness, and maybe you were thinking about the things that just could never be. All too quickly, you were hustled away from me as more well-wishers filed past to shake hands, to make jokes, to wish my brother luck in the years to come. I laughed and smiled, danced with my brother’s new bride and went through the motions that were expected of me. All the while, though, I so desperately wanted to talk to you again.
As the hours dragged on, the guests started to leave. My brother and his bride were long gone. You sat alone in the back of the room at a table covered with a snowy white linen and lace cloth. Toying with the edges of the peach lilies in the centerpiece, you looked like you didn’t have a friend in the world. Candlelight played in the shadows of your hair, warmed the angles and hollows of your face, and I remembered the nights we’d spent down on the beach—our beach, we’d called it—staring at a fire made of driftwood that had washed up on the shore. I’d told you stories, hadn’t I? Tales of magic and dragons and faeries; of ghosts and goblins and demons spawned of hell, and you were always my princess—the damsel in distress—while I, your gallant knight in slightly dented armor, would come to rescue you time and again . . . You’d listened in rapt silence, giggling in all the right places, expression chagrined when the tale called for it. Once or twice, you’d shed a tear. “It’s your gift,” you’d said, “don’t ever lose that gift.”
It was too much to bear. Standing there, watching you, and you seemed so distant to me—so far away that I felt I could have screamed. Making an excuse about needing some air, I slipped outside into the garden behind the reception hall. It had rained during the afternoon. The smell of dampness and of earth tingled in my nose. Yanking the ends of my bowtie apart, I stood in the middle of the grass as a wet sort of mist rose around me. The air was thick, but not oppressive. Sultry was a good word to describe it. My shiny leather shoes squeaked on the wet grass, and I shuffled my feet—constant motion without actually going anywhere.
Your voice was soft behind me. Do you remember what you said?
“Long time, no see.”
The phrase made me smile. It still does, even now. The uncertainty in your movements cut through me. You were a stranger wrapped up in the package of a familiar face, weren’t you?
“I’m glad you could make it,” I replied. My voice was a monotone as I issued the perfunctory words. I heard your soft sigh, and I could feel your approach; could hear the whisper of your shoes on the rain-sodden grass, and I pasted on my most winning smile as we exchanged stilted pleasantries. I turned around to face you, completely prepared to play my part.
You laughed suddenly, and some of the years of separation seemed to fade. Your laughter always had that sort of effect on me. It felt like coming home. Discussing careers and mortgages; the current interest rates and the prospects in the stock market seemed arbitrary at best, and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that you felt it, too: this odd sense of disjointed reality that had replaced the butterflies and rainbows of our youth.
The pensive expression stole over your features slowly. I kept talking—rambling on about my students, about my dog, about everything in my life that really didn’t mean anything at all, and you knew it. I could see it in your eyes. You were searching for the dreamer you used to know, and I pretended not to see a thing.
You stepped closer to me, reached out to lay your palm on my cheek. The smile on your face was as thin as my own, and it horrified me to watch as your eyes filled with tears. “What happened to you?” you asked, the sheen of tears lending an unearthly glow to your gaze as you searched my face for answers.
I forced a laugh—too loud, too brassy—and rushed to assure you that I was the same guy you used to know. Implausible, wasn’t it, that you could discern in me the things that I tried so hard to hide? I thought I had the entire world duped, and to those who were just casual acquaintances, maybe I did, but you . . . You’d never been deceived by my stratagem, and I was the fool for thinking that I could hide anything from you. You shook your head, stepped back in retreat from my exaggerated show of righteous indignation. I didn’t want to hear what you were saying. “You’re different . . . you’ve changed. What happened to the stories? What happened to the—” your voice broke like a thousand shards of crystal hitting a marble floor, “—the princess?”
“The princess?” I scoffed, scrunching up my shoulders and releasing them in a huff. “There never was a princess; not really . . . those stories were just . . .” I trailed off, unable to find the right words to say.
You wiped away a single tear and nodded. “Your stories . . . your gift . . . you’ve lost them, after all?”
Why did your questions make me angry? Why did they make me want to hurt you? I’d never been good at examining the things that I didn’t want to see. You knew that, too, and yet you still forced me to look when I wanted to run. The startling directness of your gaze was unwavering, and I did the one thing I couldn’t resist. I lashed out at you. I wanted to hurt you. I wanted you to be as miserable as your questions were forcing me to be. “Don’t be stupid, damn you! I’m fine—just fine! My life is perfect—precisely how I want it to be! And where were you for all those years? You haven’t changed the entire world—mine is exactly how you left it!”
You gasped softly, recoiling as though I’d slapped you. The look on your face tormented me even as it vindicated my rebuttal: my thoughtless, thankless rebuttal, yet you stubbornly refused to let it go. Never did know when to leave well enough alone, did you? It infuriated me at the time. Now . . . now I wish you had tried just a little harder, and maybe I’d have listened, after all.
“Maybe I was wrong,” you admitted softly, your shoulders slumping in abject defeat. “Maybe I can’t change the world, and maybe I was deluding myself by thinking that I ever really could . . . but you . . . your stories . . . Don’t you know? I think about them all the time; about the way you could use words to paint pictures for me . . . how you showed me things that couldn’t exist—beautiful things . . . You could change the world, you know? Even if it’s only for one person . . .”
Your soft praise seemed to mock me, goading my anger, fueling my indignation. I didn’t want to think about the things you were using to challenge me. The hopes and dreams of a boy who hadn’t realized that sometimes things get lost along the way mocked me in your eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not a writer—I’m not a storyteller. I’m a professor. That’s all. If I’m lucky, I’ll get offered tenure.”
But you weren’t finished, were you? Driven by the need to make me understand the cost of what I’d given up for the elusive sense of security, for the peace of mind of having a steady paycheck and the boring existence of the nine-to-five job, you didn’t let up, didn’t let go. Grasping my arm, forcing me to look at you, you shook your head, your brow furrowing under the weight of your concern for me. “So you sacrificed your dreams? Gave up your ideals? And for what? Tenure and an office with your name-plaque on the door?”
Still I refused to listen. Regret is a bitter thing, isn’t it? I’d rather rant and rave like a lunatic, convincing myself that you didn’t really understand me at all. “You don’t know a thing! You never have; you’ve never wanted to! Judge me if you must, but don’t push your regrets and recrimination off on me!”
You stood stunned for a moment before nodding once and walking away. I told myself that you were crazy, that you were jealous because your own dreams of political glory were passing you by. I was happy, damn it! Couldn’t you see that? Weren’t you the girl who had always known me better than I’d known myself? You should have known, right? You should have known . . .
That was the last time I saw you, and the image is burned into my brain. Your shoulders slumped as you wrapped your arms over your stomach; as you hurried away into the falling evening. I can still see your golden brown hair flying out behind you like a banner, and in my mind’s eye, you’re forever the girl I loved from so far away. The passage of years has given me the insight that I didn’t possess back then. I just wanted you to know that you were right, after all.
The tick of the clock has been my incessant reminder. It’s soothing, unsettling, as unreliable as it is constant. Why does the dancing glow of a flame remind me of your eyes, lit in the harsh radiance of the street-lamp hovering above the sidewalk? The illumination, the softness, and if I were to stray too near, I’d always get burned. I’ve lived a life full of abnegation; convincing myself that I was content with what I have achieved.
Yet the stories that I sacrificed to have this illusion of peace still lie dormant in my head. The voices stopped speaking to me long ago, or maybe I simply learned to ignore them. Maybe, had I listened to you on that fateful evening as the wisteria blossoms wilted and the cypress trees bent and swayed . . . maybe I could have recaptured them long enough to get them down on paper before they blew away with the scattering breeze. I understand now what you were trying to tell me then. Sometimes letting one’s dreams fade is the biggest sacrifice of all, and if I have just one regret, it is that the one life I refused to change was my own.
I wonder if you’ll get this note; if you’ll read it in the comfort of your quiet office. As I’ve said, I still picture you standing by the window in your mother’s kitchen despite the knowledge that the house has long since been sold. Your home now is the White House, and for the achievement of your dream, I’m happier than you’ll ever know, Madam President. It makes me chuckle, makes me smile when I indulge my fancy and wonder . . . Maybe my sacrifice did inspire you not to let the same thing happen to you, and maybe—just maybe—I really did change a life, after all.
With all my devotion,
Special thanks to ChichiWVU for her help in editing this piece.
All the characters in Abnegation belong to me. Any similarities to any persons, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidence.