Saturday, March 19, 2016

Love Letter, Rebecca Tabbutt

Treasures
By Rebecca Tabbutt

 It took Eileen a full year after the funeral to go through Ethan’s closet.  She’d continued to sleep in their bed, had emptied out his dresser, and bedside table, and had carefully packed away his coats, scarves, and boots from the mud room.  She’d re-shelved the piles of books he left everywhere, even removing various bookmarks he’d left in them, and had donated his reading glasses to a group that refits them for impoverished veterans.  His bedroom closet, however, had remained untouched since Denise had taken his best suit to the funeral home.  She had attempted to enter his closet again, saying, “Mom, shouldn’t we just do everything at once?”, but Eileen was adamant.  The closet was to remain untouched.  When pressed, she couldn’t give a reason why, but swimming somewhere in her subconscious was the feeling that if she emptied his closet, she would truly be a widow.  And how could she be a widow when she still smelled him on their sheets, and talked with him in her dreams?  Her constant companion of 37 years was still so present in her life, even with all outward traces of him removed.  Somehow it felt better to know that pieces of him remained hidden behind the sliding closet door that took a person’s full body weight to budge, having long since jumped its track.
 She awoke that morning utterly certain that it was time.  A year before, she’d awoken to the deafening silence that permeates the home of the newly widowed, but today she heard birds outside, a car passing, a garage door opening across the street.  She heard life, and knew she was truly hearing it for the first time since Ethan had died.  Full of purpose, she got out of bed, and still in her Mount Holyoke sweatshirt, and holey yoga pants, she walked across to Ethan’s closet, and wrenched open the door. 
 “Ethan, you were a slob.”  She laughed aloud, enjoying for a moment the predictability that comes with a long marriage.  No matter how often she’d complained about his disaster of a closet, he’d insisted that it was the one place in their house that was all his.  She was not permitted to clean it, and he’d been known to simply toss messes into it rather than put things where they belonged.  Who knew what she’d discover?  She was almost giddy at the prospect of breaching the gates of his disorder.  The room seemed filled with the echoes of his usual refrain, “El, PLEASE.  This is my one place to be the total disaster I was before you fixed me up and made me presentable.  Who knows what could happen if you try to clean it?  I might grow an unflattering mustache.”  He asked so little of her, while giving so much of himself, how could she refuse?  And here she was.  Entering his sacred space, both mourning the loss of him, and reveling in the joy she had always found in organization.  
 It took a solid 3 hours to empty the contents of his closet into the bedroom.  In the end, there was not an inch of carpet, nor bed not covered in clothing, shoes, boxes, books, and knickknacks that until now she’d thought had long ago left the house.  She’d found papers Denise had written in college, a deflated basketball covered in childish scrawl that she recognized as coming from the hand of a preschool aged Tom, Ethan’s high school report cards, and the 1980s car seat in which both children had been minimally protected during their babyhood.  She took a break to make a cup of coffee, and stood in the bedroom doorway drinking it, wondering how to even begin to make sense of the mess.  How could she choose what to keep, and what to throw away?  Ethan had so clearly treasured everything here.  He had always been the one to attach sentimental value to objects, a trait she had never quite understood.  But now, seeing the things she had once thrown away only to be secretly rescued by her husband, she wondered if perhaps she had somehow lost something in not saving the “junk” of life.  
Eileen pushed the lid off the nearest box with her foot, eager to see what else he might have saved, but not quite eager enough to forgo the rest of her coffee.  It appeared to be more school notebooks, and papers, these from his own four years at Dartmouth.  She couldn’t suppress the warmth that spread throughout her body, and settled in her cheeks as she remembered the first time she’d met him at a Dartmouth mixer.  She and her roommates had driven up from Mount Holyoke because one of them was engaged to a Dartmouth boy, and had assured the rest that she would have husbands for all of them before the semester was over.  Eileen certainly had not come to Holyoke for her MRS degree, but she was pushing 22, and had not had a single boyfriend since high school.  She didn’t need a husband, but wouldn’t mind a date.  Ethan had been the quiet one amongst the friends of the fiancé, and another boy had teased that he was suffering the pangs of a recently broken heart.  She’d been instantly attracted, and had spent the rest of the night unsuccessfully attempting to get him to dance.  After that evening of utter failure, she was shocked when he chased her down in the parking lot to ask her out on a date.  Several months of casual dating had ensued, with Eileen falling more in love every time, yet sensing that he was just out of reach.  She clung to the hope that he’d eventually reciprocate her adoration, and kept seeing him long past the point that she would have seen any other boy who showed so little interest.  He’d mentioned a few times that he’d only recently ended a long term relationship with his high school girlfriend, Rosemary, but had assured her that it was his choice, and the best one he could have made.  They had outgrown each other, and it was time to move on.  Eileen studied every gesture, smile, and comment he made for signs that he’d moved on to her, but after 6 months, it became clear that while he was over Rosemary, Eileen would not be his next great love.  
Then came the evening of March 24th.  Their first date was in October, and they married in August, but March 24th was the date she always celebrated in her heart as the beginning of their love story.  The night had not begun well, as he’d seemed more distant than usual, and she had resolved to finally end things over dinner.  But then he’d draped his coat over her shoulders as they walked from her dorm to the car, Eileen having misjudged the changeable March weather when choosing her outfit.  She slid her hands into the pockets, and felt a folded piece of paper, the edges still rough from the notebook from which it had been torn.  She still didn’t know what had made her draw it out, and read it.  Perhaps her inability to connect with Ethan after all those months had made her suddenly insensible of his privacy, but whatever the reason, what she read changed everything.  
“I’m a fool.  You are perfect.  Everything about you is exactly what I want, and need.  You are the answer to my prayers, and my reason for living.  Please forgive me for my behavior these last months.  There is no excuse aside from my own pride, and ignorance.  I’ll never understand how I could have overlooked my pure, true love for you.  Please, my angel, please forgive me, and start a new life with me.  Marry me, and let me be yours forever.  It’s all I want in this world, and all I will ever want.” 
Eileen looked up in shock to meet Ethan’s stricken gaze.  The note had been written hastily, and he had clearly not meant for her to have read it yet.  It was a first draft, or notes for his eventual proposal.  But she didn’t care that it was written in smudged pencil on yellow legal paper, then shoved unceremoniously into his pocket.  He’d finally said exactly what she’d hoped for, and she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him as she’d never kissed a man before, or since.  All of her life’s happiness was wrapped in that kiss, and bestowed upon her beloved Ethan.  After a moment’s hesitation, he was kissing her back, and she felt him committing to her.  They were married that August in a blistering heat wave that she’d barely felt, so great was her joy.  And Ethan, true to the words of his love letter, made her, and eventually their children, his whole world.
Eileen could feel the lump in her throat growing as she remembered that moment, but she pushed it down, shook her hair back, and got down to the task at hand.  She began emptying the box, intending to let a little bit of Ethan work through her, and choose a few items in it to save for the children.  As she lifted out several notebooks filled with Poly Sci notes, an envelope slipped free of the pile, and fluttered into her lap.  She glanced down at it expecting to see an old tuition bill, and her breath caught.  It was addressed to a Rosemary Gilbert, with a street address in Ethan’s Pennsylvania hometown.  He’d rarely mentioned Rosemary again after their wedding, but Eileen seemed to remember that her last name began with a G.  The envelope was sealed, and stamped, but had clearly not been mailed.  She hesitated for a moment, wondering if her respect for his private closet space should continue after his death, but curiosity won, and with trembling fingers, she ripped it open.  Inside was a sheet of carefully folded cream stationary, and the letter began, “My Rosemary”.  Eileen almost giggled, wondering if she’d come across some old, sappy freshman year love letter that Ethan would have been mortally embarrassed for her to find, but as she read the first lines, her entire world crashed down around her.
“I’m a fool.  You are perfect.”
It was her letter.  It was her love letter verbatim, every word exactly the same as those Ethan had written to her 37 years before.  And there was more.  After the marriage proposal, this letter went on to explain that Ethan had been seeing a lovely girl from Holyoke, and while he cared for her, seeing her only made him realize the mistake he’d made in letting Rosemary go.  He was going to end things with this sweet girl, and let her go to find her own true love, because he’d already found his.  The last lines read,
“Come back to me, my angel.  Let me spend the rest of my life making you as happy as you make me.”
Eileen couldn’t breathe.  She sat perfectly still on the bedroom floor, willing her heart to keep beating, because it seemed that it was about to stop.  Could it be that her entire marriage was built on a mistake?  Had she stolen the happiness of two people because she was so desperate to find her own?  Had her whole life been a lie?  In 37 years Ethan had never wavered.  He’d been loving, attentive, funny, and sweet.  They had private jokes, and silly pet names, and he always signed her birthday cards, “Your Ethan”.  Had he been?  Or had he always been Rosemary’s, and she’d been the girl he’d been too kind to jilt?  

The shadows lengthened on the floor around her, and Eileen knew night was coming.  She hadn’t moved in hours, going over every moment of their lives together for clues as to whether Ethan had really loved her.  Finally, she pulled herself up from the carpet, and looked around the room at Ethan’s treasures.  For the first time since that March evening so many years ago, she wondered if she’d ever ranked among them.  Had she ever been his treasure, as he’d been hers?  And the cruelest joke of all had occurred to her mere moments before:  she would now never know the answer. 

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