She had been beautiful. She was still beautiful even though you could tell she didn’t think so. Her face was broad, and the lines of time creased her lips and the corners of her deep, sad eyes. When she was younger, an newly married she had made a decision to remain here. Although she never liked it here, and could not stand the sight, sound or smell of her husband, she did what was expected of her. She had done the right thing.
The boy had written beautifully. She loved his letters, and replied without thinking. If she’d thought about it, she might not have written anything. Instead, her fingers trembled, and she wrote hastily. When the reply was complete, she would fold the paper tightly and put it into an envelope and then hold it to her chest and listen to her heart beat for as long as she could stand it. She might promise herself that this letter was going into the trash, or that she wouldn’t mail it, but she never kept those promises. She would open the envelope, unfold the paper and re read her reply several times. She felt light, happy, and free. Her heart was broken, but all the pieces seemed to rise into the air and dance around her when she read her own words. The helpless reply to love’s urgency had a deeper effect on her than even the boy’s letters. She was in love, finally.
Her mother had always told her that she was a stupid girl. The cold accusation of a mother, followed by affirmations like You are smarter than that, and You know what to do were not confusing. She was a stupid girl with good upbringing. Her own mother had married for ease, and security. She had done just the right thing. She had done the smart thing.
Like her mother, she had married a young man her parents approved of and they took a house in the center of town. Her parents never visited them. There was an expectation that if they wanted to be a part of the family they would have to go and be a part of the family. Weekends were austere and lonesome. Her husband worked long hours, and talked of little else. He was a cold man, with sweaty hands. When they made love he would molest her without compassion, and kept his eyes closed tight against the darkness. It was over quickly, and he would retire to his own room, leaving her there, often in tears of fury, still staring straight up at the ceiling. She would clean herself carefully, praying never to have children by this man. He was a suitable husband, and she was a dutiful wife.
When the boy’s letters began to come in pale blue envelopes she grew silent and withdrawn. “My dearest love” they began, and told her of emotions, dreams, and distant visions. She read them, re read them, and then destroyed them. There was no reason to suspect that her husband had any interest whatever in her correspondence, but she tore them into small, uneven pieces and burned them in the stove. Reading his hopes for her, his love for her, she grew moist, and opened. She could smell a change in her breath. She loved his letters.
The days when a letter did not arrive were difficult. She would check, and then re check the post. with a sign of resignation she would carry out the day’s chores, and then suddenly imagine an overlooked letter in the neat stack of mail on her husband’s desk, and rush into the study and look through the post all over again. On her knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor she would mutter to herself that this boy did not even know her, could not possibly love her, and although she saw him at church, and occasionally in passing on the street, he never spoke to her. He only wrote those terrible, brutal, wonderfully passionate letters. By the end of her chores she would sit quietly in a wooden chair facing the back garden and catch her breath and feel the longing slowly overtake her.
The boy’s letters began to talk of New York, and Europe. His tone shifted and changed. He seemed to waffle back and forth as if he were having a discussion with himself, and pretending she were participating. Her replies were always kind, calm, and loving, but she was careful to never encourage him. She witnessed his conversation as if she were reading a book, or following a serial in the Saturday Evening Post. It was very romantic, but the idea of joining this boy in a conversation like this was terrifying. She tore these letters into smaller pieces than the others, and burned them often without reading them more than twice.
A parcel was delivered. It was a train ticket, and a booked passage abroad a transatlantic ship called the Sea Princess. Enclosed was a letter explaining the journey, and asking her to join him. She held the documents in her hands, and scanned them. She looked at the clock, wiped her palm against the flower print of her dress, and tucked the letter into the pocket of her apron.
She resumed the chores of her day, muttering to herself that this boy was a fool, a stupid boy. She shook her head as she scrubbed the floor, and washed down the back porch. Her husband arrived late that night, and they ate together at the kitchen table. He did not speak during the meal. She watched him chewing his food, smacking, and allowing bits of bread and chicken to rise up and down in his mustache as he ate. When he was finished he unbuttoned his waistcoat, and sighed as if the meal had been adequate. She smiled without thinking, and he got up and went to his study.
She talked to herself for several days about how going with the boy was impossible. She thought of asking her mother what to do, but she knew what her mother would have to say about this. “Stupid girl.” She said to herself as she plunged the toilet, splashing water onto her apron. “you know what to do.”
When the day of departure came, she did not pack her belongings. She simply put on her coat and walked to the station. The boy was there on the platform with several trunks and a bouquet of flowers for her. Their eyes met, his face was pale, and desperate. She was trembling. the boy reached up and touched her elbow delicately, and said “Darling…”
She pressed her fingers over his lips to stop him from saying anything else. Her heart beat like a piston into her head. People were rushing about the platform, luggage was being hand-trucked and loaded into the compartments of the train. Steam filled the air.
“I can not accompany you on your journey.”
Her lips were cold and firm. Her face was stern, serious and appeared calm though her heart was screaming, and in her mind all she could hear were the alarm bells of the fire brigade. She wanted to say more. There was much to say. But when her lips closed, no more words would come.
The boy looked away, and then back at her. He searched her eyes, looked down and said, “I will write to you” to his shoes.
The boy faded into the crowd of people climbing aboard the coaches. The three trunks were carried by unseen men and loaded into cars. Whistles blew, the engine whooshed, and began to pull out of the station. Soon she stood alone on the platform. Had she expected relief? Had he actually expected her to go with him? Whatever she felt, this was certainly not relief. There was no possible way she could have gone with him. This was silliness. the first few words of a thousand thoughts began to sound at once in her head.
She walked back to her house, placed the flowers into a vase on the sideboard, and hung her coat and hat in the parlor closet. She sat in her chair and waited for the sun to go down.
Years later, after her husband was dead she told this story to her grand daughter. Her face deep and sad as she explained how her granddaughter had almost never come to be. It was the deepest regret of her life, a poison which soaked every moment that followed. She never forgave herself for being such a stupid girl. She never forgave herself for doing the right thing.