in the end
by Kessica

She had a straight face but if you looked closely, you noticed her eyes never really left the ground in front of her. She wasn't ashamed about being a student, but she liked to be able to blend in. She always looked a little in between. Student teacher-ish. She had ditched the backpack because of her bad shoulder and now she carried a grey saddle bag that bumped along her hips, filled with books and journals and addresses. She promised you she'd write when she was abroad, and she has been. It took time for the first letter to arrive but now they come every other day.

She talks about being a tourist (she isn't made, isn't built to travel) and how the weather makes her feel (breezes make her feel infinite and the rain keeps her eyes closed) and how she misses you late at night (even though she never really had you). You won't see her again, not soon, probably not ever. You told her to write while she was away, knowing that she would because she was a girl who loved to write letters.

She hugged you goodbye on the last day and you both breathed in because it was the end and because you didn't want it to end. Someone opened the door and you moved to let go but she hung on for a second longer. She touched your face. She left before she started to cry. You don't remember who had come into speak with you but you walked past them into your office and couldn't compose yourself.

You tried to imagine her sitting at a café table, sipping tea and writing to you. All your letters smelled like her chapstick (not that you should know what that smelled like) from when she licked the envelope closed. Inside were trinkets she'd collected for you. A two piece pence, sheep wool, and pamphlets from the places that she'd been. Your favorite (you keep it in your wallet where the only person who can look at it is you) was a strip of photos from a photo booth; the row of black and white four. It had been one of her blue days and she'd been crying, her eyes big and glistening. She looked pretty much the same in each square but in the corner of each, she held up and index card. they said: I, Miss, You, and a heart. She held a droopy flower in her other hand. She tried to smile in the last square. Mostly, though, she sent you pressed flowers in the letters. You lined them up on your window seal until the dog knocked them all off with his tail.

Her letters got more and more depressed because she got more and more depressed. It's not the traveling, she said, it's me. You believed her but you wished she'd come home anyhow. Except you didn't, because then the letters would stop and then it would really be the end. She talked about how excited she was to go home, go to college, to grow up. You thought she was way more ‘grown up' then you ever were at her age, or would ever be. She wrote down her plane times, but didn't ask anything of you.

On the day of her return, you contemplated going to the airport but you knew someone would already be there, probably her family, and it would be awkward to explain your relationship, to come up with a lie good enough so that you could just ‘bump into her'. Did you even have a relationship? She had written her heart out to you and you had spent full minutes with your nose pressed against those words that she'd sent, just breathing them in.

A week passed and no more letters came because she was home. Another week passed and you found another envelope in your mailbox but it had no postage. She'd put it in there herself.

You met her in the nearly empty coffee shop. She was tan and reading the newspaper in a corner. You came in and she waved and sort of half stood. She'd brought you a t-shirt with a Viking on it from York. A silly gift to make you smile. She showed you her pictures and your knees touched under the table. You asked her why it wasn't the end, like you'd agreed, why you were once again sitting across from her, laughing. She shrugged and when you walked her to her car, she gave you another hug. You told her to drop a letter by any time. You thought you might see her again.

She did come, in tears, because Katharine Hepburn had died and you didn't want to like the way it wrecked her, but you did. You watched the all day Hepburn marathon together. You kept falling asleep and she didn't mind. She woke you for parts of The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, and by the time On Golden Pond had ended, it was dark. Her cell phone had been buzzing on your coffee table for some time now, and you'd both been ignoring it completely. She stood and had to go. You didn't know what to do. She leaned forward to kiss your cheek. You turned your head and she hit a different target.

She'd left her phone and so to be polite, you drove it to her house the next day to give it back. Her driveway was packed with cars and people who greeted you like an old friend; gave you a beer. You asked about her and they sent you to her look-alike. Her mother had no idea who you were, past your last name, but she thought it was nice that you came. She showed you to a bedroom that was filled with packed boxes and suitcases. She was there, dropped her red, plastic cup when she saw you. The brown liquid hit the hardwood and you helped clean it up with a dishrag she produced after disappearing momentarily. You asked her what the party was for and she told you it was a going away party because she was going to college in a week. The same state, but eight hours away and of course, you knew all about it but it seemed like ages ago that she'd been accepted. You hadn't expected her to really go or you to be around when she did.

She hadn't wanted to tell you and you knew it was none of your business, the exact date she left, anyway. You were a man with a house and a job. She was a woman who needed to go learn how to get those things. You kissed her, crouched on the floor over wet rags of root beer and a sticky spot on scuffed hardwood. Her mother opened the door and there was a small commotion. She watched the scene with big eyes and you only made it worse when you produced the cell phone that she'd left at your house. There were other kids you knew there. You thought you might lose your job for this. But, her she made your breath catch and you thought this was really the end.

You should have known better. It was never the end with her. Your window opened and it was so late, it was early. She shoed the dog off the bed and the sound of his paws padding away woke you up. She sat at the foot and said she'd written you a letter. That she'd wanted to see you, to apologize. That you should beef up your home security. You were worrying about stupid stuff, like your socks had holes in them and the bedroom was a mess. You hated laundry and you were half asleep and she was smiling.

You told her it had been different with your wife and that your wife would have never climbed through a window for you. Your wife never had written anything past a birthday card for you. Your wife never really let you talk, too. She cried, but not the woman sob, or the breathy, dramatic sighs. It was more of a leaking and she was so quiet about it. You felt old. She sounded old but she wasn't, not really. She was, of course, inside, but it wasn't the same. You wanted to touch her, but you didn't. She left as the sun came up and you put her letters with the others and looked at them from time to time. You were certain it was the end.

It was year before you saw her again. You'd moved a few towns south and worked at a different school. You had a girlfriend, Sarah, who you liked, but didn't love. You'd shown her the letters in a weak moment and she had laughed. Sarah had rambled on about school girl crushes and had said she was shocked that you'd bothered to keep such a thing. You only thought about the letters every once in a while, now. Most of the time you just lived your life. You turned forty. The school year was about to start. They made you teach math and you were push pinning posters to your walls.

Her voice behind you said it really was coincidence that she would move to the town that you moved to and work at the school that hired you. You thought it sounded suspicious (your heart pounded) but she said she'd purposefully lost touch with you. It'd been easier that way. But what now? She was twenty five and she'd lost the roundness of her well-fed teenage years and the tight curls of her hair had softened. She was still short, her eyes still shifted color with her mood. Anyway, she said, I'm down the hall.

She taught English (she'd always been good with words) and History to freshmen and she became fast friends with your girlfriend, Sarah. Sarah taught government to restless seniors and Sarah never did make the connection. She told you she lived with her boyfriend but that he was cheating on her. She told you she'd wanted to be close to her family who still lived where you remembered. She said freshman tired her out. She said she remembered how you smelled and that the grey hair at your temples suited you. You told her Sarah wanted to get married. She said that she loved Sarah and that she wanted you to be happy. She said it with her ‘straight face' and she did not meet your eyes. You weren't sure about anything.

You asked her for coffee in the same shop that you went to years ago. She refused and refused again. She said you were making it hard, that you weren't trying. She adored you but you had to know what you wanted and she didn't think you did. She needed her job because she was young and poor. You asked her if she'd ever been in love, really in love and she didn't answer. You couldn't decide, later, if that was good or bad but you think that you could love her. You think you could.

You started to write her letters. They paled to hers but you didn't have her way with words. In them, you asked what happened to pressed flowers and three am visits. She came by and told you she wasn't a girl anymore, a girl with a crush. She again couldn't look at you while she said this and you both knew it wasn't true. You kept writing. You waited for a response. She gave you, eventually, a box. Left it on your desk and you opened it, stupidly, in the middle of a test with your sophomores. You were completely unprepared for what was inside. Students were distracted. One offered you her paper lunch bag to breathe into. Another offered to call an ambulance. You closed the box and put it under the desk, next to your feet. You thought about it all day. You took it home; sat it in the middle of your living room and stared at it. You circled it, a bit. You called in sick, wrote notes for a sub. Drove back to the school to leave them in your classroom. Drove back home and decided to open the box again.

The envelopes were dated but all out of order, jumbled together. You pushed your furniture back and sorted them in the big empty space of your living room. They made a big square all in correct chronological order. You opened the first one.

She was getting them published, she told you later. Love letters; a memoir, really, written in letters to you. She would have told you eventually but it was six months before it would be published and she never used your last name or any specifics. She asked if you read them all. You were in your classroom grading first semester finals. It was past nine and dark and rainy out. You both hand your piles; you following a key and she reading essay after mediocre essay. Now you were getting tired and bored and yeah, you read them all. At first, you were a little scared, it was weird. She explained how you became more of a muse after time, what she knew of you evolved into something new, something she did love.

Too early, you both agreed. She wasn't sure if the timing could ever be right. You finish your grading and walk her to her car. She wanted you to help her, finally, move out of her boyfriend's apartment on Saturday. She was moving back to her parents, a forty minute commute, for a while until she found her own place.

Her mother remembered you and was kinder than you expected. You didn't say much, just carried boxes and followed direction. Her mother made dinner and you ate it. You had an idea. You asked her, when it was dark and you were about to leave, aching from not lifting with your knees. She said no, laughing. You asked her to think about it, while her stuff was still all in boxes. She reminded you of Sarah, whom you'd not seen in days. You wanted her to come stay with you anyway. Because she made you irrational, had since the day you'd met, and you thought it was worth a try. This was the woman who'd made you risk your job and end your first marriage when she was eighteen, and your current relationship and she made you feel young. You weren't, you were seven years younger then her mother and she was a twenty something with a good teaching job and a published (almost) book.

You were her muse. She wrote you letters for all over her college years and then some.

You prayed that this wasn't the end, you prayed hard.

You prayed it would never end.


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