My post office box had been thick with it all week. Advertisements, election circulars, and assorted junk. I folded Debra’s letter back into its pink envelope and dropped it absently into the trash with the rest. Even though the message hadn’t contained the dramatic punctuation of my other mail, the tone was similar. Instead of a plea for money or votes, this one was a plea for my time. But since it was only her first letter to me in years, I suspected it might also be her last if I didn’t reply. So the smile which hung on my face, long after reading and discarding it, was a mirthless one. The kind of smile you offer in passing to strangers.
I saw her the next day at the college library. Although she didn’t see me, I could tell that the years had been generous to her. Even from where I stood outside the employee lounge, I could see that her complexion, framed by short black hair, was as beautiful as ever. And her figure was still as devastating too. She was a survivor, all right. There was never any doubt of that. It was only the disguised urgency of her search for me that gave me a new understanding of her vanity and of how little rejection she had experienced. So I reentered the lounge then–leaving the realm of Kafka and Eliot for the more immediate relevance of gossip, rumor, and an argument over the Arizona Wildcats. And when I came out again, she was gone.
It’s funny how most reactions seem ready-made before you ever face them. You don’t even have to think about them, really. Instinct dictates what you will do. It’s ironic perhaps, like discarding Debra’s letter, but true.
I met Debra during my last year at the University. We were both journalism majors involved in student politics at the time. I was the editorial director of the student paper, while she covered the nitty-gritty functions of the campus social scene. Although the long hours I put into my studies by day and at a local pizzeria at night left me physically and emotionally exhausted, I enjoyed the brief time we worked together Tuesday afternoons and evenings in that cramped office on the third floor of the Student Union building. Because there was something unspoken between us there. Call it a mixture of fantasy and lust which thrived on not being identified, but this fragile yet persistent euphoria was kept alive with subtle glances and adeptly timed smiles which were independent of the surface content of what was said. It was like something assumed but hidden–an attraction which feared confrontation, and therefore became maddeningly stronger. Not to the point of love, exactly. Love is impossible to hide once it’s realized, I discovered. No–what I felt was an unreal, all-enveloping warmth, not fire. We both yearned toward that warmth, but somehow remained uncannily free of the flame. And from being burned.
The letters first started coming to my dorm near the beginning of December during my senior year. Typed on purple stationery, the first was a short and rather stilted request to me me after work outside Gino’s on Wednesday night. The signature at the bottom was simply “D.” Debra and I hadn’t yet finished typing our segments for the latest biweekly installment of the school paper, so I assumed the rendezvous was strictly business. Secretly, however, I began to wish otherwise, and spent the final hour or so of my shift either staring hypnotically into the ovens with something more than academic anticipation, or else peering abstractedly out the swinging kitchen doors at the rowdy college jocks ordering pitchers of draft and milling around the pinball machines Gino had backed against the wall. After Gino chased the stragglers dormward, I remember waiting nervously out by my VW in the lot. But Debra never showed.
The next day I confronted her in the hall outside our interpretive criticism class, which a cavernous-faced Dr. Stapleton taught–we all agreed–with a certain “robust didacticism.”
She turned around toward me slowly, giving her profile an excruciatingly irresistible appeal for my inspection. But I didn’t lower my gaze for long. Her brown eyes were riveting enough–and yes, she knew how to look at someone in such a way as to induce shock and guilt and desire all at once.
“Oh. . .Brian,” she said, flashing her intimate, millisecond smile of recognition.
“You didn’t come by last night,” I told her, “like you said.”
“Like I said?”
My heart shot up several floors at the bewilderment of her response, and beat wildly there in my throat and temples. I fought it down as best I could, and in lieu of an awkward apology, unfolded the note in my coat pocket.
“Then . . . you didn’t write this?”
She read what was there and laughed. “Of course not.”
Still drunk with the stupidity of my assumption, I found, later in the afternoon, that a second letter had arrived in my box. This one read:
I’m sorry about last night. I was there but I couldn’t speak to you. You don’t know how badly I wanted to, but what would I say? The truth? I love you, but I’m afraid. So afraid of how you’ll accept this. How could I make you believe that this might work? Writing is easier than facing you. Brian, I’m so confused and afraid.
That’s how it began. With each day, a new letter from this unknown and irritating benefactor of emotion–and every one a little more intimate. Slowly the fear mentioned in the second letter began to subside as the strength of the feelings increased. I started getting packages at my dorm too–even during the Christmas break when I stayed on campus and worked full time on the “wax” crew, buffing the administration’s hallways by day, and serving up pepperoni and sausage pizza to the faculty brats at night. The gifts were small: things like cassette tapes by my favorite, Spiro Gyra, and batches of homemade cookies. Always, a note or letter detailed her thoughts or reminding me of how she’d spent the day with me on her mind. But whether with a gift or not, all those letters had one thing in common. They each contained the solitary petal of a rose. “I’m sending you a bouquet one petal at a time,” she wrote. I don’t know why, but I kept the letters. Maybe they seemed so unbelievable. . .
The first Tuesday after Christmas, Debra questioned me about my secret admirer. She found it all endlessly amusing, and began a deliberate giggling at the mention of my predicament. I told her what I knew about the girl, which wasn’t much. She was a home economics major, 20 years old. She was obviously shy, and liked classical “romantic” music. Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky–that kind of thing. When I mentioned that she also liked Italian food, Debra said, “Uh-oh!” and blew out her cheeks like a balloon. Then she smiled that killer smile of hers and winked. I took her advice and kept my eyes open for signs of someone watching me or following me. Because “D” certainly did seem to know my whereabouts and what I was doing with my time. She knew about Debra too, and seemed to become increasingly obsessed with our working relationship. Soon after this she started writing about her poor grades, her lack of sleep, and how it might be best if she dropped out.
Well, this news was too much. I had to get a message to this girl somehow. I resented the fact that she was forcing me to consider her feelings in my relationship to someone I felt physically attracted to, even though I hadn’t yet found the courage to make a move from where I was. Unfortunately, however, I kept picturing myself in the dean of women’s office, asking Mrs. Pauli, “Could you, ah, tell me if there’s, well, someone at the school in the home economics department who’s flunking? Incidentally, she, ah, likes Chopin’s Nocturnes and ravioli.”
But that was when Debra got her letter. She came over to my dorm to show it to me. It was scrawled in black ink across an index card.
Dear Miss Hollis,
You must realize my feelings toward Brian. I can’t tell you how much it would hurt me if he were hurt. So I’m asking you, please, please not to encourage him. You can have whoever you want, but you must give me a chance to talk to him first. Please help me, and don’t let him know I’ve written you. Please, until I can get the courage to talk to him. –D.
“So what do I do now?” I said, after reading her note.
Debra looked at me in that way she always had, glancing down until she knew our eyes would meet. She was sitting on my bunk bed with crossed legs, and I remember she was wearing plaid, wool kneehighs and a tight, gray sweater that day when she said those fateful words.
“Why don’t we try going out together?”
Strange how feelings can color the whole world for someone. In just as many ways as there are people, mysterious influences distill their irony into anything from a magical exhilaration to a sense of terrible, imprisoned futility.
From mid-January to mid-February, I dated Debra. We went everywhere together, and she made me discover a side of myself I never knew existed. A side both I and “D” were witness to for the first time. Debra and I were very open about it from the start, and made a point of walking together often across the crowded campus. We kissed passionately whenever we suspected we were being watched. It tasted deliciously evil somehow too, that taboo against realizing our long dormant attraction. Our favorite game even became guessing who “D” might be, and we looked for the most despondent faces eagerly, even after the letters stopped. In a secret way, I believe I was grateful to “D” for giving me the excuse I needed. Even though I felt–I knew–there was a very high wall between Debra and me.
Then one night, into the last hour of Valentine’s Day, Debra waited excitedly for me outside my dorm with a box of roses. I will never forget her face that night, getting back from Gino’s. So beautiful it scared me. But I kissed her anyway, losing myself in the unreal warmth of her lips just as I had many times lost myself, late at night, in the foreboding scent of her dark hair with a tie “D” had given me draped across the dorm room door. A late night fog had drifted over the campus, and holding Debra firmly against my chest, I remember distinctly–even now–seeing two rows of halos converging above the street from the lurid arc light, ending in a hazy silver moon which hung in a low scud of cloud. And Debra’s voice. . .
“The funniest thing happened tonight,” she said, breaking free and picking up the open box of roses from the hood of my VW.
“Tell me,” I said.
“That girl ‘D’ came to my room with these,” she said, with a studied flippancy. “Her name’s Darlene Gentry. She was in your music appreciation class.”
I couldn’t answer for a moment, and then I said, “What do you mean, was?”
“She’s gone now. All she wanted was to give you these flowers. Only I think she was still chicken. . .can you beat that?”
Debra was giggling when she told me about Darlene. I can’t forget that part. Even now. It had all seemed like a game up to then, but then I knew her name, and suddenly I remembered her too: She’d sat just two rows behind my all year–a quiet girl with long brown hair who wore granny glasses and demure clothing. No one paid much attention to her. She was a “generic” student–the kind you never notice unless she wasn’t there for a while. Unreal somehow, and always in the background. But I HAD wondered about her, and thinking about her again, I realized she hadn’t been to class at all those last few days. Evidently she’d decided to leave school, and on the occasion of Valentine’s Day, when the dorms were raucous with parties, to risk exposure and rejection by confronting me. Only the same thing had prevented her, because she took the flowers to Debra instead. Debra, who thought the whole thing so absurdly amusing. . .
Inside the box was her final letter.
Please forgive me for writing you again. And please accept this bouquet instead of the many more letters I would send if I could, if it mattered. When I play the Brahms, I seem to be with you now, as if you were here. Although it’s painful, it must be enough to remember, to imagine you as happy as I’ve seen you. Goodbye, then, with love, from no one. –D.
I left Debra standing by my car that night, and got on the phone. Claiming to be a relative, I managed to dial through to the women’s dorm supervisor and ask about Darlene Gentry. There was a long pause, maybe ten minutes, and then I was being questioned. Darlene wasn’t at bed check and some of her things were gone.
So that was the end of it, or almost the end. When the announcement came of Darlene’s accidental death in Omaha two weeks later, I went out and purchased a copy of the Brahms first concerto we’d been studying in music appreciation class before she’d stopped attending. And when I laid the needle of my roommate’s battered turntable–so used to blasting rock in those days–down onto the second section of that record, I too thought I glimpsed a soul. One which might have loved sincerely–and been loved–but feared itself unworthy. I also recognized and remembered that plaintive melody as one which had once, and has since, haunted me.
Yet the girl whose image the music seemed to evoke was dead then. Struck down by a speeding motorist on a straight stretch of road in the middle of a clear, cloudless day. The driver couldn’t quite pass the breathalizer and claimed he never saw her step out, the report said. Her step-parents had just returned from vacation, and didn’t even know she was in town. And there was something else. Something that makes me think it was no accident.
Her phonograph had been left on.
I can still see that sometimes too, in my dreams–the needle tracking endlessly against the center label. And no one has had to tell me what was imprinted on that label–any more than I have to be reminded what a rose symbolizes. Because I have a stack of letters in the bottom drawer of my dresser, and inside of each there is a pressed petal of that flower.
But there’s one final letter to appraise–the one I threw away. When that stack in my drawer was ten years old, this woman sent it to me as if something had changed between us. As if what we shared was anything more than guilt. Not legal guilt, of course. I mean another kind.
She said she’d missed me at the reunion, and when she asked around, discovered I was working right on campus, at the library. She was in town for a full week, but already she’d been to the library several times to see me, and I was always out. Would I have lunch with her or something? There was so much to talk about. Her divorce from Greg Elford, a former school quarterback, had just been finalized. And she heard I was still single. Now she just wanted to “make one of her old classmates jealous” before returning to the house she’d won in the settlement. Jealous, she said, like we once did with that girl from Omaha. . .what was her name?
I never answered Debra’s letter. And the one time I walked by her on campus during the week of her stay, she didn’t seem to recognize me. Although she might not have changed, perhaps I have. Among other things, what I feel for her now isn’t fear or lust so much as pity. Maybe because she was never afraid. Maybe because, being dead inside, she had nothing to lose, and what you saw was all you got. Whatever the reason, I saw that she was even more a stranger to me, and an accusing reminder that Darlene Gentry had been a stranger to everyone then. Call it irony if you want to. Or instinct.
I saw someone wearing a tee shirt recently which read, proudly, PERHAPS YOU HAVE MISTAKEN ME FOR SOMEONE WHO GIVES A DAMN. That could have been me in that tee shirt, ten years ago.
And something told me there wouldn’t be enough time to make Debra understand.
(© Jonathan Lowe; originally published in Buffalo Spree)
(Composed by Sherry Hoffman, now deceased; Lyrics by Jonathan Lowe; apologies for sound quality: recorded on cassette recorder at Ventana Canyon resort in Tucson in 1995.)