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by Judson Blake
The move, they both said, would be easy. It was only a few blocks across town. There would be more space than they had now. Adrienne was looking forward to it and Mike had taken off work to help with packing. But in the midst of it he was called away. They just couldn’t resolve something from what he said over the phone. Some important party was upset. He left the big plastic bag of old papers, things to be thrown out, in the middle of the floor. When he was gone Adrienne planned to make a quick twist and wire it up but then she saw the unopened letter. Without thinking she stuffed it in her purse. Then she wired up the rest and put it by the door so as not to forget. Moving was a convenience, Mike said; you got to get rid of so much stuff.
From the first time she met him Adrienne had made a simple sizing up: Mike was an ox-like man. He was steady. Dedicated to his work, often enthusiastic about it and not about much else. He was a “safe” man, the man you held onto. He planned things; he remembered dates and anniversaries. He took his umbrella when he probably would not need it. They watched television together; they had similar opinions. Adrienne admitted that she liked the routine; she liked his steadiness, the freedom from idle jokes and excursions that might go nowhere. In five years they were a couple that marriage had established, suited in their quietude.
But now there was detail, this simple letter she probably should have ignored. That gnawed at what she had thought before. It sat in her purse with no purpose or meaning, or none that she wanted to delve into. She could wait, as if the envelope with its secret contents were something dead that could no longer act and was no danger anymore, something she could attend to if she chose. And if she got tired of waiting. Waiting for what?
The move in fact was easy. It had gone smoothly and Adrienne felt adventurous finding new shops and people. She enjoyed walking along streets that were structured the same but were still very different from the old neighborhood. They settled in. They felt their way into their old familiarity in the new space. It could have been a change in which nothing changed. But the letter stayed. It somehow asked her: don’t throw me away for then I’ll be gone forever.
As she lay awake at night sometimes the thing would capture her imagination, like a distant relative she had found out about but never known. As she lay beside her husband she would watch his breathing and feel the soft motion of cloth and air. Could you love a man more when his back was turned? For then you see what he never sees. And seeing the same facts for years as she had, how was it different now? At quiet times in the semi-dark and at times when she was alone Adrienne was sure of one thing: she would never accuse him. And in another space within her she had decided something else that seemed foreign but just as certain: she would never open the letter.
Finally one October day she decided that enough secrecy was enough and she confided in Julie. They met at an upstairs café that was too obscure to attract a busy crowd. It had a musty air, a polite venue for people who read the newspaper for hours, even the obits.
“What would you do?” she said, having shown the letter to her friend.
Julie fingered it and turned it over again.
“Well, it was returned to his office at work. That’s stealthy enough. Then he brought it home. Hm.”
“Well, it was in a pile of other things. All junk.”
Julie was pensive, not wanting to say too much.
“You’ve had it for a while. It nags on you.”
“Well,” she said straightening her frame, “you’re sure he doesn’t see the woman. I mean, aren’t you?”
Adrienne almost bit her lip, but she looked directly and said instead:
“Yes. I’m sure. I don’t see when he would have time. He’s always with me. I call him, he’s always there.”
“Then throw it away.”
Adrienne had thought all along that that was exactly what she should have done. She had that thought the first day. But from the first the letter had taken on an existence of its own. She was sure: throwing it away would have been a definite failure, a personal failing of her own, all the more if it was impossible to define. Throwing it away would have been disownment. The thing belonged to something else. Well, that was simple: it belonged to the woman it was addressed to. That was its implacable fact.
“And who is this Emily M. Bernardi, anyway,” Julie asked. “She’s probably dead and that’s why it’s written like that: Return to sender. Or it’s the wrong address, one of the two.”
Adrienne corrected herself for thinking that her friend was being obtuse. Julie wasn’t seeing something but Adrienne did not want to say: Mike would not make a mistake about the address. He was steady. He didn’t make typos. And why had he not thrown the letter away himself? Why did it sit around somewhere until the jarring focal point of moving came to a head and he must have idly put it in the trash with a bunch of other stuff, if he saw it at all, without thinking more? Without noticing even. The steady man. As Adrienne should have done.
Julie seemed to collect her friend’s doubt and being in between.
“Or you could become a sleuth, Adrienne. You could just go there and see. If there is an Emily Bernardi who really exists, you could ring her bell.”
Adrienne backed in her chair.
“I wouldn’t. No, I couldn’t do that. And even if I could, it’s absurd. Why?”
Julie thought easily, waiting to form her words:
“Because it might be a side of the man you really don’t know.”
“How can you be married to someone…” Adrienne began but she could not finish the thought. She put the letter back in her purse. It was stolen goods.
They let the matter die and talked about the new neighborhood. But somehow now with her friend she did not want to expand. She looked around for something else to see. Glancing in a corner of the shop she admired a sleeping boy leaned over on another table, sprawled so discomfort no longer mattered. She imagined he had worked a double shift.
The fact of the letter, the deeper fact that she would never accuse him, still traced its thread into her thoughts. The address was right there. It was in another part of town. If she were tracking down a man she would have felt no fear at all and what she felt now was not so much fear as misgiving, as if she did not trust her own curiosity, her own anticipation. She knew where it was. She could go there and merely look. Emily Bernardi would not stop her on the street. No one would even know she went. It would be a trek not of distance or time, but of something else she felt growing in her thoughts: resolve.
Better go now. Will you wait forever? Better go now.
As she walked down the strange street she wondered what Mike might have thought walking here. There were large trees and attentive doormen who watched her pass. Leaves caught the wind around her feet. Was this place, this reputable slightly decorous old street, similar in many ways to their own, was it secretly true to the ox-like man? Was it knowing? Was this, these trees, these doorways the side of him she had never seen, a side hidden not out of cunning, for she would not believe he would turn to that, but from simple dismissal, ignorance, even blankness of his own. A disheveled man crouched on a bench. He might have been a derelict, huddled from the new cold, but his look did not say he wanted spare change. Had that man seen Mike, have a memory of him? Did he inhabit this street like a memory Mike might have? Adrienne felt she should have touched the man, offered him her hand, pierced his solitude. But her resolve persisted.
She got to the address and the door to the vestibule was open. No one was watching her; it was past the time when people would be rushing home. Adrienne looked carefully over the panel of buzzers. The name Bernardi froze in her sight.
—You must not walk away, she thought. This moment can’t be broken off or it will become a dead thing that will weigh upon you, stick with you more than it has already. You have come this far and what did that take? It is here and you are here.
Without waiting she rang the bell.
After a moment a woman’s voice answered on the speaker.
“Yes. Who is it?”
“You don’t know me. I’m Adrienne Thomas. Mike’s wife. I have a letter for you.”
Adrienne was astonished at the firmness in her own voice. It sounded confident and direct.
—As if I know what I’m doing.
The matter had taken on a moment of its own. It was more solid than she was, or thought herself to be. There had been no daring, no impulsive leap. There had been hardly a shred of hesitation. Now she only had to wait, since the woman would have to think. Wait for refusal if that was what the matter meant, but still just wait.
“I’ll come down,” the voice said.
Adrienne waited out in the street so the crowding of the vestibule would not push them together more than either would want. The woman when she appeared was tall and had a stalwart air. She eyed Adrienne with what seemed for an instant to be admiration but then shifted to the consenting cast of formality. They shook hands. Adrienne felt a sly blush of relief that the woman was not very pretty. She kept herself well, but she was too stalwart, less feminine than Adrienne felt herself to be. But then that made it worse, didn’t it? For then he had seen something else in this woman. Something else.
“I could just give it to you now,” Adrienne said. Her fingers extended in her purse as if burning their place there.
“Yes. If you like. Or… maybe if you like in some more private place. Come with me.”
Emily Bernardi acted as if this was not a surprise or that, in some quiet way, all that she experienced was a surprise. She was open and gentle where she led. A hotel lobby down the block was guarded by a man in a black coat who spread his arm before the door.
—She has done this before. How?
The woman chose a writing desk with stationary for guests and a conical light that seemed designed for solitude away from home in a strange city where one regretted anonymity: it could never be used enough. Adrienne produced the letter.
“It seems you are not dead.”
Emily Bernardi fingered the letter in a tentative way, blinked at being alive and seemed in the gaze she returned to Adrienne to be refreshed and accepting.
“I should take back what is mine,” she said. “Not lie. I lied when I wrote Return to sender. That wasn’t fair of me. Evasive. I’m guilty of evasion. And now you’ve found me out.”
She looked directly at Adrienne as if to deny her eyes might fill with tears.
“Well. Are you going to open it?”
The other paused and pursed her lips. Her voice was steady and hoarse as she spoke back:
“I’m no threat to you. Adrienne. It was months ago. A year almost. It would not have worked. And now we’ve met…. I… I’m glad we met. I’m no threat. I’m no threat. At all.”
The woman’s voice choked and a flush came into her face. Her hand came up to cover her face but stopped and would not allow even that defense. Adrienne was stunned with the awful thought: that was what he had seen in the woman, her courage.
“It would not have worked,” she said again.
—Why? I could ask. Now is the only time. But that would be details.
“I’d better go,” Adrienne said.
The woman leaned over the desk and grasped her waist.
“Yes. Yes. It would not have worked. It couldn’t. I should never…. I should take it back. You did right to bring it. Absolutely. Take what is mine… mine.” Her fingers clutched the letter still unopened.
All the walk down the strange street Adrienne heard an echo, the soft secret refrain of the woman’s words:
—I should take what is mine. I should take….