the short story project


The Letters

Sheila sent me back all my old letters, the ones I wrote from my college to hers, back when we were each learning about tequila shots and how cool we looked under party lights. The letters came to my office last week in a big manila envelope. I didn’t know what to do with them.

We had become friends in high school, validating the maxim that opposites attract. Her auburn curls, flowing saris, and boho style all reeked to me of anti-establishment intellectual. A radical and free thinker: That’s what I wanted to be. But I also wanted to be a horse trainer, a playwright, a passenger on a houseboat floating through Europe, a folk singer, an habitue of the West Village, and a helicopter pilot. I wanted to be anyone but myself, whoever that self was.

Sheila and I were both 16 going on 25 like the wind. We were trapped in 1990s suburbia, salivating for the day we could leave home and get on with our lives. But Sheila always seemed older, more sophisticated, more knowing. She would wax on about Susan Sontag, Naomi French, and Mother Jones, lecturing me on the perils of capitalism and patriarchy. I was caught up in Salinger, and suddenly embarrassed by it.

“Religion, property, and government enslave us,” she’d wag at me as we sat by the creek in the woods behind her house. “It’s obvious this political system doesn’t work, but our parents are blind to it. We need a revolution.”

Sheila had her nose straightened that year. I had never noticed anything wrong with it. Before the operation and after, I stared and stared. It was a nose, for crying out loud, and it looked fine, even on her slender frame. “Just because,” she smiled at me. “I just wanted to, you silly. It’ll make a difference later on.”

She talked me into cutting class one afternoon, promising a surprise. We ended up in my parents’ basement, and she pulled out a plastic bag of white powder and a ten-dollar bill. I’d never seen cocaine before.

“Oh my God! You brought this to myhouse? Sheila! How could you?” I was panic-stricken. I was sure my brothers would come home and find us.

“Oh, Peaches, don’t agitate. Just go find us a mirror,” she laughed.

My heart thudded in my chest even before the first snort. Still, I managed not to breathe too much of it away. Afterward, I felt like an adult, smug and experienced. But the power trip and the paranoia canceled each other out, leaving me too scared to ever try it again.

Her parents were divorced, a novelty for me. I met her dad one weekend, and he seemed like a perfectly fine father specimen: balding, glasses, sociable, professional. “What’s it like?” I asked her later. “Not having your father around?”

“Like all men,” she said, fixing her scarf into a chic double knot in front of her dresser mirror, “my father is an oppressor. He’s an embarrassing role model. Darling, I’m not missing anything without him.” I’d never heard a father so reviled. It made me rethink my entire, normal relationship with my own.

I was a bit crushed when I found out Sheila was a good student, a hard worker, and aiming to graduate from high school early so she could start accumulating college credits. Her manifest-destiny mindset made me wonder why she wanted to hang with me – me with all my loose ends and hers tighter than a drum. I didn’t know what drove her, but I wanted some of it.

Toward the end of our senior year, I saw her less often; she had graduated that winter and was taking classes at the community college. But we were both still in a hurry. I couldn’t wait to stand in the middle of a sidewalk, any sidewalk, anywhere, and scream, “I’m here!” She was racing toward something, too, but I couldn’t fathom what it was.

“We are going places, girl!” she crowed as we sat on her front steps a few days before the senior prom. “Yeah,” I said. “You sure are.”

“Oh, come on, Peaches.” Her big, rust-colored eyes flashed with excitement. “Big stuff coming. You’ll be there for me, yes? We’ll take on the world. We’ll show them how it’s done.”

I nodded obediently. What was she seeing in our future, and why was I so deprived of vision? “Baby, we were born to ruuuuunnn!” she scrawled across the inside cover of my yearbook.

At Sheila’s graduation party, I marveled at her ability to acquire people; I didn’t know a soul there except her and our history teacher. But I met a guy. At 18, Cary was super-serious and way above me. He was practically a political consultant already, working on campaigns and planning his next steps up through the ranks. Still, he thought I was “interesting,” and we played at dating for the summer.

Sheila outdid me, as usual. Her boyfriend was older, a teaching assistant at the community college with a receding hairline and his own apartment, where he lit incense and let us drink beer. He nodded a lot and spoke philosophically, warning us often that “life is short and time is swift.” I felt like we were actors on a set.

And then, in a flash, high school was history. Sheila went off to Berkeley, and I went to a land-grant college in the Midwest, the farthest place from home that would accept my rotten grades. We charged ahead like racehorses without a bit, heading toward a finish line hidden in mist.

That’s when we started writing letters. Hers made fun of what she called Moo U., and mine sagged with jealousy over Berkeley and tried to make my life interesting.

It wasn’t, no matter how much I yearned for it to be. I went with the flow, did what my roomies did, tried to follow the classwork, found little that engaged me. What had I expected from college, from life on my own? Romance, stimulation, and adventure, for starters. I looked for them under a few rocks and came up with nothing but dirt.

Sheila met a guy, a native of California, an egghead getting his PhD in transportation engineering. I spun through Mark, then Jimmy, then Joel, then a guy whose name I can’t remember, and I think there was another Mark. My letters must have burbled about boyfriends and tequila, while hers interpreted Rothko and Emma Goldman.

Something changed when I fell into an intro-to-architecture class. I sat up straight. Even the tools of the trade turned me on. Vellum and Mayline straightedges. Pen plotters and 3-D software. Rules that must be followed, yes, but creativity, too. Oh, my. I could do this. And I did, obsessively. I became fixated on Gehry. I felt purposeful.

Sheila dropped a bombshell one day, by telephone. She would be getting married to her egghead as soon as she got her degree, and she wanted me to be her maid of honor.

I hung up the phone in a stupor. It was bad enough that she couldn’t come up with someone better than me, among her wide and eclectic group, to stand by her side. No, what kept me awake that night was the idea that Sheila, my radical sophisticate, my free-thinking Sheila, was getting married at all. Marriage was what our parents did. A wedding belonged in the pages of a fashion magazine. It was as if Marco Polo had opted out of that trip to China; he’d rather stay home and mind the books, thank you very much. Is Sontag married?I wondered. Our furious charge into the unknown was faltering. The mist had cleared, and … it was this?

I went along with it, like I always did. I have some adorable photos from the reception: me in a lavender floor-length country dress mock-punching her groom; an arty shot of Sheila reaching out to stop me from spilling a glass of champagne; the bride and myself, with the cute best man between us, dancing our version of the hora. Her husband was sane, even ordinary, she was blissful, and I never asked her what the hell she was doing. When I come across the photos from time to time, I shake my head. Who werethese people? What werethey thinking?

Getting a degree took me a couple of semesters longer than planned. Outside of drawing classes, I never became much of a student. Afterward, I took design jobs on the East Coast, first Boston, then New York, then Washington. Sheila stayed West, doing some Silicon Valley marketing thing, got her master’s. We still wrote letters, but my heart wasn’t in it. It dwindled into Christmas cards, clipped and routine. “Chica! How’s the Left Coast?” I wrote. “Miss you! Talk soon!” Every one was a lie, and I hated doing it.

Then I stopped even that. I still got post cards from her trips to Europe, her son’s birth announcement, then one for her company’s I.P.O. I read them, threw them out, felt terrible, and went off to my pen plotter. My latest prophet was the landscaper Mary Reynolds, and I was percolating new ideas for melding stone buildings with earthen berms. I had clients who saw value in my vision, and I had a budding reputation.

When we were in our thirties, Sheila finally quit writing. I was relieved, more relieved than I thought possible. For 20 years, I had been supportive and agreeable. I shared secrets and Springsteen and first-time everythings. But my heart sank with the weight of the truth. It was never real. We were never really friends. I was just a groupie, a parasite.

Last week, that fat package postmarked California appeared on my desk with Sheila’s return address scrawled in a familiar handwriting. Our letters. Scores of them. All wrapped in youth, energy, desire, and anarchy. How naïve and pathetic and hollow they must sound. It had been years since Sheila had even crossed my mind. I circled around the envelope on the kitchen table, wondering what to do with it.

On a whim, I made an excuse to visit a prospective client in San Francisco. Yesterday, after my meeting, I rented a car and drove to Walnut Creek. My curiosity was vague, not malevolent, neither bold nor fearful.

Her neighborhood was on the grand side, with sprawling acreages, double garages, a backyard pool visible here and there. Number 225 was on a large corner lot, not far from an office complex. I parked in the shade across the street and rolled down my window. A leaf-blower droned in the distance. Her yard was a mess of bright orange dirt, obviously under repair, with the outline of something like a rock garden taking shape in the middle. A Subaru with mud on its flanks was in the driveway.

Another SUV pulled in next to it as I sat there. Sheila emerged in a tight black skirt. Standing for a moment with her hands on her hips, she surveyed the yard work. She’d straightened and streaked her hair, but I easily recognized the langurous pose and spare proportions of two decades ago. She turned halfway in my direction, shielding her eyes against the sun. I didn’t duck or flinch, but neither did I consider approaching her. Maybe the letters were her way of sealing the past, closing the circle on something that had never ended agreeably. My need was visual: to see her, to absorb the aura of her life, to prove to myself that she had lost her way. Or maybe that I had found mine.

She turned back to the yard, kicked the dirt, and headed inside, no doubt to open the mail and peel the carrots. The door clicked shut. I started up the rental car and headed to the airport.

When I got home today, her manila envelope was gleaming on the table, caught in a ray of the mid-morning sun. I tossed it into the trash without a second look. There was nothing more I needed or wanted from Sheila. I have a trip to Dubai coming up, a big project at work, and my partner’s birthday to plan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *