Her latest letter was written on scented stationary and made me think Charlie had become overly sentimental. But I had always been the harder one, while Charlie had once been the kind of woman who dotted her i’s with hearts. It was long before I met her, that I made the realization that there were women who did that, drew bold and curvy hearts above their i’s, and those who didn’t. In recent years, Charlie and I have remained in contact solely through handwritten letters used less to keep in touch and more like coded maps to express difficult emotions or unseemly confessions that could not be made in any other way. Her handwriting had grown smaller and smaller in the last few months so that the dot above her i was now so tiny it nearly disappeared off the page.
I read her most recent letter in my kitchenette, at the table with a cup of coffee. She took meticulous care with this letter including tiny illustrations around which the text swirled passed trying to tell me something pertinent to the situation. In the first and largest illustration, she’d drawn a man and woman in lab coats. She turned the woman’s face away from the viewer showing the long ponytail pulled high on the back of her head and then sashaying all the way down her back. The man was a pretty good rendition of Paul, the man Charlie had been seeing for almost four years now. In place of the man’s eyes, Charlie had drawn the pulsing hearts of an anime character so that I knew instantly that this letter was about betrayal. Paul works at a chemical refining plant and apparently had been paired off with a short boyish looking woman with embarrassingly long hair to work on a new water cleaning system.
Charlie used black and red ink to emphasize certain words. For example, MINOR INDISCRETIONS had been blocked out in red ink and capitalized as though Charlie might become hysterical. Unsure how far Paul would take his crush, Charlie said she was willing to forgive anything as long as he still loved only her. In the letter she told me they were talking about the possibility of moving out and dividing up their belongings but mostly how they still were trying and how they were talking over their feelings, that they still had love there and that was enough for her to hold onto as she was not yet ready to let go. Nothing was certain, she wrote with words exploding up and over several lines on the page in the shape of a mushroom cloud.
I tried to follow what she was laying out before me, but could only find warped and wilted self esteem. I looked over Charlie’s words and saw tears, gritted teeth, lost sleep and the wind being kicked out of her over and over as though her boyfriend had grown the legs of a racehorse. I wanted to tear the letter in half, crumple it up and throw it three states away in order to hit Charlie square in the eyes. Charlie was the kind of woman who loved uncompromisingly and I’d always secretly felt she deserved better than Paul. I wanted to tell her to leave this man that she thought still loved her and that this boyish woman was no doubt too selfish or cruel to find a man of her own, that she would never stop preying on the happiness of others. I wanted to tell her that when it comes to men, there were two kinds of women. Those who cheat and those who are cheated on. Charlie, I wanted to say, what kind of woman do you want to be?
Charlie closed her letter with an uncharacteristic plea for my help. Any advice, sympathy or cold hard truth should be given without hesitation, she wrote. She shyly suggested that maybe a phone call…but no matter how long I stared at her tiny and precise handwriting I remained unable to find any appropriate words for her situation. Instead, I pulled out a charcoal pencil and began sketching the image of a woman slipping away in quicksand, her two arms frantically outstretched. To the side of the woman and just out of reach was some rope that led across the page to the hands of another woman who was standing at the window on the third floor of a building engulfed in flames. One woman wore a lab coat.
I folded up the image and tucked it into an envelope and scribbled Charlie’s address across the front. I hoped that she would understand that I loved her, that I wanted to help, clear everything up for her, but that I could offer no advice, sympathy or truth that would not ring false and tarnished by the fact that for the last six months I had been sleeping around with a lab partner of my own.
I thought over my secret meetings with this married man, the unbelievably passionate sex, the raw and uninhibited emotions, but sharpest of all I remembered the one time I had seen him with his wife. How beautiful and sad she had seemed. And then I felt the swift and fierce hoof of a thoroughbred cut deep into my gut.
After I placed Charlie’s letter in my mailbox and raised the little red flag, I went back inside to my kitchen table. I reached for my cell phone and started to call Charlie, but instead I sent two text messages to two people. One read: when did you stop dotting your i’s with hearts? And the other read: It’s over. XOXO. And God help me, had there been a way to seal that message with a kiss, I would have.
Lee Ware currently lives in a town too small to name where she was recently fired from a bar for reasons still undisclosed, but most likely because she made better Manhattans and Martinis than her former boss. She writes reviews for The US Review of Books and her writing has appeared in Propeller; Alchemy; The Portland Alliance and Connotation Press. She believes when one door closes another opens.