A LOVE STORY IN LETTERS WRITTEN TO HERSELF by Donna Barrow
I want to tell you something. It is something that happened to me when I was a little girl. It is not one of the horrible things I have mentioned before. This is different. Just a belief that I had. Do you mind that I write to you like this? Do you mind these letters?
Of course I don’t. You know I don’t. I love them. I have told you before, haven’t I? I wait for them. Isabelle.., you know I love your letters.
When we were little—my sister and I—every time we drove past one of the old New England houses on the way to town…remember the house I mentioned? The one close to the beach where we lived? As you drove towards the other side of town, there was a house. It was a tall colonial. Someone had painted it aqua. Isn’t that funny? But, it was painted in the 70s when people did things like that—it was left that way, dingy aqua. In the backyard was a large tower, probably a playhouse. It was on stilts and it was a box shaped room. It had just one window and that window faced the street. Whenever we would ride in the car with my mother past the house, she would tell us that two little girls were locked up in that tower all day long. She said the girls had a horrible mother who would only feed them in the mornings; sometimes she wouldn’t feed them at all. I always had the most uncomfortable helpless feeling when I saw the tower—even years later when my mother stopped telling the story. I imaged the little girls. You know, skinny with dirty clothes. Lanky, dirty legs, bruises. Cold in the winter. But, mostly: hungry. It was almost as if I could feel what they felt up there. But—I always thought-- at least they had each other, a witness to each other’s experience. Then, one day I asked my sister. Now that we are grown. I said, “Do you remember the girls who lived in the tower in Fairhaven?” She looked at me and I could see it registering in her eyes. But, then she looked down sadly and she said “I haven’t thought of it for a long time. But, I don’t remember two girls. I only remember one hungry little girl locked up in that tower all alone.” I don’t know why, that pierced through my heart. You know what I think? I think my mother must have told her the story before I was born. Since she was four years older, she had been hearing the story. And, once I was born, my mother added another girl to the fiction. I love telling you these things. Things would be so hard otherwise. Do you mind?
You know I don’t. I love your words, Isabelle. --- When Isabelle walked outside, Kevin was there. He was sitting in the car in front of her apartment building and he had a New York Times spread open across the dashboard. Isabelle could see that he was tapping his knee to the music playing on the radio. The newspaper was shaking. The car was steamed up. He had been outside of the apartment for a while. She didn’t know if he liked scaring her or if just he missed her. One time when she was babysitting Abby who lived on the fourth floor, Abby saw Kevin. He was standing on the corner. When he saw the two of them, he passed quickly. Just passed by them, almost brushed against Isabelle. Abby said, “There is that man, Isabelle.” Isabelle told her, “He used to be my boyfriend.” Abby’s eyes turned large. “Maybe you should marry him? If it were a story you would marry him.” “Why would I?” Isabelle wanted to ask, but the girl was only seven, much too little to understand. Even Isabelle didn’t understand and she was twenty-four. Now, she turned and put her key in the lock to lock the door in the entry of her building. Her hand was shaking. But, she had learned to control her feelings and the way she carried herself. She had put make up on carefully, made herself look pretty, confident. And, now she stood tall in her wool pea coat. Her little Guatemalan knitted cap. She dropped her key into the deep coat pocket and started walking down the steps. When she reached the sidewalk, she heard the car start up. She didn’t look back, but she imagined Kevin fumbling with the newspaper. She imagined him throwing the car into drive and taking off. And, as usual, he began trailing her until she got to the T. She knew that when she arrived at the station, then the cold air would combine with the heat coming from the subway stairs and she would feel like she was entering a dream or a womb where she was safe from him. Until she got to work and checked her mail slot. Then, she would see another letter from him. Because I want you to see. But you WON’T understand, Isabelle. She doesn’t like him addressing her by her name so often in his letters. The train was crowded, but somehow she found a seat. When she did she removed her knitted gloves and placed them in her pocket too. She stared at herself in the reflection in the black window as the train sped through the dark tunnel. She thought about the letters. About the girls in the tower. Maybe her mother had told her too that there was one little girl stuck up there by herself. Maybe she had imagined the other. A companion to share the misery. She’ll have to tell him that epiphany later. Maybe she conjured the other girl. She wasn’t brave like her sister. She couldn’t imagine just one raggedy girl up there, especially in the winter. She couldn’t imagine herself alone with her mother. She closed her eyes leaned her head back against the seat. She always felt safe in the train. Its jerks and stops and the oily smell. She felt so at home and relaxed. She opened her eyes again and the car was crowded with people now. Considerate people who folded their newspapers into little manageable pieces that they could manipulate so that they didn’t intrude on other’s spaces. There was a man standing reading the paper in such a way and he held one hand up and held on to the rings attached to the ceiling. He swayed back and forth with the car. She watched him: clean-cut, maybe in his thirties. Not that much older than her. Not much older than Kevin at all. She imagined a wife at home. A pretty suburban house, some suburb of Boston: Natick, Marblehead, Brookline, Newton, Cambridge. She watched him for a moment, thought she could understand something about him. How he acted so much older than he was. She thought to herself, where did he learn that? Where did he learn to be a businessman? A husband? A nice person? --- I saw a man on the train today. Do you ever feel like you just know someone? Or, as it you can understand them. Some stranger that you are just watching without them knowing? That was how I felt.
I have felt like that before—I don’t mean to pry, but were you going to finish telling me what happened with Kevin? It was Kevin, right?
Nothing happened. My mother has always said I am cold hearted. I stopped loving him. There must have been something…something he did. But, I can’t remember now. I just remember his pleading and his wet eyes and I thought he was so weak. He said I wouldn’t listen to him. He didn’t understand how I could be so cold. Now he waits for me.
That seems so scary.
It is a kind of suffocation, but I feel complexly silent--hey, this is crazy isn’t it? I am smoking a cigarette—I had given it up and on the way back from work, it was like some old synapse. I saw an ad in the convenient store window. I just said, “Marlboro lights” and there they were, on the counter in front of me. It is so easy to do bad things to yourself, addictive things. Everyone watches and no one cares. -- I am so tired. I forgot what we had been writing about. Scary? No it feels more like I have been wrapped in layers and layers of fabric. I feel almost as if I can’t move as if I am entirely restricted. Maybe cursed. Anyway, guess what I am thinking about? I am wondering if you have ever kissed someone in the rain…the pitter-patter of drops on metal. Inside the cab of a truck. A dreamy, late romantic night. That is what I am wishing for right now…
In that case, close your eyes. I am kissing you. --- Isabelle could see Kevin across the street: the windows at the police station looked out over Beacon Street. The trees, large maple that lined the street were bare. He looked like a character on a 1970s album cover standing there in his gray sweatshirt and the blustery sky moving in large cloud formations behind him. The bare branches reaching upward, alive somewhere down deep, but the appearing dead for winter. She didn’t feel uneasy, not that she recognized. One thing she did feel, the only thing was that she wanted to go on the date with Jamie, the man from the train. That was his name, Jamie. The thought of him, the idea of him introduced a new Isabelle to herself. She started to wear her hair up in clips. More romantic, some of it falling down around her face. Like an artist would. The officer nodded and put his hand on his chin. Kevin remained in the periphery, outside of the large historic window framed in marble. The police officer’s dirty coffee cup sitting on the ledge: Go Sox! “He is right out there, Isabelle said softly, pointing out over the red sox cup. “Sit for a moment,” the officer said. He had a kind of paternalistic impatience. Isabelle recognized it somehow. That is how men like him talked, it was almost nice. Isabelle sat down. She smoothed her hair back and then delicately put her hand on her neck. “You have to make a plan to deal with this,” the officer said. “I have the paperwork right here, but don’t be hasty.” “Hasty?” “Sometimes a stalking order makes it worse.” Isabelle nodded. A little steam from the radiator hissed, punctuated the pause in their conversation. “Has he ever hit you before?” “No.” “Been violent.” She nodded, and then squinted. “When we broke up. He was waiting in my apartment. He threw a jar at me. Tried to grab me, but I told him to leave and he did.” “Do you rent an apartment?” She nodded. “Could you consider moving?” “Is that what I have to do?” Isabelle somehow thought that once you got a restraining order, it was over. She didn’t know it was up to Kevin. “It’s expensive to find a new place. I only make—I am an assistant with the Globe.” He nodded, smoothed his mustache. “Ok. Then, there are advocates who could help you. You could stay at an undisclosed location. They would help you find an affordable apartment—roommates. Do you live alone now?” She nodded, “yes” He let out a heavy sigh, staring at her the entire time. He shook his head. “You’re taking your chances.” “I live in a building. There are other people there. I live upstairs and there is a security door to get in.” “How did he get in there when you broke up?” She looked down. “I don’t know.” “Your work. Does he know you work at the Globe?” She nodded. “Does he follow you there?” “Not usually. Once or twice. He is a lawyer. He has to go to work at 9:00. I have to be there at 7:00. Sometimes he travels out of town so if he leaves early, he might show up outside of my office before I get there.” “Anything else? Besides following you? Letters?” ”Yes. There are letters.” --- I saw him again on the train again last week. I inspected him more closely. His business clothes are high quality. His hair seems so soft even though it is cut short. I am certain he is wealthy. I smiled at him and something registered in his eyes. They lit up for a moment. Almost with recognition. Then, he resumed reading his paper. It is just attraction. I know that. He got off the train at Peabody. He walked off—didn’t look back. --- On the train, Isabelle made up excuses about her house. She told Jamie –the businessman—that the apartment was being repainted and she was hopping back and forth from friends’ houses. “We could just meet downtown after work,” she offered. “Why don’t we meet at Lucca?” he asked. “Do you know it?” Isabelle shook her head. “Here,” he said and he scribbled down the name of the restaurant and cross streets on the back of his business card. The train stopped at Peabody and Jamie rose. “I’m looking forward to our—to having dinner.” Isabelle smiled and elation over took her for a moment. In an instant he was gone and the train started with a jolt. She couldn’t help but smile. James F. Matthews, Broker. State Street Corporation. --- I wonder if little girls really were up in the tower. I was thinking that one of these weekends I’d drive down to Fairhaven and check out the house. I remember it. Maybe someone knows about the girls.
Do you really think that there were girls living there? From what you told me, your mother was just mean. She was mean to you. It is mean to tell a child a story like that…
Is it? I could still see if the tower is there. Oh did I tell you? Kevin wasn’t outside today. Not for three days now. I don’t trust anything, but I can hope. I wish I could see you. Tell you these things in person. Do you suppose we would like the looks of each other?
Most certainly. Did you meet your friend at the Italian restaurant?
Not yet. Tomorrow. --- The light was dim, yellow. Jamie was different than he seemed on the train. He was relaxed and loose and so handsome. He looked at Isabelle and he was so generous with his attention. It felt uncomfortable, pretending to be part of this world. Sane and insane. It was Isabelle imagined, how poor people saw rich people but she was neither. She was frozen in between and could she dive into this world: a restaurant with the pungent smell of garlic, warm and intoxicating…the mood mixed with the wine and she let herself float down this current, momentarily. And, for a brief interval she was not the cursed, marked girl that she was. She was free…like any other woman out on a date. “I think that the human mind can not survive on creativity alone.” Jamie looked up at Isabelle and smiled, but still Isabelle could see that he was serious. “Its too amorphous.” Something rose and fell inside of Isabelle. A kind of excitement and joy. She smiled and looked down at her glass of wine. It was almost empty. The night was almost over. “Really,” he laughed a little and smiled. It was flirtatious. “That is why I do the stock market. And sculpture.” “But really,” Isabelle asked. “Which are you really?” Maybe he was in between worlds too. “That is what I am trying to tell you. I am both.” He blushed and swallowed down a sip of the red wine. His eyes stayed fixed on her. “You won’t come home with me, will you?” He asked and he held her gaze. Her insides rose but didn’t fall. She shook her head. She wanted to say “next time,” or “some time.” She just smiled. Her mind flashed on Kevin. She felt indentured. “Not tonight,” she said and she knew it was perfectly acceptable within the laws of dating. This restraint.
When she arrived home she saw a light on in her apartment. She hadn’t left any lights on that she could remember, but she was paranoid now—all these months when coincidences were false, weren’t coincidences at all but deliberate acts of intimidation. It made her shaky on the inside; it made her feel guilty and bad. Like this was all her fault. She thought about the police detective, “has he ever been violent.” If she could just trust that the fear would not result in something horrible, she could rest. She could experience the possibility of a different life. In an instant she felt ignorant and immature. She felt both like a child and a woman and she wanted so much to erase this part of things so that she could be free. She started for the stone steps that led to the vestibule of her building. “How did he get into your apartment?” the detective had asked. And, that night flashed before her. The illusion of safety. Not a thought about the front door ajar. Not a thought when her key went into the lock. Not a thought of Kevin. And then his still face. He was frozen, sitting in the darkened living room…His features gouged out of clay, deep with shadows that made him look angular, frightening. Was he up there now? She took a deep breath and the cold air rushed out of her lips; a cloud of condensation. There was a light rain falling. If she were a normal person would she be with Jamie right now? Maybe not in bed with him, maybe not in his apartment but sauntering through the streets warm with infatuation and wine. Talking and laughing. Was it fair to pretend to him that she is a normal person? She glanced back up at the apartment window, searching for a sign of motion. She could imagine walking through the lighted vestibule and up the stairs, her heart pounding. And, what if Kevin were up there now? Sitting there waiting. Maybe he knew all about Jamie. Maybe he was going to kill her. Just then she felt a presence, almost a draft, behind her. She turned and it was Kevin then. Closer than he usually comes to her. Inches from her. At first he seemed small, his eyes were at eye level with her. If they were lovers he would be almost close enough to kiss her. --- But…you haven’t told me what happened when Kevin approached you that night outside after your date.
Nothing happened. Really. I told him to come with me. To come with me to the tower and find out if a little girl had lived there. It was so late. It was almost one in the morning and he was surprised by what I said. He was standing close and I didn’t ask him why he was there. I said “I am going to Fairhaven, near the Cape. I am leaving now.” --- Kevin shook his head and stared at Isabelle. He said “I saw you with someone tonight.” Isabelle was suddenly so preoccupied with the house and the girls up in the tower that she said “can you tell me later? Can you tell me on the way?” The car was cold and the vinyl seats felt like eggshells cracking when they sat down. Kevin sat in the passenger’s seat and he sat very still with his hands in his lap. He looked straight ahead and his curly black hair looked soft and he looked clean cut. He seemed normal in that moment, and Isabelle looked at him for a long time and she said, “We don’t even know each other at all do we?” Somehow the scene had neutralized the situation. It was so bizarre and strange and the road in front of them, the highway, was dark and empty. The little Datsun’s headlights seemed to illuminate only a short distance in front of them and beyond them was darkness, around them was pitch black. “I know you,” Kevin said. “OK” Isabelle said and she pressed down on the gas and the little engine revved before the transmission caught up with the acceleration, then it smoothed out again. There was silence for a long time and Isabelle could see that Kevin was growing sleepy. His head bobbed several times and he caught himself and turned and looked out of the window to keep himself awake. “It’s a long drive,” she said without looking at him “talk to me. Tell me what you want to say to me.” “I don’t have anything to say to you.” She nodded, considered asking him why he followed her, why he spent so much time keeping track of her. “Do you love this guy?” “Who?” Isabelle asked, she had forgotten about Jamie. Here she was in the car with Kevin, driving to Fairhaven. “The guy in the Italian restaurant.” She looked at him while she drove, stared into his eyes a little too long, ignored the road. “Watch the road—“ he said instinctively. She turned and looked back at the road. “Did you ask me if I love this guy?” she said back to him. He didn’t say anything but looked down at the floor. He shuffled his feet back and forth. --- It is altogether new and exciting and it is full of possibility.
Do you love him?
I don’t’ know him. I love the idea of being washed clean. Being free and young. Being someone who is not so scarred.
Could that be just in your mind? Maybe you are clean and unscarred.
Maybe. --- Isabelle pulled the car in front of the house, once aqua now a traditional New England white. The street which when she was a child was run down, was now all refurbished. They had removed the asphalt and revealed cobble stone streets. There were old-fashioned iron street lamps that made a pretty yellow light. It was like when Paul Revere rode down the street on horseback. Everything was quiet and now the night air was freezing. “Is this it?” Kevin asked. Isabelle looked at him and nodded. “It was aqua.” “I know. You told me.” He stepped out of the car and on to the sidewalk. He stopped outside of the iron fence that surrounded the house. “It’s pretty fancy now.” She walked over to him and stood next to him, put her hand on the ice-cold iron fence too. They were under one of the streetlights and the bulb flickered just a little. It seemed like a gas lamp. “Why do you follow me?” she asked. He paused a moment and started to say something then stopped. “You know I don’t like it,” she said. He nodded. “I thought you still loved me.” “Why?” She thought of the letters, the conversations. The plain sheets of white paper and her careful penmanship, the ink bleeding on to the page. She knew why. “Why do you write to me?” he asked. She couldn’t tell him that she had constructed a person out of him…or out of the things he says to her in his letters. The gentleness and the kindness, but in real life with the cold air that surrounds them and his…how could she think about it? His propensity to do something so cruel. “I haven’t written to you for a long time.” “I haven’t followed you for a long time.” “Three days, but then tonight.” He leaned closer to her; his face was almost touching hers. “What do you want?” he whispered. And their eyes were communicating so intensely and deeply that neither of them spoke for a moment. Finally, Isabelle said, “I want to go up into the tower.” “There is no tower,” Kevin said. “How do you know that?” she asked, “you don’t know.” “Look at this neighborhood, look at how things are now. They wouldn’t keep an old tower. That was twenty years ago.” Isabelle’s eyes stayed fixed on his. “You are nice to me in the letters.” He nodded. “I love writing to you. I just wanted to know if you loved this guy.” She didn’t answer and started walking around to the side of the house. There was now a thick hedge of evergreen laurel that was about eight feet high. The bushes were planted so close together that they screened the back yard; it would be hard to push through them. “You would be able to see it from here, if it were that tall” “Not with these hedges—“ She started to break through the hedges and it was much easier than she had thought at first. The branches were thin and bent against her weight. When she got through the hedge, she saw a manicured yard with a pretty stone patio. She looked all around and finally, in the corner of the yard…where the chain linked fence used to be…when the house was ramshackle and duplexed or triplexed…that would be where she would have seen it from the road when they were stopped at the red light. There was a tower and now it was right in front of her. “There,” Kevin said. And she stood frozen for a moment and it didn’t occur to her that it was strange that this relic remained, with everything else polished over nicely. Everything so posh and pretty and here was this rickety looking tower with one room still standing. --- I climbed up the steps, hardly stable at all and it was dark and it occurred to me that maybe animals were living up there or maybe the wood planks were rotten in places. But, it wasn’t at all. It was sturdy. It had lasted all these years. Kevin waited at the bottom and I climbed up high and when I got inside, it was a small –tiny, tiny—little space. The ceiling was only about four feet high. And, there were little shelves remaining, like coops. I looked down at the floors, and although it had been years I could tell immediately that at one time, it had been for birds, maybe pigeons, but they had all flown away or been relocated.
No little girl?
No. There was no little girl. I don’t think one ever existed. ***