D. Cooper Ho
Andrew Rose’s arm dropped with a thud onto the table, the letter still clutched in his hand. His heart was racing, blood was pounding in his ears. A hot prickly sensation ran all throughout his body. He scrutinized the letter certain he recognized the handwriting. He read it over two more times, in between glances at the bathroom where Elise had vanished in what seemed like hours ago.
Finally, she emerged and he hastily folded it back up and jammed it into his pocket. Elise sat back down, looking more composed than she had before she left and more composed than he felt. As she stared at him, puzzled, he recalled the first time they met.
It was at the family’s annual Christmas party. She was a stranger in a strange land, a guest of one of his cousins. She looked scared; her eyes darted around the room, examining all the faces, with an intimidated expression. She folded her arms tightly across her chest and occasionally tugged at a piece of hair as she talked to the various busybodies of the family. Andrew watched from a distance as she laughed nervously at some off-color joke that his uncle Arnie told the group of people huddled around Elise. Jingle Bell Rock played in the background and he saw a slight twitch in Elise’s posture that told him she liked this song, but was afraid to get into it. Instead, she kept her arms folded as if protecting herself. From what, Andrew wasn’t sure, but he had some ideas. Andrew couldn’t help but notice her unassuming prettiness.
It was the second time in one day that particular memory was conjured. And it was followed by a million more from the past three years. They flooded the cab of Andrew’s truck when he first saw her number appear on the LED display of his cell phone, mere hours earlier. Andrew put the keys in the ignition and waited while the phone rang. He drummed his still-dirty fingers on the steering wheel and waited for that voice to ring in his ears again. The phone rang once. He wondered why she was calling now. It was stifling hot in the cab of his truck but he couldn’t turn on the A/C because he wouldn’t be able to hear her over the roar of the engine. It rang twice, three times. He wondered if something was wrong. The steaming summer sun beat down on the hood and Andrew could feel fresh beads of perspiration forming on his forehead. He wiped his hand across his forehead.
He didn’t mean for it to happen, but falling in love with Elise was too easy. She made it too easy. Elise laughed at all of his jokes — she even told some funny ones — she listened intently to all his football stories, she offered dating advice and suggested the types of girls he should be dating. Andrew would laugh to himself and wonder if she realized that she had just described herself. By the time he realized he was in love with her, she was engaged to Andrew’s cousin, Michael Grigsby. The phone rang four times and finally he heard that voice on the other end pick up.
“Hey, Elise… It’s Andrew,” he said. “You called?”
“Andrew!” Elise said in a high-pitched squeal of excitement. “I’m so glad you called me back. I was beginning to think you were ignoring us. It’s been so long since we’ve heard from you.”
“No, I’ve just been busy with work.” He stared out the side window at the job he’d been working on. It had only taken an hour to dig up the pipe, cut out the broken piece, and set and seal the new one. “Anyway, what’s up?”
“I just wanted to see how you were doing,” she said with a little less enthusiasm. “It’s been awhile since you’ve come to a family dinner. Nobody seemed to know what you were doing and everyone is always asking about you, so I figured I’d take it upon myself to solve the mystery.”
“Mystery solved,” he said with a smile.
There was silence on the line for a moment. Andrew wasn’t sure what else he could add to the subject. He couldn’t tell her the real reason he stayed away. The Grigsbies and the Roses were the two most prominent families in Beulah Sound, South Carolina. Unfortunately, for Andrew, they were related, which meant he got twice as much disapproval for his choice of careers.
“Fixing other people’s crap shoots is manual labor,” his Gran used to bark at him while he was still a plumber’s apprentice. “You might as well be a filthy mule.”
His parents kept their opinions to themselves but always offered him positions within the family business. It was their passive aggressive way of telling him they didn’t approve. He loved what he did, though. He worked outside all day and despite what they thought, there was good, honest money in it; it wasn’t just snaking people’s drains and unclogging toilets. His business was taking off and Andrew was proud of the reputation he was earning through his hard work.
Holding the phone against his ear with one hand, he ran his finger through the set of keys in the ignition, desperately wanting the cold air to wash over him and cool him down. He stared blankly at the center of the steering wheel where a Ford emblem used to be.
“Andrew? You there?” Elise said, snapping him back to reality.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I was writing something down. Did you say something?”
“Yeah, I asked if you wanted to grab some coffee or a beer later. You know, and catch up.”
“Uh…” There was a long pause. “Sure. A beer sounds good.”
“Meet me at the Clam Shack, then, in an hour,” she said and promptly hung up.
Andrew tossed the phone aside and looked up into the review mirror. The narrow mirror captured only his dark brown eyes and a swath of dirt across his forehead. He didn’t need to look. He knew a shower was in order. The engine sputtered a few times before rolling over. It groaned loudly as he put it into drive and pulled away from his client’s house. The late summer sun was beating down on the hood of his battered old truck. Andrew flicked on the radio and turned up the volume to drown out the sound of the engine. It was broken, like almost everything else in the truck, so the only station that came in was a country music station. This fact didn’t bother Andrew, because at times he enjoyed a good sulk. This time was no exception. As if cosmically timed, “Just to See You Smile,” by Tim McGraw blasted out over the engine, which sounded like a growling old dog on its last leg.
The Clam Shack was a rickety old restaurant that hovered at the end of the pier. As Andrew walked along the boardwalk, he watched the waves roll by beneath him. He always had a habit of looking over the edge into the water, to catch a glimpse of a shark or sea turtle. A mixture of fish guts, pelican poop and discarded shrimp heads covered the railing. He made sure not to touch it. An older man with dark leathery skin leaned over the railing with a fishing pole, spinning the reel vigorously. The skinny little rod arched to the point of snapping as the man heaved it back. He brought his flexed biceps up to his ears and spun the reel again. Andrew slowed down.
“Got something good?” Andrew said watching the water, hoping to catch a glimpse of the beast of the sea.
“Grouper,” the man breathed, straining against the fight the fish was putting up. “I think…”
Andrew watched him for a few moments, remembering the last time he had one on the hook. The exhilaration of seeing it breach the surface and discovering what he’d captured. There was such a thrilling satisfaction in fishing. Working hard to bring it in, but never quite knowing what was going to be on the hook until it split the surface of the water. He smiled and continued into the restaurant. Elise was sitting at a booth next to the bar. She looked up and instinctively ran a hand through her straight blonde hair before standing up to greet him.
“Andrew Rose…” Elise threw her thin arms around Andrew’s neck. He responded with a tentative embrace, which he released quickly. “It’s been too long. How long has it been?”
“Since the wedding,” he said, sitting down.
The waitress came to the booth to take their drink orders. Andrew ordered a Bud Light and listened as Elise toiled over the drink menu before settling on a Bud Light as well.
“How have you been, Andrew? I’ve been worried about you,” Elise admitted a little shyly.
His eyebrows knitted together as he processed what she said. She stared back at him, her blue eyes waiting for a response. He dropped his eyes to the table. It was highly lacquered with shells and other sea creatures preserved in a yellowish grave underneath. His gaze only hovered on the table for a moment; a moment too long and she’d ask more questions.
“I’m fine,” Andrew said offhandedly. “I’ve just been busy getting the business off the ground and all.”
Elise rubbed her finger around the lip of the bottle as she appraised his statement. Accepting his claim she clasped her hand around the bottle and took a small sip, grimacing. The muscles in her neck tensed as she forced the liquid down.
“I guess it’s been going pretty well, then?” she said.
“Yep. I’ve got a few new construction gigs coming up that will keep me pretty busy.”
He neglected to mention the big contract he’d just been offered on the other side of the state that would ensure no family dinners for at least six months. Though he was still unsure if he’d take it. He took a longer swig from his beer and let it slide down his throat with ease. “So, how’s married life treating you?”
Elise fixed him with a somber stare. The air around them expanded with pregnant silence. She seemed on the brink of a decision.
"I´ve become a different person since Michael and I got married," Elise said after a long sigh. She gazed into the table, absentmindedly tearing the cold, wilted label from the bottle, leaving a small pile of shredded paper on the table. A thoughtful expression consumed her normally carefree face as she continued. “He’s become a different person. Nobody ever warns you how much things change once you get married.”
The shock of her revelation rippled through Andrew like a boulder bursting the surface of a pristine lake. There was a sudden change in her voice. It sounded as distant as her gaze.
“I don’t think it’s always that way,” he said, trying to say something that would comfort her.
“You don’t?” Elise looked up.
His heart tightened as he saw the sadness in her eyes. His ears went red with embarrassment at seeing her in tears. He didn’t want to continue, but she pressed him on with her watery blue eyes.
“I just mean that it gets better. Marriage is a big deal,” he said, taking a quick drink from the bottle and watching it carefully as he continued. Andrew had no idea if it really did get better, but he couldn’t let her sit there looking like that. “It takes some adjusting to. You guys have only been married six months.”
Talking to Elise about her marriage to Michael split Andrew evenly down the middle. He hated to see her look so sad, but felt that talking to Michael’s wife, alone in a bar, about their relationship was crossing some sort of line.
“Maybe you’re right.” Elise smiled. “I guess I’m just feeling a little overwhelmed. It’s just harder than I thought it would be. Do you know what I mean?”
Andrew grimaced. “No,” he said flatly. “I don’t.”
The only time he’d even been close to knowing what Elise meant ended when his fiancée called off their wedding two months before without even giving him a reason. He never saw her again, but heard that she’d moved to Texas, married a cowboy and had a couple of kids. That was before he’d met Elise. It felt like a different life, one he didn’t live but only dreamt about.
“Is Mike meeting you here?” he said, wanting to change the subject.
“Oh, no.” She shook her head vigorously with a scandalized look on her face. “He’d have a fit if he knew I was talking about our problems with anyone, especially you.”
“Why me?” Andrew said, his stomach plummeting to the floor. Elise shrank back a little and blushed.
“I don’t know,” she said, waving him off as if it were nothing more significant than an annoying fly. “He just gets jealous sometimes.”
A look of terror spread across her face. “Oh, no, no, no.” She shook her head again. “I didn´t mean it like that.”
"What did you mean, then," Andrew asked crossly.
Elise looked him in the eyes with a yielding expression as if Andrew had just wrestled a secret out of her.
"Michael thinks that there is something between us," she said, trying to keep her eyes fixed on Andrew´s, but as the color crept into her cheeks, she lost her nerve and dropped her gaze. Andrew stiffened.
"That´s crazy," he said as convincingly as he could.
"Is it?" Her face looked as if it was carved from stone.
Andrew felt an unspoken truth getting ready to breach the surface like a whale and the splash was going to drench more than just him and Elise. Any moment now, the words he longed to say for the past eight months would spring from his mouth. As he stared back at Elise, speechless, Michael´s face came to mind, followed in rapid succession by the rest of the family, and it was enough to hold his tongue.
"Elise," he said, carefully forming each syllable so nothing extra slipped out.
"Michael has always been jealous…and a little bit paranoid. When we were in high school, Michael would tell his mom I was trying to steal his position on the football team, and his mom would call mine and they´d argue all night long and then not speak to each other for weeks."
Elise laughed. The sound made Andrew´s ears tingle. "Michael always thinks I´m trying to one-up him," Andrew said, hoping this would deflect the attention away from the truth that Elise came so close to uncovering.
"Maybe that´s because he knows you´re better than him." There was no averting her eyes this time. They fixed on Andrew like laser beams locked on a target. "Excuse me for a moment. I have to use the restroom."
Elise slid out of the booth and stood up. Andrew stood as well and watched as Elise swiped up her oversized handbag and walked toward the back of the bar to the bathrooms.
Michael was justified in his jealousy this time. Andrew’s mind drifted to the night he realized he was in love with Elise. He and his cousin Eddie had gone out with some friends to Fat Daddy´s Bar. Elise showed up at the bar with her friend Diane, who was a skinny little toothpick of a girl with bushy brown hair. Andrew was talking with a blonde-haired woman when she walked in. At first, he didn’t see her, but Eddie made a scene about Elise being in a place like this without Michael. She laughed it off and took a seat a few barstools down from where the blonde flirted with Andrew. Elise unknowingly drew his attention away from the blonde. Every time she laughed at some inaudible thing Diane said it was the only thing he could hear. Eventually he forgot about the blonde he’d been talking to and couldn’t help but give his undivided attention to Elise and her friend.
Standing in front of her in a dimly lit bar, Andrew had to lean in close when she spoke in order to hear her over the din of the drunk and disorderly bar patrons. The scent of her peony perfume overpowered the stench of stale beer and cigarettes. Her bare legs were turned toward him as she talked into his ear; the sound of her voice and her breath on his skin sent chills throughout his body. Her denim skirt revealed just enough. Her black-and-white-striped blouse came off the shoulders, exposing her collarbone. The dim lights above reflected off her pale skin. She swept her long blonde hair off her shoulder as Andrew leaned in to speak, revealing the soft skin of her neck.
It was her eyes, though, that truly captured his attention, and her lips. When Andrew spoke, he watched her eyes as she fixed them resolutely on him, as if there was nobody else in the crowded bar but them. Her eyes were as blue as the twilight sky and full of interest; they expressed everything she thought and they were honest. When she spoke, Andrew strained to hear what she said because he was so distracted by her plump rose-colored lips. The noise in the background made it difficult to hear, but he was afraid to lean in closer for fear of kissing her. His own lips twitched as he watched her speak. Andrew had never been this close to Elise; close enough to smell the sweetness of her breath. One subtle movement and Andrew wasn’t sure he could control himself.
Her eyes made him fall in love. Her lips made him want to act on it. He was so intoxicated by the proximity that the moment she left he couldn´t remember a single word they´d exchanged.
That was two months before she married Michael. He wanted to tell her then to forget about Michael. That Michael didn’t deserve her and he, Andrew, could be a better husband. He was, after all, better than Michael in everything else. But, in the end, he held his tongue. It was a selfish thought. A thought that, if put into action, would wreak havoc on the entire family.
Andrew threw back his bottle and finished it in one shot, then quickly downed the rest of Elise’s warm beer. He walked to the bar to pay the bill before Elise came back from the bathroom. As he did, he kicked something. A piece of paper slid across the floor under a barstool. He leaned down and snatched it up. It was no bigger than a business card folded up. While he waited for the waitress to swipe his card, he unfolded it. It was a letter.
He didn’t want to invade someone’s privacy, so he jumped down to the bottom to look for a name.
Maybe it belonged to the waitress. She had walked up and down the length of the bar several times while he was sitting there with Elise, she could have dropped it.
There was no signature. The waitress returned and he handed it to her.
“Did you drop this?” he said.
At first glance, she shook her head, but then held it closer as she read it. Her mouth contracted into little circles of enjoyment. When she finished reading, she fanned herself with the letter.
“It’s not mine,” she said feigning breathlessness. “But, I’d sure like to meet the man who it’s to.”
“How do you know it was to a man?” he said.
She shrugged. “Just sounds like it’s from a woman. Plus,” she said. “It doesn’t look like a guy’s handwriting.”
She laughed as she handed the letter back to Andrew. He took it back and sat down at the table, wondering if was okay to read it. Finally, his curiosity defeated his sense that he was invading someone’s privacy, so he read the letter:
"I don’t really write this letter to anyone, just to get my thoughts out of my head. I had to get these feelings out somehow. There is no one I could tell who would understand, not even you, no one. I wish I had met you sooner, I wouldn´t feel like I´m always in the wrong place. You two are like night and day and I realize now how much more I love the warmth of the sun than the cold distance of the moon. If I could wrap myself in the sun’s rays and never let it set then the cool indifference of the night could never touch me. I doubt writing this will alleviate the pain I´m in now that I´ve realized my mistake, but keeping it inside was far worse. It was like a virus eating away at my very sanity. If only there were a way…a way to fix it and make it right…the way it was supposed to be. You and me."
Andrew’s arm dropped with a thud onto the table, the letter still clutched in his hand. His heart was racing, blood pounded in his ears. A hot prickly sensation ran all throughout his body. He scrutinized the letter certain he recognized the handwriting. He read it over two more times, in between glances at the bathroom where Elise had vanished what seems like hours ago. Finally, she emerged and he hastily folded it back up and jammed it into his pocket. Elise sat back down, looking more composed than she had before she left and more composed than he felt.
"Are you okay?" she asked after taking in the expression on his face.
"Yeah," he muttered, trying to put his thoughts in order. "So, why do you think I´m better than Michael?"
She smiled and ran her finger through the pile of shredded paper from the beer label.
"Do you remember the time I was hanging out with you, Eddie, and his girlfriend, Sara, at your apartment?"
Andrew furrowed his brow. No specific occasion came to mind. That was a fairly normal occurrence prior to the wedding.
“Not particularly. Why?”
“You were making a chocolate milkshake for yourself and you asked if anyone else would like one. We all said yes, so you got right to work. You threw in the ice cream, the milk and the syrup, and then grabbed a handful of pecans from a bowl next to the blender. I didn’t say anything because I’d always been taught it was impolite to be picky about what’s in something someone else made for you.”
Andrew nodded. The memory was vaguely familiar.
“When you handed me my cup…” Elise smiled as if she were seeing it in her head. “You said to me, ‘No nuts. I know you don’t like them.’”
“I remember that,” Andrew said. “But what does that have to do with Michael?”
The waitress came by and Andrew ordered another beer. The conversation required it. Andrew looked around the once empty bar. It was slowly filling up with customers. People now lined the bar and beachgoers looking to escape the intense summer sun now filled several of the booths.
“Michael doesn’t remember things like that. I’ve told him a hundred times that I don’t like nuts, and he always buys Butter Pecan ice cream and tells me just to pick out the nuts.”
“If that’s all that sets us apart, I’m afraid you’ve put me on a pedestal I don’t deserve,” Andrew said with a chuckle. The waitress set down his beer and retreated behind the bar.
“Do you ever feel like you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Elise said.
Andrew thought about the letter in his pocket and his chest heaved a bit.
“I mean,” she continued when he didn’t respond. “If you’d had better timing, that maybe things would be different? You’d be in a different position?”
“Elise…” Andrew’s heart was pounding in his chest and the letter in his pocket was burning his leg. It was as if she was reading the words off the page. He took a long swig of his beer and leaned over the table with his head down, eyes closed, letting the flavors burst inside his mouth. He had no plan for what was about to come out of his mouth. With another swig of his beer, he looked up. Elise looked expectant.
“Elise, I’m in love with you. I’ve been in love with you longer than I realized. It’s been eating me up inside ever since that night at Fat Daddy’s. You just looked so beautiful that I couldn’t keep lying to myself any longer. I may not be able to give you everything that Michael can, but I can love you until there isn’t a star left in the sky. I know I can treat you better that Michael can. He doesn’t deserve you.”
That’s what he wanted to say, anyway, but he couldn’t pry the words out from between his clenched teeth. Elise kept looking at him, her expression shifting from expectant to concerned. He couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t fess up.
“Elise,” Andrew finally relaxed his jaw and spoke. “We have to take the road that’s been laid out in front of us. It doesn’t do any good to point at someone else’s road and say theirs looks better. You make the best out of what you’ve been given.
“Michael’s my cousin and it wouldn’t be right if I told you to do something that would hurt him. But, from one friend to another, do what makes you happy. That’s the least any of us deserve, to be happy.”
Andrew slid out of the booth and stood up. “I’ve got to get going,” he said. “It was good to see you, Elise.”
Elise sat for a second longer, chewing her bottom lip. Finally, she stood up, too. Andrew pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly. She slid her arms around his waist. Andrew kissed Elise on the cheek and then turned, threw a ten-dollar bill to the waitress, and walked out of the bar.
He walked through his front door with one thing on his mind: a box of unopened mail from the last several months that sat in his office. He shuffled through the box, searching for that one thing he knew was there. Post cards from local gyms soliciting his patronage, credit card offers, newsletters, even old credit card statements sat in these boxes, unopened. Then, at the bottom was a small square envelope with a handwritten address on it, an unopened thank you note from his wedding gift to the happy couple. He was looking for that one.
He pulled it out of the box and examined the writing. It was neat and elegant. The “y’s” swooped down gracefully beneath the line of script and the “r’s” were very romantic looking. Andrew then pulled out the letter in his back pocket and laid the two samples side by side, carefully comparing each letter.