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Unfortunately, this week I am too busy to write a new Friday Fiction post. However, I thought I would share a post I discuss with my students in class. I wrote this short piece called “The Letter in the Desk” when I was working on my MFA. The prompt, again from Brian Kiteley, is from The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, which asks writers to “work with a character you’re very familiar with—someone from a novel you’ve abandoned, a series of stories, or at least a story you’ve worked hard on but have not finished. The character is waiting for someone she knows very well in something like a study or living room. The wait is long. The event these two people are go to is not pleasant. The character gets restless waiting for the friend and begins opening bureau drawers, just browsing through stuff, doing a little snooping around. The character comes upon a sealed letter, addressed to her.”
As I was just beginning to write “Beneath the Mimosa Tree” back in 2010, and as the story had been in my head for about 20 years, I decided to write the pinnacle moment for Michael and Annabelle. The first version here is the result of the prompt; the second version is what actually made it onto the pages of my novel.
The Letter in the Desk (The Prompt Exercise)
Mr. Contelli escorted me into the library, a place I hadn’t been in years. It looked the same, though shelves that had previously been empty were now fully stacked with hardback books. I always loved this place; the way the light came streaming through the enormous picture windows that overlooked the Severn River made it a pleasant place to work. The crystal chandelier centered over the desk added a touch of femininity to a mostly masculine room. It had always been Michael’s favorite.
“Let me tell him you are here, Annabelle. I think he was just going in the shower,” Mr. Contelli said to me, trying not to feel awkward.
His dislike for me still seemed apparent, and I tried not to let that dissuade me from pursuing Michael’s forgiveness. When I had asked him yesterday at the foot of the driveway if he would attend Christmas Eve mass with me, I caught him off-guard. This had been a tradition of ours. Until yesterday, we had not spoken in ten years, and now I was standing in the library of his parents’ lovely home, about to ask him to forgive me for what I did those many years ago.
Mr. and Mrs. Contelli poked their heads in the door. “Michael will be down in ten minutes. Make yourself comfortable. We are heading out now and hope to see you there,” Mrs. Contelli said.
“Thank you. See you there.”
I heard the front door shut, then the car start.
There was a drawer in the desk where Michael used to keep all of our work—his sketches, my poetry, our letters. I wondered if it were still in there. It was always known as “Michael’s drawer,” and others were asked to keep out. I fashioned myself in the seat of the desk, and slowly opened the drawer. Deep in the back of it, behind a small box of rubber bands, staples, and Elmer’s glue, was a shallow box. I could still hear the shower water running, so I pulled it out.
It was just as I remembered it. I felt ridiculous, like an inexperienced detective or novice spy. I noticed all the letters were opened, and I started to peruse them. The first letter was from Michael to me when he had first been accepted at NYU. It read, “Dear Annabelle, Can you believe it? I am so excited. I have always wanted to live in New York. I can’t wait for you to visit!” The second one I saw was from me to him; my bad poetry was something that belonged shoved in a box in the back of a desk. It pained me to read it.
And then I came across an unopened letter addressed to me from London. There was postage on it, but it had not been mailed. My hand was shaking and I grabbed the letter opener. I gently opened it, unfolded the letter.
It’s been three months since you left me waiting for you at the airport and I’m still hoping you’ll explain it to me. I’m in London now. I have a job at The London Times editing copy, and am pursuing my master’s degree at The University of London. I am moving along without you, though it doesn’t feel the same. What were originally our plans are now just mine, and I feel empty and lonely without you.
I hope this letter reaches you at a time when you are able to think about what happened and can explain why you chose not to marry me. Any communication from you would be welcomed. I always assumed we meant more to each other than what has become of us.
I love you…always,
I stared at it, tears rolling down my face, ashamed, even after all this time, at what a coward I had been.
“Okay,” he said cheerfully as he opened the door. “Let’s get this Christmas Eve celebration underway. This will be interesting.”
He caught a glimpse of me standing there crying as I held the letter. I collapsed into the chair. “I’m so sorry,” I said, barely getting the words out through tears. “I’m so sorry.”
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The Final Version of The Letter in the Desk | An Excerpt from Beneath the Mimosa Tree
Mr. Contelli was wearing his coat, a red scarf wrapped around his neck, and was ready to head over to my parents’ house when he answered the door.
“Is Michael home?” I asked. I was flustered, but there was something in his eyes that told me he sympathized with me at that moment.
“Let me tell him you’re here, Annabelle. I think he was just going into the shower,” he said. He was doing his best to make me feel comfortable.
He disappeared upstairs to check and then came back down and escorted me into the library, a place I hadn’t seen in a very long time. It looked the same, minus the couch under the window; the previously empty shelves were now fully stacked with hardback books and several knickknacks. I had always loved this place in the daytime; the way the light came streaming through the enormous picture windows that overlooked the Severn River added a sense of serenity to the place. The crystal chandelier centered over the desk added a touch of femininity to a mostly masculine room. It used to be Michael’s favorite place in the house.
“He’ll be down in a few minutes. He asked if you don’t mind waiting,” he said.
“Not at all.”
“Okay,” he said, as I attempted to search for any signs that he might still hold a grudge against me. “I’m going to head over now. I’ll see you in a little while?”
“Yes, you will. Thank you very much.”
The front door shut, and I heard his footsteps marching off across the path to the party.
I stood in the room near the desk and looked around. The Contellis’ home was beautiful, I thought—much simpler than my parents’ home, but with great detail. The fireplaces were etched, the walls showcased stunning crown molding, big and thick, and the floors were worn old pine, with dings and imperfections that gave them character. It was subtle but elegant. The middle drawer in the desk once housed our personal keepsakes—Michael’s sketches, my poetry, our letters. I wondered if our items were still in there. It was always known as “Michael’s drawer,” and others were asked to “keep out.” I fashioned myself in the seat of the desk, and slowly opened the drawer. Deep in the back of it, behind a small box of rubber bands, staples, and dried up Elmer’s glue, was a shallow, old cigar box. I could still hear the murmur of shower water running, so I pulled it out.
It was just as I remembered it. The colors may have been a little faded, but it was still filled with some of our memorabilia. I felt like an intruder, but curiosity consumed me. There were charms and stickers, postcards and photographs. I noticed all the letters had been opened, and I started to peruse them. The first letter was from Michael to me when he had first been accepted at NYU. It read,
Can you believe it? I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to live in New York. I can’t wait for you to visit.
The second one I examined was from me to him; my sophomoric poetry back then was something that belonged shoved in a box in the back of a desk. It pained me to read it.
And then I came across an unopened letter addressed to me from London. There was postage on it, but it had not been mailed. I stared at it for seconds, minutes. My hands were shaking and I grabbed the letter opener. I knew it was wrong, but I gently opened it, trying to keep it as intact as possible, and unfolded the letter.
It’s been nearly a year since you left me distraught at the airport and I’m still hoping you’ll explain it to me. I’m in London now. I’ve been working at a newspaper in London; the position doesn’t even have a formal title. My master’s program is going well so far. I’m convinced this was a good decision. I muddle through without you, though it doesn’t feel the same. I think it would have been great to experience all of this together.
I hope this letter reaches you at a time when you’ve been able to think clearly about what happened and can explain to me why you did what you did. It hurt, Annabelle; it still does. Any communication from you would be welcome. I really want to understand. I’m still so angry, I can’t see straight, and some days I’m so mad I don’t know what to do other than to throw myself into my work. But if I did this to you, if the shoe had been on the other foot, wouldn’t you want to know why? Wouldn’t you deserve and require an explanation?
I always assumed we meant more to each other than what has become of us.
Despite it all, I love you…always,
I stared at it, the words beginning to blur as tears rolled down my face, ashamed, embarrassed, guilty and disgusted at the way I’d hurt him. I was crying because of the love I had let go of and never had the guts to attempt to rectify. Reading his words—his thoughts—was agonizing. A lump sat in my throat, and I stood as I heard his footsteps approaching from the hallway.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said cheerfully as he entered the room, rubbing his hands together, with a forced smile on his face. “I just needed to…”
He abruptly stopped speaking and looked at me quizzically when he saw me standing there crying, the letter in hand. I collapsed into the chair.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, barely choking the words out through tears, unable to look him in the eyes. “I’m so sorry, Michael.”
Copyright 2012 | Stephanie Verni | Beneath the Mimosa Tree