Return to Sender

He fainted when he saw me.

I, too, could have swooned. He was alive and I was in his hands. Half my dreams had come true.

When he first held me, his finger outlined my mound of yellow stickers but he did not read the explanations for my tardy arrival. Incomplete cancellation. Processing error. Insufficient postage. Peel them off, peel them off… It occurred to him to peel off the stickers.

He recognized the handwriting on my cream envelope with its purple ink that was remarkably fresh after 48 years. After they dropped me, you see, my face lay flush against a metal cabinet, away from air, which slowed my inevitable fading. I know he recognized the handwriting because he whispered, “Louise,” and then he fainted. As he fell, he released me.

A boy burst through the doorway and snatched me as I fell. He yelled behind him, “Mom, Grandpa fell and now he’s asleep.” The boy pried at my stamp. “Wow, this is old.”

Footsteps hurried our way. A woman was no sooner out the door than she dropped to her knees. “Dad? Davey, what happened to him? Dad!”

Give the envelope to her. The boy, who must be Davey, shoved the envelope at the woman.

She barely glanced at me. Her concern was for the man, who propped himself on an elbow and said, “I’ll take that.”

“Bring me my keys and purse, we need to get Grandpa to Urgent Care,” the woman instructed the boy, who ran inside. She tightened her grip on me. Her name, I knew not. She did not exist at the time I was composed.

“I’m fine now, just had a bit of a shock,” the man said. My dearest Christopher, I knew him to be from my salutation. He reached for me.

Frowning at my envelope, the woman handed me to My dearest Christopher. “I wish you would take care of yourself again. I don’t want Mom coming back to haunt us.”

My dearest Christopher said, “I won’t go to Urgent Care, Diana.”

“I know,” the woman, whose name must be Diana, replied. “Why did that letter shock you?”

He bent one joint then another until he was sitting on the top step of the porch. “It’s from someone I once knew. She has owed me a letter for a very long time.”

“Someone you knew before Mom?” Diana’s posture matched the expression as tightly wound as a spring.

My dearest Christopher cradled me in his lap. “Yes, and to answer your next question, yes, your mother knew about her.”

Diana’s spring unwound. The boy, Davey, burst anew from the house, jangling keys and dragging a purse. “Can I call 9-1-1?”

“Grandpa’s better now. Let’s go make him a snack.” She hugged her son until he complained and led him inside. At the doorway, she turned to us. “Mom was your only wife, though, right?”

Kindness flowed from my dearest Christopher and warmed my envelope. “For 45 years, sweet Dee. From when we were almost young to when we were nearly old.”

Diana mouthed the phrase as though familiar with it, then left us alone.

His eyes glittered with tears. Read me. Read me. But he didn’t.

As we sat there, he contemplated the handwriting on my envelope and I reflected on my naiveté. Ah, but how could I hope to be worldly, lost for so many years behind a sorting table in a postal distribution center?

Mine had been a routine processing, until a worker dropped a stack of mail. The worker retrieved all the pieces that hit the floor, but I never got that far. I was caught upright in a metal frame in deep shadow. And there I stood, suspended for 48 years.

At first, I marked time by the passage of feet, and amused myself distinguishing among them. Gradually I retreated into my own world. My ink grew softer and my paper, more brittle.

Through uncounted years I fantasized about my delivery. I practiced instructions, terse in case I was handled briefly. You see, when Yours forever, Louise addressed my envelope and kissed my stamp, she infused me with such love that it gave me power to sense and influence people. It was a power I used with all the wisdom in my two-dimensional possession – ever more cautiously, as I came to realize how little about people I understood.

I had decades to refine my plan, nay, my mission to get delivered to my destination. When the distribution center was remodeled and I was finally discovered, I persuaded worker after worker to make the effort on my behalf: pursue obsolete forwarding addresses, accept inadequate postage, and so forth.

I never lost my faith that I would be found and complete my travels from sender to recipient. However, what I called my plan was more accurately a hope. To reunite the lovers, I had only to expose the misunderstanding that caused their separation! Or so I believed.

I had not considered all that might have happened to them in the intervening years. Furthermore, while I had anticipated changes of addresses for My dearest Christopher, I had not considered changes to the location of my sender! My oversight disappointed me. It was likely that Yours forever, Louise had relocated multiple times! However might we find her?

Worse – would My dearest Christopher seek to find her? I had imagined that I might have to persuade him to try. However, I had never envisioned the possibility that he would not even read me! Yet here he sat, his fingers infusing me with the sense of disloyalty he suffered, merely by holding me.

I cannot say how much time elapsed, because I have become masterful at ignoring the passage of time: I flatten myself on an unblemished parchment that stretches without edges in all directions.

His rushing feelings brought me back. He flushed the disloyalty with sorrow, confusion, grief, longing – and love, when he heard voices inside the house, the voices of the boy, Davey, and his mother, Diana.

If My dearest Christopher chose not to open my envelope, I might soothe my disappointment knowing that his life had not been empty of loved ones, after the mistake and bad luck that separated him from Yours forever, Louise. Yet that salve was limited. From the moment she kissed my stamp and wished me godspeed, her love for this man, her desire to share her life with him, became the fiber of my being.

The screen door rattled. “Is it what you expected?” Diana joined her father on the top step.

My dearest Christopher flipped my envelope one more time.

“How could you not open it, Dad?” Her voice lost its teasing quality. “What are you afraid it might say?”

“I know what it says. Anyway, I know the important part. She said no. You see, I asked Louise to marry me. This was nearly two years before I met your mother.”

“Why didn’t you propose in person?”

“Her father hated me. I was against the war, which meant she was fraternizing with a traitor. He forbid her from seeing me. We had to sneak around.”

“But you served! In Vietnam!” Diana was so indignant I could sense it even though she wasn’t touching me.

“I served because I got drafted, which didn’t count. Maybe if he had seen me in my uniform. But he grew a cancer and it took him pretty fast.  After he was diagnosed, Louise and I began to fight. About everything and nothing. We weren’t speaking when I shipped out, but on the trip overseas, I realized we were being stupid. I wasn’t sure I’d get back home, with the rumors about how the war was really going. I meant to write her an apology, but it turned into a marriage proposal. I wasn’t even confident she’d accept an apology. When I didn’t hear from her, I assumed the worst.”

“That’s the most you’ve ever said about the war.” Diana’s voice was soft.

“You wanted to hear about Vietnam?” His air thickened with heat and humidity but, before a jungle memory could emerge, he returned to this brisk afternoon.

“Are you kidding? Yes! Mom made me stop asking. She said I owned your heart but not your memories.”

“Your mother was very protective. And wise.”

Diana tapped my envelope with a tentative finger. “What was she like? Louise.”

“She was. Flourishes and the unexpected. Fireworks in a windstorm.” His feelings were dizzying in their contradictions. He wanted to open my envelope and he wanted to burn me. My sympathy was surpassed only by my eagerness. Read me. Read me now!

“Your mother and I –”

“Dad. Open the letter. Before Davey finishes his nap.” Diana handed him a pocket knife.

Perversely, my envelope resisted opening. A jagged accordion pleat of paper, more torn than cut, grew ahead of the knife blade. My dearest Christopher unfolded me with such care I might have been delicate rather than 48-years-strong.  He handed me to Diana. “Read it to us.”

Diana leaned against the railing and watched his reactions as she read. “‘My dearest Christopher, YES, of course I love you.'” Diana frowned, read silently to the end, gave a low moan, and resumed aloud. “‘How could your letter contain that tone of doubt? Our quarrels about my father’s viewpoints don’t change mine! Your touch is lightning to me, your smile ignites me.

“‘I was stunned by your doubt, yet shocked by your mention of marriage! After all the nights we vowed to keep our love unfettered. Have you truly reversed your view? If so, then of course I will accept. You are the other half of my soul. However, I confess to doubt, and no little fear. That you think of marriage at this moment. Is your proposal a measure of our love, or a reaction to the war? I need to be sure it is the former. And so, my answer is yes, but…

“‘… yes, but only if you still want marriage when you get home. Only if you propose again after you leave the Army. You will come home. You must come back!

“‘Whatever you decide, my dearest Christopher, I will be

“‘Yours forever, Louise.'”

He exhaled for the first time since Diana began to read.

She flipped me over, flipped me back, scorched me with her glare. If anger had substance I would have been aflame. It outraged her that love could be lost through misunderstanding. She shoved me into her father’s hands, jumped up and paced the porch.

“Didn’t you see her when you came back?”

“While I was gone, Louise disappeared, backpacking through Europe.”

“By herself?!”

“That was something we did back then.” His nostalgia made me dizzy. He patted the step beside him. “Join me.”

Instead, Diana resumed pacing. “I wonder whatever happened to Louise. Maybe she stayed in Europe.”

“She eventually returned to the States and moved to Manhattan.”

She sank into a chair behind him. “You kept track of her.”

His chagrin filled me. “I checked on her occasionally, from a distance. I wanted us all to know happy endings. By then I’d met your mother.”

“Did Louise ever marry?”

“Three times.”

“Nice of you to keep feeling concerned. So how would that work? Whenever you and Mom had a fight you’d see which husband Louise was on? I’m sorry, Dad, that was unfair.”

Fascinating, the disconnect between a person’s words and feelings. My dearest Christopher raged with remorse and indignation, yet he spoke as though discussing the breeze, “I can see why this is difficult for you.”

“Is Louise married now?”

“I don’t know.” He slipped me back inside my envelope.

Diana’s chair scraped and squeaked. She was as restless as her father was still. “Did Mom know you checked on Louise?”

His confusion swept through me but quickly cleared. “I don’t believe so. If she did, it was not because I told her.” He crouched beside Diana’s chair until she met his gaze. “Your mother did not doubt my love for her.”

“Then I’d better not, either.” Her voice was cheerful, her eyes held tears.

“Mom! Davey yelled. Bare feet pounding, he exited the house as though the screen door did not exist. “Grandpa! You’re out of milk!”

“Now that is a problem I can solve.” My dearest Christopher squeezed Diana’s fingers and she squeezed back. Love filled me, cooler and steadier than that which gave me life.

Throughout that evening, I remained pocketed but on the mind of My dearest Christopher while he played with Davey and shared kitchen chores with Diana. After the boy went to sleep, father and daughter sat at the dining table with me between them. With utmost strain and effort, I could sense them through the table’s wood. I understood their words but not their motivation. Had they clutched me to their breasts, I might still fail to understand.

At each suggestion that he seek Yours forever, Louise, My dearest Christopher flared with eagerness, which he immediately tamped with shame and wariness. Whenever Diana was overtaken by animosity or disapproval, she diluted these feelings with common sense. They strove to minimize their responses, as though emotion were a common foe.

Emotion, the enemy? What point has life without feeling? What beside weeds will grow in an unfurrowed field? Of course, I am prejudiced. I am a love letter, composed of passion and extremes.

Surely Diana and My dearest Christopher do not always shun emotion. It must be that I fail to comprehend the nuances of this situation I have brought to them.

Denying their feelings left them with little to discuss, and they repeated their points often as the hours waned. My dearest Christopher kept saying, “Why dredge this up? I’m not looking for another mate. There are so many ways this could go wrong.”

Diana’s arguments danced round a single theme. “It’s screaming for closure.”

It’s screaming? At my nadir, I did issue shrieks, no less heartfelt for their futility. For hours or months, I screamed into the sheet metal that held me in shadow. But Diana couldn’t know about that episode. Hers must be a turn of phrase with which I am unfamiliar.

 

I was no longer a local delivery! As our jet airplane ascended, headed for the most recent known address of Yours forever Louise, I lay in Diana’s pocket. She had agreed to keep custody of me during the trip — which forced me, with sorrow, to acknowledge that my presence distressed My dearest Christopher. Nonetheless, I enjoyed getting to know Diana a bit.

My dearest Christopher watched the airport recede. “I don’t like taking you away from your family, but I appreciate your coming along.”

“You talk like you’d be doing this if I didn’t come with you.” Diana often considered herself wiser than her father.

“We’ll never know what I would have done on my own. I also appreciate Bob’s stepping up to be a solo parent.”

“Here’s hoping he isn’t doing it for the practice.” Diana flooded me with fear. “I told Bob we needed marriage counseling, Dad.”

“Did you.”

“And. He agreed.” Her tone was mild but inside, she sobbed.

“Dear Dee. Admitting a problem is not surrendering to it. Quite the opposite.” He took her hand and I warmed in their sweet regard.

“I’m afraid he might be seeing someone — else.”

“Until you know it, don’t suppose it. As your mother always said.”

We could both feel his grief. Diana whispered, “I accused you of — wanting to cheat on mom. I am so sorry, Dad.”

“I know, honey. It didn’t make enough sense to hurt me.” This was a lie. I could feel it when his fingers patted Diana’s knee. She, however, was reassured by his words.

She allowed herself a grudging curiosity toward my creator. “It’s impressive that Louise lives in Manhattan. Do you think she’ll recognize you?”

He paged through an airline magazine. “I’m trying to not think about it. The last thing I need here are expectations.”

Bafflingly, they spoke as though words in writing could hold promises without guarantees. I could not have been written with more conviction! Yet I provided them no certainty. I pondered this conundrum for the rest of our flight.

 

In a single day I became a seasoned traveler and now here we were in Manhattan, approaching the last known address of Yours forever, Louise. Thanks to the powerful bond I shared with my creator, I knew which burgundy–colored door belonged to her and I sensed she was at home — all while my bearers still searched for her house number.

My dearest Christopher held me as he climbed the stairs to her front stoop. The brown stone walls pulsed with her stories. Now it was my turn to faint. I fluttered from his grip and Diana snatched me from damp gray basement stairs. She was quick enough that the moisture did not blur me.

My dearest Christopher’s grip became a pinch and we resumed our ascent. He took each stair quicker than the last! However, when he reached to ring the bell, he froze. “The last step turns out to be the hardest,” he told Diana.

“I love you, Dad,” she replied.

The door opened.

It was she. My author. Suddenly I felt three–dimensional.

From My dearest Christopher’s fingers emanated horror and contradictions: He was too late! He’d arrived just in time! Something about her hair triggered this. Again, I failed to comprehend. Her hair was exceedingly short, but even I know that people can change their looks in 48 years. Had he previously adored her long flowing locks?

My author looked at him, glanced at me, considered Diana. She completed a slow double–take and focused on my crackling envelope in his trembling hand.

I did not need Yours forever, Louise to touch me in order to know her thoughts. She recognized My dearest Christopher! She detected his resemblance in Diana. She fondly remembered the passion that controlled her when she wrote me. However, she could not recall my contents and did not care to. I stifled my hurt, lest it prevent me from sensing the conversation.

“Just when you think life has run low on surprises,” my author murmured.

“I came as soon as I got your letter,” My dearest Christopher said.

Diana gasped a laugh.

“Did you inherit his sense of humor?” Yours forever Louise asked Diana, as though they’d already been introduced.

I was disappointed yet fascinated. I had fantasized so long about the grand monolog my journey would make. Instead, their conversation advanced in leaps of awareness, jumping over my details.

Yours always, Louise acknowledged their stares and ruffled her quarter inch of hair. “I finished my chemo without incident. Now we wait and if I’m still clean in another two years, I’ll be back with the rest of the human race, with no clue how I’m going to die.”

“Mom — oh, excuse me, I didn’t know we had company.” Two men had entered the doorway from the interior.

Everyone offered their names. Yours forever, Louise linked an arm with each of the newcomers to add, “This is husband number one, and this is my son with husband number two.”

My dearest Christopher made a noise that was too strangled to qualify as a chuckle, yet he was genuinely amused. “You still find value in shock value.”

“Are you still so easily shocked? How in the world did you hold onto that?” Yours forever, Louise smiled at him and touched the skin beside her lip and her eye, as though she were touching him. “Your lines, they’re deep like mine. You’ve lived well. I’m happy for you.”

“We’re happy for both of us,” he agreed.

Another woman of their older generation stepped out onto the stoop and put a hand on Yours forever, Louise’s shoulder. “Haven’t you heard Jim calling? Lunch is on the table.”

Yours forever, Louise informed us, “The Jim she mentions is my husband number three. This is Sallie, his wife number two.” She and Sallie radiated such pride when they hugged. I could not hazard an explanation as to why.

“You always wanted a big family,” My dearest Christopher said.

Yours forever, Louise was delighted. “And I got it, after a few iterations.”

“Does this make you husband number zero?” Diana asked her father.

My dearest Christopher flooded me with relief and I came to see that, with this comment, Diana indicated that she was no longer concerned about the status of her mother in the heart of her father.

I was overwhelmed by the mélange of emotions on that stoop and for a time I became disoriented. The next thing I knew, we were crowded around a large table, sipping coffee and tea after a tumultuous lunch.

I was devastated. None of my fantasies of this reunion had come to pass. My post-crossed lovers did not sweep into an embrace. They made no vows to ne’er be parted henceforth. They would not savor advancing through adulthood together.

This last made me especially despondent. They had been destined to face life’s joys and tribulations together. Instead, they had lived, unaware and apart, and most of their lives were behind them. Perhaps worst of all, in neither could I detect the sweet spark of romance that fueled me through the years.

Yours forever, Louise dropped out of the lively conversation and smiled at My dearest Christopher. “Please pass the cream.” Touch his cheek! She stirred her coffee.

Take her in your arms!  He took back the cream and added some to his brew. “Good idea.”

I thought my ink would flake with the banality. Toss me in that fireplace!

Right then, at the brink of despair, I had another glimpse into being human, which birthed a mild and bittersweet new hope. There did still exist love between my sender and receiver. Their love was just a fondness, perhaps, yet it was distinct from all the other loves swirling so intricately around this table.

With confusion yet pride I note that it was I who brought them together, to share a future I may never comprehend. After all, I am just a love letter and I only know beginnings.

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