The letter (Part II)

Sam cut into her thoughts, saying, “You’ve been very distracted this evening, Didi. More than usual.”

“Hmm…”

“Anything going on?” he asked. Dianne tried to discern his tone. He’d said it lightly, but she was wary. Was he being straight with her or ironic? She imagined him adhering to a Dr Phil lesson, where he would respond to whatever she told him with the mocking question, “And how does that make you feel?” I will feel like smacking you, she thought, if that’s what this is.

Only the other week he’d glibly told his elder sister to “use her words” instead of crying. Janey had ignored him of course – she was a small, unassuming-looking person, but she was no novice and had had a lifetime in which to learn to ignore him. She hadn’t actually been crying in front of them but clearly she had been doing so just before they arrived for dinner. She gave Sam a dismissive look as she took hold of Dianne by the arm and steered the two of them into the next room, saying: “It’s silly, I know, Didi, but I’ve been reading that trilogy I told you about – the Hunger Games? the books I said are meant for teenagers? that nobody else must know I’m reading?” When Dianne continued to give her a vaguely uncertain look, Janey rolled her eyes and made an impatient ‘moving on’ motion with her hand. “Never mind. So there’s this character I love and in the end he doesn’t get the girl, this other guy does, and it’s NOT the ending I wanted.” She gave her foot a little stamp, which made Dianne smile inwardly as it always did. Janey was the only 36-year-old woman she knew who ever stamped her feet. Without pausing for breath, Janey carried on, saying indignantly, “I didn’t like anything about the ending really. And you know how I feel about endings that don’t go right. I could cry again just thinking about it. It’s always that way when you fall in love with a doomed character.” Dianne tried to remember the last time she’d read a novel. It wasn’t recently, she knew that.

“So yes, I was crying.” Janey continued in her dynamic voice. “I’m human. But I’d have been fine only you guys arrived just as I finished it – which is why dinner’s going to be a little later than usual, I’m afraid. I just could not put it down even though I knew I needed to get ready.”

“Anyway,” and here Janey leaned in even closer, “it’s been another month and nothing.” She absentmindedly rapped two fingers against her stomach. “And well, I guess I’d have been emotional anyway, but this book ending was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.” Dianne felt like they were in a soap opera – they’d gone into the other room to talk privately, yet Janey was speaking in her usual forceful voice. It was crazy to think the men wouldn’t be able to hear what she was saying if they decided to pay attention. Dianne once again wondered how it was that Janey had come to speak like a gym instructor while Sam’s baby sister, Olivia, only ever spoke like a church mouse. Dianne was grateful that Sam had learnt to speak like a normal person.

Janey shook her head slightly and gave a quick eye roll, “Just my luck Sam gets to see my puffy eyes. ‘Use your words’ – I mean, really. Who says that other than my brother? You’re a saint to put up with him, Didi.” She now made her voice theatrically loud and, turning her head towards the doorway, said, “A saint, I tell you!”

Dianne smiled wanly at her sister-in-law and hoped this would suffice, as she didn’t know what she was supposed to say in response to any of it.

Janey eyed her meditatively for a second, then abruptly clapped her hands to signal it was time to abandon their tête-à-tête and focus on dinner. She swivelled on her heel and led the way out of the room back to the husbands. Dianne waited a second before following, watching Janey’s retreating back. She’d heard it said that if everyone pooled their problems and were then told to pick out any one problem for themselves, most would actually take hold of their own original problems. Dianne couldn’t help but feel she’d prefer having her sister-in-law’s troubles.

Sam and Dianne were now busy getting ready for bed, he sorting out his briefcase for the next day and her sitting on the bench at the dressing table working through her nightly Clinique routine. Dinner hadn’t needed to be ordered, as it turned out Ellie had cleared up the roasted mess and stuck a casserole in the oven.

Dianne was still wondering what to say in reply to Sam’s question. When she glanced at him in the mirror she thought that the look of enquiry he was giving her actually seemed more open and friendly than usual. She opened her mouth to speak; tonight, after reading that letter, she felt brave, or perhaps reckless.

“I got a letter today.”

There. She’d said it. He’d ask about it, and she would tell him, and either they’d engage in a discussion that proved they were partners in life, or they’d once again push off any heaviness by having one of them subtly provide a diversion. If that happened (and just thinking about it made her waver) she knew already that she would have nothing left to do but curl up on her side of the bed and stare into the near darkness, wishing for sleep. She felt the choking lethargy of sadness hovering just out of sight and had to put down the cream she was holding so she could take hold of the sides of the bench – very slowly and lightly so Sam wouldn’t notice anything – and focus on breathing steadily.

I’m tired, she thought. I’m a tired, suburban cliché of a woman. I have a skillset I hardly ever use – I just keep house really. The secret pile of battered self-books under her side of the bed seemed sometimes to help, but never really. She didn’t understand why she always felt so overwhelmed by her fate. Only Ellie and Sam were close enough to her to know the truth, that she was tottering on the edge of a dark abyss, but they either couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help her. Most fearfully of all she had come to suspect that she would have no clue how to rescue herself if she finally lost her balance and began to fall into the blackness.

“Oh?” Sam said, perching on the end of the bed, stopping what he was doing and just looking at her, waiting, which was strangely focused of him, and helped her keep her resolve.

“CiCi is dead.”

He looked at her blankly for a moment, then asked cautiously, “CiCi?” He said it in such a way that Dianne thought he might very well be running through the names of her parents’ dogs, trying to land on the right creature.

“Carol Colbert, my best friend from school,” she answered in a measured voice.  “CiCi.

His eyes darted off for a second, then came back to rest on her as he raised his eyebrows slightly and his mouth formed a silent little ‘O’. He started nodding, as though in time with the memories trickling back into his consciousness. “Of course, she was the blondie at our engagement party. The one that turned out to be an eccentric.” He paused. “You haven’t mentioned her in years.”

Dianne didn’t say anything. He was right of course – she had stopped talking about CiCi, but only because she had become aware that she was annoying others by constantly talking about this person whom they either had never met or hardly knew and so was of little interest to them. But that didn’t mean Dianne didn’t think about her all the time. Not every day anymore, but whenever someone mentioned their best friend or spoke about high school, whenever she saw girlfriends sitting together in coffee shops, or whenever something major happened and she wanted to call someone to share it with them.

Sam stood up and came to stand behind her. He raised his hands, paused midway, and then rested them softly on her shoulders and looked at her in the mirror. “Are you alright?” As soon as he said it, he added, “I mean, it’s sad to be sure, but you’re doing okay, it seems?”

“Actually, I am feeling pretty okay. Weird, mostly. I mean, we haven’t spoken for years. Decades. The last time was…” her eyes fixed on the wall above the mirror as she calculated. “Well, the last time was the year we got married. So eighteen years ago, and I’ve had a long time to deal with her not being around anymore, which means there’s really no reason to be grossly upset now, is there? Because in some ways nothing has changed?” She had posed the question rhetorically, but found there was a degree to which she wanted an answer, so she added: “Should I be upset?”

Sam shuffled her up on the chair so he could sit down next to her. “I don’t know, Didi. I can’t tell you whether or not you should be upset, now can I?” She looked away from him. She found the diplomat in him filtered into all aspects of life. “I guess if you are, you are. And if you’re not, you’re not. There’s no point trying to make yourself feel a certain way.” There was a slight pause. “Do you know how she died?” he asked matter-of-factly. Dianne shook her head. “Well, who wrote to you? Do you know where she’s been all these years? How did they even get our address?” Dianne started tapping a fingernail against the fabric of her pyjama bottoms.

“She was in Malaysia. I don’t know about the address part.” She pointed dismissively at the letter sitting on the armchair, saying, “You can read the letter if you want. I’ll need you to help me make sense of this legal document they sent with it anyways.”

Sam looked at the letter, and she felt slight tension in his body next to hers as though he was about to stand up, but then he relaxed and stayed where he was. She could almost hear the clogs of his mind clacking over one another, but she no longer even tried to figure out what he might be thinking. He was her till-death-parts-us enigma.

There was a lengthy pause, and he said, “I guess it was something of a shock receiving such a letter?” Dianne shrugged noncommittally. They lapsed back into silence. Dianne knew she was tired, because she just sat there, allowing the quiet to settle thickly over them. Eventually Sam broke it, saying, “Well, you know, if you do feel upset – for whatever reason – I think that would be understandable. The two of you were very close at one point.” He patted her leg.

That was unsuspected. He’s being sweet, she thought. Sensitive even, in his own way. Braving a glance at his face, she was touched by the apparent openness of his expression. The corner of her mouth twitched visibly. She felt he was actually giving her room to feel whatever she wanted or needed to feel, which was all it took for her to realise that there were indeed tears wanting to be shed, although she would have been hard pressed to say if they were entirely for CiCi or in part because of this sudden warmth from her husband.

She was still somewhat upset with herself when she did in fact start to cry, but she was grateful they were silent tears, and she was even more grateful when Sam put his arms around her and she could let the tears flow without having him actually look at her while she cried. In her heart she knew she was still alone in life – even more so now, she realised, now that the most important person of her childhood was no longer somewhere out there in the world hopefully cherishing the same memories she’d always cherished – but having Sam freely give his undivided attention to her and her problem did more than she could have imagined towards painting a thin line of hope on her horizon.

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More instalments may follow.
 
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If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in Office cubicles and postcards (Part I) , Office cubicles and postcards (Part II) and Smug
 
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