Her name was Caroline. Or Catherine, or Caitlin—I can’t remember now, but it began with a C, and for simplicity’s sake I’ll call her Cate. She lived in a little apartment with its own separate entrance behind her parents’ house, though she was only seventeen, and was allowed to come and go as she pleased. My parents were more conventional, the brush-your-teeth-at-bedtime type, and I wasn’t allowed to order Chinese food with a credit card they’d given me or call them by their first names. It goes without saying that she wasn’t from there—she’d grown up in New York and didn’t know the first thing about living in a small town where you couldn’t walk down the street holding hands with a boy without some friend of your mother’s calling to rat you out before you’d even gotten home. It was a completely different world.
Cate had two older sisters and a dog they’d brought all the way across the country in the cargo hold of the plane, but the only one I ever saw was the dog when we went into the main house to fill its water dish and let it into the back yard every day after school. The dog had terrible arthritis and could barely take two steps without a break in between, so we were never able to walk it in any traditional sense. Cate stood at the back window and said, my parents got him before I was born, and it was the first time that my faulty concept of a dog’s life span butted up against reality. She got two apples from a drawer in the refrigerator and tossed one to me, shining hers on her shirt before taking a loud bite, and in that moment she seemed more like a character in a movie than a real person, at least any real person that I had ever known, and I gamely rubbed my apple against the hem of my shirt, too, because I wanted to be at least a peripheral character in whatever moody indie film this was. (I was a serious girl and even at the height of my powers doubted that I could hold up my end in a comedy.) Her parents were both at work, and except for the dog, the house sat empty all day. Perhaps this is why, even though she was only seventeen, Cate’s parents had agreed to rent a house with a separate apartment and let her live in it by herself. Day after day, the house sat empty, and instead of skipping school as anyone else might have done, she attended her classes and went home in the afternoon, as she’d promised, to let the dog out.
I was a good girl, too, but I was absent from ballet because I’d had two chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk the night before with my little brother and I knew that Madame Courroux would single me out in front of the class again; last time she’d pinched the flesh on the side of my lower back, under my ribs, and said, you have no control, it’s disgusting, and when I looked at my thighs later that year in the hospital those words always came back to me but by then it was too late so I tried not to look at the faint white lines where the old scars had healed and I pulled my clothes back on as fast as I could.
There was a woman in the hospital who looked like a ghost—she wandered the halls, day and night, in a long white nightgown, and what we could see of her was long and pale and sickly; even her hair was beige, and maybe her eyes, too, but I was afraid of her and never got close enough to see. She carried a glass of water with her everywhere she went, and often stopped to take little sips, and I could never figure out what was wrong with her, except of course the same thing that was wrong with all of us—we’d lost our way, is all, as if life were an enormous forest and we needed to stay on the path. (The path, because, as everyone knows, there is only one.) What they failed to consider, or maybe never knew, is that when you wander alone in the forest for too long, you forget the existence of paths, or sun or wind or rain, or the sound of another human voice, or anything you might recognize or even love from your old life—and if you happened by chance to come across a path that led out into the sunlight, or if someone took you by the hand or carried you for days or weeks until you reached the path, you would no longer remember why you wanted to follow it or even how to move your feet in that direction.
For the first few months I was in the hospital, Cate wrote me letters, signing them C, with stories from school and black and white drawings around the margins. But I never answered and at the end of the school year, when her parents finished their sabbaticals and moved back to New York, she left her little apartment and went with them, and that fall she started at Columbia and the letters dwindled and then stopped altogether. I used to lie in bed at night sometimes and think of ways to respond, turning the words this way and that in my mind, but I was never able to make them cohere, and then the effort that it would have taken to rise up out of bed and take those first steps—a pen, some paper—and everything that would follow, you must understand, the writing, the envelope and somewhere a stamp, the journey to a mailbox, even to ask someone else to take that on—
No, it was an insurmountable task.
I tossed and turned, thinking of the dog in the back yard, feebly taking its steps. Cate kept her letters chatty. She didn’t say that they’d had to put the dog down, because she wouldn’t have wanted to say anything that would make me sad, but she didn’t mention the dog on the return trip to the east coast or ever again, and I knew the score.
When I was well enough, the doctors sent me back to my childhood bedroom and I became an infant all over again. My parents watched me around the clock, feeding and ferrying me around as needed, and I didn’t have my feet on a path, exactly, but I was at least on the perimeter. They took pity on me and didn’t make me go back to high school again with the juniors—at the time it was the most humiliating thing I could imagine—so instead I got my GED and began waiting tables, like an alcoholic getting a job in a bar, but no one told me that it was a bad idea, or maybe they did and I didn’t listen or hear, and I ended up back in the hospital after I passed out in the women’s restroom at work. The most humiliating thing—repeating a year of high school with the younger kids—turned out to be merely a failure of imagination. When I woke up on the floor of the bathroom a handsome young medic was bending over me, though I had trouble seeing him properly because I’d hit my head and there was blood in my eyes and in my hair.
Outside the window, a cloud of sparrows alights, briefly, on the lilac bushes, and when I look down again at the desk the envelope is still there, unopened, with the handwriting that I would have known anywhere and the initials C.S. above a return address in Zurich. In a box somewhere I have all of the old letters, though I haven’t read or even thought of them in years, and I have a different life now, and it’s dizzying to think that lines scratched on paper 9,000 miles away can have this effect on me: I can’t stop thinking of the apples, straight from the crisper, and the old, arthritic dog. Cate hasn’t used the featherweight blue writing paper of our childhood—I used to send pages and pages of airmail to my pen pal in what was then called Holland—this letter is on a heavy cream stationery with several colored stamps. I slit open the envelope.
L, she writes, looping the letter in the old familiar way, I’ve often thought of you and been too afraid to write, or not known what to say,—
and I set the letter aside and turn back to the e-mail messages that are still in bold, unread, burning as they wait for their responses, and the document I must finish editing by tomorrow, and work diligently until my nephew calls from the other room that he has finished his movie and wants to go for a walk. My brother won’t leave his office for at least another hour; I take care of their son twice a week, picking him up after school and sitting with him at the kitchen table until he has finished a snack and the simple worksheets the teacher sends with him, so I turn away from the computer and get my shoes.
I was his age when my parents sold the house where we’d lived all my life and moved across town, and shortly after that my brother was born, so for as long as he wants me to, I’ll hold my nephew’s hand on the way to the park, or push him on the swings. Everything else may change and fall away but I am a piece of a marble, immovable. He doesn’t notice, though. He pats me on the wrist and calls me auntie, saying stay here, auntie, pointing at a bench, and runs off to climb the stairs on the other side of the play structure where I can’t see if he falls or fifty other things happen that I could prevent if I were right there under him with my arms at the ready, but those aren’t healthy thoughts, and I am all about healthy thoughts, so I stay on the bench where he placed me like a good marionette.
Cate wanted to visit me at the hospital, but I wasn’t allowed to have visitors, at first, outside of my family, and when the restrictions were lifted, I never said. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want her to see me that way. I asked them to take her a photograph of a door, something I’d found in a magazine in one of the art groups—it made me think of a fairy tale I’d read as a child, and I wanted to paraphrase the story for her, but I couldn’t get that far. I didn’t know how else to answer her letters. I took night classes at the community college for four years before I figured out what I wanted to do, and I met my husband at a bowling alley when I was forty-five, I’ve gotten a late start, I know, but when my nephew calls I am on my feet, ready to follow, and when he has gone home this evening I will read the rest of the letter and find a good pen in order to reply, or even study the time zones and find an appropriate time to call, and pick up the telephone and say yes, I can hear you, but I don’t know what to feel when I think of it because I have pushed these thoughts out of my mind for so long, but the letters were one of the things that got me through, and sometimes, when we are lost in the darkness, the reminder that light still exists elsewhere is enough to make it possible to go on.
So I call. She has been living in Europe since 1997, her company is sending her to the United States for a conference, she would like to visit while she is nearby. It’s been a lonely life, Cate says, sounding wistful, hastening to add that she enjoys it, for the most part, but has very little spare time. She is a scientist, always in the lab with her microscopes, and she speaks of it modestly, as if medical research were the simplest thing in the world.
I was surprised how happy I felt when I read and reread her letter, in that understated yet recognizable style, and it revived my affection for her, which had never disappeared but had been long dormant. Still, the night after we spoke on the phone, I lay next to my husband as he slept and saw myself as someone else might. There was a time (I thought) that she drew a knife blade across the tops of her thighs, touched it lightly to her wrists and neck. She is older now and no longer at war with her body. For a long time now, they have had a truce. There are many nights, now, when she will lie in bed and let her husband touch her all over.
I kissed his shoulder, but lightly, so as not to wake him, and he did not stir.
The day she was scheduled to arrive was a Tuesday, and I spent all morning cutting fruit and tidying up. At last, the doorbell rang. I rushed to answer. Her hair was cut in a short, flattering style, and despite her claim that she rarely left the laboratory, her skin was lightly sun-damaged, with a web of wrinkles around her eyes, but underneath she looked exactly the same, with the expression I remembered so well, and though we hadn’t seen each other in thirty years, it was as if no time had passed, and we embraced, and I brought her inside the house.
We sit across from each other. On the table, a bowl of white chrysanthemums. We are the living embodiment of a poem by Ryōta.
In the afternoon, I serve her tea and petits fours, and when my husband arrives home after work I go to the door and say, come meet my friend, my old friend, who’s flown all the way from Switzerland, and together we go to the table and I hold his arm and say look, here she is, here is Catherine.
Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks. Orchard City, her second chapbook of flash fiction, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press. Browning’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Four Way Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Threepenny Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Watershed Review, Random Sample Review, Superstition Review, Newfound, The Homestead Review, Santa Ana River Review, Bellows American Review, Coldnoon, Clementine Unbound, Belletrist Magazine, The Stillwater Review, and elsewhere.