Anita settled into the chair, her bones aching with age, and picked up the pen, which someone had already laid next to her stationary pad. Though the rest of her body was riddled with various pains, in a small blessing, her fingers hadn’t yet lost their deftness. She furrowed her brow as she dated the top of the paper, her careful, swooping cursive slowly working its way across the page.
You must forgive me for not writing you in so long. I’m afraid it often feels most of my life has been suddenly swept away—it’s strange I find myself in this chair, joints complaining with every movement, when it feels as if mere moments ago they glided with ease.
Her pen came to a stop. She bit her lip, studying the photo, which was nestled in a gallery of others pinned to her wall. In it, a young Anita, a waitress at the time, leaned against the back entrance to the restaurant; her eyes caught the flame of a lighter, held by Charlie, who perched his cigarette in one corner of his mouth and smirked at her with the other.
Even in a photo worn with age, the sight of him softened her heart. Charlie rarely smiled much at all. He was a cynic as long as she knew him, sharp features to pair with his flinty attitude—a cocktail that seemed to always intoxicate women. Somehow, she was the one who caught his eye in those brief few months, and they’d sent each other’s hearts spinning. With that flutter still in her chest, Anita continued.
How are you? I’ve always wondered what became of your life after you were sent overseas. I remember how I collapsed into the back booth at work when I found out, and the other waitresses lent me their pity—though it was ill-received. Their boyfriends, of course, were safely at home, safe from those jungles, and I resented them for it badly. I resented the whole world in those days that followed. I couldn’t picture my life without you; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without you to tug my ponytail as I came through the kitchen, or to unlock the back door and let me and the other girls slip outside for a cigarette.
I suppose I moved on, somehow, though, when your shifts stopped, and the back door remained locked and my ponytail untugged. You’ll have to forgive me for that. I always saw myself as a fighter, but if I really thought I loved you, I did a poor job of showing it. I should’ve chased after you and told you that if you’d be crawling through the mud in Vietnam, I’d be on my belly at your side—or, at the very least, waiting for you the moment you came home. But I didn’t. I went to college that fall, and lived away from home, drifting away from the city where we met, though I never forgot about you. Some people are like that, you know. They stick out in your mind like bright red buoys at sea, never lost in the foam or the tumbling of the waves. I suppose that’s why I’m writing you now.
As this ache in my bones grows worse day by day, I cannot bear to leave with any regrets, especially not one so simple as to be fixed with one letter. I’ve lived a good life, I think. Even so, I cannot help but wish you had followed through on those plans of yours to evade the draft; and I wish more than anything I had followed after you, and we had lived our lives as outlaws together, on the run from my parents, and the authorities, and everyone in the world who might have put a stop to us.
I realize how silly of a thought that is. Even so, it’s always held a place in my heart—a very warm, bright spot, warming me from my chest to my toes, reminding me of such a wonderful time, and what a wonderful life it could have been.
Though her fingers were still nimble, her wrist, however, was not. As she signed the final strokes of her name, it had already begun to ache. Anita set down the pen, rubbing at it, her eyes flitting over her words. She fretted, silently, wondering what Charlie had become. Would he find her letter strange? Would he even read it?
There was a sudden rush of air as the door opened. Anita turned.
“Oh, Anita,” a woman’s voice said, “is your wrist bothering you again?”
She shook her head, pursing her lips. The woman tsk-tsked, breezing into the room and peering at the desk.
“It’s from all that writing you do. You tire yourself out.”
“It was an important letter. It’s to an old flame of mine. I had to write him before it’s too late.”
“Don’t talk like that, now.”
“Either because my knuckles are too swollen to move,” she replied, “or because you won’t let me anymore.”
The woman laughed. A bit of a fog had clouded Anita’s mind. She had a familiarity about her, but Anita couldn’t quite place her face.
“Come on, you,” she said, rousing her from her desk. “It’s lunchtime.”
When Clara lead Charlie to the room later, she informed him his wife was already asleep.
“Tired herself out with all that letter-writing, as usual,” she said. “It’s on the desk. She sealed it up in an envelope before she went to bed.”
Charlie had always found Clara too brisk, but his wife seemed to enjoy her liveliness. He couldn’t really blame her. Despite the potted plants nestled in the corners of the rooms—a weak attempt to exude vitality—this place was dull. Endless halls of patterned carpets, rows of identical locked doors. Only one stood out to him.
He turned the knob quietly, trying to soften the click of the lock. He didn’t want to wake her. Inside the room, the curtains were drawn, but the desk lamp had been left on: the soft glow illuminated the countless pictures pinned to her wall, of him and her together, of their children and grandchildren—snapshots of moments from the lives they’d built together.
Anita lay underneath the covers, her face peaceful with sleep. Charlie approached the chair at her bedside, easing himself into it.
For a while, he simply watched her, her chest rising and falling gently. On the nights she fell asleep before he came to visit, Charlie would often enjoy how tranquil she looked, eased of the all-too-familiar aches that plagued her when she woke, free of the confusion that clouded her mind. After a few minutes, he turned to the desk. Waiting for him was today’s letter. He picked it up, admiring the careful print of his name on the outside before opening it.
The letters never varied much—recounting their days in the restaurant together, sorrowing over her regrets. Even when it was the same script written day after day after day, the little details still amazed him, the ways she found to describe them: that her brilliant brain, clouded in its fog, still sought to churn out the beautiful words it had for most of her life.
Yours, Anita Morgan.
Morgan. He ran his thumb over the word. Her maiden name.
Of all the photos on the wall, Anita failed to register any of them as herself, except for one. Charlie had tacked it at eye level above the desk, as she’d often done with pictures whenever she worked on her books.
I want to look up and see something that inspires me, she’d told him over and over, all those years ago. I can’t come up with a story if I’m staring at a wall. I want to be transported.
It was an old, faded photo, snapped by one of the waitresses at the restaurant and mailed to him many years later. Anita and Charlie, 1969. The year they’d met, and the year he’d been drafted. But there was so much more to the story that had been lost—
She spoke of their plans to run away with such longing. He knew, if her mind was clear, she’d find a bittersweet irony in it all.
Sometimes, he considered writing her a letter of his own, recounting all the things she’d forgotten: that they really did run away together and dodge the draft, to a city a few hours north of her home, in a tiny apartment with a twin bed to share. That she’d waitressed her way through an English degree, refusing his proposal until the day after her graduation. That they’d had two daughters—who each had children of their own—and raised them in a little house together, filled with chatter and laughter and the clack of Anita’s typewriter. That for years, she’d immortalized their lives in her words: the sweetness and the sadness, the worst moments and the best ones, all in copies of her poetry anthologies she kept on a shelf in her writing room. That the pictures hanging in this room had come from that one, where she strung together poems with photos of their adventures hanging before her eyes. That putting them here had been her idea, long before she actually moved in, before the fog had overwhelmed her.
That as it began set in, little by little, she slowly forgot all of it.
Well, not all of it, Charlie reminded himself. He folded the letter and slipped it into his breast pocket. He kept them all in a box at their home, her favorite memories immortalized in looping cursive, sealed against the unforgiving fog of time. As for his—well, they’d just overwhelm her. Besides, they were waiting here, if she ever wanted to see them. All she had to do was look around.
As he settled back into his seat, she stirred from sleep, her eyes fluttering open.
“Who are you?” Her eyelids were heavy as she spoke.
“It’s just me, Anita,” he replied gently. “It’s Charlie. You can go back to sleep.”
Something in her face relaxed, and Charlie wanted to believe it was some deep, locked-away recognition. Moments later her breathing steadied, and he relaxed back in his chair.
When the time came to leave, he made sure to replace her stationary and pen on the desk before he closed the door. Clara always put them back inside the drawer, but he knew when Anita woke, she’d be on the hunt for them, overcome with the desire to write to her lost love—who wasn’t really lost, only lost to her mind.