A Letter Never Sent by Rachel Swirsky

 

 

A Letter Never Sent

by Rachel Swirsky

 

    

                 

Dear Dr. Wickham,

            My name is Marc. I am twenty-two. I need to prove to you that I am "under significant mental stress" and that I am a "threat to others." Probably you need to know something about me so that you will understand why.

            I moved away from home four years ago after I graduated from high school. I live alone now, on the sixth story of an apartment building. I have a lot of neighbors, but I don't see them much because I work at night. I hear them talking through the walls. Sometimes, I see them in the hallways. I don't like to talk to them because I hear all their fights and conversations, but I am quiet, so they don't know me back.  

            When I first got here, I took classes at the junior college, but it was hard to work full time and go to classes too, so now I am saving my money so that I can go back in a few years. I think I want to be a paralegal. Or an accountant, maybe.

            What I really want you to know about it Lisa. She is a friend of mine. She is eleven years old. Her favorite things in the world are skateboarding and science.

            Lisa was short and skinny when I met her, but now she's tall and skinny. She shot up several inches just in the last few months. She calls herself a weed. "I never know how tall I'm going to be in the morning," she says. "I'm an invasive species." Lisa knows all about invasive species, because she loves biology.

            Lisa has ice blonde hair which she wears cut to her chin. I like to watch her face. Sometimes when she's thinking, her mouth curves into itself, like an upside down smile. I think this means she's remembering something pleasant. I can only catch this look out of the corner of my eye. If I look straight at her, it vanishes.

            I met Lisa in the park last year. She used to play a game with her skateboard where she'd ride around the pond, trying to get closer and closer to the edge without falling in. We met one day when she got the curve wrong and had to jump off the board to keep dry. It went in with a splash. She fell by the bench where I was sitting. "Help me up?" she asked, reaching for my hand.

            I pulled Lisa to her feet. Her limbs were straight and smooth like a doll's, not lumpy like most people's. She looked at her arms to see if she was cut. She raised them over her head. There was no hair in her armpits.

            She looked down and saw a scrape on her knee. "Does it look bad?" she asked, pointing at it. It was only a little bloody. Her legs were bare below her shorts.

            I turned my face away so she couldn't see me blushing. "It looks fine," I said.

            Lisa and I used to meet in the park most afternoons. She came to skateboard after school and I sat there before work. Since I work the night shift as a security guard, Lisa's afternoon was like my morning. Going to the park meant I could get some sun before work. It was the only time of day when I saw the light.

            Lisa told me that she'd watched me for a long time before we met. She liked that I brought floss with me and went to the bathroom if I ate something, because that meant I was responsible and cared about my health. She also liked that I never complained when some kid's Frisbee landed near me and I had to throw it back, because that showed I was good-natured. She wondered why I never came with a friend. She thought I must be lonely.

            Most afternoons, Lisa rode her skateboard while I watched. I applauded when she tried new tricks. She asked me to give her scores like an Olympic judge, but she complained I was too easy. "It's no fun if you always give me tens," she said.

            When she was tired, Lisa set her skateboard on the bench next to me and sat cross-legged on the grass while we talked. She told me about school and her family, but my favorite thing was when she took out her science notebook and showed me her drawings. She drew pictures of plants and animals that she saw. She especially loved to draw the tiny creatures that she saw under her microscope when she took samples from the duck pond or the reservoir. Some of her sketches looked like worms or bowtie pasta or tangled hair. Others were graceful and feathery. I could imagine them waving like pine needles in the wind.

            Once, Lisa showed me a picture she'd made of a sponge she'd seen on TV. It was shaped like a fan made with lots of little branches. She'd colored it in with yellow pencil.

            "This can cure cancer," she told me.

            She explained how animals in the ocean have been developing poison for a long time, and other animals have been developing ways to fight poison for just as long. The poison-fighting stuff can cure diseases.

            "If we can just find enough, maybe we can cure every disease on earth," she said. "That's what I want to do. Explore the ocean and help people."

            She showed me a drawing of a metal hand picking up a sponge. "Scientists go down in submarines and collect sponges using robot arms. You can drive the sub and I'll look at the sponges."        

            I thought about me and Lisa alone in the sub, deep in the sea. I imagined that all around us there were pink and yellow anemones swaying back and forth. Clams and crabs crawled across our window and a dolphin's tail flipped through the water above.

            "I'd like that," I said. I don't know if she knew how much I meant it.

            Three weeks ago, I stopped going to the park. I never said goodbye to Lisa or told her why. I think I am probably making her sad. You have to hurt people you care for sometimes if it's what's best for them.

           

            I should probably tell you more about myself now. I don't have many friends except Lisa. I am lonely, I guess. It doesn't seem to bother me the way it bothers other people. I don't like lights and crowds. Bars scare me. People touch you, but they don't really know you or want to know you. They're just touching you to touch a body.

            Sometimes when I used to sit in the park, I'd watch the people passing and think up stories about them and me. I'd pretend I was dancing with the young mother who naps beneath the lemon tree while her twins play in the sandbox. I imagine us in a grand ballroom in the middle of a crowd of elegant dancers. She's in a white dress that makes her brown skin glow. When she opens her mouth, her missing front tooth is back. We give off such a light that the other dancers step back and squint at us like people staring into the sun. They begin to circle us, an orbit of stars and moons, and Lucia – that's the name I think of her by – is so happy that she leans toward me and whispers in my ear, "Thank you."

            Sometimes I think I have a special kind of power because I can be satisfied with what's in my mind. I can think about dancing, but I don't have to do it.

            I do have one friend. His name is Joel. He works the night shift with me as a security guard. Most nights, we don't have much to do. After we feed the dogs, we go up to the security office and watch the security cameras while the janitors sweep up. It's pretty boring, so Joel used to bring in his MP3 player and a pair of headphones and tune out all night. A few months ago, he brought tin some computer speakers so we can listen to oldies together. Joel really likes music. Every day when he comes in, he asks me, "How's it playing?" which is a word play on "How's it hanging?" Joel also brings in a lot of junk food. He says chips and tunes is the only way he gets through the night.

            Around 3 A.M., after we look in on the dogs for the second time, Joel turns on the security computer and looks at pornography. I pretend not to notice, but he makes noise. The thing I really hate is when he calls me over to look at something he's found. Once it was a Doberman with a woman. "Isn't this wild?" he said, and I rushed back to my desk so he wouldn't notice my cheeks were red. Later, Joel patted me on the shoulder and said, "Didn't mean to freak you out with that," but I pretended I didn't know what he was talking about.

            I know about bars because Joel took me to one. We got out early from work because it was a holiday and neither of us had anyplace to go. The bar was small and dark. Almost no one was there. There were stained glass windows, but they were too greasy to see through.

            Joel found us a couple of barstools. He ordered me a whiskey and water. "You really never been to a bar before?" he asked. I shook my head.

            There was no music. The bartender sat on a stool behind the counter, as far away from us as he could get, and watched the television. Joel went up to an older woman with dyed red hair and a face hard as stone. I felt embarrassed for watching, but I watched anyway. He put his hand on her breast. She glared down at him and then put her hand on his thing. He smiled. She twisted her her wrist hard and then got up and left.

            Joel hobbled back. I looked away quickly. My cheeks felt hot. "Well, this is a bust," said Joel.

            He finished his drink and ordered three more. He drank those, too.

            "Aren't you at least going to talk to me?" he said.  

            I ducked my head. "It's a nice night."

            "I paid for the first round. It's your turn to think of something. What do you do for fun? Do you do anything for fun?"

            "Sometimes."

            He pointed to my mostly full shot glass. His finger bumped the glass. It slid half an inch, whiskey sloshing.

            "Drink your fucking drink," he said.

            I picked it up and stared at it. I saw my face reflected, pushed inward in the middle like an hourglass. I tried to drink. The whiskey tasted like fear. I choked.

            Joel grabbed it out of my hand. "You have got to loosen up," he said.

           

            I've never let Lisa tell me where she lives. She tried to invite me to dinner when she learned I live alone and don't have any family here, but I wouldn't let her. I don't even know what part of town she lives in. She takes the train home from the part.

            When I was ten, there was this boy, Donald. He was in the same grade as me. We never had a class together. I must have seen him around the playground, but I don't remember that. What I remember is the photo of him they printed on the front page of the newspaper. The same photo for a whole week, seven days straight. He was wearing a striped polo shirt with an embroidered dinosaur on the pocket. He had curly red hair and a blunt nose that looked like it had been squashed up against something. He was looking off to the side. I used to wonder what he was looking at.

            This one Friday night, Donald's mother dropped him off at the convenience store where his dad worked. Donald's parents were divorced and his dad was supposed to take him home for the weekend. His dad was in the middle of inventory, so instead of taking Donald home right away, he took him outside to his pickup and sat Donald in the front seat. Donald's dad said that he gave him a coloring book and a hotdog and a bottle of water. "Stay right here, okay?" he said. "I won't be long."

            I have spent a lot of time thinking about what happened next. I imagine that Donald ate the hotdog and ate some of the water. The coloring book was for girls and only had ponies and princesses, so I imagine that he drew moustaches on them with black crayon. When he'd done all that, he was bored, so he opened the car door and got out.

            Mom used to take me to the convenience store where Donald's dad worked so we could get soda and candy. The asphalt in the parking lot is old and dusty and the lines to mark the spaces are faded so that you can barely see them. On fall nights, moonlight shines white on the bodies of the cars and reflects in the pooling oil.

            I imagine Daniel was wearing that polo shirt with the embroidered dinosaur on it. I imagine he was cold. I imagine he looked around, at the moonlight on the cars and in the oil,  and shivered. He probably looked back at the convenience store where his dad worked and heard cursing as the employees moved boxes around. He started to go inside, when an old man in a pumpkin orange convertible pulled in next to him. Donald felt a tickle of fear that the old man would catch him and tell his father he'd been disobeying. He walked away.

            Down the street, loud music and orange light poured out of an old bar, its doors thrown wide open. The bar was squat and boxy, its exterior weathered to make it look old. Its windows were shaped like portholes.

            I imagine that, to Donald, it looked warm and fun. As he walked toward it, two men came outside, laughing and shouting. People inside saw what they looked like. They were both white and skinny. They wore army surplus jackets. The tall one wore jeans with Boy Scout patches sewn over the knees. The short one had on a newsboy cap.

            The tall one punched the short one in the shoulder. The short one tried to punch him back, but the tall one danced away. Donald was just behind them. He squealed. The two men stopped fighting. They gave each other a long look. Their fists fell to their sides.

            There was a guy inside the bar, using the payphone by the door. His name was Leonard Henry. He watched through the porthole window while the two men talked to Donald. He couldn't see much because the window was smeared and greasy.

            The taller man grabbed a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He looked down at Donald while he lit it. "Shit." He looked down at the short one with the newsboy cap. "Is that the kind of thing you mean?"

            "I dunno," said the short one. "Yeah, maybe." He grabbed the cigarette out of the tall guy's hand and offered it to Donald. "You want to try it?"

            Leonard Henry didn't hear any more of the conversation. "That's when my wife picked up," he told the police. "She was yelling about the babysitter. My ears were ringing." The police interviewed Leonard Henry five times. He never remembered even one more thing.

            The two men took Donald and strangled him. They did things to his body. I don't want to go into detail. They did things that should never be done without love. Afterward, they wrapped his body in packing foam and left it in the woods near an abandoned railroad track. To make sure no one could tell who the body was, they rubbed lime into his face so he would decompose faster. That was the worst part. They couldn't just kill him. They wanted to make him into nothing.

            When the police caught them, they were drunk. "Been drunk for days," my teacher, Mrs. Ketchum, said to another teacher, Mrs. Green, when she thought I wasn't listening. "What was that boy doing at a bar?"

            I was terrified by what happened to Donald. When my mother wanted me to play with friends, she had to take me by the elbow and pull me outside. Everything smelled like lime to me. I gave up eating fruit for months. I didn't know the lime they used was a chemical and not the fruit. Even now I know, it doesn't help. I still can't eat limes or lemons or oranges.

            When I think about Donald, I'm not afraid anymore, but I still want to cry. I want to find him before they kill him and smooth down his hair and hug him. I wouldn't touch him that way. It's just sad to think of all the good in the world that he never got to know.

            I don't like to think about Donald, but he gets into my head anyway. The more I try to keep him away, the more he comes. His dead body and what they did to it, and then how I could save him and make things right. It scares me that I could be like those men. I don't think I am. I don't see how they could have loved Donald if they did that to him. I would do anything for Lisa.

           

            I had to stop going to the park when Lisa invited me to her eleventh birthday party. She gave me an invitation that had balloons on the envelope and a picture of Barbie on the card. She said, "Barbie's dumb, but they were on sale. Mom said there'd be more money to spend on the party if we got cheap invitations."

            The date and time of the party were inside the card. Under that, Lisa's address was written in big black ink. I closed the card and stuck it back into the envelope.

            "I can't come," I said. "I work at night. It's better if we only see each other in the park."

            She didn't like that. She wanted to know why and wouldn't accept any of the answers I gave. Our argument started repeating itself. "You're just going back to because," she complained, even though I never used that exact word. She's very insightful. I watched her on her way to the train station. She kicked up gravel from the street as she started her skateboard.

            I should have returned the invitation, but I didn't. I don't know why.

            This is what I don't want to write down or admit. Images that I shouldn't think of come into my mind. I used to think about rescuing Donald, and then sometimes I thought about kids I saw at the park or at the movies. Now I think about being alone at the park with Lisa and talking for a long time. That part doesn't bother me, but if I keep thinking about it, it twists.            

            This is what I think about: I think about Lisa asking to see my thing. I think about showing it to her and how her scientific mind might be curious about it. I think about how she might test my thing by touching it, and how surprised she'll be when it moves. Curious, she pokes it to the side and blinks as it springs back. I think she might laugh a little and then touch it again. When she does this, I touch her neck gently, at the soft corner where her hair brushes her chin. I lean down to kiss the knuckles of her hand while she touches me and giggles. She asks, "Do you like this?" and I nod. "You make funny faces," she adds with a snort. Pleasure sneaks up on me. She watches it, first with surprise, and then she laughs again. Afterward, when she thinks I'm not looking, she smiles her curved-in smile.

            I try not to think this all the way through because I feel bad when I do. I count the days between times when I think it. After the first couple times, I felt so guilty that I promised myself I'd never do it again. It doesn't work. It always happens again. Now, I choose a number of days instead, and promise not to think about it for that long. I can usually make it, but sometimes I can't. What scares me is, what if sometime I want to do this so much that I do it for real?

 

            I got really depressed after I stopped going to see Lisa. I didn't have anywhere to go when I woke up in the afternoon so I stopped getting any sun and then I stopped leaving my apartment. My boss left a message on my answering machine, but I didn't call back until Joel left one that said, "Mr. Luciani's really pissed. You better come in tonight."

            I went in wearing pajamas. "You look awful," Joel said. "When was the last time you took a shower?"

            Joel told me he'd take care of feeding the dogs himself. When he came back up to the security office, he patted me on the shoulder. "I got some beef jerky. Want some?"

            We shared a stick. It was really nice of him. He never shares his food. He even looks irritated when the janitor asks him for a chip and he has a whole bag.

            Joel put on some music. I turned on the security computer and started surfing the internet. I was looking for something that would show what was wrong with me. I found an essay that said the only way to stop people like me from hurting children was to castrate them. As I was reading it, Joel rolled his chair back and looked over my shoulder. I tried to close the window, but he saw anyway. "You into that?" he asked, pointing. He pulled a chip out of his bag and chewed in my ear.             

            It was like all the organs in my body froze up and stopped working. "I got there by accident," I said.

            "I got a Puerto Rican friend who, like, ties rubber bands around 'em," Joel said. "Whatever floats it."

            I said I had to go to the bathroom. I stayed there over an hour. My skin tingled and burned. I couldn't get the website out of my head. I couldn't believe how wrong Joel was.

            I didn't take the idea seriously at first because it sounded crazy. I mean, it is crazy, I guess. But it kept coming back to me at weird moments. I'd be drinking coffee or feeding the dogs or climbing the stairs to my apartment, and there it was. I wanted to learn more, but I didn't have an internet connection at home and the sites were blocked from the library. So I checked out a huge book with architectural pictures of Venice and went to a computer café. I opened the book and put it on the table between my computer and the one next to me so that no one could see what I was doing.

            I read through my insurance plan, but I can't tell whether I can get this done or not. I think I can if you will say I need to for psychological reasons, or to protect society. That is why I am writing to you. I don't want Lisa to have any reason to be afraid of me anymore. I don't want to have any reason to be afraid of me anymore.           

            I've seen Lisa once since she gave me the invitation. I went to a grocery store far away from my apartment and heard her voice while I was shopping for fruit. I was so surprised, I dropped the orange I was holding. I didn't know the grocery store was near her house.

            I hurried to the back of the store and begged an employee to let me use the bathroom in the stock area. I sat there for half an hour until the employee came back and told me it was time to leave. When I peeked back into the aisle where I'd heard her voice, it was empty.                    

           

            I keep thinking back to an afternoon when Lisa rolled up to me on her skateboard and thrust her hand in my face. "Look!" she said. "I slipped with the scalpel in dissection class and my teacher said if I'm not careful, it'll heal wrong and my thumb won't move right anymore."

            I looked down at the bandage wrapped around her hand. A little blood was seeping through. She peeked underneath.

            "It's so gross," she said. "Wanna see?" The wind blew a few strands of her hair loose from her ponytail. In the sun, they glowed pale gold.

            I turned away. "I don't think you're gross," I said. I think she saw me blushing that time.

            I wish Lisa and I really could go in a submarine to search for the cure for cancer. I think we'd be happy together.

             

            After I have it done, I'm going to go someplace new. I don't want to stay in this place where I am who I am.

            But before I leave, I want to see Lisa one last time. Not in the park. I don't want it to be like every other time I've seen her. I want the last time to be different.

            The card she gave me is in the bottom of my sock drawer. I brush my hand against it every morning when I pull out a fresh pair. The glossy paper is cool and slick. Without looking, I know what the curlicues of her handwriting look like. The cursive P's and Y's swoop down like cat tails.

            When I get to her house, I imagine the first thing I'll recognize will be her skateboard. It will be cast aside on the front lawn, neon wheels turned upward and spinning in the breeze. I will walk past it and to the front door. The doormat is small and dark and has Lisa's muddy footprints on it.

            I'll knock and wait for Lisa's mother to answer. She'll come to the door in a beige pants suit, dark circles under her eyes. She'll invite me in. I'll say no.

            "I won't be staying long," I'll say. "Is Lisa home?"

            Lisa's mother will go inside. Lisa will come out. She'll be even taller than the last time I saw her. She'll be almost as tall as me. She'll still be wearing her school clothes, overalls and an orange shirt, but she'll be barefoot. Her eyes will shine, fascinated by the world and so smart it hurts. When she recognizes me, she'll frown because I've left her alone so long, but her quirked smile will be hiding somewhere inside.

            "Where have you been?" she'll ask.

            I'll say, "That doesn't matter now. I have to go away."

            Her frown will get deeper. She'll start to speak. I'll hold up my hand.

            "Don't worry, Lisa. It is for the best. I just wanted you to know, before I go. I wanted to tell you—"

   And then I can't imagine what will happen next. I open my mouth as wide as I can, but my jaw is too heavy to move. I try to make a sound. My voice creaks like broken gears. It's too wrong. There's nothing I can say.     

 

**

 

Rachel Swirsky is a fiction MFA student at the Iowa Writers Workshop and a graduate of Clarion West 2005.

 

 

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