A Letter for Caleb

Everyone had always assumed she and Caleb would fall in love. After all, they did everything together. Caleb lived on the corner of Maple and Vine, and she lived on Vine and Goodsend, only a mile down the road, close enough to walk. Most days, she would walk over with her older sister in the afternoon, when the sun was least forgiving, so her sister could escape upstairs to gossip with his sister and she and Caleb could play pirates. They rode their bikes together to and from school. Teachers didn’t let them sit next to one another because they wouldn’t pay attention, too absorbed in the lessons they could teach each other. She played basketball and he played lacrosse and their bodies grew lankier and they shot hoops and practiced drills together until they were sticky and hungry.

Her infatuation began with high school, when Caleb got back from seven long weeks at summer camp and she noticed that something was different. She couldn’t pinpoint it, couldn’t tell if it was his peeling tan or his now tawny hair that had sparked her heart to beat on double time. All she knew was that he was suddenly perfect.

Her desire was inconsistent; some days she could do without him, yet on others every glance he cast at some other girl sent her stomach roiling. The strength of her feelings was eclipsed only by her fear of his rejection. Caleb knew her better than anyone else, and his rejection of her love would wound her like nothing else could. The only thing that made her yearning easier to bear was that they were always together. She didn’t need him to kiss her because it was just the two of them, against the world – or something like that.

But then it wasn’t just them, anymore, because in tenth grade he kissed Stacey behind the bleachers in the gym, and then because Riley asked him to take her to senior prom, and then – worst of all – because there were college acceptance letters to open and plans to make. Caleb had so many silly, inflated dreams, and he intended to go out into the world and try to make them come true. Ridiculous; what could be better than this, the town they knew, his yellow house on the corner of Maple and Vine? Yet Caleb seemed serious, serious enough to put down a deposit at some big school whose name she refused to remember because she kept thinking he would change his mind. And then they walked across the graduation stage on a day so hot the crickets keeled over and died, and summer was upon them, and Caleb bought a plane ticket.

Realizing that her heart's voice might never be heard, she gave herself an ultimatum: she would tell Caleb how she felt. Before the summer ended, before he left her behind.

It passed too quickly, of course. They spent the first month or so browning at the pond, driving around, stargazing. He worked at the ice cream shop, and she worked in the family restaurant, and they met every day for lunch midway between. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he picked her up in his Ford, which always smelled like someone had recently eaten McDonalds in it; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she picked him up in her Dodge, with its carpet of papers that might one day become useful coating the backseat. Once, at the pond after work, he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the water. After the resulting skirmish she convinced herself that she could have kissed him, had she only moved quickly enough.

Then June was gone in a blink, and July stretched easily before them, routine, stable. They went fishing on the weekends and caught nothing, too busy talking for any fish to fall prey. Caleb boasted that he was getting strong from all the ice cream scooping, but she could still beat him in arm wrestling with her left hand.

And then it was August, and the shadows were longer, and she was irritable with dread, snapping at her mother whenever she spoke and refusing to wash her own dishes after dinner. The deadline stared her in the face, leering. She ignored it.

Until the hot spell came. It was hot, hot enough that people stopped driving to the main street for ice cream. Hot enough that the ice cream itself threatened to melt. Hot enough to knock some sense into Caleb, to provoke him to fetch his suitcase from the attic. And then there were three days until he left and she knew it was time.

She sat down at her desk, popped open a Pabst Blue Ribbon for good luck, and wrote down every single feeling she had ever felt for Caleb on three sheets of paper, double-sided, single-spaced. Then she signed the big, ugly letter with a big, careless scrawl. It was almost 1a.m. by the time she finished, but urgency and the alcohol bubbling in her stomach compelled her to finish the job. She got in her car and drove off, her thumb wearing a hole in the side of the steering wheel. Barely aware of her own actions, she took a long gulp from another beer she had carried from her bedroom.

She would tuck the letter into the crack between his window and the ledge, she decided. It was a risky business slipping it under the front door; she didn’t want his parents finding it instead, or, God forbid, his little brother. Another sip. Her thumb drummed away, imprinting over and over.

As she drove through the soft streets, with a blanket of discarded paper shining white in her rearview mirror, she imagined their life together. They would only have two kids, because there were three in his family, and he always felt ignored as the middle child. Christmas would be held at his mother's; it was so serene there during the holidays, whereas her aunts and uncles used the holidays as an opportunity to settle old feuds. There was the problem of where they would live, of course. She never wanted to leave home and Caleb wished to travel. He wanted a college education, which she regarded as a frivolous way to waste four years of a life too short already. Maybe her letter could make him see how mistaken he was.

A black scampering in the headlights made her slam on the brakes, beer soaring out of the bottle in her hands onto the dashboard. Her brain, confused, raced to keep up with her body as it maneuvered its way out of the car. She spotted the dead cat long before she comprehended that it was she who had forced it into that state.

It was just a cat, right? She stared down at it, the pathetic thing, and her sweat froze with savage realization. Illuminated by the high beams of her car, her roadkill stared back, blank and bleeding. She glanced at the beer bottle on the dashboard and struggled to remember just how many she had downed back in the confines of her bedroom. And she sat down on the road next to what had once been a cat and let herself cry.

Who was she kidding? She knew Caleb. She knew how he would respond to the letter. At first, he would pretend at confusion, buying time; and eventually, he would find the right words to tell her, in the kindest way possible, that this shared future was not his dream.

Of course, she wanted Caleb. She wanted everything he stood for: the yellow house, the reliable walk down Vine, dancing in the sprinklers, whispering during movies, playing pirates, playing boyfriend and girlfriend, playing husband and wife. Safety. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t stop him from leaving her behind, from becoming a new Caleb that she wouldn’t recognize. A new image of the future began to take shape in her mind, one without Caleb. And maybe, sitting on the curb next to the body of the dead cat, she figured out that her fantasy, the one she’d kept under her pillow since she was fourteen years old, wasn't perfect.

She took papers from the backseat of her car and used them to protect her hands as she picked up the mangled cat tenderly, careful where there was blood. The papers weren’t a huge sacrifice; they were just old homework assignments and crosswords, things she should’ve discarded long ago. She laid the cat down on the curb, out of harm’s way, and collected more papers, wrapping the once-cat in them like a little mummy. It was a shitty funeral, but it was a shitty way to die, too – a casualty of her delusions. She cast a look down the street, to Caleb’s house. His bedroom light was on.

On second thought, she went back to the car and retrieved her letter. She tore it up and scattered the fragments on the body of the cat – like it was snowing. The hot spell had broken.

Hannah Berman

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