His eyes, bleary and red-ringed, shared the same blue as mine. His tailored clothes looked expensive, and he smelled of aftershave even though his stubble beard didn’t appear to have seen a razor in days. Wrinkles lined his face and white hair grew thin across his scalp. He stared at the seat next to mine until I picked up my briefcase and moved it to the floor at my feet. Despite the now empty seat, the man wavered in the aisle until I rose to assist.

“Here, let me help,” I said.

His large hands engulfed mine. I have my mother’s delicate fingers, the cause of endless teasing in boarding school.  He stared at my face, though I’m sure with his blurry view he couldn’t see me very well. I nodded, and went back to reading my paper. I enjoy the quiet of train travel and thought to use this trip to visit my mother in New Haven, to catchup on events old and new, as I hadn’t seen her in a while. She had sent me the ticket, and just seeing it made me miss her. My wife and daughter stayed in the city. They’d planned a girl’s day at the zoo.

“Would you read this to me?” he asked, “my eyes aren’t good for reading anymore.” I looked up and saw a letter clutched in his hand.

“Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude,” I said. Reading someone else’s mail opened their life to judgement and exposed the reader to secrets they weren’t entitled to know. Hadn’t earned.

“Please.”

When I mumbled agreement, he passed me the letter. The postmark read April 6, 1982. I slit open the envelope and eased pale blue tissue paper out. The writing looked feminine, familiar.  The pages rustled when I opened the missive and scanned the contents.

“Well?” he prodded, “what does it say?”

My eyes misted. “It’s from your daughter.” He nodded, as if he knew that already, and stared out the window.

“Dearest Father.” It had the same formal tone my mother used in letters to me when I was at school. “My dearest son,” she would start, then discuss the minutia I missed while away.

“I waited to write this until I was far enough away to be strong.”

The old man’s head dropped towards his chest, just a bit, and I wouldn’t have noticed if the train hadn’t shuddered, causing me to look up.

“Go on,” he said.

“I’m sitting in the Jardin des Tuileries as I think about what to say. The words are difficult to find. Mom would have understood. To her I was a daughter, not the house keeper. I wanted to travel, you wanted a maid. Our stars don’t orbit the same sun. Mine wanders the galaxy searching brighter stars, yours circles in a constant existence, every day darker and smaller.”

“Where’s the post mark?” he asked, which seemed an unnecessary question. I remember walking with my own mother along Rue de Montpenzier, slipping through the arcades to stroll along the straight line of trees in the Jardin du Palis Royal. Strong creases marked the envelope where it had been folded. The circle postal stamp in red ink included the date and the city.

“Paris.” The man’s chin rested on his chest now and he moaned.  I waited until he quieted, unwilling to forge ahead alone. When the old man calmed, I continued.

“I miss her, and I blame you for her death. Your relentless drive to keep things the same, to cling to a closed-off existence that wasn’t really living. Alcohol was simply the weapon. She drank because it was the only way she could stand you, and you, dear Father, were the only thing she knew. You prevented her from dreaming of something grander, lighter.”

I recognized the message, even if the words my mother used now were more nuanced with age. She never returned home. I attended boarding school in Europe, a safe distance from the town she’d escaped. A town she knew he’d never leave. Even so, she moved dangerously close, almost daring him to find her.

The old man deflated a bit with each word, sinking back into the seat. His big hand wiped a tear off his cheek.  I almost stopped, but the next line exploded off the page and forced me to read it.

“Now there is an even greater reason to be free of you. I’m expecting a child.” The paper shook in my clammy hand. I was born six months after the letter was written. Me. A blue-eyed boy, with a single mom, who grew up in San Francisco, and Paris, and Sydney before settling in New Haven.  The old man’s face lifted and looked at me. I wondered if he knew.

“A child?” he said and sat up taller. “Perhaps there’s still time.”

“Time for what?” I asked. My voice cracked. He muttered and rubbed his hands together.

“I can get her back, reclaim her, … a child!”  He’d forgotten I was there, which was fine with me. My mother had gone to great lengths to keep this man out of our lives. To prevent him from “reclaiming” her, though this broken old man couldn’t be a threat now.

The letter continued one more paragraph. “Perhaps someday you’ll meet. When I’m ready, and when the child is old enough to resist your influence.” Then the author’s scrawled signature, Elizabeth. No salutations of love, or warm regards, or even a ‘Sincerely’. Just her name.  That sloppy, hard to read name that signed birthday cards to me for thirty-four years. I folded the sheets and slid them back into the envelope. My hands still shook. The train slowed and I laid the letter in his hands, and rose to get my bag. He didn’t look up.

She stood on the platform. Porters and passengers parted around her as I disembarked. I had to bend over to hug her though the rest of me felt like a child. When we stood back to appraise each other, I noticed the platinum sheen of her hair and the large diamond ring on her finger.

“You’re finally getting married?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” she said.

“This seems sudden. You haven’t mentioned him before.” Her lips parted into a practiced, society smile.

“An old friend from our Paris days.”

The train moved with a screech. The old man’s head jerked up and found her and I. I resisted the urge to wave as he pressed his face to the glass. Could those watery eyes make out his daughter and grandson?  The smile on my mother’s lips faded.

“You knew?” I asked.

She nodded. “He takes the same train every day. Who knows why.”

“Yet, you know he did that.” I said.

“It isn’t hard to keep track of him. Once he does something he just keeps doing it. I left that life a long time ago, and have no desire to go back. You have a family of your own now, it was time to meet him, at least once.”

I had met him and knew I’d never see him again.

“He knows where to look for us,” I said. We turned to leave.

“Dearest son,” she said, looping her arm through the crook of my elbow, “He’s always known where to look. He just won’t see.”

 

L.A. Reed

Author, poet, photographer, free spirit and a retired engineer.

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