A Stack of Unopened Letters
I stood in front of the locker room mirror at the YMCA and checked out my ass. It wasn’t sagging; it looked great. My relentless routine, my relentless fight against gravity was working. Spin class, running, weights, yoga and swimming had my ass as perky and round as it had been when I first met Johnny 23 years ago as a college freshman. My tummy was flat, my boobs were doing as well as could be expected – big boobs always had a little sag – and I was generally happy with what I saw. I peeled my sweaty clothes off and I headed to the shower.
The warm water relaxed my muscles, made tight by work stress and working out. It was late, almost closing time for the Y, and I knew I needed to hurry. Unlike most people, I preferred working out after work. It was a tangible barrier between work and home, and an excuse to skip dinner and late night snacking and burn some calories at the same time.
Johnny worked late most nights anyway, so we usually got home around the same time. It was important to me that he not know how hard I worked to maintain my figure. I really preferred for him to think I just went for a quick walk most days. I thought he would object, for some reason, to my punishing fitness routine.
I put my clean yoga pants and t-shirt on and headed home. I was a little surprised to see Johnny’s car in the driveway, but it wasn’t totally abnormal. It’s possible I could have worked out a little longer than usual, or maybe the time I spent admiring myself in the mirror had caught up with me. I walked inside, a smile on my face, hoping Johnny was in a decent mood. It was hard to tell – he worked so much and sometimes he got so stressed. I relieved my stress at the gym, but he usually ate and drank his stress. It was not ideal, but I tried to work with it as much as I could.
Johnny’s back was to me as he poured himself a scotch. I stifled the sigh that almost escaped and instead greeted him as though nothing was bothering me. “Hey, honey. How was your day?”
He turned to look at me, his eyes red and stormy. “You’re late, and there’s no dinner.”
“I’m sorry, I must have walked a little longer than usual. And you usually just eat dinner at the office so I was going to make a quick sandwich or something.”
“There’s something I want to show you.” He led me to the family room and there, on the coffee table, was the stack of unopened letters. All addressed in the same hesitant hand. One a month for the last two years. 24 letters, all addressed to me. All unopened. All with a return address of Lakewood Drive.
“Care to explain?” Johnny asked.
I fell to the couch, my hand over my mouth. “How did you find these?”
“This one came today.” He held up the letter with yesterday’s postmark. I took it up to your nightstand, and I noticed the drawer wasn’t closed all the way. I tried to close it, but it was stuck. I pulled it out to fix it and I found the rest.”
He bent down, his face right in front of mine, many hours of scotch on his breath. “Again, Jenn, care to explain?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. There was no explanation.
“I can wait all night, Jenn. You’re my wife and I want to know who the fuck is writing you a letter every month. A letter that you won’t open, but you keep. A letter addressed to you, mailed from across town. Every month for the last two years.”
“This has nothing to do with you, Johnny. I’m begging you to put those letters back where you found them and pretend this never happened. Trust me when I tell you, you do not want to know what this is about.”
He took a deep breath and put his drink down. He closed his eyes and when he opened them, the anger between us was practically palpable. “I want to know and I want to know now.”
The endorphins from my work out wore off instantly, but my fight or flight hormones were raging. I wanted to run, but I knew I couldn’t. Not yet. “Johnny, back off. This is not about you. We can discuss it later when you’re not…when you’re feeling better. But we are not doing this now.”
He stood up, stepped back. “I don’t like this, Jenn. I am not happy about this. You have twenty four hours to tell me what this is about or I start opening and reading the letters. This is my house and I will not have secrets in my house.”
He picked up the stack of unopened letters and banded them together. “I’ll keep these with me, in case you thought you’d burn them by tomorrow. You will tell me what this is about, or I’ll find out, because either you’re going to come clean or we’re going to open these letters, one by one, and read them together. So figure out what you’re going to say, because you have one day to say it.”
And with that, he took the letters and he stomped upstairs.
I pulled my knees under my chin and hugged them to me. I never wanted this to happen. I never wanted him to find out. I should have burned the letters when they arrived. Or sent them back. Or something. Even though I didn’t want them, didn’t want to deal with them, didn’t want to read them, I had to keep them. Unwanted as they were, unwanted as he had been, his letters were all I had of him.
Which would be worse, to tell Johnny the letters were from an old boyfriend who couldn’t let go, or to tell him the truth? If I lied I to my husband, made up some believable story about the letters and then he read the letters anyway, he would find out that I was lying, and it would be devastating. I sighed, It didn’t matter what I said now, he would find out the truth. Wheels were in motion and I would have to eventually tell the truth and let him know that I had been lying to him since we met. I couldn’t imagine that he would stay. I may as well spend my 24 hours packing my things and finding a new place to live because this lie was too big to get over. It was too much to expect that he would be ok with it, that he would even be willing to try to work through it.
Because, you see, the letters were from my son.
The son I had borne at 17. The son I had been encouraged by my parents to abort, and when I wouldn’t, to give away. The son I had been carrying when I had a breakdown and tried to kill myself. The son who had survived anyway, and had thrived, and was now in his 20s and had found me and was living on Lakewood Drive and wanted, I’m sure, to meet me.
The son I had never told Johnny I had had.
I told Johnny when we met that I had been born with a medical condition that prevented me from having children. I told him that if he wanted to be with me, we would not be having children because I couldn’t. Now he would know it was because I wouldn’t. He would know that I had carried and borne a child, with someone else. I had given another man this gift that he hadn’t wanted, and had then withheld that same gift from my husband, who wanted it desperately, even to this day.
So you see why I could never tell him my secret. It was too much, too deep, too devastating. I had never told anyone – not Cindy, not Lauren, and not even Lissa, my very closest friend, about this child. My parents knew, because they had to know. They guided my hand as I signed the papers giving up my parental rights, they accepted the pay off from the father’s family and put it in my college fund, they agreed to never speak of it again. My father found me when I had cut my wrists but before I bled out. My father found a plastic surgeon to keep the scarring to a minimum. His fee was huge, unimaginable. When I was in the psych ward, and the call came that the surgeon would take a look at my wrists, my father took me by the shoulders, and looked me in the eye, and said “Jennifer, if I do this for you, you have to promise me that you will never have another child. You are not meant to be a mother. Your body and your chemistry is all wrong for this, and you have to swear to me that you will never, ever do this to yourself or me or your mother again.” And I nodded, and he saved me, and he made sure no one would be able to look at me and tell what I had done, and we never spoke of it again.
When I met Johnny in college, and I brought him home to meet my parents, and then brought him home a few more times and they figured out it was serious, my father took him out to play golf and had a talk with him. I had already told him, when we started sleeping together, that I couldn’t have children. And when he started talking about marriage and forever and ever I reminded him that I was damaged, that I couldn’t have children, that I would never make him a father. And when my dad took him out for a golf game, he said the same thing, and encouraged Johnny to think really hard about whether or not I was worth sacrificing the chance to be a father. And my mom talked to him the next morning over coffee, before I got up, and Johnny told them both that it didn’t matter, that he loved me, that children weren’t a deal breaker, And he kept saying it, to them and to me, until we all believed him, and they acquiesced and allowed us to get married.
As he walked me down the aisle, my father was perfect. And when he leaned over to life my veil and kiss me on the cheek, his finger grazed my wrist, a secret reminder.
No children. Just tell him you can’t.
Just keep telling him you can’t. And just don’t.