by Judson Blake

They discussed it several times. How it would be straightforward and might even be fun, moving, really, only across town. There would be more space than they had now. Ailana was looking forward to it and Howard had taken off work to help with packing. But in the midst of it he was called away. They just couldn’t resolve something from what he said over the phone. Some important party was upset. He left the big plastic bag of old papers, things to be thrown out, in the middle of the floor. When he was gone Ailana planned to make a quick twist and wire it up with the others–but then she saw the unopened letter. Without thinking she stuffed it in her purse. Then she wired up the bag and put it by the door. Moving was a convenience, Howard said; you got to get rid of so much stuff. 
From the first time she met him Ailana had made a simple sizing up: Howard was an ox-like man. He was steady. He was dedicated to his work, often enthusiastic about it and not about much else. He was a safe man, the man you held onto. He planned things; he remembered dates and anniversaries. He knew the names of all her friends. He took his umbrella when he probably would not need it. They watched television together; they had similar opinions. Ailana admitted that she liked the routine; she liked his steadiness, the freedom from idle jokes and excursions that might go nowhere. In five years they were a couple that marriage had established, suited in their quietude.

But now there was this detail, this simple letter she probably should have ignored. That gnawed at what she had thought before. It sat in a fold of her purse with no purpose or meaning, or none that she wanted to delve into. She could wait, as if the envelope with its secret contents were something dead that could no longer act and was no danger anymore, something she could attend to if she chose. And if she got tired of waiting. Waiting for what?    

The move in fact was easy. It had gone smoothly and Ailana felt adventurous finding new shops and people. She enjoyed walking along streets that were structured the same but were still very different from the old neighborhood. They settled in. They felt their way into their old familiarity in a new way in the new space. It could have been a change in which nothing changed.     But the letter stayed. It somehow asked her: don’t throw me away for then I’ll be gone forever and you’ll never know who I am. 

As she lay awake at night sometimes the thing would capture her imagination, like a distant relative she had found out about but never known. The relative, now known to exist, still could not be found, could not be met. It was a face behind a blank curtain. And what if this creature, her husband, ever found out about her theft? Her intrusion? What would she do then? Why, she thought in the night, she would simply own up to it, that would be all. But he would not find out; she wasn’t going to tell him. As she lay awake beside him she watched his breathing and she felt the soft motion of cloth and air in the gray tones of the dark. Could you love a man more when his back was turned? You might love him more. For then you saw what he never sees. And seeing the same facts for years as she had, how was it different now? At quiet times in the semi-dark and at times when she was alone Ailana was sure of one thing: she would never accuse him. She would never hint. And she would never act like she knew something special. And in another space on the shelves of her reflection she had decided something else that seemed foreign but just as certain: she would never open the letter.  

Finally one October day she decided that enough secrecy was enough and she confided in Julie. They met at an upstairs café that was too obscure to attract a busy crowd. It had a musty air, a polite venue for people who read the newspaper for hours, even the obits. 
“What would you do?” she said, having shown the letter to her friend. 
Julie fingered it and turned it over again.
“Well, it was returned to his office at work. That’s stealthy enough. Then he brought it home. Hm.”
“Well, it was in a pile of other things. All junk.”
Julie was pensive, not wanting to say too much. 
“You’ve had it for a while, since the move. It nags on you.”
“Well,” she said straightening her frame, “you’re sure he doesn’t see the woman. I mean, aren’t you?”
Ailana almost bit her lip, but she looked directly at Julie and said instead:  
“Yes. I’m sure. I don’t see when he would have time. He’s always with me. I call him, he’s always there.” 
“Then throw it away.”

Ailana had thought all along that that was exactly what she should have done. She had that thought the first day. But from the first the letter had taken on an existence of its own. She was sure: throwing it away would have been a degrading failure, a personal failing of her own, all the more if it was impossible to define. Throwing it away would have been disownment. The thing belonged to something else. Or to someone else. Well, that was simple: it belonged to the woman it was addressed to. That was its implacable fact.  

“And who is this Raphaela Fabrice, anyway,” Julie asked. “She’s probably dead and that’s why it’s written like that: Return to sender. Or it’s the wrong address, one of the two.” 

Ailana corrected herself for thinking that her friend was being obtuse. Julie wasn’t seeing something but Ailana did not want to say: Howard would not make a mistake about the address. He was steady. He didn’t make typos. And why had he not thrown the letter away himself? Why did it sit around somewhere until the jarring focal point of moving came to a head and he must have idly put it in the trash with a bunch of other stuff, if he saw it at all, without thinking more? Without noticing even. The steady man was throwing it away. As Ailana should have done.     
Julie seemed to collect her friend’s doubt. It was bad to be undecided, to be between two things without really knowing either one.     

“Maybe the letter isn’t so important,” Julie said. “What’s important is the woman’s address.     You know where she lives. You know the street.” 
Julie relaxed back and laughed.      
“Well, that’s it. You could become a sleuth, Ailana. You could just go there and see. If there is a Raphaela Fabrice who really exists, you could ring her bell.” 
Ailana backed in her chair.   
“I wouldn’t. No, I couldn’t do that. And even if I could, it’s absurd. Why? Why would I do that?”    
Julie thought easily, waiting to form her words: 
“Because, well, it might be a side of the man you really don’t know. Maybe that you’ll never know.”
Julie had touched a thread of nerve that wound somewhere she could not see. Did not want to see. Ailana obviously did not know something, and how far could that other thread reach? She wanted to avoid going further. Her friend had been too successful.   
“How can you be married to someone….” Ailana began but she could not finish. She put the letter back in her purse. It was stolen goods.        

They let the matter die and talked about the new neighborhood. Now, having sought out her friend, somehow Ailana did not want to expand. She looked around for something else to see. Glancing in a corner of the shop she admired a sleeping boy leaned over on a storage bin, sprawled so discomfort no longer mattered. She imagined he had worked a double shift. 
The fact of the letter, the deeper fact that she would never accuse Howard, still traced its way into her thoughts each night. Now it was worse than before because she had talked about it. The address was right there. It was in another part of town, not near where they used to live, not near anything really. It was a strange street she had never seen. If she were tracking down a man she would have felt no fear at all and what she felt now was not so much fear as misgiving, as if she did not trust her own curiosity, her own anticipation. She knew where it was. She could go there and merely look. Raphaela Fabrice would not stop her on the street. No one would even know she went.      It would be a trek of another form, not of distance nor even of time, but of something else she felt growing in her thoughts: resolve.     

–Better go now. Will you wait forever? No. I’d better go now.  

As she walked down the strange street she wondered what Howard might have gone through walking here. There were large trees and attentive doormen who watched her pass. Leaves caught the wind around her feet. Was this place, this reputable slightly decorous old street, similar in many ways to their own, was it secretly true to the ox-like man? Another truth? Was the place knowing?

    Did it contain a secret side that no one saw? Was this, these trees, these doorways, were they all the accoutrements of a side of him she had never seen, never guessed at, a side hidden not out of cunning, for she still did not believe, not entirely, that he would turn to that. No, it would be from simple dismissal, ignorance, even blankness of his own that he did not really see. She watched the solidity of the bricks and trees she passed. Did these solid facts mean the street was the path to another way of life?

–Some life he could not have with me?    

She passed a disheveled man crouched on a civil bench. He might have been a derelict, huddled from the new cold, but his look, his open willful eyes, did not say he wanted spare change.     Had that man seen her husband? Had he watched Howard enough to know his purpose or his gait? Would he have a smoky memory of her husband, of details she did not know? If he were a regular on that bench, an artifact as some people could become, did he inhabit this street like the trees and doorways and the sameness of people walking dogs?  Would he be part of a memory Howard would have? Ailana felt she should come close and touch this stranger, offer him her hand, pierce his solitude and breaking the ice within, breath it into herself and end it forever. But no, her resolve was narrow, directed down the hollow of the street and only that. 

She got to the address and the door to the vestibule was open. No one was watching her; it was past the time when people would be rushing home. Ailana looked carefully over the panel of buzzers. The name Fabrice froze in her sight.    

–You must not walk away, she thought. This moment can’t be broken off or it will become a dead thing that will weigh upon you, stick with you more than it has already. You have come this far and what did that take? It is here and you are here.    

Without waiting she rang the bell.   

After a moment a woman’s voice answered on the speaker.    

“Yes. Who is it?”
“You don’t know me. I’m Ailana Verzan. Howard’ wife. I have a letter for you.”

Ailana was astonished at the firmness in her own voice. It sounded confident and direct.     

–As if I know what I’m doing.    

The matter had taken on a moment of its own. It was more solid than she was, more on its own path. There had been no daring, no impulsive leap. There had been hardly a shred of hesitation. Now she only had to wait, since the woman would have to think. Wait for refusal if that was what the matter would lead to, but still just wait.

“I’ll come down,” the voice said.   

Ailana waited out in the street so crowding of the vestibule would not push them together more than either would want. The woman when she appeared was tall and had a stalwart air. She eyed Ailana with what seemed for an instant to be admiration but then shifted to the consenting cast of formality. They shook hands. Ailana felt a sly blush of relief that the woman was not terribly pretty. She kept herself well, but she was too stalwart, less feminine than Ailana felt herself to be. But then that made it worse, didn’t it? For then he had seen something else in this woman. Something he had not found.  

“I could just give it to you now,” Ailana said.  Her fingers extended in her purse as if burning their place there. Raphaela looked around blankly staring then looked back.      

“Yes. If you like. Or… maybe, well, if you like … in some more private place.”   

She met Ailana’s peering. She was nervous and trying not to be.
“Come with me.”   
Raphaela Fabrice acted as if this was not a surprise or that, in some quiet way, all that she experienced was a surprise. She was open and gentle where she led. It might have been that she expected this, for she seemed in some gritty way to be ready for it. A hotel lobby down the block was guarded by a man in a black coat who spread his arm beside the door. 
–She has done this before, Ailana thought. How could I think that?

The woman chose a writing desk with stationary for guests and a conical light designed for solitude away from home in a strange city where one regretted anonymity: it could never be used enough. Ailana produced the letter.  

“It seems you are not dead.”   

Raphaela Fabrice fingered the letter in a tentative way, blinked at being alive and seemed in the gaze she returned to Ailana to be refreshed and accepting.   
“I should take back what is mine,” she said. “Not lie. I lied when I wrote Return to sender.     That wasn’t fair of me. Evasive. I’m guilty of evasion. And now you’ve, well, you’ve found me out.”

She looked directly at Ailana as if to deny her eyes might fill with tears.

“Well. Are you going to open it?”  

The other paused and pursed her lips. Her voice was steady and hoarse as she spoke back:
“I’m no threat to you. Ailana. Not at all. It was months ago. A year almost. It would not have worked. And now we’ve met…. I… I’m glad we met. I’m no threat. I’m no threat at all….” 

The woman’s voice choked and a flush came into her face. Her hand came up to cover her face but stopped and would not allow even that defense. Ailana was stunned with the awful thought: that was what he had seen in the woman, her courage.  

“It would not have worked,” she said again.  

–Why? Ailana thought. I could ask. Now is the only time. I won’t be able to ask again. Not call. But what I would learn would be only details. It would be tiny facts. Facts of how it began, more facts of how it ended, what she saw of him. All wasted details to clutter more nights.

“I’d better go,” Ailana said.  

The woman leaned over the desk and grasped her wrist.    

“Yes. Yes. It would not have worked. It couldn’t. I should never….   I should take it back. You did right to bring it. Absolutely. I’ll take what is mine… mine.”  Her fingers clutched the letter still unopened. She barely looked at it.  

All the walk down the strange street Ailana heard an echo, the soft secret refrain of the woman’s words: 
–I should take what is mine. I should take….

About the Author:

Judson Blake: BA, Literature, UC Berkeley; MS, Mathematics, UNM. Long experience in Wall Street (didn’t save a dime) and the scientific community, technical writing and programming. For several years he directed and acted on stage in New York. His full-length play Perversion ran for five weeks in the West Village. Two of his stories were selected for the 2019 American Emerging Writers Series. His work has also appeared in Don Webb’s Bewildering Stories, The Literary Yard, and Freedom Fiction literary periodicals.