He sits in the computer lab every day amid the whir and heat, and reads love letters one after another. He’s supposed to help us if we have problems, but it’s usually easier just to move to another machine. He’s oblivious when he reads.
That must be what true love is like. I admire his single-minded devotion, not to mention his rugged good looks. That combination of hard creases and vivid green eyes reminds me of the guy on the salad dressing Mom buys. I don’t really know what the other girls want, but I’m tired of boys trying to cop a feel or owning me like a dog. I want someone mature.
He folds a page into thirds and slides it into his briefcase, brings another out and unfolds it onto the desk. We know they’re love letters because Britta went to his desk once to get a pencil and sneaked a glance.
“Poetry,” she told us in her excited whisper. “What else could it be but a love letter?” What would it feel like to have a man send me poetry? I imagine the texture of an old-fashioned envelope against my fingertips, the tearing of the flap, that exquisite tingling sensation as I pull the letter out. What will it say? Did he seal it with a kiss?
The computer beeps. I look down, startled to find my elbow propped on the keyboard. A line of zzzzz fills the screen. Britta glances over. Light from a flat screen splashes her cheek.
“Why do you think he reads them here?” I ask.
She frowns. She has such pretty blue eyes. “What?”
I nod at the tutor’s desk. “The love letters. Day after day. Why does he read them here?”
Britta shrugs. “Maybe he has the hots for one of us and is working up his nerve.”
“He’s more than twice our age.” We think he’s around fifty. A flush rinses through me. What if it’s me he wants?
Britta turns back to her surfing. I should do the same. Instead, I stand and smooth my skirt. “I’m going to ask.”
The other girls give me looks: You go girl! Are you out of your mind? I feel them watching as I walk. I feel the light from the ceiling fixtures, their radiation.
The tutor looks up, eyes shining from nests of crinkled flesh.
“Yes?” he says.
“I was, I mean we were—” I turn at an angle. The other girls stare at monitors, but I see them watching from the sides of their eyes. “Why do you read those? I mean, like, every day? We know they’re love letters.”
He watches me until I feel sweat gathering along my bra. Then he nods and turns the letter to me.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you: and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy; I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.
“Shakespeare,” he says. The rumble of his voice soothes my nerves.
My eyes fix on that final line. “Did your father die? That’s awful. I’m sorry for—”
“No,” he says. I watch his mouth move and think of his lips pressed to mine, the contrast in textures. He folds the letter and places it into the briefcase.
“Are you an actor?” I say. How exciting. “Are you studying for a play?”
His head shakes slowly. “Once upon a time, perhaps. Now, I merely remind myself.”
“This.” He sweeps his arm around the room, and now his voice swells into the space between us. “Of what I allowed my life to become, the choices I made, and did not make, and never thought were choices at all.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” he says with a condescending smile. “Life stretches before you like an endless parade.” He gazes at his outstretched hand and I feel suddenly repulsed, the wrong pole of a magnet. I’m nothing to this man, an audience, a silly girl. As much as I wanted to want him before, I want to hate him now. And yet his words do have an effect, like acid smoldering deep in my brain.
I walk back to my station and sit.
“Well?” Britta says.
“It’s complicated.” I rub my palms down my thighs, feeling the firmness of my muscle, the softness of my skin. A shiver comes over me.
The tutor unfolds a letter. I watch his focus drop to the page, his head move ever so slightly with words I cannot read. On the wall behind him, a second-hand sweeps the face of an old-style clock. Until this moment I did not even know it was there.
Stephen V. Ramey’s work has appeared in a variety of places. He lives in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river. His collection of very short fiction, Glass Animals, is available from Pure Slush Books via Lulu.com and Amazon.