Greta Browne, born and raised in Los Angeles, graduated from George Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and English Literature. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design while living and working in Washington D.C.
I hadn’t thought of Ruby in months when her letter arrived at the Women’s Studies department of Barnard College, Suite 221. The delivery boy pushed into my office, dropping the parcel of mail onto my desk with a nod. He was out of place in the space packed with feminist literature, titles like The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique, but also a first print copy of A Vindication on the Rights of Women laid in plexiglass on a velvet cushion, as if it were the Ark of the Covenant. The walls that weren’t bookshelves, or a window peering towards an alley, were mobbed by prints of naked women in a myriad of sizes, shapes, and colors. I held a particular fondness for the one beside the doorway, an outline of a shapely back sloping into the dip of a waist.
When I sliced the twine of the bundle, the mail slid like a deck of cards, and there, behind a colorful coupon for granny panties, was the letter. I recognized her handwriting, for the way that she wrote my name, with a looping, swan-like S, and a Y with a short, stumpy tail, was inarguably her. The blue ink had blotted across the address line and, as I turned it, I noticed I was shaking, just slightly. There was no return address, just her name written in charmingly odd print. I could picture her exactly, how her tongue would peek out in concentration as she held the paper.
I pressed my own tongue against the roof of my mouth in anticipation as I slid my nail under the seal. Ruby’s last words to me still rang clearly in my mind, “This town, our families—we can never be together the way you want. Just pretend I’m dead to you. Grieve me.”
And, for a long while, that had been exactly what I had done. I regretted leaving her there, but she had married Fred Finkle from the football team a year later. He ran a discount car dealership and had used her in a television ad campaign where she wore a bikini and stripper heels. I had stared at the TV forcing myself to not care—not to think about the softness of her hair against my cheek in the darkness of my childhood bedroom.
Before I could pull the contents from their shell, a crisp knock sounded, a lighthouse cutting through the fogginess of memory, jarring me from thoughts of Ruby. June watched me, her figure luxuriously leaning against the door frame in a perfect rendition of the golden spiral, a jaguar in wait of her prey. Coal hair dripped over her shoulders like expensive silk, contrasting harshly with the cherry-red wool of her suit and the paleness of her skin. June had always been beautiful in a sharp way, one that made you feel might cut yourself if you looked too closely.
She arched a thin brow in the same practiced motion I had seen a hundred times before. “If you’re going to stare, at least buy me a drink first.”
Usually, June and her rancorous flirtations stirred something in me, a fluttering of butterflies swarming and nesting in my abdomen, but tonight they fell flat as the letter burned red hot between my fingers. I couldn’t stop imagining what could be inside, what could have been so important for her to reach out after what happened between us. Its mere presence was corrupting me, latching onto a yearning inside that had been a plant withering in the desert for so long.
“I’ve probably spent thousands of dollars on drinks for you,” I laughed, trying to loosen up the gripping anxiety. There was also fear that, if I took the letter home, tucked in my briefcase, June might read it. She wasn’t inherently sneaky, but there have been times when I noticed papers askew, or not in the order in which I had left them. “But I’m working for a few more hours tonight, so you’re going to have to buy your own booze, June. Or, you could do what you did to me, and seduce a different professor.” I pointed to one of the doors open down the hallway— “Dr. Maisel may be geriatric, but her pant-suit collection is unparalleled.”
June first materialized in my office hours with a slick smile full of perfect white teeth, her eyes lined in smudged blue that made her look more fairy queen than human. She had dangled Veuve Clicquot in front of my nose and the bottle must have been ice cold, for miniature droplets of condensation clung to the green glass. I hadn’t known what to say and, before I could react, June produced two plastic flutes and foam was rising to meet her nude lips. She must’ve known that she had already won me, or whatever was left of me that there was to win, for when her mouth had curved around the word, “Cheers,” she was inarguably triumphant.
Annoyance corded through her almond-shaped eyes, disappearing before I could register it. June did not like being reminded that she had wanted something so badly that she had been forced to get it herself. She was used to a world where her father provided and she was at want for very little, except for love and companionship, which her father couldn’t buy. June smiled alluringly and said, “I suppose that there’s no way I could convince you to come with?”
I shook my head, distracted as my thoughts danced around Ruby like an ancient ritual—chaotic yet full of meaning. June moved to stand in front of my desk, blotting out the overhead light, and I could see her complexion more thoroughly now, and how the splotch of blush on her left cheek was redder than that on the right.
“I’m serious, I have to finish this,” I said, gesturing to the stacks of paper lining my desk. She leaned closer for a kiss, despite my protests, giving me a view of her breasts behind the golden buttons on her jacket. Her lips pressed against mine and they were familiar and warm, nipping me in the calculated way that she knows I like. I touched her cheek briefly, to feign passion, before detaching with a breathless chuckle, “You’re a temptress, as you always are, but I still have to stay late. We can finish this later…” I tried to let it trail off sexily, but it came out awkwardly rehearsed.
She leaned back, folding her arms in order to properly study me. “Why is it that you always seem to be so far away?”
“I’m sitting right in front of you.”
“You know what I mean. Don’t be dull. You’re a fucking forty-five-year-old professor, Bea.” She was getting angry now, her hands turning to clenched fists. “Be honest with yourself, and me, for once.” Her eyes strayed to my lap where the letter now laid, waiting, resting lightly on my evergreen trousers. “Does that say…?” She snatched it before I could stop her, “Ruby Finkle. Fuck! I should’ve guessed it was that bitch poking her nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Pushing up, I circled my desk as my heart roared painfully against my ribcage. Having June see the envelope was one thing, but I had no idea what Ruby could have written inside. “Please, June. You know what happened. Don’t give me shit for receiving a damn letter.” I couldn’t look at her.
“Jesus! She’s going to haunt you forever, huh?”
“That’s not fair.” My voice broke, giving me away. She looked at me for a long moment, one that felt like time stood transfixed, and I knew that she could see the ugliness on my insides.
She shrugged, the sadness fading into ambivalence as she dropped the letter onto the floor and said, “Babes, life isn’t fair. And saying that, like a little child begging for forgiveness, is pathetic. I never forced you to choose between me and Ruby. But do you ever wonder why? Especially when you already know that I get so jealous.” She laughed, distracted for a second, “After all, you saw what happened last year at the staff Hanukkah party.” In a blaze of sequined fury, June had cornered Dave from IT and accused him of checking out my ass, whereupon we all informed her that he was, in fact, partially blind and interested in men.
“June, come on,” I gently grasped her upper arms and pulled her closer, thinking that perhaps the humor meant this was salvageable. “There isn’t a choice to be made between Ruby and you. I choose you, and I have, every day, for the last four years.” My voice had raised in pitch again, yet it sounded cheap.
She smiled delicately and detached my fingers, prying them loose one by one. I wondered uneasily if it would be the last time that our hands would touch in this lifetime. “That’s what I thought too, at first. That there isn’t a choice to be made when here I am, present and very much in love with you and she’s in some…god fucking knows where. So, I figured that there was no reason to worry. But, now, I see that I was wrong.”
“Please, don’t say that. It isn’t true.” I was pleading, “How could you come to that conclusion when all I’ve done is care for you?”
June frowned, a natural reflex. “Then tell me that you don’t want her. Tell me that if she walked through that door, right now, and confessed that she was blindingly in love with you for the last thirty years…tell me that you wouldn’t forget about me.”
I waited for the worry of losing her to set in and completely consume me in an erasure of self, but it never came. I felt a certain type of emptiness, of rolling sand dunes in the Sahara falling in and onto one another. “I…I don’t know what to say to that. Especially when you know my history with her.” I took one step forward and she one back. “Please, June.”
June held tightly to the short alligator bag under her armpit, moving it between us like a weapon. Her pager went off, beeping in-between us like a bomb.
“Bea…oh my sweet Bea…I think it would be easier if you didn’t say anything. Everything I need to know is in your eyes,” she said, her high heels soundless on the carpeting as she edged from the room. I watched her back grow smaller as she went down the stuffy wood-paneled hallway, disappearing as if she were never there at all.
I considered going after June, whirling her around in a romantic, cinematic moment in which I dropped to my knees, begging her to take me back. But I was frozen there, a pillar of salt, and I could feel the letter watching me from the shaggy beige carpeting.
A million memories of June filtered through my consciousness and I recollected our very first kiss, stolen during the crescendo of an opera downtown as the busty woman on stage, drenched in diamonds with strings of juicy pearls dripping down her Pillsbury back, raised both arms like an airplane director, her neck jiggling wonderfully from the effort. Chanel No. 5 curled from June and my nostrils flared in delightful intoxication as we fused together, softly and inconspicuously, behind the blue paper fan I had brought for dramatic effect. I imagined how the performer on stage must have seen the shadow of two newly born lovers, backlit from the glare of the spotlight.
The memory was replaced by a visceral image of myself ripping the letter into shreds, unread. It would be the perfect payback for what she did to me those years ago, for there was nothing Ruby hated more than being ignored. It had felt like my chest was being ripped open when she walked away from me that day, slamming the car door shut and vanishing into the snow. I had waited for her to come back, to tell me that she had been kidding. That we would be able to continue our plan to run away together to California. But Ruby didn’t come back, and I had staggered from the car, letting the tears freeze on my face.
Almost as if an apparition, I saw Ruby standing in the room, her wild smile lifting the lines of her mouth upward. She was wearing our high school uniform with my leather jacket, her short blonde hair rumpled and greasy. I blinked until she faded away. I still saw her when I closed my eyes, her ethereal profile engraved on the grainy backside of my lids.
I retrieved the letter, hesitating before pulling it from the sleeve. A breath of surprise escaped me when I felt the texture, realizing all at once that it wasn’t a letter, but instead a folded, water-stained napkin. I held it under the glow of my desk lamp, leaning in so that my nose was pressed to the papery product as my eye-sight failed me when it came to reading. Bethlehem Rehabilitation was stamped on the corner in fancy blue letting with a cheesy floral logo of a yellow bouquet of roses and, below it, an imprint of her bright red lipstick kiss. I would know the shape of her lips anywhere.
I swallowed before I leaned forward to lift my desk phone. The dial tone was aggressively loud and I cleared the thickness from my voice with a cough. I punched in 4-1-1 before I could change my mind.