Letting Go of the Past
“I still haven’t heard from any schools yet,” Jodi said into her cell phone as she stepped into the house. “There just doesn’t seem to be any full-time teaching positions available anywhere around. I don’t know, Susan, I may have to move out of state.”
She stopped at the kitchen counter and placed the day’s mail on top of the growing stack that had been accumulating there over the past week or so.
“Sure, I can substitute all I want,” she continued, “it just doesn’t pay anything. That’s why I took that temp job with the state. It’s not great, but it pays better and it provides benefits. I’d rather not talk about all that right now, if that’s okay.”
It had been two days since she and Susan buried their mother, and Jodi did not even want to think about going back to work the following day for the State of Rhode Island Department of Corrections.
“I’m fine, Susan. Really. I’ll talk to you later on in the week. All right?”
After Jodi hung up with her sister, she stared down with a heavy heart at the assortment of mail—invoices from her mother’s doctors and health care providers, credit card statements, bothersome election year political advertisements, grocery coupon mailers, and department store catalogs. It was the same as always. There was no stopping it, the tide of bills and solicitations that washed up every day. And it would just keep coming, even though her mother was no longer there. It didn’t matter. No one seemed to care.
As she halfheartedly began sorting through it all, separating the junk from what required her attention, one envelope stood out among the others. It appeared to be a personal letter, with her name handwritten in tight cursive along with her mother’s address, even though officially Jodi did not live there. She had grown up in the house, but shortly after getting her teaching certificate and a job as a teacher’s aide in her old elementary school, she had moved into her own place. Last year, when she moved back into the house so she could take better care of her ill mother, few people knew it. She had even kept her apartment the entire time, maintaining residency there and getting her own mail.
Oddly, the first person who Jodi thought of when she saw the handwritten letter was Nick.
Of course, this was where she had lived when she knew Nick, though she realized it was crazy to think that the letter actually was from him. She hadn’t seen him since high school graduation, and it made her wonder why he had popped into her head at that moment. Sure, she had known him her whole life. They had gone through grade school together as well as high school, and although they never dated, nor were they especially close, she did think about him often. They had many mutual friends and their paths had often crossed throughout their school years. He was a real nice guy. Quiet. Shy. Pensive. Smart. And handsome.
She remembered him calling her once in high school and asking her out on a date, but she was seeing someone at the time, an older guy who was in college in Massachusetts. She always regretted not going out with Nick, not only because the guy she was dating turned out to be a snake in the grass, sleeping with every girl on campus while she remained loyal to him, but because she never got another opportunity with Nick. After graduation, he left to go to some small liberal arts college in New Jersey, where he majored in English and Poetry. Last she heard, he was living in Chicago with someone and trying to make a living as a writer. Thinking about him now, Jodi found herself really hoping that the letter was from him.
She realized how foolish she had been when she saw the return address. It was from Arianna Darling, little miss senior homecoming queen who married the class president, Tommy Burch, and was living a fairy tale.
Jodi wasn’t much for social media, and she didn’t even have a Facebook account anymore. She had lost touch with most of her classmates from Fairview High, and though there were some people she wished she had stayed in contact with, Arianna was not one of them. There was a mutual dislike between them that went back ten years, when they were in middle school, and it all had to do with a boy—Kyle Jensen. Arianna had liked Kyle, but he had asked Jodi to the seventh grade holiday semiformal instead. Ever since then, Arianna had it in for Jodi, always talking shit about her and just being a world-class bitch because she didn’t get what she wanted. Jodi never even liked Kyle and she only went out with him that one time. Now she had to put up with Arianna treating her like she was some kind of threat, as if she was afraid that Jodi might take something else away from her. Whatever. Jodi didn’t really care, but Arianna was the one who she always seemed to run into at the post office and the pharmacy and other places around town.
Fairview was still considered a small Rhode Island town, despite its population growth over the past several decades, but no one lived larger than Arianna Darling-Burch. Her palatial estate at the end of Crescent Lane looked down like a citadel from the top of Oaks Bluff, the highest point in town. Arianna could see everything that went on in Fairview, if she cared to look. What she really wanted, Jodi believed, was to make sure everybody saw her and the fabulous home that Tom Burch had built for her after he finished college and began working at his family’s mortuary.
There were numerous funeral homes in town, but Burch-Littlefield Memorial Chapel was the biggest and nicest in the state. They had remained family owned, and they operated several other funeral homes in the surrounding areas. Jodi did not begrudge the Burch family for their success. Quite the contrary, in fact. They ran an elegant, reputable business, and everyone who worked there was really nice. They had handled her mother’s arrangements, and could not have been more kind or understanding. To their further credit, they were wise enough not to give Arianna a position in which she had to deal with the families or the bereaved. If she was doing clerical, custodial, or any backroom work at the mortuary, Jodi thought they were doing the community a great service.
Assuming the envelope from Arianna contained a sympathy card, Jodi unceremoniously tossed it into the pile with the rest of the junk mail. She did not want anything from Arianna, least of all sympathy. Jodi thought any condolences from her would be forced and insincere, coming from someone who knew nothing about real loss, grief, or misfortune. She realized that seemed catty, even petty and harsh, but she couldn’t help it. There weren’t many people she disliked. She wasn’t like that. She always got along with everyone, but Arianna just rubbed her the wrong way, so she wasn’t about to cut her any slack. The constant personal barbs and half-disguised insults Arianna had hurled at Jodi over the years were calculated and intentionally hurtful. Besides, if Arianna was so sympathetic, why didn’t she bother to contact her even once during the entire time her mother was sick? She could have at least stopped by her mother’s wake, which she certainly knew about.
Jodi’s shoulders sagged as she looked out the kitchen window at the sinking sun. She’d visited her mother’s grave that afternoon, so her spirits were already low. And now seeing the letter from Arianna—it was enough to depress her. She left the mail where it was and took a couple of ibuprofen caps to knock down the throbbing in her head before it became a full-blown headache. She wasn’t hungry, so she just went to her room to lie down on the bed for a while. Not that she expected to be able to sleep. She hadn’t been sleeping well since her mother died. Even though Jodi had lived on her own before, it felt weird being in the house all alone after all those months of spending her days caring for her mother. She closed her eyes against the memories.
A short time later, Jodi opened her eyes and looked around groggily. She must have dozed off, because it was completely dark outside now. She mustered just enough energy to get undressed, set her alarm, and crawl under the covers. She would deal with it all tomorrow.
* * * *
The next morning, when the buzzer sounded, she got out of bed without hitting the snooze button. She actually felt very refreshed for the first time in a long time, and after a light breakfast of some oatmeal and fruit, she arrived at work earlier than usual and with a bit of a bounce in her step.
The main offices for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections were downtown, but Jodi had to report to an old two-story building two towns over where precomputerized files were warehoused. Her job was to input data on past inmates into the state computer system and include any updated information on the status of prisoners or former prisoners who were still alive. The work was beyond tedious and unfulfilling, but she had no choice and no other options at the moment. Her desk, along with an old computer they gave her, was stuffed inside an empty storage closet. There was no air conditioner, though the brick-and-mortar construction managed to keep most of the June heat at bay until later in the afternoon, when it was just about time to go home for the day. She worked virtually alone, so when she arrived and saw the colorful arrangement of flowers on her desk it made her smile.
It was ten minutes until eight o’clock so the two or three other full-time state workers assisting her on this project were not in yet. Her immediate boss, who was usually in and out—though mostly out—all day long, was there that morning. That alone made her feel uneasy. He had his door open, another portent of trouble. He seemed to be waiting for her, and when he saw her he stuck his head out and waved Jodi into his office. He asked her to have a seat in a serious, businesslike tone, his face countenanced with concern. When he summarily informed her that her position was not being funded for the next quarter, which had officially started over the weekend and meant that she no longer had a job, she wasn’t the least bit surprised. She fully understood that the job was temporary, but she still found the abruptness of her termination distressing, if only because of the timing, so soon after her mother’s passing. It just seemed so thoughtless and insensitive. She hadn’t been in the previous week, having asked for time off in order to be with her dying mother, but her boss must have known the status of her position then, and he could have notified her before she came in that morning.
Jodi just let it go. She didn’t care for the job, and she wasn’t going to miss it. She thanked her boss, who wished her well, and she walked out of the building with only a purple bucket full of red roses, white Asiatic lilies, and red mini carnations—her favorite—which had been left on her desk. She didn’t notice until she got home that there was no card with the flowers. She figured it had fallen off somewhere in transit, and that they had to be from Bob, Susan’s husband, who probably knew about her being terminated because he was the one who had helped get her the temporary position with the state in the first place. She made a mental note to call her brother-in-law later and thank him for everything.
As she stood in the kitchen, with the aroma of the fresh flowers filling the eerily quiet room, she suddenly felt a little dizzy and very tired. It was only nine-thirty in the morning, yet she was completely drained. The day had started out so well. She’d felt so good and so strong, but now her legs were like spaghetti and she thought she was going to pass out. She made her way over to the couch in the small living room, and as she sat there for a minute or two, waiting for the faintness to pass, she spotted a small white object on the floor at the foot of her mother’s recliner directly across from her. As she stared at the item, it slowly came into focus and she realized that it was a nasal cannula without the tubing. She didn’t know how she had missed it. She had meticulously cleaned the entire house and thought she had stored away or disposed of all her mother’s medical equipment and supplies.
Seeing it lying there now, the nasal cannula was a reminder of her mother’s increasing struggle just to breathe in the final years of her life and her dependency on medical equipment to survive. Jodi knew that she had also played a big part of her mother’s existence, though more on an emotional level, providing her with comfort, companionship, laughter, and being her personal sounding board and at times even a target for her mother’s frustration and anger.
Jodi felt a lot like that overlooked nasal cannula on the floor, discarded and alone in the room. Without her mother, she had no purpose. Her mother needed her, but Jodi also needed her mother. Now, with her mother gone, she was lost.
Her mother’s empty chair, which always had her gray quilted shawl draped across the back, was bare now. The oxygen tank rack and cart that would be nearby was gone as well. The skin of Jodi’s grief, which she thought had begun healing, was as raw and painful as it was the day she lost her mother. It was too much for her, and the tears came unabated, accompanied by loud, racking sobs.
Like a powerful storm, the sudden tempest of her sorrow passed quickly and revealed clear skies and the return of hopefulness and optimism. While Jodi certainly was feeling the effects of being on an emotional roller coaster the past few days, it was her nature to find the positive in everything and remain upbeat, so that was what she intended to do. She missed her mother a lot, and wished she were still there, but now, overcome by an overriding sense of enthusiasm, there was so much she wanted to do. And she could do it all now. She wanted to horseback ride across the plains of Montana, go rafting down the Colorado River, hike the highest peaks, and swim with the dolphins. She wanted to live. She wanted to be in love. After that, she would be at peace.
Jodi was so confident that things would turn around for her that she got up off the couch to retrieve the letter from Arianna Darling. If she could face that, she could face anything.
She was reaching for the envelope when she saw that there was another letter, slightly smaller and cream-colored, stuck to the back side of Arianna’s. It had been raining the day of her mother’s burial, and the two pieces of wet mail were adhered together.
As Jodi pulled the smaller envelope free, some of the paper tore away from the larger one in the process. The mailing and return addresses on the smaller envelope were professionally printed, and when Jodi saw that it had a California stamp mark on it, she did a double take, knowing immediately where it had been sent from. She had almost forgotten that she had applied for a teaching position at a charter school in San Diego several months before. Frustrated by the lack of local teaching opportunities, she’d sent her résumé out on a whim after seeing the job posted online. She never expected to hear back from them, however, and because she was caring for her mother at the time, she would not have considered taking it anyway. She eagerly tore into the envelope.
The letter was from the San Diego League of Charter Schools board of directors, who advocated for the thirty-eight member charter public schools in the county. They were offering Jodi a full-time position at the Kismat Charter School in Carlsbad.
As she quickly skimmed the letter, she was further informed that she had been selected from a vast list of qualified applicants from around the country, and that the position at the school would be available to her exclusively for a limited time. If she was available and interested, they provided a phone number for her to contact the dean of the school directly.
Jodi was giddy with excitement. It was almost too good to be true. Not only was this a fantastic job opportunity, but it was a chance for her to leave Fairview and start life over. She was so elated by this prospect that she didn’t bother to finish reading the letter, and instead immediately called her sister to tell her the news.
Although Susan was happy for Jodi, she confessed that she would be sad to have her sister move so far away.
“So, you think I should take it?” Jodi asked.
“Yes,” Susan said. “For lots of reasons. Don’t you?”
Jodi knew it was the right thing to do, but something told her to put it off, to just sit on it for a little while and think about it carefully before making any kind of decision one way or the other. That seemed liked the best course of action to take, and that’s what she did, folding the letter up and tucking it back inside the envelope, which she tossed onto the middle of the kitchen table like a discarded poker hand. Something told her that the stakes had been raised and that she was playing for her future. But she was all in.
Without any further hesitation, Jodi tore open Arianna’s letter and discovered that it was an invitation, not a sympathy card.
The bold print at the top read FAIRVIEW HIGH SCHOOL—5-YEAR CLASS REUNION.
Jodi had to think for a moment. Was it five years already? She had graduated in 2010, and it was now 2015. It was five years, all right, and it went by way too fast.
The event was being held at the Sprewell Mansion, an historical home in town that used to belong to a wealthy, prominent family and had recently been converted into a banquet hall and ballroom.
There was a web address where you could register and purchase a ticket in advance, so she went online to see who was going. As she scrolled down the list of classmates who would be in attendance, she barely noticed any of the names until she saw Nick Ryan.
She reacted immediately to seeing his name. She felt her face flush and her body quiver, as if he had physically touched her. She didn’t know what exactly was happening to her, but as unexpected as the feeling was, it seemed natural and real enough to her, and she was eager to see him. When she saw that the event was Saturday night, the upcoming weekend, she closed her eyes and blinked them rapidly to make sure they were in focus and that she was not reading the date incorrectly.
It was on June 21. The first day of summer.
Just five days away.
Something didn’t add up. She was able to see that Nick had bought his ticket more than a month before, while others had purchased their tickets even earlier. Jodi understood that her invitation had gone untouched in the mail pile for over a week, but that didn’t account for the delay. She hadn’t heard a word about the reunion all spring, and it didn’t take a genius to figure this one out. Jodi would have suspected Arianna even if she wasn’t on the reunion committee.
She had come very close to throwing Arianna’s letter out yesterday. Jodi was glad she had not, or she might never have known about the reunion. She just shook her head and dismissed the oversight, intentional or otherwise. It was just like Arianna to do something so devious. Besides, Jodi had a lot to do to get ready for Saturday night, including shopping for a new dress, calling for a hair appointment, and getting her nails done.
The first thing she did, however, was pull out her high school yearbook. It was on the bookshelf beside a bunch of old family photo albums, in virtually the exact same spot where it had been since the day she’d brought it home. She dusted off the cover like she was unearthing a time capsule. It had only been five years, but it seemed so long ago. The high-resolution photographs brought her instantly back to those carefree days where everything seemed to revolve around fashion and friendships, rivalries and teenage drama. She had enjoyed her time in high school, but when it was over, she was glad and never looked back.
Now, as she flipped through the senior class pictures and the faces blurred, the memories started to fade along with them. Then she stopped on the page with Nick’s photo. She looked at him and smiled. He was smiling back at her, displaying a set of even, white teeth and a dimple on one cheek that made him look like he was smirking. His face was narrow, with a firm jawline and square chin. His nose was classic Greek-shaped. His lips, with an upper lip that was slightly thinner than the full pouting lower lip, were eminently kissable. He was as handsome as she remembered him. She had never noticed that his eyes were hazel, however. She remembered them being warm and brown, but the green was so prominent now, picked up by the turquoise in the pattern of the tie he was wearing.
“What was I thinking?” she mumbled to herself. “Letting you get away.”
As she thumbed through the book, looking at the arbitrary photos taken of students around the school, it felt like she was there again, walking down the halls, inside her old classrooms. She found a photograph of her with her best friend at the time, Kathy DiNoble. They were laughing about something when the picture was taken. She had seen the picture before, but looking at it this time she saw something that she had not noticed until now. It was Nick. He was in the background, only a few steps away, and although his image was not completely in focus, she was sure it was him.
Jodi thought a moment, and then began to search frantically for another photo taken of her in Spanish class. She knew it was in the back of the book somewhere, and when she located it, she studied it and saw several classmates around her, including Nick. He was sitting directly behind her, and was much clearer in this photo. He was smiling, but he seemed unaware that a photographer was focusing his lens in his direction. Jodi thought he was looking directly at her instead.
She put a finger in the page to hold her place, and then turned over to the sports section and started flipping through the pages until she found the picture of her sitting in the stands during a swim meet. She and everyone around her was cheering, their hands raised enthusiastically in the air when the photo was snapped. Incredibly, Nick, who was on the dive team, was in this picture as well. He was on the high board in the foreground, stretching in preparation for his dive. His head was turned, and he once again appeared to be looking in Jodi’s direction.
Jodi looked at these images far differently now than she had before this day. Now, they were signs. Signs she had missed five years ago, and she was getting the distinct feeling that she was supposed to miss them at that time. She noticed them now because this was when she was supposed to notice them. She had never had any kind of intuitive perception like this before, but she was sure that her future, always lying somewhere ahead of her, vague and indistinct, involved Nick.
* * * *
It was one of those dreams when you know that you’re asleep, and no matter how hard you try to wake yourself up you simply cannot. Only in this one, Jodi did not want to wake up. Her mother was alive, and she was back at Fairview High School.
It started out where she was running late and missed the bus. She was walking to school when she realized that she wasn’t wearing a top. When she arrived, the first period had already started and the front door was locked, so she went around back to find another way inside. The gym door was open and she just walked in. There was a class playing volleyball and no one seemed to care that she was only wearing a bra, and that’s when Jodi knew it was a dream, so she didn’t care either.
The next thing she knew she was in the natatorium, even though the pool was in a completely different building. That’s the beauty of a lucid dream; you can teleport yourself instantly anywhere you want to go.
As she walked along the edge of the pool, the water was completely still and the only light came from the shower room. She could see the steam drifting out and could hear the sound of running water.
“Nick,” she called softly as she entered. There were indistinct shapes in the mist. As she drew closer to them, she saw naked figures lurking about. She identified them as members of the boys’ swim team, even though none of them were actual students. Her boss, who had just fired her, was there. Gross. So was her cousin Steve, and his friend Darrin. And even a friend of her father’s who she hadn’t seen since she was ten years old, but no Nick. She tried not to look at them, but they were walking all around, and there was no way to avert her eyes.
Though she recognized that it was her mother’s voice beckoning her, she understood that it was leading her to Nick and she followed it. Then all of a sudden Jodi found herself back in the main school building again, in an empty hallway.
“Nick,” she called. “Where are you?”
“Jodi,” her mother’s voice, substituting for Nick’s, said. “I’m in here.”
The school library was directly ahead. She walked toward the doors knowing what was going to happen as soon as she stepped inside.
Jodi turned and saw Mrs. Carrie, the short, round-bodied librarian holding a pudgy finger in front of her pursed lips.
There was a figure lurking between two nearby shelves in the unusually dark library. As Jodi began to move forward, she knew it was Nick from his silhouette, posture, and Grecian nose. He was holding a book. She felt her heart skip when his bare torso came into view and she saw that he was only wearing his Speedo. He pivoted his head to the side to look at her and smiled, his left cheek dimpling and the green of his eyes sparkling. Holding a book of poetry in his hand, he began reciting a poem without taking his eyes off her.
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” he began.
Jodi recognized the opening passage right away. It was her favorite work by John Keats, who she knew all about, having once written an essay about the English Romantic poet who died from tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty-five. Titled Endymion, written in rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, Keats based the poem on the Greek myth of Endymion, a handsome shepherd who was visited every night by the moon goddess Selene, who loved him.
“Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall…
It may have been only a dream, but it could not have felt more real to Jodi. Nick turned his entire body toward her and approached her in the same motion. As the book he was holding fell at her feet, he took Jodi in his arms, pulling her tightly against his bare chest. She embraced him, feeling his skin and the rippling muscles of his shoulder and back react to her touch. He didn’t say a word as he peered deeply into her eyes before bringing his face close to hers and pressing his lips against her waiting mouth. She instantly closed her eyes, not wanting the feeling to end, not wanting to wake up. She opened her mouth just a little and let his probing tongue inside. When he tenderly bit her bottom lip, teasing the sensitive flesh between his teeth, she let out a soft moan and dropped her head back, surrendering herself to him. She felt his wet lips and his hot tongue on the side of her neck and it was all she could do to keep from screaming. Sensing that she was starting to awaken from this dream, she struggled to keep it from ending. She was afraid to open her eyes and find that he was not there, that she was alone in her room. If she could make this moment last just a little longer, Jodi thought as she felt Nick take his hands and grip her gently on either side of her head, behind her ears. While he softly kissed her cheeks, her chin, and her forehead with scorching passion, he ran his fingers through her hair, over her entire scalp, massaging her head. He nuzzled his cheek against hers, her skin seeming to catch fire where they touched.
“No,” she called out in protest of the sudden wakefulness she felt. But it was no use. In a desperate effort to remain in this fantasy, she pressed herself firmly against Nick, her hands on the small of his back, and drew him into her with all of her strength, as if trying to pull his body through her own.
Jodi expected to awaken with a feeling of utter emptiness, but she was filled instead with such hope and anticipation that she could barely contain her emotions. Outside her window, the morning sun was just beginning to rise. This most ancient symbol of faith and resurrection diffused its light rays through the thin cloud cover to create a magnificent color scheme of yellow, orange, and red. It was beautiful and magical, and the imagery served to reinforce the meaning of the dream she had just experienced. She was confident that everything would be okay. Any worries she had about her life, her career, her lingering grief over the loss of her mom and all of her troubles seemed inconsequential in the face of what the future held in store for her. She was on the path to her destiny, and it was clear to her that everything that had happened to her up to this point was a part of that.
She got out of bed with nowhere in particular to go, but eager to start the day. The only thing on her mind was her class reunion, just a few days away.