Monday, July 19, 2004

An Exorcism, part 3 (the end)

Note: this story makes more sense if you read parts One and Two first. They're all nearly unforgiveably long. If you choose to read anyway, I ask your indulgence, and both apologize and thank you in advance. 

Among his Grandma’s things he found letters she had kept -- from him, from his Grandfather, from his own father. He delayed his return in order to sell the house and every night of the six weeks that he waited for her house to sell, he sat at her kitchen table and read.
His letters from his days in the Corps shocked him. He sounded cold-blooded and ungrateful. He had been, he knew that. He hated to read it, though. Occasionally he threw a kind or loving word away to her, and it pained him to imagine how much they’d meant to her. The letters from Philadelphia were equally painful, full of half-truths or outright lies about his life with Viv. Everything sounded so much happier, so much more normal than things with Viv could ever be. He wrote the most about the robotic projects he was developing, sometimes in tedious detail, and seeing himself through that lens, he knew that his Grandma had known he was unhappy.
He could barely get through his father’s letters, all of them blathering on cheerfully about his new family, the son’s newest accomplishments, his wife’s community service, with always a single question at the end, like an afterthought, or courtesy, “How’s Josh doing?” One night he realized his Grandma had never let herself love her other grandson the way she’d loved him, and he lay down on the kitchen floor and sobbed.
His Grandfather’s letters were the best, full of the love and respect he’d always remembered as part of his Grandfather’s presence as a child. He’d been a good man. And he’d been good to Josh’s Grandma, as good as she deserved. But for too short a time. He’d died when Josh was eight. His Grandfather’s letters were worn, clearly often read, and they threatened to tear without the gentlest handling. He also found letters from Thea. There were only two that he read more than once – the only two that mentioned him in any way more than passing. The first was before the war, the fall of 1990. It read,

“Dear Mrs. Kinkead,

“You know I’ll always love Josh and I know I’ll always love Josh, but he does not love me. I know you think he should and I love you for that. But for a long time, I think I’ve been resigned to the fact that he doesn’t and won’t. The same things you think means he loves me but is just too immature to recognize, mean only to me that he doesn’t.

“I hope you will understand when I say that for these reasons, I just can’t wait for him. I know that when you asked me to last summer, I promised you that I would. But it isn’t right for me to promise you that, as much as I wish it were that simple. I have to go on with my life.”

The other was in 1994, probably just weeks before Thea had written to him.

“Dear Mrs. Kinkead,

“It’s been a long time, huh? I miss you. I hope you understand that when I had to say goodbye to Josh, I also had to, in some ways, say goodbye to you. “I also hope this letter finds you well. I trust you would have let me know if anything had happened to Josh, so I assume he is also well. I hope he would let me know if anything happens to you.

“I have been happy. I’m getting married this summer to the fellow I told you about that afternoon long ago before you asked me to wait for Josh. It seems funny now, doesn’t it?

“In any case, I was wondering if you would be willing to send me Josh’s address. For perhaps no good reason, I’d like to let him know myself.”

Josh felt embarrassed by the letters. Embarrassed for his Grandma who had chosen for him a good woman he had refused out of stupidity and pride, embarrassed for Thea who knew she’d been refused and yet had been unable to accept it, and embarrassed for himself for not knowing -- or wanting to know -- and for not having spared all of them pain that could have avoided.

He didn’t use any of the house except the bathroom, his old bedroom, and the kitchen during his stay in his Grandma’s house. On days when he had to show it to an interested buyer, he felt choked by the memories in the other rooms. By memories and apparitions. One time he saw his father again, as he’d been that day when Josh had come home after the war, his father prattering cluelessly, unintentionally cruelly draping one arm around his new son who looked scared and sorry to be there, while praising Josh for risking his life and his soul in Iraq. Another time he saw Thea and his Grandma, sitting in the living room, their heads bent together, knitting together hopes as though they could hold.

He gave away everything and burned Thea’s letters, his own, and his father’s. When he returned to Philadelphia, he took only the proceeds from the sale of the house, some photos and his grandfather’s letters.

Viv was still in the hospital. When she was released six months later she was talking about divorce. At first he wouldn’t hear of it. After another six months of counseling and crying and hard, hard days, however, he had to admit it made sense. They were not happy together anymore. Maybe they had never been. It was hard to know.

That afternoon he had packed a suitcase and said goodbye to the dogs. He kissed Viv on the cheek and said, “If you need me…” She’d smiled a little and he knew she meant it kindly, but it struck him that she didn’t need him. Had never needed him. He’d taken his suitcase to the office, set it down next to the cot he’d already been sleeping on most nights of the week, and then had crossed the street to a bar he’d never been in before.

Which is how he ended up reminded of his Grandma’s lemonade, staring at the door, wondering what path he should have taken. He wondered what would happen if he called Thea now and tried to imagine what he would say if her husband answered. “Hello. I’m Josh, maybe you’ve heard of me, maybe not. I want to talk to Thea.”

Then he tried to imagine what he would say if she answered. He could tell her about his Grandma. That was a good reason to call. She would want to know, she had said as much. He tried to imagine telling her. He tried to remember her voice, the warmth of it. She would cry and he would be consoling. He would tell her that his Grandma had loved her. He would tell her that he had read her letters to his Grandma.

He dispensed with the excuse and indulged the fantasy of calling to tell her he was moving back. That he wanted to be with her now. That they both knew she had married the wrong man. For a minute, he wondered if his Grandma were sitting in the booth across from him, or whispering in his ear.

He laughed.

After another beer, he realized he was not going to call her, and that’s when he knew, really, that he wanted to. That’s when he realized -- for the first time -- that he had loved her, too. He walked back across the street and fell into his cot, unspeakably weary, and trying not to cry.

Thea and Josh met again at their twentieth high school reunion. Josh was remarried to a woman who was sane and pleasant, but not very smart or interested in his work. It was okay. He was happy most of the time. They had been at the reunion for over an hour and he was having fun, wandering through the crowded ballroom, sharing funny memories with people he hadn’t thought of since he’d left. Janet was having less fun, but she was being a good sport. He felt protective of her, and tender. He had his arm around her when he spotted Thea.

Thea did a double take. And then she broke toward him and he pulled his arm from around Janet and held it in front of her, a defensive habit -- as if he expected Thea or the tall man striding behind her to attack. Instead she threw her arms around him and gave him a strong hug and a kiss on the cheek. He returned them. “Josh!” she said, pulling back to look at him. She turned to look up at the man behind her, “This is Josh,” and then turning back to Josh, she introduced the man as her husband, David.

“I thought…” Josh said.

She laughed and said, “Are you going to ask about Brian? That lasted about five years. David and I are newlyweds -- well, relatively.”

David put out his hand, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“None of it good, I hope,” said Josh, taking his hand.

“Then you’ll be happy,” said David and Thea laughed, which made both Josh and David smile.

“He’s kidding,” she said. David smiled and shrugged. Josh liked him.

“This is Janet,” Josh said, introducing his very pregnant wife.

“Hi,” she said to them with a wan smile and turned to Josh. “Listen, hon, I’m thirsty and I need to sit down.”

David looked at Thea. “Catch up,” he said. “I’ll get Janet something to drink.”

Thea leaned up to kiss him on his cheek and Josh looked at Janet, “Okay?”

She nodded and David winked at Thea as he took Janet’s elbow.

“So,” Josh said.


They looked at each other. “You seem happy.” “So do you.”

“Seems like a good guy.”

Thea looked across the room at David and smiled. “Yeah. He is. He really is. How far along is Janet?”

“Seven and a half months.”



“That’s great… You, a Papa. You must be freaking out.”

He laughed. “A little.”

“How’s your Grandmother?” Josh found that he couldn’t speak, he looked down. Thea nodded. “I figured,” she said softly. “I wrote to her a couple of years ago and didn’t hear anything back. I’m so sorry, Josh. I really loved --”

“I read some of your letters.”

Thea blanched. “Do you mean the ones I wrote to her?”

Josh nodded. Thea was beautiful, still. Her eyes were alert and deep, her lips were full and soft. “Huh,” she said.

“Uh, yeah.”

“What did you think?”

“I thought I was really stupid.”

Thea’s whole body convulsed in laughter. He found he was laughing, too, but he wasn’t sure why. “Thea, why are you laughing?”

“I… don’t… know.” They laughed until they needed to catch their breaths.

“That is so not what I thought you would say,” she said finally.

“What did you think I would say?”

“I don’t know. Just not that.”

“I loved you. I wish I’d known.”

“I need to sit down.”

“I’m so sorry, Thea.”

“Josh -- stop. I’m serious. Can we go somewhere to sit down?”

He lead her into the hallway, one quick look back at their spouses. They were not watching. They found some steps to sit on.

“Listen,” she said. “I did not know what to do. I loved your Grandma. I loved you. But you were impossible. And I think I started to love that more than you.”

“What if I hadn’t been impossible?”

“But you were. And now, it’s good that you were. For me. It was horrible at the time, but I did that to myself. I should have let go a long time before I did.”

“Or maybe I…”

“Josh.” He put an arm around her but it fell away as she stood up. “You made me crazy, Josh. I accepted things from you that I would never have taken from anyone else, ever. And I thought it was fine because your Grandma kept supporting my fantasy of you. But you were never who I thought you were and that was what was wrong.”

“I think I was -- I think I am -- who you thought I was.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s not just that I loved you. It’s that I love you.”

Thea stared at him and then, gently, put her hand on his shoulder. “Josh,” she said quietly. “You don’t know me.”

He put his hand on her hand. She pulled hers away.  “I need to get back to David. I’m really sorry,” she began to walk back toward the ballroom.

“Thea -- "

She turned around and for a long moment met his eyes.  “I’ll always love the idea of you, Josh Kinkead. I promise. All my life." She threw herself in his arms and he held her tightly.

After a minute she pressed her wet cheek to his, pulled away, and strode back into the ballroom.

He watched her go and sat for a minute, stunned at what he’d said and done. He’d held fire in his hand and miraculously had no burn to show. He felt his Grandma’s hands pushing on his back. He went to find Janet and his unborn son.