The next afternoon, on Sunday, Steve’s mom called him in from mowing the lawn. “There’s a phone call for you.”
Her neutral, somewhat worried tone made his heart pound.
“Hey, Steve,” said a man. The voice was familiar, but it took a moment for him to place it. “How are you doing? This is Alex.”
“Mr. Harrison? Hi! How’s everyone?”
“We’re all fine. Say, I didn’t want to get involved, but Tess said that you came down a few weeks back. I understand your feelings, but she just told me you haven’t answered any of her mail.”
* * *
When he got off the phone, he confronted his mom. “Where’d you put the letters?”
“Who was that?”
“It was Mr. Harrison. Where’s the mail Tess sent? Did you throw it out or just hide it?”
“Did you check by the phone where it always goes?”
Sure enough, in the slot between a marble-block paperweight and the alcove wall, six letters had been tucked in with recent bills.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Your father said you’d find them when you were ready. I apologize if it was a mistake.”
“It was shitty, Mom.”
“Please don’t talk to me like that, Charles.”
“Don’t call me Charles anymore, damn it!” And he stalked off to his room.
* * *
Dear Steve, March 22, 1981
You left me today and I waited an hour for you to come back. My heart hurts. Before, whenever I had to move to a new home, it just seemed best to leave it all behind. I tried, but I really couldn’t leave you behind. I looked forward to every new letter you sent, but I told myself I was just making it harder on us both. Evan’s a nice guy, but he’s no Steve O’Reilly. Shit, I’m all messed up and being stupid.
It can’t work with us, Steve, not while we’re apart, not while we’re in high school. But I wish it could. I hate this. I hate that I hurt you, that I didn’t have the guts to work this out with you. And I hate that you surprised me, and didn’t tell me you were coming, but I’d be a bitch to blame you for that. You thought you’d give me a nice surprise, and it was. A wonderful surprise. For a few seconds. Until it all went to shit.
I hope you find a girlfriend, and I hope you’re happy, and I want every good thing for you, even if you hate me. You say you don’t hate me, but what you said to me, that hurt. It still hurts. Just remember this, Steve O’Reilly, I was the first one to say that I loved you! And it wasn’t just some moony infatuation, either.
He opened the next letter.
Dear Steve, March 23, 1981
I thought about my last letter and realized that “moony infatuation” was wrong. I felt hurt. You were a real friend to me that time when things went bad with Troy Wagner, and I know it wasn’t easy for you. I can still see your look when I told you he groped me. It wasn’t the idea of the groping, was it? You were jealous. I didn’t quite get it till a long time after. That was so great of you when you comforted me; you were sweet and didn’t take advantage.
Also, I want to be completely honest. I rationalized going out with Evan without telling you partly because I still couldn’t quite see myself as your girlfriend. I didn’t see you that way. It’s not that I’ve been condescending toward you, God no, but when I said I love you I didn’t mean it in a strongly romantic way. It was bad and disrespectful that I didn’t make a clear break with you before going with Evan. Partly I didn’t because I was afraid it would mean we wouldn’t be friends, and partly it was because I didn’t know how I felt about you romantically. But when you showed up, you’d grown and I was attracted to you in every way. That doesn’t change things. We still live apart, and I have no right to you now. I’d do anything if we could be friends, though, even just friends. More someday, if you could ever forgive me. But I need my friend Steve right now really bad. I’m still hurting. I love you, damn it. I don’t just love you; I’m in love with you.
Steve sighed and examined the postmarks on the other letters with dread. The next was April 10th.
Dear Steve, [she had not dated this one]
I watch the mail every day waiting for your reply, but you don’t write. Are you being passive aggressive? It’s starting to worry me. Even if you just write to curse me, please write.
And the next, April 18th.
I’ve managed to put you out of my mind. I only check the mail for your reply every OTHER day now. I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I am because you’ve disappointed me. The adventure Aaron is running for you guys is one I wrote. I told him not to tell you, not until you get to a certain part. We still send letters back and forth, because of the book, which I’m beginning to regret working on. You don’t care about me, and I helped mostly to be supportive of YOU. (Mary used to write too, but she hasn’t since you came down. Well, to hell with her and you too.) I wanted you to know I wrote the adventure as a way of trying to say something to you. It was childish. Goodbye, Steve.
The phone rang.
He took the stairs three at a time in his rush, missed the second-to-last step, and banged his shin. He limped into the kitchen and fumbled the receiver off the hook, leg throbbing.
“Hello?” he said.
Tension broke in his head; the pain in his shin flared with a parting kick and then subsided; tears fell down his cheeks. “Hi, Steve.” It was Tess.
* * *
After noon the next day, Steve lounged on the grassy slope with Jane below her dorm. He had a flowchart due for computer lab that night, but he wasn’t able to concentrate on homework.
“So what’d you say to Tess?” asked Jane, the corners of her mouth turned down.
“We just cleared up the misunderstanding with the letter, and I told her about you and that I’m happy. And I took back the mean things I said. We agreed to be friends.”
Actually, it wasn’t. They’d talked for over an hour, circling their yearning for each other as if it were a patch of dangerous ground. Aside from that, something Tess had mentioned kept playing through his head. She confessed that Megaera had been important to her and helped her get through her mother’s death. In her therapy sessions, Megaera had become an imaginary confidant. “What would Megaera say?” her counselor asked now and then. Tess told him it had been rough, but she was finally getting better.
Jane said. “I remember how you talked about her that first day at lunch. You were completely nuts for her.”
Steve lay back on the grass and watched cirrusy blue sky filtered through the purple leaves. He felt peaceful but wistful. He hoped Tess felt the same. “Yeah, that wasn’t good. It’s not good to be so hung up on someone.”
“I guess you’re not hung up on me that way,” she said, but she managed not to sound petulant.
“That sexy older woman who took a gawky kid out to dance?”
“You weren’t that gawky, even then.”
“Thanks. And, no, I’m not hung up on you that way. I’m so grateful for you. You’re like sun and warm air and summer when it’s not too hot, like today. And you’re not hung up on me, either. But that doesn’t mean we’re not great together, right?”
“You’re my first real high-school love, you know that?” she said.
He smiled. “I love you too, Jane.”
“Yeah,” she said, with a light frown, “but I’m not the first. Did you ever tell Tess you loved her?”
“I wanted to, a few times. Badly. Too badly. That’s why I didn’t, I think.”
“Yeah, it’s easier to say when you’re not worried about getting hurt. So she’s still with this Evan guy?”
“I suppose so, yeah.”
“Jane, I’m really glad that Tess and I ended well, but you’re my girlfriend. She’s gone — for good.”