It Might Have Been

by Alice Woodrome


Claire dried her hands on a yellow dish towel and sat at the kitchen table. As she drank a second cup of coffee, a mail truck a mile away was making its way toward Millcreek Lane and her mailbox. Among the letters and packages to be delivered that June morning in 1987 was a manilla envelope with the return address of Claire’s childhood home. It was wrapped around the regular bills and junk mail, secured with a rubber band. 

Her husband, Phillip, had eaten his usual bowl of bran flakes and whole wheat toast while he listened to the news on the small television that sat next to the coffee maker. He’d grabbed his briefcase, given her a peck, missing her lips, and left for work. She loaded the dishes in the dishwasher, and was finally alone. 

"Alone," she said aloud, and smiled at the irony. She was alone even when her husband was home. 

She looked at the silk flower arrangement on the table, bright spring golds and greens. How nice it would be to have real lilies for the table, but fresh flowers weren’t practical. The television droned on—something about President Reagan and Gorbachev. She switched the news off and took another sip of the now tepid coffee. 

Phillip, her husband of twenty-one years, was a good man, but she had never felt emotionally connected to him. He wasn't to blame. If anyone was at fault, it was Claire. She knew on their wedding day she wasn't in love with him. He'd come along at a time when she needed to be loved, and he was crazy about her. She had fooled herself into thinking he was the one. People don't back out on their wedding day. She told herself she would grow to love him. In a way, she had—at least in the way you learn to love the familiar. 

She knew the difference. Claire had been in love once—only once. It was enough to know what real love felt like: the deep yearning, the euphoria of his touch, the way time lost its meaning when she gazed into his eyes. Maybe a person only gets one shot at true love. 

Claire sighed as she fingered the harvest gold coffee cup and thought about Andrew. She used to wonder about him all the time—where he was, what he was doing, if he had ever married, and if he had kids. As the years went by, with two growing children in the house, volunteering at their school, and church commitments, the memories receded. Even true love fades, she had supposed. But since the twins left for college, she found herself thinking more about Andrew. It became part of her morning ritual. After Phillip left for work each morning, she would clear the breakfast dishes, wipe down the table, sit with her second cup of coffee, and reminisce about Andrew and the love they once shared. After twenty years her pulse still raced when she imagined them together.  

Her preoccupation with a lost love troubled her. A Christian woman doesn’t entertain such fantasies. It wasn’t fair to Phillip—it undermined what affection she had for him. Her wedding vows were important. She needed something to break the spell the memories had cast upon her since the boys left. 

Claire used to enjoy escaping with a good book. She hadn’t read much in recent years, when keeping up with her sons’ activities began to occupy most of her spare time. A week ago she joined a book of the month club a friend at church recommended. The first five books were nearly free and should come any day; one a month would come thereafter. Maybe she could get back into reading. It wasn’t healthy to be thinking about Andrew so much. 

Andrew had been the only boy she had been with before she married Phillip. He was one of the popular kids, a senior—a year ahead of her. Claire could hardly believe it when he asked her out the first time. They'd gone together her entire junior year before he graduated, joined the Navy and went off to San Diego. Before he left he swore his undying love. He promised they would be married as soon as he could get a leave after she graduated high school. 

Before he was gone two weeks, she missed her period. At first she thought it was just the stress of Andrew’s absence. She’d been listless and emotional since he left. It wasn’t long before the morning nausea and vomiting confirmed it was something more. Frightened and feeling alone, she wrote Andrew as soon as she was sure she was pregnant. 

Her parents were at work when he called soon after receiving her letter. “Try not to worry, Claire. We’ll just move the wedding date up a bit. I didn’t know how I was going to wait so long for us to be together, anyway. I’ll get a leave as soon as I can, and I promise we will be married before the baby comes.” 

She hid her pregnancy from her parents as best she could, but she was unable to sleep at night, grew pale and had no appetite. Her mother made an appointment with a doctor. 

Before the appointment Claire began to bleed, and her stomach started cramping in waves. She lay on her bed and cried between the pains. Then it all came rushing out of her in a bloody mass. She was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sorrow—for the baby that was not to be, for the emptiness she felt. 

Her mother returned from work while she was trying to clean it up, hardly able to see through the tears. Her parents hadn’t known the depth of her relationship with Andrew. They were overwrought, and anxious to keep the whole thing under wraps. A part of Claire was relieved she had miscarried. She wasn’t ready to be a mother, but grieved for the piece of Andrew that had died inside her. 

Claire put her hand on her stomach to feel the memory, and wondered how different life would be if she had not lost their baby. Would Andrew be her husband now? Would they be happy? She'd written him as soon as she miscarried, knowing it would take some of the pressure off him. They would have had a difficult time raising a child when they were so young. Now they would be able to start their lives together the way a couple should.

Andrew phoned when he got her letter. 

“I can’t tell you how relieved I am. It’s like a mountain’s been lifted off my shoulders.”

Claire felt a painful tightening in her throat. “That was our baby who died, Andrew. Our baby.” She gripped a fist-full of her blouse between her breasts. “How can that make you happy?” 

“That’s not what I mean. It’s that we aren’t backed in a corner now that the baby isn’t coming. Don’t you see?”

She swallowed hard. “We’re not talking about a train not coming. It was a baby—our baby, Andrew; it died! How can that not affect you?”

“I only meant that we don’t have to be in a hurry to get married now.”

She slid to the floor with the phone in her hand. “When then?”

“I don’t know exactly, but we can talk about it after boot camp is over. We can wait until we have some time to do it right.”

“Maybe you don’t want to get married at all?” 

“We will. But things are complicated for me here. I will have more time off later. I just meant now we can go back to the original plan.”

“But it’s not the same now. My parents are laying guilt on me and hardly let me out of the house. I don’t want to stay here. I want to be with you. How does losing the baby mean we can’t get married now—if you really love me. You said you didn’t know how you were going to wait until I graduated. Was that all just because I was pregnant?” Claire gripped the phone tightly.

“Claire, you’re talking crazy. Be sensible. You know I love you. But you have to admit, it would be best for you to finish your senior year before we get married.”

“But you couldn’t wait for us to be together,” Claire said with flared nostrils. “Remember? That’s what you said, you know.”

“That was before…I mean…things have changed,” he stammered. “I still want us to be together. I still want to marry you. You know I do. Think about it logically, for God’s sake. We don’t have to rush into anything now that you’re not having a baby. You can finish high school and I can get a better handle on things here.”

“I’m not naive, Andrew. I know what you’re saying.” A hot wave flushed through her body. “You dodged a bullet and aren’t anxious to jump back in the line of fire.”

“Honestly, Claire. That is just plain—”

“What?” Claire almost shouted in the phone. “Stupid? Insane? And why would you want to marry someone like that?” 

“Irrational is what I was going to say.”

“No it wasn’t, and you know it.” 

“Listen, this is going nowhere. I’ll write you.” 

Claire was silent, her heart pounding. He hung up the phone. 

That was the last time she talked to Andrew. There were no more letters. She cried herself to sleep every night for two months. Claire met the mailman every morning that summer, hoping a letter would come from Andrew, saying he was sorry, that he still loved her—that he still wanted to marry her. It was as if Andrew simply forgot about Claire and the life they had dreamed about. She thought about writing him, and did—a two page letter—but when she read it over, it sounded so pathetic. She couldn’t mail it. If there was any hope of redeeming their relationship, he would have to initiate it. 

Her mother meant well, but she made it worse. “You have got to quit moping around the house, pining away for that boy. It’s been too long. Most boys take what they are offered and find their promises easy to forget. If he was only planning to marry you because he got you pregnant, it’s good that you found out in time to make something of your life.” 

She wished her mother hadn't found out about the pregnancy when she miscarried. It provided an easy explanation for Andrew's rejection when she was still trying to hold onto some hope. 

With the beginning of her senior year, however, came the acceptance that Andrew had chosen to put their relationship behind him. Claire's heart was broken, but she went on with her life, too. When her friend suggested a blind date with a friend of her brothers, she didn’t say no. 

“His name is Phillip,” Lisa said, “He’s been out of high school for a couple years, maybe three,” and he is nice looking—tall with black hair.” 

“What’s he like?” Claire asked.

“Nice—kind of quiet and shy, but really nice. Serious like. He’s got a good job at Heifer’s Electronics.”

 “I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on. Maybe a double date with me and Jimmy? You need to get back in the groove. Andrew is gone.”

Claire found out later that Phillip had never dated. It wasn't hard to believe she was his first girlfriend. He was shy and tongue-tied with her for a while, but he seemed enamored by Claire. He was smart, mature, and honest, and she felt comfortable with him. 

Phillip was ready to settle down. She was hesitant to tell him about Andrew and the miscarriage, but when it was obvious he was falling in love with her, it wouldn’t have been right to keep it from him. 

“The past doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just the future.” 

When he asked her to marry him after they had gone out together for only three months, she couldn't think of a reason to say no. She would never attract another man she respected or trusted as much as Phillip. It would be a good match.

Andrew had called the house once after Claire was engaged, when only her mother was home. He was being sent to Vietnam. When he learned of the upcoming wedding, Andrew asked her to convey his wishes for Claire's happiness. 

Claire was glad she hadn't been home, afraid she might have cried again. It was better that he thought she was blissfully in love with someone else. The call stirred up some strong feelings, though, and she almost called off the engagement because it didn't seem right to marry someone else while she still loved Andrew. But Phillip was so full of plans for their life together. One broken heart between them was more than enough. They married right after she graduated.

She watched the news daily for anything about the war.  Claire prayed for Andrew’s safety every night before she went to sleep, until the day she read in the paper that he had come home from Vietnam. She shed tears of relief that he wasn’t killed, as some of the boys from their high school were. 

The only news she heard about Andrew after that was an offhand remark by a friend. Lisa mentioned she’d heard he had gone to California. She and Phillip moved soon after, when Phillip was promoted to a managerial position out of state. They’d been in Kansas ever since. 

Claire tried to put thoughts of Andrew out of her mind after that. She had children to raise, and she was committed to making her marriage to Phillip work, even if the romance fell short of Hollywood. 

And it did turn out okay. Phillip worked hard to give her a nice life. They rarely argued, and he never pressed her to be more than she was. She and Phillip raised two fine boys—a lot more than many people could say. But when she thought back on all those years, she couldn't remember a single time when she had looked into Phillip's eyes and felt passion. If she hadn't remembered her feelings for Andrew, she would have thought that what she had with Phillip was just the way it was between a man and a woman. But having once tasted the rapture that was possible in an embrace, she had been lonely for the last twenty-one years.

Claire reminded herself that few people have perfect lives as she rose to take the empty cup to the sink. She looked out the kitchen window as she rinsed the cup. The mail truck was slowing to a stop at the curb, and the postman pushed a manila envelope into their box.

Good. It was probably the books she’d ordered. Claire went to the bedroom and quickly pulled on a pair of jeans and a top she had worn yesterday to go collect the mail. She would take a bath later, maybe soak for a while with one of the books.  

A light rain started to fall in large drops that splashed on the cement while she walked down the driveway. It was cool and refreshing on her face as she opened the mailbox, took out the manila envelope, then hurried back to the house. She pulled off the rubber band and straightened the big envelope on the table. Claire looked at the return address. It wasn’t her books. It was from the house where she was raised. The last time she had been back to Greenville she had driven by the old place and saw strangers planting marigolds in the front flowerbed. 

Biting her lip, she grabbed a paring knife from a drawer and opened the envelope, wondering what business they might have with her.

Inside was a piece of typing paper folded around a smaller envelope. Written in pencil on the outside of the paper were the words, "I had a hard time locating you, but thank goodness your maiden name is unusual and your uncle still lives in town. Our postman explained that it was found behind a desk when they remodeled the old post office. It isn't every day a person receives a letter that is delivered twenty years late." 

Claire’s knees buckled and she sat at the kitchen table. Holding her breath, she unfolded the paper, revealing a yellowed envelope with a 1965 San Diego postmark. The handwriting was Andrew’s. She lay it on the table and stared at it in disbelief. He’d written her after all. Claire touched it with a trembling hand, but couldn’t bring herself to open it. As long as she didn’t, she could believe anything was inside. Her heart began to race, her eyes filling with tears. 

She poured herself another cup of coffee and sat with Andrew’s letter before her, nervously bouncing a knee. She closed her eyes and took a long deep breath to try to calm herself. It was a full five minutes before she slowly loosened the seal, not wanting to damage this precious symbol of what might have been, and extracted a folded piece of paper. Claire read Andrew's words. 

My dearest Claire,
I have not been able to think of anything since talking with you yesterday. I know I hurt you, and I'm so sorry. I said some stupid things. You have to know I love you. I guess I could understand if you never wanted to talk to me again. I know I was insensitive, but I'm begging you to forgive me. I can't bear to think of my life without you. 

I don't blame you for getting angry. I was thinking of myself—not you. When you wrote that you weren't pregnant anymore, all I could think of was how much easier it will be for us to not have all the expenses of a baby when we first get married. I want children—maybe three or four, but when I can pay the bills. I suggested we wait to get married because I wanted to get more time off for our honeymoon. 

I tried to explain, but by then you were too hurt and angry to listen. I said everything wrong and now I'm afraid you won't let me make it up to you. I love you more than anything in life. Please, Claire, write me, and soon, so I can breathe again. Don't let this be the end of us.
All my love forever, Andrew. 

Claire gasped—trembled—and an explosion of sobs shook her whole body until she lay exhausted, her head in her hands on the table. She read the letter again, mouthing each word. After folding the letter carefully, she slipped it back into the envelope and clasped it to her breast.

Several times during the day she took the letter out to read it again through tears. Before Phillip came home, she slipped it into the pantry behind the flour canister, and made a meatloaf for their evening meal. She tried to put the letter out of her mind so she could act normal when her husband returned from work. 

Claire took a deep breath when she heard the garage door open.

Phillip came into the kitchen with his briefcase in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He gave her a quick kiss while she cut up a tomato for their salad. “Are your allergies bothering you?” he asked. “You look like you feel terrible.” 

“Yes,” she said, relieved that he had supplied a reason for her red eyes. “Do we have any Benadryl left? That’s probably all I need.”

“I think so. I’ll go get you one.” Phillip laid the paper on the table and disappeared, coming back in a few minutes with a pill. 

“Thanks, Honey.” She pretended to put it in her mouth, but dropped it down the garbage disposal and drank a few sips of water for effect as he sat in the kitchen and read the paper. 

Claire set the table, mashed the potatoes, and served their supper. They bowed their heads and Phillip said grace as he always did. Looking up at his wife, he said, “It looks good. I hope you feel well enough to enjoy it, too.” 

When they went to bed that night, Phillip kissed her. “I don’t suppose you feel up to—?”

Claire turned away as tears filled her eyes. “No, not tonight.”  

She took out the letter numerous times over the next week and cried each time. It grieved her to imagine what Andrew had felt when no return letter came. His heart had surely broken, as hers had. Did Andrew still have feelings for her after so many years? 

If she tried to find him, and did, what would happen? Would they meet, perhaps at a restaurant somewhere? She imagined sitting across from him at a table, him taking her hand, looking into his blue eyes. Would Andrew tell her he never stopped loving her? Perhaps they would spend a whole weekend together reclaiming the passion that had been laid aside. When she closed her eyes, she could feel his arms around her, the warmth of his lips, the aching need to give herself to him. 

During those few days she turned it over and over in her mind. Did Andrew deserve to know what she now knew? Would it be fair to dredge up the past he had surely left behind?

It hadn’t been fair to Phillip to marry him feeling the way she had, and seemed even less fair to him now that she knew the truth. Her heart would never be the same. If she told Philip it would only hurt him. Sometimes things can’t be made right. 

When Phillip came home each evening, she did her best to pretend that she was not dying inside. He asked only once if there was something else wrong besides her allergies. 

“I miss the boys,” she’d told him.” 

He’d held her and said, “I miss them, too, but they are growing up, and we can’t hold on to the them.” 

Claire looked into Phillip’s eyes and smiled sadly. “I know. I’ll get over it.”

Exactly one week after receiving the letter, she drew it from its envelope again, read it slowly, touching the words as she did. 

She surrendered to another bout of crying, then Claire dried her tears, folded the letter again and slid it back into the yellowed envelope. She took the precious epistle to her bedroom closet and tucked it away in the shoebox on the top shelf where she kept the past.

[End]

 

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