“What do you mean, we can’t be together anymore?” she asked, her heart sinking lower into her stomach. He shrugged as he doodled on a napkin. “You’re just not what you used to be,” he answered. “I thought you were one way, but you’re something else.” Silent, she stared through the glass at the world beyond. Everything looked different. The sky was no longer blue, the clouds no longer white. Even the grass looked pale, and the whole scene looked as though it were painted over with drab shades of grey. Her hands took on a life of their own, trembling like those of a dying woman. “I don’t understand,” she managed to say. “Who did you think I was?” He stopped doodling and looked at her. “It’s hard to put into words. I met one girl, and then I saw another side of her that I didn’t know was there.” “But aren’t we all that way?” she objected. “Yes, of course,” he agreed, “it’s just that…well, in your case… I don’t know if I like both sides.” Once again, she fell silent. These statements weren’t new. It seemed that their friendship had degenerated into a game of cat-and-mouse; him avoiding her and her trying to catch him and extract the elusive reason. It was nothing short of a miracle that he and she sat together in that downtown café, sipping tea. The drink tasted as insipid as they felt, yet it did bring back a few vague, pleasant memories. No, the statements weren’t new. His decision was. She hadn’t thought that it would end quite like that. In spite of their worsening relationship, she had always cherished the thought that they could bounce back from anything. Now, it seemed that her eyesight wasn’t quite so clear. “I wish you could be more specific,” she sighed. “I just don’t understand.” “I wish I could be,” he said as he put the pen in his pocket, “but I can’t. I don’t even know what the problem is, really. I just know this has to end.” She said nothing, but sat back in her seat. Her hands stopped shaking, but her heart fell straight to her feet. She caught his gaze, and held it. His eyes said something, but she could not understand that message either. The two looked at each other for what seemed like hours, or maybe days. She felt surprisingly cool, almost as though she were just watching on the sidelines. Then it hit her, like a bullet: she was losing him. She was losing the only one she had ever really loved that kind of way. It took a while for it to sink in. “I … I’ll miss you!” she exclaimed, her eyes wild with disbelief. She broke her gaze and buried her face in her hands. “Oh, please,” he moaned, taking her hands in his, “Don’t take it so hard.” A waterfall of tears flowed down her face. “Go,” she choked. “Just go. I’ll be fine. Just go, please. I can’t bear to look at you.” As she continued to sob, she became vaguely aware of a hand on her shoulder. Then, he was gone. She sat there, alone, for several minutes, then wiped her face and set her jaw. Men! Why did they find it so easy to drop a girl, just like that, for no good reason—or none that they would share? Hastily, she grabbed her things and slipped her feet back into her shoes. Her eyes fell on the napkin. He had kept his pen, but not the paper. Her heart softened slightly as she took it up and held it tightly in her hands. The scent of his cologne was still on it. She smiled in spite of herself, and slipped it into the upper pocket of her jacket. It seemed to comfort her in some way. She couldn’t say why—after all, it was just a piece of paper! Somehow, it seemed to bring her hope. Hope? Strange. It made no sense to her. Still, it was there: a tiny glimmer of hope, sparked by a simple napkin.
Weeks passed, then months. As she drowned herself in work and study, her memory of the separation began to dim. One by one, her friends sighed and turned away, wondering what had happened to their comrade. Her vague replies to their inquiries were useless; obviously, she had lost touch with reality. The jacket hung limp over the armchair—untouched since that fateful afternoon. She walked by it several times every day, refusing to give it a second glance, but unable to move it from her view. It was there as she worked and there as she rested. Spring green, with gold buttons—the only colours in her colourless world—it blended perfectly with her bronze complexion. She never wore her birthday gift. She hadn’t worn it since that day when the one who bought it had left her and gone away. It lay there: witness to a broken heart. Unmoved, untouched. Summertime came, and with the heat of July came unavoidable vacation. The slender English teacher had no choice but to pause from her labours. There were no papers to grade, letters to write, or projects to assign. The screech of chalk on the black board wasn’t heard; there was no more powder to brush from her hands. The first week passed by with painful slowness. In the absence of work, she had time to think about herself; her dreams, her hopes, her aspirations—and she hated every minute of it. It seemed that he occupied her thoughts at every moment; every picture seemed incomplete without him there. But he had whitewashed his image from the portrait—why couldn’t she do the same? The second week dragged on; she began to linger at the armchair. Whereas before she would walk right on by in her brisk, busy manner, now she stopped from time to time to touch the sleeves, caress the lining, or finger the buttons. As the middle of the month drew near, she found herself standing for long periods, just staring at the neglected gift. Strange thoughts floated in and out of her mind. Was he sorry for leaving? Would he come back? Did he still love her? The tears threatened, but in anger, she brushed them away. Her vow to shun sentimental musings was fast becoming a mockery, for every day, she succumbed a little more to the longings she had suppressed for so long. On the morning three days past the middle of the month, she stepped into her living room with a heavy heart. Gone were the pumps, polished and shined. Gone were the black skirts and white blouses pinned with a brooch. Gone were the nylons that covered her beautiful legs. Gone were the smiles and mellow voice. Gone was the teacher. For that moment, she was unmistakably human. The real girl beneath the façade, clad in bathrobe and slippers, slouched in the couch and ran her fingers through her disheveled hair—staring at the jacket, still hanging over the armchair. A tiny stream flowed over her cheek, then two. It was their wedding day. What would have been the mother of many anniversaries to come; miniature celebrations of the day two became one. Would her heart never stop aching? Once again, she wiped her tears. She stood up, and walked over to the chair. She began to tremble as she touched it, once again. Before she knew it, it was in her hands, and seconds later, her arms filled out the sleeves. She spun around and faced the mirror. Startled, she walked towards, as though trying to recognize the woman walking back towards her. Inches from the glass, she stopped and clasped her hand over her breast. A muffled crinkle caught her ears. Instantly, she felt inside the pocket and pulled out an old, wrinkled napkin, still carrying that masculine scent. For the first time, she noticed the ink on its surface. Her heart caught in her throat. What she had assumed were mere doodles were actually words. Dropping into the sofa, she cleared the center table and gently straightened the lost treasure. As her eyes scanned the near-illegible scribbles, her open palm found its way to her quivering lips. She glanced at the clock, then at the door. A matter of minutes stood between her and the answer to her unspoken questions. Should she change her worn and matted appearance? She stood up, and then paused for a moment. What kind of question was that? To a woman like her, there was no question about it! Or was there? Suddenly, she sat back down. Yes, there was. She glanced at the clock, then at the door. No, she wouldn’t change anything. She’d meet the moment, just the way she was. She closed her eyes and wondered if it was all a hoax. The bell rung through the room: once, twice—twelve times in all. Still, her eyes remained closed—hardly daring to hope, but unable to keep from hoping. The first knocks went unanswered, for she thought it was her imagination, or her heart. The second round left no doubt in her mind—someone was really at the door. Like one in a trance, she rose from the couch and walked to the door. “Who is it?” she asked, her voice timid and shy. “It’s me,” the voice replied. “I’ve come to decide, like I promised.” A sudden thrill flowed through her soul as she turned the lock and opened the door. “Julian …” she began, tears filling her eyes. The young man’s eyes grew wide. “Penelope … is that really you?” “Yes, it’s me …” she sobbed. “It is really me. Plain, old me.” “Yes, I can see that,” he replied as a smile spread over his face. “This is the real you. The woman I loved, not the plastic doll you had become. I never really left you, baby.” “You didn’t?” she asked, with raised brows. “No! Didn’t you read my note?” he asked. “I left it as a clue so you wouldn’t kill yourself in despair.” She was silent for a moment. “I never saw the note until a few minutes ago. I took the napkin off the table as a keepsake, but it has been in my jacket pocket ever since. I only found it this morning when I remembered that it was supposed to be our …” “…our wedding day,” he breathed. “So all this time, you thought that I … oh, Penelope!” Tears filled his eyes as he grabbed her and held her in a tight embrace. “I never left—not in my heart. I left with my body for your sake and mine. I couldn’t bring myself to marry a pleaser, but I couldn’t bear to lose you either. I decided it was best to step back and let time do what only time can do for one who pretends to be what she is not.” “Well, it worked,” she replied, a smile teasing the corners of her lips. “Time has brought me back where I once was. Not afraid to be natural; not trapped behind a pretentious mask.” The two fell silent, looking deep into each other’s eyes. The memories of old times flooded back, and the warm feelings returned. “I love you, Julian…” she whispered. “I love you too, Penelope,” he whispered back. “I always will.”