Dealing with the shoebox was the hardest thing Jessie had ever done. For two days now it had been an unwelcome presence under her bed; she could barely sleep with it there. Every time she remembered it, something twisted inside her gut and she felt like fleeing out the back door, into the snowy woods. Disappearing. So the box had to go.
Lifting the lid, she thought back to earlier in the week, when Sarah had given it to her, held it out with a mixture of care and aversion, like it might explode at any moment.
“Jess, I need you to take this. Get rid of it.”
“What?” This can’t be happening. She wouldn’t.
“I don’t want it.”
“Look, it makes no sense to keep it any more. You know that.”
“Then you get rid of it.”
“I can’t. Don’t ask me to.”
And so, with everything in her screaming no, Jessie took the box and went home. The only consolation she gained from their last real meeting was this: that Sarah couldn’t bear to destroy it herself. Also: that she still needed Jessie, if only for this one last thing.
If we were adults, we’d say goodbye and I would never see her again. Instead, we’ll have to face each other every day until June. Older people tended to forget that when you were in high school, it meant your work life, your social life, your love life, and your community life were all the same damn life. No room to compartmentalize.
The box contained every scrap of correspondence that Jessie had ever given Sarah. Their notes started out as goofy exchanges during the one class they had together. Then, as they became best friends, the notes proliferated with the devotional ethic unique to religious fanatics and teenage girls, passed in the hallway between class periods, so that they never went more than fifty-one minutes without communicating. As their bond deepened into an ardent, desperate, confusing thing, dependent on secrecy and denial, most of their declarations of love remained unspoken, articulated only in private writing. Jessie often labored the night before on letters to deliver to Sarah in the morning. She drew sketches, cut funny cartoons out of the paper, made mix tapes, all in an effort to surprise and delight that beautiful miracle of a girl. So it accumulated, until more than a year of their relationship lay chronicled in the box⎯hundreds of missives. Some of the notes looked soft and frayed, like they had been unfolded and reread daily.
Now, with this request, Sarah wanted every trace of that shared history obliterated. Jessie had her own box of letters from Sarah, of course; she was supposed to destroy that one, too.
Thank God no one else was home yet. She sat in front of the wood stove and opened the door, feeding another log onto the fire. She paused, then closed the flue. There wasn’t a minute to lose, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
So much of their time together had consisted of furtive gestures, stolen moments: sneaking into the projection room of the lecture hall to make out for fifteen minutes before school started. Holding hands on the bus, shielded from view by a scarf or bookbag. Or it took place silently, in the dark: Jessie slept over at Sarah’s house so often, almost every weekend, that Sarah’s dad had taken to calling her “the interloper.” He meant it as a joke, but the word always made Jessie wonder if he subconsciously suspected something, reminding her as it did of “intercourse” and “elope.” Oh, if you only knew what I do with your daughter at night, and you just across the hall.
The deeper they fell into one another, the harder they tried to conceal it, and the more difficult it became. Finally Sarah decided that she just couldn’t go on, so she ended it. They were in a rural community. It was the 1980s, and outside of panicked discussions about AIDS, no one was even talking about homosexuality. She was starting to hear nasty gossip. Their parents would lose it if they found out. Jessie would be leaving her for college soon, and if Sarah wanted to have anything resembling a normal senior year, she had to start rebuilding her reputation now. Maybe even get a boyfriend. She was pretty sure she wasn’t even gay! Plus, it might hurt less if they had some time to get over it together. Jessie had heard all the reasons; some of them even made sense. So here she sat, about to burn the most tangible evidence of the most important year of her life.
As she often did when life seemed impossible, Jessie returned to one of her happiest memories, of a Saturday morning earlier that fall. The girls had stayed after school for play rehearsal, while Sarah’s parents and little brother left in the afternoon for their lake house. The plan was for the girls to drive up later that night and join the family for the weekend. But at the last minute, Sarah’s mom had changed her mind. “I don’t like the thought of you two out on the highways with all the crazies and the drunks. Wait until morning. Here’s some money; order a pizza and don’t stay up too late, so you can get enough sleep for an early start.”
Jessie had cracked up when Sarah told her that part. Sleep!?
But the best moment had been the next day, when she came downstairs to find Sarah already in the kitchen, making blueberry pancakes. Jessie crossed the room and wordlessly put her arms around her. Still holding the spatula, Sarah leaned back into the embrace and smiled. “Morning.”
The breakfast table was set, Jessie noticed, with a small pitcher of orange juice in the middle of it. Sunshine streamed in from the sliding doors leading out to the back porch, lighting up the whole room. Sarah herself beamed, relaxed and content.
It was so perfect because it was so ordinary. No hiding. No rushing. Jessie briefly allowed herself to imagine that it could be their future. She had never known any women who lived together like this. She had never seen any on TV or in the movies. She didn’t know how or where to find that world⎯only that she wanted to live in it.
Realizing she was crying, Jessie shook off the memory. Quickly, without allowing herself to hesitate further, she opened the wood stove’s front grate, shoved both boxes into the flames, and slammed the doors shut. She felt ill. Looking down, she saw that all the hairs on her forearms were singed off. Maybe she had hesitated after all.
In the months that followed, Jessie later reflected, it was probably a good thing that she was not able to reread those letters. The archivist in her rued the loss of such a complete correspondence, but she surely would have suffered even more with them. As Jessie’s senior year wound down, Sarah froze her out; she was convinced this was the best thing for both of them. “If you ever loved me⎯
“I do love you. I always will.”
“Listen. If you love me, don’t call. Don’t write. Go to college and live your life.”
So she did.
More than twenty years later, Sarah appeared to Jessie one night in a dream. This happened less often than she would have thought; maybe half a dozen times in all those years, those countless hours of mental sifting.
Sarah was crying, inconsolable. It hurt Jessie to see her in so much pain, but her dream-self remained disciplined and did not attempt to reach out. Then Sarah turned to her, grasped her shoulders, and broke down, sobbing as if she would die of grief. Jessie relented, lifted her arms and enfolded Sarah in them. She felt Sarah’s ragged breath, her hair, the muscles of her back. She didn’t dream-feel; she felt. Sarah was there. It could not have been more vivid had she reached out and touched her own wife sleeping beside her. The sensation was so real that she woke with a start. Jessie sat up and looked around, unsure of where⎯or when⎯she was.
As day came and the familiar world took shape, Jessie remained troubled by the dream. She kept probing it, trying to understand what it could mean. When the phone call came that afternoon, Jessie realized she had been half-expecting it.
The news came from an old school friend, who had learned about it via Facebook. A freak accident. An indescribable loss. Sarah and her family devastated, visited by the random, senseless specter of tragedy we all pray will pass us over, leave us alone. Nothing could ever be right for them again, she knew.
“Are you going to send a card or anything? I know how, um, close you were at one time.” Jessie had violated Sarah’s wish for privacy by trusting this one friend with the truth. She had needed someone to talk to when her heart was breaking.
“I don’t think so.” Jessie considered what to say next. “She really doesn’t need to hear from me.”