A Well Constructed Sentence

yet another metaphor!


Sitting in his attic, cleaning up boxes of a previous and forgotten life, Peter Rosenbaum was continually becoming distracted as he reviewed the contents of each box before deciding its collective fate. Determined to remove clutter and some psychological baggage, he began the day with a ruthless streak by throwing away all of his high school and elementary school report cards. Reliving academic successes and failures, he took satisfaction each time a poor grade or disappointing teacher comment was thrown in the trash box.

Each box was segmented by time instead of topic so the opening of each lid placed Peter into a specific period with no idea of its contents. Some boxes gave up their secrets easily but others were more mysterious as letters and sealed manila envelopes kept contents under wraps for slightly longer amounts of time. Peter spotted a stack of letters and knew not only the era but also the exact time of their creation. They were collected during his first full summer away from home, right after his sophomore year in college and the handwriting was reminiscent of his first, official girlfriend.

He grabbed the stack and opened up the first one. It was full of news from back in the day and he enjoyed the references to people rarely pondered and a time that was a very long time ago. The contents of the letter were pleasant and generic; no significant or mushy topics and represented a time that their relationship lay dormant and each subsequent letter followed chronologically. Generally satisfied with their evolution, he took the letter off the bottom of the stack and read the final one. This was a bit different and after a traditional greeting, he saw the sentence that represented the end of the relationship. The sentence read:

“I feel that your lack of response is more of a symptom than the cause of the trouble between us.”

It was a well-written summary of a relationship buffeted by long-distance, moderately good intentions and the novelty of the discovery of many new things. The intensity of all things passionate would have never passed the sincerity test but at the time and the place; it was the only thing going. Peter had no interest in reading the entire letter as nothing good would come out of ripping open wounds that had been healed for decades but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. Say what you like about his old girlfriend, she could turn a phrase. The brevity surprised him, as he was remembering the letter was longer than it was but this was not the time to psychoanalyze the reality in his hand.

The stack of letters was placed back into the box and the contents of several other boxes were consolidated on top of them. He had successfully reduced the box volume by half and was content with the storage savings more than the trips down memory lane. Most of the stuff targeted for disposal was not worth saving: old University course catalogs, context-free birthday cards with unrecognizable signatures, broken trinkets and a wide variety of non-collectables devoid of any value, intrinsic or otherwise.

As he carried down the trash, his wife asked him for a progress report.

“I threw out a third, consolidated a third and reviewed a third.”

“Was it weird?”

"In a good way, yes. However, it was a bit odd resurrecting the old memories. A lot of the ones that I thought were important were not and the ones that got my attention were odd little ones that, at the time, seemed inconsequential.”

“Do you miss anything?”

“I am just like you. I miss a few things that we all miss; youth and a lack of obligation but I am so glad that I am not nineteen years old. I am content with my life but when an unpredicted memory hits you, you can’t ignore its impact.”

Peter’s wife agreed. She had her memories as well and when time and circumstances permit, her thoughts occasionally wandered back to high school, college and the magic years after graduation and before marriage when she was open to adventure and the unknown. The years reduced her younger priorities as well as her overall pulchritude but she was in agreement with Peter: she had no desire of going back into time either.

Their day was going to be busy with legitimate social events for the first time in a long time. Usually Saturday was filled with obligations and carpooling for their three children but through a series of lucky circumstances, Peter and Eva had a nice session of grown-up conversation and fine dining ahead of them. It has been awhile since they had been out on an official date and they were both looking forward to eating at a leisurely pace and enjoying the company of some dear friends without asking for a children’s menu.

The day’s main goal was complete as the upstairs clutter was slightly more manageable as well as less mysterious. The Rosenbaum’s were like any other couple and had to balance their expectations with family obligations, including complying with their children’s demanding schedule of athletics, synagogue and social commitments. Each day was a balancing act of timing and actions but ironically, the obligations were rarely owned by both Peter or Eva as their goals became more and more finite due to the decision, made unknowingly, to do what they had to do for their kids and their stuff was dealt with as time permitted.

Peter spent the rest of the day knocking off a few more tasks and found himself in front of the television in the late afternoon. Checking the clock, he knew he had about an hour before he would take his shower and get ready for the evening. His mind wandered back to his college years when that schedule would have been ridiculed, as plans were not meant to be so detailed nor subject to trivial changes. They were young and having a beer for breakfast or staying out until five in the morning was just part of an undergraduates life. As he began to connect a few more dormant memories, he caught himself and forced himself back to the present. The television was blaring and at least one of the three kids was screaming while the other two were quietly plotting something devious.

“Honey, are you going to take a shower?”

Eva’s voice came cascading down the stairs as Peter instinctively rose to comply with the question-framed command. He was not one who willfully disobeyed and had no interest in becoming an aimless revolutionary but as he did climb the stairs, he thought it best to seek the momentary solitude of the shower. So while he acquiesced to a higher power, he continued to think about the odd revisiting of today’s memories. The letter likely triggered the flood of decades old memories but they continued to hang on during the day.

Peter got undressed, put on his robe and headed towards the shower. The recent reminiscing made him realize that he had come a long way from college. The current home was a far cry from the rundown squalid apartment that he shared with three filthy roommates and the waxing nostalgic clouded his memories of waking up surrounded by empty beer cans, contaminated foodstuffs and a wide spectrum of miscellaneous garbage ranging from repulsive to verminous. He liked living in a clean environment and he had no interest in returning to the life of hygienic irregularity and limited hot water.

The shower was long and renewing; Peter had grown tired of the memories of the past so he began to consciously concentrate on this evening’s events. They were meeting some dear friends with similar interests and a mutual respect for everyone’s opinion. Too often due to a work obligation (both Eva or Peter were guilty of this), one would drag the other one to a company function where the odd person out would have to endure narrow-minded opinions of other spouses on the periphery while the primary spouse would have to endure a more controlled annoyance of fellow workers for a specific period of time of alcohol-fueled shop talk. Peter had just come off one of those parties in which he needed to spend time with the three other spouses while Eva was cornered to talk about a wide range of banal subjects within the wonderful world of medical technology.

The group from Hell consisted of a sixty-year old man, likely ex-military, with a horrible attitude and personality to match, the vacuous yet talkative second wife of the company’s second in command and an angry young newlywed with the intelligence of a bag of hammers. Peter had to force himself not to engage in any topic that potentially would spark an argument or interest in discuss anything further. He wanted to enjoy his watered-down drink, sit next to his wife and get the hell out of the event as soon as possible. On the way home, Eva reassured him that party and kinds like it, were a dying breed and not likely to be repeated for at least twelve months.

“That was a great office party of yours we went to last week,” said Peter from the shower. “However, I am in no position to throw stones. If you remember...”

“I remember,” interrupted Eva. She was putting on her make-up and had plenty of time to talk. The kids were already been dispatched to a variety of sleepovers and she enjoyed the quiet time where she could actually put some thought into her make-up versus having one free moment to slap on some mascara and smudge some eye shadow and blush before one of the three kids would burst in with some sibling-related or momentary crisis.

“If you remember,” said Peter re-interrupting, “that my class reunion was an exercise in mutually futility. So, I view us as even.”

Peter’s class reunion was equally painful as the evening from Hell. Eva spent the majority of her time at the bar, getting quietly drunk with the bartender, as Peter dutifully worked the room for legitimate friends. There were twenty people Peter wanted to see and most of them had attended. However, his graduating class was almost eight hundred so the law of large numbers was working against him as soon as he walked through the door. Eva chatted with the bartender for most of the evening, except for dinner, but by the time Peter had returned, Eva was knee-knocking drunk. Luckily for the graduating class of 1982, Eva was a polite and quiet drunk but Peter had to leave immediately to assist her as she ceremoniously threw up in the parking lot. Eva was a trooper then so Peter realized that he needed to take one for the team during last week’s night of Hell.

“Since you only had to deal with three people and I had to deal with seven-hundred plus alumni, I would say we are almost even.”

The shower was turned off and Eva could hear Peter toweling off.

“Fair enough,” said Peter from behind the door. “I appreciate the effort however, I need some special consideration because I am not fighting any internal parking lot urges.”

“Oh, bring that up again,” Eva laughed. “It was not my finest moment.”

Peter walked out and said, “Agreed. But I had to take one, final cheap shot.”

Tonight was going to be a pleasure cruise as compared to the misery of the last evening out. When his shower was finished, he wanted to reiterate to his wife the happiness he was feeling about tonight’s plans or better stated, lack of plans. They got dressed and drove off with time to spare. Eva slipped in a CD of their favorite music, circa 1983, and the evening lay in front of them.

They both laughed and as they drove, they were thinking the same thing: how refreshing it was to have a conversation with a nice give and take and without a lot of anguish. The evening was pleasant and they enjoyed a dinner with another couple from back in the day. All four were the same age, having met in college, and they were all in the same lifestyle slots: kids, house payments, become less concerned with the trends of the day and thinking more about college and retirement and still being able to fit into most of their older clothes.

Politically and culturally, they were of the same mind mainly due to their ages and life experiences to date. Neither couple had experienced divorces, comely second spouses or health issues: it was a nice time to get together and enjoy the sameness within their uniqueness.

They got home and Eva stated that she was too tired to stay up so she padded off to bed. She had been up for most of the day and enjoyed her share of the wine, so her fatigue was understandable.

Peter sat alone in the living room; his mind was still active and he began to think about the old letters and the final one in particular. Although he thought about the old girlfriend, most of the memories were old friends and their related but forgotten activities began to overwhelm him.

The day to day grind of general responsibilities were always there but he felt guilty that he had not thought of many of his old friends due to daily obligations. He, like most of his friends, threw themselves into their work and family tasks and forgot to reconnect with each other for the pure hell of it. As the time grew, the memories of those times back in the day grew into the subconscious to remain for undetermined periods. Nevertheless and epiphanies aside, he went to the attic and brought down the box holding the letters. He decided to do this out in the open; any discoveries by his wife would be mitigated by the fact that he was not hiding anything.

By trade, Peter was an Epidemiologist, a branch of medical science that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of disease in a population but relies on mind-numbing analysis of untold mountains of data to determine patterns of origins and specific cause and effects. He had no bedside manner and graduated Medical School thanks to his gifted research and demonstrated analytical genius. Put him in front of a snotty-nosed kid, he could stay there hours pitifully attempting a simple diagnosis, but place him in a research lab with terabytes of raw data, he could find the key issues to successfully identify the symptoms and develop a clear and insight course of diagnosis in moments. That type of skill came with its own shackles as he couldn’t turn off the internal computing of surrounding events; he would have to follow the strands of known facts to their eventual, logical conclusion.

He opened the box and went straight back to the final letter between himself and his first official girlfriend. He realized that the letter was longer that what he remembered so he made a point to study the letter. He realized early that the second half of the letter was written on the back page of the single page. Her handwriting was delicate enough to not show through on the back page and combining that with heavier, more opaque paper forced further investigation and with that investigation, Peter was finally rewarded. The second page continued on the thought processes of the first page and then he saw the last sentence:

“In a world where so much is outside one’s control; protecting one’s self-respect stands alone as the one, pure internal decision to the unfair, surrounding world. As such, I will do anything within my power to maintain our friendship, up and to the point of losing my self-respect. However, if I have to choose between our friendship or my self-respect, I will have to clearly choose the latter.”

He had completely forgotten about those three sentences: so much so, he placed the letter back into the box and rested his eyes while lying on the couch. He awoke by the tug on his sleeve by his red-eyed wife: it was Sunday morning. 



There is no sense wondering of what might have been so let's take that concept off the table right now.

Back to Short Stories