As soon as she spotted the blue scented envelope, her heart lurched.
The familiar backslanted handwriting, coupled with that unusual scent, signaled a long-ago time. A time Caroline had hoped to forget.
Back in the summer of 1976, they had all gathered together, their petitions in hand. Hopeful, idealistic and eager, they just knew that their goal would be accomplished. Soon a member of the Board of Supervisors would join their little group and it would begin. The plea to save their neighborhood.
They formed the core of a neighborhood protest group back then, those three couples. It had all started with the county’s plan to move one of their departments into an old vacated hospital complex. The self-described leaders of the de facto group were Allison and Doug Berkowitz and Yolanda and Roger Anderson. She and her husband had joined at the tail end of the group, having answered their door one evening to find those four with petitions in hand. They must have been bored that night—at loose ends. She recalled that Sean had invited them in, and while at first she’d been a little annoyed with his impulsiveness, she’d soon warmed to the cause. It reminded her of another time, back in the late sixties….
Back then, newly divorced from her first husband with two children in tow, she had stood on the fringes of a college protest to listen to a fervent speech from one of their professors, Jared Hudson. She had noticed the young man nearby, with his long wavy hair and intense blue eyes. There was something about him…but later, much later, when she and Sean Holleran had connected on many levels, she’d already begun to question what she’d seen that day. Perhaps he wasn’t as committed as she’d once believed. But by the time she’d discovered that his fervor was only skin deep, like a chameleon that changes with its surroundings, she was in over her head.
Jarred back to the present by the ringing phone, Caroline shook her head vigorously. She really had transported herself back to those times. Strange how the sense memory had taken over, catapulting her backward with just those few triggers. She now stared again at the envelope, even as she grabbed the phone.
“Hello?” Her tentative greeting could only echo the terror evoked by the missive she held.
But her caller had nothing to do with the letter she held, and she had soon dispatched the details of a business matter, sinking onto her desk chair, still clutching the envelope.
When she finally ended the call and stared again at the object she held, she laughed aloud. How silly she was. Of course this couldn’t be a letter from Yolanda! How would she have even found her? Since that time when they had been friends, Caroline had moved several times. Plus, she was no longer Caroline Holleran. After the divorce, she’d taken back her birth name, and glancing again at the envelope, she saw that it was, indeed, addressed to Caroline Fox. A name that Yolanda would have no reason to know!
And sure enough, as she slit the seal with her pewter letter opener, she saw that the correspondent was not Yolanda Anderson. In fact, the handwriting was only slightly similar. This letter was from a friend of a friend, responding to a referral for business. The scented envelope was simply a deceptive foil to what was a business matter after all.
But no matter that she had dodged a bullet today. She knew that someday she might run into any one of those four—in a mall, at a restaurant, or even at a political event—as far as she knew they all still lived in this same city. A city of half-a-million residents, but stranger things had happened.
And then what? She had imagined such an occurrence many times, pondering how she would behave. Perhaps she was simply exaggerating the impact that summer had had on their lives. Maybe she was the only one who still had lingering doubts and fears….
As her mind traipsed down that memory path, she closed her eyes and sighed.
Caroline and Sean had hosted the dinner party that night—that gourmet dinner and book club event—and Caroline could still see them coming in the front door. First Allison and Doug, followed quickly by Roger and Yolanda. She remembered that simpering quality in Yolanda’s presentation as if it had been yesterday. Hero worship was the best way she could describe it. Yolanda completely idolized Allison Berkowitz, almost as if the other woman were a celebrity. Just because she was from LA and had this leadership aura about her….
Sometimes Caroline would watch the two of them, shopping together like twin housewives, even wearing the same outfits.
But after that gourmet night, in the summer of 1977, nothing would ever be the same again.
She thought it was Doug’s idea for the couples to toss their keys into that bowl. But it all started when Allison sat, all curled up like a cat in the stuffed chair, her bare feet pointed outward. And then Roger had laughed, saying something like…“Your feet are dirty on the bottoms!” To which Allison had responded: “I’ll bet none of you would kick me out of bed!”
Like a challenge—that’s what it had been. And then Doug’s preposterous idea, which Caroline had believed, at the time, to be a bluff. He couldn’t really be serious!
But then he’d tossed his keys into the bowl, with the others following suit.
Her face flushed now as she thought of it. Doug had always been flirtatious with her, but she’d chalked it up to his nature. It didn’t mean anything. But as he approached her, swinging her keys, and then led her down the hallway to the bedroom, a familiar heat started in her lower regions. But then in the room, he’d turned into someone else—a predator, almost—and what had seemed exciting suddenly turned sleazy. Despite how it turned out, though, she was glad that she hadn’t ended up with Roger…now that would have been totally yucky. Something about Roger, even before the later events of the summer, had sounded a warning bell….
A Vietnam War vet, Roger seemed off-kilter…before anyone even knew about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he seemed, well, weird. And Yolanda appeared oblivious to his effect on others, chirping along like a little bird. And acting as if they were the perfect suburban couple.
Everyone distanced themselves from the others after that night. Yolanda and Allison rarely went shopping together and there were no more gourmet dinners.
But then, as the autumn leaves began to drift listlessly onto the green carpeted lawns and as summer turned into fall, it was unseasonably warm. She remembered that detail clearly because the kids all still went swimming at the Andersons’ pool….
Her two children from her previous marriage—Jason and Jared—were eleven and nine that year. Her own daughter with Sean was a one-year-old toddler. Heidi was too young to follow her brothers to the pool.
Looking back, she would have to ask herself for the umpteenth time why she hadn’t tagged along to help supervise. Knowing how she felt about Roger, why hadn’t it occurred to her?
But then they’d gone swimming over there many times, over the summer and into the early fall. So why would she think anything was remiss?
When Jared came screaming across the street, sobbing and calling out, her heart had lurched.
Then there were the emergency vehicles descending. She hadn’t been able to focus on anything but Jason, lying limp by the side of the pool….
Afterwards, amidst the grief and loss, she could only focus on putting one foot in front of the other. She staggered through the days and nights, like an automaton, just going through the motions. Her grief was a palpable thing, fully formed and consuming her. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, and everything seemed utterly surreal….
So when Jared came to her a couple of weeks later, haltingly describing his version of events, she couldn’t believe what she heard.
“Mommy, it was awful,” he began, curling up next to Caroline. Something he hadn’t done for a long while. She had expected him to rehash what Roger and Yolanda had reported—actually, it was Roger’s version of events. Yolanda had been in the house while it happened.
“I know, sweetheart, but you must realize that none of it was your fault.”
“But Mommy, it was Roger’s fault!”
“What do you mean, sweetie? Because it was his pool?”
“No—they were playing Marco Polo, Jason and Roger—and then Roger started laughing and held Jason under the water. Jason was kicking and trying to get out—I was yelling at Roger to let him up—but by the time he did, Jason was…gone!” Sobbing, Jared snuggled up against Caroline as if by telling, he could somehow make it all right again.
“You must have misunderstood,” Caroline soothed, but at the same time, her heart thudded in her chest, while a great pain clutched, almost cutting off her airways. How could this be? Perhaps Jared had been so traumatized that he had imagined all of this. Hadn’t he?
Later, she told Sean about Jared’s disclosure. Of course, he wouldn’t or couldn’t believe any of it. Everyone thought Jared had an overactive imagination anyway. So this must be a result of that….
But Caroline wouldn’t let it go until finally, she marched over to the Andersons and confronted Roger.
Of course, he denied all of it. But Yolanda had been the worst of them all. She had screamed at Caroline, ordering her off the property. By the end of the day, she had brought Allison and Doug into the mix and the parties were divided. The four of them against Caroline and Sean—and then it boiled down to five of them against Caroline. Even Sean seemingly sided with the others; it was a betrayal of such proportions that their already shaky marriage could not withstand it.
It was only a matter of time before the marriage breathed its last gasp. Caroline and the two remaining children moved into an apartment across town and Caroline found a job at the local welfare office. Struggling financially for years, she tried to make sense of her life. And constantly berated herself. If only….
Sean had moved back to Sacramento and saw his daughter rarely.
Soon the couples had all moved elsewhere—
Caroline had heard that Allison and Doug were divorced less than two years later, followed by the Andersons. None of them lived in the neighborhood any longer….
But Caroline, who had resumed her maiden name, never felt safe from a repeat of the vitriol that Yolanda had spewed at her on that final day. She half-expected her shadowy presence to follow her. Sometimes, she could have sworn she had seen her—in a mall, on the street—and now, the scent on the blue envelope had conjured up images of the missives Yolanda had sent to each of them back in the day, when inviting them to one of her events.
So here she was, almost twenty years later, still cringing whenever someone would approach her on the street or in the mall, half-expecting her carefully reconstructed world to disintegrate.
Jared had graduated with an MBA at age twenty-one, eight years ago, and had a wife and two children. Heidi, seemingly almost completely unaffected by the events of that summer, had reached her majority and was finally on her own, earning her way as a food server while she worked on her master’s degree in Fine Arts.
Caroline and Jared had talked once about that summer—mainly so that she could reassure him that she believed him. He had needed that support. His relatively well-adjusted life continued, almost in spite of those events. When she studied him, at their routine family gatherings, she searched for signs of trauma or disturbance, but found none. And breathed a sigh of relief that he had apparently survived unscathed. Or perhaps he was just successful at putting the past behind him. Unlike Caroline….
So now, here she was, all these years later, still haunted by that time in her life.
She lived in a completely different part of town. She moved in different circles. None of her friends were particularly political, nor had any of them espoused radical causes “back in the day.” It was a relief to distance herself from that incarnation, as if she could obliterate the pain, somehow. But it wasn’t working.
Maybe she needed to confront the past. If for no other reason than to meet the boogieman head-on. Nothing to fear but fear itself, she whispered when the darkest of fears plagued her.
But how? Of course, everything was different nowadays. One could find people easily via the various search engines available. The Internet was a part of everyday life—even for those who had been computer illiterate for years. But in her work, of course, Caroline had occasion to use the Internet.
So here she was, on a day when a haunting image conjured by a scented blue envelope had almost upended her.
Clicking in some details on the search bar, she waited. Would she find a clue? And, if so, what would she do with it? Did she want to see Yolanda again, just to find out if anything had changed? The fact of her divorce from Roger probably had nothing to do with the events of that summer, but then again, maybe it did…
There it was, in front of her…an address, not too far away, actually. She shivered, thinking that any day now, she could run into this woman randomly.
Apparently, Yolanda had been busy. She had a website—had Yolanda been an aspiring writer? Clicking on a link, she found the blog.
Perusing the prose quickly, she frowned. And then went back over it carefully. It read like a memoir, she decided. Entitled “The Day I Came Out of a Fog,” it chronicled a time in the writer’s life when she’d been a victim of spousal abuse. Eerily, like a distant echo from the past, that summer of 1977 took shape in this woman’s voice, and for the first time, Caroline could see the whole series of events from her archenemy’s perspective:
I had to finally come to grips with what my life had boiled down to, in that long ago summer when I finally saw the reality of my situation. The old expressions ‘head in the sand’ and ‘ostrich-like’ certainly applied to me. When my husband had first come home from Vietnam, we were newlyweds still. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt because of the horrendous experiences he’d lived through…but I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of the changes in him. Or were these changes? Before he’d gone over there, we’d had so little time together that I probably hadn’t really sorted anything out…and in that short time, he had never even lifted a hand against me. But then that began to change. At first, I blamed myself. If only I were more understanding…if I could just try harder to please him…if I could forgive more…
Then came that summer. The devastation of the events leading to the end of our marriage will forever be etched in my mind. I feel as if I, too, am culpable for what transpired. But eventually, I came to realize that my deepest responsibility lay in my inability to face the truth and deal with it.
A child had to die before I could see how truly sick my husband was! For that, I will be forever guilty. And nothing, not now or ever, will relieve that pain. Perhaps someday, I can face the victims of that crime and make some kind of amends…But until then, writing it down and seeing it in black and white relieves me tremendously…
Caroline sucked in her breath and clutched at her throat. A part of her felt some relief and almost forgiveness— toward Yolanda, at least. But what about Roger? Nothing had been done back then—there was insufficient evidence of anything except that a tragic accident had occurred. Caroline had even told the police about Jared’s version of events, and although they had talked to him, they felt that his emotional state rendered his perspective “not credible.” She still felt that old anger surging upward…
But now, here, in a blog, was another version of the truth. So what now?
Somehow, though, seeing what Yolanda had written lessened her fears of confronting that past.
Maybe, someday, she and Yolanda would meet again. But in a moment of clarity, she saw that in order to really get past those long ago events, she had to let go. When she was able to do that, she could finally squelch the images that constantly plagued her, and maybe she could even get on with her life.
As she closed the website and studied the files on her desk, the very real evidence of a whole life aside from the past, she sighed. And vowed to move forward, one step at a time.