The Pink Envelope
The Pink Envelope
A Short Story by Carolyn Geduld
The envelope was square with scallops on the back flap. It was a girlish pink. The ink was sky blue, and the handwriting was good elementary script with little circles over the “I’s”. There was no return address. At first, Naomi thought it might be an advertisement and almost threw it in the recycling bin unopened. But then she reconsidered and carefully pried the flap from the back. She was intrigued enough to want to keep the envelope as intact as possible instead of just ripping it open.
It did turn out to be a personal letter. There was no salutation. The first sentence read:
“For the past thirty years, you have hurt me every single day.”
Naomi blinked. She looked at the envelope again to see if she had missed the return address. She looked at the end of the letter, which was three pages long covering both sides of each pink linen sheet. There was no signature. Thirty years? This, whatever it was, had begun when she was fifteen years old?
She was next to the mail ‘chute, in the foyer of the house she had inherited when her mother had died the year before. The pink envelope had fallen to the floor with the rest of the mail, mostly bills and flyers. There was a little table beside the front door where mail was usually sorted. It was one of the many antiques in the house. Naomi held onto it with her free hand to keep her balance while reading the letter.
“The first hurtful thing you did, on the very day I met you, was not to answer me when I said ‘hello’.” You have no idea what courage it took for someone like me to say anything to someone like you. I was crushed when you did not respond. What would it have cost you to say a simple “Hi” back?”
That there was someone she did not say “Hi” to when she was in high school, if this even occurred in high school, was certainly not impossible, but she had no memory of it. It seemed that the writer had been very hurt and was still carrying the pain of that interaction to this day. In her mind, Naomi made a cursory run through the list of kids she knew at the time but could not think of anyone she had deliberately snubbed.
The letter continued:
“On each of the 10,965 days since then, you found some way to hurt me. Yes, thirty years turns out to be that many days, if you do the arithmetic—you who were so good at math. But even someone like me can figure out how to multiply thirty years by 365 days.”
To her horror, Naomi realized that the writer was claiming that whatever may have started in their teen years, possibly in high school, continued after graduation, every day, no less. The writer must have also known Naomi in college, when she moved to Chicago and again to Birmingham in pursuit of several disappointing social service jobs. The writer must have found the addresses of every unappealing apartment she had lived in. And finally when Naomi gave up work to move back to her home town in Indiana to take care of her mother, the writer had known where to send this letter. She encountered Naomi every day, she seemed to claim, if she had been hurt by Naomi every day. It was not possible. There were days that Naomi did not leave her mother’s house, for instance. On those days, when she did not see anyone, text anyone, email anyone, or use social media, there was nobody for her to hurt.
Naomi was assuming the writer was female because of the color of the paper and the style of penmanship. Possibly, the writer was male. Someone who had a crush on her for decades but who had never had the nerve to declare himself. But it would be unusual for a straight man to choose pink and dot “i”s with circles.. The writer was more likely female, Naomi guessed.
The writer gave examples of a few times she felt she had been insulted:
“On March 9th, 2000, at 10:13 a.m., I asked to borrow your pen. Actually, I had a pen of my own, but I wanted to hold something of yours. Not that you knew that. You never bothered to know anything about me. You did let me use your pen, but you did not say anything. You just handed it over to the idiot who hoped your fingers would brush hers during the transfer. You held the pen by the tip so you would not have any contact with my germy hand. How that hurt!”
Naomi was astonished to read several more instances like that, with times and dates noted. On a bus in July 14th, 2008 at 3:27 p.m., the writer had stood up so Naomi could have her seat. Naomi did not say “thank you.” On February 3rd, 2011 at 12:45 p.m., in a restaurant, Naomi had been so immersed in conversation with her lunch companion, that she never looked the writer’s way, even though the writer was at the next table coughing on and off to attract her attention. On August 3rd, 2015, while on a cruise ship, Naomi barely nodded at the writer when they crossed paths outside their adjacent cabins, even though the writer asked her if she was enjoying the ship.
Naomi was startled to realize that the writer not only knew that she was going on the cruise, a last holiday with her mother, but also which cabin she had booked, and she knew how to book a nearby one for herself. How had she obtained that information?
In the last paragraph, the writer finally indicated what she wanted from Naomi:
“If you wish to have my forgiveness, for I am a very forgiving person by nature, what you must do is write a letter to me acknowledging the pain you caused me. You must apologize and catalogue as many instances as possible of your thoughtlessness toward me. I realize it may be difficult for you to recall more than 10,000 instances. So I will accept your taking responsibility for 100 of these, as long as you supply details and not just a one sentence blow-off summary. I have a generous heart, and so your admission of a mere one percent of what you have done will be acceptable to me. I am guessing it will take you a good week to compose the list. I will be writing you again telling you how your letter can be delivered to me.”
Naomi carried the letter with her into the kitchen and put it on the table. Her hands were shaking. She put on the kettle to make tea. That might calm her. While waiting, she re-read the letter. She thought of the possibilities. It could be a prank or a scam. It could be that the writer had mixed her up with someone else. Maybe the writer was crazy. That went without saying.
By the time the water came to a boil, she had run out of options. She had thought about going to the police. But unless there was a specific threat, and unless they could obtain the name and whereabouts of the suspect, there was little the police could do. Similarly, she could not get a judge to sign a Restraining Order without knowing who the judge should restrain. No one would pay attention to a single creepy letter, no matter how much it disturbed Naomi. She would have to deal with the writer herself.
Nothing she could imagine made any sense. The writer seemed to feel inferior to Naomi in some way. Did she think Naomi was prettier? But Naomi was actually very average looking, with medium brown hair, eyes a bit too close together, and an extra ten pounds on her frame. No one had ever accused her of being beautiful. Neither was she especially intelligent. She was a solid “B” student only because she studied hard. The writer seemed to think she excelled in math. Yet, although she had done well in the first two years of math in high school, she worked to just pass after that.
Finally, she put the letter in the inlaid box her mother had kept on the table for mail. It could sit there with all of the condolence letters Naomi had yet to answer. The box was just one of hundreds of items that needed disposal before the house were to be sold. If Naomi decided to sell it. It was her inheritance, and she could continue to live there, if she wanted.
A week later, a second pink envelope lay on the floor beneath the mail chute. Like the first, this one contained no return address, salutation, or signature at the end.
“You have had a week. Surely, now that you have thought of a mere hundred ways you have hurt me, you are somewhat contrite. What is important is that your apology be sincere, your confession be detailed, and—most important—that you stop hurting me! Even in the last seven days, you managed to add to the daily insults. That does not bode well. You cannot be forgiven if you keep doing the same abusive acts to the very person who has admired you, indeed loved you, for more than three decades. Still, you continue to torment me. Every day I weep.”
This was written in the same blue ink on a single sheet. Turning it over, Naomi saw there was a post-script.
“P.S. Leave your response in Bryan Park, under the white stone next to the third bench from the northwest corner.”
Naomi was flabbergasted. She could not recall seeing anyone, let alone the same person, for each of the past seven days whom she might have inadvertently insulted. Neither had she been able to recall even one of the hundred times, as the writer required, that she had supposedly hurt anyone. Quickly, before she could follow her impulse to throw it away, she put the second letter in the inlaid box. Solving the mystery of the writer’s identity was becoming her obsession.
“Why can’t I just let this go and move on?” She asked herself. The writer was someone who had known her and who maintained an— admittedly perverted— interest in her for almost her whole life. The only person who knew her longer was her mother. She almost wished that her mother was the mystery writer and had had an intense interest in her. But her mother had died before the pink letters were mailed. The mystery writer had to be someone else. Who?
Thinking about the two letters, she was reminded of the cruise. Her mother had been in a “nice” stage of her illness. As far as Naomi knew, some people with Alzheimer’s have a change of character for the better. Gone was the aloof woman she had known, and in her place was a kind person who actually complimented Naomi and told her she loved her. This mother never complained. She was in this stage for a very short time, beginning a month or so before the cruise. The sea sickness she experienced on ship took a terrible toll on her. After disembarking, she seemed to recover. At the same time, she began to forget Naomi. Then she died a few months later.
Naomi was grateful that she had that time with her “nice” mother. She did not know whether to be glad or sorry that she took her mother on the cruise. On the one hand, it was their only vacation together, a special time of mother-daughter bonding. On the other hand, maybe the sea sickness had hastened her death. It might have been better to stay home, where everything was familiar to her mother. She hoped that, wherever she was, her mother would forgive her.
Thinking about forgiveness took her back to thoughts about the strange letters. The writer expected her to write back and to leave her reply under a rock. How ridiculous! Yet, Naomi thought, it would not hurt to see if the white rock in the park really existed. Anything that would give her a clue to the writer’s identity was worth pursuing.
She drove to the park and pulled up near the northwest corner. Then she walked up the path, counting the benches. At the third bench, she was surprised to see that there was indeed a white rock with a flat bottom, planted firmly on the ground. It appeared to have been white-washed. When no one was in sight, she lifted the rock. To her amazement, another pink envelope was underneath it.
Naomi’s name was on the envelope. Opening it and taking out the letter, she read:
“If you are reading this, you have found the rock and now have proof of my seriousness and integrity. I fully expected you to test me before writing your response, which I eagerly await. My heart beats avidly in anticipation of being able to forgive you. It will be the start of a new beginning for us. All I want is for you to be nicer to me from now on. I look forward to your letter of apology. Don’t make me wait too long.”
Naomi felt that the last line could be interpreted as a threat. Who knew what the writer, who must be mentally ill, was capable doing. Naomi worried about leaving the letter with her name on it for a stranger to find, she took the letter back home with her. The writer would no doubt look under the rock and realize what the missing letter meant—that Naomi had removed it. Beginning the next afternoon, a pink envelope came to her mother’s house every day. They all conveyed the same message: that Naomi was continuing to hurt the writer, that she needed to confess to a hundred instances of her hurtful behavior, that the writer was ready to forgive her.
Sometimes, Naomi thought she spotted a shadowy figure. After dark, if she looked out of her bedroom window, a shape seemed to waver across the street. While driving to the supermarket, another car might briefly pull up parallel to hers. The grimy side windows would obscure her view of whoever was inside. Someone might pass her in the street wearing a hood that covered their face.
Where any of these the writer?
Thoughts of the pink letters began to replace thoughts of what Naomi should do with her life now that her mother was gone. She had no real career. Her money would run out in a couple of months, unless she was very frugal. Sooner or later, she would have to either get a job, probably low wage, or begin selling off the antiques. Neither option was appealing. She had already started to monitor her expenses. By going out less often, she spent less money. Soup and toast was enough for dinner. She had started wearing some of her mother’s clothing, so there was no need to shop for new clothes. In time, there were fewer and fewer reasons to leave the house.
What she did not want to admit was her fear of crossing paths with the writer and unintentionally causing her more pain. She worried that the writer might attack her, even though up until now she never had.
Naomi found herself rereading the letters and thinking about them constantly. Although there was no way she could have hurt the writer so often, she felt some guilt. After all, something caused the writer’s obsession with her. It was certainly possible that she had hurt her thirty years ago and also possible that there were other times since, surely not every day, but maybe every once in awhile. Because she did not recognize the writer, it was probable that she neglected to say some “hellos” or “thank yous.”
She wished her mother were alive to give her some advice. But which mother—the nice one or the not-nice one? She guessed what the nice mother would say:
“Sweetheart, don’t listen to such nonsense. You would never deliberately hurt anyone. Whatever the letters are about, they are not about you. Throw them away.”
But the not-nice mother might say:
“Where there is smoke, there is fire. You owe an apology.”
Naomi wandered around the house, surveying the antiques. The four poster bed in her mother’s room. The grandfather clock. The stained-glass lamp shades. The carved mantle. The dark mahogany and walnut furniture. These had been precious to her mother. If she sold them, it might be one more unforgivable act. Furthermore, she did not know if she loved them or hated them. Or was she simply used to them?
She stopped at her mother’s writing desk. It was one of the best pieces, Nineteenth Century, French. It was sure to fetch six months of living expenses, if she parted with it. Wearing her mother’s Japanese silk robe, she sat on the vanity stool that accompanied the desk. Opening draws, she found the paper and envelopes her mother used to purchase from a stationary store, when such stores existed. The quality was very fine. There was no yellowing of the cream-color linen paper and envelopes. On a little tray on the desk top were her mother’s dainty set of silver ink pens, also antiques. The one she chose still worked when she tried it out by making a small line on the back of an envelope.
Taking a sheet of paper, she began to write:
“On January 14th, 2003, at 10:20 a.m., I did not say “please” to you….”