As she stood in line on the Graduation stage, squinting against the hot spring sun, she decided, with unwavering certainty, that his wife had been the one to see it first.
It was 2 p.m. and the route to the mailbox was slick. Balanced precariously atop four-inch heels, his wife clung to her silver Lexus for support as she sidestepped her way across the icy driveway. After what felt like a heroic effort, she arrived at her destination, a blue-grey mailbox with a white flag, an intentional color compliment to their newly painted Seattle home. With a child’s eagerness, she pawed through the stack of mail, impatient to read the newest issue of Glamour.
Bill. Bill. Christmas letter from the Li’s. Aah YES. Her fingers had struck glossy magazine gold. “It’s GWYNETH!” the cover advertized in fat pink letters. And in smaller print underneath, “On her marriage, heartbreak and baking a mean muffin.”
Almost as an afterthought, she flipped through the final pieces of mail.
She had almost missed it. The letter was hidden, tucked carelessly between casserole recipes in the pages of “Martha Stewart Living”. She lingered on the return address, not recognizing the name. Hannah Baker…. The letter was addressed to her husband. Did he know a Hannah Baker?
But she was soon distracted by a glimpse of her newly manicured nails, the color popping pleasantly against the white background of the letter. She had taken a risk with “Midnight Blue” and she knew it. Janet had warned her at the salon that dark pigments tended to make one’s fingers look “unladylike.” That is, if one’s nails were too short. Still, in that moment, standing by the mailbox, she decided it had been the right choice. Plus, she was growing tired of the classic “nude.” And everybody needs some excitement in their lives, right? She traversed the frozen tundra back to the house and made a beeline for the living room couch, stopping only to place the letter on her husband’s desk. When he arrived home from work she was still sitting there, legs tucked daintily underneath her as she read about GWYNETH! and her muffins.
Above her, indulgent strands of chandelier glass quivered under the stress of her shriek.
He didn’t respond.
“Yi Xiong! There’s a letter for you on your desk!”
He had waited several days…no, weeks, before opening it. In between important emails he would sometimes take the unopened letter to his reading chair, a well-worn, tufted seat with a bronze studded perimeter and a wide stance, that seemed to embrace him as he sat. In those moments he would run his fingers through his lightly graying hair and simultaneously trace the outline of her name. He noticed the handwriting. It was neat and mature, with a’s like her mother’s, the tails curling upwards in a flourish that could only be described as “elegant”. Was handwriting somehow genetic? Or had she deliberately imitated her mother’s written style? Perhaps she had intentionally reshaped her letters as a rejection of the impatient scrawl of her childhood, a point of some embarrassment in high school. She had probably practiced everyday that summer, lying belly first on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor. Writing what, he wasn’t sure.
And on lazy Sunday mornings he would use the letter as a bookmark while he read. Hemingway mostly. He appreciated the childlike syntax for its clean simplicity and because his English, though he had been living in the states for almost twenty-three years, was still limited. He used the letter this way so often that the envelope had begun to smell like the pages of his books: yellowing paper and dust.
With a half-hearted plan to open it during his lunch-break, he would sometimes take the letter with him to work. It would sit on his desk and stare pleasantly back at him as he ate. In between bites of turkey sandwich, he would contemplate the stamp, a black and white portrait of Katherine Hepburn. She was pictured staring off to the right, face angled upwards towards an unseen light source that highlighted the movie-star sheen of her rolling curls, and forced deep shadows into the curves of her cheekbones. She looked at once dreamy and ambitious. He wondered if she looked up to this woman, and, thinking of her, her own dreams and ambitions, a gentle smile would alight in the corners of his mouth. At the end of the day, the letter, still unopened, would return with him to the Seattle suburbs and resume its position on the office desk at home. It wasn’t that he was scared to open it. No, not scared. It was that the letter, while still unopened, carried with it hope.
And then, one morning, he awoke to find himself already in motion. Ignoring his usual morning routine, he walked downstairs to his office, sat down in his reading chair, and opened the letter.
Dear Yi Xiong,
Not Dad? No. It hadn’t felt right.
I’m writing to invite you to my college graduation. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but I think we would have a lot to talk about…
Here, the letter had become hard to read, the paper wrinkled and grey from sentences erased.
…and I want you to be here to see me graduate. May 18th at 9:30 am at Mount Holyoke College. I understand if you can’t come but I really hope you will.
Love? Certainly not. Sincerely? Didn’t sound like her.
p.s. Mom doesn’t know I’m doing this so please don’t call her.
He bought his plane ticket that night.
“A business trip.” he told his wife. “I’ll only be gone a couple of days”
She sucked her teeth. “That’s what they all say isn’t it?”
He wasn’t sure what she meant. Her small mouth gathered tightly into a sour pucker in the middle of her face. She looked old to him then. Like a once-ripe mango grown sour and withered with age and petty arguments.
“No, honey. That’s just what I’m saying.”
And that was that.
His plane had arrived at 7 p.m. the day before. With several hours to kill before retiring to the local Hampton Inn, he wandered the streets of her childhood town. The roads, wet from a hot rain, shimmered under the glare of the streetlamps. Vacant benches in the nearby park waited benignly for the next day’s traffic. He didn’t know it then, but around the corner was the alley where she had her first kiss.
The restaurants overflowed with college students and their parents, all flush cheeked and buzzing with excitement for the events to come. He took a seat at the bar of a nearby Italian restaurant. While waiting for his drink, he took the letter out from inside his pocket and set it beside him. Running his fingers through his hair he simultaneously traced the outline of her name in the top left corner of the envelope.
* * * * * * * * * *
Red tie? No, blue. He had gone with blue. Squinting bleary eyed into the sun, she scanned the crowd for a blue tie. He had probably brought flowers. Roses. No, tulips. A carefully selected mixture of purples, creams and variegated reds. She scanned the crowd again, narrowing her search to a Chinese man with a blue tie and a multi-colored armful of tulips.
“Hannah Baker. Summa cum laude”
And there he was. He had gone with the red tie, but she recognized him immediately. She strode proudly across the stage and held her diploma high for him to see.
“Jennie!” He clapped ferociously.
Hannah’s face dropped. She turned around to see Jennie Cheng’s face color as she waved shyly back at her father.
The man in the red tie beamed. His darling. His sweetie. She was finally graduating from college.