How Do I Love Thee

After writing about the importance of short stories, I thought I would post a short story I wrote. I wrote this story in February 2012 for a short story contest held by The Strand bookstore in New York City. The prompt was the write a love story that took place at The Strand. This story won 2nd place, so I hope that means I’m not a total hack at writing. Enjoy.

“How Do I Love Thee”

Jackie rushed inside in her attempt to escape from the ghastly wind. She pulled the door closed behind her, locking out the animalistic wind and rain. It was the worst weather all month, and sane people were shut up inside their apartments watching Oprah marathons. But Jackie couldn’t stay inside. She couldn’t sit on her couch any longer, waiting for that phone call. It wasn’t going to come. That’s what all her friends had told her. He wasn’t going to call. If he had wanted to call, he would have called already. And even if he did call, her friends had told her not to answer. You didn’t get seconds chances after cheating with your ex-girlfriend. That was the rule, they told her; she was better off without him anyway. She deserved better. And still…all morning she had sat on her couch. By her phone. Without even bothering to make coffee.

“Welcome to The Strand,” a young man said to her, interrupting her reverie. Called back to the present, Jackie smiled slightly, walking past the employee in a brisk fashion. She had come to the bookstore to escape people. She wanted to be with the one thing in her life that never cheated, disappointed, or came up short: books. (Though, it must be noted, she had felt cheated by the ending of The Painted Veil.)

In her own world of thought, slowly disappearing to that indescribable realm of oneself, a place un-shadowed by people, problems, and pain, Jackie began to make her usual round among the eighteen miles of books. She walked through the shelves of Homer and Dickens and Bronte. None of her usuals called out to her. Her fingers gently caressed the spines of the books, but none of their silent efforts managed to halt her progress.

She knew not where her feet were taking her, which book her fingers sought. She had an established pattern that she walked every time upon entering the store. She checked on her favorite authors, made sure they were well, looked for new translations of her Russian friends, new illustrated printings of her British ones. But today…today even her fellow American Louisa May Alcott could not attain her attention.

“Can I help you find something, miss?” a woman asked her. Breaking from her absent train of thought, Jackie took a moment to understand what the woman had said to her.

“Are you looking for something specific?” the woman asked. Jackie shook her head.

“No,” she answered, somewhat vacantly. “Just looking.” The woman nodded and left, carrying a group of books stacked a little too high. Jackie watched her go, then looked at the shelf in front of her. Shakespeare. She was farther in her route than she had realized. Tragedies. Wonderful.  She and Ophelia and Juliet could have coffee together. She sighed and looked around.

Later, she wouldn’t be able to say what had caught her eye. It may have been the pull of something new, the desire for something unfamiliar. Maybe it was a mistake, but Jackie looked to her right and saw the poetry shelves. Poetry was not on her map. It wasn’t that she disliked poetry. On the contrary, she found poetry beautiful…when someone could explain it to her. It was one of those things…she knew, or believed, deep truths and unexplainable beauties to be found in the lines of poetry, yet she could not extract these for herself. She had one professor in college who spouted Frost like flowers in May. Once she had tried to read a set of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And once she had gone to a poetry reading with her friend Rebecca. Yet despite her efforts, poetry was all Greek to her.

But this did not explain how Jackie found herself gazing up at a myriad of poetry volumes. She tilted her head sideways to read the names. Some she recognized, Pound, Eliot, and Byron. Many she did not. She pulled out a poetry collection, scanning the names. Irish poets. She could barely name a handful of American poets, what would she do with poets from across the pond? She put the book back and sighed, turning to go. Then again, something caught her gaze, as if the book had whispered some call to stay. Jackie reached out to the shelf in front of her and pulled out an old, paperback book. It was a worn book, the pages yellowed and the spine wrinkled. Many of the pages were bent. It was hardly a copy to be proud of, and yet the book felt warm in her hands, light yet heavy, as if just holding it gave her comfort.

Jackie gingerly turned the book over in her hands. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Jackie opened the book to a random page. “How do I love thee?” she read. “Let me count the ways…” Jackie sighed. Is love the only thing poets had to write about? Seriously. Reminded of the phone call that was not coming, her face fell and she started to close the book. But Fate decided to take yet another hand. Jackie noticed writing at the bottom of the page. Curious, she peered closer. The writing was in pen, an old-fashioned cursive script. Jackie flipped to the front of the book and looked at the publishing date. 1912. Intrigued, she turned back to the poem. The poem was the only writing printed on the page, the bottom half of the page covered in a handwritten message. Jackie squinted, trying to decipher the writing, slanted like her grandfather’s handwriting.

“How do I love thee?” it read. “Let me count the ways…I love your laughter, I love your smile. I love you compassion and your sincerity. I love you like my best friend, my lifelong companion, my one true love. Ms. Barrett made a mistake in this poem. She assumed the ways of love could be counted. If you could count the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore, still you could not count the ways I love you. With eagerness I await to be reunited with my dearest.”

Jackie’s eyes glazed over, the words on the page become fuzzy and illegible. Did people still write like that? Did people still feel like that? No one had ever written anything like that for her. She could feel the love resonating from the page. She gently traced the words with her fingers, as if trying to absorb the deep-seated passion lying within them. Such a precious secret hidden within these pages, she could feel it. A story long forgotten yet still living vibrantly from page to page. Suddenly stricken with a sense of panic that someone might discover the secret she held in this book, Jackie looked around, but no one was near.

With great care, Jackie turned the page. Nothing besides the printed poem. Disappointed, Jackie hurriedly flipped a few more pages and breathed a sigh of relief when she found another poem with a scrawled footnote, this time in a woman’s handwriting. “Indeed this very love which is my boast,” the poem read. Jackie scanned down to the bottom of the page.

“Which is my boast? Not merely that but my pride and joy, my reason for living and for dying. For you are my love and my life and every breath of mine hinges on the promise of your return.” Jackie sighed and leaned against the wall behind her, clutching the book to her chest. Love and hope jumping from the page, refusing to be confined by a book cover.

Lost in the renewal of a love story lost, Jackie flipped the pages of the entire book, thrilled to see glimpses of many handwritten footnotes to the poems. She smiled to herself as she as the words went rushing by. Then her smile turned into a look of curiosity as the book fell open to one of the last pages, a wrinkled piece of paper tucked away next to one of the last poems. There was no writing, only the poem and the sheet of paper. Jackie began to read the poem, sinking to the floor as she did.

Go from me.  Yet I feel that I shall stand

Henceforward in thy shadow.  Nevermore

Alone upon the threshold of my door

Of individual life, I shall command

The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand

Serenely in the sunshine as before,

Without the sense of that which I forbore—

Thy touch upon the palm.  The widest land

Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine

With pulses that beat double.  What I do

And what I dream include thee, as the wine

Must taste of its own grapes.  And when I sue

God for myself, He hears that name of thine,

And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

An intense sadness overcame Jackie as the words of the poem sank in. Never had she understood a poem so vividly. Her eyes darted to the paper hanging loosely from the book. Frightened, for some reason she did not understand, Jackie merely looked at the folded piece of paper. It, like the pages of the book, was faded yellow, wrinkled as if it had been crumpled, unfolded, and crumpled again many times. Holding her breath, Jackie slowly reached for it and gently unfolded it in her fingers.

The first thing Jackie noticed was the smeared ink where tears had stained the paper. They almost felt fresh in her hands, as if they had come from her own cheeks. Hesitantly and with some reluctance, Jackie read the letter. Not all of the words registered in her mind, but some seemed to jump at her. “Died bravely in combat,” she saw. “August 1916.” None of the other words mattered. Jackie quickly refolded the note and placed it beside its poem, closing the book and putting it on the floor next to her. She ran her fingers through her hair, taking a deep breath. What to think? What to feel? She could feel the woman’s sorrow reading the letter that came home in place of her love. She felt the despair and loneliness. What to think? What to do? She felt the love lost as her own, some deep connection with the previous owner of this book.

Jackie gently picked the book up once more and turned to the letter. She held it for a moment, running her fingers over the words. She sighed and folded the paper again. As she did so, she noticed something written on the back of the letter. It was messy, uncoordinated, written out of grief.

“If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” Jackie felt the tears, this time her own, as she closed the book. She sat there for a moment, her thoughts with two young lovers on the brink of World War I. She jumped at the feeling of her cell phone vibrating. Looking around, she quickly wiped away her tears and pulled her phone out of her pocket, looking at the caller ID. The call that wasn’t supposed to come. She took a moment, staring at her cell phone screen. Then she pressed the ignore button and stood up. Taking the book with her, Jackie walked to the check out line.

“Is this all?” the woman behind the cash register asked.

“For now,” Jackie answered. “For now.”

With her precious book tucked away in a yellow Strand bag hidden under her coat, Jackie headed back out into the weather eager for her apartment and a chance to recount an unparalleled love story amidst the pages of a poetry book.

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