It came in the mail, a small package, no return address, the handwriting unfamiliar. He smiled to himself. Probably advertising, somebody trying extra hard to sell him something, it looked to be about the size of a CD. A waste of time most likely, but one never knew. He tore it open.

It was a CD, but there was no advertising on it. Instead, on a homemade label, was scrawled a letter.

“This isn’t by way of apology exactly,” it said, “because I doubt that’s possible. If you have any sense at all, you’ve forgotten about me and moved on, and I hope that’s true and this finds you happy or at least content. This is really by way of vindication, for you rather than for me. It’s probably long past time I told you the truth. Clara Seiler.”

Clara Seiler. He put the CD down and went to the kitchen, rummaging in the refrigerator for a beer. He cracked it open and took a long, long swallow but he didn’t go back into the living room.

Clara Seiler. He had no pictures of her, but he didn’t need them. Her face was as vivid to him now as it was when he saw her every day, fifteen years ago. He remembered her laugh, her look of concentration when she lined up a cue ball, the way she sucked on the ends of her pens, turning them around and around in her mouth.

The way she looked when he was inside her.

She was beautiful, but she was regal, too, even at nineteen. No giggly, demanding little princess but a queen or maybe an empress. She’d been poor, some of the girls he knew snickered about her clothes, but he’d never cared. Somehow, she made everything she wore look just right no matter how old or cheap it was. Part of it was that she was beautiful. She could make sackcloth and ashes attractive and once had for Halloween. She’d shown up in an undefined garment made from something rough, her face and hair smudged with gray, and red marks all over her skin.

“What on earth are you?” he’d asked, amused. Every other girl had shown up in something stunning.

“I’m Job,” she said, eyes sparkling.

“I thought Job was a guy.”

“You’re not supposed to be able to tell the difference when I’m in this.”

She would have had to do a lot more than that to hide what she was. Even dressed like Job, she was gorgeous, unmistakably female under her hacked-together, homemade shift and ratty hair, none of which could hide the fine cheekbones, soft mouth, blue eyes.

The beer was gone. That had taken no time at all. He fished another one out of the refrigerator and went back into the living room, turned the CD over in his hand, took a second look at the envelope. She had left no return address, no phone number, not even an e-mail address.

She had also left no clue as to the content, so he took it to the computer to check. An audio file, only one, about four minutes. Probably a song. He chuckled at the possibilities, most of which revolved around men being bastards. Should he even bother listening to it?

Why not? After fifteen years, what could it possibly hurt?

He clicked on it, his audio player came up, and he heard the soft strains of violins.

Dido, White Flag.

Oh no! Oh God no! His head dropped into his hands as the bassline kicked in, he dug his fingers into the corners of his eyes, trying to stop the tears. Not this. He could have handled anything but this.


It had gone wrong so quickly and so badly.

She had been seeing someone when he met her and he’d made the mistake of trying to break them up, a move that had earned him a heavy measure of ridicule. That relationship hadn’t lasted long, but by the time it ended, he had made a complete fool of himself and he still wanted her too much.

Mistake number two: do not push an empress.

He had also, somewhat later, made the mistake of trying to make her jealous. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Empresses don’t get jealous, they get even and not by stooping so low as to sleep around themselves. Instead she laughed at him, not a mean laugh but genuine amusement.

Well, in a way it was funny. The idea that anyone could prefer a simpering little idiot to Clara was absurd, but that was what made her laughter hurt so much. She had seen right through him, she always could.

Then again, he’d been only nineteen.

He used to watch her at parties. Guys who normally tried to nail everything that moved behaved like perfect gentlemen around her and more than once he’d seen a guy who was on the shy side get bombed and confess undying love to her. She never laughed at them, she just sat with them and held their hands until the storm passed.

That was why he could never walk away from her, no matter how hard he tried. It wasn’t just love at first sight, it was at second and third and forth, too. She was a funny mix of wisdom and naivete, a blisteringly intelligent girl who was forever forgetting her keys, an affectionate creature with a wicked sense of humor. Even when she was being an idiot, he loved her; even though she made him look like a fool, he still adored her.

He could never say no to her. If she was in his room, and it was almost always his room and not hers, they were going to end up in bed. Sex with Clara never took long, maybe ten minutes on the outside, but that was because they always went straight for each other. The second his lips touched hers, his hands were down her pants and hers down his, and the second they were naked, he was inside her. In retrospect, he realized that he’d probably missed something good. She had made him come in his jeans, her touch was that sweet and sure. But no, they’d always gone straight for fucking, ten minutes of heaven until she got up, got dressed, and left.

They both played pool so they both spent the hour after lunch in the game room. She often refused to play him, choosing instead to sit out a game and watch, that small, amused smile playing over her lips. “You’re not so hot,” it seemed to say, even though he was one of the best players there and they both knew it. He was definitely better than she was. She was just learning that year and she had a bad habit of twisting her wrist as she shot, which meant that the cue almost always hit wrong no matter how carefully she aimed. Once he stood behind her and held her hand, helping her feel what was supposed to happen so she could fix the problem.

“Thanks,” she said.

“You’re welcome.” It had taken every ounce of will he possessed not to kiss her.

One night at a party, she brushed crumbs from his lapel, which his date had not bothered to do, and smiled at him as though they were in on a secret together. A certain shirt fell open in front when she bent over the pool table, and when she caught him looking, a hint of a grin played over her lips. She had a broken tooth in her lower jaw that she had never had repaired, and his tongue used to linger on it when they kissed.

The music ended and he prodded the start button again.

At the time, he’d felt like a mouse in the paws of a particularly playful cat. She had a few brief but steady boyfriends, and in between them she would sleep with him, just ending up in his room somehow, and he always found himself reaching for her no matter what he said to himself when she came in. When she dressed to leave, his stomach would curl into a leaden ball even as he kissed her goodbye. He always knew it was only a matter of time before she stayed with someone else.

She’d loved him. Clara had loved him.

He’d thought of her as La Belle Dame sans Merci, but what if she had just been a nineteen-year-old girl? What if she hadn’t known any more about men than he had known about women?

Fifteen years ago on a cold winter night, well, the beginning of winter, not quite there yet, but the leaves had fallen, the trees were just waiting for snow and he’d been making out with Clara in her room. She would kiss him, touch him, but she wouldn’t sleep with him. It wasn’t that she left him unsatisfied, only that she wouldn’t let him in, and one night he decided to change that.

It should have been so good, his first night with the girl he loved, but it wasn’t, it was awful. She hadn’t said no, hadn’t tried to stop him, but when it was over, her eyes, God! It made him cringe even now to remember it, the resignation, not even anger, just a soft, terrible melancholy. He couldn’t comfort her, couldn’t stay, he left, tail between his legs, walked the quarter of a mile to his own dorm in the icy night.

There was a word for what he’d done, but he could never say it to himself.

Worse was seeing her the next afternoon in the game room, perfectly composed, as if nothing or less than nothing, had happened between them the night before. She turned down a game with him; “No,” she said, laughing, “I don’t see the point.” Everyone else assumed it was because he could win blindfolded, but he knew better. He wanted to shake her, wanted to hit her, wanted to get down on his knees and grovel; instead he played the next game and lost because he couldn’t concentrate, but he didn’t dare take the stool next to her, put his arm around her, because she wasn’t his.

He lifted his head, watched the counter run itself out through a blur of tears. Where was she now? Was she happy?

He knew what she was doing. After his divorce, he looked her up on the web, figuring that if anyone he went to school with would show up there, it would be Clara. Okay, except Torrie O’Donovan, who posed for Playboy in her junior year, but that didn’t count. Clara would have actually accomplished something, and it hadn’t taken long to find out what.

Clara was doing multi-media for a firm that had an impressive list of clients. She was a department head, listed with a brief bio, and he pulled the page up again and ran his fingers over the screen, smiling with pride. That was his Clara. She was good, really good, not a wannabe but the real thing.

No personal information, though, just her office phone and e-mail. He’d looked up her home number, but had chickened out. Should he try again?

Maybe not. She had given him no contact information after all, just sent him the CD. She just wanted him to know, she said, she hoped he was happy.

What exactly did she want him to know? He went back to the audio player and hit the button, let the song start over again.

She was still an empress. There was nothing in the song that asked, not even for forgiveness, it was just a raw statement of fact, “I’m in love, and always will be.” She hadn’t just loved him then, she still did, she still thought of him in spite of everything.

He listened. She blamed herself. Why? At the time, he had blamed a great deal on her, but he was rapidly changing his mind. He’d gone after her with a single-minded intensity but at the same time, he’d never asked her out, never bought her flowers or anything else for that matter, not because he didn’t want to but because he was afraid that if he did, she’d mock him for it. He always thought he was transparent to her, but what if he hadn’t been? What if she had simply taken him at face value? God knew he wasn’t the only one after her ass. How was she supposed to know it was anything different?

She had forgiven him, she must have, because a few weeks later she came to his room with some friends and stayed after they left. He was hard before he touched her and when she kissed him, he thought he’d burst out of his jeans, even out of his own skin. Every nerve came alive for her, she was incandescent, a raw flame in his arms, the most beautiful creature he’d ever known. Under his hands, her skin was soft, so soft, there was nothing to compare it to, and he just wanted to feel it against his body, her belly pressed to his, the sweet curve of her breasts against his chest. He laid her down on his bed and she wrapped her legs around him, her face flushed, panting into his kiss.

He hadn’t wasted a second getting inside her but at the time he thought it took ages, and when he was finally there, he lost his mind, became oblivious to everything else, the ceiling could have fallen in on them and he wouldn’t have noticed. His world was down to his cock in Clara and it wasn’t that he forgot her, it was that he forgot that she was someone separate from him. Each thrust blazed through his groin, each cry scorched his ears, her hands on his back and his ass left embers in their wake. Orgasm when it came was blinding, so hard it almost hurt, leaving him gasping, helpless, his heart pounding in his throat.

And then she got up and put her clothes back on, and it was like a kick in the nuts. Revenge, he’d thought, this was her way of getting back at him, she knew how weak she made him and was punishing him with it.

She’d loved him. In spite of what he’d done to her, she still loved him.

She was so proud. Unlike a lot of the girls he’d gone to college with, Clara Seiler hadn’t been after her Mrs., as they used to say. She wasn’t going to marry her way out of her poverty, she was going to work her way out and she’d been a bit of a grind, paying more attention to her professors than to the baby doctors, lawyers and bankers in her classes.

It must have been a nightmare for her.

He saw the pattern of their sex in a new light: had she tried to forget him and failed? He had done exactly that, dating other women out of mix of desperation and revenge while taking whatever he could get from her. He had never stopped her when she dressed to go, so perhaps she never thought he wanted her to stay. She’d been so cool to him in public, but what had he expected? Clara was militantly independent, she would never have shown such a weakness, she would have died first, they were so much alike. They were both proud, he’d been so insecure—had she been, too, after all?—and in the end, hurting each other had become a habit neither had been able to break. He had loved her and hated himself for it. She had loved him, too, and probably hated herself for it as well.

She sent the CD. Granted, she hadn’t sent a return address, but she’d sent the CD.

Why? Or perhaps more importantly, why now?

Maybe she was in AA and had to make restitution to those she’d hurt.

Please! Clara was never inclined toward alcoholism and anyway it was that kind of thinking that had kept them apart. No, more likely something else had happened. He remembered his divorce, how it had hit him one day that he missed Clara far more than his wife, that he’d never been able to replace her, the sickening realization that maybe he never would. The problem was that she’d never given him an inch, no chance to explain, no reason to believe.

No, she had; another awful night when he and a friend had been trying to drink each other under the table. He’d won but narrowly, and Clara found him meandering in the general direction of the dorms at two in the morning. She held his head as he threw up in the bushes, helped him home and put him to bed, washing his face with a cloth run under the drinking fountain in the hall and sitting with him as he passed out. He had a single that year and in the morning he found her curled up fully dressed on the extra bed, her head pillowed on her arm. He covered her with his blanket and sat beside her, stroking her hair, but she didn’t wake up and he didn’t really want her to. He wanted to pretend, just for a while, that she was his, that she was there out of love not out of pity, that if he crawled in with her, the hangover might not be so bad. Instead, he went to breakfast, still drunk, and she was gone when he got back, leaving nothing behind, not even a note.

He scrubbed at his face with the heel of his hand, even as more tears crept out of the corners of his eyes. He’d made a lot of mistakes over the years, but this was the one he regretted most. He would have married her and he was sure then that if he had, he wouldn’t be divorced now.

Did Clara have children? She must. He wasn’t sure who he envied more, them or their father.

Should he call her? Was he right in guessing that they were so alike?

What if he was wrong?

He’d always made a fool of himself over her; perhaps the mistake was giving a damn.

He closed his eyes, listened, he found that what he regretted most was that he’d never had a morning with her, a long, lazy one. A lot of things might have been different if he’d held on a bit tighter, kissed her in sunlight. He had never felt her wake beside him, smelling of unwashed woman and last night’s sex. Clara had a lovely body that he had never explored thoroughly enough. Now that he thought about it, he had never seen her come, a crime considering what she had done to him. Poor Clara, it was amazing she remembered him kindly at all.

Perhaps Tori Amos would have been more appropriate.

He glanced at the clock. Almost seven. The song had wound its way down and in the absence of it, he was having doubts. In college, she’d had her pick of men, she wouldn’t have had any trouble finding someone better. Hell, finding someone kinder would have been a cinch; it would have been hard not to. Nobody in his right mind would divorce Clara Seiler. He was jumping to conclusions. If she’d wanted to hear from him, she would have left him something, an address, a phone number, e-mail, anything.

He clicked the play button once more.

No. No, it was exactly this train of thought that had cost him Clara when he was young, and he was getting off it right now. He wasn’t nineteen anymore, he had no excuse. He pulled up a browser window and an online phone directory. Was she still listed? Yes. She was. He picked up the phone and tapped it against his front teeth, just listening.

Without giving himself time to think about it, he dialed.

© 2004 Ann Regentin. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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