“This session of Writers Anonymous will come to order,” Shakespeare said. “This group exists for writers who are in transition from one thing to another thing. There is no judgment here. There is grace, in all its myriad of forms. Tonight we welcome a new member, who will now stand and introduce himself, but before you do you should know that each of us goes by a new name, a name we weren’t born with. So stand and name yourself.”
Robert felt twelve sets of eyes staring at him. He rubbed his hands together and stood up. A dizzying cacophony of words and phrases shot through his mind. Everyone waited patiently as the seconds ticked by, seemingly content to wait hours for him if need be. One moment a cesspool of imaginative mumblings and bits of thoughts. The next moment an answer was there. “I name myself Troubadour.”
“Troubadour, welcome, you may be seated,” Shakespeare said and continued. “Bright Iris, I believe it’s your turn to speak.”
The woman called Emily looked down at her hands and shook her head. “I don’t think I can. N-not with the way things are. He doesn’t—He won’t listen.”
“We can move forward or we can move backward, you know that,” Shakespeare pleaded with her. “This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.”
Bright Iris took a deep breath, sat up straighter, and smoothed out her long maroon skirt that went down to her ankles. She wore a white sweater. Robert could scarcely believe it was the same woman, but it was. Those piercing brown eyes, the jaw, and the curves of her cheek. Robert tried to keep an open mind, but it was difficult.
“Hello, my name is Bright Iris and I’m a writer,” she began.
“Hello Bright Iris,” the room responded with a concert quality echo.
“In my old life, my name was Emily and I wrote mostly letters. I lived here in New Orleans. I wrote to family. I wrote to friends. When I was younger, I wrote love notes and grocery lists. I even had a journal and collected my daydreams. When I got older, I fell in love with my childhood best friend. His name was Robert. He was a gentleman and kept his feelings from me for a long time, but I knew. He traveled for his father, doing odd jobs, lots of day labor, and he would write to me. He saved every penny he earned. He hated cars so he traveled by train most of the time. He said trains were social animals, that you could spontaneously talk to someone and learn their life story, their hopes and dreams. You could start off talking to a stranger about where they were from and find out they ran a hardware store or were the distant cousin of President Roosevelt or loved to write poetry. One day he wrote me a letter and poured out his heart and told where to find a diamond ring so he could use it to propose to me. For some reason, he didn’t take the train, but got in a car with a complete stranger. There was an accident and … and he died. I cried for days. My family thought I was sick and I suppose I was. This was the man who had read me sonnets, who made me feel beautiful, and who I thought I would marry.”
She paused for a moment and wiped her eyes. The tender atmosphere of compassion that filled the room took Robert by surprise. He was uneasy and fidgeted with his hands, tapping his fingers together, wanting desperately to be somewhere else. There was something in the way she spoke, the cadence of her words, that made Robert think she should’ve been a lot older, that maybe she belonged to a different time.
“I kept writing letters to him,” she continued. “I wrote letters to a dead man and I didn’t tell a soul. Not to my family, not to m-my future husband. That doesn’t make me evil does it? Love and death were supposed to be these separate things, but in my mind they became one thing. I thought I was keeping him alive in those letters. I thought when I died we’d be reunited and we’d create a new life that we never … Love changes you, I know that now. It doesn’t change the other person, it changes you.”
Shifting his weight from one side of his body to the other, Robert crossed his legs, growing more uncomfortable by the pleading, diminished look in Emily’s eyes. He considered the discomfort that was deepening in the pit of his stomach and knew it existed on two existential levels. The first idea being that if Emily (Catherine?) was telling the truth about who she was, there was the very real possibility that he was watching a ghost. The second idea was that if she was lying and pretending, there was the very real possibility that this entire group was a fraud, a hallucination, or damnation. Either way, it didn’t sit well with him. It seemed as if his whole being was cut open and exposed to many prying eyes, so he looked at the floor. He was determined not to lock eyes with Emily, but he was pulled toward her by unseen forces. Robert took away the image of Catherine and threw it into a mental garbage can away from everything he thought he knew. Slowly, he matched Emily’s eyes. Slowly, he felt … something.
Both of Emily’s shining brown eyes were hungrily watching him, sad eyes studying him with a mixture of hope and desire.
“Ah,” Robert smiled, matching her intense stare. “I’m … sorry?”
“You know me,” she insisted. “You do.”
Robert looked around the room. “No, really, all I did was find a letter in a book, that’s all I did. Some chick poisoned my drink and now I’m in Weirdsville.”
“You are not responsible for my life, Robert,” she rambled on. “I know you feel guilty about leaving me, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to torment yourself. I don’t want to be this beast you’ve created in your mind. Robert, I love you.”
“Wha—Wait,” Robert stood up emphatically. “I’m not your Robert. I’m not dead. I‘m not a ghost.”
A chorus of soft laughter went around the room. Murmurs, too.
“Yes,” Emily answered stoically. “You are. We all are.”
Links to earlier parts of the novel can be found here