I had to find this Jed Skinner, a love-letter-writer, a man of few words, my wife’s first flame. I had time to find this Jed Skinner, fired from my life’s work, told my wife it was job performance, better than the truth. I had some truth balled up in my hand, this Jed Skinner’s letter, found it in my wife’s secret box as she lay dying again from cancer — this time even I thought she’d go. I had to wait for her to sit up to unfold this Jed Skinner’s letter, to ask her, What does this mean? I had a flashback to the morning, almost seven years ago, when I first saw my wife along the tour route, cheering the cyclists. I had to catch my breath when she winked as I passed, looking just like Kate Moss (which should have been a clue that she was already sick), smiling then, the same smile as she did against her pillow at this Jed Skinner’s letter, written on a scrap of notebook paper: Colleen — she read his words out loud — It’s been real, in Math.
I had to keep calm when I asked why she’d never mentioned this time in her life — so full of authenticity — whether this Jed Skinner was true love, a maniac in bed, died in a war. I had to fluff her pillow as she sighed: What war? We were nine. No one has ever been crazier than you.
I had to give her a back rub, a handful of pills, had to ask her how long she’d known him. We moved the summer after he wrote it. I had to leave when she traced a heart in the sheet beside her and rolled over on top of it to sleep. I had to google this Jed Skinner while my wife wandered in the land of Nod, no doubt dreaming of Jed Skinner’s austere sweet-talk, most likely a looker, a better man than I.
I had to pay $59.95 for his last known address, had to think hard to remember the last time something was real, not the girl in internal audit, not her sass, perhaps the meat on her ass was the real thing when I grabbed it. I had to cover my mouth when the partners in my life’s work showed me the door, saying it might have been okay, had it not been for my wife, who might die any day — it was just bad form.
I had Jed Skinner’s address and a satellite photo of his house on three acres. I had to wait three more weeks for the day when she might die. I had to pull my bike from storage, find my helmet and cleats, pump the tires, pack a bag for my trip. I had to cover one hundred miles the first day, pad my shorts with a towel, slather Vaseline on my balls, replace a tube, sleep with a family of field mice, wake up before dawn.
I had forty miles of climbing and coasting, planning what I’d say to this Jed Skinner, maybe — Jed Skinner, it’s me, Colleen Harper’s husband. When you knew her she was Colleen Leuchtenmueller, only nine, plump and healthy — then five miles, then three turns and at the end of a cul-de-sac stood this Jed Skinner’s home, as Spartan as his speech, his door, a heavy knocker. I had to let it drop.
I had a brain freeze when he answered, a vision of everything I was not — beefy and self-assured. I had, I was wondering — I handed him his letter — what did you mean when you wrote, “It’s been real?” I had to laugh when he only said that he was sorry. I had to sit down on his doorstep and howl at the boy who’d grown into a man of fewer words, had to look up to see the woman who joined Jed Skinner at his door, a plainer version of my Colleen.
I had to touch her — that morning she winked when I cycled past — had to have her, had to take her home, had to take in everything she’d ever known, and then, I had to let her go.