It had been more than a month and still she was unable to enter her subject’s psyche in the way she wanted. It wasn’t that her object of interest was aloof, impenetrable, a stranger. On the contrary, she knew him intimately, far better than the others. But this time was different. This time, she would be the one who was hurt.
She did what she did after every first draft. She let the manuscript sit and percolate. It was her practice to putter around the house and work in her garden, mulling over details she may have missed, pondering ways to make the story sharper, more alive.
Her musings were not random. Each subject of every biography she’d written had chronicled their own illustrious lives long before she focused her formidable reporting skills on their deeds and misdeeds. She pushed their lives to new heights with her finely honed story-telling skills.
Over the years, she had devised a formula that served her well. After the first draft was complete, all she had to do was close her eyes and imagine her subject saying, “In this memoir, I’m telling the truth no matter who it hurts.” It worked. Ideas blossomed in her mind as prolific as the perennials in her garden. Her finished work won awards and topped best seller lists. She was well respected.
A few days of this and she would return to her sunlit office on the third floor, mind brimming. She would begin by smiling at the stacks of no longer needed research lined up in neat piles under the short wall opposite the bay window. She would settle in at her desk, first running her hand across the dark wood as one might stroke a lover. Then she moved the picture of her husband and daughter to the far right side and pulled the slim chain on the glass lamp. Finally, she would gaze out the window into the pine forest and let the ideas that had germinated in her brain sprout onto the paper. The finished arrangement came effortlessly. How she loved this phase of the work! The artistic phase, she called it. The tedious, factual analysis complete, she claimed her reward. It was time to make the piece sing.
But this biography was different. This time her ritual did not work. She could not count the times she had closed her eyes and repeated that tried and true mantra. How silly it now seemed. Yet she kept on, saying it again and again: This time I’m telling the truth, no matter who it hurts. Nothing happened.
She tried other tricks. She dredged up old writing exercises. She meditated. She scribbled in colored ink. She wrote with her non-dominant hand. All of them failed her, every technique she had used over the years to start the creative flow.
Clearly he meant for her to find the letter, leaving it on her desk like that, floating like white debris in mahogany wine. The woman’s name was Amanda. She had reflected on the Latin meaning of the name: Beloved. The woman referred to herself as Mandy. It was a nickname, what he called her. She pondered. Had he ever cherished her with a pet name? No. He had not. Never.
She picked up the note and forced herself to read how they had met here in Washington. The woman, this Mandy, had joined him in France. She thought back to that European assignment. It had been the first time she did not accompany him. Yes, it was he who first suggested she remain stateside but she had agreed, had she not? It made sense. They decided it would be unfair to expect their daughter to leave her friends, spend her last year of high school abroad.
She read on. Mandy purchased a chandelier— the one they liked at the Paris flea market. She will have it hung in the dining room of their apartment. The apartment is not the same without him. Paris is not the same without him. Mandy misses him. No, she longs for him. Has he told his wife? He promised. He said he would tell her as soon as his daughter graduated from college. Mandy has been waiting five years. Mandy this. Mandy that. Mandy, Mandy, Mandy.
She called him to her office. She confronted him. She was surprised how calm he was, how matter-of-fact. He informed her that Mandy, Amanda rather, was twenty years his junior, his protégé in the diplomatic corps. He had not meant for it to happen. He was sorry. Surely she understood.
She did not understand. Make no doubt about it. She would write about his cursed little fling and expose him. She would ruin his career. Was that what he wanted? When he came to his senses, and of course he would, sooner or later, was that what he wanted?
He rocked back and forth on his heels, hands in pockets, biting his lower lip as he always did when thinking. He nodded. He agreed to write to Amanda. Tomorrow. Perhaps he would do it tomorrow. He turned to go. No, no, no. Tomorrow would not do. Now. He must do it now and she must dictate. Tears streamed down his face and she cautioned him not to wet the paper. He did not want to smear the ink, did he?
He told her that Mandy, Amanda rather, would see through it. Amanda would never believe that he wrote these words. Amanda would know she was holding a gun to his head. Dear Miss Goodman, It is over. I remain committed to my wife. Please do not contact me. Sincerely.
She looked over his shoulder as he signed his name. There, there, now. It was all done. Didn’t that feel better? She handed him the envelope and watched him address it in silence. Then he stood and she stepped back. He picked up the letter with both hands, gently, and faced her before moving away towards the staircase. He put it behind his back. Was he still crying? She could not be sure. She lunged, reached around, and grabbed the paper. She tore it, but only a bit, near the corner. No harm done. She left him sitting at her desk, palms down, mouth open. She took his car, drove it to the post office, sent it by registered mail, return receipt.
She came into the kitchen and called his name. He did not answer. She made tea and whistled as she climbed to her office. She smiled at the top of the steps when she saw him, still at her desk. His head rested on his forearm. His beautiful long fingers, the nails perfectly manicured as always, were wrapped around the Mont Blanc pen. How sweet. It must be the one she had given him. His expression—rather peaceful, so like a little boy—charmed her. This is how he looked at the beginning when he fell asleep while studying. She set the tray on the landing and tiptoed closer. Was he writing another letter? She was confused. Beloved, it began. She remembers how closely his dark blood blended with the mahogany of her desk. At long last the words came and she finished the biography.