Short Story – The Opening Line


Let me start off by saying that I’m aware that what I’ve done is absolutely awful. I know that I am an awful person. You may have already heard the voice messages I left you, but I thought I should write you this letter. I thought it might help you understand.

You see, I had waited quite a long time to read this new novel. It was given to me by Jim after a not so subtle request. As you might remember, he was my fiancé at the time. And what can I say? He delivered it perfectly, just like I knew he would. I think you were at that party. You must have been downstairs with the other guests, drinking and having a good time. Throughout the night he had done his best to mislead me, giving me hints that he had gotten me lingerie (he had) and trying to say he had forgotten something about a book or something. And then he took me upstairs, and it was there, wrapped nicely in a box with tissue paper (he had probably paid to get it professionally wrapped). And when I opened it, it was better than I could have expected. Not only had he managed to get the book two weeks before it was supposed to be released (through his contacts), but it was in hardcover and signed by the author!

I honestly didn’t know what to say. Could this be the perfect man? I opened the book wanting to see how it began. I was a sucker for opening lines. “Samantha, never having truly found the one she loved, went to London to see if true love was still possible, or if the energy that had embodied love had passed through her.”

Huh, I thought. At the time I was still too excited to really process it. I kissed Jim hard on the lips and thanked him several times over. A signed hardcover edition!

Later in the evening, as I was drinking my wine, it occurred to me that I might have been disappointed.

I went upstairs to find the book again, on my bed. Jim was already there on the bed, relaxing with a glass of scotch.

“Read me the first line,” I said.

He did.

Coming out of Jim’s mouth, I couldn’t help but think the thing a bit contrived.

“Huh,” I said out loud.

“Do you want me to read on?” He was trying to sound sweet, but it just wasn’t working. Not after that sentence.

“What’s the matter, honey?”

The party was almost over. A few close acquaintances were lingering downstairs. I don’t think you were one of them. I don’t think Jim and I knew you that well back then.

“Nothing, I guess. Don’t you just think that it’s weird the author uses the word ‘love’ so many times in the same sentence?”

He had this confused look on his face. “What?”

“You know, first loved, then love, and love again.”

He read it again. The second time it came out of his mouth it seemed even worse.

He thought about it. “Gosh. I don’t know. Well, from what I understand these are romance novels. I guess you can never have too much ‘love’ in these novels, can you?”

A typical Jim answer: pleasant, somewhat political, almost smart when you look at it from the right perspective.

“Yeah, but the whole sentence seems clunky. Why not just break it up into two sentences? The parenthetical clause is completely unnecessary.”

“Wow, sweetheart, you should be an editor or a writer or something.” The statement should have sounded sweet. But this time, after that line, he just sounded like an ass. “This is the book you wanted, right? I didn’t get you the wrong book, did I?”

“No, you got me the right book.”

“You know, I had to go through quite a few of my contacts to get you the book by your birthday—and signed I might add. I had to get my secretary to track it down. Not exactly something that’s looked well upon in the firm.”

Sometimes, when I think about who got the book, more specifically which secretary, I think that perhaps it might have been you. I know you were a legal research assistant at the time, but you know how clumsy Jim can be with language. “Secretary” could have meant anyone.

Jim, the lawyer. But for someone who was supposed to have such a fine eye for detail, I just couldn’t believe that he couldn’t appreciate what a bad sentence it was.

When the book came out almost two weeks later, I made a trip to the bookstore just to make sure it wasn’t a misprint. Maybe Jim received an advanced review copy by mistake. But no, there it was in several other copies. I didn’t even bother to read on.

As you know, a little over a month later, Jim and I were married. There is not much to say about marriage. You’ve been married now, so you know what it’s like. Somehow, I knew what marriage would be like with Jim before we were even married.

I did sometimes worry about the book, though. I don’t why I did. It’s not like Jim would have cared. But still, these things have a way of bubbling up, even if there is no reason for them to.

Every week or so, I would move the book to another part of the house. Occasionally, if I thought I had put the book in a place Jim would find, I would place a bookmark someplace in the middle. Once, he did ask how I was enjoying the book. By that point, he must have forgotten that I’d had the book for a little over a few months. And I said, not unconvincingly, “I love it. I just needed a little time to get into it.”

And the funny thing is, that turned out to be the truth. Eventually, the paperback came out. I found myself leafing through it one day at a bookstore and decided to buy it. I know it’s strange, but I just didn’t want to look at the signed copy that Jim had given me. There was something about the book. A signed hardcover brought expectations. A paperback copy was different.

As I found out, very different.

I finished it in an afternoon. And it was everything that I had imagined it would be when I had originally asked Jim to get it for me. How foolish I had been. Even the first line seemed forgivable, perhaps even likable when seen in the light of the rest of the novel. It then occurred to me that I had never read any of the author’s books other than in cheap paperback form. I had picked up the first copies of the author’s books from the local used paperback exchange.

Still, I couldn’t bear to look at that hardcover version again. I’ll be quite honest. I don’t know where I put it. I must have blacked that part out. Perhaps I had secretly snuck it into one of Jim’s boxes as he was moving out. I was sure that even if he did find it, he wouldn’t understand. Jim can understand divorce (after all, he’s a lawyer), but he wouldn’t understand about the book. He wouldn’t understand why one line made everything afterward impossible.

So why am I telling you about all this in a letter? Why this long explanation for something that should be so simple? Well, I suppose I needed it to make sense to you. I think Jim understands at a very basic level, too. He was always the one I loved. But I had to marry him to know that marriage was impossible.

“Samantha, never having truly found the one she loved, went to London to see if true love was still possible, or if the energy that had embodied love had passed through her.” What an awful, ugly sentence. To understand how truly ugly it is you really do have to marry it. You have to have it presented to you signed in hardcover. But love doesn’t always happen in such elegant terms. Sometimes love is just as dirty as that first line. I hope you can understand that.

But you won’t. You’ll blame me for stealing your partner in life, my ex-husband, now boyfriend. To you, he must have seemed flawless.

I’m sure if I could see you through Jim’s eyes, you would be just like that book was to me when I first received it on my birthday. Perfect in every way. So why did he run off with me? Why after all the shit I put him through, and now the shit I’m putting you through, did he run away with me? Because sometimes you don’t want something perfect. You want something clunky, overused, and dirty like some paperback. Something overwritten and wrong like that goddamn sentence.

And who knows, maybe, when he needs something perfect in his life again, you two will get back together. Until then, I hope you can try to understand just a little, even if you can’t forgive. As for Jim’s stuff, I’ll let you know when we settle down somewhere. I know that will be hard, but please do try to be kind. And please, please, if you find that hardcover book, don’t send it here. You can do whatever you like with it, but please just don’t send it.

With Best Wishes,
Beth Taylor

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