He’d read poetry to her. Verses and stanzas he’d cut out from magazines. Second-hand books he’d buy cheap from street vendors and lend to her one at a time, like a magpie guarding its precious treasure. Often, she’d tune out, trying to stifle her yawns and rein in her wandering thoughts, finding it all so incredibly dull. The poetry fan-sites he directed her to, the web page URLs he’d ping – those she would simply ignore without compunction.
He had a way with words; that much she acknowledged. His letters to her would all be long, philosophical, and deep. Her birthday, their anniversary, Diwali, Christmas – his gift to her at every milestone would always be accompanied by yet another one of his love letters. Along with the letter, he’d attach his favourite poem of the day, neatly copied out on thick card paper in his own hand. His letters she’d enjoy, reading them twice or thrice, sliding them out of their envelope and gently pushing them back in again to ensure they wouldn’t grow dog-eared. But the plagiarized poems she refused to look at, preferring to stow them away in the shoebox along with the rest of the growing pile of ‘His’ papers in her closet.
Once he got her a collected edition of Pablo Neruda’s love poems. “These are the words that are beyond me to create. I cannot speak to you of these truths,” he’d written on the first page. She’d rolled her eyes at his melodramatic intensity. Those were all the words she ever read from that book.
Years passed and life blew strong winds in their billowing sails. The two lovers drifted away. When the spaces grew too vast and the silences too meaningless, she thought it best to end it. On this milestone too, she received an envelope in the post. It bore her address in his handwriting. She cried a little then, for all that could have been and all that wasn’t to be between them. But this envelope did not bear a letter. It was only another poem, neatly copied in his hand. When would he learn that she did not like poetry? She put it away, the last addition to her neat bundle of ‘His’ papers.
The next time she opened that shoebox, it was because her son needed a place to store his new toy aeroplane. She remembered the old box in her closet and thought it would be perfect for the purpose. “I’ll empty the old letters into a plastic bag,” she figured, wondering briefly about the time she’d been young and naïve and believed herself deeply in love with a man who’d write to her using words borrowed from long-dead poets.
She couldn’t find the shoebox where she thought she’d kept it. It took a bit of probing but she eventually located it behind a pile of discarded clothes on the top shelf. “Where is he now?” she asked herself, taking care to bring the box down without dropping it. It had been years since she’d heard from, or of, him. Presumably, he was married by now, with kids of his own. She imagined the two of them, his wife and he, sitting around reading poetry to each other, mooning about over words that made little sense in the real, practical world outside.
Inside the shoebox, the first envelope on top was a deep red in colour. ‘Funny,’ she thought, since the rest of them were all brown and ordinary. Six years after she’d received it, she opened his last letter and read it for the first time.
Neat as she remembered him to be, he had copied out Robert Browning’s ‘The Last Ride Together’ for her. Before putting down the title of the poem, however, he’d inscribed a quick note to her: “This,” he wrote, “is how I feel about you. May life take you to all the places you wish to go. For me, this is all there was, and ever will be.”
Then she read the famous poem dedicated to her by her anonymous lover. At the end of the ninth stanza, he had copied: ‘Now, heaven and she are beyond this ride.’ In his intense, meticulous way, he’d underlined the words in this line. Twice.