Dear Mrs. Stover
The first message was lost in a sea of other back-to-school messages that had flooded Laurie’s in-box late last August. She went back looking for it recently and was surprised to see how ordinary it was. She had expected a spark, a clue, a subtle hint of romance or flirtation.
Dear Mrs. Stover,
Thank you for the enlightening message regarding your son, Cameron. I appreciate the time and effort required to tell me more about his interests and personality. I look forward to meeting him on the first day of school. Third grade is a big and important year for learning at White Pine Elementary, but we’ll have plenty of fun, too. I hope to meet you and Mr. Stover at
Back-to-School Night, which is on September 14th at 7 o’clock, Room Six. Thank you again.
Sincerely, Mark Davis
Bland and nondescript, probably the same email he sent to all the parents, simply changing the names each time. She then checked her sent mail folder to see if she’d responded. Who could remember at this point?
Dear Mr. Davis,
Please feel free to call me Laurie, as the only Mrs. Stover in my life is my mother-in-law. After fourteen years of marriage, I still don’t think of myself as Mrs. Stover. I don’t think I ever will. I ask all of Cam’s friends to call me Laurie. So please feel free to do the same. I look forward to meeting you as well.
It made her cringe. What kind of person wrote such things to her child’s teacher, whom that person hadn’t even met yet? A pathetic one, that’s what kind. Still, he’d responded two days later.
Dear Mrs. Stover,
Thank you for your message. It’s been my policy since I became a teacher 21 years ago to address all parents this way. I know it’s formal, but if it makes you feel better, I know your mother-in-law and there are worse individuals to share a name with.
Then he’d added a smiley face, followed by Sincerely, Mark Davis.
Immediately she’d gone to the school’s website and looked him up. Light brown hair, hard to tell his eye color from the photo, which looked like it was from last year’s yearbook, and a wide smile that seemed easy and genuine.
“Pathetic,” Laurie whispered now, into her knees, though she wasn’t sure if she was referring to herself or Mr. Davis. “Both,” she whispered, again into her knees. She was sitting on the cold sand of Colony Beach on an old bath towel she’d found in the trunk of her car. It was warm for May in Kennebunkport, but windy by the water, and she’d left home without her parka and was shivering in her sweatshirt.
She hadn’t told Douglas she was leaving. She hadn’t known where she was going at first.
She certainly had no idea what she was doing. She just needed to leave the house. She needed to leave Ellsworth, too. Once she’d been on the turnpike a few miles, she knew her destination.
This beach was her favorite in Kennebunkport, maybe all of Maine, always quiet and less crowded than the others. She’d come here nearly every summer as a kid, because her mother’s sister had a house on Haverhill Street. She and her cousins would ride bikes to the beach, when she was even younger than Cam, and spend all day swimming, squatting in tide pools looking for sea life, reading on their towels and then riding up Ocean Avenue to get an ice cream from Uncle Jed’s General Store before heading home.
Douglas would sigh if he knew she was here, deeply and in a way that conveyed his utter lack of surprise to be disappointed by her again. She squeezed her eyes tightly now, trying not to see his face in her mind. She saw Cam’s for a moment, and felt a quick twist of guilt, but he had a ride to soccer, and hopefully he’d get a ride home. They’d have to figure it out without her this time.
“Good luck,” she whispered.
Dear Mr. Davis,
It seems I’ve been chosen as your classroom parent this year. I was asked by the Home and School ladies to get in touch and see how I can be helpful. I’ve never done this before, so please bear with me as I figure it out. Is it too early to begin planning the third grade Halloween party? Also, it was a pleasure meeting you on Back-to-School Night. Normally these things are overwhelming or boring, but your presentation was funny, interesting and (best of all) not too long. Cam is already enjoying having you as a teacher.
She’d started signing her emails with her full name, as a nod to his preference for formality. She’d also started asking Cam more questions about his time in the classroom. She’d discovered that Mr. Davis shook hands with each student as they arrived in the mornings, and high-fived each student when the day was over.
“We have to make eye contact with him, because he says that’s good eck-a-tick.” “Etiquette,” she corrected. “And it is.”
Mr. Davis also wore a tie and a blazer every day, unlike the other male teachers at school, who seemed to dress more like football coaches. Mr. Davis had elbow patches on at least one of his blazers, which Laurie had noticed on Back-to-School Night. She found it both cliché and captivating, which embarrassed her. Her cheeks were flushed as she sat at Cam’s desk amongst the other parents. Back at home, Douglas had asked her if she was feeling unwell.
“You have no idea,” she muttered now, into her knees, on the beach. “Excuse me.”
Laurie looked up and saw a woman, older than her but not as old as her mother-in-law, standing nearby. She was in a white baseball cap with dark curly hair stuffed through the opening at the back of it, and an oversized zip-front hoodie that said Bowdoin across the front in block letters. Around her neck on a black strap was a camera, a nice one, a real one, which reminded Laurie of the kind she had, on a shelf in some closet at home.
“Excuse me,” the woman said again, “I’m sorry to bother you, but—do you know how to work this?” She gestured to the camera. “My daughter is about to get engaged out there, and the photographer my son-in-law hired couldn’t make it at the last minute so he asked me to take the pictures. I changed my clothes and put on this getup”—she gestured in a wide circle to her hat and sweatshirt—“but I’m almost sure my daughter’s recognized me and I really don’t want to ruin this for her.”
It took Laurie a moment to process the details, but eventually she made out a pair of silhouettes on the jetty wall, which separated the beach from the Kennebunk River. They were nearly at the end, and the sun was already starting its downward slide and oh, what a lovely spot for a proposal. Her eyes stung and she felt fiercely envious of this woman’s daughter, starting from scratch, a beautiful clean slate, filled with love and expectation and the completely delusional belief that her happy ever after was guaranteed.
“So can you? I’m sorry, I hate asking, but I think he’s going to do it any second and I’ll be on the shitlist if I miss it.”
Laurie unwrapped her arms from her knees and got herself to standing. The woman had taken the camera off her neck and was shifting from one foot to the other, glancing at the jetty and then back to Laurie.
“I used to walk out there all the time when I was young,” Laurie told her, “but I don’t know how I feel about doing it with your expensive camera. While trying to be inconspicuous. I’m not even sure I know how to work that thing.”
“Do you have a camera phone? I don’t care if you take the photos with that. I’ll give you my number. You can text them to me.” The woman’s eyes were full of anguish, Laurie could see, even with the baseball hat’s brim casting shadows across her face.
Laurie reached into the kangaroo pocket of her sweatshirt and found her phone, which she’d turned off as soon as she’d made it out of Ellsworth. She pressed the power button and looked out at the end of the jetty. A few young kids with buckets were making their way toward the couple, which would surely throw at least a momentary wrench into the lovers’ plans.
“Yeah, I can do it,” Laurie said, just as her phone buzzed. She glanced down. A dozen text notifications. The most recent one was from Douglas: “Where ARE you, Laurie? I got a call from Cam’s soccer coach to come pick him up, because he was just sitting at the field alone.
WHERE DID YOU GO? Are you even ALIVE?”
Dear Mrs. Stover,
Thank you again for planning a delightful Halloween party for the class. The students had a wonderful time—the mystery boxes were a big hit, especially the spaghetti “brains” and peeled tomato “heart.” You clearly put considerable time and effort into planning and it means a lot not just to the students, but to me as well. Thank you again. I am sure we will see each other soon. I look forward to it.
Sincerely, Mark Davis
Dear Mr. Davis,
Knowing that I—a 37-year-old mother—grossed out an entire classroom of nine-year-olds is something I will treasure forever, and perhaps even add to my resume. It was my pleasure to handle the party. I’m already starting to think about what to do for the holidays. It will take some real magic to top the “brains.” I look forward to seeing you again soon as well.
After a few harried instructions from the nervous mother, whose name Laurie still didn’t know—she’d added her to her phone contacts as “Proposal Mom”—Laurie climbed onto the jetty and began her walk out to the end. She was in her sneakers and wished she’d thought to take them off. She’d only ever navigated these rocks in her bare feet, and that had been a couple decades ago. But there was no time to stop. The couple was sitting way out on the jetty now, facing the sun and a sky full of cottony cloud wisps stretching up from the horizon. It was nearly golden hour, a term Laurie had learned from the photographer who’d taken pictures of her and Douglas and Cam six years ago, when life had been different.
Those photos still hung in the hallway at the top of the stairs. Three different poses on the rocks at Little Hunters Beach in Acadia. In what had been her favorite, she and Douglas were standing close and gazing at each other, big smiles about to crack into laughter, while little Cam was in her arms and twisting around to look up at his parents. One of his chubby starfish hands was on Laurie’s cheek. She passed it on the wall about 67 times a day and couldn’t bring herself to look at it.
A schooner was approaching the inlet at a good clip. Laurie stopped to watch it navigate the jetty and make its way down the river toward the docks. She noticed the couple watching it too, as well as the kids with their buckets. It glided by with ease and confidence. The folks on the decks were laughing and oblivious to their audience.
The farther out she went, the less smooth the rocks were and Laurie decided this was actually a terrible place for an engagement. What if the proposal went off as planned, but the bride-to-be, in all her excitement, slipped and cracked her head on her way back inland? Or fell into the water and couldn’t swim? Or got hit by a schooner?
“Idiots,” she muttered, focusing on her sneakers and trying to find dry spots to step on.
Engagements used to be simpler, she was sure. Then again, Douglas had proposed on Christmas Eve in front of his family by hanging the ring—gold band, tiny but glittering diamond—on his parents’ tree. Her mother-in-law, Bertie, was the only one not shrieking with glee or slapping Douglas on the back after Laurie had said yes. She remembered glancing up and then holding Bertie’s gaze as her future mother-in-law stood in the kitchen doorway, clutching a dishtowel. Bertie was unsmiling, which was disconcerting in the moment, but Laurie thought she understood now. Make sure you know what you’re in for, Laurie imagined she’d been trying to convey. But of course there was no way to know until you were already in it.
“I’m sorry, I just need to—”
Laurie gasped and picked her head up in time to see a kid—a man, technically, but he looked half her age—approaching on the rocks from the opposite direction. He was in jeans that seemed as if they’d been ironed and a navy blue crewneck sweater with a collared shirt underneath. He had a small blanket rolled up and tucked under his arm and a twisted, urgent look on his face.
Laurie moved over a few inches so he could pass, then looked out toward the end of the jetty. She could see the intentioned bride in more detail now, on her feet and staring inland, in her direction.
“Uh oh,” she muttered.
Dear Mrs. Stover,
I hope you enjoyed a restful and fun holiday break. Cam didn’t share many details about his time off, but I suspect he’s just not thrilled to be back at school already, like most of his classmates! Anyway, if it’s not too much trouble for you to send a message out to the other parents, we are running low on cleaning wipes and tissues. It’s the time of year when those things become even more essential, so any contribution will be very much appreciated. Also, it's a little early, I know, but I wanted to put on your radar that we’ll be having a Valentine’s Day party next month. We can discuss any ideas you might have at your convenience.
Sincerely, Mark Davis
Dear Mr. Davis,
You are a perceptive teacher. In fact, Cam did not have a wonderful Christmas. His father and I are not getting along very well these days because he is consumed by his job and has forgotten the rest of his life. I am overwhelmed, resentful, and profoundly sad. Despite my best efforts, I could not make the holidays pleasant nor peaceful for my son. I am a failure as a mother, wife and human being. Christmastime used to be my favorite season—did you know Cam’s dad proposed to me on Christmas Eve? He thought I would find it romantic, and special, and I suppose a part of me did, but a bigger part of me found it uninspired and lame. Two words that, ironically, describe the current state of my life. This will sound absolutely unhinged, but your emails, in all their stolid glory, have become a lifeline for me. I don’t really understand why, but please keep writing. Also, of course I will put the call out for cleaning wipes and tissues.
That one had stayed in her drafts folder, but it felt good—bold, dangerous—to type the words, to see them in the open, to admit how bad she was feeling. So good, in fact, that she’d come very close to hitting “send.”
Her phone buzzed again in her pocket. With a sigh, she dug it out, expecting to see another all-caps message from Douglas, but the hastily-typed words were from Proposal Mom.
“SIL just walked by, said has to use bathroom, but I think s’thing wrong.”
Laurie glanced over her shoulder and saw the woman who sent her on this haphazard mission standing in the same place on the jetty at the shoreline, baseball cap still on, hands clasped under her chin.
Not far up ahead, her daughter—whose name was also a mystery to Laurie—was standing in a similar position, hands clutched at her chest, looking out again toward the sun. Laurie could see now that this girl was in a pretty floral dress that fell below her knees with a long thick cardigan sweater wrapped around her. In her hands was a pair of sandals. They looked strappy and fancy and not at all appropriate for walking a jetty. With her long, dark hair blowing behind her and the set of her shoulders—up and back, no hunching or slouching—she looked ready for a photo shoot. A real one, not a highfalutin kind set up in secret by her mother and husband-to-be. Laurie took a moment to square her own shoulders, because she was always tight and just a little bent over, as if her body had gotten the message somewhere along the way that making itself smaller was the best defense.
The girl turned her head and looked at Laurie. The skin around her eyes was red and blotchy. “Hi,” Laurie said, realizing she hadn’t come up with a plan for how to take the pictures she
needed to take, or a cover story. “Beautiful afternoon, eh? But you must be freezing. I’m freezing.”
The girl gave her a half-smile. Laurie was startled by how young she looked. Not a line on her face, her skin was so pink and brand-new. “Ayuh, I’m not dressed for the beach.”
“Same,” admitted Laurie, looking down at her sweatshirt and one of the two pairs of jeans she wore in rotation these days. “I didn't know I was coming here today.”
“Me either!” the girl said, seemingly relieved to have found a kindred spirit. “My boyfriend—” Here she looked inland, where SIL had gone to find the bathroom (or maybe not), and let out a breath. “I thought we were just having dinner, maybe drinks first on the patio.” She nodded her head toward something over Laurie’s shoulder, which Laurie knew was Dockside Inn, across the road and up the hill. It had been there when she was a kid and apparently was still a place to go.
“But you wound up on the jetty?”
“Well…” The girl looked toward the sun again. “Mark suggested we take a walk and—” “Mark?” Laurie’s voice came out too loud. Her chest buzzed with awareness. She was a
- It wasn’t her Mark. That Mark wasn’t even her Mark. She shut her eyes and shook her head quickly. “Mark is...your boyfriend?”
“He is,” the girl sighed. “He was acting weird and all stressed out the last few days. He’s normally pretty calm, so I thought something was wrong, but then he planned this date. And he pulled in by the beach and said we should go sit by the water and...I knew.”
“Knew what?” Laurie was good at playing dumb. It was one of her strengths.
The girl started to cry again. Tears slid down her cheeks in a way that seemed dramatic but authentic. Laurie wished she could cry like that. It was all or nothing for her, mostly nothing.
Even Cam had picked up on it. “Mom, you never cry. Not even at the saddest movie. Are you a robot?”
“He was going to propose to me,” the girl was saying. “And I—I don’t want to get married, not now, not yet, and he knows that, so I have no idea—” The girl quickly swiped at her cheeks. “Why am I telling you this? Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I ruined a proposal and now I’m talking the ear off a stranger. I am just killing it today.”
“Why don’t you want to get married?” Laurie asked. She wanted to sit down and let the girl tell her everything, but Proposal Mom was still watching and Mark could show up at any moment—not her Mark, although if he appeared on the jetty at Colony Beach in Kennebunkport, wouldn’t that be something?
“I love him, but I have plans,” the girl said. “My career, my future. And marriage feels like it would be the end of that. It was for my mom.” A shriek followed by loud laughter made them both look out toward the end of the jetty. “Are those your kids?” the girl asked Laurie, gesturing toward the crew with buckets, who were now scrambling the rocks.
“No, nope, not mine,” Laurie said. “Thankfully.” She forced a chuckle and then there was a pause. “So, is Mark—do you think he’ll be okay?”
The girl stared up at the sky. “He said he was going to see if our table was ready.” After a moment she looked back at Laurie and let out a long exhale. “I know he just wanted to get away from me. As soon as he suggested we sit and watch the sunset, I tried to find ways to—I don’t know—change the subject? Apparently it worked. I didn’t want to say no to his face, but maybe being subtle was worse.”
Laurie stared at the girl, in awe of how self-contained she was. She guessed the girl was twenty-something and when Laurie was twenty-something, she had no concept of who she was or what she was capable of. Saying ‘no’ to a marriage proposal from a man she thought she loved wouldn’t have crossed her mind. She wouldn’t have known it was an option.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep you from whatever it is you’re—you know, doing out here right now.”
“Oh.” Laurie had almost forgotten the girl didn’t know. She looked back over her shoulder.
Proposal Mom was swaying from one foot to the other, camera now slung over one shoulder, staring their way. “I’m actually here,” Laurie said slowly, and then turned to face the girl, “to take pictures of the proposal that isn’t going to happen. I guess.”
She went on to fill in the blanks of the story—the missing photographer, the encounter she’d had with the girl’s mother. As she listened, the girl covered her mouth with her hand, and her eyes filled again with tears.
“This is the thing,” she eventually said, staring inland past Laurie, “your life is never just your own.” She excused herself then and started to make her way toward her mom. Laurie watched her go, feeling certain she had failed.
Dear Mr. Davis,
I apologize for not being in touch. I heard from Sadie’s mom that the Valentine’s Day party went well. I had to hand the baton to my “assistant” for this one, for personal reasons. I am not sure what other events might happen this spring or how I may be of help to you, but please let me know. I will do my best.
Dear Mrs. Stover,
You were missed at the Valentine’s Day party, though Mrs. Abrams did a fine job. I hope the personal reasons you mentioned are benign. I have noticed Cameron seems quieter than he did at the start of the year. I have simply kept my eye on him, so as not to make him uncomfortable with questions. But if there is anything you think I should know that will help me help him—or you—please don’t hesitate to respond.
Dear Mr. Davis,
How much time do you have?
She’d actually sent that one. Followed immediately by a “just kidding, but here’s what’s happening” message, in which she’d explained that her husband’s recent work promotion meant he was traveling much more often, and when he was not traveling he was at home preparing to travel again, and though the new job came with a raise, which was supposedly the thing that was most important, Cam had been feeling abandoned. I admit I am overwhelmed, she wrote, and perhaps my son is responding to that, in addition to missing his dad. Somehow, I am still surprised by the knack life has for turning upside down without warning. My dad always told me to hope for the best but expect the worst. This is probably what he meant.
Laurie did not want to leave the jetty. The sun was hovering at the horizon and had turned the wispy clouds shades of peach and gray. On the shore, she could see Proposal Mom and her daughter with their heads close together. No sign of the groom. Laurie had no plan other than a three-hour drive back home. “I hate driving in the dark,” she muttered, and with a sigh, started a slow walk inland.
Her phone began to buzz again, this time incessantly. She pulled it out of her sweatshirt pocket and saw Douglas’s name and a photo of him and Cam on the screen. Cam was six in the picture and making a silly face while Douglas laughed.
“Hello?” she said, as if she had no idea who was calling.
There was silence on the other end. Laurie pulled her phone away from her head to see if the call had dropped and put it back in time to hear, “Are you with him?” Douglas’s voice was flat. Not loud, not cold, but dull. He’d gone from all caps to fine print.
“No, Douglas,” she managed, as a tightness seized her throat. “I am not.”
Dear Mrs. Stover,
First, thank you for letting me know what might be behind Cam’s reticence in school. I appreciate your candor. I will do my best to support him in the classroom and let him know that I am available if he needs help or someone to talk to. I hope it is not too forward of me to offer you the same. Life transitions are rarely easy, and it sounds like you are in the middle of an especially tricky one. While it’s undoubtedly an excellent career opportunity for Mr. Stover, the effects of his absence can not be underestimated. At the risk of sharing too much, I remember my own mother struggling to raise my sister and me after my father passed away. The situations are not the same, of course, but I have to imagine some of the feelings are similar. Cam is a great kid, which is a reflection of your hard work. I, and the other staff members of White Pine Elementary, are here for you (and Cam) if you need anything. I am certain you deserve the best.
Sincerely, Mark Davis
She sat in the school parking lot one afternoon exactly a week after she received his email. Douglas was in Duluth or Tampa or maybe Kansas City. She’d called the babysitter to say she had a last-minute doctor’s appointment and could she meet Cam at the bus stop? Mr.
Davis—Mark—had emerged from the side doors just after four o’clock, less than an hour after the school day ended. He had a backpack slung over one shoulder and his blazer hooked on his finger over the other. Laurie’s body vibrated with nerves and audacity as she opened her car door and stood up. He saw her immediately—there were only a few other cars in the lot at that point, and no other people—and she saw his expression change from confusion to worry to understanding.
“Mrs. Stover,” he said, when he was only a few yards away. “Is something wrong? Is Cam okay?” She was sure he knew everything was wrong, and that it had nothing to do with Cam.
“I’m sorry I didn’t write back, Mr. Davis,” she said in a voice that felt strained and throaty and somehow separate from her mind. She hadn’t planned what she’d say. She’d been overwhelmed by his message—by the feeling of being seen—and tried to ignore it at first. But then she imagined seeing him, and couldn’t stop imagining seeing him, and now here she was. “I read your email and I just—I wanted to tell you. That I read it.”
This was exactly why she had skipped the Valentine’s Day party. She didn’t trust herself around him. There was nowhere to hide.
“Well,” Mark Davis said when he was in front of her. He folded his blazer over his arm, so the other arm was free, and cleared his throat. “I meant what I wrote.”
There was a humming between them. Laurie could feel it. Had she ever felt it with Douglas? Maybe a different kind, but not this. She couldn’t have. She was a different person than she had been when she and Douglas found each other. Hell, she was a different person than she’d been last week.
The air was springlike, and pale sunlight warmed their shoulders through the still-bare branches of the trees. Birdsong and distant traffic and the thumping of her heart were all Laurie could hear. She stared at Mark Davis’s tie—repp stripes of blue and orange, which weren’t the school colors—and then she felt his hand on her face. It was warm and weathered and smelled faintly of Clorox. As he bent his face down to hers and brushed her mouth with his lips, she breathed the words she’d come to say.
“My flight to Columbus leaves at quarter to seven tomorrow morning. Will you be home tonight?” Douglas’s voice was toneless.
“How did you know?” Laurie asked. The wind was kicking up along the water and she pressed her phone hard to her ear.
“It’s not important.”
“What did you see?”
Douglas sighed, but there was no impatience in it. “When you left without telling me, I opened your computer. I thought I would check your calendar, maybe you had an appointment. Your email was open.”
“Will you be home tonight?” “I think so.”
“I have to be at the airport by five-thirty. I have no idea where you are, but I need you home.”
Then Laurie hung up the phone. She thought about throwing it into the water. For a moment or two, she had such an urge to do it. Instead, she slid it back into her sweatshirt pocket and made her way to the shoreline. Proposal Mom was still there, watching her daughter talking to her Mark in the distance. Behind them, the sunset had become a glorious display of pink and purple. It would have made a perfect backdrop.
“I didn’t get any pictures,” Laurie said. “Obviously. Will they be all right?” “I hope not,” she said, without looking at Laurie.
“She’s just a kid.” Proposal Mom pulled the white baseball cap off her head. Her hair puffed up around her face like a lion’s mane and Laurie could see now the lines life had left around her eyes. “I’m 57 and still don’t know how to be married. How are these two gonna make it?”
“What’s your name?” Laurie asked. “Nancy.”
“I hope things work out however they’re supposed to, Nancy. And if there’s ever another proposal, I hope the real photographer shows up. I was not your best choice today.”
Nancy laughed a little. “Thanks anyway. Sorry for wasting your time.”
“Not at all,” Laurie said, as she walked backward toward the parking lot, taking one last look at the water and the beach and the jetty and the sky. “Not at all.”
Dear Mr. Davis,
Thank you for meeting with me yesterday. It was unexpected, in every way. Would it be okay to meet again, at your earliest convenience?
Dear Mrs. Stover, Yes.