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strange familiars

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i.

Dreadfully romantic. She repeats the words to herself under her breath as she steps out onto the street. The words have migrated from the dry tone of her editor into something far more incriminating. An accusation, even.

Jo leaves her editor’s offices behind her. She had met with him that morning. It was during that meeting that he had glanced up from the page she had written and pronounced it: “I fear I find your work,” he had said, and it was here that he paused, his own dramatic flair, “dreadfully romantic.” Seated across from him, she had felt it, that drop in her stomach as she listened, as she watched him cast her work – and by extension, herself – aside.

The quiet discouragement follows her as she walks, brisk, down the street, her muddied hem catching around her ankles. She knows: it is a flaw. She has knotted herself too tightly with her work, to the point where the two are indistinguishable to her. A slight against her work is a slight against her; she’s too sensitive. “Dreadfully romantic,” she repeats.

Curiously, she finds with each step away from the office she is emboldened by the bad review. To be told she has done wrong, in particular by this man who harbors so little imagination, is if anything confirmation of her own freedom – both intellectual and literal. She has yet to tire of the wild feel of independence, to go it alone. Alone is a different animal than loneliness, one she can curl her body around and bask in its warmth.

She hastens her pace. Strands of her hair come loose and fall into her eyes. There are dark, tired circles under them; she had stayed up far too late in far too minimal lighting to finish her maligned – dreadfully romantic – story.

It is like this that she runs into him. Theodore Laurence.

 

 

ii.

When Jo had come to New York, Laurie had fled to Paris.

She learned of this from Amy and the letters she had sent her. Amy called him Teddy in her letters. “He is much changed,” she had written. Jo had traced her finger over the single line and chased down the melodrama it inspired in her mind. She wanted to know what that meant, but Amy did not specify and Jo could not bring herself to ask. Instead, Laurie came to feature in the stories Jo wrote, his personality made out-sized, much changed.

It was simple for Jo to slip Laurie into her stories. He could be the hero, but more often he was the villain. It was easier to write, to imagine him like this: as something, as someone, to be feared.

So she wrote him; she invented him. She has murdered him dozens of times upon the page. This was how a girl like her reacted to declarations of love. This was how she responded in self-defense to stirrings of her own.

As she wrote, sh e had turned that kiss over and over in her head, like a memorized chapter she would orate to her sisters. She constructed it as a fiction, she wrote it on the page, and only then did she find she could engage with it. With him. With her own desire.

How odd to be presented with the actual man now.

 

 

iii.

“Jo.” That much has not changed: he still says her name as she recalled. As if, she might put to the page, it were an incantation.

“Look at you,” she says quietly, rather than his name.

He does not look as altered as Amy had written. He looks older, a fact made more obvious when he smiles and faint lines settle in around his familiar eyes.

“Amy had told me that you were in Paris, but she didn’t mention,” Jo trails off.

“I was leaving?” A rueful grin and her own mouth flickers in reply.

Her eyes roam over his face, the rest of the city falling away. They might as well be back at Orchard House. Paris. Anywhere.

The beard Amy had written of is gone, thankfully. Any Parisian affectations are gone as well, as far as Jo can tell. As if, she thinks, in her absence he has settled into the man who will be Theodore Laurence. She wonders if the same can be said of her. Has she finally become Josephine March, an adult woman of great independence, or will she always be a work-in-progress?

He smiles at her like he knows what she is thinking. Like he still knows her, Jo a guarded secret he alone keeps, and perhaps he does. A carriage passes too close to the edge of the road and they step towards each other, the movement as practiced and natural as anything else between them. He steadies her with a hand on her arm; she convinces herself not to look down at his grip.

“I was hoping,” he starts and then he pauses. “Amy told me you were here, in the city. I had hoped to find you.”

“Here I am. Found.”

And then, with the same naturalness as his hand on her arm and the same inevitability as repeated history, he invites her to a party. She accepts.

 

 

iv.

She wrote and rewrote that scene over and over again. The wedding, the flowers in her hands. His hand in her hair. The press of his body against her own. His mouth on her mouth. The injured look of betrayal on his face when she said no. She wrote it, and then she rewrote it. She said yes or she said no, he kissed her longer and she wanted him more.

She knew now what he tasted like; she had not realized it until then, his mouth pressed warm and fast against her own, that like an animal, she had wondered.

 

 

v.

It is a repeat of their first meeting: in an empty drawing room, the two of them find themselves alone.

Jo had found the party to be awkward, or perhaps it was herself to be described as such. The closest thing to a party Jo is apt to attend are the small gatherings held in the parlor of her boarding house. Here, it was tempting to say she was out of her element. But that same freedom she had felt earlier with her editor she found she felt here as well – the sense that she did not belong, that she was out of place, yet well in place within herself. From across the room, she watched Laurie as an outsider – a curious discomfort accompanying her observation. There was memory tied up with this newness, that threatened to push her off that center she had thought she had claimed as her own.

She was unused to seeing Laurie as an outsider – as a man: not Laurie, but Theodore Laurence.

Discomfort like this was why she fled to fiction, the fantastical. Real life could be too bright, too much. Quietly, she had excused herself.

And he followed.

Seated now beside her, the drawn drapes of the room hiding them, all he says at first is her name, that single syllable, before she interrupts him.

"It's odd, isn't it?" she says. "I'm here, and so are you." It's too simple, it doesn't articulate all she means to say, but Jo, the wordsmith, finds, perhaps for the first time, eloquence just out of reach.

Laurie wears his uncertainty as a careful grin. "Together," he says.

"Is it what you imagined?" he asks her then.

Her eyes widen, embarrassment creeping up within her. "The party?"

"No," he almost laughs. "New York." Your life, he does not say. Your life without me: it's there, unsaid.

"No," Jo says. “But I have found few things ever are.” She meets his gaze. She thinks of how she wrote him, how she tried to invent him. How that Laurie doesn’t match this, the more measured version of him before her. The real one.

"Are you happy?" he asks her, inadvertently conveying his own possible lack.

"Yes," she says, and it is true. She is. She is, but. She reaches, tentative, her fingers brushing the side of his hand. With neither comment nor hesitation, he responds: he opens his hand to her.

“I could be happier still,” she says, quiet. She finds herself on unsure footing. They are out on the same ice Amy had cracked and fell through. She remembers the cold rush of him at her side. So much of her life has been him, keeping pace along her side.

She made a decision when she came to New York that she would be an adult woman now. She is pragmatic, and the speeding beat of her heart, his warm hand in hers – it’s not romance. It’s not –

Laurie’s smile is well-creased and familiar, like an oft-marked page of a favorite book. She thinks she could map out each line and tell you how she earned them from him. That’s not romance either; that’s the totality of their shared history. But perhaps that’s all a romance is – a life shared.

“You see,” she says, clearing her throat, her hand still clasped in his, around his. “I was recently accused of being a dreadful romantic.” The uncertain question is built into only the slightly quavering tone of her voice.

“I’ve always liked that best about you. The dreadful part. Of the two of us, I fashioned myself as the romantic.”

“Are you still?”

“I find it incurable.” His gaze meets her dead in the eye and she returns it with the same steady strength. “And you?”

“Dreadful to the core, I fear.”

“Good.” His hand squeezes around her own.

She leans forward and she kisses him. It is nothing and everything like the kiss at Meg’s wedding. Like something new that had been waiting to be discovered between them. His lips part against her own inviting entry. How dreadfully romantic, she thinks.