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It's Romance

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She did not follow Freidrich, despite Amy’s almost laughable desire to, or Meg’s syrupy attempts to talk her into recognizing “you love him, Jo! Stop pretending you’re so above that!”

What she did do was finish her book, a few weeks later. She wrote the final page, then set her quill down almost in disbelief. It was dark outside, and she knew Marmee and Father were asleep; Meg and Amy with their respective husbands in their respective homes. She gingerly laid the final chapter on the floor next to the rest of the book.

The sight of all of her work, years and years of stories, weeks and weeks of sleepless nights and cramped hands, all covering almost the entire floor of the attic, brought Jo to tears. She covered her mouth with her hand and caught sight of herself in the window: shock, joy, longing, and pride all there on her face. Her reflection shared in those feelings, and Jo knelt down beside her work, missing Beth with a general ache between her ribs, and missing Meg and Amy too, disliking the fact that they had been with her just hours before and were now gone away. Wave after wave of nostalgia and sorrow and a glowing love for the four of them in that cozy attic together washed over Jo. Sobs came next, a mix of relief, of pride, of creation, of shocked and joyful laughter that Jo stifled with both hands. She stayed amongst the pages for some time, more absorbed in their essence than in the real world, relishing the richness of the emotions that overwhelmed her, at some point settling herself on the couch and drifting off into sweetly exhausted memory, dreaming of her sisters.

 

• • •

 

Ten days later, she packed a single suitcase, kissed her parents goodbye, and walked the three miles or so to the Concord Station, where she boarded a train back to New York. She dared not store her luggage, instead keeping the large suitcase on her lap, mindlessly tapping her fingers over the spot where she knew her precious cargo rested atop a few days worth of clothes.

The train ride was long, but this time, Jo did not sleep. Luck granted her a window seat, so she gazed absentmindedly at the passing landscape for hours.

She thought of Beth and how much she wished she could save up the descriptions of the views to tell her sister when she returned to Concord, aching at the fact that she could not. Tracing her fingers over the suitcase once again, Jo realized with a pang that she had fulfilled Beth’s wish that she write something for her. That gift, from one middle sister to the other, safely under Jo’s fingertips, was now more tangible than Beth herself.

Shivering at that thought, Jo remembered something someone had said once, about one person dying and leaving the world and another being born and entering in her place. Her book was the only life she intended to bring into the world, and it comforted her a little to know it was as full a life as any.

It was thrilling, she thought, the fact that it had not existed before, her book, and now it did. She had brought it forth, and it was hers. For Beth.

 

• • •

 

It was dark and cloudy when Jo arrived in New York, as if the sky and the moon had some secret agreement. She had written ahead to Mrs. Kirke to ask if she could stay at the boarding house for a few nights while she negotiated for (and published, she thought with a streak of stubbornness) her book. The woman had responded yes, begrudgingly but kindly, noting at the end that her two girls missed Jo dearly.

With only one suitcase now, she made her way through the city, tired, but feeling a strange peace within her. She climbed the stairs to the front door, entered quietly as to not disturb any boarders already in bed, then climbed the remaining stairs to the room Mrs. Kirke had instructed her to occupy. It was a floor below Jo’s old room, but still familiar enough.

Jo shut the door, leaning her back against the door, her hips out in front of her. Through the walls she heard muffled voices in the rooms next to her and the sound of carriages on the street below, and remembered how bewitching and reassuring it was to be surrounded by others yet alone in one’s room.

She barely bothered to kick off her shoes or unpin her hair before throwing herself exhaustedly onto the bed. She would gather herself tomorrow.

She awoke when Mrs. Kirke knocked on the door, calling “Jo…Jo-o, Jo. Jo? Jo?” She had only a moment to recall the softness of the dream from which she had been shaken: stairs, a door opening, curly hair, the ease with which she had been filled with warmth.

Jo answered the door, disheveled and sleepy, hair spilling over her shoulders (which she secretly loved.) Kitty and Minnie wanted a lesson with her; what time did she arrive; my, you look exhausted, Jo; would she like some breakfast? She promised to be dressed in the common room in 15 minutes.

She scarfed down some breakfast, the two girls surrounding her, asking for tales, asking all sorts of questions Jo did not know the answer to. They wrote short stories in the common room, while Jo corrected their grammar and spelling and actively missed doing the same in the attic with Beth and Amy once Marmee had taken Amy out of school. She tried to find a time to go to the publishing house to give Mr. Dashwood her manuscript, but each time she moved to retrieve it from her room, something pulled her back: another story to read and edit, Mrs. Kirke wanted to hear about her sister’s time in Paris, Kitty wanted her hair braided. She imagined holding a real copy of her book in her hands while Minnie read her the story she had written about the house cat, and resolved to rise early, Mrs. Kirke’s wrath be politely damned.

The day was long, but when she went to bed, hair damp and twisted up for the night, Jo felt a quiet wakefulness. She set her clothes out for the next day, her manuscript tied up neatly next to them, and looked at it with her hands on her hips, satisfied and proud and nervous. She allowed herself one moment of desperate hope that it would be good enough for Dashwood to publish before taking a deep breath and trying to tell herself it was good enough, at least for her. She hoped it would have been for Beth.

 

• • •

 

“Frankly, I don’t see why she didn’t marry the neighbor.”

Jo feared this would happen.

“Because the sister married the neighbor,” she explained.

“Right, of course,” Dashwood said almost dismissively. “So who does she marry?”

Jo tried to prevent herself, somewhat successfully, from rolling her eyes.

“No one. She doesn’t marry either of them.”

“No. No, no, no, that won’t work at all,” Dashwood said.

“She says the whole book that she doesn’t want to marry,” Jo protested.

“WHO CARES!” he exclaimed, not even a question, and Jo barely restrained herself from jumping. “Girls want to see women married. Not consistent.”

She pushed the envelope as far as she could. “It isn’t the right ending.”

“The right ending is the one that sells.”

Jo thought.

“If you end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster,” he said, seeing an opening, “no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.”

Jo considered it.

“I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition.” She refused to acquiesce without some defiance. “Even in fiction,” she said slowly, refusing to let this man get in the way of what she really wanted. She’d snuck her own books when she was supposed to be reading to Aunt March. She’d done this before.

“It’s romance!” he proclaimed, pleased.

“It’s mercenary,” she grumbled.

Money is the end and aim of my mercenary existence, she had told Freidrich.

“Just end it that way, will you?”

No one gets ink stains like yours just out of a desire for money, he had replied.

“Fine.”

 

• • •

 

She ran back to the boarding house, again, somewhat heated. She knew she could find a way around this, but the fact that someone else told her to do it infuriated her.

Nevermind that, she could do it. She’d written plenty of romances before. Princess Zara and Roderigo were very popular amongst the children of Concord. Nevermind, nevermind, nevermind. She could do it. She could write romance. Amy and Laurie were married and so were her parents and Meg and John were too. What was love? What was marriage?

Her mind stopped and started and started over again and stopped once again, over and over until her lungs hurt from running and she was near the steps of the boarding house.

Mr. Dashwood had only allowed her to take her manuscript back with her after she promised she would rewrite the ending with the romance that he and apparently all other women wanted. Jo was a woman and she didn’t want it. What she wanted was her book published. She held the papers close to her, looking down at the pavement, then the stairs in her frustration.

“Jo!” someone exclaimed from the top, and in a brilliant moment of disorientation, Jo raised her gaze and in doing so, stepped too high and missed a step, falling forward, and up, onto the stairs. Like other accidents, it seemed to take forever to actually happen, which gave Jo just enough time to tighten her grip on her beloved manuscript. When she landed, it was safely in hand, and she quickly sprung up, victorious.

It was Friedrich with whom she came face to face.

“Oh, oh, hello,” she said, breathless from her fall.

“Hello,” he said. “Are you alright?”

“Yes.” Jo looked at him for a beat too long and she knew it. “Yes, yes I’m fine. Thank you.” She paused, looking up at the door to the boarding house he had just closed behind him. Her brow furrowed. “Why are you - why are you still here? I thought you were going to California.”

“Yes, I leave in a week,” he said reasonably, and Jo was confused because it seemed like his expression was saying something else, and because when she had seen him almost a month ago, in her own house, “going west” seemed like it would be happening more immediately, especially given that he said there was “nothing keeping me here.”

“Oh,” she said, again, “are you still staying here until then?” Of course he was, foolish, foolish Jo. Amy would have laughed endlessly.

“Yes,” he said, smiling just barely, and she had an inkling that he was laughing a little too.

“Well,” she said, turning to walk up the rest of the stairs, “I’m sure I will see you again before I leave - before you leave.” Both were true, she presumed afterwards.

“Yes,” he said a third time, walking slowly backwards down the stairs, still looking at Jo.

She nodded, and turned up the stairs. She was not smiling, she told herself.

 

• • •

 

Jo paced that night, her writing jacket snug on her shoulders. Part of what she loved about writing was the freedom, and now, she thought bitterly, now she was confined once again, by marriage.

By the time she finally gave into sleep, she still had not written an ending. She flopped onto the bed, still wearing the jacket. Someone was whistling an old, vaguely familiar song a few floors below, probably someone drunk given that it had to be past midnight.

She woke up in the middle of the night - drowsy and somewhat dizzy in a sweet state between sleep and wakefulness - from a dream at the German beer hall. Her subconscious had taken her back to dancing with Friedrich, whirling and wild and surrounded by people speaking a dozen different languages. It had been all new and daunting then, but something about seeking it out for herself thrilled her. Her recollection beyond that was hazy, save for when, in the midst of some rollicking song, something had pulled them together, her arms uncertain as she put them on his shoulders. She laughed herself into consciousness, thinking of her and Laurie dancing on the porch in winter.

It occurred to her later, only as she fell back into sleep, that some aspects of life beyond childhood were as beautiful. Maybe a little more, she thought. She would have denied she gave it any thought when she woke up.

 

• • •

 

Four days later, the lack of matrimonial inspiration began to disturb Jo. She had been so close to publishing her book, hers, to seeing her words and ideas incarnate, to holding something she had made just as she had held and smuggled books others had written.

Desperation drove the general to the enemy camp, she thought with a smile as she stepped into the common room where she had seen Friedrich enter after dinner a quarter of an hour before.

“I won’t lose my temper this time,” she said, sitting down across from him. “I’m sorry I threw such insults at you. I do want to be your friend.” She paused. “But, I don’t care if you think what I write is silly and meaningless, because it means everything to me.” It did, and Jo felt good and whole saying that. Then, to balance things out, “I’ve come to you to debate and get some ideas.”

He smiled like he knew something more than her, which he probably did, but Jo was never one to pass up a punch above her weight.

“Before we begin, Miss March,” he added, somewhat mischievously and Jo relished the image of the Miss: two sss for her and her alone, unwed and unruly. “I am sorry as well. I was too harsh.” No grand declarations, just a simple statement, and he set the book he had been reading aside and leaned towards her a little.

She gave him the context of the situation, explaining the plot of her book, and making it clear that she did not want him to tell her what to write, only to graciously grant her some sparks of genius to ignite her mind and her pen.

He laughed softly at the last phrase, and Jo smiled at him laughing at her.

It was almost 10pm when they both realized they had discussed the history and poetry of marriage as an institution for over two hours, Jo’s hands having flown in the air with enthusiasm several times, Friedrich’s sleeves rolled up in focus. She felt like her mind had gone for a swim: tired, but in a way that belied the thrill of adrenaline and exertion - she felt intelligent and alive. There was only one other person in the common room, and Jo looked around and felt a blush working its way into her cheeks and her mind as she made to stand up.

She rose to her feet, and he did too, collecting his coat and book.

“You are on the second floor now?” he clarified.

“Yes. Yes,” she said, “closer to the pedestrian world.”

He smiled, and they walked up the stairs together, mostly silent.

When they reached her room, she stopped.

“Well, goodnight,” she said, turning to look up at him.

“Goodnight,” he said quietly. He paused, then leaned towards her, and like he had done at her house, kissed her cheek before turning to walk to his own room, and Jo felt like she had been slipped a note or told a secret.

How strange it was, she thought, as he walked away. He was curiously always present at the boarding house, always reading or speaking with someone, weaving different languages into conversation, and coming in and out of those doors where she first met him, glancing over his shoulder in greeting or parting. And she saw him at Twelfth Night, from the stairs, like she was passing through a museum and had happened upon an intriguing painting. And something drew her to the beer hall, and they danced, sweaty and breathless and beguiled by the noise and accidental intimacy. He had been to her home and met her entire family, she laughed to herself. He had sat next to her at the table and in the living room with all of them and played Beth’s piano.

Strange, strange.

She opened her own door, closing it behind her. She leaned against it, mulling over her thoughts for a moment, mulling over the plot of her book in relation.

They hit her in gusts of wind, the ideas and images: not rhythmic nor shocking, with some buildup and then a beautiful pearl swiftly in her hands.

She wrote the ending somewhat quickly, laughing at the carriage ride, her heartbeat speeding up at the image of walking briskly through the rain with a lovely purpose, shedding a longing tear at the thought of two under one umbrella, though she may have been inclined to deny it.

When it was all on the page, she fell into bed, her hands freshly ink-stained and cramped, her mind swirling with words and new epiphanies.

I have never seen you so happy; what else is love?! Amy had asked, practically begging for Jo to follow Friedrich to the train station that day. She had brushed it off, turning to clear the table and punch Laurie on the arm when he raised his eyebrows in agreement with his wife.

Now, she had some rough drafts of additional answers laid out on the floor of her mind. It was the pedestrian nature of it: the forcefulness of being drawn to earth and discovering with joy the blatant humanity of it all.

She would have mocked one of her sisters for such realizations, and she had practically condemned Laurie for the same, but now, now that she was wrapped up in the hazy glow of finishing her book, and still pondering with tender curiosity Friedrich’s ideas and curly hair and his quiet goodnight, she had some thoughts of her own on love to add to the canon.

 

• • •

 

She rushed out early the next morning, manuscript firmly in hand, and when she arrived, there was no pause before she entered the publishing house.

“I love it. It’s so romantic. ‘Your hands aren’t empty now.’ It makes me emotional,” Dashwood said, somewhat tearily after he had read the last chapter.

“Thanks,” Jo said, unimpressed by this man’s tears, but proud of the dialogue.

“We can call the chapter Under the Umbrella,” he said, looking up, evidently pleased with the title.

“It’s good,” Jo admitted, agreeing with him for once.

After these pleasantries, he shifted to negotiations, and Jo fought hard for her book, in her mind wearing her writing jacket. There was no way she would sell the rights to the book, she thought, even if it would help her family.

“Six point six percent,” Mr. Dashwood said, and Jo accepted.

“Done.” They shook hands.

“And you don’t need to decide about the copyright now.”

“I’ve decided. I want to own my own book.”

 

• • •

 

She climbed two flights of stairs to where they actually manufactured the books, her heart beating from the climb and the fact that in some time, her book would be real. Her book for dear, sweet Beth, and for Amy and Meg, too, for the four of them.

She sat for some time, waiting as some internal, bureaucratic negotiations took place, then a man in a leather apron poked his head out of a doorway.

“If you wanna see it made, now’s your chance.”

She leapt up, shaky hands and all, and followed him down a hallway to a wall of windows, behind which more machinery and paper and bindings than she could even imagine lived.

The font was chosen, the letters selected from each drawer, levers pulled, handles wound, pages folded, seams sliced, pages pressed together, edges shaved down, pages stitched together, fabric cut and glued, a seal imprinted, gold brushed off, and then…

In a blur, someone handed it to her, her precious book, her art, her very life.

Jo turns it over in her hands, touching it like the holy object it is, her inchoate desire made manifest.

 


 

Jo walks swiftly, brushing stray tendrils of hair from her face.

Mrs. Kirke said Friedrich had already left, that he left her a note too, she saw him slip it under her door, and Jo laughed at the irony of both of them getting information about the other from her and then finding each other. So she went, though it was evening and she was already happily exhausted from finally bringing her beloved book into the world. The irony and the seeming fate was not lost on her, and she laughed a little in wonder at it all in between breaths made rapid by her brisk pace.

She arrives at the station, and hears a train whistle and then she runs in spite of herself. No sisters shriek excitedly in a carriage behind her, but she can almost hear them, can almost feel the nonexistent rain on her face.

She looks around, eagerly, frantically.

I want to be loved, she had told Marmee.

That is not the same as loving, she had responded.

It is only in looking back, in whispered recollections, and years later, in confidence to her mother and sisters, that Jo realizes she knew what loving was at that moment.

“Jo!” Friedrich calls from somewhere to the side, and she can’t find him because this New York City station is far more crowded and cacophonous than the one in Concord.

Then she sees him, and with the same brashness and vivacity as she has had all of these years, she walks, runs to him.

She has to almost shout over the crowd, and she is laughing and crying, both a writer’s response to life, both shaky inhalations and exhalations.

“I-I don’t want you to leave! I want you to stay!”

“You do?!”

“Yes! Yes, I want you to stay, I want you to come home with me - come home with me! And- and we can make Plumfield into a school and I can write and you, you can teach!”

“Really?”

“Yes, yes!”

There is no “not empty,” no rain, no umbrella, just the two of them suspended in their own secret clutch, one only they will know.

Friedrich looks at her, and, this is what it is to be loved, she thinks, and he leans forward, kissing her. Jo swims in the feeling, strange and wonderful, and Friedrich sways into her, Jo taking a step back to keep her balance. He holds onto her, one hand on her back, and both of hers find his shoulders, like the dance, and slip through his hair and then she holds his face in her hands.

They pull away, both crying and laughing a little. Jo’s head is swimming, because the day has been the most absurd and wonderful, and she takes Friedrich's hand.

“Will you really come home with me?”

“Yes.”

They walk back to the boarding house and it is night by the time they arrive. They kiss again before she goes into her room, and she kisses his hand before he leaves, him continuously glancing back at her. She steps inside and finds the note on the floor.

 

Miss March,

Should you ever venture to California, I am enclosing the address where you can find me.

I hope to see you again.

Sincerely,

Friedrich Bhaer

 

She laughs, no need for that anymore. She tucks it away inside the very first copy of her own book.