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The bell rang the first thing in the morning, even before the coffee was on. At my front door was the mailman, who handed me a large carton, its return address in blue block letters telling me it was from Vincent in San Francisco. This was odd. In the twenty-five years since I had been Vincent's ninth-grade English teacher at New Utrecht High School, he had never sent me anything but a Christmas card, though he had rarely missed a year. The last card--"Van Eyck's Gabriel," it said on the back--was still propped up on a bookshelf in my living room. As usual, it didn't say much, just "Dear Elizabeth" above the printed message and "Love, Vincent" below, but on the back, he'd drawn a circle around "Gabriel," the name of my younger son, so I knew he'd chosen the card for me.
When you're a teacher, some students burst out at you immediately, most emerge gradually, and a few don't want you to see them at all. By December, Vincent had never raised his hand, and although his serious brown eyes met mine from time to time, when I called on him, he merely shrugged.
It was a gray day in Brooklyn, and I'd assigned my English class O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," set on a long-ago Christmas Eve in Manhattan. It was about Jim and Della, young newlyweds who wanted to give each other the perfect Christmas present. They had very little money, and those who read all the way through knew that they did find the right gifts for each other, but only after Jim pawned his heirloom gold watch to buy Della the jewel-rimmed tortoiseshell combs she'd so admired, and Della cut and sold her long hair so she could buy Jim a platinum watch fob.
It was a touching story, and as the kids thudded their textbooks onto their desktops and shuffled around for the right page, I waited, curious as to what it had meant to them. At twenty-two, I was still a very new teacher, nervous and chronically overprepared, so the night before, I had written up a long list of questions to get the discussion going. But before I could ask even one of my questions, Vincent shot his hand up into the air. Then without waiting for me to call on him, he announced that he hated the ending, just hated it.
"How could anyone write something so stupid?" he said, his eyes flashing indignantly.
"They spent all that money on presents that turned out to be useless, and they probably can't even exchange them."
Vincent glared at me as if their predicament might be my fault. At fourteen, he was slight and dark, with bony arms, pointy features, and a lock of hair that wouldn't stay out of his eyes. Now he flung his head in a way that was part hair management and part annoyance.
I was startled by his passion. "Do you think Jim and Della felt the way you do?"
Before Vincent could answer, Freddy Murphy, who had been waving his arm like a windshield wiper in a storm, spoke up. "I think they felt bad, but maybe Della can wear the combs even with short hair." He was a small boy with glasses who sat right in front of Vincent.
Vincent scowled at the back of Freddy's head, while Freddy, oblivious to this show of disapproval, happily continued. "Or maybe Jim can return the combs and get his watch back."
At this, Vincent rolled his eyes. "That's dumb," he muttered.
Freddy was a small round cheerful sort, whose two small round cheerful parents had shown up to meet me a few weeks earlier at New Utrecht High School's Open School Night as had most of the parents, or at least mothers, of the kids in the class. Vincent was one of the few whose parents had not shown up. No note from them, no explanation from him.
Despite their different styles, Freddy was the only person I had ever seen Vincent talk to. They didn't seem to be friends, but with each lacking the rambunctious ease of the other boys, they appeared to be less uncomfortable with each other than with anyone else.
The class was now silent. "Any other thoughts?" I asked.
Another student raised her hand. "Well, maybe what really matters to them isn't the present but that they showed how much they loved each other."
That was the point of the story for most readers. Not for Vincent, though. Now he raised his hand so vigorously that I thought it would yank the rest of his body up with it. "That's ridiculous!" he said, pronouncing it ree-diculous. "If you love someone, you want to get them something they really want." He stopped for a second. "And you want them to get you something you really like, too." Clearly, giving and receiving carried a charge for him. He flung his head back again.
Vincent's intensity brought the class to life that day and made me look closely at him for the first time. When the bell rang, he came up to my desk to rail about the ending of this "stupid story" at greater length. He stayed so long that he had to rush to his next class.
That was how my relationship with Vincent had begun, and now, twenty-five years later, here I stood in my living room, holding this carton from him.
"Don't you want to know what's in it?" said my husband, Reamy, prodding me.
I did, and so with me in robe and bare feet and with Reamy and our son Gabe flanking me, I slit the box's tape and lifted off the cover.
Inside were two or three stacks of red volumes, gold lettering on their spines.
I think I instantly knew what those volumes were and what their arrival meant, but I held the knowledge at bay, like someone blocking off a smell by breathing through her mouth. Before I was willing to know anything, I wanted Vincent to explain himself.
Slipped between the books, near the bottom of the carton was an envelope with "Elizabeth" written on it. Inside, on Vincent's letterhead, was a typed letter dated February 10, six weeks earlier. It read:
You must be wondering why I left you my diaries in my will. After all, we have not seen each other in over twenty years. Our only contact is our traditional Christmas cards, and yet I still feel connected to you.
Please be warned that some of the details can be raunchy and shocking. I probably should just destroy them, but they contain my thoughts, feelings, and desires of my life for the last ten years.
I was hoping that a book could be made into them and my only requirement is that my family's identity is never revealed. Also any profits should be given to my family, otherwise I leave all the details up to you.
I will understand if you decide not to accept this project. All I want is that they do not fall into the wrong hands.
One thing I will always regret is not seeing you one last time. Thank you.
Where Vincent should have signed his name--the part of him I knew best--there was only vast empty space. And that's when I understood: Vincent was dead. But how could he be? How could a living man tell me he was dead? And how could a dead man tell me he would "always" feel regret. It was impossible, and it made me dizzy. I set the box on the floor and sat down on the couch.
At the bottom of Vincent's letter were a few sentences in a neat, tight, and unfamiliar script, which I read aloud. "Vincent passed away the day I was to bring this typed letter for him to sign at the hospital. No one but you has the privilege of reading these diaries. Good luck, and please pray for Vincent that he rest in peace." It was signed "Carol."
"How did he die?" said Gabe.
"I don't know," I said. "Vincent's friend doesn't say." But AIDS crossed my mind right away. I'd long assumed that Vincent was gay, although he'd never said so. In all the time we'd exchanged cards, he'd never mentioned a wife or children or anyone else. During these years, Vincent had lived at only two different addresses on Clay. What I surmised, or at least hoped, was that Vincent was living a contented and companionable life with a vague someone else, a man somewhat like himself. As for me, in those same years, I had moved from the Village and then to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ten years ago, we'd left the city altogether for a house with a big front porch set behind a dogwood tree in Montclair, New Jersey. All these years with scarcely a miss in the Christmas cards we tossed across the continent to one another.
But it occurred to me that maybe Vincent had not lived as I had hoped, and I wondered if Carol's request that I pray for Vincent to rest in peace went beyond convention. Had Vincent not lived in peace? I wondered as I returned the letter to its envelope. If there were any answers, they were in his box of diaries on my living room floor. But Vincent's death was new, my knowledge even newer, and the box suddenly felt to me like an open grave. Still I had to know what happened. Scanning the spines, I found 1994 and 1995, took them out and skimmed the pages, feeling all the while like a grave robber. These were the last weeks of Vincent's life, and I squinted to keep out what I was trying to take in:
If I can just make it to Christmas . . . it may be the last time I see my family. . . . Huffed and puffed my way up the hill . . . getting harder and harder. . . . so cold, so hungry, so angry . . . 112 pounds. . . . No Christmas cards. Bummer. . . . I get upset because the pretty people on TV are not in pain. I'm jealous of their happiness . . . so tired, so cold . . . cried myself to sleep . . . can't speak. . . . hard to swallow. . . . can't use arm . . . Angela called . . . Sandra called . . . so concerned & mother and father ditto. 108 pounds . . . I wonder if they suspect their only son is a goner . . . now I know how Eddy felt . . . spoke with Adrienne. . . ."
And then the confirmation. "She knows I have AIDS."