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Ruth Shelton hurried out of her classroom-management lecture at the University of Washington, where she was completing her master's of education degree. Clutching her books, she dashed across campus, in a rush to get home. By now the mail would have been delivered to her small rental house three blocks from the school.
"Ruth," Tina Dupont called, stopping her in midflight. "There's another antiwar rally this afternoon at"
"Sorry, I've got to run," Ruth said, jogging past her friend and feeling more than a little guilty. Other students cleared a path for her; wherever she was headed must have seemed urgentand it was, but only to her. Since Christmas, four months ago, she'd been corresponding with Sergeant Paul Gordon, USMC, who was stationed in Afghanistan. There'd been recent reports of fighting, and she hadn't received a letter or an email from Paul in three days. Three interminable days. Not since they'd initially begun their correspondence had there been such a lapse. Paul usually wrote every day and she did, too. They emailed as often as possible. Ruth had strong feelings about the war in Iraq, although her opinions didn't match those of her parents.
Earlier in the school year, Ruth had been part of a protest rally on campus. But no matter what her political views on the subject, she felt it was important to support American troops wherever they might be serving. In an effort to do that, Ruth had voluntarily mailed a Christmas card and letter to a nameless soldier.
Paul Gordon was the young man who'd received that Christmas card, and to Ruth's surprise he'd written her back and enclosed his photograph. Paul was from Seattle and he'd chosen her card because of the Seattle postmark. He'd asked her lots of questionsabout her history, her family, her interestsand closed with a postscript that said he hoped to hear from her again.
When she first got his letter, Ruth had hesitated. She felt she'd done her duty, supported the armed services in a way she was comfortable doing. This man she'd never met was asking her to continue corresponding with him. She wasn't sure she wanted to become that involved. Feeling uncertain, she'd waited a few days before deciding.
During that time, Ruth had read and reread his letter and studied the head shot of the clean-cut handsome marine sergeant in dress uniform. His dark brown eyes had seemed to stare straight through herand directly into her heart. After two days, she answered his letter with a short one of her own and added her email address at the bottom of the page. Ruth had a few concerns she wanted him to address before she could commit herself to beginning this correspondence. Being as straightforward and honest as possible, she explained her objections to the war in Iraq. She felt there was a more legitimate reason for troops to be in Afghanistan and wanted to know his stand. A few days later he emailed her. Paul didn't mince words. He told her he believed the United States had done the right thing in entering Iraq and gave his reasons. He left it up to her to decide if she wanted to continue their correspondence. Ruth emailed him back and once again listed her objections to the American presence in the Middle East. His response came a day later, suggesting they "agree to disagree." He ended the email with the same question he'd asked her earlier. Would she write him?
At first, Ruth wasn't going to. They were diametrically opposed in their political views. But in the end, even recognizing the conflict between their opinions, she did write. Their correspondence started slowly. She enjoyed his wry wit and his unflinching determination to make a difference in the world. His father had fought in Vietnam, he said, and in some ways the war in Afghanistan seemed similarthe hostile terrain, the unpredictability of the enemy, the difficult conditions. For her part, she mentioned that at twenty-five she'd returned to school to obtain her master's of education degree. Then, gradually, without being fully aware of how it had happened, Ruth found herself spending part of every day writing or emailing Paul. Despite the instant nature of email, and its convenience, they both enjoyed interspersing their online messages with more formal letters. There was something so
permanent about a real letter. As well, depending on his duty assignment, Paul didn't always have computer access.
After they'd been corresponding regularly for a couple of months, Paul asked for her picture. Eventually she'd mailed him her photograph, but only after she'd had her hair and makeup done at one of those "glamour" studios. Although she wasn't fashion-model beautiful, she considered herself fairly attractive and wanted to look her absolute best for Paul, although she didn't entirely understand why it mattered so much. For years, she'd been resigned to the fact that she wasn't much good at relationships. In high school she'd been shy, and while she was an undergraduate, she'd dated a little but tended to be reserved and studious. Her quiet manner didn't seem to appeal to the guys she met. It was only when she stepped in front of a classroom that she truly became herself. She loved teaching, every single aspect of it. In the process, Ruth lost her hesitation and her restraint, and to her astonishment discovered that this enthusiasm had begun to spill over into the rest of her life. Suddenly men started to notice her. She enjoyed the attentionwho wouldn't?and had dated more in the past few months than in the preceding four years.
For the picture, her short brown hair had been styled in loose curls. Her blue eyes were smiling and friendly, which was exactly the impression she hoped to convey. She was a little shocked by the importance of Paul's re-actionby her need that he find her attractive.
She waited impatiently for his response. A week later she received an email. Paul seemed to like what he saw in her photograph and soon they were writing and emailing back and forth at a feverish pace. A day without some form of communication from Paul felt empty now.
Ruth had never had a long-distance relationship before, and the growing intensity of her feelings for this man she'd never met took her by surprise. She wasn't a teenager with a schoolgirl crush. Ruth was a mature, responsible adult. Or at least she had been until she slipped a simple Christmas card into the mailboxand got a reply from a handsome marine sergeant named Paul Gordon.
Ruth walked quickly to the rental house she shared with Lynn Blumenthal, then ran up the front steps to the porch. Lynn was eighteen and away from home and family for the first time. The arrangement suited both of them, and despite the disparity in their ages and interests, they'd gotten along fairly well. With her heart pounding hard, Ruth forced herself to draw in a deep breath as she started toward the mailbox.
The screen door flew open and Lynn came out. "What are you doing home?" she asked, then shook her head. "Never mind, I already know. You're looking for a letter from soldier boy."
Ruth wasn't going to deny the obvious. "I haven't heard from him in three days."
Lynn rolled her eyes. "I don't understand you."
"I know." Ruth didn't want to get into another discussion with her roommate. Lynn had made her feelings about this relationship known from the outset, although as Ruth had gently tried to tell her, it was none of her business. That didn't prevent the younger woman from expressing her views. Lynn said that Ruth was only setting herself up for heartache. A part of Ruth actually agreed, but by the time she realized what was happening, she was emo tionally involved with Paul.
"You hardly ever see Clay anymore," Lynn chastised, hands on her hips. "He called and asked about you the other night."
Ruth stared at the small black mailbox. "Clay and I are just friends."
"Not according to him."
It was true that they'd been seeing each other quite a bit following a Halloween party last October. Like her, Clay Matthews was obtaining his master's of education, and they seemed to have a lot in common. But her interest in him had started to wane even before she'd mailed that Christmas card to Paul. The problem was, Clay hadn't noticed.
"I'm sorry he's disappointed."
"Clay is decent and hardworking, and the way you've treated him the last few months is
is terrible." Lynn, who at five foot ten stood a good seven inches taller than Ruth, could be intimidating, especially with her mouth twisted in that grimace of disapproval.
Ruth had tried to let Clay down easily, but it hadn't worked. They'd gone to the library together last Thursday. Unfortunately, that had been a mistake. She'd known it almost right away when Clay pressured her to have coffee with him afterward. It would've been better just to end the relationship and forget about staying friends. He was younger, for one thing, and while that hadn't seemed important earlier, it did now. Perhaps it was wrong to compare him to Paul, but Ruth couldn't help it. Measured against Paul, Clay seemed immature, demanding and insecure.
"You said he phoned?" Frowni ng, she glanced at Lynn.
Lynn nodded. "He wants to know what's going on."
Oh, brother! Ruth couldn't have made it plainer had she handed him divorce papers. Unwilling to be cruel, she'd tried to bolster his ego by referring to all the positive aspects of his personalitybut apparently, that had only led him to think the opposite of what she was trying to tell him. He'd refused to take her very obvious hints, and in her frustration, she'd bluntly announced that she wasn't interested in seeing him anymore. That seemed pretty explicit to her; how he could be confused about it left Ruth shaking her head.
The fact that he'd phoned and cried on her roommate's shoulder was a good example of what she found adolescent about his behavior. She was absolutely certain Paul would never do that. If he had a problem, he'd take it directly to the source.