Every March, Gayle Mason opened her scrapbook to a new page and a new love.
|Every March 20, Gayle Mason moved her scrapbook down from the bookshelf to her writing desk. There she would lay it open atop the MS of the novel she had begun composing back in college, and keep it open, turning the sheets every few weeks to a fresh page onto which she could paste photographs, clippings, tokens, and the thin columns of lined notebook paper onto which she jotted notes and reveries as they came to her. She had kept this scrapbook for eighteen years, ever since she was a junior in high school, which is when she had first hit on the idea of memorializing her boyfriends.
This year it would be Robert Decker she memorialized. That was the new boy at the automat where she most often took lunch. (She worked directly across the street as a file clerk at the Continental Life Insurance Company.) At nineteen, Robert was in fact much too young for her—a fact which she recognized—and he looked even younger, hardly more than a boy. He had large eyes and a very slight build, and he combed his dark, thick hair up and back into a rich pompadour that glimmered like an ocean wave at midnight when it reflects the moon.
This is such folly, Gayle told herself every day when she went across the street to lunch. What if someone guesses? It was a worry that had given her more pause than the age difference itself. Gayle liked to be discreet about her boyfriends anyway, and there was little chance the affair would be discovered, unless she were very careless, for she didn't socialize much with any of the women at the office, and all her best friends were back in White Plains. But it preyed on her still, so that she made it a point to sit near the front door, directly by the register, under the watchful eye of the manager, so that neither she nor Robert would be tempted to exchange more than a glance or a smile when they met.
But worse even than the fear of being found out was the fear that went with the infatuation itself. It had a startled, leaping quality, as though the love she felt was a hart she surprised in the forest every time she thought of him. This isn't just folly, she chided herself in those moments when she forgot not to stare at Robert as he bounded past, snapping with energy like a rubber band, bussing the tables. This is more than folly, this is wrongness! There was a sinking regret she felt as well. This is the last time I can ever give my love to one so young. Next year it will be an older man, she told herself, older than Robert certainly, and older than me. It was that promise, she realized some time later, that had given her the courage to lose herself in the giddiness of the affair—as though to gently cup (but with intense concentration!) a mortal flower as it visibly withered, knowing that no such bloom would ever rest in her palm again.
(She liked that image, of the bouquet of a last, fading rose, and she entered it into the scrapbook under a photograph of Robert as he stood waiting for the bus. She wondered why the image of a pressed flower had never occurred to her before. For wasn't that what her scrapbook was, in truth—the preserved memories of things once living, now put back against the day when memories only would warm her against the snows of winter?)
For these were always short affairs, and Gayle always closed her scrapbook on one after six months. The fact was that she feared her own obsessive nature and wouldn't allow herself to love any man too long. It went back to high school, when Patrick Brown snapped their love affair off at the root by calling her a "lamprey" on learning of the scrapbook she had begun keeping on him and herself. And she never pretended with her friends that her affairs were anything but passionate flirtations, and however intense the annual affair might be, she always spoke of it to her friends with a casual insouciance, as an indulgence to be as easily discarded as picked up. Most years she wouldn't even show her beau to her friends, and there were even years she pretended not to have one at all.
So what did she keep in her scrapbook? Gayle preferred symbolic tokens to concrete mementos. Photographs, typically, were the only directly referential ikons that she kept. Even with these, she preserved only chance images caught at a distance, with the man of her affections unaware. (Twice she had taken up a man who worked at Continental, and only of these did she save posed photographs. These often caused her to flinch when she flicked past them, particularly the one snapped at an office party by a colleague who caught her and Bob Anderson together, with her arm loosely hovering at his waist. "Lamprey," she shouldn't help thinking when she saw it.) Otherwise, the tokens she saved were of ticket stubs to movies where she had passed the darkened hour daydreaming of her beloved rather than attending the plot; of pennies mischievously snatched from tips he had left; matchbook covers advertising bars or restaurants into which she had crept to snatch a glimpse of him. Even, in some cases, the birth announcements for his children, when he had been married to another woman.
Gayle never returned the scrapbook to the bookshelf earlier than September 22, which was always the closing date for the affair. This was true even of Robert when he was arrested by the police on a hot July day for cutting open the face of a girl in his neighborhood. Gayle merely added the blotter item to the scrapbook, while everywhere correcting her own misapprehension of his name, from "Decker" to the newspaper's "Duchardt."
Winner of "The Writer's Cramp" for 3-24-21
Prompt: Title it-Scrapbook Season