Part One- Her Words- 156

156 letters. One for every week that he was gone. 156 letters that told me how much he loved me. 156 letters that begged me to wait for him. 156 letters that promised he’d never leave me again. I never cared that three years was 156 weeks, until I had a letter for every one of them. I never cared about letters until he was writing them to me. And then I watched for the mailman. I craved the sharpness of the envelope edges on my fingers; my heart beat for my name, written in black ink, in his barely legible scrawl across the front.

My family laughed at us, made jokes, but the letters were our love. I loved reading his words as he wrote them, without spell check and Autocorrect, his hesitation as he thought about how to word his feelings. His heart was open on the pages, spilled by his own hand, and I only fell deeper in love even as I missed him even more desperately. When I had 156 letters, it was time for him to come home.

I met him at the gate, both nervous and excited. He was wearing the same clothes they’d taken him away in, a dark blue polo, jeans and Nike Airmax sneakers. He was bulkier, more sturdy. And even though his eyes had a film of sadness I doubted I’d ever be able to lift, he smiled when he saw me. I got out of the car and ran to him. He held out his arms and gathered me in, lifting slightly. My feet left the ground and I gasped in surprise. Though he’d relished and reveled in every inch of my thickness for as long as I’d known him, the “him” from 156 weeks ago had not been able to lift me. I laughed.

“Put me down, before you hurt yourself,” I said. He sat me on the ground and stared at me like he was trying to memorize my face. And maybe, he was.

“Hurt myself? I got you, don’t you worry about that. Now give me some sugar so I can forget about you talking all crazy,” he said back. I grabbed at his shirt and lifted up on my toes. Our lips met, clung. I opened my mouth, sent my tongue into his. I sighed in relief. He growled in remembrance. Passion bloomed and warmed me head to toe. His hands went around me, gripped my ass, squeezed. I remembered him telling me, years ago, that kisses weren’t kisses unless you used your hands and mouth. We explored each other’s mouths leisurely, getting reacquainted. Our kisses were wet, slow, passionate. I wanted a hug, and his clothes off simultaneously. Finally, he pulled away.

“I missed you, Ree,” he whispered to me. I smiled. No one else called me Ree. No one else was allowed to.

“I missed you,” I whispered back. I grabbed his hand and tugged him over to the car. He got in and I ran around to the driver’s side and got in too. I turned to look at him, all chocolate brown and handsome. My heart skipped a beat. 156 weeks. 156 letters. And now he was home.

When we got to the house, we went straight to the bedroom. He undressed me, putting his mouth every place he revealed. I wanted fast love, instant gratification. My pussy ached for him. It’d been 156 weeks, after all. He slowed me down, made me wait, told me my patience would pay off. And it did. My legs over his shoulders as he tasted my cream for nearly an hour. My voice, hoarse from screaming his name, bite marks and hickeys on my ass, neck, breasts, stomach. Every orifice filled as I sobbed and screamed my way into a countless number of orgasms. He fulfilled every filthy promise he wrote in those letters, and emptied his essence into me over and over, fulfilling his last promise. Because in Letter Number 156, the last one before he’d come home, he’d also promised me a baby.

The job market was a tough place after 156 weeks. And with the proof of where he’d been hanging over his head, it was discouraging. But he wouldn’t give up. I wanted to start our business plan, map out details. I wanted him to chase the secret dreams he’d written to me about in Letter 37. That we’d revisited in Letter 85, and Letter 122. I wanted him to grab onto his full potential. But all he wanted… was work. Something to bring in money, something to show my family, show me, that he was capable of more than writing letters. I was willing to wait. I wanted to save his spirit. But he needed to save his pride.

Our days were filled with quiet holds, and comfortable silence. It was almost as though we’d run out of words. And I guess 156 letters will make you feel like you have. Our only noise… was the nights. Our nights were filled with passionate sex, moans and screams and grunts and whimpers. Begging and promises and sighs of completion. It was the best noise. But it was the only noise. I tried not to be afraid of the silence. But while he reveled in the comfort that the silence of home was better than the noise and violence from whence he’d come, to me, the silence only represented — alone. A lone woman hoping for a miracle in her mailbox. To me, the silence was him not there, and I had trouble seeing it any other way, even though I was seeing him, with my own eyes.

He didn’t leave the house except to look for work, and wouldn’t let me give him a homecoming celebration when I asked. For him, the reason he’d been away didn’t warrant a celebratory welcome home. I, was worried. I didn’t need his guilt. I needed his confidence, his happiness. I needed the man who told me he’d be back to lead our household in Letter 47, the man who promised in Letter 99 that he’d walk with me down by the water and shout to every passerby that I was the love of his life. I understood where he’d been. I knew it was a place where joy was hidden, rationed. I knew why he’d put it away. I knew he’d had to… for survival. But now he was home. And I wanted the joy he’d managed to hold, so we could create more. I needed it. But he barely gave me a glimpse. It was as though he was keeping it close to the chest. It was as though he was afraid he’d lose it again.

“Let’s go out to dinner,” I said as I came into the living room. He was on my laptop, searching through dozens of job posts like he did every day. I walked up to him, and he stopped, turning his attention to me. He rubbed my thigh, kissed it through my leggings. He shoved the chair back and pulled me into his lap. I straddled him, rubbed his chest. Our lips met, and I pressed closer. We opened our mouths and our tongues danced. I sighed, rubbed his head and ears. I pulled back, smiled.

“Why you wanna go out, huh? You know we need to save money, Ree,” he said, his voice quiet, gentle. I frowned.

“We can afford dinner out, baby. It’s just one,” I said, pouting. He laughed.

“We can afford it when I’m working.”

“No. We’re good now. And I want you to get out of this house. I want us to have some fun. I want you to see… what you’ve been missing,” I said. He sighed.

“Only thing I was missing was you, Ree. That’s the only thing about my life that I missed. You’re the only thing I need,” he said back.

“In your first letter, you promised everything would be normal when you came home. Letter Number One. You started out making promises. And that was your first one. You said nothing would change. Letter Number One. You gotta prove it to me,” I said. He sighed and stared at me. There was so much love in his eyes, so much hope, but so much fear. I wondered what he was so afraid of, but I knew it wasn’t the right time to ask. Then, he smiled.

“Okay,” he said. I grinned and threw my arms around his neck, kissing him. Later, we went to dinner. We strolled by the river, we kissed and laughed and held hands. It was just like Letters 62 and 99 said it would be. It was just like I imagined and wanted. It was everything.

A month passed. Two. He didn’t find a job. He grew more unhappy, more afraid. His joy seemed like it was permanently tucked away, hidden from me forever. The film of sadness over his eyes seemed thicker, more impenetrable. I didn’t know how to reach him. We fought, because he wanted to stray away, go back into making money in the same way that had him writing me those letters in the first place.

“Ree, it’ll just be for a little while. I just want to take care of you!”

“I have 156 reasons why it’s a bad idea. I have 156 letters that you wrote! You said in Letter Number One that I would get you back, but you also said you’d never leave again. You’d never make me doubt you. YOU said that!” I yelled back. He stood there, in front of me, nostrils flaring with his anger and frustration, balling his fists.

“You don’t understand,” he said, his voice quiet. And I knew I didn’t. I knew I had no idea what it was like to be him, be a man, in this world. I had no idea what he was going through. But I knew what I’d been through without him. I knew I didn’t want it to happen again. I knew we’d never survive it. I knew my heart couldn’t take 156 more letters. I started sobbing. He turned away, sighed deep, walked out the door. I cried myself to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning, he wasn’t beside me. But there was an envelope. I sat up, opened it. He’d written to me. Not a letter of apology, not a letter of promises and angst. It was a letter… of our love. He spoke of meeting me, of speaking to me for the first time, of knowing our hearts would connect. He spoke of what we were and could be, and never mentioned the 156 weeks he’d been away. It was a letter of our life, and not his absence. It was a new beginning.

When I got downstairs, he was sitting at my laptop, perusing job posts like he did every day. My 156 letters were stacked beside him, with the shredder set up next to him on the floor. He looked at me, smiled. I smiled back. I held up the envelope.

“What’s this?’ I said to him. He took the first letter from the stack, put it through the shredder.

“It’s Letter Number One,” he said, “the only Letter Number One. And there’s more to come.”

Part Two- His Words- Three

Three years is a long time. When I left Ree, when I got myself caught up, I thought I’d get a few months, a year tops. But they gave me three years. Three damn years. I felt like I lost her at that moment. I was sure she wouldn’t wait for me. I mean, she had the whole rest of her life… out there. And I knew there’d be no shortage of men waiting to love her. Ree is beautiful, talented, smart, and loving. She is everything I ever wanted in this life. I knew there was no way she wasn’t everything someone else wanted too. But even though I knew it was a long shot to keep her, I had to try. I’d never written letters before Ree. I never cared enough about anybody, I guess. But I needed to let her know that our love was the only thing on my mind. So three days in, I wrote her a letter. And when she wrote back, I wrote to her again. That’s how it started.

Man, she loved those letters. Even the first few that were basically one long ass apology. I didn’t know they’d make her so happy… so relieved. I didn’t know writing “I love you” over and over, in handwriting you could barely make out, would give her the joy that it did. But once I found out it did, I knew I had to keep writing. I had to give Ree whatever she needed. After all, she was waiting for me.

The day I got out was the scariest day of my life. Being back in the world wasn’t scary, and neither was reuniting with Ree. What was scary was the thought of losing her if I couldn’t take care of her, because there was no way I could go back to the old way. But I knew I had to try. So I took her home, and loved her until she begged me to stop. I kissed and nibbled and sucked and licked every piece and part of her. Damn, I missed her so much. Not touching her had left me with a hole in my heart, a space so empty it depressed me to think of it. I tried to make up for that. I stroked her relentlessly, lifted and turned her effortlessly, fucked her crazy. Every night. Not only because I missed her and needed her body. But also because I wanted her to know how much she meant to me, even though I wasn’t writing her letters anymore.

Sometimes she brought up the letters, reminded me of what I promised, and what I dreamed. But I just needed to get back on my feet. I never wanted Ree to lift a finger ever again. She held us both for three years. And all she had to show for it was a stack of letters. I wanted — I needed, to give her more than that. A family, security, my love and loyalty and dick forever. Ree was mine; her heart was mine. It was my job to earn it again. She’d ask me all the time why I was so sad, so afraid. And the truth was, I was afraid of letting her down… again. The truth was, I was afraid that her family was right, that I wasn’t good enough. And I was afraid to one day look at Ree and see that in her eyes. So I stayed silent, as if not talking about it would dead it. It didn’t. But I pretended. And Ree let me… for a while. But a month passed. And then two.

The night we had the fight, I walked around for hours, just letting the air hit me. I was cold, tired, and ready to be in bed long stroking my woman, but I just could not go home. Ree just didn’t understand what it was like to spend three years with only a sliver of sunshine and no freedom. She didn’t know how hopeless I felt not being able to do anything for her. She didn’t know tiring it was keeping on this brave face, this positive face, this calm face. And she didn’t know how close I was to going back to what I knew.

“We glad you home, dog,” my man Jay had said as we talked on the phone my first week home, “let me know when you wanna work and I got you.”

“Nah man. I told Ree I’d keep it close to home for a while.”

“Oh aight. I understand. If you change your mind man, let me know.” Jay disconnected the call and I sat there staring at a computer screen full of jobs that would never hire me, feeling as helpless and frustrated as I did the day they brought the cuffs and locked me up. Three years. Three long years. And all I had to show for it was a stack of letters, with apologies and empty promises.

When I finally did go home, Ree was asleep. I stood over her, staring, knowing she’d cried herself into exhaustion. And my guilt grew. I knew we needed to talk, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t say anything. So I went to the living room, and I wrote it. I wrote about the first time I saw her, the first time we spoke, the first time we kissed. I told Ree how her voice makes me hard, how I want to grab her hips every time she switches them in my direction. How kissing her rights my world. I told her everything. I had to give Ree what she needed. After all, she’d waited for me.

I slept, and woke up early. I went back to the computer, started the job hunt, and stacked Ree’s letters beside me. No more lamenting like a man on the inside, no more begging Ree to stay. She was already here. I just had to show her why “here” was home. She came downstairs with my new letter in her hand. I looked up, smiled. She smiled back.

“What’s this?’ she said, holding up the envelope. I took my first letter to her, Letter Number One, and put it through the shredder. She gasped, and her eyes widened.

“It’s Letter Number One. The only Number One. And there’s more to come,” I promised. Ree walked over to me, leaned down, kissed me slow. She stood up.

“This is a beautiful letter. But those are beautiful too,” she said, pointing at the stacks beside me. I shook my head.

“I know I can’t give you three years of your life back, Ree. But I don’t want us to keep reliving it. I only want to talk about us being together. These letters are all about us being apart. So every week, I’m gonna write you a new one, and shred the old one. I’m gonna make it up to you,” I explained. Ree smiled, her eyes patient, soft.

“You don’t have anything to make up to me.”

“Yes, I do. And I will. I promise,” I said. I pushed the chair back and stood up. I pulled Ree to me, capturing her lips with mine. I’d gone a night without making love to her. I was going to make that up first.

The morning I got up to slide Letter Number Six under Ree’s pillow, she was already awake. I found her in the bathroom, throwing up and looking miserable. She looked at me, her eyes tired but happy. And I knew I finally kept Letter 156’s promise, and given her our baby. But I still wasn’t working. So although I wanted to be happy, I found myself feeling as miserable as the morning sickness was making her. Ree flushed the toilet, brushed her teeth and went right into my arms, wrapping herself around me.

“We’ll be okay. I promise we will. I know you’re not happy, but we’ll be okay,” she whispered. I lifted her face, leaned down and kissed her.

“Don’t you say that. I am happy about our baby, Ree. I just… I’m worried,” I explained. She nodded in understanding.

“I know. But we’ll be okay. We will.” Ree grabbed my hand and pulled me back to the bed. She got in, and pulled me in too. She took off her — my — t-shirt and straddled me.

“Ree, your letter — ”

“I’ll read it later,” she whispered and fell onto me, kissing me. I didn’t look for a job that day. Ree insisted we stay in bed, “celebrating.” I couldn’t help but feel like it was a distraction. And maybe it was. But I wasn’t gonna turn her down. There was heaven between her thighs and I’d take that glimpse whenever I could get it.

My search remained fruitless. My frustration grew. The morning after I wrote Letter Number 10, I called Jay and told him I needed to “work.” I didn’t know how to tell Ree, or what would happen when she found out. But I knew I had to provide for her, and for our baby. I knew that after getting her pregnant and keeping that promise, that I had to find a way to keep the others as well. I still looked for jobs, but I wasn’t glued to the laptop the way I had been previously. And after she came home a couple of nights that week and I was “out with the fellas” and not waiting for her in front of that laptop, she knew. But I was still afraid to tell her. So I carried on. I left Letter 11 under her pillow and sat down to job search. She came into the living room, waving the letter, which was still unopened.

“Ree? What’s wrong?’ I said. She frowned and came over to me, putting her brand new Letter 11 through the shredder before I could even blink.

“You have to write it again. Letter 11 is a lie, and you have to write it again,” she insisted. Her eyes were wet and I knew she wanted to cry, but was trying to fight it. I stood up, tried to pull her into my arms. She backed away, put her hands up.

“Ree, please. I just — ”

“You are not telling me everything. A lie by omission is still a lie to me, you know that. That does not replace the Letter 11 you wrote me before because in that first one, you told me the truth.”

“The truth is I had to do something to stop feeling like a fucking failure! I have to take care of you, and this is the only way I know how to do that. I’ve always been able to take care of you, and it’s killing me that I can’t. You want the truth? That’s it!” I yelled, frustrated. Ree sighed. She reached over and handed me a pen from the desk.

“Then that’s what I want you to write. That’s what I want you to tell me,” she said, handing me the pen. I looked at her, beautiful and angry, tears threatening to spill over, eyes filled with fear.

“Ree, I don’t want to lose you,” I whispered, saying the only thing that mattered to me at the moment. She sighed again, came into my arms.

“I don’t know if I can handle you being away again,” she whispered back. I held her tight, kissed her hair.

“Then I won’t go away again,” I said. I went back to the desk, grabbed a notepad, and started Letter 11 again. I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep my promise, to stay home, to not get caught. But I knew that for now, I was here, and so was Ree. My job was to replace all of those letters from the three years. And I was going to try my damnedest to do it.