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Historical Fiction Coming of Age Drama

Cornelia glanced with increasing annoyance at the date on the unopened envelope. August 1, 1910. Written in a nearly illegible scrawl that she immediately recognized as William’s. The letter had been resting in the top corner of her bureau for the past week. She refused to open it. There were other things to do in her life that were more important than reading that letter. She had written to William in April, and it had taken him five months to reply. Five months! The mail may be a little slow between Boston and Brooklyn, but it certainly wasn’t that slow. 

Cornelia pulled out her hairbrush from the drawer in her bedroom dresser and sat down, gazing fondly at her reflection in the hand painted gilded mirror she had received for her eighteenth birthday. The mirror in her room provided Cornelia with an inflated sense of vanity that she adored. She set the hairbrush down next to the envelope. The very sight of the letter initiated a resurgence of annoyance. On the day she received the correspondence she was torn between joyously tearing it open or tearing it up and burning it. To throw the letter on top of the evening fire and watch the parchment turn from beige to brown to black, shrinking and shriveling as the flames crackled. William’s words disintegrating, whirling up the chimney and away from Cornelia’s presence. Cornelia decided not opening the letter was a justifiable compromise between those two actions.

Cornelia started to undo her hairpins. She still always experienced a feeling of delight when she caught a sight of herself with her hair up. For the longest time, she had always dreamed of being able to put her hair up into a bun, envisioning just how much more grown up and stylish she would look. But appropriate protocol wouldn’t allow a young lady to put her hair up until she was eighteen. 

It was only three weeks before her eighteenth birthday when William left. Saw an ad in the post hiring junior engineers in Brooklyn for a train station being constructed. 

“This is an opportunity for us,” he informed Cornelia an hour after he saw the ad, “Think of the future.” William was keen on thinking about the future. A quick goodbye, “I’ll write soon” and an hour later he left on the soonest train headed to New York. 

The first month he was gone, there were enough letters to keep Cornelia satisfied. The second month, there was absolutely nothing. And there was absolutely nothing the third, fourth and fifth month. Cornelia started to fret, a dreaded fear in the back of her mind that something had happened, but a distant mutual friend settled in New York informed her that they had seen William walking on his way to work everyday. He was fine.

This news immediately turned Cornelia’s bubbling fear into resentment. Surely if William cared enough about her, at the very least he would have found time to write just one letter. Just one measly letter.

There was always a chance that her last letter got lost in the mail. Or his letter had experienced the same fate. Perhaps if Cornelia resumed the letter writing, rather than wait, communication would return to a steady pace. In her next correspondence, Cornelia provided an invitation to attend the Boston symphony’s annual summertime concert. To be enraptured by the symphony’s signature finesse and gaiety, as they had done when they were children each July. 

When writing the invitation, Cornelia had a slight aspiration about wondering if William would say anything about her new hairstyle. She was even going to wear it with her best blue cotton dress, the one with the embroidered flowers all down the skirt. Cornelia could picture it all in her head. How the event would play out. She was determined to look as pretty as the symphony would sound that summer afternoon. William would greet her on the porch steps, exclaiming how absolutely sensational she looked. This event would take place shortly after Cornelia opened a letter sent from Brooklyn, its content involving William enthusiastically responding with a confirmation to the invitation. But William had never responded.

Until now. 

The hairpins on the right side of Cornelia’s head were now removed, and the side of her hair that was draped over her shoulder looked very childish, she thought. Oh, how she enjoyed the privilege of donning her hair up! To be able to show the world that she was a mature young woman. 

“Think of the future,” William had said. Cornelia’s future involved the stability of a house in the countryside with a partner who communicated with her every chance he could get.

She reached for the hairbrush, glancing again at the letter. It probably had some silly excuse in it, like he was very sorry, but he already had plans on the day of the concert, a day off with his friends in Brooklyn. Cornelia wondered what William did on his days off in a big roaring city such as New York. Perhaps, if she opened the letter, she would find out. Nevertheless! Cornelia wasn’t going to open up a letter that had taken five months to write, just to read some pathetic excuse. 

Cornelia was now onto unpinning the left side of her hair, the process fueled by her frustration. “Oh!” She exclaimed. The cameo pin William had given her as a birthday token had fallen off, and poked her in the thigh. It was a fickle pin, always coming undone. She pinned the cameo back on the collar of her blouse anyway. Her mind went from the pin, to William, to the letter. Maybe there was a reasonable excuse in it, she thought. He had to work through the summer holidays, or was too busy helping a friend in need, to spend time traveling and socializing. Cornelia’s frustration turned to pity. He was always talking about how hard he was working in his previous letters. Cornelia removed the last hairpin, watching the strand of hair fall. She took the hairpin, and used it as a letter opener, breaking the seal, and taking out William’s letter, her posture tense with unknowingness. Her shoulders immediately relaxed as she read the contents:

My Dearest Cornelia, 

Wait until you see the end result of what I have been working on. I am sure you have heard by now through the papers about what they’re calling The New York Terminal and Tunnel extension project. On the job, the lads and I have been calling it Penn Station but that is such a short name for something that is now so extravagant. It seemed a fitting name when the areas I was working in were just a pile of rubble and wires. Rubble, wires, and steel are all I have seen for five months straight, fourteen hours a day, six days a week. On a project that when I first started I deemed unfeasible. A tunnel under a river? Oh, but when I tell you my experience from yesterday! When I had finished my last day, and after coming out from the dark tunnel like a mole rat, I found myself in the heart of the station . To see the sight that awaited me! How I wish you could have been standing next to me to share in the absolute splendor that is this magnificent colossal of a building. Why the only way to describe it is, do you know the book we read when we were children with the illustrations of the Roman cathedrals? This is the equivalent, I tell you! The arches, the glorious arches. There I was, standing all alone as the midday sun coming through the domed glass roof was hitting the marble floor in brilliant, blinding criss cross squares of light! I can’t wait until others can see this sight in 29 days from now. For you to see it!

Do you know what this means? No more waiting for mail to arrive to hear word from you, but in person! Half a day's travel time, and we shall be able to see each other. 

Splendid news! I’ve been hired for another project here and shall be staying in Brooklyn for the next few months but do try to come soon, and when you do, do it by New York’s Pennsylvania Train Station! 

Cornelia’s shoulders tensed back up as she finished reading the letter. The nerve of that man! Not once had he uttered an apology of any kind within that page of paper. And to declare that she should come visit him when she had time. Not when he had time to spare. And do come by New York’s Pennsylvania Train Station! Why the end of the letter read as the same advertisements she had seen in the press the last few weeks. How dare William try to promote transportation methods to her when he couldn’t even be bothered to write just one letter for weeks on end! Fueled by a passionate rage, Cornelia pushed back her vanity chair, and giving no thought to the fact that her hair was in a wild state, frizzy locks released down to the middle of her back, she marched down the stairs towards the living room currently illuminated by the evening firelight, murmured an “excuse me” to her mother knitting by the fireplace, and threw William’s letter into the flames. The letter turned from beige to brown to black, shrinking and shriveling as the flames crackled.

August 18, 2023 22:20

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2 comments

Anne Abraham
18:17 Aug 30, 2023

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, it was such a joy to read your comment!

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08:20 Aug 30, 2023

I absolutely loved his letter, its just a pity she was far too proud to see its beauty. Well done.

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