by Christopher Thomas Wirth
Anna Courtney let her body rise and fall with the rhythm of Riley’s chest as he inhaled and exhaled the excited air of the hotel suite. His strong lungs consumed the room in heavy gulps and though they soon replaced it, the simple act of breathing it in had transformed every charged particle. It was only a few hours ago that Anna had held the federal papers that announced her assignment to a Mr. Harold Tallglass. And though Tallglass was a promising young man, having studied psychology at the University of Pennsylvania before attending graduate school at Yale, and despite his short, wavy dark hair and dimples that complimented his already handsome face, Anna couldn’t calm the feeling of disgust that she felt toward him.
It was her 21st birthday and, in accordance with the law, Anna had received her assigned spouse. Years ago, before she was born, the government had deemed it necessary to regulate marriage. The Bureau of Unified Families was created to formulate and assign all romantic relationships. Under the Security in Sanctity Act, even dating was outlawed and punishable by fines or sentencing at a detention center.
Anna had stood by the mailbox in front of her parents’ row-home in North Philadelphia when she opened the letter and caught the golden seal of the BUF. Without hesitation, she ran back into the house and clamored into the kitchen where her mother was seated. Anna slammed the letter down on the table beside her mother’s newspaper and coffee. The action shook the table so violently that it sent the mug rattling to one side, splashing hot, wet drops across the paper.
“What’s the matter with you, Anna! Look what you’ve done!” Her mother shrieked and began to carefully unfold the letter set down before her.
Anna spilled into an adjacent chair and sank her head into folded arms that rested along the table’s edge. She sobbed deep, heavy breaths into her chest.
“You know, you actually made out pretty good,” her mother said. “Just look at him. He’s gorgeous. You shouldn’t be crying. How do you think he’d feel if he saw you like this? I’m as sure as God is good that when he saw your picture he just melted. I bet he called everybody he knew and told them how pretty you were… Mrs. Anna Tallglass.”
Anna lifted her small, round face and looked to her mother who seemed to be admiring Anna’s obediently straight, chestnut-colored hair. Her mother pulled a hand through the locks and dressed them behind Anna’s ears, clearing them away from her face, which was adorned with a frail elegance.
“But what if he’s not my soul mate?” Anna cried out. Her mother rose from the table and, with the coffee mug in her hand, walked over to the sink and placed it in the tub. She took a towel from the counter and wiped the table where the coffee had spilled.
“Love is something you work, Anna, not something you crash into in the supermarket. Now, you better go upstairs and change. I’m sure that Harold’s parents will be calling soon.”
Anna got up and headed toward the tall staircase that led to her bedroom. Her mother stood in the kitchen and continued reading the letter.
“I hope they don’t want to go somewhere too expensive for dinner,” her mother called out. “Or maybe they’ll have us over. I bet they have their own chef. The Tallglasses… Anna Courtney Tallglass. Doesn’t that sound beautiful, Anna? It would be nice to have a psychologist in the family. Or is it psychiatrist? Anna, wear that dress you wore for Uncle Ray’s wedding. Does it still fit? Did you hear what I said?” There was no response. Anna’s mother returned to her chair and continued to admire the letter. “Anna Courtney Tallglass,” she said quietly.
In her bedroom, Anna stepped inside the closet and closed the door behind her. She uncovered a small shoebox that was stashed in the corner. Inside it were letters from Riley. She had written dozens of letters to him as well and marked each one with a mist of her perfume. They were testimonies of their forbidden love. After reading a few of the hand-written letters, Anna replaced the box and snuck back downstairs.
She passed quietly behind her mother who was still seated at the kitchen table and slipped out the front door unnoticed. She walked to Rittenhouse Square. It was almost noon, and she knew that Riley would most likely be eating his lunch on a south side bench as he did almost every day.
As she hurried past the buildings that ran along 18th Street, Anna recalled the day that she met Riley for the first time.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
It was February, just a few days after Anna’s 20th birthday. She spent the morning in Rittenhouse Square, protesting the SSA and her upcoming assignment. She grabbed men and women as they walked by and hugged them while she exclaimed, “Love is not a raffle,” and, “Your heart has a choice.”
Someone called the police but when Officer Riley arrived and approached Anna, she wrapped her arms around his sturdy torso and held him warmly. She lifted her soft face and gazed into his cloudy eyes, which seemed to be spinning like two tiny globes exposing massive continents and magnificent oceans of limitless depths. The officer looked back at her with a strange curiosity. He could not move or at least did not dare to as her breath reached his face and warmed his dry cheeks. She moved in closer but never broke contact with those swirling spheres. Slowly, their lips met and Riley found his arms defying all sense as they held her closer. He was, in an instant, no longer an officer of the law. Instead, almost immediately at the touch of her hand, Riley had become like a cloud of light whose only master was the grand and irrational passion of the universe. Anna’s hand fell and took hold of his but when their fingers interlocked, she felt the cold sternness of metal around his finger. Then, suddenly, Officer Riley broke away. Anna did not speak and Riley did not breathe, for a moment, though his mouth was opened slightly.
“I-I-I’ve been called out here because I – just don’t cause anymore trouble… Okay?” he said with a tremble.
“I’m sorry,” Anna said softly and Officer Riley stumbled backward from the spot where Anna still stood holding onto the air that had surrounded them – the air that still encapsulated that inexplicable moment, but would soon be gone with the coming of a busy breeze. With little energy, Anna floated home and ascended the staircase to her bedroom where she laid herself down gently into bed. “How could an Assigned be so tender?” she wondered as she drifted slowly into a dream.
Twelve months had passed since that day in the park and in that time Riley and Anna, in spite of the law, had gotten to know one another. She would meet him in the Square and they would read Chekov and eat bologna sandwiches. On rainy days, they would walk down Locust Street to Gerry’s Café and sit at the farthest table from the door.
“Did you always want to be a cop?” she had once asked him during a trip to Gerry’s.
“No, not really. I wanted to study philosophy, but when I got assigned it just didn’t make sense. Isabelle said it wasn’t a career. So she had her dad get me through the academy.”
Anna had never met Isabelle, Riley’s assignment, and for the most part Riley was reluctant to mention her in Anna’s presence. But from what little he did say, Anna learned that Isabelle came from a very respected family of police officers and that her high education had landed her a job as the district attorney for the mayor’s office. Riley might have loved her, Anna thought, but only in the way that an eager trillium loves the thawing soil of a coming spring.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
When Anna had finally reached the south side of Rittenhouse Square, she spotted Riley on an otherwise empty bench. He stood upon seeing her and she ran toward him and threw herself, crying, into his arms.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” Riley asked. Anna said nothing, but continued to weep into the officer’s uniform. “Oh God, it came didn’t it?” Anna cried harder and Riley held the broken girl in his arms as if to keep the pieces from shattering completely. “Oh, Anna.”
“I have to meet him tonight, but I don’t want to,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I hate him! How can I be with someone I don’t love? Why can’t I just be with you?”
Anna and Riley both knew that once she was married, their relationship would be almost impossible to keep hidden. The secret was hard enough to keep from one spouse, let alone two. Riley whispered into Anna’s ear and they walked to the park’s edge and hailed separate taxicabs. The cars headed to a hotel where Anna and Riley would finally execute their love.
The air in the hotel room was sweet, but nervous, as it passed over and through the two lovers who lay in the large untidy bed. Anna rested on her side, keeping perfectly still, and gazed at Riley’s profile, which distinguished itself from the white and perfect walls of the room.
“This can’t be the last time I see you,” she said. Riley turned his face to her and revealed those spinning globes that she had explored hundreds of times before, maybe even thousands of times since they first collided with hers on that day in the park.
“I won’t stop loving you,” she whispered as a slow, silent tear broke from her eye. “My heart won’t let me. I want you to wait for me tomorrow, in the park. Please, promise me you’ll still be there.”
Riley extended his hand and gently cupped the side of Anna’s face.
“I’ll be there,” he said. “Tomorrow and the day after and everyday that my heart beats, it will beat for you.”
Anna and Riley soon left the hotel and again hailed separate taxicabs to take them to their separate homes and their separate lives. When Anna arrived at her parents’ house and walked in the front door, her mother and father were standing in the kitchen. Her father had on a stiff black suit and her mother was wearing a dull red dress and her favorite heart-shaped pendant.
“Where in the world have you been!” her mother yelled and grabbed Anna by the shoulders. “You’re not even dressed and we’re meeting the Tallglasses in a half hour!” Anna stood with her head to the floor and stared at the dirt on her shoes.
“Oh forget it, go upstairs and get ready. They’ve sent a car for us and it’ll be here any minute now.”
Anna went to her room and squeezed into the pink floral dress that she wore to her uncle’s wedding. The dress poked and cut her throughout dinner, which was held at a very expensive restaurant in Society Hill. Anna flinched in pain every time she breathed or whenever Harold placed a hand on her thigh or around the back of her chair. The only words she uttered that night were a subdued, “Hello” and, “It was nice to meet you.”
The next day, Anna sped to the Square as fast as her feet would allow. They tripped here and there over bumps in the sidewalk, but she only ran faster and faster until she reached the spot where Riley was standing, in full uniform, with his patrol car parked in the street behind him and a tall blonde woman standing rigidly at his side.
Anna stumbled and her body sunk down and she crashed to her knees. She saw the letters that she had written to Riley, clenched in the woman’s fist. It was Isabelle. Anna looked at Riley with a shattered expression. His shameful eyes lowered themselves down and refused to answer the call of her puzzled gaze. The two officers that had stood at either side of Anna along the edge of the clearing now approached her and lifted her to her feet. They slowly led her toward Riley and Isabelle. Anna’s eyes were fixed permanently on Riley until Isabelle stepped forward and slapped a chilled stinging hand across her cheek.
“Did you really think you could get away with this?” Isabelle snarled. “Did you think I wouldn’t find your little love notes hidden in my house? You make me sick. And I’m going to see to it that you rot in a detention cell, alone. Not even your assignment will visit you… How dare you try to ruin my family – put my husband in jail – you’re nothing but a disgusting little whore.” Isabelle grabbed Riley by the arm and turned him so that they faced one another. “And you, you’re going to be the one that brings her in. And you’re going to tell them how this fucking rat tried to seduce you and get you to break your assignment. You’re going to tell them how completely obsessed and delusional she was. That her sick mind imagined the whole fucking thing between you two.” Isabelle released Riley and glared at Anna as he fastened the cold metal handcuffs around her wrists. He took her by the arm and escorted her to the patrol car. Sunday Mass had just ended at The Church of the Holy Trinity and the old bronze bells of the carillon rang out from the church’s belfry.
As Riley placed Anna into the back seat, she felt the coldness of his ring against her skin. He pushed the door closed behind her and looked at her through an opening at the top of the window, where it had been rolled down slightly.
“We could run,” she said through the crack. Her eyes searched the surface of his face, trying to locate something familiar, but there was no trace of him. His eyes had become like two dark stones, cold and damp as if a river had once flowed over them but had since exhausted itself and run dry.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I hope you believe that. But she would destroy both of us… We could never be happy.”
Riley turned his back to the patrol car and saw Isabelle watching from the Square. The sensation from where his hand had held Anna’s arm slowly dissipated, for as quickly as it had come to know her flesh it had forgotten it and evaporated into a sharp and bitter breeze that stole itself away to some far off place where no earthly force could ever hope to reach it.