When the letter from Sotheby's arrived, he had to read it through twice before the words sank in. She was selling the poems he'd written for her. Selling them! He couldn't believe it. It was unimaginable, unconscionable. Those long, lyrical poems he'd written her, one for every week that they were together - poems so personal, so painful that he'd never had the courage to show them to anyone else, let alone publish them; poems that he'd spent long nights wrestling with, trying to get the phrases just right so they would express how he felt about her; poems like nothing he'd ever written before or since, the very heartblood of his fervid twenties. And she was going to auction them off to the highest bidder? Just like that?
Could it be that she needed the money? Impossible. After all, that apeneck husband of hers had always been rich - it was the only thing that could be said about him. And by now he must be an important bigwig in that investment bank he used to work for - Morgan Dimwit or something. They must be rolling in the stuff. No, this was avarice, pure and simple, an act of petty greed, a form of despicable profit-seeking that he'd never considered she might be capable of. It shouldn't surprise him, he supposed. He'd always known she was unsentimental. But this!
He tried to remember if he'd signed the poems when he gave them to her. That would increase their value. He couldn't remember when he'd last looked at them. He spent half the day rummaging through his old files until he found copies of the poems (so strange to think that in those days duplicating a poem meant using carbon paper, and hoping that the copy wouldn't smudge), and sat down to read them over again. He was half-hoping they would be crap, as poems written long ago often turn out to be; he had this image of himself shrugging them off with a laugh, as if to suggest that they were mere follies of his lovelorn youth, juvenile exercises in verse not to be taken seriously. The kind of thing a young man writes to impress a woman he lusts after. This would be a lie, of course, he'd meant them in all seriousness, but faced with so terrifying a betrayal as she had just dealt him, who was to say what was true and what was a lie?
In fact, the poems were heartbreaking. Page after yellowing page the phrases jumped out at him, sharp as the day they were written. He could feel the claws of them reaching out for him, reopening old wounds. No. Whatever he said about her or their relationship, these poems could not, would not be denied. He felt like a man who stands in the dock, watching a case being built against him and knowing, suddenly, that his alibi will not hold.
He told himself that he mustn't let it affect him this much. After all, the papers had more important things to focus on than the sordid love life of some obscure poet. The news of the sale of these letters probably wouldn't make the papers at all, or if it did it would show up as a tiny paragraph tucked away between the latest exploits of some teenage starlet and some inane quote about the state of the nation from a famous sportsperson.
As for her - what was one betrayal more to add to the long list of all she had done to him? And besides, it was twenty five years ago now, too much had changed in his life, too many good things had happened. In a way, he had her to thank for them - it was the book he wrote to get over the depression of her leaving him that first got him noticed. That was where it had all begun. And though there had been other books since (and other women) still the tenderest poems he had ever written, the ones that got the most attention, the ones that ended up in all the anthologies, had been written while thinking of her.
It was time he got over it though. He was a successful poet now. Even a famous one. He had a shelf cluttered with prizes, a reputation like a well-packed suitcase that he carried around with him wherever he went. There were even rumours of his name coming up in Stockholm, though it was probably too early for that. Meanwhile, other loves had come and gone. Even now he was not short of admirers, many of them female, many of them willing. He had seen the way some of the students in his creative writing class looked at him. Like frightened shepherdesses in the presence of Zeus.
And that was the trouble. These women did not admire him as a man, as a human being. They admired him as a legend. They didn't really want to sleep with him, they wanted to be able to say that they had. It was his reputation, not his cock, that he was bringing to bed with them. He supposed he should be grateful. He was 54 years old and hadn't been particularly good looking to begin with. If it wasn't for his fame, no woman in her right mind would give him so much as a second glance.
He went over to the mirror and stared at his own reflection. It was strangely comforting to see the frail, familiar figure that greeted him. Perhaps this was why Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. Not because he admired it, but because the mirror was the only thing that saw him for who he really was. Was that why he was so obsessed with this love affair from a quarter of a century ago? Because it was the one time that he had been loved for himself and not for his poems? Was that why he needed so badly to believe that she had in fact loved him, never mind how it ended, never mind that she left him for someone else? Because if that wasn't true then he had never really been loved? And yet how was it possible to believe that she had loved him, to sustain that illusion, now that she was selling the poems that were, to him, the purest symbol of that love?
Could it be that she wanted to abandon the poems so that they would not interfere with her memory of him? Could it be that she had kept them from her husband all this while, but that he'd found out about them somehow and wanted her to get rid off them? But in that case, why not simply destroy them? Why sell them in a public auction? No. There could be no doubt that she was trying to humiliate him. There was no love there, only callousness and the desire to wound.
The thought of this worked on him like poison. He considered writing back to Sotheby's and denying the authenticity of the poems, but they were too good to disown, and besides, he had his pride.
After he sent off the letter authenticating the poems, he sat at his desk and tried to channel his emotions into poetry, just as he'd done that first time, twenty five years ago. He went three days and three nights without sleep, his study coming to resemble a slaughterhouse of paper, poems bleeding to death all around him. But somehow the words just wouldn't turn out right. Fatigued beyond exhaustion, he finally gave up on them, then finding that the urgency of his disquiet still wouldn't let him sleep, he fished out a bottle of sleeping pills from his medicine cabinet, took one pill, then another, then a third. At some point it seemed pointless to stop - he might as well be done with it now, he thought - and he ended up finishing off the bottle. His last conscious thought was to wonder whether she'd be sorry when she heard.
When the poems he'd written her were finally auctioned, two weeks later, experts said the news of his death and the fact that he'd been thinking about her when he killed himself (as evidenced by the last poems he'd written, naming her for the first time) caused the value of the collection to more than triple.