Three Words

James Sanderson

Inside Howard’s wool coat pocket was a letter. The letter started and ended with the same three words. The three words became a mantra to Howard, one he would repeat while he looked at his haggard face in the mirror night after night before tucking himself into bed and watching the Late, Late Night Show with the Scottish guy with the only funny jokes on late night television. Where, Howard wondered, did all of the classic hosts go? Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan were replaced by overpaid chins and hairpieces.

Written in a lazy, lethargic cursive, signed with great care, and spanning six pages, the letter had been in Howard’s Filson for exactly four years to the current day. He removed it only to read it until it was memorized to the last punctuation mark. This wasn’t too much of an issue, as Howard retained 70-90% of the information he saw or heard, a natural-born talent one might call eidetic memory. This was the very same talent that got him into Princeton without much effort, and graduating magna cum laude with almost the same amount of work. This had its disadvantages: remembering that on January 15, 1998 a man in a bright yellow rain jacket stepped in front of the 34 bus in downtown Trenton and the exact look of relief that crossed the man’s face right before he was struck down, how many times his mother used the word “fuck” in the fight that led to his parents’ divorce and how many times she blamed Howard for the whole horrible ordeal (it was eleven, and so was he), and so on. He was thankful for every single one of his memories. His mind was like a computer, and his hard drive had a limited amount of space. He could hold onto things as long as he found them worthy. There were a surprising amount of bad memories inside his hard drive, but he used them to better himself; remembered the negative to breed a stronger version of Howard McGrath. Everything else was deleted, and he had trouble recalling it.

The contents of the letter covered a lot of ground. Everything from small talk and minor observation to soul-wrenching truths no one else could have found but her. She was an analyst. Hours of her time were spent diagnosing people’s psychoses, delving deep into the recesses of the human mind. This caused her to read into every action, and sometimes got in the way of her and Howard’s relationship. Truth be told, though, he never disliked it. This quality of hers was probably the only thing about her he didn’t completely love or obsess over. It astonished him how many memories of her he saved in his hard drive. So many smiles, fights, long-winded coffee-fueled conversations, and sexual encounters would sometimes seep into his consciousness, even though he rarely called them to mind. One particular instance came to mind at the moment. The last time he had seen Elizabeth, she had already had her things moved from their apartment and was on her way out the door before he even knew she was leaving him. She was surprised, an emotion that was awkwardly flattering to her facial features. Howard wasn’t supposed to have been home until an hour later, the time being 5:13 p.m. on a Thursday during a warm April day. She looked down for a moment, before seeming to remember her confidence in the decision she had made independently.

“Howard, I’m leaving.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Where are you going? Were you going to leave and have me wait until the sun came up for you to come home and—”

“Goddamnit, Howard, you’re so longwinded. I left you a note”

“A note? Oh, I’m sure that aptly explains everything.”

“It’s more of an essay. Or a letter. I wanted to avoid an argument.”

“Oh ok, that makes sense, yeah, just let me get out of your way so you can leave without telling me why or what I did or what the hell is happening.” Howard didn’t remember crying (he blocked it out), but this is the point where he started.

“Well, maybe you’ll find your explanation in the letter I wrote you. It took me a long time to write, and I’m always better with words when I don’t have to say them out loud.”

“That’s convenient, Lizzie. Don’t you worry about me, don’t ask me how I feel, just get the fuck out if you’re so eager to leave.”

“I was on my way out, if you remember. Which of course you do.” She left without looking back and without hesitation. He admired her for that. She was much stronger than he was, or at least had more conviction.

He had replayed this melodramatic scene in his mind over and over again, never fully intending to. This kind of thing had been happening more and more, becoming, as of late, a recurring theme in his dreams as well. It became increasingly more upsetting as he got closer to his impending reunion with Elizabeth. Three months ago, he had received an email from her asking how he was. He responded with “Okay,” and she pressed him.

“No, really, how are you? It’s been a long time. I thought about you yesterday, and I had hoped we could talk or something.”

“I’m fine. Not to be rude, but what is there to talk about? Your letter said everything. How are you?”

“That was a long time ago. Maybe it would be better if we talked in person?”

“You didn’t answer my question. When and where would you like to meet?”

“I’m very well. I’m finally in a position where I can talk about things. How about Cal’s Coffee Shoppe, you remember that place?”

“Is that rhetorical? I mean, of course I remember that place. We went there for our thirteenth date, then for our twentieth, and then on our two-year anniversary. I enjoy that place, and their Americanos. So when?”

“How about exactly three months from today? I know you love that kind of shit.”

“Very well, I’ll see you then.”

Howard went upstairs to his room once more. He had already chosen a white dress shirt, a plain black tie, a pair of black slacks, and black socks to wear after his shower. They were laid out quite perfectly on the foot of his bed. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Apollo, his grey tabby cat, darting from under the nightstand and out the door. He wondered quietly what Apollo was running from and decided he had seen his own shadow, the coward. After removing his robe, Howard glanced over at his chair, pushed in under his desk, and on the chair hung his wool coat, and thought of the worn paper letter inside and how important it was not to forget the words Elizabeth had written him. He ran them through in his mind thirty-seven times as he stepped into his shower, washed with Irish Spring, lathered Head and Shoulders in his graying hair, dried off, and dressed. He looked in his bathroom mirror and regarded the thirty-seven-year-old man inside of it. When had he gotten so many lines on his forehead? The lines didn’t bother him; on the contrary, they reminded him of thirty-seven years of experience he had garnered, and wondered if this might be enough or if he should keep rearranging his hard drive to cram more knowledge. His house was quiet.

Apollo was waiting by his food dish when Howard finally came downstairs. The bowl was empty except for the cat’s worm pill he had tried to sneak in there. Apollo, while a craven, was certainly smarter than the average cat. Peanut butter always seemed to do the trick though. Howard would have to pick some up on his way home from Cal’s. The food dish was filled, and the last thing Howard did before he left his apartment was tell Apollo he loved him, and that he was an exceptional cat.

Three flights of stairs led Howard to the lobby of his apartment building, and a set of double doors led him onto the street where his SUV waited across the way. He sat in the car for a moment, trying to think of what he might say to the woman he had loved so adamantly. “Oh hello, Lizzie, you ruined my life four years ago but, hey, who cares about that right? Let’s just start from scratch because it’s fucking convenient for you.” Howard realized that instead of saying that in his mind, the words had slipped out of his mouth, like spittle loosed by impassioned men in their most heated of moments. He thought about his high school chemistry teacher, who got so excited about the collision of atoms that he often would spit a little bit, showering those unfortunate enough to be seated in the front row. Mr. Huston had been a man of small stature, but his students enjoyed his class because he loved starting fires during his lab hours. Howard had especially liked the man, who wrote him a recommendation for his school’s honor society and subsequently for his college application. This made his incarceration for having indecent contact with one of his female students all the more devastating. Not the relationship, because Howard knew that it wasn’t really any of his damn business. Yeah, it was pretty weird, but who was he to judge? It was the fact that Mr. H had been sent to jail over the affair, and Howard never saw the man again.

Howard’s parents, Linda and Jack, had never been in love, not really. They married due to the bump in Linda’s belly, a mistake made two nights after their senior prom. The two unlucky lovers threw away their dreams of college and world travel, respectively, to raise their little misstep, Jack taking up work as a contractor and Linda doing part time shifts at the local Dairy Queen to supplement income. They were happy for a short time. The fights didn’t start until Howard’s 7th birthday, when Jack had purchased the wrong birthday cake, which said “Happy Birthday Hannah!” in big pink bubble letters. This turned into a row about their entire sham of a marriage and resulted in the disassembling of Howard’s party. Linda hadn’t known that Howard had been listening the night of his parents’ final fight. She hadn’t said anything about their divorce being Howard’s fault to hurt the eleven-year-old version of himself, but she had certainly meant everything she said. She made no real effort to keep in touch with her only son. Every now and then she would make the semi-obligatory phone call, acting interested in her son’s life, but Howard had stopped answering some time as the overwhelming memory of her accusatory tone and the hatred he had heard in her voice that night took over his emotions toward her. His father on the other hand, had been a big part of his life until his death. Jack died April 17th, 2004, the same month Elizabeth had left him. That month was the hardest month Howard ever had to endure. No longer would he attend Braves’ games with his father, and he donated their season tickets. No longer would he hold hands with the woman he so intimately cared for. A lot of his life stopped that month. His job as a general literature teacher at his alma mater kept him going, and that year he won an award for “outstanding dedication to education,” which was so fucking ambiguous he didn’t even keep the plaque.

He had gotten lost, sifting through his hard drive. The time showed him he was going to be about five minutes late to meet Elizabeth. He put the car into drive and sped off, buckling his seatbelt at the stop sign at the end of his block. He knew it would take him fifteen minutes to reach his destination at this time, around 4:30 p.m., due to traffic and light patterns. He reached the café at exactly 4:33 and it took him two minutes to collect himself and get inside. Elizabeth was already there, sitting in their usual booth in the back somewhat removed from the rest of the place.

“Howard, you look very nice.”

“Thanks Lizzie. You look fine, as well.” She looked better than fine. She was wearing an indigo scarf, one he didn’t recognize, and a dark green blouse with a pair of dark washed jeans and black boots. These he remembered, as the blouse was his favorite color and he had seen the jeans on the floor of their apartment next to their bed plenty of times. The small speck of white paint still staining the right pant leg affirmed that these were the same pair they fussed over after repainting.

“How have you been? Have you been sleeping at all?”

“Very little, I’m afraid,” Howard said starkly.

“I’m sorry to hear that. But otherwise?”

“Apollo’s doing well. He misses you.”

“That’s sweet, but I didn’t ask about Apollo. I asked—”

“I know what you asked. I deliberately avoided the question. You wanted to meet. You wanted to talk, so talk.”

“Well fuck the small talk then,” she half-hissed, and then regained composure. Her agitation remained evident in her right hand, though, which tapped surreptitiously. “Can’t we be civil?”

“I am being civil. I’m just being direct, which I don’t think is unfair.”

“Certainly not, but your tone is… I just don’t like the way you’re talking to me.”

“Sorry, Lizzie.”

“Don’t call me that, Howard. I’m not that girl anymore.”

“Sorry, Elizabeth.”

“God, don’t be sorry. You’re too apologetic, you know that?”

“How the hell would you know? It’s been a while. I haven’t been sorry since the last time I saw you.”

She didn’t react well to this. The visage of her face indicated that she might as well have been slapped. She coiled, and then retorted, “Listen, I’m meeting with you because I wanted to be friends with you, not to rehash our long-terminated relationship.”

“Ok. I didn’t mean to be rude. I’ve been okay, just busy. I’m getting tenured soon.”

Her appearance instantly changed with Howard’s mood shift. “That’s wonderful! It’s about damn time! You’ve been there forever!”

“Yeah, tell me about it. I mean, I love the job, it’s just time for more. But what about you? What have you been up to for… for four years?”

“I started working on a book.”

“No shit?”

“Nope, none. It’s kind of a self-help book, the kind you always hated.” She smiled, which made Howard smile. “You know, ‘the universe and you: how to become one with your any environment’ kind of things.” They laughed and their eyes met, and then she looked down at her mug. When had that gotten there? He hadn’t remembered her having one, and he certainly didn’t notice it being put down in front of her. He shrugged it off.

“Congrats, Liz! Any publishers?”

“Actually, Princeton wants to put it out. Use it in some classes.”

“Jesus, that’s wonderful! So what other trouble have you been getting into?”

She paused, and her light-heartedness waivered. “I, uh… I’m getting married, Howard.” She looked at him again, probably hoping to discern how he was feeling by his facial expressions. He didn’t give any. Instead, he went inside his head and curled up on a small area rug, the one that had been in their old apartment. Apollo was next to him, purring into his left ear. There was nothing else around him. He was in nothing. He couldn’t see past the rug, and it was terrifying. For a brief moment, Howard McGrath couldn’t remember a single fucking thing. His momentary meltdown was ended as Elizabeth called his name through the nothingness, and all of a sudden he was back in the café and his old love was telling him she was getting married and he couldn’t even comprehend what was happening.


“Fuck that.” It was a horrible thing to say to her, he knew, but it was all he could manage.

“Wow, thank you so very much.” She spoke almost as if she had known he would say it, and that she had been rehearsing this rebuttal for months.

“No, I didn’t mean that. I meant fuck you. Fuck you for emailing me after three years and nine months and asking to meet with me so that you could tell me this. Fuck you for barging back into my life when I was finally all right without you in it. Fuck you for being happy without me.” It all came out. It was too fast to stop it. He was dizzy, felt sick, and now everyone in Cal’s was staring at them. Elizabeth turned beet red.

“I should have expected this. I’m so sorry I assumed that maybe you were adult enough to handle this. I thought you might want to know, and that maybe we could be in each other’s lives again.”

“Who are you marrying?”

“You really wanna know?”

“Yes. No. You know what, who gives a flying fuck who you’re marrying. It doesn’t matter. I hope you’re happy, ya know, with your white bridal gown. Why do I still remember how many freckles you have on your back? Or the amount of underwear you used to own? Or what you had for breakfast on the morning I got my job at Princeton? Why am I forced to relive every moment from our three years together?”

Elizabeth went silent for a moment. Howard took that as his cue, stood up and walked out. He was getting into his car, accidental tears welling, brimming, and falling, when he heard her shout his name and the word “wait”. He didn’t know why but he heeded her. She came up to the window.

“Howard, I’m sorry.”


“I’m sorry. Honestly, I am. It’s so easy to forget that you can’t really forget those things. My brain doesn’t work like yours. I remember some stuff, but most of it has been… I don’t know, it’s been so long. I loved you so much, but that was a long time ago. I met this guy, Harrison, he’s the love of my life. I’m so happy, and I just want you to be happy.”

“I’m not happy, Lizzie. I can’t be. I’m trying, but I don’t know… you don’t mean to, but you keep holding me back.”

“Once, you explained to me. You said that your mind is kind of like a computer, and you can kind of control what stays written on the disk. If this is true, you need to do, like, a search or something of every memory you have of me. Then, you need to hit the… the select all button and hit delete.”

He considered this a moment. Four years had gone by. Had he really never thought of this? Maybe he had but he didn’t like the idea of erasing her. Not like that. His mind kind of collapsed in on itself as he struggled with the implications of this course of action. Would he be able to delete it all? Would she ever really be gone from his life? Was that even something healthy and worth considering? “Can I hold onto some of it?”

“No, Howard. Get rid of it all.”

As he drove away, Howard let his mind wander back through his memories of Elizabeth, and as his consciousness passed over each precious scene in his mind, the memories disappeared, deleted permanently from Howard’s hard drive. He was halfway through this process when he reached his house. Parking his car, he allowed himself to be immersed in their three-year anniversary. They were sitting on the roof of their friend Ben’s apartment in New York City, for Ben’s big 30th birthday bash, surrounded by string lights and wracked by wind. They held hands under a fold-up table. For some reason, inside of Howard’s memory, no one else was on the roof, though he knew that to be false. He didn’t push this thought further however. He mentioned the idea of marriage to her, and she giggled before calling him dreadfully old-fashioned.

“Why would you want to marry me? We’re living together, we’re in a committed relationship… what more could we gain from matrimony?” Her smile hurt him to look at it was so beautiful.

“I don’t really know. I guess it seems like the right place to go from here. I mean, three years is a long time and you know how I feel about stagnancy.” He smiled back, doing his best not to look as nervous as he felt.

“Howard, baby, as much as I don’t really enjoy the idea of modern marriage, you only have to ask me to marry you and I will.” She stared into his eyes until he looked away. Her expectations were evident. She had mentioned disliking the permanence of marriage, but something in her eyes told him that she would have said yes to him. It was then, Howard realized, that he had lost her, because no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t push past his nerves, his doubts, his countless inhibitions. But she still loved him, despite the fact that they were already done, it just wasn’t said out loud.

“Yeah, well… I love you.”

“I love you too, Howard.”

Darkness as he fled that scene, and on through the rest of his memories. Howard was so fully taken by his hard drive’s functionality of the moment, that he was unaware of his physicality. His body was still, he was soundless, but more water poured from his glazed-over eyes as he made the hardest, but most necessary decision of his life.

* * *

Howard woke up the next day feeling good. It was the best he had felt in a very long time. He jumped out of bed, scaring the shit out of Apollo, who mewed loudly before sprinting out of the bedroom. Howard showered and went to work. At work, he thought about the man in the yellow rain coat, his high school teacher, and his father. He didn’t dwell too long on anything, but he skimmed his memories like a scrapbook. He felt lighter. He also felt like he was forgetting something. He drove into Trenton after work, hoping to walk around the city a bit and maybe do some grocery shopping. “Ah,” he thought, “peanut butter!” He ran into the nearest convenience store and found a jar of Skippy to hide Apollo’s worm pill in. In the checkout line, he was intrigued by the covers of all the tabloids, wondering why actual news didn’t seem to be relevant anymore. After his purchase, he went outside and still felt as though he were forgetting something. Someone, a woman, was waving at him from across the street. He felt like he knew her, but couldn’t tell from where he was standing, so he walked into the street. Intuition made him look to his left, and there, plain as day, was the number 34 bus. Time slowed as the bus barreled towards him. He closed his eyes as relief washed over him like a wave. Before the bus made contact however, he felt himself being tackled to the sidewalk behind him. He opened his eyes to see a beautiful woman on top of him.

“Jesus, what the hell was that?” she spurted, winded.

“I’m not too sure. Were you on the other side of the street?”

“Yeah, Professor, I was waving to you and then you stepped right in front of that bus!”

“Oh, the bus. Did you happen to catch what number it was?”


“The bus. What number was it?”

“I think it was the 212? I’m not positive.”

“It wasn’t the 34?”

“What? No, it wasn’t the 34, definitely not.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

“Are you okay, Professor?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine, I think. Maybe better than fine. Do I know you?”

“You don’t remember me? I’m Megan, from your Literature of the Early 20th Century class?”

“Megan… oh yes, you wrote me that amazing paper on Joyce?”

“Yeah, the one contrasting his work on Ulysses…”

“To that of Saul Bellow. Yes, I can almost remember how it went. How long ago was that?”

“I think maybe four years ago?” The two stood up. “Are you okay, Professor? Do you need a drink or something?” She laughed and pushed some of her brown hair from her face.

“Perhaps. Something strong would be nice, I think my entire back is bruised.”

“I know this place down the street. It’s this neat little coffee place that serves alcohol, too.”


“Yeah, do you know it?”

“No, I don’t believe I do. Sounds familiar though…” He trailed off there, trying to recall why it seemed so important. “No matter. Lead the way, Meg.”

The whole time they walked, they talked a bit and caught up, but three words kept ringing in the back of his mind. Three words that seemed so far off, but wouldn’t stop echoing in his chamber. They made him feel slightly remorseful, like a piece of him was missing, but somehow he knew he was better off without this piece. He knew that very recently he had been thinking about the words, and how important they were but if the words “Please forget everything” were supposed to be important, maybe he should listen to them. And as he walked with his former student Megan, had drinks, made plans to meet up again and stay in touch, drove home, and got into bed, he did. He truly did.