Return to Sender
Elvis gets hundreds of Valentines every year.
Elvis was a blond. He died his hair. That was the first hard lesson about love that Leni ever learned.
When she was young, three and four and five, her mother used to swing her around in the living room, voice dropped low and chin against her collarbone as she sang along with the stereo. Her favorite was “Pocketful of Rainbows,” and when she wasn’t focused on holding Leni in place while they whirled, she had a beautiful voice, husky and sweet. Her mother told Leni in whispered confidence, tucking the covers up around Leni’s chin, that she’d fallen in love with Leni’s father to an all-Elvis soundtrack. The car radio and the living room record player and the local dance halls—everyone had Elvis fever, Leni’s mother said, and it infected everything, made even the bitterest coffee taste just a little sweet.
Leni loved Elvis, too. She loved the way his dark hair gathered at the top of his head, so slick and smooth. She loved the soft curve of his jaw—not sharp and defined, but gentle, like a kid’s. She loved his weird half-smile, the upward jerk of his mouth that looked like it wanted to be a smirk but couldn’t manage it, was too good-natured.
Leni’s mother was beautiful. She always wore big, round sunglasses like Jackie O and flared-out A-line dresses that made her look like an hourglass. When she thinks of her now, the image that Leni calls up is her mother in a red convertible, the wind in her red hair, dark sunglasses casting breezy shadows on her face. “Pocketful of Rainbows” plays in the background, her mother’s song, the sweetest one that Leni knows.
The second hard lesson was that Elvis got fat. Not fat: bulbous, overstuffed, miserable and bursting at his own seams. His voice was still dulcet and feverish, his mouth still too sweet to smirk, but it was clear to anyone who saw him that he had fallen apart. That he opened his mouth to let sounds out but they weren’t part of him anymore, just echoes.
Leni’s father remarried when she was fifteen. By then he’d moved away, bought a shiny new house and peopled it with a shiny new family, but Leni had a role as a flowergirl in the ceremony so her mother packed her off with a kiss on the cheek and the stern warning to be good.
After, at the reception, her father and his new wife danced to “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” and Leni clutched her water glass so tight that her fingers ached. She wasn’t mad that her father had a new wife but she felt blindsided by Elvis, by his voice spilling out of the speakers and sweeping everything up into his soft vowels, making even this second try seem romantic.
Elvis belonged to her mother and to dance halls and to the fever that made coffee sweet, not her father’s hand on some other woman's back. And yet here he was, filling up the reception hall, making the same promises he had always made, even though it was too late to fulfill them.
The realization that Elvis wrote none of his six hundred recorded songs (the third hard lesson), came at a time when Leni was busy writing her own: long odes Mark Campbell, who ran track and had a smattering of moles on his neck. He sometimes smiled at Leni when he passed her in the hallway, and once—after finishing a race—he’d looked up at the stands and found her eyes, grinning, out of breath, before raising a hand in a little wave.
Leni waved back, and so did everyone around her. But Leni knew, she was so certain that he had waved at her, that his eyes had wrinkled for her, that those last few steps had been run to the rhythm of her name.
At lunch he sat with other members of the track team and Leni sat with her best friend Ruth, who thought Mark Campbell was probably an idiot. Leni could do better, Ruth said, stabbing darkly at her chicken nuggets.
"What do you know?" Leni asked. "You’re a lesbian.”
"Oh my God, Leni,” Ruth moaned, rolling her eyes, “being a lesbian doesn’t, like, magically erase my ability to look at dudes. It just means I don’t want to have sex with them, Jesus.”
Leni sighed. Mark Campbell had a nose like Elvis, sharp angles and just this side of too big for his face. When he laughed, his eyebrows curved up into perfect open parenthesis that Leni wanted to trace the outlines of.
"Look," Leni said, "you might not see anything in Mark Campbell but his track medals but I know that deep down he’s—”
"Deeeeeeeeeep," intoned Ruth, dropping her chin just like Leni’s mother used to. The way Leni’s mother still did, sometimes, when the mood was right and it was just the two of them at home. "Babe, he’s really not."
Leni opened her mouth to defend him, defend every precious mole on his neck, when Ruth snapped her mouth shut and stuck out her chin. Leni followed her line of sight as Mark Campbell walked passed, high-fiveing someone at the next table and then tossing Leni an easy grin as he said, “Hey, Sarah,” without stopping.
"Hi," Leni heard herself say, cheeks flaming up, not correcting him, while Ruth laughed so hard she choked on a nugget.
That night, Leni tore up all the stupid poems and songs she’d written, weeping to herself while “Heartbreak Hotel” spilled over her speakers and cuddled up across her shoulders. She and Ruth buried them in the backyard, Ruth murmuring that this was for the best, that he was an idiot, that he didn’t deserve her. Let him and Sarah live happily ever after, Ruth whispered, and Leni laughed so hard she cried, clinging to Ruth’s hand until her body felt worn-out and empty and clean.
At Ruth’s funeral, Leni stood at the podium for what seemed like an eternity, her hands shaking. She stared down at the paper she was supposed to be reading from and couldn’t make her lips form the words. It took Elvis thirty-one takes to record “Hound Dog,” and that was the fourth hard lesson. Everyone was waiting and Leni couldn’t say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, let’s go again.”
The sheet of paper that Leni had been clutching since that morning had a psalm written on it, but she couldn’t make herself read it, couldn’t bring herself to do anything but think of all the nights that she and Ruth lay wrapped up together in her little bed, whispering and giggling in the dark.
Ruth had liked the Stones but she’d understood Elvis. She’d let Leni play him over and over and over in her room and in the car, never once complain that they’d already listened to “Kentucky Rain” four times, never said anything except making note of songs she particularly liked.
So Leni closed her eyes and heard herself say, “Ruth: when you walk through a storm, hold your head up high—”
Her voice cracked and she heard her mother suck in a breath but Leni said, “don’t be afraid of the dark,” and “walk on through the wind,” and “though your dreams be tossed and blown, walk on—”
And when she couldn’t, when her whole body was shaking so hard she wasn’t sure she could keep her balance, Leni’s mother stood up and took her hand and finished it for her, “you’ll never, ever walk alone,” before gathering Leni up and taking her back to the pew.
Leni learned the last hard lesson her senior year of college: after his divorce from Priscilla Beaulieu, Elvis used to let pretty women into Graceland after the doors had closed.
She had dated a few boys, most of them seriously, some of them good enough and some of them not. That was how things went, Leni thought, that was how you did it: you dated and fell in love and got married and had little girls to dance with around the living room.
But she couldn’t settle, didn’t like any of them enough to stay, couldn’t hold on to the ones that might have changed her mind
"Oh, honey," her mother sympathized when Leni told her she’d left Ben, the nice Jewish boy who’d brought her coffee every morning and said she had a smile that made the day brighter. "Nobody gets it right the first time."
“You did,” Leni grumbled, and was surprised by her mother’s long, answering pause.
"Leni," her mother reminded her, gentle, "your father and I divorced.”
But you fell in love first, Leni wanted to say, except that wasn’t exactly what she meant. Her mother and father fell apart but before that happened they had dance halls and each other and Elvis, wrapping them up in something special, something feverish and raw.
Leni wanted to touch that, the exposed center, the giddy swing of somebody’s hips that made you lose your mind
She closed herself up in her room and listened to “Hound Dog” a few times, wanting to ascribe it to Ben except that Ben wasn’t, Leni was
Leni was the one who couldn’t get it right, who kept trying and failing and trading up Leni who said she’d call and didn’t.
She sighed, picking up one of her school books and doodling idly in the margin: Elvis, his hips out, his hair gathered and perfect and dark, thin and round-jawed You’ve ruined me for everyone else, she wrote underneath it.
"That’s pretty good," her roommate said, glancing over her shoulder. "You gonna send it to Graceland?"
Leni laughed. “Sure,” she said. Across the top she wrote, Be my Valentine, because.
They giggled over it as they put the paper into an envelope, looking up the Graceland address on her roommate’s laptop. Leni dropped the valentine into the outbox in at the mailboxes downstairs and then stared at the mail slot, suddenly frozen. Elvis was dead, she knew. He’d never see her stupid valentine or read how true the words were.
Elvis died in 1977. He was fat and he dyed his hair and didn’t write his own songs and divorced his wife. Leni loved him.
"Nobody gets it right the first time," she said, clinging to the words, hearing her mother’s voice in her head, her father’s, Ruth’s. Nobody gets it right the first time, Leni, nobody.
Not even you.