My Last Great Epistolary Episode

Journal Entry
14 August 2004
Northampton, MA

Padding through the basement aisles of the Smith College Library in flip-flops. A centuries-old quiet and the comforting smell of paper. Sentences stay put in their catacombs. My grandmother took me to the library twice a week, twice a day when I was a kid. Her knit book bag had absurdly long straps, and it dragged on the floor when I carried it. When I was little, I didn’t mind her faraway quiet; I didn’t search out its pathology or origins, which were my origins.

I pulled a book of Martin Espada’s poetry off the shelf. A book I used to own and haven’t read in years, a book given to me by an intense, predatory labor historian when we were in college. He also gave me a book of French pinup photography. I lost both of them in a fire.

I remembered what Sean, my manager’s boyfriend when I waited tables in Louisville, told me on a long car ride that consisted largely of his lengthy, caustic lecturing: “When people don’t want to read ‘old stuff,’ like Shakespeare, as a matter of taste, it usually means they’re too self-centered to read a language that doesn’t sound exactly the way they talk.”

I pulled a book of Sharon Olds’ poetry. I thought ‘The Dead and the Living’ might provide some insight into recalcitrant old relatives who hold their cards too close.

I also got ‘Evidence of Things Unseen,’ because reading James Baldwin has lately become my closest approximation of going to church.

I checked my email and found I had a response from J, Michael’s friend. It was long and immediate and charming. I responded in kind and included my address, because he’d offered to send a postcard (from Turkey). Thrilled. Thrilled to find a new potential letter-writer.

Only when I got in the car did I admit that nearly all of my great correspondences have also been–unconsciously, secretly, or blatantly–courtships. That I found J’s Friendster picture alluring, despite the mustache and apparent propensity for dark sunglasses. That suddenly I had a feisty, coltish daydream rearing in a starting gate that contained months and years of exquisitely-texted letters, culminating in a grand, weighty love after the third or fourth year, when he finally came back from Istanbul.

On six sentences. I sent myself into orbit on six sentences. What the fuck is wrong with me?

What do I find so irresistible about far away and unavailable?

Have my parents and grandparents really been that unavailable? Weren’t they there all along? The important ones?

Have I been pining my whole life?

* * *

A few weeks ago, my mother called me at work. Eleven a.m. is the only time we can talk; with the time difference, she gets home from work when I’m going to bed.

“I’m worried you idealize me,” she said. Did she say ‘idealize?’ I don’t know if she would use a word like ‘idealize.’ I have trouble approximating her diction when I write, like when you can’t describe or picture the face of someone you see every day of your life.

“I’m worried you have this romantic view of me.”

“What do you mean?” I say in my nearly-silent phone voice as six people in cubicles around mine make appointments and book airline tickets and talk about spreadsheets.

“I don’t know if you ever dealt with the fact that my pot smoking meant I wasn’t really there for you a lot of the time.”

I’m quiet.

“No,” I say after a moment. “I processed it. I forgave you already.” Seven people send me emails, and they pop onto the screen. Hollis, whose desk is fewer than two yards from mine, writes, “Are you here today?” just wondering, tx!”

“I just don’t want you to blow up some day because you didn’t let yourself deal with it.”

I want to write everything, to eat everything, to be friends with everyone. If I were to unravel and go nuts one day, my lunacy might look like this: ravenous, covetous, with wide arms.


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