Unlike most pen pals, we knew each other in person and only lived ten miles away from one another.
On paper, we were perfect for each other. We would start off each letter with endearing names like “my dearest”, “darling”, or “my loveliest” and end each letter with “love always” and “yours forever and ever.” I had a pen pal with whom I became totally infatuated. Unlike most pen pals, we knew each other in person and only lived ten miles away from one another.
I met her at the bakery I used to work at, and distinctly remember he first words to me being: “Are you gay?” I laughed and told her I didn’t think I was. I hunted down her number and we started texting each other back and forth. She was different than most of the girls that worked at the shop; she was witty and had a dark sense of humor. She would text me at 6:00 am on her way to work telling me it was early and she wanted to die. I’d respond that I was still in bed and she would tell me to go kill myself. She got fired after the second or third time we worked together and suddenly she was out of my every day life. After that, she became a goal, something to strive for. I wanted her and she wanted someone to write to.
Everyone has a bit they use over and over when they’re flirting with the opposite sex. Whether it’s telling them you that want to run away together or asking them incessantly about their personal lives, they exist. Everyone’s guilty of recycling their favorite methods of flirtation. Mine consist of the following: the overuse of defunct colloquialisms, sneakily bragging about my love of literature, and asking girls if they want to be pen pals. In my experience, every single object of my affection has answered yes when I ask them if they want to write letters, only a few have done it, and only one has done it consistently. Her. My first piece of postage to her was a picture of a dinosaur on a postcard with the words, “I bet you didn’t think I’d actually write to you” below it. To my utter surprise, days later, I received a letter in the mail from her. I remember hiding in my room to read it. It was a poem.
It was on pink stationery with her initials embossed on the top. Her penmanship was flawless.
This wasn’t just a letter to me, it was a metaphor. In my mind, her writing to me was a sign she mirrored the feelings I felt towards her. I was hooked, instantly addicted. I found myself writing to her in the early hours of the morning. I would be intoxicated, either drunk or lightheaded from my steady load of anti-anxiety pills. My mind would take me all over the world and she would always be there. My writing was full of grandiose romantic gestures; I never really knew whether they were genuine or not.
Writing as if I was farther away than I really was, I told her: “I think you and I should move to Africa together. We can live like English imperialists lived in the 1800s. I’ll drink brandy and write and you can be a scientist. We’ll smoke cigars every night under the mosquito nets and grow cripplingly old together.” We knew each other well and it came through in every sentence of our correspondence.
We played dumb with each other when it wasn’t on paper. In the rare occurrences of running into each other in real life, we would engage in awkward conversation and ask each other about the menial parts of our lives we had already learned about through our letters. We wouldn’t talk much when we were together, and I often resorted to drinking until the awkwardness went away. I’d try talking to her like we did on paper, but it was never the same. We resorted to cutting our losses and speaking only through paper. Soon we were writing each other weekly. Every Tuesday I’d receive a pink or purple letter with stickers or silly drawings, and my name would always be different.
I remember smiling whenever I’d see her letters in the mailbox and eagerly retreating to my room to read her words. While mine were always on the more romantic side, suggesting a future with one another, hers were always conversational and silly. She would toy with the idea of us being together.
Months passed and we collected dozens of letters from each other. I would keep mine in an enormous Manilla envelope on my desk and she would put hers in a box under her bed. I would tell all my friends about the relationship. Half would tell me to cut the bullshit and ask her out and half would tell me that it was the most romantic thing they’d ever heard. As the letters progressed, the content grew steadily more intimate. The idea of being together was a common theme on paper, regardless of its lack of mention in real life.
One day I decided to write her a letter asking her to be my girlfriend. I’m really not good at a lot of things. But I can write and I can treat a woman right, so in my mind a letter showcasing both of those skills was a sure winner. I was certain she’d say yes. I sent the letter without hesitation. We didn’t talk for a few days and, when I was sure she had gotten it, I texted her and asked her what she thought. There was a long pause and she finally responded:
“I can’t. Please don’t hate me, but I can’t.”
My heart sank and my face burned red. I was devastated and turned my phone off for the rest of the day. Eventually she went on to explain that formal relationships never work out for her and the idea of ruining our friendship would make her miserable. I didn’t take it well. I never really do.
We stopped talking for a long time. Months went by without any letters and I allowed myself to forget about her stationary, her penmanship, the way she signed her name. I let her disappear. Every so often I would go over her letters and long for her. I knew I had made more out of her letters than she intended. I started reading more deeply into what I assumed I had already read deeply into. Maybe she was just mirroring my words, maybe it was more of entertainment for her. A sort of role-playing game. Jesus, I was her version of Dungeons & Dragons.
Then one day I was in Canada and I bought her a postcard. I bought a bottle of cheap and strong Canadian beer and wrote to her. I told her I was sorry about everything that had happened, I told her that I took everything too seriously and that I missed having a pen pal. I poured my heart out and and told that if she ever decided she wanted to be with me, I would be there. It was a lot of information to fit on the constricting size of a postcard. I stamped it, put it in my back pocket, and walked to the mailbox down the street. As I reached to mail it, I felt nothing. The postcard was gone, it had fallen out on my back pocket during the walk to the mailbox.
I decided to let it go. The gods of poetic justice intervened and took my letter before it could have fallen into her hands. I was satisfied with this fate until a few weeks later when I saw a pink envelope in my mailbox. Inside was a letter with a picture of a dinosaur, similar to that first one I’d drawn months earlier. Below were three words:
Fuck it, I thought. This was never about romance or relationships. It was about intimacy. The kind of (sadly platonic) intimacy that the written word provides. The relationship with my pen pal united two of my passions: writing and women. I’d find myself upset over the fact that I was never wanted as badly as I wanted her, but it was about something more. Leafing through her letters always put a smile on my face. She spent the time picking out stationery, writing in cursive, sealing the envelope, writing my address, and stamping the letter. Inside each letter was a world of attention and care that she couldn't bring me in person, not even ten miles away.
We’re still pen pals. I still always open my mailbox hoping to receive that letter that says, “Take me, let’s date, I want you.” But it’s likely never to happen and I’m okay with that —I still have my envelopes, her silly drawings, these things of permanence that I can sit with. I don’t really know who or what I fell in love with whether the person portrayed on paper was her, my version of her, or a combination of the two. It was real, though. It still is.