Sunday, November 07, 2010

Pen Pal.

At age 13, I went on a cruise with my family to Bermuda and met another girl on the cruise. We hung out for one completely unremarkable day. But after that, we wrote each other letters for more than two years.

Not so long ago, I'd tried to look up my old pen pal, to see what she was up to. I could never find any results for her name, which seemed odd. Had she disappeared? I remembered that she'd always moved around a lot. Was she OK?

Then I found the letters and noticed her last name -- I'd been two letters off in my memory of it. So there she was on Facebook! A junior high school teacher in Florida, the last place she'd moved in our letters. She looked great. "Wow! Of course I remember!" she responded when I wrote her. "I can't imagine, though, what our letters were about...I have no idea where mine are."

Exactly. What were are letters about? They sat bundled up on my coffee table, mostly hers, but a couple of mine that I'd either copied out or never sent. I held off rereading them for a little while. Maybe they contained great forgotten undercurrents of emotion, our miniature dramas, our deepest sentiments and fears.

Or ... maybe they were boring.

I finally read them all. They were boring. Most of the time.

We talked about our grades in school, when we had written each other last, what music and movies we liked (Prince for me, Bryan Adams for her), what boys we liked. Pretty standard stuff.

L. and I didn't have a particularly special bond, and our meeting was even briefer than I'd thought. As I remembered it, we were friends for the whole weeklong cruise, though I couldn't conjure up a single aspect of our time together. As it turns out, we only met on the last day: "Today we just hung around on the ship," I wrote in my diary. "I met a girl named L. We hung around together."

Still, this completely lackluster encounter happened to occur between two girls who had a vested interest in writing letters. So we wrote, sometimes every month, sometimes every three, from that June in 1984 through the end of 1986. We wrote with seemingly no purpose beyond keeping up the correspondence, as banal as it was.

But in 1986, L.'s letters became interesting by leaps and bounds over the previous years. Early that year, she wrote:
Well yes, I have a Florida Love -- his name is Mike he is a junior, we go to the same school and he drives a Camaro -- what more can a girl ask for --

A guy with his own car? The only guy with his own car that I knew at the time was my dad.

L. always had a new guy, or five, in her letters. A few months later, she wrote:
How is your love life? Mine sucks. I've been used so much this year. I'm in love, I just wish he liked me, his name is Eric [last name redacted], he is the perfect guy. Blonde hair, blue eyes, good height, great body, sweet, everything. I mean, he is really fine. Except he hurt my feelings, the jerk used me. Well I didn't mind.
How was my love life? Imaginary. Confined to the realm of Prince songs, movies and boys in school that I thought were cute but never did anything with or even talked to, really. This passage from me pretty much sums it up:
My next door neighbor (in ninth grade) had over a friend named Sam. He seemed really nice at first, but then I found out that he thinks I'm a chill just because I didn't do anything with him when I first met him. Isn't that lowly?
To be fair, I think this letter was written in 1985, when I was younger. But my 1986 was pretty much the same.

Meanwhile, L. was really ramping things up during her 1986 summer, which was spent in Santa Cruz, Calif.:
This has been an interesting week. My sister and I have had nothing better to do all week so we have been going to the boardwalk. The first night I went, I met the best people. This one guy Kym [Kyron?], who is just a friend, then Jeff, he is 22 and won't leave me alone, and last my favorite Charles! He was sooo cute. He is 18, nice, has a great job, but there is one problem he has been thrown in jail! I was so upset when I got the news. Then there is Don. I don't think you remember, but I talked about him last year. Well he is visiting my next door neighbor again. I am so in love with him, but he just doesn't see the picture. It makes me sick. I mean I really drool over him. He is so stupid. When I was over there tonight, we asked him what he wanted to do. He said he had to take a shower, so of course I said, Good, I'll take one with you! He said sure, but he was only joking, I wasn't, but like I said he is stupid. I am so in love with him! Enough about Don, I shouldn't be thinking about him.

Guess what!?! I have a blind date on Monday! I can't wait! It's going to be so cool. One of my older friends set it up. Except, I cheated. I found a picture of him! He is pretty cute. I hope it's fun.
18-year-olds, jail, blind dates -- this was all stuff that happened in movies, as far as I was concerned. I mean, we were still in ninth grade. At the same time, I knew I was behind when it came to boys, even by pedestrian standards.

Another one from me:
I haven't had a boyfriend in so long it's really sad but then if you take a look at the guys in our school that's pretty sad too.
It's hard to tell what I meant by "in so long," because I had never actually had a boyfriend, unless you counted the boy that I "went steady" with in sixth grade (a relationship that consisted of several passed notes, one slow dance and a lovely keychain he made me), which I probably was.

But I love that two girls with pretty much zero in common except for one day on a cruise ship managed to keep up a conversation for as long as we did. Toward the end of our correspondence, L. wrote: "You know -- this is really incredible -- that we are still writing each other, that's pretty good! It's been a few years now." I agree, L.

Music: "Hey Mickey"


  1. I had two long-standing pen pals that I was matched up with via a pen pal service (because I never met anyone while traveling? but I did wind up corresponding with other people I met on trips). We really had nothing in common. Both girls were from the Midwest, one lived on a farm, one was a devout Catholic and way older than me.

    I was corresponding with the farm girl around the time "The Day After" was shown on TV. We disagreed about the movie - I wrote that I thought it was "so gross!" (but I distinctly remember that I wrote that because I thought that's what SHE might have thought); instead, she thought it was "interesting," and not gross at all. I don't think our correspondence recovered after that.

  2. Good comment! I never tried a pen-pal service. What was gross about 'The Day After'? I remember it scaring the bejesus out of me. If you want to see a gross nuclear war movie, watch 'Testament.' That is some next-level shiznit.

  3. This is awesome and feels like it would make for an excellent short story, or at the very least, a good "Mortified" reading.

  4. I remember some explicit depiction of radiation sickness in "The Day After". However, I only remember deep emotional action in Testament. It's funny how we remember them somewhat backward.


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