February 1, 2019 | Narrative
on writing letters
Every time I drop by the mail room to pick up one of your letters sent all the way from Ohio, I finish reading it before I get back to my dorm. I blaze through your words, eating them up too quickly.
I walk out of the building tearing the flap of the envelope open, gloves shoved into my pockets and hands exposed to the cold. The wind tries to wrestle the pages from me, making the papers flap and flutter. I read as I make my way down Waterman Street, side-stepping people on their way to and from class, and always end up grinning like a fool over the simplest, smallest things—your classes or your lab work or the movies you saw. Your roommate or your swimming or the Stephen King book you’re working your way through. I’m eager to hear all your little news. The last time I saw you was well over a year ago, when you and your mom flew back down to Georgia to watch my high-school graduation. It was your first time back since you moved away to Virginia our sophomore year. (Remember sixth grade, when we first met? I named my lunchbox Tootsie for its shape, and you named yours Blueberry for its color.)
I finish reading your letter before I reach Ruth Simmons Quad. I fold the stapled pages back up the way they always come, in thirds, and tuck them with the envelope under my arm as I head to my dorm. I think of you while I climb the stairs up to the fourth floor. I think of you riding your bike to the store and bringing your pumpkin back to campus. I think of your contraband candle with its cozy, autumnal fragrance.
I have to confess that I have not kept up with all your letters as well as I should have —some of them are in a shoebox in my closet, others stashed into folders and desk drawers. There are a handful of letters from high school, after you moved, and piles of pages from freshman year of college up until now. I should line them up in chronological order and slide them carefully into a folder. A single folder, in single a drawer. That way, I will be able to file through them later and piece together what our lives were like. I will kneel on my bedroom floor, reading letter by letter, remembering my walk down Waterman, smiling.
Sometimes I think about famous letters. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail; letters sent between Abigail Adams and her husband, John; “letters” Anne Frank wrote to her diary, Kitty; epistles of the Bible. In museums and online, I pore over pictures of old, thin paper scrawled with spidery cursive that’s impossible to read. I can hardly imagine the whole world reading through a postcard I sent ages ago, searching for clues about my personal life—all the ups and downs, joys and sorrows—in an attempt to figure out the kind of person I was.
I suppose anyone who saw the letters I sent you would first notice how much time elapsed between each response (I confess that I sometimes put off replying for so long, I’d have to reread your letter when I finally sat down to write back). Anyone would notice that I wrote with a hurried, messy hand (although you assure me you’ve had no trouble deciphering it) and that I wrote mostly about books and classes. I suppose no one would find my letters to you all that fascinating or useful as artifacts of the early 21st century. Who are these two college students sending letters back and forth like 18th century spinsters?
Maybe we’ll confuse the historians and anthropologists of the future.
I take that back, actually. I do think people—I mean people nowadays, our peers—might find our letters fascinating, if only because people don’t write these kinds of letters much anymore. They write open letters on Facebook, emails, and ultra-long texts, but not letters with pen and paper, envelopes and stamps. Letters that get driven or flown across state lines and sometimes across national borders and oceans to be dropped finally, safely into a mailbox, somewhere.
Everything is so digital these days. Maybe that’s why I feel like there’s something special about a tangible, physical thing to hold and feel: the creases in the paper, the envelope you can lick or glue shut and rip open. The familiar handwriting and ache in your forearm when you’ve been writing for a while. The stamps you peel off the slippery backing. There’s something about sliding your stamped envelope down the mailroom chute, picking up a letter you’ve been waiting for, walking down the street with the wind in your face while you read and grin.