November 13, 2020 | Narrative
wish you were here
a love letter to pen pals
“Un francobollo, per favore?”
The employee at the tabbachino was unimpressed, sliding a packet of stamps in my direction. In English: “here you go.” Almost three years of learning Italian and the try-hard air of an American accent suffocating my pronunciation gave it away.
Regardless, I left with stamps, which was the goal. It would be another hour of shuffling around a Florence piazza until I could find a little yellow mailbox and deliver my handful of postcards, slipping the bundle of well wishes and retellings of my misadventures on the bus system into a slot that seemed a little too easy for someone to reach into. In June of 2019, temperatures in Florence hit 110 degrees some days. My back was plastered with the sweaty sunflower pattern of my dress, a garden just-watered.
One postcard was for my parents. A few for my friends, some for family members. Glossy, doctored photographs of the Ponte Vecchio smothered in late-day sun, under Firenze in corny WordArt fonts. An unsealed invitation into the world I was occupying miles away, reachable through a few sentences. A birth certificate for a new self—someone feeding off of pineapple gelato and fleeing catcalls bred by a culture even more blatantly patriarchal than America’s. More than a WhatsApp message received while my parents were asleep and responded to while I was asleep, less than putting the bumps of the bus over the road under their feet, letting them sway to it, one hand on the stanchion. This is what I can give them to hold instead: I am here and I am thinking of you.
I never met my first pen pal in person. She was a patient of my Dad’s (he’s an opthamologist) who was my age and shared a few scattered childhood interests. Our letters primarily fixated on comparing American Girl doll mythologies (how cool that Kirsten came all the way from Sweden!), dispersed among earnest commentary about our worlds at that imminent moment (sorry for my handwriting, I’m writing in the car).
This genuine tenderness for a stranger feels antiquated compared to the Internet, with its Twitter feuds and the pervasive worldwide feeling that we are all entitled to each other’s time, an immediate reply, or validation when we demand it. There are a lot of meaningful ways the Internet has positively changed communication; no matter how closed-off or conservative my hometown felt in my early teen years, there was always community—and human compassion—to be found between song recommendations and blogs charmingly overdone in pastels by another something-teen grappling with our world.
But it feels so fixed, communication on the Internet. If someone doesn’t reply to your text for a month, most would say they’re probably not interested in continuing the conversation. If someone doesn’t reply to your letter for a month, they might be overwhelmed with the holidays or with the events you’ll read about in a matter of time; the postal service is a third party to blame for a slow response. There’s an element of trust in a person whose personal life you don’t have any access to outside of college-ruled lines. Trust that they’ll reply. That they’ll tell you something new. That you’ll keep tying each conversation to the next, like ribbons of speech.
Our first snow this winter yesterday. It gets so dark so early now…
A pretty red sweater…
Sorry it’s been so long, I…
My second pen pal was found as by-chance as a lucky penny. We were on a vacation in Anna Maria Island when I was somewhat young, probably 10 or 11. I don’t remember how or where we found this girl and her family; the memories of that trip are scattered clouds drifting over the sand we knelt in, digging for who knows what, chatting about Total Drama Island (critical media discourse). She was from Michigan, like I was, a horseback rider, like I was. We both had little brothers. When we went home, we scribbled gel pen letters to each other that shuttled back and forth across our state, no longer a hotel room apart, but still only an interstate apart. Over time, we stopped writing to each other.
The letters are flotsam in the wreckage of my house’s basement clutter. I’m not sure where they are. All that remains is one memory. Sometime into the vacation where we met, I had spotted her on the beach—glasses, cropped brown hair stuffed under a bucket hat—shoveling open a divot in the sand. I took off running towards her and her hollow-in-progress, greeted her excitedly, only to see her look up from under the brim of her hat and realize it wasn’t her at all, but some other girl. This was, of course, mortifying for an eleven year-old. I shuffled off to where the water lapped quietly at the shore, angry at this person I did not know for not being someone I barely knew. That I had run to the mailbox and found it empty.
I can’t recall the rest of that trip or pen pal-ship, and I’m not sure why. What’s strange is that if she still has the letters, she probably has a better documentation of my life at that time than me; letter after letter, chapter after chapter of what it means to be eleven and looking for a friend-shaped thing on the shore. Pen pals become your historians, and you become theirs, safekeeping each other’s past selves in the drawers of your desk or in boxes in the attic.
In our first year of college, my high school friends and I would send postcards to each other, as if we were simply on vacation. In a way, this was true: We had found four-year paradises of our own, in contrast to high school. This meant different things for each of us: From a place with no academic requirements, to a place where all pants were high-waisted, to a place where the football team actually wins. And before we had really settled into these new realities, we felt like they were just brief visits to a place unknown.
At Brown, I accumulated correspondents in a way just as lucky as years ago on that beach. This place of dorm rooms and awkward circles of students on the grass with their Ratty takeout—so terrifying, so ripe with chance. In college, I learned the art of stumbling upon friends: in the airport, during my ephemeral (and sweaty) equestrian career, in the bathroom during a particularly perilous and crowded orchestra party. These were the people I wrote home about, events in and of themselves; and over time and with closeness, they became the people who, the next summer, I sent postcards to from Italy.
The little amount of space provided on postcards presents a challenge to render each moment in miniature, with enough details to be tantalizing but succinct enough to fit. It’s how I imagine crafting news headlines would be: Definitely Not a Waste of Time: Five-Hour Bus Trip To Castle Where Dante “Might Have” Spent the Night Once (Not Clickbait).
Snapshots of these moments in time are delivered to the three-line addresses sitting beside abbreviated tales: paintings of forlorn religious figures, summer heat that thickened the air, olive trees in sloping valleys. I penned every experience in my head as it happened, already preparing the way I’d retell it in a letter. In short: I see each place I go as a story, then I tell it the best I can.
A party in an ancient fort…
They were staring because we don’t shave our legs…
The bus is always either five minutes early, or five minutes late…
I can’t wait to tell you more when I see you again…