|Letters from the Closet: Ten Years of Correspondence That Changed My Life|
|Letters from the Closet |
Boy Meets Girl
I destroyed every page of my college journals. There were eight journals in all, two for each year, every empty space within swallowed up by my perfect Catholic school script: a chronicle of my life as a coed. I wasn’t getting rid of evidence exactly (although there was much to incriminate me), but I was starting over, and this was proof I wasn’t that person anymore. I can’t remember if I burned all the pages or simply tore them to shreds to prevent their being pieced back together (should the garbageman be tempted) and threw them away. In either case, they were disposed of.
I have a friend whose husband demanded she destroy a photo of Elvis kissing her during one of his Vegas performances, taken before she’d even met her husband. He wanted proof she wasn’t that person anymore. She promised she would, then mailed it off to a friend for safekeeping. I wish I had done the same with my journals, but I was young and convinced that rashness was the quickest path to righteousness.
My high school English teacher was young and alive, so he lacked the gravitas that comes with being old and dead.
It was an act of obedience in my mind, a declaration of allegiance, like Abraham laying Isaac on the altar. Except no one had bothered to stop my sacrifice. No substitution was made for my lost darlings, those early glimpses into college life: how I felt reading Milton at the picnic table outside my dorm, what it was like to pore over Freud in the undergrad library. Lost, too, were accounts of the long-distance phone conversations between me and my high school English teacher, who was lamenting my absence as newspaper editor. My high school English teacher was of course young and alive, so he lacked the gravitas that comes with being old and dead; but his impact was equally noted alongside Milton’s and Freud’s, scratched into the pages of my journals. Not a word of our phone conversations survived, although his many letters did. I don’t know why those didn’t get expunged or extinguished along with the rest; some were more inappropriate than my college misdeeds. Still, they had been preserved through moves from dorm room to apartment, during the transition from college to grad school, kept safe during trips overseas, when all my worldly possessions were either locked away in my parents’ basement or stored in a friend’s garage. Childhood photos had been destroyed when the basement flooded but his letters escaped both water and fire (if it turns out I did burn the journals). Ten years after the first letter was sent, they found a permanent home in my closet.
Sometimes he would write as if he were a character from a book or a play I was assigned to read; other times he would include snippets from the novel he was writing. (He often complained that writing to me cut into his novel-writing time.) His long letters shifted between tender affection and brutal honesty, and in one full of the latter he called me emotionally shallow for participating in the bacchanalia of college life (his vices were more sophisticated). Worse, he said that though he had carefully nurtured my writing throughout high school, he didn’t see me writing the great American novel. “You don’t have the patience for it,” he wrote.
I was eighteen; he was thirty.
I was playing at life, he was living it, squeezing out what he could, sometimes enduring it. He had always known he would die young, most likely by his own hand, but in the end his death was out of his control. “I will shout ‘yippee!’ on my deathbed,” he insisted years before, but I don’t think he did, because the choice had been taken from him. His brooding poet wasn’t for show. There was a reason for his unhappiness.
Would I mourn him? He wasn’t near death when he asked, just curious. The question came in the form of a hypothetical (“if I were pushed off a cliff”) in one of his early letters. He guessed I wouldn’t, because of my emotional shallowness. He was wrong. I do mourn him. He was wrong about something else. I do have the patience.
Not only because I waited for our story to end before committing it to paper, but because I’ve lived long enough to figure out that no part of my life should be ripped to shreds or set on fire. Or hidden away in a closet.
What Connected Us
It was not love at first sight.
We met when I was fifteen, my first year in a public high school, where I struggled to find my sense of being and style after having been cloistered and uniformed most of my life. I didn’t make wise choices in that brave new world: I couldn’t yet help the thick lenses poking through the wire rims of my glasses, but it was free will that prompted the canary yellow jumper and the mass of natural curls cut into a perfectly symmetrical circle atop my head. That’s what he noticed, those were his first words to me, that I reminded him of an iridescent Jesus in Godspell. Contact lenses, blow dryers, and less festive clothing eventually cured my ills; and a few years later he would say my prettiness had made me callous.
He was tall, sandy blond, wore pointy-toed boots. He struggled with style, too, though intentionally, refusing to cede the middle part in his hair, hanging on to his hip-waisted corduroys as an act of protest (when no one protested anymore). A child of the sixties stuck in the sixties, living in the seventies. Meet Jesus from Godspell.
There was more, of course, to our relationship in those early days, more to our commiseration (we were both keeping secrets), more to our chemistry (we both wanted to know what it was like to be in love). We dreamed of becoming writers, talked about writing books together. I had been the poet-in-residence at my little parochial school; he put in his eight hours of teaching each day for a coveted few at the typewriter at night, tapping out the great American novel.
What connected us, from the very beginning, were words.
That was it, really: what connected us, from the very beginning, were words. I’d known I wanted to be a writer since second grade, since a very specific afternoon in second grade. My teacher then was a woman, young, pretty, and childless. The school couldn’t afford individual textbooks, so the whole of our education was dispensed by oral tradition (that is, Mrs. Hill read to us from the sole textbook she held in her hands). There was something soothing and womblike about those hot afternoons (no money for air-conditioning, either), when Mrs. Hill would turn off the fluorescent lights above, direct us to lay our heads on our desks, and read to us. It was fortuitous that my ears and not my eyes were the main vehicles of learning back then, especially when it came time for our first poetry lesson. I don’t even remember what poem she read to us in that darkened classroom, only that the words were altogether different from those that taught us about dinosaurs or subtraction or catechism. I raised my head from my desk to better catch the words as they dipped and rose, hesitated with Mrs. Hill’s breath, and then began to rise and fall again. I knew nothing about rhythm, meter, or flow, only that these words traveled in waves, making their way around the classroom like a troubadour whose instrument played loudest at my desk.
I couldn’t wait to get off the bus that afternoon so that I could start writing. Nothing else mattered but getting alone with pencil and paper. It didn’t have to make sense as long as it rhymed, so my first attempts at poetry were hideous concoctions, like Frankenstein’s monster with badly matched limbs.
The muse must favor that age with both desire and misdirection. The unnamed narrator in Zorba the Greek relates a similar experience from his own childhood, when he reads a book in school about a boy who falls into a well, only to discover a magical world below. The story itself was not meant to be instructive or inspiring; it was simply a vehicle to teach him the second half of the alphabet. But as he spelled out each word, he longed to follow in the footsteps of the boy in the story, to enter the same magic city. The words, like the troubadour at my desk, caught hold of him, transported him, prompted him to action.
I created Frankenstein monsters; he went home and poised himself at the family well. He was sure he could make out the edges of the honey-filled lake described in the story, and his body reached toward it. An ever-seeing mother caught him by the belt at the moment of descent, sparing or denying him.
I can only gather up his words like rainwater in a cistern and fall in.
Perhaps I felt the tug of some external restraint—not as a child, but later in high school, after we first met—pulling me away from the story, from the world my teacher would create for us to live in. It doesn’t matter now that the wellspring is gone. I can only gather up his words like rainwater in a cistern and fall in.
An Unlikely Prophet
After our first semester together, my teacher handed me the following note, which I saved in a scrapbook of my high school years. I didn’t destroy my high school scrapbook as I did my college journals, because the scrapbook was propaganda. It included only the good press, excising the shameful and the uncomfortable: photo evidence that I had once been fat; mention of my dad’s confession that he was an alcoholic—on New Year’s Eve of all times; and my parents’ subsequent separation (Mom moved out once her spouse came to). Instead there were photos of me as the graduating class’s malnourished valedictorian, an original handwritten copy of my commencement speech, and the newspaper clipping in which I was named “Most Likely to Succeed.” (Because I was the newspaper’s editor, reporters from the junior class had to put the issue together, in order not to ruin the surprise. They did a terrible job.)
For AMY Ship of Fools Kathryn Anne Porter
Even as I built the monument there was evidence of a crack, a leak in my PR. It was my teacher’s note—the title of the book, he said, that most reminded him of me after our first semester together—and it linked me to fools, fools seeking an illusory salvation, fools on a voyage to eternity. “Amy has set sail on a ship of fools” is how I read it. Yesterday I discovered that Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (my teacher misspelled her first name) was the number-one book on the New York Times bestseller list the day I was born. What are the chances? What are the odds he would pick a book so significantly tied to my birth a decade and a half before? That’s the way things went on from there. He was irreligious, antireligious; but in ways neither of us could understand, he connected things in my life. Past things to present things, present things to future things. An unlikely prophet who saw into my future, the seer who saw through me. It was his job to remind me I wasn’t what I seemed.
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