The Knight in Shining Camry has been hinting at the existence of a letter.A five-page letter. A letter written, I'd like to imagine, in the wee hours of some recent rainy night in his dusty studio apartment. By candlelight — a flickering taper, burning down to nothing and extinguishing just as he finished. Dripping wax. Like that. Let's not kid ourselves; in a perfect world, there would be a feather pen involved, too. (Truthfully, it will probably come as an e-mail. And that's fine, too.) Knowing this letter exists sets my mind racing. What could it possibly say? What implications could its contents have? And what, you ask, could possibly take five pages to get out? Short answer: You don't know the Knight. Mostly, really, the contents don't even matter. That he would sit down, head heavy with thought and emotion and wit waiting to be expressed, and take the time to turn his thoughts into words, endure the frustration of losing so much in translation, for me? (Especially when he could just come over and say something?) Means the world.
Maybe I wouldn't be squirming for this correspondence if I were a little more used to it. If I came home from a long day at work, checked the mailbox and every day found stacks of envelopes with my name in crooked scrawls across the front, I would not be waiting with bated breath, as I am. But I don't, so I am. More often than not, I come home to bills, form letters from Planned Parenthood, free address labels from organizations wanting me to adopt an African baby, solicitations from my alderman and catalogs addressed to my mother (I'm not joking). I'd love to spend those first moments at home every night, as I contemplate dinner — Thai or pizza? takeout or delivery? — curled up on my sofa with my green letter opener and my thoughts of the day from my friends all over the country. Instead, for the most part, I beeline it for the circular file. It's sad. No one writes letters anymore. Well, almost. I'm going to start to sound like an old woman if I keep repeating this, but man. The Internet is wrecking everything! Why sit down with a pen and paper and risk a crippling hand cramp when you can fire off 160 characters in 10 seconds, or shoot an e-mail halfway across the country before Grey's Anatomy? (As she grimaces and ignores the raging case of BlackBerry thumb currently inhibiting range of motion in her right hand…) Anymore, I'm excited even to get a real e-mail; I subscribe to so many mass-mailed e-newsletters and store enticements (Anthropologie, I'm looking at you) and DEALS, DEALS, DEALS that I did a backflip this morning when my friend in Kansas City sent along her new address. Maybe I just crave attention. Even if it's just my name among a few others in the to: field. (Or, cough, comments in my blog.)
No one writes letters anymore…almost. I do get real mail from time to time, from a few repeat offenders, and it's the same thing: backflips. Twinged with guilt, thinking I should return the kindness but suddenly gripped with the same overwhelmed feeling I get when someone gives me a present or invites me to hang out. THERE IS TOO MUCH TO DO, I AM TOO POOR, I HATE MY COMMUTE. Mental Tourette's or something. Essentially: I mostly likely will not respond to these My dad sometimes sends letter-size envelopes full of newspaper clippings and magazine articles, a month's worth. I think he must subscribe to about 784 publications with all the different topics he manages to cover, all marked up in his sprawling, stylized black Sharpie script. "Ziggy" cartoons lampooning Starbucks, full-page for Vosges' bacon-flecked chocolate, articles on how to relax (see above; the freaked-out apple doesn't fall far from that gnarled tree), pieces on social media. My dad and I don't have the daddy-daughter Indian Princesses relationship we once did, or pretended to, to put that as simply and vaguely as I can here, but it's still nice finding those big white envelopes from him waiting in the mailbox. There's rarely an introduction to the packet of news; we e-mail from time to time, so we understand what's going on to dispense with the postal pleasantries. I think of the packets as his way of looking in on me…without actually showing an interest in my life.
My grandma — my mother's mother, please — does the same sort of thing, only the envelopes come more often and in smaller envelopes. Higher-brow pieces — the New York Times, Chicago Tribune (which she gets in Kansas City but I've bought only once in Chicago), Town & Country, Food & Wine — are intricately folded into tiny envelopes the size of personal checks. Mostly food-related stuff, or travel pieces on Paris, or events and exhibits I should check out locally and report back on. When it's just articles, she'll dash off a quick Post-It note to say hello, and be done with it. Even on a short note, her handwriting is measured and perfectly even, horizontally and vertically. She uses a straightedge to write each line, going back after she's finished to add the tails to the letters Y, G, J, P, Q and Z. The tiny gaps between the letters and their tails are barely visible, but they're there. Sometimes, with a little extra time between hair appointments and events with friends and Symphony League meetings, she'll send a Real Letter. Usually typed, but even then it's in some Lucida script meant to look like handwriting. When she sends a longer one, she'll usually get impatient a couple of days after sending it and call to ask whether I've gotten it yet. And, in the course of our conversation, completely spoil the barrage of questions she's set forth in the letter. Tell me all about the dinners and social engagements she's already detailed in writing, then sigh at the end of the conversation that the letter she sent was pointless. I grin when it finally arrives and read every word anyway. I can hear her speaking when I see the words on paper.
Then there's Ty. Ty, my unlikely friend, the journalist. I never imagined we'd be more than acquaintances when we met in the newsroom; he's Eeyore, and I'm…the most obnoxious character in Winnie the Pooh. I would nail that tail back on as hard as I could, and I was sure he'd hole up in small-town Oregon after school and be thankful never to hear from me again. Instead, we began trading letters at some point when I was living in New York. I think. If I really cared when it began, I could go back and look — I've kept almost all of them. Envelopes, too. He warns me when he's going to send one my way, but I still do a little dance in the vestibule when I see his handwriting in my mailbox. Ty writes in this gorgeous, blocky boy script that I would recognize anywhere. The last letter I got from him, after a long snail-mail silence, was written on one huge sheet of beautiful paper. In several pen colors. Starting at the top of one page, four or five separate stories all blending into one another's space but still separate, like oil and water. Absolutely beautiful — who cares if it took me twice as long to read? And if the art of letter writing really did get lost as we hurtled into cyberspace, I believe it's also holed up in small-town Oregon and in close contact with my friend. This letter contained musings on some weekly Republican rag he'd been mistakenly (or not) subscribed to, an anecdote about getting to know the mother of a local murder suspect while he reported on the case, a request for advice on how to capture the affections of a new object of his. The latter I still owe him. (Hint: Wear this shirt!) Pen pals: such a childhood concept, but what a nice one. I need to overcome the mental Tourette's on this one and keep up my end. I'd hate to lose that.
Finally? Netflix. They send me real mail. Of substance. Netflix sends me Buffy*, and I love them for it. Even if they have standardized my address to facilitate delivery by the U.S. Postal Service. The four-digit ZIP extension — the one that turns me into a number, not a person — doesn't hurt me like it used to. Holiday cards (my family keeps Hallmark in business) and wedding announcements also have their seasons; I have a shoebox full of cheesy posed photos from already-married friends and secular Easter Bunny greetings from my mom, plus a fridge covered in save-the-date magnets and wedding invitations, most of which I haven't been able to make it to. I'll blame the Internet for that, too. Almost no one writes letters anymore, but now that I think about it… My mailbox isn't exactly gathering cobwebs. Hyperbole is fun.
Still, this letter. The five-page one I've heard about. It's not the fact that I never get real mail, then. And I guess it's not the thought or emotion or wit set to paper that enthralls me. Like any of these other parcels, it's more the "him" factor of it. The return address will be his and it will come to me and only me. It's an old-fashioned personal touch in a life defined by spam filters and circular files. And more than attention, that's what I crave.
*On a totally unrelated note: I'm currently reading Julie & Julia, the book the movie was based on. Julie Powell is one funny lady, and not in that "I know I'm funny, so I'll try really hard to be even funnier then fail completely" way that Jen Lancaster is funny. But last night, she spoiled a huge, hilarious plot development for me in the Buffy series. I will not do the same, but suffice it to say: Julie Powell, if you ever happen upon this blog, there's a very special circle in Hell reserved for plot spoilers! I AM ONLY ON SEASON TWO.