I spent the morning writing a letter to George, an old friend from high school who for one reason or other, became a pen pal after we both went off to college – he to Edinburgh and I to NYU. It’s clear now we were both trying to leave something behind – carrying our true selves to new places, his thousands of miles further than mine.

Three months later, I flew my true self back to California and sent George a few letters from home before relocating to Taipei. George adjusted the postage accordingly and our letters continued. Regardless of where I lived, George’s arriving steadily from small towns on the big Continent and mine trickled to him from Villa Park, Taipei, Berkeley, and now, Villa Park again.

Sometimes we do not correspond for months at a time, but I have at least two letters from George for every year since 2004, when we graduated from high school. Slowly, they are filling up a box at the bottom of my desk.   

Letter from George, 2008

In Berkeley, where I felt my most writerly self thanks to the plethora of quaint cafes with shaky wooden tables and the soothing hum of students studying and espresso machines hissing, I received some of George’s best work, not that his best work is behind him. He is a generous correspondent, stuffing his envelopes with not only his Jamesian letters, but postcards, bookmarks, and other flat trinkets he things I might “fancy,” a favorite word of his. And the best part of George the letter writer: when he says he will write, he writes. As a pen-pal, he is the most constant with both his word and the medium. A rarity in this day and age. I can always expect in the mail the fat, blue and red edged envelope with interesting postage.

I am less thoughtful, though I do sign with a flourish, with both my first and last name.

“Why do you do that,” someone once asked, “I only know one Betty.”

In truth, I do not know how to sign my name otherwise.

Our letters are long, often with pages numbering in the double digits. George prefers to write on graph paper, front and back, and I prefer horizontally lined pages – alternating between thick sumptuous paper from Japanese stationers or the translucent airmail specific sheets that come in a pad of fifty, light as a feather. Another friend with whom I often correspond via Snail Mail, Julia, prefers no lines at all. I marvel at her self control. I tried to write once on a blank page and found myself staring at an avalanche of words.

I use only one side and number the pages in case George is reading while walking and a breeze carries my pages away. George does not number his pages, and once, reading his letter on my walk home from school, a breeze did indeed come and blow the pages out of my hands. Gingerly, I rescued them from bushes and dewy grass, which smeared some of his words – it took me a while, but I put them back in order and made a mental note to, in my next letter, remind George to number his pages.

We both write in cursive. George’s words touch the bottom line. Mine do not – in a book on penmanship, I learned this is an indication of vanity. I neither agree nor disagree.

We write about our days, our studies, new friends we’ve made and people we are interested in but perhaps too shy to talk to. We read widely, but extremely differently – he writes sometimes about Marxist theories and his debates with friends regarding other things I know little about. I tell him about life in various Asian cities, and he paints portraits of the denizens of quaint German university towns, where he pursued graduate studies. We take great care to describe the cafes we are sitting in, the people we are sitting next to, and even if I am not in a cafe while I am reading one of George’s letters, I can almost smell the coffee.

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One thought on “Letters

  1. Sick penmanship. I used to wonder when my own handwriting would stop resembling that of a fourth grader's and look more like the almost generically tidy cursive both of my parents somehow write in. Then I stopped wondering.

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