Do you know that song by Wilco? It came out the year I got married. It has a verse I think is funny:
I got a lot of your records,
in a separate stack.
There's some things I might like to hear,
But I guess I'll give them back.
That says more about the end of a relationship than entire novels I have read. It's that word "might." Economy of language, friends.
Sunday before last, the kids and I got home from the mountains really late. As late as it was, Matt was down in the basement busily sorting and clearing out so that Larry and Darryl the basement guys could start the next morning. I wanted to just stare into his eyes and feed each other grapes, you know, but he had different ideas. He led me to four cardboard boxes. I tried to pretend I had no idea what he was asking, but his meaning was clear. I recognized the four boxes as things from my old room at my parents' house. Boxes that had come straight to our basement unsorted. Three of them were books, but one was a box full of letters.
Matt wanted me to go through them and decide what to keep and what to chuck, so I did. I was merciless on the books. Then I opened the last box. There were three strata: high school stuff with a little middle school thrown in, letters to and from college friends and boyfriends, and notes and memorabilia from my study-abroad time in Rome. I knew that if I'd had time and a more comfortable place to sit, I could have fallen headlong into a slough of memory and desire. But I was kind of efficient. When I found bits of an old journal, say, I didn't read it so much as take note of its existence and move on. This was all stuff I had wanted to save at one time. Now a good bit of it was garbage. I threw away a bunch of grades and official records/awards type junk. I kept a fair amount of high school writing, my own and others'. I kept anything that had been written by a friend I still have today. So if you are within the sound of my voice right now, and you knew me in high school, there's some poetry of yours that needs analyzing. I threw away my ACT scores but kept my SAT's, figure that one out. I threw away my notes from my Opera class in Rome, I kept the Art History ones.
The absolutely untouchable category was the letters. It's amazing to think now, but in the early nineties, we college kids wrote each other letters. Lots of them. I had a tight-knit circle of friends, and when we were separated by school breaks or study abroad, we wrote. Some long letters, some postcards. Now those letters speak of lazy summers and low-end jobs we had between terms. Who has time to do that anymore? It's odd. I think we had email addresses--I remember the school gave them to us, maybe--but we must not have used them? I know I never in college had a personal computer. Now, by early 1995 when my long-distance courtship with Matt was heating up, we were both on AOL. Then we emailed and IM'd and all the rest. But there are lots of letters between us from before the dawn of email. I felt pleasure pulling them out of the box. Something about that physical, tangible object. It feels like a gift from the letter writer, the letter is a gift to you of the time it took to write and send it.
Of course, at the same time, this is what my dissertation was about: letters and letterness, especially the way a letter's controlling fiction is that it's an intimate, true, "real" piece of the writer's presence. Once, in a class I taught, one of my brilliantest students was musing on the difference, in genre terms, between a letter and a postcard. She said, "It's like a letter presents the person and is all about closeness, and a postcard embraces the distance." And I thought, "I could put down my chalk and leave the room, 'cause they get it."
Anyway, so I was pulling these various letters from various people out of the box and exclaiming over them. I couldn't get into reading them because there were miles to go before we slept, and Matt and I hadn't seen each other in a few days and we had important chatting to chat. So I put them all in a safe keeper pile. I just don't have it in me to throw out someone's personal letter.
Which brings me to the funny thing that happened: down in the box was a pile of letters to an old boyfriend of mine from another old girlfriend of his, somebody before me. I never knew this person or laid eyes on her. There were ten or twelve letters on business-sized stationery. She had beautiful handwriting and she decorated the outside of the envelopes. Again, who has time to do this anymore? Reader, I don't know why I had these. Maybe they were part of some of his belongings that transferred to me somehow? We never lived together so I don't know. I didn't remember them at all. I don't know if I had once read them or not. It seemed an odd thing for me to keep. But there was no way I could throw them away.
So I messaged the old boyfriend on the facebook. We've always been on good terms; we have mutual friends, though it's been ten years since I saw him. I told him, hey, I found these old letters from your old girlfriend X, don't know why I have 'em. Would you like me to send them to you? I didn't want to throw them away, but if you don't want them now, lemme know and I will give them a respectful burial.
And he hasn't written back to me. That was a week and a half ago. I'm kind of surprised I didn't hear right back, one way or the other. He is married now, but I wasn't offering to send him naked pictures of this other girl. So I don't know. Maybe it just seemed like something he didn't really want to deal with? Or didn't want to make a decision about? If he doesn't ask for them (I don't know his address), I really have no reason in the world to keep them, except that it seems utterly impossible to throw out the work of someone's hand like that.
What would you do? What will probably happen is that they'll live in my possession for another fifteen years. And then I will be less sentimental and one day they'll get tossed. Or my heirs will puzzle over who are these people and are these now precious family treasures?
That was a nice night in the basement, even if we weren't feeding each other grapes. I thought about how much I enjoy Matt's company and who he is and our life together, and how sometimes I feel like life is rushing by and there might not be enough time to talk about all the things I want to talk about with him.
It's hilarious that I've had this blog for three years, because in all that box of letters, I didn't read anything that I had written. I put it all aside for some future time when maybe I can stand myself. You know?