More than half my lifetime ago, when I was a senior in college, I met a woman with whom I frequently rode the same bus in the evenings. We got to talking, and both were delighted to find another person who shared our erudite vocabulary and unabashed love of the English language. She was so smart, so funny, so delightfully conversational (and I’m sure she thought the same of me) that we both said “we really must be friends.” So that’s what we became, in that easy way people do when they’re young and life is uncomplicated.
The course of our friendship never did run smooth, though, as we navigated the labyrinths of our own developing identities and awkwardly, painfully negotiated the terms of our interaction as we gradually discovered how we felt about and what we meant to each other. Impeding our efforts, ironically enough, was language itself and the yawning gulf between her interpretation of it and mine. Language was the glue that held us together as much as it was the club we used to slug each other with when we were frustrated and confused. We certainly both knew how to kick on the rhetorical afterburners and turn the killing phrase.
When I graduated and moved away, we took the first of what would be several long hiatuses from each other. But one day an unfamiliar letter arrived in my mailbox, and there she was again. So began our correspondence, which has been one of the masterworks of my life. We would pour ourselves into thousands of words a week, sometimes taking the letter straight from the mailbox to the desk to begin composing a response “before the chill of the mailbox had passed from the pages” of the letter just received. We discussed and debated and confided and told each other our stories.
Along the way, though, there were misunderstandings and arguments and smoke as well as fire struck from the sparks generated by this correspondence. For all that we communicated, there remained huge gaps in our knowledge of each other as well as of ourselves. This was a relationship unlike any I have ever had in its intensity, complexity and depth, as well as both its creative and its destructive potential. At one point my mother said we were “poison pen pals” because I would get so upset over things my friend would write.
For all the energy and time we devoted to this friendship, we always struggled to find a peaceful common emotional ground. Over the years, our conflicts accumulated and I think we both created something of a caricature of the other person in our minds that bore little resemblance to our true selves. Finally the day came when yet another conflict finally overran the tolerances of affection and long acquaintance, and our correspondence ended in anger.
During the silent years that followed, I thought of her often–sometimes with relief, sometimes with anger, sometimes with sadness. I wondered–we both wondered–what we could have said or done differently to have created a happier outcome. There was never any doubt that we did and do care about each other deeply. But without a common language, there can be no shared heart.
Two years ago, I started looking for her on Google because she is a writer and I wanted to read her words again, even if the words were not addressed to me. She has a talent like no other. I missed it. I missed her.
I’d get the occasional weak hit on something that she might have written, but I couldn’t be sure from her name alone (which is not quite so common as my own but is not unique, either). I kept looking. Finally, I got a solid hit on, of all things, a classified ad for a Pilates class she was teaching. In Portugal. It included an email address, so I sent her my first message in more than a decade: “Google tells me you live in Portugal now. Is it true? Is it you?” And it was.
She was happy to hear from me, and we joyfully resumed our erudite, polysyllabic, absurdly voluminous correspondence across the Atlantic, which lasted for a few months before foundering yet again on the rocky shoals of language. What does the word love mean? How many different varieties and shades of it are there? Which one applies to my feelings for her and her feelings for me? It seemed so important to me that we resolve the precise meaning of that word that I could not continue on until we did. But we didn’t, so again the thread was lost. I really did not think we could or would ever find each other again. It’s a long way from where I live to Portugal in more ways than one.
But I am nothing if not a stubborn woman, and I persist at certain things (like, relationships) long after the smart money says I should bow out and go home. I anonymously read my friend’s writing online for several months, and allowed my appreciation for her particular gifts to override my frustration that she and I did not see exactly eye to eye on one or two issues that matter quite a lot to me. Finally I contacted her one more time, and said I wanted to resume an occasional light correspondence in small doses if that was cool with her. She has a big heart and a forgiving nature, so she said yes, and we began writing to each other again. I think we’ve been at it long enough now that I can say for sure that we have found that peaceful common emotional ground because there are no sparks, no smoke and no fire in our words anymore, just stories and understanding and a sense of finally working in tandem rather than competing. At least that is how it feels to me. I hope she feels that way also.
All of this is merely prologue, though, to telling you that when the hard drive on my laptop failed last weekend, our entire correspondence of the past two years was lost because I am not too smart about backing up my data. I had my documents and pictures and so forth backed up on a thumb drive, but I don’t know how to archive emails (you can be darn sure I’m going to figure out how, though). Part of my inability to write a post last night was my despair … yes, despair is not too strong a word … that this body of work was gone forever. My PC guy said the hard drive was toast and he doubted anything could be salvaged from it, let alone the Outlook data file. He took it back to his office to work on and I didn’t hear from him, so I figured there was no hope.
He called today and said his phone had died so he couldn’t call me sooner, but that he had been able to recover my data. He wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be scrambled, but he transferred it over to the new laptop and we both held our breath as Outlook opened.
And there they were again, intact, all the nearly 450 messages between me and my best correspondent. I don’t mind telling you, I cried with relief and embarrassed the PC guy, who couldn’t imagine that anything sent by email could really be that important. He has no idea.
I know you’re going to read this at some point, my friend. It’s not enough to say in a private message how glad I am to have your words back again, so I’m saying it on the internet where god and everybody can read it, too.