Alice Elliott Dark

My Blue Trunk

Recently I had an email from my Paris friend. I still think of her that way, though she hasn’t lived in Paris for twenty-five years. Her email was vivid and full of details about events that moved her in some way. Her sensibility was present in the type on the computer screen, and I had the sensation, as I always do, that her writing was a true expression of her being, and that I was fully in the presence of another mind. The email was a continuation of a long-term conversation we have had with each other for nearly forty years. Every so often we agree we should go back to writing paper letters, but we have gotten used to the flexibility of email as a medium where it’s fine to write a couple of lines or even words–everything ok? The shift has cost us the depth and breadth of the letters we once wrote over days and weeks, but that has been made up for by frequency, and the sense of proximity an email offers in knowing the person was just there, thinking of you, pressing the send button.

I haven’t printed her emails out as a collection to put in my blue letter trunk, though it would make sense to keep them with her letters, stacked in packets wrapped with elastic hair ties and ribbons. My resistance isn’t based on any feeling about the inferiority of email as a medium, though I used that as an excuse for years. When I consider the matter more deeply, however, I understand that what really inhibits me is the fact that I have my side of the exchange too, in my sent file. I could include it, but I can’t decide if it belongs.

This hesitation contradicts my old fantasy of being half of a correspondence collected in a book of letters. My Paris friend dreamed of that, too, and part of our early bond was based on admitting that ambition. A volume of letters seemed to us a potent symbol of what it meant to be a successful artist. When we began to write each other, a starry possibility of posterity shone over our bent heads. Neither of us copied our own letters before we sent them, though, but trusted the other to keep them for when our biographers came looking.

I have kept her letters, along with almost every other I’ve ever gotten. My letter trunk is blue and nearly full. Every so often I open it and add a new packet, though this is infrequent now that paper letters are rare. When I do I glance at my stash, the accumulation of decades, I don’t reread, not yet. Someday I’ll bring the trunk into my bedroom and read through them all. I used to have a fantasy about what will come of this session. I expected to be surprised by all I’ve forgotten, events and people both. I’d be moved, and impatient, too. (Hundreds of daily letters from my grandmother, for example, as prosaic as it comes.) At this point I’ve let go of many fantasies, including what my old letters might do for me. Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t imagine throwing my letters away, though that may change too.

About ten years ago I sorted all the loose letters into categories, but the letters from romances that predated my marriage had already been archived, bundled with memorabilia into folders. I placed a high value on my love life. There’s a packet in the trunk from a boy I met over a spring vacation when I was fourteen, my first real kiss and attachment. I read the end of his letters first, to see how he signed off. My happiness depended on seeing the word love on the page. Love and more than love—I wanted a declaration. I love you.

“You’re boy crazy,” my mother told me after witnessing one of my many intense, hushed receptions of one of these letters and the opposite mood that followed; garrulous, hectic, and insistent that my sudden shift to extroversion had nothing to do with my mail. A few years ago while cleaning out her closets for her I found three paper bags full of letters from boys that she’d kept and carried from house to house. “Throw them away,” she said. “I’ll never look at them again.”

I’d planned to tease her about her own boy craziness, but her dismissiveness subdued me. Three bags full of envelopes representing the private time all those boys had spent writing to her. Other bags full of letters from friends, and old letters between her parents and their friends. Letters from me, and my long dead father. Did she want those, at least? She said I might want to keep the father letters but to take the rest to the dump. Instead I put them in plastic bins and under a bed. She might change her mind. How could she not want her letters? I value all mine, though only my exchange with my Paris friend lived up to my early hopes.

She and I began to write to each other shortly after we met in 1978, at age 24, when I lived in London, she in Paris. The letters that crossed the channel and entered our respective flats were urgent attempts to deepen a new friendship, and to write us into lives as young women who becoming somebodies. This sounds commonplace now, but we were freshly hatched out of Second Wave feminism, fiercely ambitious but hesitant to admit to the extent of it. We had to work up our nerve to claim aloud how much we wanted from life, how high we wanted to go on our own, beyond the bounds that had been modeled for us. We spoke of it one cold, cloudy day walking through the Tuileries, kicking our knee high boots through the brown leaves fallen from the plane trees. It was as if the gray day afforded the cover we needed to stake our claim. We were Americans living abroad for a while, and though the situation was temporary, the days were long with youth, and we felt permanently liberated from the perspectives of what we knew and how family and old friends characterized us. We each burst with restlessness, intellectual curiosity, and yearning, and we spotted these qualities in the other right away. What would we do with all our energy and ambition? I wanted to be a poet, she a filmmaker. Most of all, we wanted to create the kinds of lives we admired, artistic lives characterized by great swathes of work, friendships, lovers, conversation. We had no intention of getting married or having children. We saw ourselves as always living in a city, working all day and meeting friends for dinner at night, perhaps having a house in the country at some point—if we made money. But money wasn’t a goal. The whole point of our choices and of the lives we were leading was to find freedom and then keep it. As women artists, we’d have to live simply to do that, saving complexity for work. Yet we threw ourselves into love like puppies chasing balls. We were searching for a very particular state of being that we’d read about in biographies, a life fully experienced and