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 stimulated by thrilling people and experiences, and our letters sought a way in to that capacious but elusive place.

We’d met in London via a mutual friend who thought we’d like each other. He was right. Minutes after we sat on a sofa in his flat in Hampstead Heath we were in such a deep conversation that the whole world vanished. She gestured extravagantly as she spoke, giving me the opportunity to examine her beautiful clothing and make up that were more elegant and tailored than American fashion. French! I could never look like that. I was thin, but not trim, appealing but not arresting, and I was sure I had no mystique. Her hair was very short and daringly angled, and her clothes had been ironed to a crisp, translucent finish; when she waved her arms to emphasize a point, her sleeves flashed. I loved her face best, a touching heart shape that betrayed the girl she’d been before the black mascara.  She told me years later that she’d been amazed by my bitten nails and boy’s gym shorts: I appeared cool to her. We loved how the other looked, but our talk was what cemented us. Our friend didn’t join in, but sat on the other side of the room and watched us like a cat, purring and certain. As the afternoon went on he left for the high street and came back with wine and food. Meanwhile, she and I fell into friendlove, that divine state of pure affinity that feels like destiny and removes from the surroundings all one’s own anxious impediments to living fully and having fun. In spite of the seriousness of our conversation, and the range of subjects from politics to sex to religion to expat Thanksgivings to the specter of WWII palpable in England and France, we felt stirring inside each of us different desires more hectic than sipping wine and sharing ideas. If we had each other, what couldn’t we accomplish, where couldn’t we go? Excitement sewed our sentences into ethereal clothing we each wore away from that meeting, and we headed in our separate directions after pressing our addresses into each other’s hand.

Neither of us had a phone, and the English Channel ran between us. Letters it had to be. And so, out of necessity, we became two of the people who have the good fortune to find an ideal correspondent.

Correspondence—such a perfect word for the exchange we established. We corresponded with each other, always with and never to or at. I had the sense that we were side-by-side, occasionally brushing arms, turning our faces to meet each other’s gaze, moving forward akimbo. The with-ness was essential to the feeling that there was nothing we couldn’t say, that the safety net had been hung and it was secure. Our charge was to let go, and fly.

Yet this wasn’t the case at the start. When we began we followed the form of the letters we’d written in the past, essentially diary entries addressed to another. Even so, I was struck and inspired by the original details captured in her observations. Paris came alive at the tip of her pen. The markets, the food, the clothing, all so robust and new as filtered by her that I could hardly wait to go visit her, and found it hard to believe that anyone else, except perhaps Hugo and Hemingway, had ever really noticed the city before her. I wrote her back pressing for more details, and as I waited for her reply I paid attention to my own world, casting around for what mattered to me that I might write down well enough that I could make it matter to her, too. I began to go through my days thinking of the words I’d choose to tell her about this or that. I wrote about my daily life; the off license, my walks in Hampstead Heath, my near nightly pursuit of the music of the day; the Police, Warren Zevon, The Pretenders, The Psychedelic Furs, all the Two Tone bands performing in small venues, pre-fame. As I tried to recreate places and events, they became strange and elusive. I realized I hadn’t looked closely enough, but had absorbed the new by analogy to the old—stores, kids, and sports fans at home. That was defensible when I was alone doing the looking and remembering. It didn’t seem like a good enough effort to offer to her, though. What exactly was I seeing in England? I went back out and looked more closely, taking notes. Yet when I wrote, my letters lacked what I meant to convey. Why was that? My descriptions were all right; I was a poet after all. But something was missing.

When I was a child I often went skating in the winter on a bumpy pond belonging to a modern house on a low hill. The owners also allowed fishing in summer, so I sometimes went over to feed the geese, and my mother sometimes took me on Hallowe’en out of her own curiosity about who lived there. Every so often an older girl would come out of the house, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. She wore silk scarves against the rain and trench coats tied tight at the waist. She sensed my gaze no matter how far away I was, and she waved. I waved back at her, understanding that she was inviting me to keep watching her. I see her now, in loose shorts, a sleeveless Liberty print shirt, her hair pulled back in a tortoiseshell clip. I wanted to copy her when I was older, not then understanding what a stylish person does for a shirt, a scarf, a pair of shorts.

How surprising that she liked being watched! It embarrassed me if anyone looked my way. Her pleasure in it opened up the possibility, and I wanted her to watch me back. I thought up things to do designed to get her attention. I climbed a tall pine by the driveway and waded stoically in the gelid stream. From those extremes I’d casually look around, locating her in the course of my circuit. In my relationship with her, unspoken and literally distant, I first performed an act of me. This was different than self-consciousness, which made me feel I had no control, and that everything awful about me was as visible as the sky. This acting at being my desired self meant I could hide what I wanted hidden. I liked picturing the image I created of myself as I behaved for her benefit. Look at this, I said to the girl on the hill, the tableau I am making to make you smile. It didn’t embarrass me, or make me feel guilty to do it. It wasn’t as if I were saying look at me.

As I wrote more letters, I shifted from performing my ideal self for my Paris friend to trying to express my real self on the page. One week I wanted to write to her about a song spooling out the door of every pub. A woman’s voice sang in a register higher than a falsetto, maybe a piccolo. My first impulse was to find out the name of the song, but I was shy about asking strangers, and didn’t have a radio. I went ahead and wrote about the experience anyway—about the pleasure of stumbling on the song again and again, recognizing and being mystified by it at the same time. It was like having a crush on someone who crossed paths with me unexpectedly. What was it about this kind of frustration that I enjoyed? I pursued that question, and considered the whole category of frustration. What was lost in resolving it, what was gained by living with it? If I pursued the name of the song, what intangible was I really pursuing?

If it hadn’t been for my Paris friend, I wouldn’t have wondered about any of this. By describing my own thought process, I discovered there were more choices available for thinking or action in most situations than I took the time to discover. I remembered that I’d had this experience twice before; once when I was seven, right before my mother left my father, and every night she listened to a particular song over and over; and during in my freshman year at college, when I’d heard a set of notes lofted high in a yodel; pursuing it had given me both Joni Mitchell and a new friend.

Often I wanted to break off in the middle of an exploration, because it was exhausting. Even description was exhausting. It must come more easily to her, I thought, when reading pages of her vivid recreation of a market or dinner party, or even a dream and her interpretation. I thought it was harder for me, that my poet’s sensibility got in the way. My practice was centered on recognizing the signs of a poem erupting. My letters were the opposite; digging down rather than listening to an uproar. This often confused me. I knew who I was, didn’t I? Yet under examination, a great deal of my behavior seemed to be based on received notions. It was true for how I saw the world, too. When I looked at a building I took it in as a whole, but when I looked more closely I saw how much I’d missed. Was it because I didn’t havean advanced architectural vocabulary, or was it because I lived in my own head that I settled before I wondered? Writing letters to my Paris friend brought me closer to her and to myself, and taught me about a different way of writing, reliant on observational thinking rather than sound, rhythm and inspiration. Our correspondence helped me grow up.

In the beginning we wrote aerograms, but quickly there wasn’t enough room even on every cranny of all the folds to contain our bursting selves. We graduated to airmail letter paper and thin blue envelopes that threatened to split at the seams from all we stuffed into them. She established a method of writing pages over a period of time that magically had an arc to it, so her letters had the sweep of a novella. When one appeared in the mailbox I put it away until I had time to read slowly, taking in every word. Sometimes it took me more than an hour to read a letter, and I always came away full of questions for her, and a fresh gusto for life. When we read each other’s observations, we took them deeper, sharing our own feelings on a subject and asking more about the other’s thoughts and emotions. Knowing our friend was a careful, seeking reader made our follow up letters more thoughtful. We asked and answered back and forth responsively, building an exchange thick enough to be interpretable by a sculptor.

Our early ambitions shifted and adapted to the limitations of our personalities. We moved away from our European cities, but kept writing and offering views both interior and exterior of our lives. I depended on this correspondence, craved it to guide me back to center when I became too depressed or discouraged. When her thick envelopes arrived, pages and pages of episodic adventures and inquiries written in her backwards slant with the cross bars on her Ts dipping low; when I walked into the mustard lobby of my building and found a letter in my mailbox; when I touched her handwriting—I felt connected with my deepest self before I even read her words. On my way up the grim stairs I was carried away by images of my Paris friend spending hours ironing a white eyelet skirt, of going from café to café for an entire afternoon, of searching for books at flea markets, then reading aloud while walking down the street. Often I saved the letters to read ceremoniously. I wrote her back as honestly as I could, my fears of exposing my true self diminishing as time passed without repercussion. The world transformed for me, knowing she’d be sharing it.

In a strange twist my mother married the man who lived in the house on the hill above the pond, and I became the girl who walked off the skating pond and over the bridge. I felt many eyes behind me gaze at my back. I was terrified of looking around and revealing my awareness of those stares, but I always gave in, pretending to be searching for something. What I didn’t understand was that I was searching for something—my authentic self. I’d lost contact with it in the exchange I’d made of nerves for false bravado. I acted the way I thought I should—and could—instead. I became pleasing to everyone but myself. When boys loved me, I thought they wouldn’t if they knew what was underneath my efforts to make them happy. I was lonely.

That was the version of me my Paris friend met in Hampstead Heath. Both of us had experienced a lot of difficult events, and in our letters we discussed them openly for the first time, without shame. When I wrote to her, or read hers, I felt I was making a tacit bid for more days on earth, more gratitude, more value attached to everything, even the bad. Writing down the details, I found life, and maybe truth. I wasn’t performing, but being through thinking. This was a uniquely human activity. Alone but not alone.

Now we are still writing to each other, still searching. When I was young I thought we’d find it, whatever it is, much sooner, that we’d one day be done and content. But all that has happened is that the search has gone deeper, and become more frank. We know each other every well. Technology has made it possible to Skype and send email, but the desire to think carefully in order to communicate fully is still the main focus. We haven’t become famous enough that anyone will publish a book of our letters. We didn’t fulfill our ambitions, not as we imagined doing so, which is a topic under discussion. We have regrets. Our correspondence hasn’t mellowed, or softened, not at all. We are still ambitious; now for the truth and more of the truth, good work, health and stamina. We are older.

I have come to a decision while writing this: I will print out my Paris friend’s letters, and save them for a day in the future when I am curious, and old, and perhaps lonely again, or forgetful of who I really am. As for printing my own…no. My fantasy of being part of a celebrated correspondence didn’t come to pass, and it was part of my desire to be seen as a girl on a hill rather than myself. Anyway, I sent the letters to other people—they have them to keep or jettison. It’s not my business anymore; I gave the love away.

Alice Elliott Dark has published three books of fiction,