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 crazines