Yesterday afternoon, I was killing time at the Strand and came across Here and Now— a collection of published letters between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee. When I finish reading Blue Plate Special, I will purchase Here and Now (with the four remaining dollars in my checking account, God, I think I will have a job by next week, please don’t let the repo man come and take away my books). Apparently Coetzee and Auster were familiar with each others’ work, but weren’t closely acquainted until their correspondence began. Shortly after meeting, Coetzee wrote Auster and suggested that an epistolary exchange would be a way to “strike sparks off each other,” and so began a three year relationship of letters.
When I was twenty, I went to visit a friend in London. On the last night of our trip, we went out dancing (for the eighth night in a row, I’m sure. Even if I tried to do that now, I’d be too haggard and sleepy to be allowed entry into any decent nightclub. But back then, boy, I had that brio of youth that made me bounce like a ponytail into every bar night after night after night) and I met a guy named Jonathan. The details are hazy, but he and I danced for the first half of the night (I do remember him telling me that I danced like I was on a pole, which, well, yeah, I’m not sure if that makes him seem gross and sleazy or me seem young and stupid, but upon hearing his observation, I’m sure I bucked my hips and threw my hands in the air), and we kissed and kissed and kissed for the second half of the night. We made out as though we’d been dating for years and he was off to war and we’d never see each other again. At some point between kisses and gasps and pants, we exchanged addresses and vowed to keep in touch. After three hours, some alleged erotic dancing, and a bunch of Marlboro Lights, I now had a pen pal. He lived in Essex, I lived in the Bronx, and I was sure that I loved him.
We did write to each other. For about a year, we wrote back and forth, sending pictures and scribbling jokes onto the envelopes, we kept in touch. The lag between sending and receiving a letter was around two weeks, and I felt hair-rippingly wild by the time the weeks had passed and I finally received a note from him in the mail. I came to recognize his long, slanted handwriting, and I would read each letter over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I carried them in my purse. I felt alive. I don’t remember us writing anything overtly sexual or even romantic (nothing of the “you look like a pole dancer” variety), but I do remember expressing our good fortune to have found each other. We wrote that a lot. How lucky I am to have danced that night with you. He wrote me from Tanzania and Zimbabwe where he was working as a chef at hotel restaurants. He sent me pictures from his culinary school graduation. I wrote to him about auditions and books I was reading and how much I wanted to travel. We wrote about trying to see each other. I imagined a life for us between the letters, on the same continent, dancing together one more time.
I can’t remember how we fell out of touch. I started dating someone who used up all my energy in the worst possible way, he continued to travel through Africa for work. I got an email (not a letter) from him after September 11th asking if I was okay. I remember responding, but I don’t remember what I said.
A few months ago, I sent a friend an email about a memorable encounter I’d had with a coworker. A few days later, my friend sent me a text message saying he’d enjoyed my email, but wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I texted back, telling him it was no problem, no need to respond. And I wasn’t really lying, I don’t think. Because I suppose if you have to ask for a response or tell someone how to reply, some of the beauty of the exchange gets lost. What was so remarkable about my correspondence with Jonathan was that we weren’t really asking for anything at all. We were just paying attention to that little need in both of us that kept wanting to connect, that kept asking for more. A letter contains someone’s DNA; it carries a piece of the writer wherever it goes. Jonathan and I, for just a short little while, agreed to keep sending and receiving pieces of ourselves. We were still kissing even though we were miles away from each other.