I moved to New York the week I turned twenty. I lived on the fifth floor of an East Village walk-up with a boyfriend I was too young to realize I shouldn’t have been with, and I got a job waiting tables in Union Square. A year and a half earlier, during my freshman year at a tiny liberal arts college in Vermont, my mother died of cancer. I’d since dropped out of college, New York City feeling like the only antidote to the raging desperation I felt inside.
But even if Manhattan did somehow quell the gnawing inside of me, it also presented its own parameters of angst. The guilt I felt upon abandoning the girl my mother had known – going from a sweet college freshman to becoming another tattooed Lower East Side twenty-something with an alcoholic boyfriend – made it hard for me to breathe on the nights I couldn’t fall asleep.
I poured all of this out in long letters that I dropped regularly into a rusted mailbox on Avenue A. The letters were addressed to my friend Julie who was living her own mixed-up version of post-high school life in Oregon. Julie and I had gone to high school together, but had only become close in the summer after we’d graduated, running into each other repeatedly as we smoked cigarettes on the balconies of depressing apartments belonging to groups of boys who were trying to start bands on the East side of Atlanta. We blew plumes of smoke up into the warm night air, both of us grateful to be leaving all of this behind for college in the fall.
We were sorry to say goodbye at the end of that summer, wistful that we’d never been closer in high school when we’d had the chance. To make up for it, we wrote copious letters back and forth – Julie penning them from the University of Georgia and me from Vermont. Maybe because we didn’t know each other all that well we felt free to say things we wouldn’t have otherwise. Two years later I was in New York and she was in Oregon, both of us needing something more than our original destinations offered.
We talked on the phone now and then, and we even sent the occasional email, but without fail, we wrote each other a letter a week. In them we poured out all the things we were afraid to say aloud: the kaleidoscope of dreams we had, the aching fear that life wouldn’t be as big as we wanted it to be, the hope and promise we clung to in the reflection we’d found in each other’s words. I’ll never forget the little metal mailbox in the bottom of my building on East 5th Street, if only because it was the place where my heart sang a little every time I saw an envelope there, Julie’s curly handwriting looping across the front.
At my restaurant job I often worked double shifts that first year, trying desperately to keep up with my East Village rent, but on the breaks in between I sat in the park, smoking cigarettes and writing to Julie about my latest fight with my boyfriend, my writing classes at the New School and the lake of grief inside of me so wide that it threatened to swallow me whole. Julie’s letters back were fraught with confusion about her own boyfriend, her struggles to be the daughter her parents wanted her to be, and also tiny bits of poetry and lines so singularly tragic that I almost wanted to cut them from the page.
I never imagined the letters would come to an end.
One night a couple of years into living in New York, I came home from a movie with my boyfriend to the sound of the phone ringing. We could hear it before we’d even opened the door to the apartment. It was January and a deep cold had settled over the city. Just two days earlier I’d received a wonderfully fat letter from Julie detailing a trip to India she’d just returned from for a cousin’s wedding, so I was surprised to hear her voice on the other end of the line.
There was no easing into what she had to tell me; she just said it. “Claire, I’m in the hospital and I have leukemia.” She’d fallen the previous day at her internship and been taken to the hospital where she’d quickly been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
Over the next year before she died, the little metal mailbox in the bottom of my building went back to housing mostly bills and circulars. I stopped checking it every day, knowing that only heartbreak waited there for me. I continued to write to Julie, of course, scrawling her hospital room number beneath her name on the envelopes, and a few days before she died I held her hand and promised that even after she was gone, I would continue to write to her.
It was a promise I didn’t keep.
After she was gone the mail became a flat thing. Email had taken over by then anyway, and for a long, long time I forgot about letters. In fact, I forgot about letters until a few weeks ago, when I wrote one out to all of you. Before I began that letter I thought for days about what I would write. I knew it would be different than the lengthy and sometimes passionate emails I’ve sent over the last decade, but only when I thought of Julie did I know how to start.
It was only after I thought back to those lonely days in the East Village that I remembered what it is that’s so different about letters. There’s something ragged and breathless about them. The very physicality of a letter, the fact that it was, at one time, held by the person who sent it, that it traveled across all the distance you yourself wish you could eclipse, can fill you up in a way that an emboldened email in your inbox never will.
There are secrets you can tell in a letter that will never be lost to cyberspace. Even if those same secrets have found a permanent home on the page you wrote them on, there’s something more precarious about hitting a send button when you fling them out into the world, than there is dropping them into a rusted blue box on the street corner.
I just want to say thank you for allowing me to remember this. I want to thank you for writing back to me, for sending me little bits of yourselves, and for making the sound of the mail coming through the door one that that makes my heart pound again.
I wrote back to all of you.