I’m working on a chapter called “Bad Pen Pal.” It’s going to be chapter 13 in The Saltwater Twin—or maybe chapter 12. The impetus for some chapters is a story, for others an idea. The flicker for this one was friendship. I wanted to write something about how we learn to make friends and how intense friendships can be when you’re young. I wanted to write about the heartbreak of losing a friend and the less intense but still potentially ache-inducing drift that sometimes comes with time and distance. I wanted to describe the way some lost friendships still weigh on me at times, keep me wondering where and how and why we foundered.
The title comes from the first time I lost touch with a friend. I was eight. Actually, my friendship with Bonnie never truly got off the ground. We spent one day together, while our fathers attended a conference. Bonnie lived in a different state, but she suggested we stay friends. We could be pen pals. I liked the sound of that. It sounded exotic to have a pen pal. I liked how letters were little packages. I liked that my name and address printed on the front meant that it would come to my house, of all the houses in the United States, all the houses in the world; it would come to me. I liked the marvelous way envelopes were sealed with spit, their folded triangles, the magical canceled stamp. But the content of Bonnie’s letters left me unmoved—maybe because we just didn’t know each other that well. We hadn’t any history. I recently discovered I have one still in my possession, a Christmas card that reads,I miss you a lot! Please send me a picture of you! How have you been? I have been fine. My cat got hit by a car and lived for a half of an hour after that! Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Did you get my last letter? On your next letter, tell me if you got the Christmas card letter. (that is this letter.) I have to go bye bye. Love, Bonnie your pen pal P.S. If you lost my address it is: [address follows]
What I gather from this remnant of Bonnie’s and my failed correspondence is that I was already delinquent in my half of the bargain, since she worried I’d lost her address. Also that Bonnie liked exclamation points and maybe was not so torn up about the demise of the family pet. I kept meaning to write back, but I don’t think I ever did, and though I guess I didn’t hang on to it, I remember getting a goodbye letter from Bonnie saying she didn’t understand why I didn’t want to be her pen pal. Looking back I wonder if I was the subject of conversation at Hines’ family dinners, if Bonnie’s dad thought his colleague had a heartless daughter.
Since Bonnie, I’ve been guilty more than once of being a bad pen pal. I’m generally a terrible correspondent and have a difficult time maintaining friendships over time and distance. People who were central to my life are no longer in it save for Facebook. I couldn’t find Bonnie there, but I think I found her Pinterest board. She likes a coffee table that was in Real Simple.
Keep in touch: In seventh grade Monica Hazlett scrawled it in the margin next to her picture, beside which she’d penned the word “Gross!” with an arrow pointing to her face. Several girls that year wrote, “Keep in touch” in my yearbook. I remember being confused by this. Girls who had deigned to speak to me only when they wanted to copy my homework or tell a joke I wouldn’t get and laugh at my not getting it wrote, “K.I.T!” with their phone number below or in some cases, like Monica, “U R 2 Cute 2 B 4gotten!”
When I bump into someone (in the grocery store or on that weird backwards telescope known as Facebook) who effuses, “It’s so great to see you. We should get coffee/wine/pie,” I feel that same seventh grade mistrust. Keep in touch is a thing people say. It’s phatic speech, like “How are you?” It doesn’t seek or require a response.
I’ve looped back to this chapter several times; the subject has proved difficult to parse. It’s somewhat maddeningly chicken-and-egg. Am I trying to find the stories from my life—like the ones about Bonnie and Monica—that illustrate what I’m trying to say about friendship, or am I trying to figure out what I have to say about the stories from my life? Not that stories should have tidy little morals. I’m not fond of “life lesson” style writing.
Still, I want to learn something. I’ve been reading books and articles on friendship by psychologists and sociologists (there are experts on everything!), who report that friends may help you live longer and that the average length of a friendship is seven years. I’ve also read about the flip side of friendship—loneliness—in a really interesting memoir called, appropriately, Lonely, by Emily White. I realized, reading White’s story, that I’d been a lonely kid—something readers may have inferred from that seventh grade story but that had never dawned on me before.
There’s something in chapter 12—or 13—that I’m going to figure out. Something hidden within my own stories about friends found and lost. Something about friendship and loneliness and connection. About bad pen pals and keeping in touch.