1600 words long
A love letter in the desperate key of F minor.
Notes from the author:I just remembered this. And I know it's been too long since I last wrote; for that, and for the suddenness of this letter, please forgive. I only just remembered.
Began as an assignment in a Creative Non-Fiction class, Spring or Summer '96 at the Univ. of Washington. Began working out the kinks in earnest when Roofbeam's "Sad Story" contest came into view.
Even back then I had personal rule against entering contests with fees. This is one of the huge differences between commercial genre fiction on the one hand, and the combined fields of literary fiction and poetry on the other. Literary/poetry says, "If it doesn't charge a fee, it's probably not legit. Besides, don't you believe in your work enough to invest in it?" Commercial genre says, "Why pay to submit to a contest when you can submit for paid publication for free? Money flows toward the author!" I write commercial genre fiction.
But just this once I made an exception. When I read the description of the theme, my "spidey sense" started tingling: I knew, intuitively, that "Dear You" would be perfect for them. Besides, if I was wrong, I was only out fifteen dollars plus postage.
And I wasn't wrong. This piece was awarded the contest's grand prize. When my complimentary copy of the issue arrived, it was accompanied by a check for $225.
This is one of the few pieces I've written that's almost entirely biographical. And despite my being happily married since 1998 to the man to whom this letter is addressed (though, truly, it could as well be addressed to anyone I've ever loved, if you alter the date appropriately), I still can't read it aloud without tearing up at the end.
When I was very young, a long time before you knew me, my favorite dreams always made me cry. I would find or be given some treasure of inestimable worth, something which changed from dream to dream but always shone for me brighter than Christmas morning. I don't remember what it was. But it was priceless, and it was unquestionably mine, and upon waking I would search under my pillows and the sheets, even crawl beneath the bed looking for it. None of my tears could bring it back.
Freud says that children of such a young age cannot yet distinguish fantasy from reality. Doesn't that make you laugh? I used to spin whole yarns about my imaginary friends: "Red-Bird says there are unicorns where he comes from, Mom!" But even then I knew perfectly well that Red-Bird and the rest were fantasies, real only in my imagination and perhaps in my mother's indulgence--though at that age, what child knows to appreciate a mother's indulgence? Still, remembering how I used to wake in tears, a vastly poorer child than my dreams had made me, I have to concede Freud's point.
I wonder what he would say if he knew what you know, that in this respect I have not yet grown up?
For instance, one morning it's just before dawn, and I'm standing in line in the women's bathroom. In line with me is someone I recognize as one of my classmates. We discuss ideas for our projects due tomorrow, and confide to each other how nervous we are at the thought of speaking before the class. Then we're sitting on the edge of the bathroom sink and another classmate is giving her presentation already. I fumble for my notebook. I know it's around here somewhere--
Just before dawn I awoke, springing from bed to desk to watch my hands going frantic among papers and books and stained coffee cups. I know it's around here somewhere-- I watched my hands for the longer portion of a minute before I remembered to tell them to stop. Out loud, like this: "Stop that." I returned to bed, feeling a few cards short of a poker face and annoyed at myself for it. But it's a usual feeling for so early in the morning, and nothing that can't be fixed by one more hour of sleep or a good hot shower.
And then there was the time I was browsing in a bookstore and suddenly knew myself to be dreaming. Instead of sensibly realizing that everything would go away when I woke up, I grabbed a book off the shelf and jumped straight out of the dream. Both feet hit my bedroom floor with an audible "thump." I was still holding the book, but it writhed in my hands. It changed into a snake, into a miscellaneous bit of black rubber--into garbage. What I held became illegible, nothing I wanted to keep anymore. And then I woke up for real.
It seemed logical at the time, you must agree. You of all people. Look: I couldn't stay there to read the book. It would take the longest dream I ever dreamt to get me from page one to "The End," a dream as long as the rest of my life. And this dream was ending after only brief seconds. So I figured, reasonably enough, that I could take the book with me and read it awake.
But you can't take it with you, as the smugly religious like to say. Waking up is a daily death, when whoever I've been during the night ceases to be. Nothing in that misty world will cross the boundary where I open my eyes.
It's kind of a bummer that you can't stick around for the funeral, though.
* * *
Dreams don't survive the dawn, and even real things refuse to follow us out of the past. Sometimes they just put down roots in their own static moments. I've taken hold of friendships with both hands and tried to pull them into the future, but they twist and wriggle and drift into something I don't want anymore--yet something that, for the sake of memory, I still can't bear to let go.
* * *
I brought a balloon home from a birthday party, one happy day years ago. Did I ever tell you this story? Probably not; I haven't thought of it much before now. Well, you know what happens to helium balloons, right? They turn into used-to-be-balloons--faded bits of rubber, withered, without form. Then you throw them away and forget about them, as children do. Or maybe you hold funerals for them, give them cardboard coffins and bury them in your backyard. Then you forget about them. That's one thing that happens, if you keep them. But if you do like I did, if you're careless and don't tie them down securely, they'll slip free.
My balloon escaped, out of my reach in moments, disappearing into the sky.
"Jesus is playing with it in Heaven now," Mom said, after letting me cry for what seemed a reasonable length of time. Maybe I believed her. At the time I believed anything adults said, especially concerning religion. God, but I was a gullible kid. It took years to make me the skeptic you've come to know and love. Anyway, Mom's words notwithstanding, I mourned that balloon for days. Grief ached behind my ribs, and I know you're going to say I'm being melodramatic and no kid that age grieves in such a grown-up way, but I swear that's what I remember. The inside of my ribcage just ached.
The ache returned periodically with the memory. Weeks later I was listening to tapes Dad made me of his Neil Diamond records, and halfway through the Moods album, a song suddenly brought back the very essence of a bright red sphere shrinking into atmospheric distance.
I ran to turn the tape off. Mom asked me what was wrong, and I couldn't quite explain it. Not even to myself.
He do me fine
Makes the words rhyme when he knows
The tune is sad
"It reminds me of the day I lost my balloon." That was all I could say.
* * *
So I learned to hold on, even though holding on can hurt even more than letting go. Some of what I'm holding, nobody knows about, not even you. Like I never told you about him, afraid you'd take my words the wrong way and mistake friendship for a rivalling affair. But you know better. You know me, you know how I invest my entire heart in any relationship at all. And if I were not so open, could I have loved you so well? Could you have loved me? But I loved him too, with that love we qualify as "just friends." Just friends, remember, and I held myself the tiniest bit back that night, thinking of you. He held out his hands to me, and we danced among drums and Samhain candles, an image dream-like and frozen in memory forever.
I superimpose it over today's reality, over his silence and distance, and I feel cheated. The memory I cherish turns into history gone sour--faded, formless, withered on the ground.
We still dance, he and I, but instead of holding hands we do not touch, and we eye each other with distrust. We circle wide and cautious around each other to a time signature I would not have chosen.
It's time to call this dance to a halt. Just altogether up and leave the ballroom.
* * *
The book probably would have bored me. Remember that book I told you about? Its title had been Astrology, and I'm no believer in the stars. Does it really mean anything that I'm a Taurus, he's a Cancer, you're Aquarius? The book was special only in that it woke me up, triggered me into realizing I was dreaming. But there's no reason to hold onto the catalyst after it's served its purpose. Like the Buddhists say, your raft is useless once you've crossed the river. Throw it away.
But I'm a bit of a pack rat. Junk accumulates in my room like somebody's stamp collection, only harder to shelve, easier to trip over, and worth less in the long run. Still I keep them strewn about the floor, in hopes perhaps that what was once can be again. That there used to be joy means that joy is still possible. All these odds and ends will regain their value when the past becomes the present, and won't I be glad I held onto them then?
...No. There's only one truth on my floor, and it goes like this: If one dream dies, any dream can die. Every fragile bird that flies will lie dead someday soon. And when I look at you, I see the future moment when I will wake as from a dream and find I dreamed our love as well.
You can take memories with you. That's about it. Perhaps I should let go now while the memories are still unsullied, bright as a balloon disappearing into the sky... but you know I can't. "Let go," I tell my hands, and they refuse to obey.
Just before dawn, I hold you close, and try my doomed best to make immortal the only joy left to me: the present You and the prayer please don't ever change.