Reading Between the Lines

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Today, my only job in the whole world is to make edits to an essay I wrote on Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” so I can resubmit it to a nice editor at a new journal on the study of creative nonfiction.

 

My. Only. Job.

 

I do not have to do dishes. Laundry can wait. I have no tiny noses or bottoms to wipe, and Z will not be expecting a four-course meal when he gets home from work (mainly because he knows I can’t cook). My editing projects are either done or not ready to be started.

 

No one is expecting me to finish a TPS report at the office. There is no office.

 

More specifically, this job is not even a complete overhaul of an essay. The editor said after the first five pages that my essay “roars.” I don’t exactly know what that means except “to roar” sounds like the opposite of “to suck” so apparently most of the essay is on the right track, which means 13 pages of it are okay. Maybe even good. But those first five pages? Meh. I’m not bitter about this criticism. I’m a big fan of revision. But I’m clueless as to how to fix these pages, never mind on any given day I write five page emails to Jane before my eyes are fully open. (Tuesday two weeks ago was extra easy because we had a lot to say about Reneé Zellweger’s surprising new face).

 

Also, I’m sitting in the café at the Elliott Bay Book Co., a place I normally delight in. Everywhere I look there is someone on a laptop that looks like mine, though with cool ironic stickers that I’m too chicken to put on my own MacBook, and none of these people appear to be blocked. In fact, right this minute, I’m just paranoid enough to believe that every one of them to a person is also writing about Joan Didion and doing it far better than I ever could.

 

I’m realizing now that writing in a bookstore is not good for my psyche. I can see all those books on the shelves, with all their perfectly published words, taunting me. What’s your problem? they seem to be saying. Just get it done.

 

But I can see this writing day for what it is: over. Instead, I’ll tell you about other words on a page that came somewhat easier and had recent fruition.

 

Back when I was just giving up on my quest to earn all the Girl Scout badges ever, I started reading teen magazines. My favorite was ‘Teen, which had very informative columns that offered advice on love and friendship and sex. I also read Seventeen, though I found its fashion advice dubious because it was too avant-garde for Richmond, Indiana. (Sweatshirts paired with skirts weren’t happening yet, and I could never believe that red and pink should be worn together—colors should be complements and shouldn’t be reminiscent of Valentine’s Day.) In one of these magazines, you could send in your name and address and be paired up with a pen pal.

 

It wouldn’t be my first pen pal. Mom had carefully arranged for me to have a Swedish one because she had had a Swedish pen pal when she was my age and she felt they were superior (and there was a lovely array of Swedish candies and doo-dads that got sent my way on the holidays from Cecelia—so, good choice there Mom)! Through a Trixie Belden fan club, I’d acquired a fun-loving girl from Colorado whose dachshund Barney I was jealous of (I lived in a “no pets” apartment with a “no pets but fish” mother). Through school, I acquired a West Indian, and two Canadians, one of whom seemed to delight in copying out sexy passages from trashy novels I wasn’t yet cleared to read and another who sent me a photo of herself with a goat. The most exotic was Glenda from Zambia, who came via the TV show, Big Blue Marble. I loved getting her thin, light blue airmail envelopes and reading about a world so different from mine that it could hardly be imagined. With Glenda, I was concerned that she was in danger of being murdered by Idi Amin because I didn’t fully understand the vastness of Africa (or even that Africa wasn’t a single country). After a few months or a few years, all of these pen pals and I developed differing interests and the letters got fewer and further between until they disappeared completely. I tried reconnecting with Cecilia a decade ago and managed to find her, but she admitted her English was not what it used to be and since I had not learned Swedish, there was nowhere to go with the old friendship except fond memories of her colorfully decorated envelopes and the Carl Larson inspired life I had imagined her living.

 

But my teen magazine pen pal, C., from a province in Canada that was roughly above my head (how I thought about geography in 1980, sadly no joke), was something different. We were a good pairing: both introverted, goodish girls, book-inclined, and studious. We wrote each other dutifully about the classes we were taking, the books we’d read, the music we were listening to, and for some reason a tradition that has stuck ‘lo these many decades, a list of Christmas presents received. Our letters might have become less frequent as we got older, but we both made an effort to write at least at Christmas to check-in. In retrospect, I think it was my first experience with what would later become a weird sort of computer-age norm: talking to a total stranger about your life and developing this odd sense of knowing them even though you’d never really met them.

 

Five years ago when Z and I were compiling our wedding guest list, I have no idea what made me ballsy enough to send an invitation to someone I’d never actually met. Who does that? But it seemed weird not to send C. an invitation when technically, she’d been my (pen) friend longer than any of my real life friends who would be there. I never imagined that she and her husband would brave the winter roads to come to our December wedding, but they did. I’d like to say that as soon as we saw each other it was like we were reunited long-lost friends, but the truth is, there were a lot of people at the wedding, my tiara was cutting off my circulation, and I’d had too much to drink to be a proper good hostess. I did, however, feel honored that they’d come, and because I am the sort of person who is often in awe of other people, during a few of my more “aware” wedding moments, I was envious of her sophisticated dress and the ease with which she and her husband glided around the ballroom. (Z and I had exactly one dance move that we put on repeat for the duration of our first dance.)

 

Last week, C. and her husband incorporated a visit with us into their travel plans to the Pacific Northwest. She texted me updates as they—more adventurous than we have ever been—hiked Mt. Rainier and through the Olympic National Park and ate meals that my bland, 4-year-old-inspired palate would not even consider. We met them for dinner in Belltown on the first night, and I admit while I was excited at the prospect of actually getting to spend time with the real person, I was also wishing there were some sort of pill I could take that would give me an evening’s worth of extroversion and gregariousness. C. and I are clever introverted women, however, who married men with communication skills, so they got things rolling for us, and soon it did not feel at all like strangers meeting for dinner. This night turned into two more meals together during their time in Seattle and some good conversation.

 

The thing that most struck me after we’d said goodbye on the last day of their visit was that I was saying goodbye not to a new acquaintance but to an old friend. C. was exactly how I’d imagined her for all these years, not because I’m wickedly intuitive but because she’d represented herself so well in the letters she’d written over three and a half decades. I knew what she looked like from photos and our brief interactions during our wedding weekend, but I wasn’t at all surprised by those things you shouldn’t be able to tell about someone you’ve only ever corresponded with: how she carried herself, how she spoke, her quiet but quick wit, the way she and her husband interacted. I felt what can only be described as deep affection for the pair of them–these “strangers”–as they walked down our steep hill towards the lightrail that would carry them  to the airport and then back home to Canada.

 

If you ask me, telling yourself true is the best writing any of us can do.

 

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