Philosophy with Attitude

Jan A. Nielsen
English 501-05
31 March 1992

Of Letters and Love. For almost as long as I can remember, I have been having literary friendships -- for ten years, now that I think about it. The first time that I moved (that I consciously remember), it was away from Jill Petersen in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We had been "best friends" since kindergarten; we even played at being sisters. I was sad to move away from her -- after all, we'd been friends for what was then one-third of my life -- but I was sadder yet when, four years later, the letters sputtered out and stopped. It's probably just as well: I don't imagine we have much in common anymore; that happens with five-year-old friends. But until I was eleven, the words flew back and forth by air-mail, from Wisconsin to Canada and back; somewhere in the darkness of my desk drawers lie the tattered envelopes that contained our last hope for friendship -- pack rat that I am, I've kept them all.


On my way back from the library, I at last succumb to an urge that has been tormenting me for months. It is 11:14 P.M. ; no one will see me if I do it... I wrap my hands around the harsh bark of this tree and raise myself into the cocoon of its crook. The twin trunks surround me, skyscrapers clad in the skin of Nature; one is proud, straight up and tall in the sickly sodium glow of the streetlamp; the other reclines back at an angle of some forty-five degrees. It is this branch that supports me now; I lean back onto it, letting it take the full weight of my body and my soul. For a while I stare through its naked winter branches, beyond Earth and mortality to the comfort of my stars.

And then I close my eyes and let go completely; for a moment I am close to tears at the thought that this is what it has come to, that only a tree, an ancient, half-gone oak, will hold me now -- but in my mind I feel its branches caress me, and the flood of emotion that comes is nearly enough to subdue the hopelessness. I stay there just a little longer, warm even in the cold, cradled by this inanimate embrace; then it is time to move on again, to be amongst more human friends.


Of course, I made friends in Wisconsin, too -- though I still vaguely remember "numbering" my best friends when asked of them: Jill was my first best friend, Stephanie Crain my second, Kristen Harbeson my third. But by fifth grade, although I was still writing sporadically to Jill, Kristen was my best friend -- and then in sixth grade, she moved to New York -- a lifetime away, it seemed. Every once in a while, I pull out her letters -- a great stack; there are seven years' worth of those so far -- and lose myself in them, in her childish, manic script. Neither it nor she have changed much in seven years; I was always the one who wanted to grow up (though now I wish I hadn't) and she still seems a child to me, though she's older by two years. Here's the point: for all the love of our friendship, we've only exchanged letters six or seven times in the past two years. The time constraints are complicated by our respective business; she's spending the year in France, and air mail takes forever! But any day now, I will sit down and write her a letter; I wouldn't lose her for the world.


I hide my face with my arm, lying on Plum's bed. According to my watch -- I see it half-blurred through my slow tears -- it is a little after twelve. The desire I had walking back returns to me now: I want to stand on the railroad tracks, look at the stars without all that light, and wait for the train to come. I envision myself crouched down in the white gravel that surrounds the tracks, lost in the incredible noise of the beast; I want to see it as close as that; I want the freedom to be able to take a step closer and die if I wish. I smile inwardly and chide myself for the thought: it would be so terribly messy! Besides, it's not the end of the world -- no matter how close it may seem. Matt plays a video game on his computer; he's won again. The sounds it makes are more familiar to me now than my own heartbeat; I couldn't count the nights I've stayed up late here, watching my friends play this game. Now it's just Matt and me; the other Matt has gone home -- in fact, I haven't seen him since lunch. But Plum/Matt pays no attention to my silent tears; I don't know if he even realizes they're there. Sometimes I wonder what they see, looking at me, speaking to me; will they ever know who I really am? No matter how much I tell them, it doesn't seem so now.


Has air mail always been slow? Maybe French is too complex for the post office. Par Avion , they say on the envelopes, with their stripes of the universal red-white-and-blue; it means, "by airplane," but sometimes I'm not sure they know it. I've had three, four, maybe five "pen-pals," foreign-language- inspired and otherwise; I have never known a letter to reach me in less than two weeks.

But it's not only the time delay that keeps real friendships from forming in these cases. Certainly, they're interesting at first: their cultures are fascinating, their hobbies are strange and unique. Foreign. That's the point. But I've never had a correspondence that lasted more than four exchanges. And do you know why? It's impossible to keep them if you can't completely know them, and even though my sentiments are much more clear and explicit in writing, theirs almost never are, and I can't be open with them unless I have a sense of their face-to-face personalities. The language is a struggle, of course I understand that, but even barring that, the most I have gotten is an impersonal summary of the activities and chores that consume my counterparts -- no philosophy, no emotion, no depth. They might as well be filling out a college application -- and it's not just in the first letters that I sense this; one relationship went back and forth four times, and we never got past "I like to waterski and my favourite group is Bananarama." (And so many of them say that!) I don't know; maybe it's just me, but it's hard to be complete in a "friendship" that is only by post.


Why do I feel this way today? I don't quite understand it myself -- like many things in my life of late. I was okay until about nine -- when I found out that the other Matt, whom I number among my closest friends, had been in the building, had known I wanted to see him, and had left without even saying "hello." I suppose I should be used to it by now, the confusion and the pain that he has, directly or not, brought to my life -- but then, I can't even decide why it still hurts. I keep thinking about the way it was with him, and I can't help but cry. I love him, you see, and that means nothing to him; at least it seems that way. And I don't even know if they care anymore, any of them, and it makes the pain that much worse.


After Kristen left... well, I still had friends, and made a few more -- most notably Derek Pattison. It began as a friendship, at least, and a forced one at that: the morning school-bus was so crowded by the time we reached his stop that he had to sit with me; mine was often the only one available. After a while we actually talked, and discovered that we in fact had a lot to talk about, and by the end of eighth grade we were fast friends -- with the potential to become more than that. And in ninth grade, although we went to different high schools, we did; I biked over to his house, or he to mine; we went to the library and played tag in the stacks, printed silly little things on the Macintoshes there, read to each other from Sir Thomas Mallory. And we fell in love.

As Murphy would have it, it wouldn't last for long that way. My father was denied tenure at UW-Parkside ("publish or perish") and that summer received an offer from Keene State College here in New Hampshire. And so in August it was my turn to move; I remember the last time I saw him, as he drove away with his father; I could not miss the tears in his eyes. Thus began our writing friendship, so much more tenuous than the others because it was love and familiarity that bound us together, and without one it is difficult to maintain the other. He came to Swanzey to visit my junior year, and for ten delicious days it was just like it had been back in Racine -- we were always friends first.

When I read his letters from then, and think of my replies, the taste is so bittersweet that often I find myself somewhat hysterical, unsure of whether to laugh or to cry, and often the result is both. When I was a senior I flew back to Racine -- and there made one of the biggest mistakes of my life; in the course of our writing I had lost touch with the person he really was, and found then that my memories were not as true-to-life as I would have liked, and in March of that year -- a year ago, in fact -- I received his last letter, sent my last reply. But not forever; the more I live the more I find that "forever" is impossible, at least in this life. I called him in December and we talked -- as we used to -- for two and a half hours, and every minute of it was worth it. In the nine-month silence, we had grown not farther apart, but closer together, in personality and in interests... but he hasn't written yet. "I don't write 'just friends,'" he told me, and that seems to be true -- though when I remember him now it is with love, and a stab of shame for what I put him through -- his love was constant, and it was mine which faltered. But I cannot undo the past, much as I wish to -- and yet I can change the future, with the simple power of the written word...


The next day. It is five past six; I just got back from dinner with Matt and Matt, and the railroad wish is in my blood again. This time, I fulfill it; with my Walkman at my side, Brahms filling my ears and my mind at an obscene level, I crunch out to the tracks, scanning in both directions for the train of my thoughts. But there is no sound but that of distant traffic, and the not-distant voices of the basketball game taking place in the parking lot. "F--king c--t!" one of them yells; other curses follow; I smile wickedly and turn up the volume.

The sky stares back at me when I look up into it; as I watch it turns gradually darker, and I remember the clouds as they look from above, as I saw them when I flew to Wisconsin. The game disperses, and I am at last left with silence. 6:15, 6:25, 6:40, 6:55... for nearly an hour I sit in the chill March air, miserable with memories and cold and unrequited, melodramatic love; I gaze longingly at the tracks below, and images of a bloody death stir in my mind. I cringe at the thoughts, but they are still there; I watch my body tumble to the gravel, striking the rocks that make up my perch -- I sit in a frozen crevice up in a little cliff; it is undisturbed by the railroad tracks and I think, If I jump now, I will die . The pictures come again and I shiver with a touch of fear -- but I do not have the courage to jump, with or without the train.

I look out on this little world of mine, the tracks and the clouds, the not-too-distant lights of the dorms below, and I wonder again if it would miss me, if there would be any less love without me. I still don't know, and I wish that I could.


Monday, March 30, ten-fifteen P.M. "Hurry up -- I don't want to miss the train!" Plum's room again; I've been there for just over ninety minutes, and this time, I was playing games, too. Wonder of wonders, I beat both Matt and Will on the game at which they both excel -- but now Matt is going back to Congreve -- and Will wants to see my niche. I fling on my coat, and we run out of the back door, heading for the tracks.

Lo and behold, I step out into the clearing -- and the headlamp of the train is swiftly bearing down on me. For a moment I am frozen; it is like something out of a recurring nightmare -- but Will catches up and we run together up the bluff. "Come on!" I shout. "It's almost here!" We scramble up the side of this little cliff, dodging branches and fallen limbs, and then there is the ledge that drops to my niche. I lower myself into it, wincing at the light of the train; Will joins me, more cautiously, whispering a curse when he sees the distance to the ground. The fear grasps me as well, and I hold tightly the fabric of his jacket while he presses closer. "You're shaking," Will says; so is he, and we huddle together in silence. The monster has almost arrived.

But inside the monster is humanity, and he sees us, sitting up there in the cold; he blows the whistle for us, and the fear is briefly snuffed by gratitude to this man. And then the engine, huge and black like the dragon whose scream it stole, passes us, and the sound is like no other. I am suspended above the world on this lonely bluff and it is torn away by the intensity of this sound, this sight. For a moment I am actually petrified; my fingers clench tighter around their fabric mooring and the dark, rushing cars of the serpent roar past. My heart beats in my ears, faster and faster with fear and excitement, with the realization of what kind of death this would be and how terrible!

It is a short train, this one; it is gone in a minute or two, and then Will and I sit staring down the tracks, watching the beast retreat. In a moment it is safe to speak: "That was too awesome," I whisper, and he nods agreement. "I wonder when the next one is?" We climb up the side of my cliff, and run back to Sackett, drained and exhilarated -- we have to tell Plum!

But before we go in, I take one look back at the tracks. The night is complete, and all is right with the world, and my love will not need to be missed. I hum a few bars of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and we disappear inside.

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