By Charlotte Spires
Everyday, for seven years, Caitie and I wrote each other emails. The modern day version of the letter, only quicker. And more gratifying, but more pressured; closer and yet somehow more insincere.
How fortunate that we grew up as part of Generation X, not-quite-Y, so we could “bing” our innermost thoughts to each other as soon as we got home from school; we poured out our miseries and insecurities of the teenage day into the blank cipher of the computer screen, typing words such as “o.m.g. so Marina lost her virginity. She didn’t even love her boyfriend,” side by side with, “I am on a path to self-discovery.” With all seriousness, we would ruminate on the oversights of third wave feminism, and then send messages bemoaning the number of calories we’d ingested in one sitting during a Gilmore Girls marathon. To read our emails today, our ‘letters,’ is to read the script of our becoming. Best friends, joined at the hip, and divided by an ocean. We didn’t yet know what we’d become; we didn’t understand that once we did know, an ocean would be the smallest of our obstacles.
I, the expatriate daughter, led a more restless life than she, and I spent my four years moving from high school to high school in Europe, barely finding time to settle in with one crowd before moving on to the next. She enrolled in art school, published poetry and built her life slowly upwards towards fixed goals like law school, and she was a small piece of stability I clung to during the turmoil of changing spaces. I’d visit her house in Baltimore every summer, the only constant amidst all my transitions. She’d always retrieve my suitcase for me before I passed through the gate.
“We can’t waste any time on things like that. We’ve only got a couple of weeks,” she informed me the first time around.
At home, her parents listened to records and grew their own squash, which they let me pick from their garden and cook with them at dinnertime. During the day, we’d run through the list of ‘EPIC THINGS TO DO’ we spent the previous month emailing back and forth over, like tie-dying bandanas, skinny-dipping the creek, learning how to drive.
The first summer, the year before high school, we sprawled on the shag-fur rug in her sandalwood-scented bedroom and listened to Guns n’ Roses and Nirvana on repeat. We hummed the lyrics of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to ourselves as if it were an Elton John track, and banged our heads to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as if we had witnessed its birth in the 90s. At the time, we weren’t aware of how misconstrued these notions were.
“Do you think Kurt Cobain was good in bed?” she asked me, a belt looped around her forehead in an imitation of Axl Rose.
I looked at the poster of him she had tacked above her dresser: more eyeliner than I ever cared to wear, and greasy hair. “He strikes me as a lazy-in-bed type,” I said with my thirteen-year-old authority.
She sighed. “You’re probably right.”
Eventually, we grew up. We figured out that “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is hardly a love song, and that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hasn’t kept up with our times. Our attentions turned in other directions: the real boys in our lives, learning to drink, things like college and travel and how to earn money. Our summers evolved from trips to Hershey’s Amusement Park to thrift store hunting to sneaking midnight cigarettes in her yard and watching the lightning bugs hover beneath the trees.
There was the summer the river swelled, and we fell in, and if my foot hadn’t caught a tree root and we hadn’t been linking arms, she would have been washed away.
There was the summer we smoked pot in an older man’s basement, and I didn’t understand how to use the pipe, but she showed me beneath the fold of her billowed poncho I dared her to wear. “Everything has a reason,” she giggled to me later.
There was the summer we almost got tattoos of linked infinity symbols, because they looked like two C’s joined back to back. At least, that’s how we argued it.
But we still played the songs, at least once, because they were our secret, our guilty pleasure that no one else would ever understand. It became a ritual that inaugurated another year of keeping in touch.
And so we wrote one another throughout the interim months, from our two separate continents, leading our two separate lives, refusing to admit that they were two, pretending to live as if they were committed to the same geographical space. Sometimes I’d skip a day, sometimes she would. But always, we wrote back. That was our only rule: you must write back.
Over the course of our exchange, she had a natural flair for mix tapes, and I for films. She introduced me to “In the Airplane Over the Sea,” and I made her watch the Coen brothers. Once, on one of my many summertime visits, she was convinced she had seen Conor Oberst on the skyrail. “Who’s Conor Oberst?” I asked. Her jaw dropped and her eyes rolled. “Girl,” she told me, “what kind of education is Europe giving you?”
We dwelled at length on a favorite topic of ours—the crushes we harbored on the upperclassmen who walked through our Atlantically divided locker hallways. Her dreamboat was named Aladdin and was an aspiring playwright, so exotic compared to mine, who was named Alex and played the bass guitar. We commiserated over how oblivious they were to our existence.
“If you lived in this city,” she wrote, “I’d have a wingman. Then he’d see me.”
Eventually, we got to know boys well enough to kiss them. I loved one first. “Do you feel different now?” she wrote.
I wrote back with a virtual shrug. I heard her sigh over the Internet. “Don’t act so secretive,” she typed, “Why didn’t you tell me you were planning on it?”
Our letters outline the trail of adventures unique to high school kids in the middle class: breaking curfew, drunken fumbles, grandiose dreams of our idealized personas, which college to apply to, to apply at all. They evolved from childish ramblings to half-formed essays to pure lyricism, scrutinizing ourselves with a verbal microscope. We probed at a deeper question beneath who we were: we asked what we meant, and what did we want to mean.
Once, she wrote about a live art performance she went to with Aladdin and his older friends. They were all blindfolded and asked to climb a few steps up a ladder while they gathered around her to perform their script, and “then suddenly,” she wrote me, “they’re talking about Islam and suicide bombings and it’s 9/11, except nobody told you, it just is, and they’re talking about how people were jumping from these high rises holding hands with some stranger, and through all this sonic art and Middle Eastern music and crazy shit there’s some guy asking you to imagine, in the last moments of death, holding hands with a total stranger to meet your end sixty stories below, and how is it, why is it, that at that moment people turned to each other, to total strangers, to share those final breaths? Why did they—how could they—do it?”
Letters from Caitie didn’t chatter, they bellowed.
A whole week passed from its arrival in my inbox, and I hadn’t had time to open it: SATs, finals, a play production, a camping trip with friends that made school harder to keep up with. I didn’t respond to her message about the art show. She messaged me after my week of silence, and wrote: “I know you have a lot of work what with getting into college and curing aids and baking ten layer sugar-free cakes to send to gay diabetic lepers in Massachusetts while single-handedly stopping global warming with nothing but a couple of ice cubes and a japanese fan, but I think you can spare ten minutes to get online and talk to me.” It came all in lowercase, as one long rush of exasperated breath.
I read it, and embarrassingly, I cried.
Cyber time had failed me. I broke the unspoken vow of being there, no matter what, no matter how little or how small, how trivial, how terrible, how grand.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how important this was to you,” I wrote back pathetically.
“I thought you’d died in a house fire,” she replied. Then, as an afterthought, “You know, if your whole family perished in a house fire, I’d fly over there, pack you up, and you could live in my room until you got sick of me.”
Then there was the last Baltimore summer together, going to house shows in basements, buying screen-printed tees from carnivals, and eating crab cakes in the bay. We did the touristy things we had never bothered to do, “just in case” we didn’t get another chance. We discussed the future: NYU for her, Bristol in the UK for me. Forever separated, divided; promising to write to each other as if we were roommates, to share everything.
Sometimes, we kept the promise.
“Charlotte, I seriously need to fart right now, but my dorm mate is napping,” one Skype message read. “I think I have a serious lactose allergy and it is baaaaad.”
I received an email detailing all the tests, the various doctors, the discovery that it was actually soy.
Sometimes, we didn’t keep the promise.
“My dad just got sent home from his job overseas. He’s been fired due to alcoholism.” Only these words, one snowy February, after a Christmas break too busy to wish one another Happy New Year.
I didn’t know what to type. The screen stared at me, cursor flashing impatiently, and I blanked.
“I need someone to just hold me,” she wrote later, not writing in the sobs I could hear wracking her body with each word.
I could have written “Caitie, I’m coming. Let me book a plane ticket.” Instead, I just wrote “Caitie” followed by a sad face. How do you hug without arms?
“Where are you?” she demanded. “I hate him,” she typed. “He’s ruined everything.” A torrent of words flew out of her, pouring into my inbox in daily rants and rages and unmasked pain. I couldn’t keep up, I couldn’t read them all.
“Don’t hate him,” I responded, too quickly. “He needs your love now. You have to be the strong one.”
“You aren’t even reading this,” she screamed.
At first Caitie’s silence sounded calm, like submerging oneself under water during a storm so all the raindrops become muffled. Then it sounded hollow. I met her silence with my own.
My own roommate hugged me when I cried in the kitchen into a cup of tea after these nights of silence, and the solid weight of her body supported me like a pillar. We didn’t say a word; my roommate didn’t have to ask why or how. She saw the reasons in my face.
A year passed.
How many times did I sit down, open up a new email, and start drafting her my thoughts? Maybe it was only when I felt alone on a rainy evening, and my dorm suite was empty. But I’d spot a cute dress at the thrift store, and wonder what she’d think of it. I’d drink cheap beer with my friends, and wonder if she did that anymore. Eventually, the words I tried to write said less and less. There was nothing I could say to bridge the gap.
Almost another year went by, silent, until: “Hey! Where are you? I’m coming to Paris on my study abroad! You should come visit. I miss you, boo.”
Of course I’d come visit. This could be the plane ride I never took in the first place.
During take-off, I fiddled with my boarding pass. The date read April 13, 2011, and I marveled at how much time had passed. Did she look any different? It hadn’t been that long, but somehow I couldn’t picture her face anymore. My stomach twisted over, and my hands twisted the boarding card. By the time I landed, it was a crumpled knot, irretrievable and unreadable.
I met her by the baggage claim. She was trying to spot my suitcase. “I can’t tell which one it is,” she sighed.
Charlotte Daisy Spires is a British writer based in the Midwest, where she is pursuing an MA in English. In the UK, her work has appeared in Erudition, Helicon, and on the Bristol Old Vic stage. This is her first work to appear in the United States.