Dear Claire: One Pen Pal's Attempt to Reconnect

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I’m sorry for the delay in responding to your last letter. I hope you did not wait too long. I know it has been seventeen years since you last wrote me. (Or is it nineteen? I lost all our correspondences when my mother cleared out the house’s “junk” one day in the early Nineties.) I hope you haven’t just been sitting on your patio, waiting for the Royal Mailman, looking out to the Celtic Sea – wondering what your pal from the Philippines has been up to all the while. If you must know, I am now a fledging writer living in the United States (I am currently studying for my Master of Fine Arts, where I learned that little trick of briefly putting you “in scene”). I must admit I have trouble creating the scene further, as I’m not sure what you look like now. In our three-to-four years of writing to each other – you with your XOXO signatures, me with “Sincerely” – I only recall a solitary three-by-six photo of you. You were smiling with your curly hair, lovingly pudgy on the cusp of adolescence (of course, I would never have used those words back then). I don’t know if I’ve ever sent you a picture of myself? But if you’re still curious to see what I look like, just Google my name. That’s me with the brown cap. I’ve SEO-bombed the heck out of “Nathan Go” so my website appears on top, with its corresponding images (no, that half-naked white dude exposing his armpits while taking a cell phone picture of himself is not me, sorry to disappoint).

So how have you been, Claire Knight of Cornwall? A quick search of your name on the Internet reveals the following:

Twitter tells me you are a “wee Scottish actress and sometimes singer [who] used to love a high heeled shoe but now wears a more practical flat.” Have you moved to Glasgow or perhaps married one of its haggis-eating inhabitants? That thirty-something woman staring back at me seems like the right age, but I could’ve sworn you had blonde hair, not black like mine (if you’ve dyed your hair, congratulations on the success). LinkedIn, on the other hand, tells me that you are now a “Marketing Executive at G— College” and previously served as a Committee Member for a charitable organization aimed at assisting women in business “to grow in confidence and to excel.” Bravo! I must say, I predicted this nurturing talent of yours years ago when you encouraged me to pursue my art skills by sending me a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sketchbook without my prompting. The photo at LinkedIn once again shows a thirty-something woman, this time with curly, long blonde hair (with a touch of orange highlights), exposing all her teeth for the camera. Next to you is Bob Marley, or his doppelganger, likewise flashing enamels, likewise dressed professionally.

Facebook – and I believe this is finally, really you – tells me you now have two kids, both boys, possibly even twins (you couldn’t resist dressing them up in identical clothes, could you?). They have your blonde hair, but one seems a bit unsure, biting his thumb, while the other just gives it his all, though he’s missing his front tooth. I don’t see you anywhere on your page, Claire, as you had your boys stand in for your own profile pic. But somehow sifting through your “likes” – an alpaca sheared of most of its hair, looking like “Boo” the Pomeranian; Bradley Johnson’s audition at the X Factor (“Brilliant!” you commented) – and your status updates – “Claire Knight is off to get pasties!! yum yum” and “thank you all for my birthday messages… had a lovely day and shared my bottle of port with some lovely people thank you xxxxxx” – I know that it’s you. I (re)discovered that you were born on November 4, and that you got married on August 30, 2007. I’m very happy for you, Claire, but please forgive me for not having the gumption to “friend” you yet – I don’t want you to think I’m a stalker – at least not until after I get published. Unfortunately, because of my cowardice in “re-friending” you, I also could not see past the details of your life you’ve designated for public consumption.

Have I ever told you about that first time I picked up the brochure from the International Youth Service? I was only nine, the cartoony illustrations and the colorful flags of the world around the document’s four borders affected me in a way the artists probably never imagined. I was only one year short of the organization’s requirements of matching people 10 to 20 years of age. I don’t remember if I lied about how old I was, or whether I waited patiently for another year (not likely). But what I do recall for certain is my jealousy, intense and rabid. I was jealous of my older sister and older brother because they got to do so many things I couldn’t. They got to play the violin on Saturday mornings (the teacher said my arms were too small! Agh! I wanted to kick him in his fake leg!); they went to speech classes with my cousins (learning the “proper way” to speak English); they got to hang out with the older kids after school – while I was sent home to study. Often, I entertained myself by catching dragonflies and trapping them inside mason jars, their lids punctured with breathing holes (I once forgot this last step and the poor flies – or dragons? – melted in the heat). I also became good at snooping around – prying open my father’s locked briefcase, listening in on phone conversations (those were the days when everyone had to share a “party line”), and of course, reading my sister’s diaries, which were kept in the third left drawer on the vanity. Probably during this last activity did I discover my sister’s evil plan to once again exclude me. She and her clique had secretly signed up for this program that, for a small fee, would give them access to strangers from far-flung places. “When you have pen friends you always feel there are boys and girls abroad who consider you a true friend,” the brochure stated. “In addition to letters, you can also exchange your own drawings, photos, postage stamps, records, etc. Maybe someday you can also visit your long-time pen friend.” I probably convinced my parents that same night (likely by crying) that I, too, needed this service, needed to find this true friend in my life.

I waited for you, Claire, waited for your first mail to arrive. At first I thought my application had been denied, or worse, that it had gotten lost in the mail. Then I received a letter. In my excitement, I probably didn’t notice that the return address was local, that the postage was in pesos. Remle – yes, that was his name. That impostor. He said that he wanted to be my friend, wanted for us to write to each other. And I probably did, too! Before my mother pointed out – as I gave her the envelope to be mailed – that the address looked incredibly familiar. I should’ve known that the destination I had written was my own cousin’s. The author, it turned out, was my aunt, who had heard about my application, heard about how long I had waited. Maybe she had wanted to cheer me up (I was never madder), or had just wanted a good laugh. “Remle” was just an anagram of her son’s – my cousin Elmer’s name.

Anyway, all that is behind me now. I received your letter weeks after that incident, but you and I no longer correspond today, the International Youth Service is no more, and my aunt’s deep in the ground now, RIP.

I visited England in the summer of 2008. At Cambridge, I even took a class on the Sociology of Being British. But I have to confess, Claire, I did not think of you then. I did not think of you when I visited the naves and cloisters of churches, researching the effects tourists have on the congregations’ worship. I did not think of you when I visited your Queen’s many residences (in Sandringham, in Balmoral, in Windsor) – even though my first introduction to her was probably through the coins you smuggled in your letters and your postage stamps. I only thought of you when I thought about visiting the western part of the United Kingdom, when I felt my wallet light, and my heart still eager to go places. Forgive me, Claire, for only thinking of you as a bed I could sleep on, and the free food I could consume off your table. We were the most unlikely of pals, yet we were real pals for a while, weren’t we? For about four years (or maybe it was two), you were all I looked forward to. I admit I don’t remember the contents of what we wrote exactly, or even vaguely, but you felt like an old friend, still do.

My fault, Claire. I should have given you my new address when I briefly moved to Canada with my family. I wasn’t popular there, either, but I found a few friends (my parents couldn’t find jobs, and we had to go back home after only three months). When I saw hair growing in strange places on my body and I felt too old perhaps to continue a child’s habit. Perhaps when my brother and sister moved on to college, and I had stopped wanting to be them.

No, no – now I remember.

I had asked for a book of magic from you. I had promised to pay you back. You sent me some flimsy instruction manual for a ten-year-old. I wrote back. Cabaret magic. Grand illusions. David Copperfield. I wanted their secrets, and didn’t I thoroughly explain the socioeconomic factors that prevented our little town from having decent bookstores? No, I must’ve forgotten. You said you couldn’t find the book. I told you to look some more. I never heard back from you again.

I don’t blame you, Claire, even now that I realize you were the one who broke our communication. I went through a dark spell. I skipped meals just so I could practice my magic tricks. I got mad at my parents when they wanted to watch news, and I wanted to record the Best Magic Show on our only T.V. I took the magician’s code to heart and told no one any secrets. My family didn’t understand me, and I barely understood myself. I thought making things vanish was the greatest thing ever. I forgot it was just as important to make them re-appear. So here I am. Sincerely yours.

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