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Love Letters of the Early Twenty-first Century
P.D. Stoops

Editor's Note:

These letters were sent to me in December of last year by a young woman from Philadelphia, in response to the national call for love letters from the beginning of the Twenty-first century. Because the response was so overwhelming, I could only choose those letters that were indeed special... These letters, according to their owner, were written between July 7, 2001 and September 11, 2001, by a young aspiring writer of fiction from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The owner wishes that the writer's identity be protected, as he disappeared shortly after the last letter was written and was never heard from again.

These letters are undated, unsigned, suggesting no coherent narrative, but yet they bear the marks of a frustrated genius and put us in touch with the very Zeitgesit of the early Twenty-first century, a time when love was enduring a period of great change. It is uncanny, actually, the way love is consistently represented in these letters. It seems that the letter writer finds it only in moments of despair, as though love had become a thing to retreat into, a door which opens when the world becomes harsh.

Furthermore, the writer's amorous feelings seem embedded—encoded, if you will—in the quotes and story fragments he offers M. Explicit sentiments of love and longing are eschewed for moody, circumspect, even glancing admissions. Through my research, I found that perhaps this epistolary style is the result of electronic mail's impersonality, the way one can “forward,” “cc” and “hyperlink.” But I believe this may be too easy of a connection. Ronald Certine's book Mix Tape Nation lends the most profound insight. In it, he argues that for roughly a decade (1988 to 1998) “the mix tape supplanted direct discussion of love and intimacy among the 13 to 21-year-old age bracket. In direct conversation or even letter writing's place stood songs like ‘Love Will Never Tear Us Apart’ by the Aussie band INXS or ‘Something I Can Never Have’ by Nine Inch Nails—the titles of the songs carrying with them a cache of emotion.”

According to Certine, this is made even more complicated by the pervasive practice of intentionally ‘sequencing’ the songs in such a way that communicated the arc and range of emotion found in relationships. Not since the coded songs of the Underground Railroad have such complex texts connected the furtive and bashful.

Which leads us then to these letters, obviously the work of an educated, if not pretentious man in his late twenties. Yet, he still holds on to the practice he began in his youth: appropriating the words of others to communicate his deepest emotions.

Of special interest is the last letter, written on September 11, 2001, a letter which is freighted with no less the emotional cargo of a novel. Alas, we can only wistfully dream-after such a book.

—P.D.S., San Francisco, November 2201

Dear M,

If you haven't gathered by now, I'm basically your run-of-the-mill idiot. I'm lighting cigarettes off the stove. It's after 1 a.m. I can't sleep. For some reason I'm down in a funk wondering if I can keep this going. I'm wondering if this is the life I've chosen or if I've allowed it to happen to me. I really thought I was done having this sort of argument with myself, but... Anyway, I want to talk to you, but you're probably out.

I just wrote you a postcard. It has a picture of Alberto Giacometti walking across the street in the rain with his trench pulled up over his shoulders—he looks like one of his own sculptures—but I hesitate as to whether to send it or not. Here's a quote by Giacometti that I think you'll dig:

What interests me about the headwell—actually the whole head interests me, but I think now I might succeed in constructing the eye as exactly as possible, and when I've got that, when I've got the base of the nose... But to take the eye: I mean the curvature of the eyeball—from that everything else should develop. Why? Probably because when I look at someone, I look at the eyes rather than at the mouth or the point of the nose. That's the way it is: when you look at a face you always look at the eyes. Even if you look at a cat, it always looks you in the eye. And even when you look at a blind man, you look where his eyes are, as if you could feel the eyes behind the lids... Now the strange thing is, when you represent the eye precisely, you risk destroying exactly what you are after, namely the gaze. That's how it seems to me. There are few artworks in which the gaze exists.

Dear M,

Desperately hung over. Was at the Beehive's Eighties night until 2 a.m. It's 6 a.m., and I feel the cold coming in from the front room windows. They have bad casings, remember? I have my teaching materials copied and ready to go so it is not teaching I fear, that unpreparedness we all feel. I don't know what I feel. I wait for the bus. After awhile I forget why I'm waiting. I remember when the bus comes and when I take a seat at the back I have a sudden realization: all I have to do is be here at the stop, and it'll stop long enough for me to get on.

“We tend to believe that what has not yet happened is not yet possible; but what has happened is evidently possible, since it would not have happened if it had not been possible.”

—Aristotle, The Poetics

Dear M,

I went to Boston for the first time over the weekend. I took the T to meet B for lunch. Got there early, so I went into the main branch of the public library to jot some notes that came to me on the train. It was starting to rain. I went inside, walked around, sat at a long wooden table with brass lamps and green glass shades.

When I went back outside, the rain was letting up a bit. So I stood on the steps and watched the people. It was then that I noticed, across from the library, there were a series of card tables crowded around by bums, men mostly. When I looked closer I could see that the tables were filled with white styrofoam plates piled with lunch meats, white and yellow cheese and long cellophane bags of bread. Homeless men in heavy coats lined up down the block waiting to put together their lunch. I watched them for a while. Some hastily slapped their sandwiches together and walked off into the park, but others carefully arranged the meat and the cheese and then patted the top, like a mother, with love. All of a sudden, I missed you.

Here are some of the lines I wrote in the library. Tell me which ones you like best:

In the morning, fog hovered in the meadow.
She said, you can do anything you want.
She was asleep on the couch. All night I walked in and out of the room, hoping she would wake up.
She turned her back to him and stared into the guts of the piano.

Dear M,

I've written some stories for you, but I'm planning on burning them. They're embarrassing. The female characters are all too unbelievable, too much like you.

But here are some new ideas for stories:

My feet couldn't touch the bottom; something brushed my leg.
The pigeons in the attic were shitting on the Easter decorations.
I hid naked in the laundry room, but her mother still found me.
She took a mouth of ocean water and swished it around.
Eating bratwursts with my brother, drinking lemonade and vodka.
Our baseball coach cried and said he wouldn't trade any of us.
I made her a steak and then rubbed her feet while she ate.

Dear M,

John Cheever used to jump when someone would say, “fuck.” His editor at The New Yorker would fit it randomly in the middle of sentences that were cordial and perhaps about his weekend spent working in the yard. But then old Johnny Cheever was a sad, depraved bisexual man. Depravity is the condition of a soul that is at the end of its rope. Or, like Poe's Fortunato, but being bricked in by his own hands.

Once, I looked out across the wide, green infield of a horseracing track to the ocean beyond—the California sun beat down, a nice salt breeze was in my nose—but all I saw was my own depravity. The sea does this, it reflects back.

Dear M,

You woke me this morning to tell me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. You said you heard that a plane was heading for Pittsburgh. After I said goodbye, I called P and asked if I could come over and watch his TV. I could hear Tom Brokaw in the background. He told me that I'd better hurry over because what was going on was too unfucking believable to describe. I've got a case of beer, he said. You got any food? He had a little leap in his voice; he was excited.

I drove up Forbes through Frick Park. They just filmed a scene from a new movie on that stretch of road—some deal with Richard Gere. They blocked the whole road off from midnight until two in the morning. A bunch of us—P, B, D, and J—got some beer and walked through the cemetery so we could watch the film crew work from the hillside. The cemetery was black, you could barely make out the rich white of the marble mausoleums. But in the distance, over the hill you could see the aurora from the movie lights, like a nuclear blast lighting up the branches of the enormous, ancient trees. When we got over the hill, all we could see was a dark car driving back and forth on the road. So we just sat there on the hillside overlooking the pond and the road staring into the eye of that light. It made our eyes hurt after a while, so we left.

When I passed through the park today all I could think of was that phosphorescent nuclear light. It seemed that at any moment a plane would land in the open field, right on top of the community garden and where Henry Clay Frick used to ride horses, and the world would go white...

Just before I got to P's the radio announcer said that a second plane had just crashed into the building. I just kept leaning into the steering wheel, trying to get a look at the sky. When I got to P's there was a group of Hasidic Jews standing around outside the temple at the end of the street looking up from beneath their hat brims. I thought maybe I should get to a church and start praying. Why wasn't that the first thing I thought of? P was on the porch smoking a cigarette watching the TV through the huge picture window. He had the volume up loud so he could hear it through the screen door. I took a cigarette from him and looked in through the window—the buildings looked like two burning smoke stacks.

I guess I've got to tell you all this because I realized that my dad was flying on business this morning. I called my mom and she was crying. Oh, fuck, I said into the phone. Is Dad ok? He's fine, she said. I started to cry a little too because I was so happy, I guess. My mom said, I heard there was a plane heading for Pittsburgh, and I thought they might try to take out the Cathedral of Learning, and I know that you teach today... I told her I was just fine. She said, Okay. Well, spend today with friends. How's that girlfriend of yours in Philadelphia? She called, I said. She loves you, my mom said. I told her, I think so.

By the time the news anchors were reporting the same things over and over, Matt and I were drunk. He put on some Miles Davis and read passages aloud from Gravity's Rainbow, the one Penguin edition with a fighter plane on the cover.

As I write this, P is setting off bottle rockets in the back yard, shooting them out of the end of a wiffle ball bat. I don't know how much more of this I can take. The world's so fucked up and ugly, and you're so beautiful.

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