The summer I was twenty, I stayed with my cousins and my aunt and uncle on their farm in New Jersey. I looked for a job for a while and finally found one, slicing meat at a supermarket deli. I learned the names of meats and cheeses, the number to type into the scale for each one so it would figure out the price (esoterically known as the PLU number), and how to use a huge, humming deli-slicer without amputating my fingers. I came home at night smelling of bologna.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend, who has since become my husband, was having a better summer. He was doing a study abroad program in London, England. He was studying history, sightseeing, riding his bicycle.
The one connection between us that summer was letter writing. This was in the dark time before Facebook, before the Internet, even before cell phones. We might have talked on the phone a couple of times but that cost a lot of money. He had spent all his to go on the trip – in fact, I think we’re still paying for that trip in the form of one last student loan – and I didn’t have a lot either, even though I was earning union wages as a deli-worker. (Yes, I was a member of the AFL-CIO.)
Those letters that he wrote me were my lifeline. Before I would go to my job in the afternoon, I would keep watch over the mailbox. It was a good long way from the house and so I couldn’t see the flag without going a little distance out. So I would make that trip as early as I thought it was possible for the letter carrier to have passed by. Sometimes I’d take a little stroll out there a couple of times before I’d find some mail in the mailbox. Nonchalantly, as though I was just walking, not for any real purpose.
Of course, some days there wouldn’t be any mail for me at all, but when there was, my heart would pound as I grabbed it. I would rip the letter open and read it at high speed, then go back over it two or three more times, then put it away carefully to read it again later. Sometimes I would take the letters to work in the pocket of my white deli coat so that I could read them on my break instead of the old issues of the National Enquirer people left in the break room.
In his letters, he told me about what he was learning, where he had been, how much he missed me. Sometimes he sent me poems. I felt special when I read those letters, irreplaceable, cherished.
One day, as I was walking back to the house from the mailbox, clutching my prize, a brand new letter, my cousin Bobby ran out. Bobby is around two years younger than I am, and he’s one of three kids in his family. I had been teased quite a bit by Bobby and his sisters that summer over my attachment to those letters. On this day, as I headed for the house, Bobby grabbed my letter from me and ran.
I wanted that letter back but I couldn’t catch Bobby. I chased him all over the yard but he was much faster than I was. I was frustrated, but things got worse. Bobby took my letter, climbed up onto the barn roof, and stuck it right up at the top.
I stood there on the ground and looked up at that letter. I wanted it. No, I needed it. I don’t think I hesitated. I didn't stop to consider that the barn was two stories high and that I was afraid of heights. I immediately started climbing up the ladder on the side of the barn. And I didn’t stop until I was right up there next to the letter, on the top of the roof. My cousin couldn’t believe it. He asked me to stay put until he could run and get the camera.
Never mind that the piece of paper I found up there wasn’t my letter at all – “I wouldn’t really have done that to you,” said Bobby. The point is that I loved my far-off love enough that I was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to read a letter he had written.
I have been thinking about our courtship and marriage as we have been going through this time of separation due to the earthquake. Next year we will have been married as long as I was single. We have been through illness, celebration, birth, death. We have been through unpredictable life in Haiti. We have lived in eleven houses or apartments. We have argued and made up, traveled and returned home, stayed awake with sleepless children, talked and been silent. We are roommates and companions, co-parents and lovers and friends. I can hardly remember a time before I knew him, before his family was my family and mine was his.
The other day I took my children for a walk on the campus where I met my husband and told them some stories about how we got together, the way he asked to borrow my notes to get to meet me the first time (which didn't seem strange to me, even though his roommate was in the class too - I did, after all, take excellent notes), and how we went on an skating outing for MK Fellowship and I found out he was an MK like me, and how a guy named Ben sat between us as we tried to talk, and how he asked me out on a hike, and then there was an ice-storm and we went to a bookstore instead. I thought about the uncertainty of those days, how I waited for him to call and wondered what he was thinking and agonized over whether we would have a second date, let alone be together over twenty years later.
If I had known then that this would be our future, would I have hesitated? If I had known that those beautiful letters would morph into hurried phone conversations (after the kids took their turn and before the minutes ran out on the prepaid Haitian cellphone) or brief matter-of-fact emails or looking at the pixels that make up his face on Skype as we talk about practical details? If I had seen myself grieving, caring for two children without their dad, living a life which will be forever haunted by what happened on January 12th, 2010, forever darkened by those seconds when the earth shook and so many died and so many others lost limbs and dreams? If that terribly young, naive girl that was me had seen these difficult days, would she have chosen differently?
Of course not. I would have climbed up the side of that barn anyway, desperate to read his thoughts on paper, the thoughts of my love, mailed to me and only me, across the ocean.
2 hours ago