My fifth wedding anniversary is July 3rd. I’ll be in Asheville, North Carolina, attending my writing program for a third summer—three years, I’ve missed my wedding anniversary. My wife, Karen, who has learned not to expect gifts—at least gifts one can buy—anticipates a letter. I’ve lived with her six years. I talk to her daily. I’ve been dating her fifteen years. And yet, I write her letters. I can’t buy a diamond (my wife’s engagement ring was sapphire; she lost it), but I can write a letter.
I can write, for example: Desnuda eres azul como la noche en Ambler.
I would never write that line. That’s Pablo Neruda, from his first collection of poetry, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.
Naked you are blue as the night in Cuba.
Karen lived in Chile, Neruda’s home, when she was nineteen. At that time, I was at Bloomsburg University. We talked on the phone, a difficult, static-filled affair, each Sunday evening. During the week, we wrote letters. I told her about my Saturday afternoons, drinking beer at the Cattawissa Inn, an ancient establishment located off a solitary road that sold draft beer for sixty cents a glass. She told me about her Santiago life, sharing a mango with a certain Brianna, drinking boxed wine in the squares, visiting the streets called Maruri and Argülles where Neruda, young, unbearably skinny and unbearably alive, wrote his early poems.
Neruda was Karen’s age when he was living in Santiago, in the 1920’s, writing poems that would lend credence to the myth of the Latino lover:
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, ‘The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’
Ridiculous. I’m surprised we accept this from Neruda. Maybe just him, and no one else. I must admit, though: I’ve written more than a few sentimental letters. I looked over some of my letters today (Karen’s kept them all, a hundred or more, bundled neatly in a shoe box). I’m embarrassed by everything–but from May, 1996 to September, 2004, I channeled young Neruda.
I did discover a few good tidbits, such as early evidence of my health fanaticism. (I asked Karen’s permission to quote the letters)
On February 27, 1997, for example, I wrote:
“I just read a few chapters of a great little book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Energy But Were Too Weak to Ask. The book includes a recipe for a wonder shake that’s supposed to make you feel stupendous. This spring I plan to purge my system of all its toxins with a five-day fruit and vegetable diet. Then, the milkshake.”
Most of the letters were monstrously sentimental. Spring, 1997, I lived in Italy. A letter from the time (March 25) begins:
“I cannot begin to tell you how lonely I feel. I have just bought a huge bottle of Chianti for 6,000 lira; now, writing you with frequent sips is my only pleasure of the day.”
Later, in the same letter, I wrote:
“I must strive to understand my misgivings about Rome. Now, I must understand myself; more than ever I’m alone: I am all I got…One thing’s for sure: I will never be happier to see you. I already can’t stand how much I miss you.”
The height of my schmaltz was January to May, 1999, when Karen was in Chile.
On February 18, 1999, I wrote:
“I’m listening to Billy Holiday: The way you hold your knife, the way we dance to three, the way you’ve changed my life, no, no they can’t take that away from me. Something rings so true in that simple, ridiculous line. When I listen to that line I think of the way you changed my life. And I wonder: Who is they? I hope they never try to take that away from me.”
What? Who? Where?
In May, 2000, we graduated college. Winter, 2001, we moved to Barcelona. I was living with Karen, so I wrote only cards. Karen hides these cards amidst her clothes, in secret places I’m unwilling to explore.
By 2002, we were home and I was experiencing my first bouts with illness. I entered a silent period that lasted two years.
In September, 2004, I recommenced my letter writing. I’m not necessarily embarrassed by these letters. I’m not sure how I feel. At the time, we had just returned home from a three-week honeymoon in Spain. I had been hit by a car on the second day of the trip; a few days later, I entered the hospital close to death (at 118 pounds) and was diagnosed with a chronic, life-changing illness.
In letter after letter I tried to explain to Karen (and myself) what had happened:
“If I was fighting for my life, I was not fighting for myself but our marriage. I was fighting for the oath I had given a little more then a month before, to have you as my wife, to live together in marriage, to love you, to comfort you, to honor you and keep you, in sickness and health, in sorrow and joy, and to be faithful to you, as long as we both shall live. A few weeks was certainly not enough to live this oath. I mean, with the wedding vows surely comes another unspoken vow, one that two young people feel probably feel obliged to ignore: to stay alive.”
By then, of course, I saw Karen every day. I talked to her for hours. And yet, the letters I wrote during that time seemed crucial. Somehow, I was trying to figure it out. What had happened to me? Why? I was absolutely poor so the letter, once again, became my de-facto birthday and anniversary gift.
Last year, a day after her birthday, a day late, I wrote my wife a letter. It began:
“I had a string of bad dreams last night. There were snakes, faceless people, classes I had missed and dark showers. All the familiar tropes. In one dream, you left me. I couldn’t believe it. I went into some room, looking for you, and I was distracted by the snake. There it was, huge and ugly, a python in a glass tank, smashing its head against the glass, trying to get out. Somebody fed it a bat. I woke up, terrified. But you were there. You hadn’t left. I asked, where’s the blue sheet? You mumbled something funny.”
Later, in the same letter, I wrote:
“Summer’s here, more or less. A new summer. The days are colored with imprints of what’s happened. The imprints will fade, though, as we stamp over them. I have faith. I have faith in our ability to keep trying. I no longer see snakes. I knew writing a letter would help. I’m selfish. I write to redeem myself. I write to crawl out of the wallow.”
In this way, my letters seem selfish. I write them for myself. I try to explain myself to myself. And then I give this as a gift?
Still, my wife wants letters. This year, I’ve written her one letter. To her, this seems like incredible negligence. After all, I currently have three or four active pen pals. I’m writing a novel. I maintain three blogs. I litter my friend’s Facebook pages with comments. I tweet.
So what’s one more letter to my wife?
I don’t have an answer to this question. In some ways, I know, it is incredible negligence. Maybe after I graduate from my program, this July, I’ll re-commence. I better, because I don’t anticipate becoming the type of man who buys gifts anytime in the near future. I’d love too, of course. I’d love to treat my wife to extravagant dinners, shocking jewelry.
Right now, though, I’m poor. Words are all I can afford.