That’s how the letters between you and L almost always begin. Letters, because that’s what they feel like even though they’re written via email. These letters are almost always long, not intentionally, but because there always turns out to be so much to say.
It was the same way –so much to say– the night you and L first got to know each other. This was the second night of seven that you spent at one of those artist colonies that seem like dreams but actually do exist here and there in the world. Your children were tiny at the time, and a week was the longest you could be away from them, so you applied to the only artist colony willing to let artists stay for only a week.
(That week in New England still, whenever you think about it now, feels like a dream. You had a room to sleep in and a dining room to eat in for breakfast and dinner and a cabin in the woods to write in. At lunchtime, an unseen someone silently left a picnic basket for you by the door because you were there to write and not to be disturbed from your writing, something which still blows your mind when you think about it. You took breaks and biked through the woods on winding paths past other cabins –composers, sculptors, painters, musicians, other writers. You were surrounded by art. A trumpet, practicing the same golden phrases over and over. Giant wooden cut-out sculptures of giant people and giant animals, scattered throughout a meadow. A glimpse of a painter through the window of her cabin, standing back and studying her work. A composer, bent over a table jotting those indecipherable-to-you marks onto music staff paper.)
But back to L, and that first conversation. You and she sat at the table long after dinner was over. There was a bottle of red wine, maybe two, and you kept pouring it into each others’ wine glass. The two of you talked and talked and talked. It was one of those conversations where you open up your heart to someone, where you talk about hard things and easy things, where sometimes you’re laughing and sometimes you’re crying.
You knew right away that L was a kindred spirit. The dining room was empty but for the two of you and in your memory it was dark. Maybe there was a candle on the table? L leaned forward and the light glimmered in her beautiful dark red-brown hair and her eyes were an almost unearthly hazel and she kept nodding and everything about her said that she was listening. That she heard you.
She is still that way. Many years have passed since that night, and you rarely see each other in person –you live far from each other, and she has small children now– but time and distance don’t matter.
My beautiful friend, I have been thinking about you.
Some words that come to mind when you picture L:
Fierce and brave and hugehearted because if L loves someone, there is nothing she will not do for that person. She was like that with her father and her mother as they fought –and that is the right word here, fought– against the cancer that ended up taking them away from her. You are thinking now of a note from L, maybe a year and a half ago now, that ended with what you remember as being these lines: I cannot lose my mother. I can, not, lose, my, mother.
He was known as Big T and you loved him even though you never met him because of his Elvis hair and his huge heart and the fact that he worked as a mailman his whole life, a job you have always admired because if you’re a mail carrier, you keep on keeping on, no matter what. But most of all you loved Big T because he adored L with his whole giant heart.
I cannot lose my mother.
It cracked your heart to think of her soldiering on without the two of them, because despite everything bad and wrong that sometimes goes on in families when you’re growing up –and hers was no different from any other family in that regard– Big T and Muth had their daughter’s back. Like L for them, there was nothing they would not have done for her.
“I didn’t want you to see it on Facebook,” she said. “I knew you were flying and I wanted you to hear it from me.”
In the middle of her worst fear, L somehow was thinking of you? That cracked your heart even more. You were sitting by a window in the airport waiting for your next flight, and a girl a few seats down glanced at you with curiosity and sympathy when you started to cry.
L is all those things, fierce and brave and hugehearted, to the core. You have watched her do battle for Big T and Muth and also for her special needs child, whom you have never met in person but who melts your heart with his oceanlike hazel eyes, his solemn face, his searching way in the world.
Once, you saw a photo of him sitting in a fast food restaurant, an enormous smile on his usually-serious face. “A mother-son date,” read the caption. You could imagine it so clearly, L and her little boy out on a date, L leaning across the table intent on him in the way she is intent on everyone she meets and teaches and befriends. Her little boy and her little girl are lucky, with L as their mother.
Once, before L had children, she came out to visit for the weekend. This was right after you had moved into an apartment with your kids. You remember her playing Go Fish with your youngest, who was tiny and hilarious at the time and kept saying “Aw, nuts!” whenever she lost, and how L cracked up each time.
Should she have kids, you remember her asking you. An answerless question, because how can you ever tell someone Yes, you should have kids. Having kids is such a beyond-enormous thing to do that you could only shrug, smile, shake your head in an I Cannot Help You kind of way.
Now her girl curls up beside her to read, and she has that same smile and that same gorgeous dark hair, and you look at the photos and shrug and smile and shake your head. And her boy works his way through a world that, hard though it is for everyone, is so much harder for him, and L is right there with him. Fierce.
Sometimes you hear her voice in your head. It’s such a surprising voice: deep and resonant and powerful. If L had wanted to be a radio star instead of a writer, she could have. When you hear her voice in your head she’s saying something that begins with My beautiful friend, even though she doesn’t say that in real life, only in letters.
My beautiful friend, I have been thinking about you.
You’re glad L chose writing over radio, though, because that means you get to read her books. That first night you became friends you talked about the kind of books you write. Yours were all set in upstate New York back then, in the landscape you grew up in, peopled by imaginary people who felt real to you.
L’s were, and are, wild books about a woman who gave birth to herself, about another who worshiped Elvis, about people who you can’t imagine will feel real until you begin reading her books. And then they do. She is a writer of strange and rare talent, as if she lives partly in a world between the conscious and the subconscious and that’s where her books are written. The woman can take a moon pie and a lake and a girl with blue skin and string them together into a metaphor that, against all logic, not only holds but holds a whole world of secrets and grief and love and redemption.
L is on your mind much these days, maybe because you’re partway through her latest novel. That would be the logical explanation, but it doesn’t feel accurate because kindred spirit friendships, like L’s novels, transcend logic. You’re weeding your flowers when suddenly L‘s wide grin appears in your head and then moments later an email or text or Facebook comment from her pings into your phone. It’s a friendship that operates on an invisible frequency.
Once, many years ago, you and L met up at a conference in New Orleans. You remember little of the conference but everything about the six hours the two of you sat at a second-story balcony in the French Quarter, drinking and eating and talking. People on the street below kept throwing strings of beads up to you even though you both kept your shirts on. Music was everywhere and you remember laughing and laughing for the first time in a long time.
No matter what is going on in her life or yours, L always makes you feel better. The simple fact of her presence.
Once, a few years ago, you met L at Eataly in New York. Big T was gone but Muth was still alive and healthy. L appeared from the train on a winter night, her beautiful dark hair glistening with melting snow, and you flung yourselves into a hug. Wine and antipasti and more wine and then pasta and talk talk talk. At one point you said to her, “I just want to keep being alive! I love being alive!” and she laughed that big laugh of hers.
Not long ago, she reminded you of that night. “Remember that night at Eataly? When you said you just wanted to be alive?”
Yes. You remember. Nothing has changed. You do just want to be alive, as long as you can be alive with people like her.