December 30, 2018
You know Arnie’s Gas, Bait & Tackle? I’ve always wondered why he built it where he did, on that dusty strip by the community college, all the way across town from the lake. The first time I stopped there for gas—a decade ago, just out of college and moving to DC—Arnie told me he’d moved his family to North Carolina for a change of scenery. They used to live in Oregon, picked up and crossed the country out of boredom. I talked to him for a while, thinking some piece of his story might be newsworthy (I was crazy for bylines back then; even breathing felt like a missed opportunity), but eventually, I saw he was just lonely, nothing really there.
It only occurred to me after I left to wonder why he sells bait and tackle—and lifejackets, and sunscreen, and inner tubes—so far from the water.
Anyway, I saw you getting gas there last weekend, just after Christmas. I was the red Prius, filling up to head back to DC. You were the Ford pickup, your wife in the passenger seat, her knee pressed against the glass. I’d seen pictures of your salamander tattoo on Facebook, a comfortable way to believe you were no longer the person for whom I could pine my life away. But when you topped off the tank and lifted the nozzle out, the lizard’s tongue flicked toward me. I felt the way I did in high school, when you pressed your dog-eared books into my arms and told me the most succulent truth: that the world was a shithole, but we knew better—we knew a shared something, and it would save us.
Then you got back in your truck and drove off, and I’ve been thinking about you ever since.
Here’s what gets me: you never knew why our friendship ended. I last saw you in the school parking lot at the end of my senior year of high school. I was just back from a homestay in Costa Rica, the last phase in a regimented four-year plan to forget you, which included academic institutes, an internship at my mom’s candle shop, three boyfriends, and endless journal entries and to-do lists involving my “bright future,” a future in which the dear friend I’d accidentally fallen for in middle school, who clearly loved me like a little sister or a teddy bear, not in the blistering, burning way I loved him, would view my life from afar and say—just look at her now.
You probably wondered why I didn’t come over to play ukulele anymore, why I sold my ticket to the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert and stopped responding to your notes in class, which asked questions like what might this collection of seconds be spent on, if we weren’t surrounded by walls? and, quoting Nietzsche, Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man? The biggest fissure came junior year, when I stitched a cross on my bookbag and started attending early morning prayer meetings around the flagpole. It was a desperate act and a bizarre one, I know, coming on the heels of a summer in which I’d read Zaratustra with you, puzzling out the lines with our feet dangling off the abandoned bridge over the water. But I wasn’t turning Christian, not really. The first step toward my bright future was getting over my love for you, and to do that, I had to leave everything familiar behind. I had to strike out on my own.
In that parking lot, at the end of senior year, you hollered, “Hey, Asha, how was Nicaragua?” and the echo against the pine trees amplified the rhyme. I hadn’t seen you in four months. I missed you so much my insides hurt. Though you’d gotten the country wrong, I yelled back, “Great!” and then went inside to get my cap and gown.
Now, years later, I recall that moment as a window—the last window you’d give me to walk toward you and tell you what I wanted. I failed to take it, as humans do.
Sometime after we graduated, I heard about your metal band, then your string band, then the dissolution of both bands, and your purchase of a hillside plot of land where you tie up tomatoes and peppers. You showed up in old classmates’ pictures at music festivals and pig pickins. She—your wife—appeared initially at the edges of those photos, like you hadn’t fully seen her yet, recognized her for who she would be. Then one day, she was in full focus, at a wooden table with a window above it, sunlight pouring in. Her legs were hairy, her feet knobby. A clump of hair fell across her eyes. She was not beautiful. But she was sitting at your table, she’d just gotten out of your bed; you stood across the room from her, visible in the window’s reflection, taking her picture. What did beauty even matter? She’d won everything.
Her name is Lila. She seems serene, quietly brilliant. This is a pointless letter, isn’t it? But there will never be another window, so I’m making one. Getting no response will tell me what I need to know.
Peace and blessings in the new year,
March 13, 2019
Hey, I hear you on NPR now and then. Congrats! So you’re in DC; what’s that like?
I didn’t plan on writing back. I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gotten a “window,” like you’d call it—but not in the way you mean—what I mean is Lila’s mother is sick, dying, we think. Lila’s in Georgia with her now. I’m here alone, and I thought I’d spring-clean, a nice thing for her when she gets home, and in cleaning out my dresser drawers, I came across your letter.
The night it arrived, we were stripping basil leaves for pesto, right here at the table you mentioned. Lila works faster than me. She says it’s because her fingers are smaller, but really it’s because she’s okay with compromise. She’ll let a good leaf go in the stem pile or a stem into the leaves. She’s practical. If I let a stem into the leaf pot, I have to go rooting around in there until I find it, which drives Lila crazy.
Anyway, since she works more quickly, I took a break and read the letter out loud. I realized early on what kind of letter it was, but I had no idea you’d mention Lila herself. I don’t say that to blame you, although on the whole, Asha, what a fucking weird thing to write and send—but I did feel like you’d gotten me to conspire against my wife. Knobby feet? Chunk of hair? What the hell? Lila’s fucking gorgeous!
You make an interesting point about her migrating to the center of my pictures. I mean, at first, we weren’t married; now we are, she’s become central. But I’ve loved her since I met her. And she’s only gotten more beautiful…
I guess I’m lonely. She’s been gone two and a half weeks, longer than we thought. I’m doing mostly carpentry work, but we run a CSA out of the garden, and it’s a lot to keep up with. That’s Lila’s main job, in addition to the herbal brews. You didn’t mention that in your letter, but I’m sure you know about them. You seem to know about everything. The journalist in you.
I don’t know, Asha. What comes to mind is you’ve won awards, you’re on the radio, and I don’t know that it’s worth pining over the guy with the lizard tattoo. I don’t say that to say I’m not worth pining over, but maybe not by you?
Maybe your letter is just acknowledging a connection, and I loved you; that’s the strange thing about your version of events. I don’t think I was thinking of asking you out—at least not yet—but, like, who else did I spend time with? You really had to put all that space between us?
Well, anyway. The good old days. Remember middle school? Your mom was a hoot, and you were shy in a cute way, a way that said once you got over your shyness, you were going to take on the world. Obviously, you did.
March 17, 2019
Holy shit. You wrote back!
I know when someone signs off, “Be well,” what they mean is, not so subtly, “The correspondence ends here.” I know! But how not to acknowledge the compliment that came before it? To put things in context, Wade, the night that I wrote you, I’d had three and a half glasses of wine, and my girlfriends, who’d come over for game night, had just left. I was curled on my couch, my black Dobermann lounging across my legs. I looked out the window at the snow lining the porch railings, cars pulling down the street, muffled streetlights, a descending calm as we approached the new year—and I thought, for the sixteenth time that week, about you.
But I was so happy that night; I felt so settled. I think that’s what let me reach out. I knew that, whatever the result, I’d still have my rowhouse, my pup, my sweet friends.
Idiot, I lambasted myself when you didn’t write back. I wondered if you heard my voice shaking on Morning Edition if you wondered if your silence had meant something. Truthfully, the most positive spin I could give your non-response was that maybe after my feat of bravery, I’d find my actual perfect person, a person who’s so far eluded me on Tinder, OkCupid, Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel, on the metro, on blind dates, even in the boyfriends I’ve found along the way, who’ve offered me support, adventure, stimulating conversation, dependability, and basically everything else a person could want except that sense of hard-won peace you used to bring me, that resounding space in my head at the end of the night.
Then you did write back, and it was only when I read your reply that I realized what I’d needed the whole time. Thanks, Wade. Knowing you think I’m taking on the world, that’s enough. If you ever need me, I’ll be here.
PS. My mom was a hoot! (Still is, actually.) Do you remember how she’d take me out of school for meditation retreats? The dance she chaperoned in that glittery sari? The summer she took us on an educational pilgrimage “to the forest,” and we lay on picnic benches reading mysteries while she gathered plants and chanted mantras?
Hey, my mom and your wife sound like they could get along.
Anyway, Wade, cheers.
July 2, 2019
I don’t know why I’m writing to you.
I got your reply ages ago. I read it to Lila, aloud again, in bed this time. She’d just gotten home from burying her mom. It was awful. We spent forty-eight hours going over the details—the pain, the morphine, the disorientation, the loss of consciousness. Poor Lila. She’d taken a big bag down to Georgia with her herbal remedies, Mason jars of various things. If nothing else, she thought she could give her mom the death she deserved; she’s got an herbal blend (top secret) that gives you a high for a few days, then kills you. At least it does the trick on injured rabbits and squirrels. Blood Mountain, Lila calls it. In the end, she didn’t use anything. She couldn’t risk making a mistake and causing her mother more suffering.
Those two days she spent telling me about it, we hauled the chicken tractors to a new patch of green, readied beds in the garden, sold our first CSA flats, and reorganized the shed. But after that was done, Lila started itching for something she couldn’t put a name to. She stopped brewing potions. She stayed in bed.
Then your letter arrived, and in some small way, it helped. It gave Lila a distraction. It reminded her—well, don’t take this the wrong way. But purely in the sense that a middle school friend writing you love letters fifteen years after the fact could be seen as “crazy,” it reminded Lila that she wasn’t the only crazy one. Maybe she wasn’t crazy at all.
We laughed, picturing your “pup,” your “sweet friends.” I don’t mean that in a cruel way. It’s just nothing we’d want. A concrete jungle, albeit a snowy, nicely-lit one.
And we laughed talking about your mother. Lila doesn’t dabble in the mystical arts. She does them—the real thing.
I’ll be honest. Can I be honest? Can I tell you what Lila said?
She said, “Jesus, that woman is insecure. But I think I’m starting to get attached to her.”
This whole letter is coming off as an insult, and it’s because I’m fucking nervous. I don’t know why the hell I’m writing to you again. There’s no “window” this time. Lila isn’t gone. She’s asleep. I can hear her breathing in the next room.
You say I loved you like a little sister or a teddy bear. Maybe I did, but it was because I didn’t have either of those things. I loved you like the best thing in my life—see how that sounds different, but it’s essentially the same thing? I loved you like something I hadn’t been burdened with, something I was too happy about to waste time worrying it could go away.
I should sleep. I was asleep until an hour ago, and then I couldn’t sleep anymore; I lay next to Lila, staring at the black sky and the silver stars and the crest of mountain that rumbles in my ear all night even when I can’t see it. And I thought of you.
You occupied, should I say, a resounding space in my head.
Nobody sends me letters, or calls, really. Maybe that’s all this is. It’s nice knowing that someone on the other side of these mountains, someone who has wine nights with girlfriends and a rowhouse and a Dobermann, gets drunk sometimes and thinks about old Wade.
That’s it, I guess. I shouldn’t send this letter in the morning. I won’t.
Hope you’re doing well,
July 6, 2019
You sent it; I see—the letter you decided not to send.
Did you know my mom hosts yoga retreats in Buncombe County twice a year? It’s her new thing.
This year, the retreat is from September 2-4. I’ve used my vacation days on so many of her strange events—I should hit the Jersey shore, take a vineyard tour in California—but she’s having a hard time selling enough tickets to pay for the space. So, I’m headed down south to the land of the pines…
I hate to ask this. I’ve pitched so many stories over the last ten years, but this risks a different kind of rejection. Even so: would you like to meet up for lunch?
It just sounds like you might need a friend.
July 15, 2019
You know how Lila sorts basil leaves quicker than me? Completes all farm tasks quicker than me, actually? And how my problem is I’m such a goddamned perfectionist?
Lila grew up on a real farm, in the mountains of Georgia, while I huffed glue in Chapel Hill and called myself a free thinker. I think that’s where this originates. My desire to earn my stripes.
I have a hard time going off instinct these days. Like rooting around in a pot of leaves for a stem I’ll never find.
Anyway, I got your letter, and I’m thinking about it. Thanks for your offer of friendship. It means something, just like it always did.
July 25, 2019
Your comparisons sound tortured. I hope you’re okay.
My mom didn’t get enough sign-ups for the retreat center she’d reserved, so now we’re meeting at a B&B in south Asheville. If you’re up for it, September 4 is my best day to meet. Let me know!
July 29, 2019
You make a lunch date sound casual, harmless. But I’m not sure it would be. Not after everything you’ve told me in these letters, and not after the way I’ve been feeling this summer like there’s not a sturdy bone in my body; I’m caught in the wind and can’t stop spinning.
Still, I find myself writing the wrong word. Yes.
Maybe it’s like Blood Mountain. Lila’s poison. I want some delirious joy, some wild adrenaline, that three-day high before everything crashes around me.
Let me know what time and where.
August 4, 2019
I have hairy legs, knobby feet, and am beautiful—but only in the morning sun, at Wade’s kitchen table. This is by way of refreshing your memory.
I’ve been thinking of you. Wade has been thinking of you, too; he hasn’t told me so, hasn’t mentioned you since April, but our minds are more like our hearts than people realize; they meld together over time, when you spend all day and night together, your breathing gradually aligns, your dreams and nightmares overlap in eerie ways.
That theory is my mother’s. She was with my father for thirty-three years, but she died without him. He went to visit family overseas. She’d asked him not to go. She had stage four cancer, it was the middle of winter, she wished he’d wait until the days got long again. But he got it in his head he was going, like as long as he was gone, she wouldn’t die. It’s hard to dissuade a person, isn’t it, once they’ve got something in their head?
She was only fifty-four. Before he could get back, she was gone.
I tell you these details because you’re not real to me. You’re two strange envelopes Wade put in a drawer months ago, and a handful of others he keeps in the pocket of his bathrobe, hanging up straight in the closet as though no one will ever go inside, certainly not me. Maybe he looks at them. Maybe he doesn’t. But I do. I sit on the bed and hold the still-fresh paper and search for hints about the girl who’s loved him all his life, who paints herself as a coward—It was the last window, and I failed to take it, as humans do—but who writes such daring letters.
I’m thirty-one, Asha. Far too young to take what I’ve got for granted. Thank you for showing me that. I lost my mom. This is a warning—I’ll hold onto everything else like hell.
August 8, 2019
Lila, I’m very sorry. I should not have written to your husband in the way that I did, presuming to know anything about you, about your body or name or character or anything else. My job is to research, fact-check. I did none of that with you. I had drunk a fair amount (not an excuse), and I felt so lonely. I lied to Wade. I told him I was happy because everyone loves a happy girl. But it was four days after Christmas. There was no game night. I was alone.
I’m sure you’re a lovely person, and I won’t bother either of you again.
August 12, 2019
I never made above a C- on a high school English paper because I wanted people to read between the lines. I thought it made life more interesting. My teachers didn’t see it that way, so I dropped out of school at sixteen, hopped trains for a while. My mother was relieved when I met Wade like he could be the sturdy foundation, the frame that held tight all the good in me and kept the rest out in the cold. Largely he has.
That’s a tangent. I’d make a terrible journalist.
My point is, between the lines of my last letter, I was trying to tell you something. I said thank you, and I meant it: you’ve helped me. You’ve helped my marriage. It’s been a long time since someone looked at me like they don’t have me figured out like they believe there’s more to see. It was like that when I met Wade. I’d glance across a bonfire and find his eyes flickering in my direction, teasing apart what warmth came from the fire, the stars, the mulled wine, the guitar, and what warmth came from me. That’s what you missed about those pictures, dear journalist. Once we got married, my face slid fully center; the rest of the world faded to sepia. Of course, he wrote you when my mother was dying. He’d decided every good thing in the world came from me. So what could he do for himself alone, on a night with just a chimney and the moon?
And what could he do when I came back to him shattered, after watching the woman who fought bullies and school principals and juvenile courts on my behalf, on her hands and knees howling from pain? The dying took days. And as she clawed and tore herself away from life, I felt all the rough-edged puzzle pieces she’d saved me from time after time burrow back inside my skin. This time will be different, they said. This time we’re not staying in Georgia.
I was scared to come back to Wade then, the Lila who was never bound for love, who nearly froze at a bus depot in Arkansas at nineteen, the Lila who throws punches instead of writing letters, who has so many dozens of bleeding fists piled up inside her. Wade can’t tell; maybe you’d call that victory. But it takes all my focus to keep the worst parts out of sight. Wade thinks it’s him, he thinks he’s unfaithful, he thinks he’s in love with your letters. He doesn’t see I’m rotting from the inside out.
You’re a decoy, and that’s reason enough for gratitude. But there’s also the fact that you don’t know me, you don’t love me, but you want to know what makes me tick. I want that, too, I want that desperately, and that makes two of us. It’s a kind of comfort.
That said, Asha, when I warned you, I meant it. For your own good, don’t write back.
August 16, 2019
Did I miss a letter? Shit. I’m paranoid I missed a letter. We’re meeting in just a couple of weeks, aren’t we?
I never heard back about the time and place. Terrified, Lila found a letter from you. Don’t want to ask her—
August 22, 2019
I don’t know how to put this. You asked me not to write back. But I’m overcome by a sense that, when I wrote to Wade last December, I was actually writing to you.
Not to you, of course. I didn’t know you. I still don’t, as you say, but I was writing in search of the feeling that there was still more to know about the world. Does Wade give you that feeling? (Or maybe you don’t need that. Maybe you’ve always known the world is wild and complex.) As long as I’ve known him, Wade has been too-smart, and because of that, jaded—but beneath all that was a supreme excitement for knowing things. Even if it was the most terrible thing to know, Wade would want to know it, and he’d grin as he told you; he’d grin from the joy of having caught a little bit of truth in his hands.
The thing about my life is no one is grinning at finding out something true. We’re all just scrambling to get it on the record.
I was missing a sense of delight, or something. I can’t think how else to put it.
But, though Wade’s letters have fascinated me, I see now it was never because of him. It was because of you—the you he described.
I don’t have much time. It’s a crazy week, and next weekend I head to the mountains. Your mountains. For a yoga retreat. You’ll already know, from reading the letters, that I invited Wade to lunch. I’m honestly not sure what I thought would happen. I thought there were a couple of possibilities, and I cringe to confess that.
But that brings me to—
Lila, would you like to meet me? What about dinner on September 4? Shall we say Jimmy’s on the River in Swannanoa at 6 pm?
Let me know as soon as you can.
August 25, 2019
What a strange invitation.
Well, if you’re sure.
I’ll see you soon.
September 4, 2019
I’m feeling crazy. Today’s the day we were supposed to meet. I’m assuming your trip got canceled. Did your mom’s yoga scheme fall apart at the last minute? I wouldn’t be too surprised…
Still confused, though. You seemed so eager to see me. Did you have second thoughts? You can tell me, if so. Of course, I have. Dumb idea. At the same time—
Well, shit, I don’t know, write me back. Or is the letter-writing over, too?
I just feel like I’m missing something.
You know, rereading your letters, I realize that I never responded about Arnie’s Gas, Bait & Tackle. He does have a story, Asha; he told my mom a couple of years ago. It wasn’t boredom that moved him out of Oregon. His kid died there. Drowned, and the family crossed the whole damn country, trying to get away from the pain.
I wonder if that’s why he built the store where he did so that even on the slightest shred of a chance someone needed a life jacket, they wouldn’t have to go without.
Anyway. Lila was up all night brewing one of her potions. The client’s horse down in Swannanoa’s on a slow decline, and the owner wants to put him under. But, you know, the natural way—the Lila way. No vets, no shots. Just a good long high, and then the blackout. She says she’ll be glad to see a good death, it’ll get her mom off her mind. And she did seem lighter this morning, eyes bright, waving at me like the old days as she eased the truck around in the driveway.
Here I am, waiting on her to get home, thinking it would have been the perfect day to see you—I wouldn’t even have had to come up with an excuse.
Wish I knew what was on your mind.
Is this the death, or the high?