The Friendship Letters
Exhibit A: Introduction
We would like to begin by calling attention to the purple writing on the back of the letter which, due to the recipient’s poor choice in writing utensils at that time, bled through the paper. The purple writing reads: “First letter” and was, in fact, an addition made by the recipient (whom we shall call B) to remember which letter her pen pal sent her first. From this, one can assume that B was, and perhaps still is, a sentimental being who had from an early age set out to document and catalogue her memories. The purple handwriting places her around nine or ten years old, though at the time she received this letter, she would have been seven. The sender, who shall be referred to as R, would have been nine.
B would fail to notice the specificity of the information R chose to tell her. She would note that R had forgotten about her since the time they had met last summer but would recognize that R seemed pleased to remember her. However, since theirs was a relationship founded on written communication, she would not draw the connection between herself and R both lacking friends. After all, if B is all the way over here, in Overland Park, and R is all the way over there, in St. Peters, how could she be of any help in that regard? Her only option at the moment would be to reply to the letter.
R chose to end the letter after that, leaving an unstated, open-ended question for B to answer: are you going to be my friend? This is reaffirmed by her signature and post-script. From context we can assume the year to be 2004, and from other examples we know that the post-script request to “write back” or “write back soon” was used frequently on both sides of the correspondence. After 2007 or so, both parties would drop the habit, as their consistency gave way to mutual trust. There are hundreds of samples between 2004 and 2016. We’ve selected some from various years that exhibit different phases of the correspondence. Early on we see the inclusion of drawings to enhance the letter’s content; drawing quality and specificity will arc until around 2012, when both parties reach high school age. Letter length and specificity will also arc until around 2014, when they begin to transition to blank greeting cards. As far as we know, the correspondence is still in effect, though its frequency has diminished substantially. Both parties have granted us permission to use these samples in our study.
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The dew settles on Virginia mountain grass. Birds chirp and a pickup revs its engine on the road behind me. I’m twelve years old and puking on the roadside, and Jon, my father, is not amused. He hates vomit, he hates being late, and now I’m killing two birds with one stone. My twelve year old body shakes under the grey skies as I try not to think about my elevation. We’re on a mountain in Appalachia nicknamed “Big A,” and every time we drive on a twisting road, especially this one, I empty my lunch contents.
Everyone hates vomit, but vomit defines me. They tell me I talk too much, and one teacher calls it a “spew of words” that come out of my mouth. My speech is vomit. When I have a fever (a recurring theme of any winter), puking in the nurse’s office gets me sent home from the Labyrinth. On any twisting road I puke, any merry-mixer I hurl, and in my adulthood, vomit has put me to sleep after one too many.
The scent of citrus always comes. When I finally get up, my mother come and gives me a stick of orange-flavored gum, which I hate but chew anyway. She tells me that not only will it give my now-grumbling stomach a placebo (something I still doubt is true), but it will improve the scent of my breath now that I’ve done something nasty. How to tell her that citrus gum is the single biggest indicator that someone has recently been sick escapes me, though she would not listen even if I had brought it up. At this age, I’m required to stay silent during and after the service, lest I say something “wrong” and put us in hot water with relatives we don’t like.
I’m not bulimic, I promise, but I can’t deny that I don’t take some sort of joy in expulsion. I’ve read a bit about theories of developmental stages in psychology, one such example being the idea that good feelings in our body are a biological imperative to reward us for doing what we need to do. This can be as obvious as orgasms from sex to the feeling of relief after a bowel movement. This theory originally stems from Freud, though thankfully better psychologists have kept it around, so I guess it must have some merit to it.
To clarify, I wouldn’t call this facet of myself sexual in any way. And once again, I’m not bulimic either. The bulimic only enjoys puking insofar as they believe themselves to be approaching a certain body type they find desirable. It’s a product of a society grown sick on its own contempt for women, and it’s not my scene.
It might have to do with the fact that I’ve rarely if ever been bothered by the less appealing functions of the human body. Watching others throw up doesn’t bother me too much, and I’ve never had an issue with people’s burps, provided they don’t happen in public. How elite of me. Maybe it’s rebellion to refuse to be bothered by such actions. Maybe it’s a personal rebellion, stemming from the “spew of words” comment. That would certainly make for a cool story.
I’m seven years old and my teacher, Mrs. Duncan, loves me. Despite this, on every progress report and report card I take home, there’s always a comment saying I talk too much, and at inappropriate times. Sometimes I’m asking questions beyond the easy version of the material we learn (“Why do we spell ‘gray’ differently than they do in England?”), other times I’m just trying to talk about a cartoon with a classmate while the teacher is giving us busywork. I know what I’m doing gets me in some trouble, but I don’t mind too much because I know my teacher still likes me based on my almost-always correct answers and my ability to spell most words we learn correctly.
Other than this, every aspect of school is terrible. I speak to my classmates, but they don’t like me very much, and over time I grow to dislike them as well. And I would call phys ed hell if I’d been allowed to say such a word. It’s either in this year or the next that in one particular phys ed session, our Kiwi instructor, who took delight in working pudgy kids like myself a bit harder, looks on in shock as I fall to the ground puking and shaking. I don’t realize what’s going on, except that the room appears to be spinning. The ugly, painted-blue room spins while I hear a girl, Alicia, shout that I’m turning white. Not a good sign for a little braised-brown boy.
I’m kept in the nurse’s office for about two hours, but it feels like eternity. I feel as though boulders are pushing down on my back, my shoulders, and expulsions keep coming. The nurse brings a second bucket. For the first time in my life, I think about death as something that actually happens to people. I imagine my own funeral, though I’ve only seen them on TV. Would Alicia, the girl who called out my new color be there? Would she weep for me? I think to myself that she’d regretted letting Julie, the Indian girl whose family owned the motel, get closer to me than she had.
My mother comes, eventually, and takes me home. In my head I celebrate my retreat from school, and hope that maybe the gym teacher will be nicer to me now. She isn’t.
When I write my first short story, I am seven still, and I have no concept of paragraphs. I fill four pages of a notebook with expository details of a pirate ship I imagine will be important to the plot. I have no plot yet, but I imagine it will be exciting, given that it concerns pirates. Four pages of detail of a ship, plus a description of where they are in the sea and where they are going. I look at my globe to find Honduras, which seems like the kind of place pirates could be found. I have in mind for them a journey to Egypt, to plunder Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb. I fill another three pages with description of the pyramids, when they sail their ship up the Nile.
I show my father, Jon, who I know mostly as a silent figure. He’s a student of St. Augustine even in his thirties and has little to say on fiction at this time in his life. He tells me that pirates wouldn’t have known about Tutankhamen, and that paragraphs are necessary. This is all he tells me.
Jon wasn’t wrong to shut me down in that instance. Maybe he didn’t have to be a dick about it, but that’s beside the point. It really was just a spew of words onto the page, probably as disgusting as my lost lunch after a merry-go-round. But the grotesque is the most true nature of humanity, the marker of its belonging to nature just as any animal. Cornel West calls it the Funk of Life. It’s the stench, the filth, that proves we are alive. Take the words of Julia Kristeva, a French philosopher who wrote extensively on what she called the Abject. Take a look:
"I" want none of that element, sign of their desire; "I" do not want to listen, "I" do not assimilate it. "I" expel it. But since the food is not an "other" for "me," who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself with the same motion through which "I" claim to establish myself. During that course I'm which "I" become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.
Beautiful stuff, right? In the act of expulsion, we establish ourselves as individuals. It’s an exciting notion because it has to do with ourselves as we really are. So often when we describe ourselves, we name interests before aspects. Why? Interests are important to our identity, yes, but they aren’t as tangible as what’s physically true of us, you know?
Drunkenness, as I experience early on, is like being on a wooden roller coaster. It’s fast, fun, I shout, and at the end I’m puking until I can’t stand up anymore. In this instance I’m leaving my mark in the bushes outside of dorm building. It’s my first year of college, and it was jagerbombs and screwdrivers tonight. Bad mix, I know, and I knew it when I started. Another night I’m falling down in a parking lot and regretting the several beers from earlier. My palette is pretentious, and I crave bitterness. In yet another night, I’m several glasses of red, boxed wine deep before I leave the party to purge in the alleyway nearby.
Maybe I have an oral fixation. Maybe loving expulsion is a side effect of rampant consumption.
I keep water with me whenever I puke from drinking. I only take little sips, lest I upset the stomach and send it all back. The good thing about throwing up after drinking is that it’s all liquid, so it leaves more easily than solid food. The bad thing about it is that in those instances where I haven’t drank enough water, or if I’ve had any other substances in me before the purge, then it becomes hell. In one instance, I’m actually at it for so long I put in my earbuds and listen to Bright Eyes while I wait to finish up. When all goes well, like in the instance in the bushes, I finish the job, drink some water, and pour myself one more screwdriver to have over conversation.
While my love of reading had informed me for some time that I would most likely study English in college, I was never quite sure about my writing. At 14 I started writing bad poetry, but it wasn’t until 17 that I was writing longer pieces. Not fiction, but often letters to friends or memories. Sometimes I’d even write summaries of books I’d like. When I got to college at 19, a six or seven page written assignment was no shock to me.
Writing memories for myself meant I wrote down my emotions. At the time I was doing most of this memory/emotional writing, I was not-so coincidentally coming out of one of the most major depressive episodes of my life. My therapist encouraged me to put it down on paper as well as continue our appointments. A few months later, I stopped going entirely. This, unfortunately, is not to say I was cured of anything, I just decided to stop going. This should be viewed neither positively nor negatively, but just as something that happened.
I am 17 years old and my guts are spilling out of my mouth. Ms. Rousseau, my therapist, sits across from me. We’re in suspiciously comfortable chairs, and the room is dim such that one almost—but not quite—wishes to take a nap. Rousseau does everything she can to make the environment a calming one, from the dim lights to the Sigur Ros instrumental coming from her stereo. She’s got long silver hair and wears denim dresses to every appointment that I have with her. She’s an aging hippie, something I don’t see often these days.
Anyway, my metaphorical guts—my emotions—are spilling out everywhere. If they were any more extreme than they are in this moment, I wonder if I wouldn’t leave a physical mess in the room. When my word-purge is over, Ms. Rousseau gifts me a journal and tells me to put everything I feel in it.
When I go home that night, I pick up a pen and record the day’s events. I start to think about details to describe Rousseau, substituting “old” for “aging” in my description of her. When I write about school, which I still hate, I call it the Labyrinth as a little joke to myself. In my head, I replace the Minotaur with an equally bullshit-brained teacher who followed me through the hall, believing me to be skipping class when I went home one day. Everything is coming out, despite my hesitations to write following childhood and despite my own self-loathing. I even write down my hope for the future, that I go far away from where I am now, where I feel constricted.
As it happens, being constricted proves useful, because eventually you’ll be squeezed so hard that everything will come back up.
If it wasn’t already clear by now, this is not an essay arguing that we should all puke recreationally. Nor is it an essay advocating for heavy drinking, starting conflicts with your family, quitting your therapy, etc. It’s merely an exercise in its own subject matter: expulsion. Expulsion is a physical catharsis, just as speech and writing are emotional. I experienced this lesson in my own 20-odd year odyssey through vomit and journals, but I’m of the opinion that we all hold this or a similar conviction, whether we realize it or not. And I hold that the recognition of it is rebellion, which in any democracy should be celebrated. A disgusting rebellion maybe, but a rebellion nonetheless.
So go ahead, let it all out.
The Ripest of the Beans
Summer car rides to my Grandparents’ place last fifteen minutes but feel like a half hour in the eyes of my six year old self. That final right turn over the slim ditch and into their driveway prompts a sigh of relief from my sister and I; passing grey concrete stones stacked a tire high along the driveway's outskirts, the sight of tractor wheel markings along the front lawn, the smell of a saw's fresh cut and of chicken paprikash already on the table – the feeling of home. In perfect view is the garage, white with three windows on its car entrance and a triangular roof. In front of it sits the boat – the Dragonfly – fully displayed like a top prize, ready for a fish-n-ride on Lake Erie. To the right of the garage is the house, a rectangle with a silver shingled roof accented by cornflower-blue window panes and matching porch steps on the right.
Behind the house is a rich backyard measuring just under an acre, and beyond it, a field belonging to the city to grow crops. On the right is an immense out-of-ground pool, half encased in a hand-made deck with stairs climbing to the top. The garden takes up half of the back, its vegetables flourishing out of the ground like a city grown for worms. In the space beside the garden lies three towering, green-filled trees. Between two, an olive park bench dangles from steel chains like a swing. To the left of this is the cherry tree, its rubies blood red and ready to be plucked from their vein-like branches. In the bottom left corner is the greenhouse and shed, both of which are filled with potted plants and extra storage – extensions of my Grandpa's tool packed garage. Sitting against the house on the right is my Grandma's flower bed, festively coated with fuchsia pinks, lilac purples, and canary yellows. Beside that is a shamrock colored hammock leveled between an apple tree and the side fence. It is here where my Grandpa lies snoozing after a full day's worth of work. He vaults forward when my Grandma greets us from the back kitchen window, and he embraces us.
"Come here you mužíček!" my Grandpa says with a bear-like grumble in his voice, using the Czech term for "little man." Chasing me as I laugh, he snags me up under my arms, sits me in the toddler swing beside the shed, and carefully buckles the descending plastic safety bar between my legs. He pushes me a couple times, then is quick to hide behind the swing's tree, jeering a scary "grr!" whenever I fly past. He pushes me a couple more times and stands in front with his back turned from the swing, giving a pretend "ouch!" and a stumble forward whenever I lift a foot to his behind.
Every day at my grandparents’ is a new adventure for my older cousins, sister, and me. We spend most of our Julys splashing about in the pool, sword fighting with sponge noodles and pushing each other off the molly brown float like hungry sharks. My Grandpa, eager to join us, dives in and swims beneath the crowded float, his arms and legs in circular rhythm. His form: perfect. Like an angry Jaws, he emerges head first from under the mat to send our boat and ourselves sailing.
It is during these boiling, long summer days that my Grandma buries herself in the meat freezer and brings us fudgsicles and popsicles like a bankrupt Willy Wonka. Following the ice-cream on a stick is the jell-o, the freezies, pepperoni sticks and pretzel bits, the apple slices, the candies, the chips with dip. After this is dinner and dessert. Grandma never fails to feed us, sitting nearby with a box of Oreos ready. "Jeez, you kids eat so much!" she says.
My sister, Sam, and my cousin, Andrea, catch the neighborhood black cat, and we call him Jinx to correlate with his unlucky color and brown streaks. We keep him in the garage, close to the ventilated fireplace, and buy an electric can opener just to open his cans of tuna and salmon cat chow. When he's old enough, we let him explore the yard where he is free to roam and defend the property from night lurking rodents. My grandparents sit in the backyard on the patio set with their morning, noon, and after dinner coffees, arms resting at their sides with open palms to scratch the massage-seeking feline. It's his home too.
A sleepover is an opportunity not to be missed. The six of us oldest grandkids alternate turns in the guest bedroom; the five girls often share their nights with one another, so my turns are shared with peace and quiet. Most of these occasions include our favorite meal and a night's worth of Crazy Eights, Speed, and humorous yells of "Sorry!" when the infamous card is drawn from the deck atop the red, green, yellow, and blue game board. This game in particular is my Grandma's favorite. It is on a regular basis that the taped up box sits untidy across the kitchen table, its top uncovered to reveal a faded board, eleven pawns, and a penny. Grandma lets out a lively, cackling laugh, clapping her hands together when she wins, and maneuvers the pawns back into their "start" positions.
"Again, Hun?" she asks. Grandpa sits back in his kitchen chair and gives a tiny, amusing smirk.
"Alright Fran," he answers.
The following morning begins with a bacon, pancake, porridge, and citrus juice breakfast. Grandma slaves over the stove top and the inside of the fridge, refilling our plates and glasses.
"You eat Grandma!" I reprove.
"I've already had a piece of toast, Hun," or "I have to watch my sugars, Hun," is her response. Really she just wants to satisfy our appetites.
The afternoon is spent with Grandpa, making trips to the Home Depot where he buys french fries from the in-store Harvey's to keep me company while I'm lugged around in his lumber and screw filled cart. Next stop is my choice, where I'm spoiled rotten at such stores like the Buck-or-Two or Bulk Barn.
Before dinner, my Grandpa takes me up and down his rows of sprouted vegetables and fruits and reminds me how to select and pull the greens and yellows off their stems. The ripest of the beans are the ones that are most stubborn when detaching them from their vines, I learn. Together, we collect our helpings and place them in the many "Silverstein's Produce" baskets and rinse them with the hose attached to the house when we are finished.
On other occasions our target is strawberries. The reddest of all are the largest and juiciest; durable in palm but smooth and luscious against lusting tongues. It is rare that we find any of these, and, when we do, they are found safely nestled behind clumps of leaves.
"Those damn crows take all my good ones," Grandpa says, disregarding all the good fruit that remains.
My parents sell our house when I am eight. Without a place of our own to move to, my grandparents agree to take us in while we search. Grandpa makes it his job to drive me and my sister to school every morning, and Monday through Friday the three of us pack in his truck and listen to the radio's reruns of Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story." We use the program's progress to determine whether or not we'll be at school on time: if the show starts late during the ride, we'll be early. If the segment closes when we first crowd in the truck, we're late. When we're good for time, Grandpa sits thoughtfully, valuing the knowledge that he's had to have heard a thousand times before. Sam and I sit and listen too, knowing full well we'll be shushed if we interrupt Paul.
"And now you know, the Rest of The Story." These words mark the end of the silence, and with it comes Grandpa's gleeful chumming: his attempts to startle us, his talk of "what we'll do on the weekend,” while letting us steer his truck down empty streets.
It's an annual tradition to celebrate Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa's. The families of my Mom and her brother's crowd the infamous basement, home to the NES (Nintendo) and bar in the room's corner. Behind the counter, my cousin Amanda and I brew our shot sized drinks made with jell-o (stored at the front of the fridge, guaranteed) and Pepsi and call them Jell-o-drinks. We sell them for a penny to our high paying family members. Grandpa has hundreds of pennies.
After dinner we open presents as Grandpa and Grandma scout from the bar's stools, beaming, and every so often make their rounds to collect destroyed wrappings, asking, "What'dja get!?" When it is their turn, we scramble quick off our knees and dash to them with our offerings. Grandpa acts surprised and Grandma rolls her water filled eyes; "Hun, why'd you do this?" Just the peeling of an envelope causes her to conjure a storm, the tears sprinkling her mellow, sturdy knees.
I turn twelve the day my Grandpa is admitted to Hotel Dieu Grace Hospital for a hip replacement. With only three family members allowed to visit at one time, it is my Grandma, my Mom, and myself who occupy the space around the reclining bed the hour after cake and presents. Grandpa lays barely awake, his muscles still and his blush non existent. He asks me about my day several times, chats with his wife and daughter on the opposite side, then asks me again. Grandma stands motionless except for her sudden gasps of breath when she removes her hand from her runny nose, avoiding my glance. I'm not supposed to see him in this state.
The removal of the pool makes us all miserable. Grandma tells us it's because, "your Grandfather can't take care of it any longer. Too much work." Grandpa disagrees. He never budges. His solution is to gift me a Red Rider bebe gun one Christmas, and it isn't long till he pries open the box and loads the kitty shooter as if it belongs to the rest of his collection.
"Never step in front of it and never point it at someone, even with the safety on," he affirms for the first time with this specific gun. He demonstrates with one eye open and his cheek tilted to the side, his stance positioned and his puffy hand stiff when pulling the trigger. CLANG. We rush to the side of the Pepsi can to view the open wounded aluminum whose puncture locates dead centre.
We all take turns shooting at pop cans he has set on the far fence. When the cans are demolished, we chug dozens more and store them in the shed for later.
After twenty-two years and two girls, my uncle Louie divorces his wife and moves in with my grandparents. Here, he deposits everything but his drum set which is placed in the basement of my family’s new home. For money he lugs around his dim-gray "Lou Tuma Services" van to residences across Windsor, Essex, Leamington, and Kingsville where he fixes holes, paints bathrooms, and undertakes all the renovating a man could ask for. Back and forth he travels from his jobs to my Grandpa's garage, borrowing every tool and refilling his stomach with Grandma's lunch meat and Grandpa's beer. On longer jobs he brings with him my willing Grandpa, whose hands swell and back aches with arthritis. Endless trips and lost tools are routine, and so is the wear and tear on Grandpa's wallet.
Cousin Stephanie marries at twenty-one to David St. Pierre. It is during the reception when I notice from a distance Grandpa dancing with his first grandchild. Together their steps take them forward and back, Grandpa careful not to lose rhythm with the young bride, Steph cautiously following his sways, keeping their balance.
Christmas Eve now belongs to my Mom. She tells us, "Grandma can't handle it anymore. Too much work." Grandma disagrees. We all are present at the dining room table except for some cousins, whose lives and relatives now extend out of the Tuma family. It's silently agreed traditions won't ever be the same, but Grandma and Grandpa pretend not to notice.
I'm asked after work to stop by Grandma and Grandpa's and pick up a container of cream cheese. Shutting the driver's door, I make the familiar trip towards the white steel gate which makes its usual ringing sound when I pass through. Melting snow spreads itself across the yard like a worn blanket, making slushing sounds beneath my tracks. What I can make of the garden is bare, and beside it sits the park bench, newly coated and intact minus the hanging metal chains. No longer present are the cherry tree or apple tree – whose removal sacrificed the hammock. A charming arrangement of plants and decorative stones of pewter and ash surround an ornamental pond of stacked rocks and (in the summer time) a small stream of water where the pool once stood.
Jinx makes his way to my side and visible are his many battle scars. He rubs up against my leg and purrs softly when I hear Grandma.
"Come inside, Hun, you'll catch pneumonia out there."
I turn and jaunt through the hung open backdoor. Like always I'm offered dinner, and after that a game of Speed. When I win it's, "Whew, Hun! Again?" Grandpa lies on his adjustable couch and calls, "No Fran, his own mother probably has dinner on the table."
Before I can leave he tells me to help myself to a Pepsi from the basement bar fridge and, while I'm down there, asks me to show him again how to turn on Skype through the computer and hook up the new TV. Grandpa kneels beside me and lets out a heavy grunt between clenched teeth. I ask if he's okay, and he answers that it is just his hip. He opens the packets of cords and separates them.
"You don't want them all tangled up like the ones already plugged in. You want them easy to find, nice," he reminds me.
I instruct him on where each plug-in goes—where the red, yellow, and white inserts fit from one end to the next. I show him how to turn on and off the cable and how to switch to the DVD input, only having to tell him once. Lastly we hook up the video camera, Grandpa tentatively connecting it through the TV. For the remainder of the evening we three watch home videos in the basement, parading through old times.
"Thanks mužíček," Grandpa replies warmly from his shabby, emerald lazy chair. I lend Grandma a lift out of her seat.
"Yes, thank you very much, Hun," she agrees. I sleep over that night.
September second, 2006, marks the fiftieth anniversary for my grandparents. Around the neighborhood hides the dozens of vehicles belonging to Grandma and Grandpa's closest friends and relatives, many of whom travel long distances. Together we fill our staircase and the entire hallway entrance, silencing our excited chit-chat when familiar headlights come into view. Impatiently we listen for the footsteps approaching the front door and fix our eyes on the knob.
This memory sticks most: the opening of the door to reveal my grandparents making their way up the walkway, linked arm and arm. They step up towards the open door and Grandma starts to cry. She covers her quivering mouth and waits for Grandpa to realize what is going on. When he does, color rushes to his face and he observes the rows before them. What was planted has grown.
"Look at all they've done for us," Grandma says.
Grandpa chuckles. They stand tall and close together, looking around. They are ripe. Their hearts? Red.