Thursday, August 28, 2014
The Letter to Claudia
In Rome, Italy, 1976, American citizens -- even those with meager means, no prospects, and sharp, critical tongues -- were invited to the American Emabassy for a bicentennial, July 4th party.
After presenting my passport and walking through the gates (guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons) I joined my fellow revelers.
Most of them were insiders, decidedly East Coast Ivy League types, but a few were like me and there for the food.
It has never ceased to amaze me that so many Americans have so much money. In gatherings like this, everyone seems to be floating on fortunes, fortunes that open doors and make dreaming about what you want to be and where you want to go as natural as breathing.
Now, there is a myth that all Americans get to do that because dreams don't cost anything.
Well, they don't cost anything until you try to realize them. Then they tend to cost plenty.
So, as I talked with my fellow misfits, those of us tolerated for a day before being locked out, it occurred to me that I had not written my girlfriend of the time, Claudia, a letter for a long time.
I had been traveling around Europe for two months at that point and thought about her often, but had not actually sat down and sent her a letter.
I felt bad.
It may have been the guilt of not writing and the need to make it right, the opulent surroundings, the good wine, the clever talk, or something else, but I wrote a great letter.
It was funny, romantic, informative, intellectually engaging, emotionally gratifying, with only mildly annoying penmanship.
I sent it that night, an Aerogram, and dreamed of Claudia reading it back in Wisconsin, picturing me vagabonding in Europe, her picture next to my heart, and seeing a version of me that I could never really attain.
Then, in my visions of return home, I saw her running toward me, tears in her eyes, letter in her hand, certain beyond any doubt that I taken hold of life in its least compromised form, had captured a moment on the page, had lain the first brick of a long and rewarding career in letters.
Well, it didn't turn out that way.
When I got back to Wisconsin, Claudia was gone to Sri Lanka doing a semester abroad. Her trip may have been more interesting and exotic than mine.
I got a job harvesting tobacco and waited for her to return.
When she did, she looked different, more stunning even than before, with eyes that saw something far beyond me when she looked at me.
After hearing about trip and watching her dance Sri Lancan dance, and giving re-entry enough time to settle, I asked her about the letter.
"What letter?" she said.
"The one I mailed you from Italy, the one that was the best writing I would ever do, the one that his all the right notes," I answered, puzzled.
"Oh, it must have gone down with the mail boat that was torpedoed by the Tamil Tigers while I was there," She mused.
It took a while for that to sink in.
My letter was at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
"But you can tell me what was in it," she offered. "Yes, now I want to know. If it was so good, surely you can recreate it."
Well, I did my best. It went pretty well, judging from her response.
I don't remember what I was able to compose from those fragments of memory, but the revision may have been better than the original.
I have heard that some writers write a draft and then lock it up or shred it so that only the strong parts make it the next draft.
That may be true, but it is scary. I want that letter at the bottom of an ocean to be what I thought it was, that it might stand as a testimony to a magic moment, that it might survive the gauntlet of time, might never be tarnished or misplaced.