I burned every letter except for one, the one not written to me. That one I rescued from the trash in sixty-four separate pieces that took me an entire afternoon to reassemble. Each was unique, written precisely with a chiseled nib that produced variations in the weights of the strokes, and each was decorated with drawings drawn with a fine tipped pen, a Hunts 104, the same nib Edward Gorey used to draw his cartoons. I began by burning them one by one. There were twenty-three in all. But after the first few I thought I was perhaps bestowing too much importance on each, so I threw the rest into the fire all at once. The fire flared, and a few minutes later, they were ash.
They started when we were in college. We graduated in the spring of 1998, the year of Google and 150 million people wired together for the first time. But Greg still reveled in the material qualities of letters. He paid close attention to the weight and construction of the paper he bought as well as to his nibs and holders. His favorite holder had a collar of cork around the nib end, which not only was pleasant to touch but also absorbed errant drops of ink. We began dating the year before, in the spring of 1997. The letters started that summer when we went to our separate homes for the break, he to Chicago, and me to La Crosse, Wisconsin. He sent me one each week during the fifteen weeks that we were apart. Most were filled with descriptions of the books he’d been reading and the movies he’d seen, accompanied with the usual romantic blather that young people spew when they believe they’ve discovered feelings that no one else has ever felt. And though the letters also contained elaborate metaphorical descriptions of my body, they were strangely free of anything explicit. No dirty talk at all. That should have been a clue, but I was oblivious at the time, free from any cynicism at all, at least about Greg, and my relationship with him.
The letter I burned first was my favorite. I burned it first to sever all sentimental attachments I might still have had to them. The words were not remarkable, a discussion of his reactions to The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie, though he did also call me his bodhisattva of eros. My real attachment was to the drawing. It was of me, standing on the margin of the letter in a short, striped summer dress, while behind me stood a tree, its branches curling around the letter’s words, sometimes even covering them partially. Behind the tree was a tall, narrow house, and a field of delicately rendered grass ran across the bottom of the letter, trailing from my feet into the background. The drawing was filled with hatching and cross hatching, an elaborate chiaroscuro that made the page look physically heavy.
The second to burn was sent to me about halfway through the summer, and in the letter he wrote that he missed me so much, he couldn’t get to sleep without smoking a joint. In college, we weren’t thinking about building a life together, we only knew we wanted to be together, and to go on adventures. He had been reading about Morocco, and at the bottom of the letter was a little drawing of the square outside the Suq in Marrakesh. The main drawing, though, was a map of our college campus with overhead views of the buildings drawn in, and the trees and lawns as well. A long thin arrow pointed to the classroom that hosted the intro to art history class where we first met. Above the arrow he wrote, “My life started here.”
The third to burn was a letter he wrote while he went back to the college for a visit a couple of years after we graduated. There was no reason for him to write me a letter then, he was only gone for a few days, but he did. It was illustrated with a drawing of our college town’s high street, one of those picturesque small town centers with storefronts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two story buildings with decorative brickwork, bay windows, and wide limestone lintels. Prominent in the drawing was the diner, a refurbished train car, where we used to spend time with some of the other art students. He’d colored the drawing with watercolors, an understated sky blue, deep red bricks, crisp gray limestone. I thought the pigment from the watercolors might burn different colors, but no, that letter burned the same orange turning to black, then to gray ash as all the others.
After college, Greg landed a job at a graphic design firm in Rockford, Illinois, and we rented an apartment together. After a year of working for a mortgage company, I commuted to Madison and got an MLS. During that time, we were mostly happy, had a group of friends we spent our free time with, and traveled a little, and even though we were living together, Greg still surprised me with an occasional letter, the drawings no less intricate, the calligraphy no less precise, than in the ones he had sent me when we were apart.
In 2008, we joined Facebook and began to reconnect with old high school and college friends. Shortly after, we scanned my favorite letter and put it up. I honestly don’t remember which one of us first suggested it, but I’m almost certain it was Greg. A month later, Greg posted a second letter, the second I burned, without asking me first. That should have been my second clue, but at the time, his actions set off no alarms. We were both completely open. We shared our passwords, our bank accounts, and our credit cards; we had one email account and one Facebook account. It felt like freedom, a life completely absent suspicion, paranoia, and jealousy.
Also, I must admit, the accolades from my friends, the cooing and emoticonning over the letters prevented me from seeing that they weren’t for me, that they never had been. Though I don’t think he planned to make them public when he wrote them, the temptation to show them off, provided so suddenly by the internet, was impossible to resist. And at the time, I was only too happy to be the public recipient of these missives of devotion. That first letter got more likes and comments from my friends and family than anything we had ever posted before. The second letter, the one he posted himself, got nearly as many. After that, predictably, each subsequent letter was awarded less praise, and the exercise came to an end. We did not post them all, of course; we aren’t narcissists.
Blithely, we drifted through our thirties. We bought a house, spent time with our friends, discussed the possibility of children without taking it too seriously, and worked. I landed a job as an instructional librarian at the Colman Library of Rockford University and started earning a fairly good salary. Greg built up a client list large enough to allow him to go freelance, even pulling in work from Janesville, Beloit, and DeKalb. But shortly after we both turned forty, Greg announced that he’d had enough of small town life and had decided he wanted to move back to Chicago. In order to avoid upending our lives completely, we made a plan: Greg would find a job and move into a cheap apartment, while I would stay behind with my steady income and home equity until his situation became stable.
Unfortunately, Greg’s Chicago adventure was a complete disaster. He did get a job, but six months after moving into his apartment, he was laid off. He landed a few freelance gigs, but they weren’t enough to pay the rent, and he ended up living with his mother. After a year, he cut his losses, exiled his frustrations, and came back to Rockford.
At first I was relieved. Living in Chicago was not an exciting prospect for me, I’m sorry to say. I didn’t even mind that Greg’s year there had cost him a number of clients, and as a result I was basically supporting us. We continued to share everything, our bank accounts, emails, credit cards, and Facebook account. I saw no clue that anything had changed. He never closed a window on the computer when I walked into the room, never left the room to take or make a phone call, never came home late, never told me he’d be somewhere without actually showing up.
He was gone for a week before I found the letter, a week of foggy, sometimes drunken confusion. Luckily the trash had not yet been collected. I sat at the kitchen table, fishing pieces of paper out of the recycling container and taping them together (on the reverse side). Don’t believe the letter wasn’t sent just because it was in the trash. By that time, Greg’s disdain for technology had faded completely. Though he still often wrote notes by hand and decorated them with little cartoons, he always scanned them and sent them out through the wires and ethers to the network. If he had mailed the letter, I probably never would have known.
Her name is Theresa. She was in an outer orbit of college friends, someone I never knew very well, and someone I didn’t think Greg knew well either. She’d moved to Chicago immediately after graduation, and she works for the symphony, but on a computer, not a violin. She occasionally breezes through Facebook with selfies of her and her dog at Montrose Beach, but other than that we have no contact. I don’t know if the affair started while he was trying to establish himself in Chicago or after, or even before. I don’t remember if she was one of the people who fawned over Greg’s letters on Facebook, but somewhere in the folds of my brain is a little bilious think bubble saying those letters had caught her attention.
I don’t mind admitting that being left was a shock. That he did it without a word to me, from his mouth or his apparently still prolific pen is maddening. After piecing it together, I sat at the table for at least an hour, staring at the page, reading the letter, reading individual words, fragments of sentences, and looking at the drawing, unable to focus my thoughts on anything. It was only the next day that I could think clearly enough to take action. I got a thick, black magic marker and wrote across the letter, HE DIDN’T SAY A WORD TO ME, HE JUST SNEAKED OFF. Paula. Then I scanned the letter and sent it to all of his clients, posted it to every social media site we frequented, and emailed it to friends and family, including Greg’s mother. I don’t know how much damage this did to his reputation, to his employment prospects, or to his situation with Theresa, but my actions at least have given me the opportunity to ignore a dozen or so phone calls from him.
So, the letter. The drawing is of the Chicago skyline at the lakeshore, from Lake Point Tower to Two Prudential Plaza, drawn in pen and ink. Above the skyline, clouds are rendered with hatching and pointillistic shading that forms a dark gray background behind the words, which are white. I wanted his words to be legible, so I scrawled my note across the skyline. They read:
I’ll be on the airport bus tonight. You’ve saved my life by getting me out of here. I can’t believe I ever let Paula talk me into leaving Chicago. And it’s taken me twenty years to get back. Do you have any idea what it’s like to waste TWO DECADES? Paula has been more erratic than usual, so it’s best if I just leave without saying anything. My life here is so small. The work I do is so dull. The people are dull, everyone here thinks they’re special but they all have the same three dull ideas. How many fucking times can you put the Jefferson Street Bridge in an ad? This town is where potential goes to die. But I won’t die here.
Brad Gottschalk is a writer and cartoonist who has lived most of his life in Wisconsin. His comics, stories, and drawings have appeared in a number of journals including Raven Chronicles, Eclectica, and Berkeley Fiction Review. You can read more of his work at www.silenttheatercomics.com.