October 23-25, 1996. A pen pal on another continent.

The way people communicate has changed radically over the course of my life.  When I was young, telephone calls outside of one’s own city cost a lot of money, so when friends moved away, I often never heard from them again.  Writing letters in the mail was an option as well, for people committed enough to do so.  In high school, my friend Catherine went to Austria for a year to be an exchange student, and we wrote letters the whole time she was gone.  When the young people of today have friends who move away, they stay in touch through texting and social media.  Some of them have thousands of followers on social media all over the world, some of whom they have never met before.  Many of them do not want to be bothered with traditional voice-based telephone calls, and many of them do not know how to address an envelope or use a stamp.

I attended the University of Jeromeville during an awkward transition period when both of these worlds existed simultaneously.  Some of my friends used email, some of them communicated by writing letters, and some I never heard from again once I moved.  I spent a lot of time on text-based Internet Relay Chat, usually looking for girls to talk to, because I was not good at meeting girls in real life.  I stayed in touch with some of them by email, but I also sometimes got handwritten letters from them.  Sometimes we wanted to exchange photos, and in an era when flatbed scanners were relatively uncommon and digital cameras were not yet mainstream, it was easier to send a photo in the mail.  Other times, someone I know would lose access to email temporarily, and stay in touch by writing letters.  That was the case for many of my university friends when they went for the summer.  That was also the case with Laura Little, although her story was a bit more interesting.

I met Laura on IRC in the spring of my sophomore year at UJ.  She was seventeen years old, and she lived in upstate New York, on the other side of the United States from me.  In one of our first conversations, she told me that she was going to be leaving in July for a year, to be an exchange student in Switzerland, where she would not have Internet access.  I had been getting letters from Laura regularly since she left; she had a difficult transition to life in Switzerland, and her German was not good, so she wanted to get letters to read in English.

Laura and I had never met, obviously.  I did not know what she looked or sounded like.  Right before she left for Switzerland, a romantic interest named Adam whom she also met on the Internet had come to visit her for a few days.  Whenever she mentioned Adam, her answers were a bit inconsistent and evasive; first she said they had a good time but decided to just be friends, but then in the next letter she said something about having to get her mind off of what happened with Adam, and then she said something about regretting what she did with him, that she felt stupid and that she should have known better.  Clearly I had not gotten the entire story, so the last time I wrote to her, I asked exactly what happened.

I got home in the late afternoon after a long Wednesday of classes to find a letter from Laura on the kitchen counter next to the phone; one of the other roommates had apparently gotten the mail earlier.  Shawn was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher.  When he saw me pick up Laura’s letter, he asked, “Hey, who are all these girls who write letters to you?  You’re getting letters from all over the world!  You’re a ladies’ man!”

“Not exactly,” I said.  “Laura is someone I met on the Internet; she’s from New York but studying in Switzerland this year.”  I conveniently left out the part where she was only seventeen. Even though that was only a three-year age difference between Laura and me, Shawn was turning twenty-three next month, so to him, she would seem significantly younger.

“And you got a letter from Hungary last week.”

That’s Kelly Graham.  You know Kelly.  She was roommates with Haley Channing and Kristina Kasparian last year, on Baron Court.  She’s studying abroad in Hungary this year.”

Shawn thought for a minute.  “Kelly!  Oh yeah.  And don’t you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah.  That girl from Gabilan who has written to you like four times already.  That’s where you’re from, right?  Plumdale is right near Gabilan?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Cecilia, or something like that.”

Cecilia?  From Gabilan?  I laughed loudly as I figured out who Shawn was talking about.  “That’s my grandma!” I said.

“Your grandma!” Shawn laughed.  “This whole time, I thought you had a girlfriend back home.”

“I wish I had a girlfriend back home who wrote me as often as Grandma did.”

“She sure likes to write.”

“She does.  And my cousin Rick, the second-oldest grandchild, went away to North Coast State this year, so he’s gonna get just as many letters from Grandma now too.”

“That’s nice of her, though.”

“Yeah, it is.”  I walked upstairs to read Laura’s letter.  Laura had very small handwriting; she sometimes wrote in cursive and sometimes printed, sometimes both in the same letter, and she often did not bother to separate her letters into paragraphs.  This letter was handwritten on tan stationery, with a typed paper inside the envelope as well.  The typed paper appeared to be a math assignment of some sort.


Greg,

Guten tag!  Meine Deutsch ist besser.  (My German is better.)  I understand more than I did before at least. I’m doing well.  The weather here is getting colder.  I just spent 200 francs on sweaters and a long sleeve shirt.  My mom would kill me if she found out how much money I spent.  I’m supposed to be taking this test, but it’s a take home test so I’ll make a copy and send it to you.  I’m so lost and I have told the teacher that I don’t understand any of this.  He just told me to do my best but I just sat for half an hour debating if I did the problems correct but I left half of them blank because I don’t know what to do.  Maybe you can help me.  I’ll write what it means in English if I know it.  I would really appreciate it if you could help explain these.  I know it is really sad how lost I am.  I told my mom about you and said that I was going to ask you for help with math, and she says thank you.  I do too.  So anyway, last weekend I went away on a trip with the other exchange students in my program and I got to talk in English all weekend.  It was so good.  We went to the mountains and in the morning we took a cable car to the top of a mountain and it snowed.  I love it.  And we had a big party that night.  It was cold, but we had a snowball fight and took a lot of pictures.  We have Herbstferien here, it’s a fall school holiday, I CAN’T WAIT!  I’m going to go skiing, I’ve never been before.  I hope you don’t think different of me after I tell you what happened with Adam because I know it was a mistake and I should have just been friends with him but I’m so stupid.  Sometimes when I’m put in a pressure situation I don’t think straight.  Only you and one of my friends back home know about this because I don’t want anyone to know.  I was so stupid to let it happen but it’s too late to fix it now and I just want to forget about that.


I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.  It was pretty obvious where she was going with this.  I continued reading.


Well I kinda slept with him.  Only once though but we also did some other stuff.  I don’t want to say anything more, I’m so stupid to let it happen.  But on a lighter note I got my ear pierced at the top.  It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would but I couldn’t sleep on that side for a few days.  One of my friends from school here and I got it done together.  I like it.  I’m not feeling homesick as often.  I know how to prevent it now and I don’t think it will happen again.  I know my writing is messy but I haven’t slept much.  I hope you don’t think of me different because of all that.  Oh yeah, you’ll be happy to know my butt doesn’t hurt as much when I ride my bike to school.  I’m happy now but I can’t ride long distances like you do sometimes.  How are you?  Have you met anyone yet?  It made me sad when you said you felt like giving up on girls.  Just talk to someone.  Ask her to coffee or ice cream or lunch or something.  And tell me all about her.  Any girl would be lucky to spend time with you.  I hope to hear from you soon.

❤ Laura


I was not entirely sure how to react to what she said about Adam, although I had a feeling that was what she was going to say from the moment she told me in her last letter that she regretted what she did.  Part of me was disappointed that this happened; Laura was not the kind of nice Christian girl I was hoping to meet.  She had never claimed to be Christian, though, so that was just wishful thinking on my part.

But I also did not blame her or Adam one bit.  If I had been Adam, I probably would have been having fantasies about going to bed with Laura the whole time I was visiting her, even though I knew it was wrong.  I must admit, I had had those fantasies about her before, although I could not bring myself to tell her that, of course.  This sounds paradoxical, but such are the trials of a lonely, girl-crazy Christian young adult like me.

I only had one class the next day, and one of my students for my tutoring job did not show up, so I had plenty of time to get homework done during the day.  After dinner that night, I went upstairs to my room and began writing my next letter to Laura.  


October 24, 1996

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your honesty.  Don’t worry about me thinking differently of you.  Everyone does things they wish they hadn’t afterward.  And please don’t call yourself stupid.  You aren’t.  You said you regret what you did, so learn from this.  You told me that you know you don’t think straight in pressure situations, so when you know you’re going to be in a pressure situation, set boundaries in advance.  If there’s a guy who likes you, for example, don’t be alone with him if you don’t want to feel pressured.

I wish I got a fall break.  That sounds like it’ll be fun.  I’ve never been skiing either.  I don’t know if I want to try it.  I’m not usually good at things like that where I have to keep my balance by going fast, and I would probably just get frustrated.  But tell me how it goes.  Your ear piercing sounds cute.

I started going to a new church a couple weeks ago.  I really like it.  A lot of my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship go to that church.  But I don’t want to start going there just because I have friends there.  That shouldn’t be what church is about.  So I decided for the rest of October to go to both churches every Sunday and pray about it.  So far I like the new church.  People there seem more serious about following God and reading the Bible.

Things are going well at the apartment.  I’m adjusting well to having roommates.  Four of us share a three bedroom apartment; Shawn and I share the big bedroom.  It hasn’t been a problem so far.  We both get up early for class, so I don’t have to worry about waking him up or him waking me up.  Brian is really nice too.  The fourth guy, Josh, he works weird hours, and I don’t see him very often.

I don’t have a girlfriend.  I’m not good at meeting girls.  I feel like I have a lot of acquaintances these days, but I’m kind of on the outside of a lot of my friends’ social groups.  There’s this one girl I know from JCF who I would love to get to know better and spend more time with.  She’s really sweet and she has beautiful blue eyes.  I just don’t know what to do, though.  I don’t get to talk to her very often, and lately she’s been acting a little different.  I’m not sure why.  Last week at JCF she was talking a lot with this other guy, but I couldn’t tell if they were together or anything.  I met her in January when I was having a really hard day, and this guy invited me to hang out with some of his friends, and we hung out at her house.  A couple months ago, around the time all the year leases run out, I rode my bike past their house and everything was dark, and that inspired me to write a poem.  I’ll send it to you. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet; I’ve always liked that format for poems.


I continued writing, telling her all about trigonometric ratios on the next page, which apparently her mom wanted to thank me for.  I wondered exactly how much Laura’s mom knew about me.  I told my mom very little about all the girls I had met on the Internet, although she knew about one, Molly from Pennsylvania, because Molly wrote me letters the summer after freshman year when I went home for the summer.

Next I opened a file on my computer called “2234.”  This was the title of the poem I had mentioned in my letter to Laura, about a time when I rode my bike past the house where Haley and her roommates lived, but Haley was home for the summer and everyone else had moved out by then.  I titled the poem 2234 after the address of the house, 2234 Baron Court.  I printed the poem and put it on my desk with the rest of Laura’s letter, which I would mail in the morning.


“2234”
by Gregory J. Dennison, 1996

Inside your walls, that January night,
My life began again, in joy and love;
My brand new friends had shown to me the light;
Set free from gloom, I praise my Lord above!
Today your door is locked, your curtains drawn,
Along your quiet street you make no sound,
Your residents, and all their friends, are gone,
No sign left of the friendship I once found.
But though the cast has left, the show is done,
The drama rests forever in my heart;
This friendship still is shining like the sun,
We’re miles away, but not so far apart;
   Though now, O house, you’re empty, cold, and dark,
   My night in you forever left its mark.


I took a long time to fall asleep Thursday night.  I kept thinking about Laura, having sex with Adam and partying with all of the other exchange students, probably getting drunk in the process.  I wondered if she made any other decisions she regretted on her weekend with the other exchange students.  I knew consciously that that line of thinking was horribly judgmental, and that I was being a bad friend by entertaining those thoughts, but I could not help it.  I woke up tired Friday morning, still dwelling on these dark thoughts.

I was not feeling angry with Laura, though.  My brooding was directed more toward myself, at my failures with girls, and at a society where fake people with loose morals always got the girl or guy they were after, and guys like me were ridiculed and made outcasts.  I did not know how meeting girls and dating worked.  Laura tried to encourage me, but her suggestions just were not easy for me.  I did not know how to talk about things that girls would be interested in, and sometimes I felt like I was on the outside, or at best on the outer fringes, of cliques that seemed to spend a lot of time together.

During a break between classes, I went to the Post Office to mail Laura’s letter.  There was a small Post Office in the Memorial Union building, around the corner from the campus store.  Four people were in front of me in line, and with two friends in Europe that I was writing to that year, I had spent enough time in this line to know that I would be here for at least fifteen minutes.  Usually only one employee worked at the desk, and whenever he had to get something behind the desk, or place a package where the outgoing packages went, he seemed to move so slowly that I wondered if he was exaggerating his slow movements on purpose.  Did he have special training to learn how to work so slowly and inefficiently?  If I had been working behind that desk, I would be moving a lot faster, just because it was in my nature to get things done.  It probably would have saved time to buy stamps in the denomination of what it cost to send a letter to Europe, but sometimes I wrote long enough letters that it cost more, and I would have had to stand in line anyway to get the right postage.

I finally mailed my letter and walked toward the other end of the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I was thinking about Laura’s encouragement to talk to girls and not be afraid, and as if on cue, I saw Haley walking toward me.  Before I could overthink myself out of it, I said, “Hey, Haley.”

Haley stopped and looked up at me with her bright blue eyes, smiling.  “Hi,” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I said.  “Glad it’s Friday.”

“I know!  I had a big midterm yesterday.  It was a long week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?”  The words just came out; I was not sure where I was going with this line of conversation, but it felt right to ask.

“Not much.  But I’m going to play games at the Albert Street house tonight.  Did you hear about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“After JCF tonight. Just hanging out and play games.  I’m sure you’re invited.”

“Eddie and Raphael’s house?  That Albert Street house?”

“Yeah.  I have to get going, but will you be at JCF tonight?”

“I will.  I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah!  See you there!”

I did go to the game night after JCF that night, and it was a lot of fun.  About ten of us were there, and we played Uno and Taboo until well after midnight.  Nothing special happened between me and Haley, although we did get to talk a bit more.  That felt like progress.  Maybe next time I would ask her to do something specific, just me and her.

After the game night ended, I headed home on the nearly empty streets of Jeromeville under the dark night sky, driving over the overpass with trees on it and flipping around the stations on the car radio.  As I heard Alanis Morissette singing about how “you live, you learn, you love, you learn” in her pain-inducing voice that sounded like the sound some sort of bird would make as it was being stabbed, I instinctively reached over to change the station.  But just before I pressed the button, I stopped.  Maybe Alanis was right.  I was living my life and learning from my missteps and mistakes.  And so was Laura, on another continent.  I was not doing myself any favors when I got down on myself because of my social and romantic failures, and neither was Laura when she called herself stupid because of what happened with Adam.  Laura was my long-distance friend, and friends were there to encourage each other, and help each other learn and grow.


Dear readers: What are some experiences you’ve had with learning not to be so judgmental? Or learning from your mistakes?

Also, I know this is a day late. I might be taking an unplanned week off from writing here and there, because I’m behind on real life right now. Next time I skip a week, you can always read an episode from the archives.

3 thoughts on “October 23-25, 1996. A pen pal on another continent.

  1. I find that the more time I spend learning about God and reading the Bible, I am compelled to look within at my own shortcomings. Judgement is a hard habit to break, especially when it is connected to trauma or pain. I thank God for my experiences, good and bad, because that is how I have learned to love better, whether it be myself or others. I can judge the creators of my pain harshly, but I also know that that person is human and God loves him/her, too. I am human, too. How much pain have I knowingly/unknowingly caused?

    One significant change I have made is having a positive mindset while driving. Many people cut me off or almost run into my tiny car. Instead of being harsh in my head, I try to say, “Jesus loves you. I hope you keep safe on the road.” It has helped me be in a better mindset when I get to work. We have no idea why they do what they do, we guess and evalute, but we are creating stories in our minds about them. We have to be careful with the stories we create. I am learning to change the narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

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