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A letter to a past lover, or The long and short of 21 years

Dear Monika,
I’m so glad you found me—the Internet can be such a dream sometimes. Thanks for asking about me and telling me a little of yourself. I appreciate most the handwritten letter. I miss letter writing and love the increasingly rare occasions when I get one.
We haven’t seen each other for 21 years. I remember well that day we met in Trier in the summer of 1993. I was so glad to see you. I was stunned. I knew you were lovely but had forgotten somehow just beautiful you were. The day felt magical. Our time had passed and there was no getting it back. But I’ll never forget your green eyes and bright smile. They have haunted me all these years. No matter what age does to us, you are that woman in the white dress eating Italian ice cream with me on the market in our town.

I don’t know where to begin with telling you how life has treated me in the last two decades. I am a much different and much the same person as I was when I saw you last. I’m struck with the contradiction of memory. I know how much has happened. Those years and all those experiences, however, passed like water in a creek for me, and the distance from today to then might as well be the time from yesterday to today.
I want to tell you something. I go back a few years from the time we sat in the plaza. I never told you that for months while we were running around with Wolfgang, Carmel, and Stephan, I was falling in love with you. I didn’t know how to ask you out, believe it or not, even if we were together almost every week. I felt such a longing, which, I’m sure, is not foreign to men who have left their homelands and settled in others. I just remember watching you, being close to you, and not knowing how to communicate my feelings for so many months.

The nights we wandered through Trier, up by the brewery, through the old town, and down to the river. They are luminous in my memory. As we walked those streets I was always taken with the atmosphere. The streets of the town were dim, quiet, filled with the smells of bread and baking. House windows along those narrow lanes and alleyways glowed and made me wonder what went on behind them, who the people were, what they did. Every now and then, we’d pass a house that burned coal or wood for heat. I cannot smell those aromas without thinking of you to this day. When I travel, I walk the streets of the small towns and cities I visit, looking for those same feelings I once had when we went among the houses through the dark.

I told you already I’m sorry the way things turned out between us. The American opera singer came to visit. I’d only met her once before she came to Trier. I was so taken with her and her ways. I was torn and just didn’t know how to settle the contradictions between being with someone I was falling in love with and someone who I thought I was in love with. I still regret the way I treated you and I hope that, over time, you have forgiven me. I’m sorry for the heartache I caused you and I wish I could take that back.
As you might remember, I quit drinking a couple of years before I saw you last. I haven’t had a drink since. Sobriety has really been the foundation and cornerstone of my life as it stands today. Without sobriety, I would have none of the good things I have today. I can’t imagine that we could even start this correspondence without my having been sober.
After several good relationships, I married Virginia in 1998. Like you said about your husband, she is a good person. I have more than I deserve. We have built a good life. Both of us worked full time when we met and still didn’t have much prosperity, in material terms. Over the years we have improved our lot. I am now middle class, if you can believe that! It’s astounding really, considering where we both came from.
In 1993, my daughter was just two, going on three. She is now 24 and is holding her own. When she was growing up, she split her time between my house and her mom’s, so things were tough for her. It was hard being a single parent. I was always frightened and frequently didn’t know what to do. But as Syd says when we talk about that time, she didn’t know how to be a kid either.

At first, she and Virginia didn’t get along well, and I was tortured with the idea that somehow I had to choose between one or the other. I’ve found though that these things work themselves out and they did. We lived quite well together. When Syd finished high school and moved out of the house, she dealt with her share of difficulties, most of which had to do with learning what it meant to make her own way. She seems to be doing quite well on that front. She has a healthy social life, I think. She works two jobs and keeps her own apartment.
Most importantly, she isn’t mad at me the way some kids are at their parents. She calls me once or twice a week, which is all a dad can ask for.
We adopted mysister’s son almost eight years ago and have considered him (and called him) our son from the beginning. He was four when he came to us and is now 12. He came out of rough circumstances not of his own making. He is doing well. He’s good in school and we spend a great deal of time together. He has taught me a good deal of patience with myself.
We have a little house in the Kansas City innenstadt, very close to the city center. Our neighborhood is like a small town where people know each other or, at least, know of each other. I keep the yard full of art and other landscaping stuff, mostly random and built from stone that I get a kick out of rearranging from time to time.
In 1996, I achieved my dream of writing for a living. I wrote for a newspaper for four years, a job I still miss. But I went on from there through another job, and then finally out on my own. I have not kept a regular job since 2003 and am never going back. I published two books about a trip I took in 1995, when I walked1,450 miles to Helena in the state of Montana and the canoed home on theMissouri River. I am working on a third, which comes from the dissertation I wrote to get a doctorate in history last year! I start my fourth book after the first of the year.
While I’m waiting to hit the lottery as a writer—oh, the best seller that sells a million book—I teach college (Hochschule) during the school year and build bridges with the ironworkers union (Gewerkschaft) in the summer.
That’s the short of it. I will go into greater detail in future letters but the whole of my message is this: I stayed sober, became a husband, raised one kid and am raising another, and am living out my dreams. From the sound of it, you’re in much the same situation. I could not be happier about it.
Please let me hear of you soon. I look forward to reading more about your life in Köln. I would love to hear about your neighborhood, how you came to have your job as physical therapist, and more about your family, husband, and kids.
Always yours,

Published in Uncategorized


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