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The letter, the opera singer, and the heartache I set myself up for


I love getting letters. It’s something that doesn’t happen much anymore, and I miss it. I got hooked on letter writing and the mailbox when I was in Germany now 25 years ago. Being alone in another land, I really hung on the mere possibility of getting news, a good word, or a few thoughts from someone I knew back home.

After walking home from work in the vineyard, I would stop by the doghouse at the school where I lived. It was a lovely place. I lived under the roof in a little room that had a wash basin, a bed, wardrobe, and a writing table with a chair.

The first couple of months I was there, I was pretty lonely. I spent weekends walking for hours and hours, sometimes ten or eleven hours at a time, around Trier. I cam to know its streets, shops, and people that way. I also spent a good deal of time hiking in the countryside above the city, which lay in a bottom of the Mosel River.

That time at the beginning of my stay in Germany, I sent letters so that, I hoped, someone would take the time to answer those notes. Over time, of course, I made friends and needed mail from home less and less. But I was hooked on writing letters. And like a dog who gets a bone every now and then, I stopped by the adminstrative offices of the school every day to see if I had any letters.

The most important of those bits of mail came from a woman I was hopelessly in love with. She was a Kansas Citian I met just days before I left on my trip. She had come to my garage sale, where I was selling the few things I owned so I could stick the rest of my life in a backpack.

She was an opera singer with a voice I still hear in dreams. We began a correspondence that captivated my heart. I was lonely, and her letters were expressive and, given my circumstances, able to create an infatuation that haunted my dreams. Our conversations though the mail brought her to visit Trier before she went to Darmstadt to take a class at a famous music school there.

She arrived in Trier, where she stayed with some friends of mine. She was more beautiful than I had remembered. We made love just a few days after she arrived. My infatuation turned to love.

We spent what we might call a very hot summer in Trier. She traveled from Darmstadt every weekend. For me, a kid very much still finding out about the erotic facets of human behavior, it was an incredible experience. After she left at the end of the summer, I would read and reread the letters she sent, developing in my own head a deeper and deeper love than before she went back to Kansas City.

After my internship at the vineyard ended, I came back to Kansas City. I had planned to make my life in Germany. I wanted to stay forever. I was comfortable there and saw possibilities there I never imagined in the States. But my heart and my rather naive head led me to believe that I was in a relationship that would last forever.

I was 24. That relationship foundered as soon I returned. I should have known where it was headed when she didn’t meet me at the airport, and when I spent hours into the night waiting for her on her porch. It turns out that in all those letters, she was telling me she was sleeping with my friends. I don’t need to tell you what happened to that relationship.

In many ways, I don’t blame her. I was needy, drunk, and overbearing. But that short, very erotic and sexual relationship made me look at the world differently. There is much I cannot tell here. It was very complicated, and the ways in which we interacted were complex. I was so drunk, I hardly remember a lot of it.

But the influence of that relationship on the rest of my life was immense. I began to take creative risks I would not have if not for her. I began to take writing seriously, even if I didn’t start making a living from writing until I was 32 years old.

I still have those letters in a box on my desk in the basement. I don’t read them, as I am not ready to look into that time in that way. So many good memories of that time do not include her, and it would still muddy many of those memories to bring her into them. Twenty-five years later, I still have dreams about her, her spooky draw, and the heartache that came from that relationship–the heartache and bad choices I made to set myself up. That’s enough.

But I still look into my mailboxes, real and binary, and feel my heart leap, although I hardly ever get any mail at all. Believe it or not, I still send a letter-in-the-envelope every now and then.

Through my entire history with letters—and now with E-mail—I have had to accept that what goes out hardly ever comes back. That’s why a lengthy letter with some really substantial stuff is a real pleasure. Thanks for taking the time. I love it.


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