Forget the short-shrift gestures, the achy-breaky looks, the profound silences. Forget ever, ever leaving anything unsaid.
But, ah! The hand-penned poem, the stumblingly sincere email missive, the drunken, napkin-back confessional. These are the mightily longed-for asseverations of a writer’s native tongue. They are ardently imperfect. And they are beautiful.
We writers use words to quantify (and qualify) our love of things and people, and I suppose we expect the same in return from our romantic prospects. Life may appear messy, disjointed, but we know better. There is, indeed, a hidden order to things, and words tease it out, inch by lurid inch.
The “words-as-love” metaphor comes to life nowhere more vividly than on the orderly red and blue grid of a Scrabble board. What better stand-in for that elusive quest than dipping your hand into a little baggie of wooden letters and grabbing at them just by feel?
Now, work the letters into a line across your opened palm. Is it a bunch of sharp-edged consonants, rigid and querulous, dancing bad flamenco across the backside of your hand? Or is it a snotty string of high-minded vowels, soft and squishy around the edges and prone to collapse into themselves at a moment’s notice? Is it that rare perfect creation, full-formed and ripe? Or does it require a bit of reworking?
Play a word, or shake the bag and reselect. Do this enough times and you are bound to stumble into something intelligible, maybe even beautiful. At least I used to think so.
Right around the time I turned 30, I became a full-time freelance writer. And not long after I became a full-time freelance writer, I quietly and permanently abandoned my belief in the all-conquering power of words.
It was a man and a heady season of online Scrabble playing that finally compelled me to renounce my citizenship to that strange, parallel place.
My gaming partner: V, a guy I’d known since high school. He had a rakish charm, bad teeth and a European accent. And, like me, he was possessed of a seemingly unshakable faith in the remunerative power of language. We were full-fledged adults busy with different lives in different cities when it all happened, but our shared love of language bonded us.
V had popped in and out of my life at interval over the course of a few years as I changed coordinates and chased writing jobs. He sent me oddly assembled gift packages in the mail, full of stickers and toys and childish sketches. He also penned me long, rambling letters raving over the essays I posted to my blog.
He claimed he’d read my entire blog – 10 years old and a few-hundred-thousand words long by that point – in a single sitting. Even my own family didn’t read my blog on a regular basis. I was deeply, fatally flattered.
V said to me the kind of stuff people only said to each other in books or movies. The kind of stuff precision-engineered to quicken the heart of any writer, but especially one dragging a comet’s tail of failed love affairs and a low-grade inferiority complex around behind her.
Stuff like: “I think you are so cool and disgustingly bright so I just hope you know cause I seriously spend most of my time thinking people don’t make sense to me, but not you.”
Or: “You are so very cool- I really want to say out loud how lucky I feel to be able to email back and forth and pick your tiny mind on anything/everything.”
Or, simply: “I think so much more highly of you than you know.”
Finally, we reunited in person, for what I guess was technically a date, and the chemistry of our correspondence seemed quadrupled. He drove me to a waterfall, where he kissed me beneath a spraying cascade of rainbow and light while Japanese tourists stood around taking photos. We spent a dozen hours tangled up in each other’s arms, not eating, not sleeping, just talking.
The next day, I drove back to my apartment with my heart thundering in my chest. We weren’t dating. We weren’t really anything yet, but that didn’t stop him from driving to my apartment a few weeks later and dumping me while I cried pitifully and took swigs off a bottle of Cuban rum.
“I just think of you as a friend,” he said, and thus began our ugly pattern.V preferred, it seemed, to encounter me only through notes and letters. His real-time rejection hurt, and I vowed to cut him out of my life. I ignored his pleading emails and threatened to delete him from my Facebook. I moved to another city. He kept writing me, kept sending me weird mix CDs full of sad songs that may or may not have been his low-context way of confessing that he, too, had unresolved feelings.
If nothing else, V seemed determined to position himself as my Personal Cheerleader. To be honest, I needed the esteem boost. I’d struggled for close to a decade to build a name for myself as a writer, and after all those years and two expensive writing degrees, I was still struggling. V was convinced that all this was about to change.
He’d say: “You and I never went out really, but you are someone I believe(d) in a ton and my world will make more and more sense the better you do in life. I know I was retarded with you, but I still hold you in the highest regard and expect continued greatness both big and small from you. How you are not famous yet is beyond me”.
Still sore from what happened after the day at the waterfall, I kept V at bay, refused his invitations to climb mountains and watch movies and meet up for lunch. A few years passed. I thought of him often, and with a conflicted heart.
Then I turned 30. My live-in relationship was starting to sour and I hated my writing job, so I retreated further into fantasies of V. I’d mull endlessly over the contents of our earnest letters, our precious few real-time conversations. I’d committed most of them to memory. Sometimes, when I was drunk and the wrong song came on the radio, I’d even cry. I still didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. And I still missed him.
So I started writing to him again. And again and again. Our correspondence picked up speed and intensity as fast as it had the first time over the course of that rainy spring. We logged thousands and thousands of words some weeks, discussing modern art, child rearing, power dynamics, city governance, fame, humiliation tactics, human trafficking.
Usually, though, we circled back to love. Our friends’ and parents’ relationships, our own public and private romantic failures, our secret wishes.
He’d say: “I sometimes think marriage is for dumb people stuck in the past.”
I’d say: “The older I get, the more marriage feels like a sham and a waste of money and the more confused I am about what I believe love can and can’t do for you.”
Despite my professed doubt, I also confessed a host of optimistically bookish fantasies: a husband who’d pore over crossword puzzles with me for hours on lazy afternoons. Handwritten love notes. Making out among the dusty stacks of the large city bookstore we both loved. (None of them things that my current boyfriend had the slightest interest in.)
V had long been convinced he’d someday fall in love at that very same bookstore, he said.
Our ideas came pouring out like little golden coins, clamorous and full of importance. My boyfriend and I had less and less to say to each other. V and I? We could barely type fast enough. And we began playing Scrabble as we chatted and emailed – long, languorous Scrabble games that took days to finish and overlapped and overlapped until we were drowning in a sea of words.
Staring at that organized grid, I had the hopeful sense that I really could give and receive love with V on my very own terms, and that I could leave unbidden the harder truths about what we were really doing. Chief among them: I was waist deep and sinking in a mucky, sucking pit of infatuation; and despite his enthusiastic admirations, his flourish for language and his boyish élan, V seemed in no hurry to encounter me in any sort of non-virtual form.
Still. I became obsessed. Nighttimes, I’d roll away from my boyfriend to face the wall, and I’d lose myself in dreams of V. Of how it could be. Of all the years we still had left to tell each other everything, never mind what had come before. The two of us, a Scrabble board. A crossword puzzle. A lifetime of handwritten notes put to paper in his childish scrawl and meant for no one but me.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night to see if he’d played a word. I’d check before breakfast, at lunch, at dinner. I neglected my writing. I was often distracted, and I began turning down any social invitation that kept me from the computer for more than an hour or two.
After several months of this compulsive Scrabbling, I could stand it no more. I kicked my better judgment out the back door and asked V to meet me at a bookstore in Portland – the rambling, sweeping one of our shared fantasies. We ended up, instead that night, in his bedroom. On his bed, our faces inches apart, blinking at each other in the dusky half-light.
The chemistry was a living, breathing thing, buzzing between us like a million dumb, tiny fireflies.
“I tried to forget you,” I told him. “But I couldn’t.”
“There’s just something about you,” he told me.
The words passed between us as easy and sweet and slow as a molasses river, until we ran out of them. Again, my heart thundered. It felt like the beginning I’d longed for ever since I’d had the words to make such a thought with, and in that moment, I would have sacrificed anything and anyone to see it through, so determined was I to join his orbit.
It was the last night we’d ever spend together.
In the weeks that followed, our correspondence again grew strained. I struggled to navigate the ending of my relationship, and V stayed away from our Scrabble games for long stretches. His computer wasn’t working, he said. His emails, once so sweeping and ebullient, tapered lamely off.
There was one awkward reunion a few weeks later, which ended, again, in his bedroom at twilight.
He stepped out to use the bathroom, and as I waited on his bed, my eyes fell upon his computer monitor. A long, lascivious email from another girl sat open, as if by design. I commandeered his mouse, scrolled up, and discovered that they’d been at it, like we had, for months. She had come to visit him a few weeks before. She was much younger, much prettier, and a terrible speller.
When he returned from the bathroom, I confronted him.
“Are you fucking with me?” I said.
“You’ve had too much to drink,” he said.
I left in a rage. As foretold, yet another rejection letter arrived a few days later: he hadn’t meant to mislead me, he said, and couldn’t we please just forget all this ridiculous talk and just be the kind of friends who wrote each other nice, long letters?
We couldn’t. I was tired of the muck pit, the innuendo, the rejection. I wanted only to sink. I told him to leave me alone. And finally, I meant it.
V agreed, reluctantly, to stop contacting me, and then he forfeited the last, sad handful of our unfinished Scrabble games.
“You beat V,” came the automated notification, three times in a row, before I deleted that bedeviled Scrabble app – and V – from my life forever.
But I know better: It was I who had been defeated, entirely and incisively, by my stubborn conviction that you could love a person entirely in theory. That actions mattered less, and that the particularly bad and painful ones were canceled out by a weightier calculus of flowery prose. That a man must have invariably meant every word he put to paper or pixel, even if he didn’t want to hang out with you in real life. Even if he only liked the part of you that effortlessly into a virtual grid – No squishy bits allowed.
It felt like ripping off a limb, copping to that final, ineloquent truth: V wasn’t a poet or a soul mate or the romantic wordsmith I’d longed for all my lonely and overly verbose days. He was a womanizer who hid behind a stream of fancy words meant for me, or for that pretty idiot living in his computer, or for anyone at all.
V taught me that too many of the right words at the wrong moment can represent a particular brand of magic and danger, especially when you commit the unpardonable sin of conflating them with the Real, the Tangible.
Even if you’re a writer. Especially if you’re a writer. Really, they’re just empty shapes and squiggles, cast forth will-nilly with whole hearts, but blankly. It is we who color them in with the ghost meanings of our choosing.
By now, I do not think of him often. His letters are stuffed into an old hat box beneath my bed. I’ve packed all the things we said carefully away, like pocketfuls of lettered tiles scratched out in a language I no longer care to decipher.
But I still carry them with me. I jangle those tiles in my empty, cupped palms like clunky stones that some other stupider and far more hopeful version of me once mistook for little jewels.
Probably, I’ll carry them forever.