by Kristine Langley Mahler
It’s the seasonal shift, the boomerang-bending-back to turn and return to the hands that cradled us, once, but also the melancholy of realizing all the things that were supposed to happen during the year and didn’t. I think he knew that. I think that’s why I couldn’t count on much from my ex-penpal ex-boyfriend, but I could rely on him remembering me in December, reaching for me in December. It was a month that meant nothing in our history together, but meant everything in our history apart. I could wait through the hope of spring, the scorch of summer, the death of fall, because like the only ghost I ever wanted to visit me on Christmas Eve, I knew his name would appear in my inbox, a small thing, a little gift, another loop in the chain I forged for myself, clanking the drag behind me as the years shuttered forward.
2005: “Do you still live at XXX? I have a letter. For you. After all, I do believe it’s my turn (as usual).”
I’d been the one to call him on Christmas Day 1998 even though it cost ten cents a minute and I’d already used up my twice-weekly allotment indulged by my parents for the past month. We were sixteen and we were separated by ninety miles of flat Illiana farmland and only one of us had a driver’s license and it wasn’t him. We had met online through friends and emailed each other nearly every night for nine months; we only met in person three times before we smashed our faces together on his birthday for two and a half hours straight, obliterating both of our never-been-kissed insecurities. He called me on the phone for the first time two days later to confirm we were going out and said “I love you” before I hung up, breathless at his words.
2005: “AH! Holy crap. I’m horrible! I had school work again and the letter just got buried and oh my gosh i’m sorry.”
We dated through emails because we couldn’t cross the distance; we sent 12k missives and 5k month-anniversary sweetheart sop and spent 8k didactically reenacting the entire circumstances of the first night we’d kissed. We recommitted ourselves through email subject lines—they were always song lyrics, always swearing your eyes still remind me of/angels that hover above, always asking could you whisper in my ear the things you wanna feel?
Christmas Eve, 2005: “My gift to you is an apology for taking so damn long to get that letter to you. To sweeten the deal, I’ll try to include a real gift of some sort when I actually get it mailed (which, now that the semester’s over, should be any day now…really…I mean it..)”
It was a literary courtship built on the promise of what we would write to each other next.
Christmas 1998: “Merry Christmas! I wish I could be there with you or that you could be here, but it’s kind of impossible for right now. I’ll have to pretend that you’re here. I love you. What else can I say?”
There were two proms and two school dances and the ring I bought him at Hot Topic but first there was the wire choker I unwrapped and hooked around my neck on Christmas Day. I didn’t take off his gift for two years even though he took off after only seven months, claiming he didn’t think we should “see” each other anymore. Then he virtually took himself offline after vowing we would still stay in touch and I sent him emails and instant messages demanding that he fulfill his promise and write me back but I couldn’t grab him by the collar and shake him, shake him, furious at how easily I had been discarded, bewildered at how he’d zeroed out after all those k’s worth of love letters. He sent two more envelopes after we’d broken up—ambiguous words wrapped around oblong obligation family Christmas pictures—but he was ephemeral, distant, miles away, and never going to get that driver’s license.
Christmas Card 1999, Christmas Card 2000: “Merry Christmas!”
There were years of stutters and silence, years of Photobucket-stalking and Livejournal-reading and adding all his high-school friends on MySpace so he’d get the notifications and remember I existed, here, in this digital space, no, this digital space, years of email addresses I grew out of and then included him on the “New addy, y’all!” reminders.
He was always so sorry. He always promised he was going to write me back as soon as.
December 2011: “I was wondering how you’re doing and if we’re friends (or still enemies, as was last rumored). So. How are you? Friends?”
I used to tell myself I wouldn’t reach out a hand to him any longer; I would wait for him to contact me one last time, and then I finally wouldn’t respond. I would leave him as the one willing to test the fragile ice we’d both tended. We were each other’s first kiss, after all, each other’s first relationship. It got sillier as the years went on, to STILL stay in touch after something so fleeting, but neither one of us was fully willing to abandon those months. I never knew why he was compelled to come back to our correspondence—I imagined it was some semblance of sentimentality, but I also wanted to imagine that. All I knew was that I couldn’t walk away from the frenzied feeling of teenage love; seeing his name was a flash-back to that stomach-sick anticipation that marked the months my need for need was finally met. So year after year, memory date after memory date, I took two fingers and flicked his shoulder, pay attention, boy. He would, but he wouldn’t.
December 2011: “Ha! Awesome. I was worried I’d made a total and irrevocable ass of myself. Friends, then. Glad to hear it.”
I got engaged, I got married, I had children, I couldn’t give it up. I would thrust my frustration at the computer screen as his November birthday approached, cajoling, wheedling, whimpering, hollering, a different tactic every time except silence. And he came back to me each December, never able to fully detach, always offering a letter he never sent.
So I broke and I slammed my heel into the ice and I stalked off for one whole day before recanting but the damage had been done.
It’s a longing, a lesson as we reach to switch the year into sleep-mode, someone from the past makes a digital reentrance, contacting us, remember when. Babysitting charges beam forth as Facebook “suggested friends,” a username that rings a bell in the back of the skull requests an Instagram follow, somebody’s getting a new phone, somebody’s demanding we text our numbers. We stream back to our parents’ houses and lie in our childhood beds and the posters on the walls are gone and the stacks of cracked CD cases have been sold but that box we were supposed to sort through is still in the back of the closet; we can’t bring ourselves to open it again, to remember, again, but neither can we throw the thing in the trash. I had always thought fall was the season for nostalgia—my husband’s middle-school-girlfriends and almost-but-not-quites nudge him in October—but now I wait another month, and another month, because I am used to waiting for the end of the year, for the end.
December 2013: “Whoa! There are MESSAGES in this facepage thing?!? Thanks for the birthday wishes. Hope you and the family are doing well, too.”
Kristine Langley Mahler lives and writes on the suburban prairie. Her work received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review and has recently appeared/is forthcoming in The Rumpus, New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Storm Cellar, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.