Bonnie and I were close my freshman year of college, her senior year at a neighboring women’s college. She came from a traditional military family and had traveled around the world, not just with her family—in fact, mostly on her own. My feelings for Bonnie (not her real name) were very much caught up with my enjoyment of her writing, which is why I was delighted when two letters of hers recently resurfaced. They are from four years later, 1977, when I had moved on to a career in the law and she was starting out in a career that I’d never imagined for her, though it was still in the arts and made practical sense.
Among Bonnie’s many charms, both in her writing and in person, was her skill in satirizing people and places without meanness. I’m reminded of that engaging quality by a passage in the first 1977 letter, which I’ve edited only to hide identifying details. She and her husband had just moved to Indianapolis where a job awaited him:
So far it’s been hot and humid, and there’s nowhere to swim, no good restaurants—okay, you know the sort of place. We’re trying to make the most of it, though, and consider it all Americana to be treasured. There’s a small reservoir with a sailing club where we go to let the dog swim and talk to people who own fancy fiberglass cabin sailboats in this landlocked place. Today we sat on the hood of the car with beers and watched the private planes take off from a little airstrip, all race fans going home after the big event.
Luxurious sailboats in a landlocked city? Rich people dropping in for the Indy 500, only to escape the moment it was over? How vividly I picture her there, smiling at the absurdity of it all. Oh, and what she said was funny. She knew I would see the humor.
In her other letter from that summer, she portrayed herself in the introspective state that had once, and even then still would have, made me especially want to be with her. It was a Saturday morning. Her husband was at a meeting and she was sitting with their dog on the step in front of their building:
I’m feeling a little sad for no particular reason. It’s rare that I’m by myself like this. We spend all our nonworking time together, and since he’s more inclined to rush around doing things than to sit and think or read or write, I don’t do those things either. Except when I’m driving and he’s asleep, like coming back from Pittsburgh last weekend. Then I felt marvelous, full of ideas, happy with my job and hopeful about the future. Today I remember how lonely I used to be on weekends and when I wasn’t in school, and I’m glad with the ways things are. It is strange, though, like waking up from a dream for just a little while.
In 1972, Bonnie introduced herself at the end of a class we were taking and offered to walk with me wherever I was going, which turned out to be for coffee with her in the college’s snack bar. Nearly a year later, I tried to remember what we talked about in that first conversation and then put it in a poem, my way of keeping a journal in those days:
Did we begin at the Isle of Wight,
Washed out on a Festival hillside?
A woman who disapproved
Picked you up, penniless and tired,
Drove you to her home
And told you to stretch out in her bath
While your weathered jeans hung to dry.
You stayed a day or two and helped
Her cook quaint English meals
As the parrot squawked in mindless echo.
It was still drizzling the day you left.
Over time I accumulated many more of her stories, some of which I reduced to a poem entitled “Traveler”:
With a friend who was imposed on her
She made her way from Thailand down
The peninsula, and crossed the Strait
Of Malacca on the deck of a sampan.
She smoked opium in a Chinese den,
And, in fear of sharks, swam the warm
Waters of a tropical lagoon.
Yet there’d be no sharks, so she wondered
If her fear were attraction.
In France she tasted the local wines
And talked, woman to woman, in the cool
Dusk air of Parisian gardens.
She got a ride from a truck driver
Who earned his pay by nightly riding
A conveyer belt of ghostly highways.
She went to Oregon with the thought of settling down,
Of marrying, and living the life of poverty.
There was no money, no comfort—but his—
And a hill from which one could see for miles around.
There were sunsets, but also days, days
Which stretched into plains and wagon trains,
And the sunsets lasted only a short time.
On the flight back to Munich
She cried, then chatted
With her neighbor, a sailor
With a British accent coming home.
At Japanese teas she warmed her hands
Beneath the rug, and watched the wrestlers
On television bulge and grunt and gasp.
She has sketches, and green tea
And antique books, but no portraits:
She had no time for portraits, no time
To stay. And now she wants substance from
Her images, a text for her vignettes.
Bonnie knew I was in love with her. I’m sure I told her, but if not, it would have been obvious anyway. Her story about the British sailor undoubtedly gave me, an English expatriate, hope. I knew my accent suggested sophistication to many Americans, which I figured was why Bonnie assumed I spoke French. In her room, hanging up from a phone call during which she’d talked in French the entire time, she said to me, “You speak French,” in a tone somewhere between assumption and query. Having studied it for years but never gained fluency, I could only shrug.
That course where we met was on autobiography, and Bonnie read to me the two pieces she wrote when we were assigned to write short memoirs of our own. The substance and something about her style brought out for me what seemed essential about her. (I wish I had copies.) One day she described a moment, familiar to all artists, of staring out a window for inspiration. It led to another of my Bonnie poems:
As she daydreams, two wasps
Alight on the window pane.
They stay, prompters
Of a random question, though she wafts
Tobacco smoke toward them,
Beyond the glass, her mind meanders
Down the paths of the forest
Where, deep under the pines,
And store their winter energy.
In those days, I didn’t walk away from unreciprocated feelings, and so I’d listen to her talk about a boyfriend I felt she didn’t like much. She was attracted to his brilliance and possibly his cruelty, which I glimpsed from his autobiographical stories. (He, too, was in that course.)
A poem I wrote after Bonnie left my room one afternoon brings back my conflicted emotions. I called it “A Visit: time”:
The hour passes without pausing
On a line through a circle.
She lounges back against the wall,
Reaching to tap ash or sip her tea.
Then, just as I’m tempted again,
She glances at the round stare of time.
The hour passes without pausing
On a circle through a line.
We saw each other a few times after she graduated and later still after I did, but those 1977 letters marked the end of our regular contact. In 2004, after coming across an alumni list, she wrote by email to tell me she’d long since returned to the East Coast, was married to the same man and had three teenage children. In my lengthy reply, I mentioned I was using an experience of hers in a story I’d written.
She replied: “My entire past I give to you to use in your stories!” It was a nice gesture, although it seemed to confirm she’d abandoned writing. It made me sad then, and still does, to think something beautiful—her lovely and intelligent writing—had run its course. But she was happy. Her life was taken up with her children, travel and running a household. We had another email exchange in 2007, but while we voiced equally warm feelings, the impetus to stay in touch had come to an end.
Returning to her second 1977 letter, she recalled something of what made our times together special:
++Reading over my old attempts at writing, I was taken back to my last summer in Amherst and to the day I drove down to see you at your parents’ house and we sat in the back yard eating cherries. I’ve changed a lot since then. I feel things much less painfully. I feel older and a little more removed from the immediacy of things. But I do feel that I know more and that I’m happier. I fear I may be a little less alive. But you know all about those fears. … In those days, it made me feel more real—it made my feelings real, and me feel less crazy—to be able to talk to you. You were the only one I could be open with and trust to understand. In lots of ways that’s still true, though both of us have come down to earth and are less desperate to let things out.
Already, it seemed, she wished to escape the urge to express herself. She was mistaken to project a similarly diminished urge onto me, although I was flattered that she put us in the same imaginary universe. My legal career might have deflected my creative writing urge, but it didn’t end it, perhaps to the detriment of both.
The friendship that Bonnie and I shared created a third entity: real, but occupying no dimensions except maybe time. My Bonnie poems recounted incidents in our lives, but the results were neither entirely her nor entirely me. So, too, with her letters to me. I think of Borges’ story, “The Circular Ruins,” where the wizard who creates men by dreaming them discovers he himself was dreamed. In those poems and letters, our friendship took on a separate existence that lives on today.
Emphasis on “lives on.” Those letters, turning up after four decades, don’t just make me nostalgic; they energize me. Here I am, compelled to write this essay the way our times together used to drive me to write poems.
Note: The name “Bonnie” doesn’t really fit her. At first her real name didn’t either, but I was to grow fond of it.