Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Letter that Changed Everything, Fred W. Feldman

The Letter that Changed “Everything”


by Frederick W. Feldman


Earl didn’t do a lot of dating in college, but, by far, his most frustrating relationship was with a Dadaist. He met her at a party thrown by one of his friends. This guy, David, was studying engineering while Earl was studying communications, but they still hung out, and David had just moved off-campus, for his senior year, with five roommates, and they decked their new house out with streamers and lights, filled coolers with beer and soft drinks, and ordered a stack of ten boxes of pizza to celebrate their independence from campus rules.
After arriving and participating in the requisite greetings, Earl lost his bearings a bit. He became tongue-tied and forgot how to introduce himself to the other partiers, mostly students, but he did manage, by standing in the mathematically exact middle of the room, to get in the way of, and awkwardly apologize to, every single individual at the party – except for one. While attempting to look cool and unconcerned by moving over towards the billiards table and dodging cue sticks while chewing on an overlarge bite of pizza, he espied a girl who was wearing a monocle and a long black coat also standing around and trying to look cool, but with considerably more success.
He left his slice of pizza on the billiard table, where a cue ball promptly rolled over it and streaked sauce across the green surface, and moseyed over to the girl. She stood alone, leaning against the piano, with a red plastic cup in hand that contrasted weirdly with her black coat. The couches on either side the piano remained empty and un-sat on. Though the rest of the house was packed with clumps of eds and co-eds shamelessly violating each other’s personal space, they gave her a wide berth. Being enigmatic does not, contrary to popular belief, win you friends or influence. Young as she was, she had not yet figured this out. Given about five more minutes standing alone by the piano, she very well might have, but that epiphany was postponed by Earl planting himself stiffly in front of her.
Armed with the obvious, he made his move:
“Why are you wearing a monocle?” he asked.
She laughed nervously. “My hommage…Tristan Tzara, you know?”
“Who?” he said.
“Uh, nevermind.”
It was not a great beginning, but the conversation improved after the rocky start. It turned out that her name was Anna and she was an art major working on an English minor at the same college that Earl was attending. She was there because she had been in a Gen-Ed with a friend of David’s who had neglected to show up that night. They discussed classes, professors, and were able to dredge up a few mutual acquaintances. I was sitting about a foot away, so I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. I was wearing my usual bland color palette and am not very remarkable, so neither of them saw me. They soon built up a rapport with each other, and Earl decided he might like to see more of this girl, even though he found her quite pretentious. These opinions competed in the back of Earl’s mind as they talked, until his fascination won out and he blurted an invitation.
Now, even Earl knew that a fast-food restaurant was a lousy place for a first date, so it must have been the recent $1.5 million advertising campaign talking when he suggested just that. He regretted it immediately.
However, her eyes lit up, and she said, “Yes, that would be an excellent place.”
Then, his reservations made a last thrust. “Could you not wear the monocle, though?”
This time she looked angry. “Why not?
“Uh, it’s kind of…pretentious.”
Eye daggers. Earl cringed.
“I would just, um, feel more comfortable if you didn’t. Please.”
“Fine, I won’t wear them. Seven o’clock?”
“Yes, that works.”
And so they parted, Earl with an awakened resolution to look up “Tristan Tzara.”


***


“So I looked up that Tristan Tzara guy,” said Earl.
“And?” asked Anna.
“I read one of his manifestoes,” said Earl.
“And?”
“I didn’t get it.”
They were waiting in line to order their food. The fast-food joint was grimy and pop tunes from five years ago were being softly farted out in the background. Earl was grumpy because, instead of wearing a monocle, Anna had worn an eyepatch to their date.
“Whaddaya want?” demanded the woman at the counter.
Earl gestured towards Anna, though if he was trying to do the gentlemanly thing by allowing her to order first, he probably should have done it with a less sullen manner.
“I’ll have a number four,” said Anna.
“And YOU?” she interrogated Earl.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger, some fries, and a soda,” he said.
“So a number four.”
“I don’t want a number four.”
“THEN WHAT DO YOU WANT,” bellowed the woman.
“A cheeseburger, fries, a soda.”
“THAT IS A NUMBER FOUR.”
“OK, OK! I don’t care what it’s called - give me that! Anything else you think I should have?”
The woman muttered something under her breath and rang up his order on the cash register by punching each button with her fist. The register shuddered with each hit and coins rang as they bounced around inside their trays.
“NAME?”
“Ea – I mean, Louis. My name is Louis.”
They walked over to the other counter and waited in tense silence. After a while, Earl spoke to Anna.
“I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot,” he said softly. “I lost my temper – sorry.”
“It’s alright,” said Anna.
An employee walked out with a bag of food and two clinking Styrofoam cups.
“Order for…um.” He trailed off and double-checked the name. “Order for LOSER?”
“That would be mine,” said Earl. Back at the register the woman grinned an evil grin.
He picked up one of the Styrofoam cups and handed it to Anna. He let go and went for the other one when he heard a crash and the clattering rush of liquid and ice spilling on the floor. He turned back and there was Anna with her hand still out and the contents of her soda on the ground.
She pointed to her eye patch. “No depth perception,” she explained.
To his credit, Earl dealt with the situation well and did not say anything he would regret. When he saw the cashier looking at him with murder in her eyes, he went smartly to collect a wad of napkins and wiped up most of the mess.
After they bought a new drink and sat down at a table, he said “I won’t mind if you wear the monocle next time.”
She smiled. “I don’t usually wear the same gag twice, anyways. It would get stale. I just wore the eyepatch because I was mad at you.”
“I figured. Sorry, again.”
They ate.
“So, explain your artistic ideas to me,” offered Earl.
“A lot of what I do is related to Dada,” she said. “To me, it’s the idea that words don’t have meanings, images don’t have meanings, and “art” and “literature” aren’t real and they only obscure reality. It’s not real, it’s just stuff that we pretend is real. So Dada is absurd and illogical and contradictory to draw attention to that. It’s sculpture and painting and writing and all sorts of stuff.”
Earl chewed his hamburger. “Interesting.”
He couldn’t think of anything else to say after that, so they sat in silence. A newspaper stand was nearby and Anna snatched one, flipped it upside-down, and started perusing it. Then she started mumbling unintelligible sounds.
“What – ” said Earl.
“Hm?” Anna peeked over the top of the paper.
“Is that a joke?”
“What?” she asked innocently. “Reading the paper upside down?”
“Is this a performance or something, or are you making fun of me?”
“No, no! I’m practicing for my thesis.”
Earl was afraid to ask. “And what is your thesis?”
“I’m creating an upside-down language. I’ve assigned different phonemes to letters that are turned upside-down so that you pronounce them differently. Now I’m working on a dictionary of the words created by these phonetic combinations.”
“That sounds smart, but I’m not sure if it is,” said Earl drily.
She pointed to an upside-down “car” and explained “An upside-down r makes the sound ka. A makes the sound oy. C makes the ng. So this word is pronounced ka-oyng. That means bushes. It’s difficult because meanings are arbitrary and I don’t want to be too influenced by my own associations, so I try to come up with all possible combinations and assign meanings by what object it feels like it most sounds like, without looking at the upside-down word it’s formed from. But I also have to make sure grammar rules will match up from the English. It still needs a lot of work.”
“Wow,” said Earl.
“It’s tough,” she nodded.
“So what do you plan to do after college?” asked Earl.
“I’m not sure. I think I’ll either try to go on to graduate school or,” she gestured towards the surrounding restaurant, “I might end up working here.” She laughed darkly. “How about you?”
“I’m getting my degree in Communications. I was thinking about English, but I went for Communications instead because it’s more interdisciplinary and covers a wider range of subjects. It also has more practical application, so all around it's a more competitive degree. I’m not sure what I’ll go into, but there’s a lot of things you can do with it.”
Earl was wrong on every count, of course. I heard his explanation because I was sitting at a booth nearby, and I have to vigorously disagree with his assessment of his major. I completed a Bachelor’s in Communications myself, and I have found it be an entirely worthless degree in a field that is receding faster than my hairline. If you want an expensive-looking piece of paper with your name on it and for potential employers to assume your IQ is slightly below average, then it might be a good investment for you, but otherwise an English degree would be far more competitive. Please do not go for Communications.
If you wanted to know, I had been munching on some chicken nuggets and watching the interaction of these two people for a while. It was mostly chance that I was there at the same time. I had heard them make the appointment, but I had not made any special note of it. That evening I had hankering for nuggets and then they walked in. Maybe it was subliminal; I did find their relationship to be capital entertainment as I ate my food. I was skeptical of Anna’s Dadaism, and I still retain a good deal of that, but at one point she said something I found pretty profound. The two continued in the vein they were in and discussed careers, success, and wages, then, following a pause, Anna looked around at the dirty booths and customers eating cheap food, and she said, “It’s incredible, really. All these people with the goal of making money, when money is made-up – fiat currency. It doesn’t stand for anything, isn’t anything, it only works because we all pretend that it does. It’s no different than playing a board game or doing make-believe, except that everyone is playing and we forget it isn’t real, and we live and die for it.” I jotted that down on the back of the paper bag in which my chicken nuggets had come, just so I had it preserved accurately. I have to write things down, because my auditory memory is atrocious.
I stayed and watched them after I finished my meal. I think they were there about an hour and a half. Their interactions had a mixture of ease and awkwardness that I do not think is atypical to the love affairs of the young. Once nothing but crumbs remained in the greasy wrappings and their straws sputtered at the bottom of the cups, they stood up and made parting remarks.
“I know not everything went perfectly tonight,” said Earl, “but I’d like to see you again. Would you like to come over to my place? My roommate won’t be around and I can cook you a real dinner.”
“Sure, I’d like to,” said Anna. So they made plans for a second date and left.


***


Earl’s dorm was small, but he did have a kitchen, and he was still using it when Anna rang the doorbell. He supposed he ought to have been prepared, but he was surprised to see that she had bleached her eyebrows and affixed a big boomerang-shaped moustache to her philtrum that jutted out from her face.
“You’re the Mona Lisa with moustache thing, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Very good,” she said, pleased. “The one by Salvador Dali, yes.”
He led her to the dining table while he finished making dinner. He had lit a few candles – not too many – and softened the lights. The wicks licked cozy little flames in the center of the table. The kitchen, only a few meters in area and not truly its own room, ended beside the table, so Earl and Anna could talk comfortably.
“Where did you say your roommate was?” asked Anna.
“He just left, actually. He’s doing a semester abroad and they didn’t set me up with another roommate to replace him, so it looks like I’ll have the place to myself for the semester.”
“Where is he going?”
“Italy. He’s studying architecture. Far out of my purview, but he seems to like it. He’s easy to get along with,” said Earl.
“Do you ever argue?”
“What? No, why would we?”
“I had one roommate who left her old food wrappers on the floor. One time, I woke up and smelled something awful, so I looked under my bed and found, like, twenty yogurt containers.”
“That’s gross.”
“Tell me about it.”
Earl turned off the stove. He put two hot pads down on the table and, with a flourish, rested a pot of macaroni and cheese from a box on one and, on the other, a skillet with two grilled cheese sandwiches.
“Dinner is served,” he announced.
Anna did her scientific best to look impressed. “You made this all by yourself?”
“I did,” said Earl modestly. Catching a glimpse of her face, he became concerned. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Are you…lactose intolerant?”
“No, that’s not – I’m fine. Thank you for…making…this food.” She scooped up one of the sandwiches from the pan and bit it.
Earl looked down at his grilled cheese and macaroni with suspicion awakened in his mind, as if they had turned traitor upon him. There was something they were hiding from him. He looked up at Anna again.
“Is this not a good dinner?” he asked.
She was silent a moment. ”Well…” She struggled for a polite way to say that it was the saddest dinner she had ever seen. “It’s more of a lunch, really. But it was nice of you to make it.”
“Oh.”
They ate silently. The atmosphere was uncomfortable and Anna was feeling overstuffed with cheddar cheese. So was Earl, for that matter, who was regretting painfully his choice of dairy-heavy menu. Anna slumped over, weighted down with cheese, and stared into the many eyes of the macaroni pasta.
Earl also did not look up. “If you could spend a semester abroad,” he attempted lamely, “would you want to?”
Anna welcomed the attempt to revive the conversation. “I’ve thought about it. I don’t travel very much, but I’ve been thinking that place is important to – ”
Earl looked up and, for a moment, could not say anything for surprise. Apparently, Anna had leaned too far towards the candle, and her fake Dali moustache had caught fire. The flame had sizzled away half its length, like a fuse, and was jumping onto her hair.
“Your hair’s on fire!” he yelled.
“What?”
“Gah!” He jumped and grabbed a towel. He turned the water on as fast as he could to soak the towel, and Anna realized what was happening.
“Oh my, my hair is on fire,” she mused.
Earl ran over to her, knocking into a chair and sending it clattering, and doused the flame just as it was bursting into a roaring piline conflagration. There was a hiss, and steam rose from her head. Earl kept the towel pressed for a few seconds, then threw the towel in the corner and walked back around the table unhappily.
“This is a mess,” he said, his face in his hands.
“Oh well,” said Anna. She offered no conciliation, and Earl beat himself up more.
“I really wanted this to go well,” he said. He was fretting. His hands moved from massaging his forehead to flapping by his sides, spastically. “Why do you wear those dumb things? They make you look silly and make people uncomfortable.”
That ticked Anna off. She stiffened, and a fire came into her eyes. “Why have I got to make people comfortable? If I want to wear these “dumb things” and make jokes all day, what is it to you? Maybe you could use your brain and try to understand them instead forcing people to just, just – maintain the status quo!
“Are you really calling me dumb? Good grief, I’m not the one who lit a fake moustache on fire with a candle!”
Anna stood up coldly. “I think I’m going now.”
Earl also stood up, and went to open the door. “I think that’s a good idea.”
Anna walked out without another look back. Earl slammed the door. It was a painful scene to hear. I was sitting outside the window. I had heard the address when they made plans at the fast-food place and I had nothing to do that evening, and, as long as I was quiet, none would be the wiser. I had found a comfortable spot in the brush and allowed myself to be the third wheel that night. I had been hoping they were going to resolve their differences, which I had perceived, from observing them previously, could become a problem, and listening to the ugly argument hurt me on their behalf. From my little hiding place in the foliage (Earl’s dorm was conveniently on the first floor) I watched Anna stomp away from the building and head down the sidewalk, back to her room. Inside, Earl muttered and grumbled. I left.


***


In the days afterward, Earl paced a lot. After the heat of the argument wore off, regret sank in. He began to miss Anna and to feel sorry for hectoring her as much as he had. He heard nothing from her, and he was in too much of a tumult to call. He kept an intent eye out for her at school without knowing whether his watchfulness was in order to speak to her or run from her. As successive days passed, the sense of responsibility for their falling-out –  a rift which was increasingly undeniable with the continued silence from both Anna and himself – pressed on his conscience more and more leadenly.
Six days had gone by when Earl scrolled through his contacts to her entry, determined to apologize and patch things up. The phone rang while sweat broke out on his brow. Sweat poured out his underarms and ran down his sides. Sweat clung to his clothes, and he felt tremulous. The phone rang, and rang, until the smooth voice of an automated answering machine told him to leave his name and number after the tone.
“Hi, Anna. Uh, it’s Earl. I want…um, I want to apologize. I was a jerk, and I wish I wasn’t – hadn’t been. I’m sorry, I’d like – um, if you’d accept my apology, I would appreciate it a lot. I understand if – um, um – please call me back, please. I feel really bad. Thanks. See ya – ah, um, I mean bye.”
He hung up, and shivered hopelessly. What had he done? He had left the world’s worst phone apology. There was nothing else to do, though, so he trembled himself back to life and homework.
He waited over the weekend, but he didn’t receive a call. On Monday, every piece of furniture he looked at brought him closer to despair. He looked in the mirror, and saw an unanswered cell phone. He looked at the couch, and he saw Anna’s face turning away from him. He looked at the microwave, and tasted defeat. The showerhead reminded him of his powerlessness to repair their relationship, and his roommate’s cat hid its face in disgust.
There was nothing to do but try again, so he did. Again he got the answering machine, and again he left a message, this one more panicked and desperate than the last. Then he waited for more days – intolerable days. At two weeks, he felt like he had been trying to travel the highway on foot: he was getting nowhere, and their argument was fermenting into a bitter vinegar. And still she did not call back.
As Earl sat through a lecture on the invention of the radio, he determined to take a new angle. When he got back to his dorm, he spent three hours hunting around social media, student directories, or any place he could possibly find out Anna’s last name. After an hour-and-a-half of looking through lists of Annas and picking through the friends lists of those that might know her, he was sure she had never joined social media. That made his work much more difficult, and it was a lucky find indeed when he stumbled across a student blog mentioning her name in connection with a collage work titled How-To Guide: Kill Your Own Sweater that was displayed at a minor exhibition the college had held last year. He was pretty sure it was hers. He entered the name into an image search and it brought up one grainy image that was unmistakably her – his search was success. So he entered her name into the student directory next and was able to find her dorm address.
He wrote a note that said:
Dear Anna,
I’m really sorry for being a jerk. Arguing about your dress was a dumb thing for me to do and not worth the regret I feel now. I think your artistic projects are very interesting and I’m sorry for treating you badly. Please forgive me. If you would write me back or call, I would really appreciate it.
Thanks for everything,
Earl
Then he popped it in an envelope and sent it to her dorm.
More excruciating waiting followed. The tension nearly crushed Earl. He would not have even received a response had it not been for me. As of the previous week, I had become the postman for their district and when he sent his letter I recognized the name and Anna’s address, which I knew because I had followed Anna home, out of curiosity, after their argument and taken note of which dorm she was in. Naturally, I opened the letter and read it. It was a bit clumsy, but I thought the sentiment showed through well enough. I do not think I am very good at writing apology letters, though, so who am I to judge? I delivered the letter myself, and afterwards I took pains during my work to check if Anna had posted a response.
She eventually did, though it was an unconventional response. I picked it up during my route and her name was on the return address, and it was addressed to “Earl,” but the address was wrong. I took out the letter and read it, and this is what it said:
Dear [crossed out],
I’m really sorry for being a Jesuit. Arguing about your dried milk was a duplicable thing to do and not worth the reindeer I feel now. I think your artistic prolegomenon are very interlineal and I’m sorry for triangulating you badly. Please format me. If you would yakety-yak me back or campaign, I would really approve it.
Thanks for evidence,
And at the bottom “Earl” was crossed out.
As a bit of an art aficionado in my free time, I recognized the technique Anna had used as N+7, a literary constraint pioneered by Oulipo practitioners, wherein each substantive noun – or, I suppose, any substantive part of speech – is replaced with another noun seven spaces away in the dictionary. The address was wrong because the fool had used the technique on the street name, too! So it was very lucky that I was the one that found the letter, or else it never would have reached its proper recipient. As it was, instead of delivering it to the mangled address or leaving it in the P.O. Box at his dorm, I personally diverged from my route and left the letter outside Earl’s door.

From the outside of the building, I watched him with my binoculars. I sat beneath a tree, with the breeze blowing and the wind smelling fresh, and waited until he went to the door. Wherever he was going was forgotten, because he turned back inside and opened the envelope with nervous fingers. He read it, and I watched him sit down on the edge of his bed. His face fell as the meaning of the letter sank in. Surely the encoded meaning was not what he wanted to believe, but I think he knew immediately that the nonsense technique reflected an unarticulated but firm rejection. I would have preferred that Anna had just told him flat-out; this sideways method seemed unnecessarily cruel. It is much kinder to be told straightforwardly that the two of you will not work out. If a woman does this to you, let her go, but you should value her grace and tact highly. Because of the ambiguity, I thought it might take some time before Earl would be able to fully accept the rejection as such. It would be a slow and painful process. It always is. I lowered my binoculars when he buried his reddening eyes in his hands. I did not want to invade his privacy anymore. I walked back to my mail truck, but it gave me no excitement anymore. I must have caught the heartbreak in the air, because I left sad and bored, and I no longer felt like finishing my route. So I took a deep breath, and I rode the mail truck around the sleepy suburban streets for an hour. All the houses were empty and quiet, since it was midday and their occupants were out. Only the wind rustled the trees and bothered a set of chimes. I let the tired and melancholy mood collect on me like resin as I rolled around the town, then I headed back to the post office in order to resign.

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