Ann Marie was the first. I found her, if my memory is correct, in the parking lot of the Seven Springs Mountain Resort on a 4th of July weekend when I was seven or maybe eight years old. I was there with my family for an annual “Polka Fireworks” extravaganza, when hundreds of polka music lovers gathered to dance and drink and meet up with people we didn’t usually see but once a year. Ann Marie was from Dearborn, Michigan. She had short hair and a braided rattail that ran down her back, and she traveled to that parking lot every year with her family in their gigantic Winnebago. I coveted the rattail, her Michigan accent, and that Winnebago. My family lived just two hours away, so we usually just made day trips.
But there were other things I wanted that Ann Marie, who was a couple of years older than me, had which I did not. In addition to the rattail and the accent, I wanted something far more complicated. I wanted her ability to correct people when they mispronounced her Polish name without a flicker of embarrassment. And when she told me that all her friends back home knew that she loved to dance polkas, and that in fact she’d been taking lessons and doing recitals in traditional Polish dress, and that her friends came to watch her perform — I wanted that too. I didn’t know if it was her extra few years which gave her the ability not to be ashamed of her incredibly uncool Polish American heritage or if it was something else. But I could tell, from the moment I met her, that she lived authentically. She did not, like me, live two lives: one in the upper-middle-class suburbs where no one listened to polka music or danced and hid from their half-drunk, rowdy parents, running the halls of the resort in packs of semi-rabid children. I knew that she didn’t feel like her weekend life was different than her weekday one, and I suspected, too, that her mother was not, like mine, a drunk.
In addition to the rattail and the accent, I wanted something far more complicated
Making Ann Marie my first pen pal didn’t help me to acquire a singular persona. In fact, it really only made the divide deeper.
But writing to her, in what I can now only guess were childish, imprecise, terse letters, written painstakingly by hand years before I sent my first email, gave me an outlet to be — if not one, whole self — a new kind of me that I’d never met before, or, more properly, one I hadn’t made before. Ann Marie, in giving me her address on a piece of looseleaf before packing up the Winnebago back to Dearborn, provided an audience for a new me.
Writing myself an identity didn’t include outright lying, especially not with Ann Marie and eventually my cousin Sarah, who I bullied into pen palling after my grandfather died in middle school. I say “bullied” because I always had the sense, until Andrea anyway, that I was the more fervent writing partner. Inevitably, I wrote more letters than the other. I bought stationery at Hallmark and K-Mart, and special pens. Eventually, when I once discovered two of my unmailed letters in my mother’s purse, I convinced my parents to allow me my own personal supply of stamps, which I hid inside a worn copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in my bedroom. I guarded my pens, my stock of paper, and my correspondences — which simply described my everyday life. I hid them away from prying eyes as if they contained pornography or, worse, truth. They didn’t, though, not really: I constructed in my letters, for my pen pals, something which I did not have much of in reality: confidence, stability, normalcy — whatever that meant. I didn’t lie about having dope new tennis shoes or going skiing. I simply described what did happen in my life, only in a way that made me seem happy, even though I was often miserable and anxious, lonely and scared.
Ann Marie, in giving me her address on a piece of looseleaf before packing up the Winnebago back to Dearborn, gave me an audience for a new me
It could be said that some competitive lust between best friends brought me to the lowest point of my letter-writing life, but the facts don’t really bear that out. Someone — either my good friend Emily or I — discovered one of those ads that used to be in the back of “Seventeen” Magazine, where you could send in your name and a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE!) and several weeks later, you’d get the name and address of some other girl, the same age as you, who lived… somewhere else. We sent ours off — name, address and age — except where we should have said “12” or “13,” we said “16” or “17.” That lie of just a few years, we knew, would lead to great things with our new pen pals. 17-year-olds knew about boys and sex and alcohol, things we were ignorant of while we studying for our Catholic confirmations. We could live vicariously, and we believed it wouldn’t last long.
In a moment, sending that letter off in the mail, I took something I loved, and turned it into a constant worry and stomach ache. My new teenaged pen pal, Andrea, lived in Seattle. She was 17, and she seemed cool and was also just as fervently ready to send me letters as I was ready to send them to her. I loved her instantly. She wrote long letters on pages and pages of notebook paper. She sent me mixtapes interspersed with her talking, telling stories and making jokes. And though I loved her and clung to the long distance relationship, I began to have trouble sleeping at night, knowing that I was lying. And lying about my age instantly forced me into lying about other things too. Suddenly, I was spinning yarns about the SAT, possible colleges, about driving and prom, about boyfriends I didn’t have.
Lying about my age instantly forced me into lying about other things, too.
Emily’s relationship with her pen pal died off quickly. Andrea and I kept going. For well over a year, possibly two, I wrote to her weekly. I told her about my mother being an alcoholic, and she told me about a new band from near where she lived — Nirvana. I knew it couldn’t last. One sunny spring day, I opened a letter from her as I walked barefoot over the hot asphalt of my driveway. My heart fell into my guts as I read her words, her floating the still vague and undated but somehow very specific and aggressive threat that she was coming to Pittsburgh.
It’s not lost on me that pulling something like this off — sharing your real name and address with someone but lying about many other things — would be profoundly hard today, and I cannot help but think that this is for the best.
I can’t remember the exact turn of events, only that days or weeks later she called my house to say she was in town and left a message with my brothers when I pretended not to be home. At every turn I could have admitted the truth which was that she was now in college and I was (still, had always been) years younger than her — but I was too much of a coward. I feared losing her so much that I was delusional about the odds.
By the time Andrea showed up at my front door and told me I was a lying bitch or whatever she said to me exactly, I felt nothing but relief to have it over — relief that overshadowed, very briefly, my sense of empathy for having lied to another person for so long, and in such a specific way.
A pen pal, at least to me, is the long, almost lazily long, process of getting to know someone. Of constructing identity week to week, choosing what to tell someone and when, until life events step in and overwhelm and one is compelled to blurt out a lot of very revealing information. To some extent, it can be artifice, yes. But in another sense, it gives the friend on the other end a truer, more detailed picture of who their pal is. If both are patient and take their time, it’s possible to know not just the person’s thoughts moment to moment, but to know what is going on inside of their minds as their life unfolds.
Even though I was only 14 years old or so, I knew what I’d done to Andrea was wrong, and knowing it soured me on pen pals for a huge chunk of the next 10 years. I variously struggled to forget what I’d done, make peace with it, or to find Andrea and make amends.
Email pen pals work, too. I have a few of them, and the rules for finding them are the same: arbitrary connection, quirky circumstance — these methods work best. For several years I had a long correspondence with a 97-year-old man who lived in California, whom I’d found in the white pages as I made my way calling everyone in the United States with my born surname. There were only about 50 of them, and Stanley was the only one who cared about my genealogical interests.
Stanley was the only one who cared about my genealogical interests
One of the defining features of pen pals, at least in hindsight, is that the relationships have a terminal endpoint: they are finite in nature. Ann Marie went to college and the few year age gap became, in her late teenage years, somehow unbridgeable. There wasn’t a break, but a fade. I kept Andrea as long as I could; Stanley died. I made many pen pals out of friends as I aged and moved around — close friends from childhood, cousins, new friends along the way. These relationships often outlasted the correspondences — when you have a friend that you see, even sporadically, in real life, the drive to write loses its luster, and seems more of a task than a pleasure.
The relationships have a terminal endpoint: they are finite in nature
These days, I have a pen pal of sorts — a woman who was in a band I adored as a teenager and who I interviewed over the phone many years later. Today, we write long emails about our children and our lives, and the distance between our years — ten — seems very little. Late last year, I sought out a new pen pal through a charity which links people who want to write with people — most of them men — living on death row. I’ve exchanged just three letters with my charge, a man who has spent most of his life in prison for a terrible crime he most certainly committed. All of my many years of figuring out what to tell, and what not to tell, what to ask and what not to ask, have culminated, maybe, in this very limited relationship. He has far less to give than I, having no family, friends, or stories to tell beyond his day-to-day existence in a maximum security prison in the deep south of the United States. I hope that, whatever end our correspondence meets, he will know that someone, at least, cared. And that is, after all, what most of us probably seek when we send letters off in the mail, and await the next response.