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…