Thursday, December 15, 2005

Dispatches from Texas

My mother sent a scrap of paper with a few words in her scrawl that I think were painful for her to write near the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She showed her vulnerable side, not often displayed, that she needed to reach out and tell me that the emotional gulf between us couldn’t keep her from expressing what I knew of her love for her eldest son.

Letters from home informed of births, deaths, weddings, and miscarriages. I held my tongue and waited until some were divorced. Letters from home brought a smile to my face. I feel as if I were away at college overseas or in a remote land working in the Peace Corps, and these letters, birthday cards, and postcards were my only link to people and a place I once knew. The correspondence afterward showed how people perceived me. Most supported or encouraged my decision to relocate, but I suspect there were a few who hoped that I’d fall on my face and return, brokenhearted, with my head between my legs. I remember feeling reckless when I decided to move to the East Coast, another adventure for the trained actor – a role of a lifetime – I tried to take Manhattan for everything it offered.

The letters and birthday cards diminished with each succeeding year. I held onto ninety percent of the correspondence from family and high school and college friends. The remainder might have been lost in transit when I moved from New Jersey to Manhattan. Perhaps it’s more truthful that I discarded thinly veiled attempts of those waiting for my predestined rise on Broadway and or on a daytime drama. I know I tossed communication from people who sought to use my apartment as a hotel if and when they visited New York.

When I responded or called to check-in, I tried to hold onto the person they knew: exuberant, social butterfly. There were times I wanted to cry, and had it not been for the computer and printer, a few letters might have been tear-stained.

Part of me wanted to burn the old correspondence in a ceremonial pyre in the bathtub – couldn’t do it in a BBQ pit in Central Park – too public. Once burned to ashes, there’d be no recreating, no recapturing those moments in time.

One person who I grew to love as a friend, and perhaps had a secret desire for her to mother my children was J.B. The last time I saw her, she still had blonde Bernadette Peters-type curls, only wilder. I was a different man back then. I wasn’t as worldly and sophisticated as the men she attracted and dated. She dated men with two or three cars and at least one well-appointed home.

I miss her Texas twang and brilliant blue eyes. I miss her telling me that she’d get her act together and relocate to New York, just as soon as she realized her worth as a person and artist. She believed she wasn’t beautiful, smart, or talented enough to compete with the women in New York – southern women and their pageant mentality. The correspondence from Texas showed me more than anything else to remain focused no matter how grim my situation was or would become over time. There were times I envied J.B. and others for having the comforts I gave up. I missed going to Galveston, the Houston Galleria, or riding in an air-conditioned car on I-10. People up north regard Texas and Texans as other. They think all Texans ride horses and drive pickup trucks or at least a jeep. It’s a romantic, rugged notion, but far from reality.

In some of the correspondence, I detected an end before the author, something in their nervous penmanship or disjointed, obligated sentiment in their words. While I stood in front of the opened mailbox, eyes trying to digest each word and punctuation mark for fear of missing important news. Those were the worst type of letters or postcards to receive after a bad audition or long day at work. When I realized the communication was strained or absentminded, it made the climb upstairs laborious. I didn’t expect Pulitzer Prize worthy correspondence, just thoughtful and worthy of the envelope and stamp the author used to transport the missive.

These letters became addictive, the good ones, at least. All the more reason I felt dejected when they stopped. I remembered the scene in the movie, The Color Purple, when Shug Avery showed Celie where Mister hid letters from her sister in Africa. I identified with the look on Whoopie’s face and the way she rummaged through the backlog of letters. “They’s so many!” It was as if she were being bathed in liquid gold and champagne in an oversized tub with eunuchs fanning her with large ostrich feathers. That’s what I felt like when I read a good or great letter from family or friends, except for the eunuchs and plumes. In my fantasy, there were harem girls who fed me grapes and massaged my temples as one of them read a letter from my schoolteacher aunt in her perfect cursive or the curling, legible script of my self-appointed spiritual counselor.

Postcards from the edge of sanity, mine and others, were brief and detailed information fit for public viewing by the postal carrier – sometimes bragging about something I’d just as soon not know.

Letters and e-mails from Texas told of old high school schoolmates who’d fallen off their path of fame and fortune among Houston’s elite in and around River Oaks or West University. One person in particular was a loudmouth know-it-all who came from a questionable background and did his best to ingratiate himself with the school’s version of Beverly Hills, 90210 crowd. Those of us without silver spoons, trust funds, and an Alfa Romeo raised an eyebrow or curled a lip at his shameless exploitation and social ladder climbing. I didn’t pop a bottle of champagne when told he worked as a cashier at one of the lesser-known grocery stores, however fitting of his transparent efforts.

Letters from home over time pushed me farther away from the people writing and situations and places described within. I read some letters multiple times, with a different reaction each time. In addition to the postmarks, the correspondence began to age. I’ve yet to determine if they improved over time like a Chilean cabernet. We changed. We grew into different people, which wasn’t good for some involved. Some people chose negative feelings and to live in the past. I chose to polish the glass figurines in my menagerie, replace them in the curio cabinet for the last time, lock it and put away the key.

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