I’ve got a box of old letters hidden under my bed. Ok, it’s actually in my closet. I don’t keep shit under my bed because I live alone, have a ton of space, and am a goddamn adult. Anyway, the box is one of several low priority items that live on a shelf that’s hard to reach. Stuff like the box my laptop came in lives up there. And a bag I bought to carry a vintage alesis drum machine I got when it was not vintage at all. Incidentally, I made some really killer beats this one hour back in ’94 when I managed to hook that thing up. I even saved them. I bet they’re still saved and it still works and I’ll be famous soon.
Back to the Secret Box.
I’m not ever even sure which one it is once it’s put away, so it isn’t like a constant obsession or anything. I pulled it out last year because I was pretty sure I had stashed a tiny hookah I bought when I was 18 from a street vendor in Rome in there. I needed it because a girl I’d just had a fling with had left her weed here before getting on a plane back home to Barcelona, and I had no other way to smoke it. That in itself might make an interesting story, incidentally. She called me the other day. She just broke up with her Texan boyfriend and wants to Skype. I’m too shy to Skype; it always feels like I should be whipping my dick out at some point and who needs that pressure? Skyping is for Europeans and hormonal teenz.
I left the box open on my table for like 2 months.
So, this box is out, and it’s full of letters and I’m super ready to zoom down memory lane. Right? Especially in light of my post on googling your exes. I sort of can’t wait to paw through my old romances and then see just what the fuck they are up to now. I also have this secret agenda of gathering evidence that I’m some kind of dating sociopath, and wanted some fuel for the self-loathing fire. So I started pulling out these old letters.
I originally remembered this box being the receptacle for all the letters my early participation in internet chats earned me (in those days it was cheaper to get someone’s address and continue the conversation via post than to call or email, believe it or not). But I found a ton of letters that came from random high school hookups in underage dance clubs, or just girls I met out on the town or in school activities. Apparently letter-writing was a real thing. And apparently I took part in that thing.
And I didn’t just stash letters. I put shit over the years in there that I thought was meaningful in some way. Like a flyer we made to promote the band I was in (1995), or the phone number of that hot girl from a way better band(she was married, but breaking up). You can see a playlist from a radio show I did in the above pic, peeking out from beneath that mad happy envelope.
The biggest elephant in the box was from Florida.
So there I was, opening crayon-covered envelopes, squinting at inscrutable and inane conversations, looking for search terms that might net me some good image results. For a planned “where are they now” series that ultimately fizzled. But all I could really squeeze out of these in the way of identifying info were first names and home towns (from the return address). And then I got wrapped up in some correspondence I’d had with a woman named Janet, “call me ‘Nettie’.”
Nettie was by far the oldest “woman” I’d ever carried on a romantic conversation with. I met her when I was 16, on this dial-in bulletin board service called The Sierra Network (renamed the Imagination Network). There’s very little information online about this thing, but it was pretty epic. Like Compuserve and AOL, you dialed a local number and got plugged into a nationwide network of other people logging in from wherever.
Unlike those more business-oriented services, this one was focused on gaming with other people. It had spaces where people could sort of congregate (you saw lists of names that you clicked on for more info, and to see their avatar). There were chat rooms devoted to each game, where you’d be asked to play a game of hearts, for example, and the ability to do private chats. Anyway, I played cards online some, but mostly ended up in super long chats with people claiming to be ladies.
I feel like I want to point out that this was the time when people were getting married to other people they met randomly in chat rooms, sometimes without ever really spending any time together in person. People had no scruples/filters/barriers when it came to online conversations, and we all got pretty deep real quick. A friend of mine used the phrase “brains in jars talking to other brains in jars” to describe the fact we just instantly exposed our “core selves” to complete strangers and felt these cosmic connections across continents with people we absolutely didn’t know anything real about.
So anyway, I ended up chatting with Nettie until like 3am, and she told me I’d touched her deeply and made her cry, and felt like we’d really covered some emotional ground. I felt the same. She told me I could tell my friends I’d dated a 25 year old woman if I wanted to. Which at that age was a big score, although I wasn’t so naive as to not also feel like that was kinda dumb, pointless. We exchanged addresses and started writing letters. And that’s basically where that ends. I sent her some pictures, she claimed to not have any she could spare (pre-digital camera, one tended to be sparing with photos of oneself, so it was at least believable). She did sheepishly confess to having a child, and to having won some sort of bikini contest on account of her “bustiness.”
This could be her:
Going back through her letters is interesting. There was a lot of undercurrent I hadn’t picked up on, or maybe I did in a less worldly way. Most of it screams Florida white trash. She told me in one that she wrote “erotic poetry” and might share some with me as long as I promised not to tell anyone about it. Neighborhood boys were allowed to drink in her household. Some of my poorer friends had overly permissive parents with weird rules like that, so, no alarms went off, but I got gradually less interested in teasing stuff out. I can see this lessened enthusiasm reflected back in some of her letters.
I can see this waning interest reflected back in every letter I read, if it’s part of multiple correspondence. Lots of “please write back this time” and “I miss your letters.” In a way, the box feels like a record of relationship burnout. It’s weird I kept this stuff, in fact. It’s like I was (and still am) trying to prove I can form emotional ties with people. Not exactly bragging about conquests so much as reminding myself I can get people to care about me. I spent so much of the time convinced that no one gave a shit, that when someone put it in writing I had to keep it near. And old habits die hard. So I occasionally toss new mementos in with this stuff. A cartoon drawing an ex made of me flossing my teeth during a romantic getaway. A note reminding me that “someone cares about you deeply,” snuck into my pocket by a different ex.
I save these things because I’m attached to the sentiment they seem to embody, but taken as a whole collection it feels more like it’s a box of failures. Like a giant testament to the ultimate futility of establishing romantic connections. Ho hum. It feels good to get sad looking at them, so I’ll probably keep it up a while longer.