The difficult art of keeping in touch – What writing can and can’t accomplish

 

Ever since I skipped town, left the country, switched continents, my friends and I have been separated by space, time and, increasingly, language. Late last year, after nearly ten years away from home, I decided to put an end to all of these friendships.

There was no unified strategy to it, and it didn’t entirely work. Some people I ghosted, ignoring birthdays I had always made a point to acknowledge. Others, really one other, got an email that wished her the best. Nothing was said explicitly, but the tone and length of the message conveyed enough. I didn’t get a reply. I wasn’t expecting one.

Two truths and a lie:

I am never homesick – I am terrible at keeping in touch – Internet abolishes distances.

I am never homesick. Even as a young child I would leave my parents to go spend the entire summer holiday at one of my grandmothers and utterly forget to call despite the hurt admonitions of my mother. Eventually whomever I was visiting would corner me inside and I would drag my feet to the phone. What was the point of being away if you also had to be back there?

I am still not good at being in two places at once.

It should have been easier though. By the time I left, internet had allowed emigrants to rebrand themselves as expatriates, our mortal flesh in a distant land but our spirit forever connected to people whose familiar faces we can summon at the click of a button. Skype was still an unreliable novelty, but it helped smooth over the transition with family; it still does. I call my parents in the morning, disheveled and unshowered, they answer in their pajamas, seven hours ahead of me. Yet, I never extended this informal routine to my friends, partially out of coquetry, but also because I sensed that regular video conversations would be an unhappy medium, the screen right here, my friend all static and absence.

So we write. Wrote. Emails and letters mostly, with the occasional facebook comment. It worked well enough, at the beginning.

To my best friend I would write the longest emails, detailing my “adventures” and asking questions about hers. I intended the tone to be lively and immediate, I wanted her to hear my voice pop out of the screen so she would grab her keyboard with both hands and shout back right away. Two to three months later, she would reply, often in a long and detailed email that showed she phrased things as carefully as me. Three to four months later, I would reply. Fueled by guilt, I would spend an entire afternoon crafting an email that would be worth her while, would redeem the lost time in between. The cycle continued until it came to feel too much like an obligation, which prompted me, one day, to send her a frustrated email signifying that our friendship just wasn’t working anymore, thanks a lot, bye now.

We had known each other since we were two.

Although the wording of the email was harsh and unfair, it was true to my feelings. This way of staying in touch was not working. Our talks of romance, pets and work made for good conversation but lacked flair in writing.

This is when I decided on another strategy. After our initial break-up things sat right for a little while. A few weeks later she replied in a pained, measured email and we resumed our correspondence, trying to do a little better at first then again, falling behind.

But it was alright because I had opened a second front. Since factual updates could be fairly dull I decided to send her some prank letters through a friend who was on a mission to visit every country in the world.  I entrusted him with ridiculous letters: she was denied church membership in Ghana, offered the chance to become phonepal with a FIFA sponsored “guest” worker in Qatar, got a Napoleonic ancestor in Chile, incurred an official blame for using a selfie stick in a Beijing museum… twelve letters total. I gleefully wrote them, photoshopping logos and emblems when necessary while chuckling in anticipation… oh this one was really going to make her laugh. Once I got word the letters were sent, I would discreetly fish for a reaction in our emails. I waited and waited. Nothing.

Finally about a year after the beginning of the affair, I was due for a visit. During our first meeting I casually mentioned having received bizarre political mail from Mexico. She told me she had gotten weird letters with foreign stamps herself, had opened a couple and put the rest in the trash.

Oh.

The possibility had never occurred to me. But there it was, clear as day, the letters had been addressed to her, but really they were meant for me. After that we tried and failed to Skype, then tried and failed to text via Whatsapp, until I decided to send that email wishing her the best.

 

When you move, home isn’t just back there, it’s also back then. You’re not creating common experiences, vivid new memories, you are simply exchanging updates. Then, inevitably, the question becomes what for? A monument to nostalgia, a matter of protocol, a tribute to what was, like putting a rose on a grave?  Would we have been bad friends for severing all ties the day I stepped into the first airplane to the United States? After all, I was just as absent on the first night of that first day away, than I am now. Was writing a promise that could not be kept, was it actually emphasizing the distance in our very attempt to distend, dislocate ourselves? Had I been a better writer, would have been able to leap out of the page for her? Should we have tried to refashion ourselves into characters worthy of a long correspondence? Would it have mattered that it wasn’t true?

Some of my friends entirely ignored my ghosting attempt and together we keep negotiating the absence of the other, without trying to deny it, to have café-style conversations, without trying to stick to a narrative or a timetable. They taught me that friends come and go, and come again and that a good writer does not try to rush to the end of the story.

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