Filed under: Patry Francis
When I entered high school, there was a war going on. Every night the local paper printed the addresses of soldiers who wanted to get mail. I wrote to every name on the list, and used my babysitting money to send them small gifts.
In most cases, I sent only one letter or package, but one Marine and I became close friends. We wrote sporadically, then weekly, and finally almost daily. I sent him a photograph, which he taped inside his helmet. He told people I was his girlfriend, though we both knew I would never be that. He was twenty-one and serving a second tour; I was fifteen and had never been away from my home or parents for more than a week.
He told me things that people who knew and loved him could not bear to hear. I related the small stories that arose in the life of a bookish high schooler, and he seemed to draw comfort from their dailiness. We shared jokes, and filled sheets of pale blue stationery with the lyrics of songs that we loved. I can still remember sitting at the kitchen table as I transcribed the words to “Blowin in the Wind.” When he wrote back to say that the song had come on the radio as he read my letter, I learned the meaning of serendipity.
He believed the war was a “just cause.” I was already participating in local protests. But our differing viewpoints never affected our friendship.
My father was drinking coffee in the kitchen and I was in my bedroom getting ready for school when my grandfather came in with the paper. The screen door slammed behind him.
“Patry’s friend is on the front page!” he announced. “He was killed in action.”
Even now, I can hear the sound of the door that door slamming, a kind of punctuation mark to my grandfather’s statement. I can feel the claustrophobia of my tiny bedroom with the roses on the wallpaper, and see my open bureau before me, my shirts piled in neat stacks. The one on top was as pink as those wallpaper roses.
The mail from that distant country was sometimes slow and unreliable. My friend had been dead for six months when the last letter arrived. I kept it for many years, but eventually, during one of life’s transitions, it was lost.
No matter. I not only remember every word, I remember how they looked on the page. Small, and slanted downward, all huddled at the top.
The letter was totally unlike any I had received from him before. There was no date or salutation, no stories or song lyrics, no noting the number of days till he’d be home. Just a question:
Did you ever think that maybe you were just a figment of your own imagination?
It was so many years ago now. My grandfather is dead– my father, who jumped up from the kitchen table when he heard the news–dead, too. And the room with the pink flowered wallpaper where I spent my childhood is a kingdom I can never re-enter, except through memory.
Only the question–cryptic, strangely prescient, and still utterly mysterious– remains.
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