He Wrote, She Wrote Coming of age as pen pals

ESSAY

April 02, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen

When she was 10, she started writing me.

When she was 13, she wrote that she wanted to see the Doobie Brothers in concert, but her parents didn't want that.

When she was 16, she wrote that she was dating a wrestler named Joe Weidner, and I didn't want that.

When she was 17, she wrote that she dreamed we were kissing, and I lived off that paragraph for a year.

When she was 20, she stopped writing me.

Lila was my pen pal. She lived in Tennessee; I lived in Florida. Our dads were college buddies and she and I met on our family vacation in 1969. I beat her in Crazy Eights and she seethed.

For more than 10 years, we wrote each other. We grew up together until we grew up.

Lila called this newspaper last week. A different Lila, just calling the paper about something. You've stopped thinking about someone, then you hear her name and you can't stop thinking about her, all over again.

Between the ages of 10 and 20, I furiously wrote Lila. I wrote long letters in longhand in the days before I ever had a Smith Corona or Packard Bell. I wanted to move her, impress her, entice her with my words. I wanted a date.

But we only met twice in 10 years and not once did we fall in love.

It was just something we had in writing. Frankly, she wasn't the best pen pal. She couldn't keep up with me. I wrote her the day I got her letter -- her typical letter in her blue Bic ink -- always formally titled and margined. Then I'd wait weeks, maybe months to hear back. When I couldn't wait any longer, I wrote her again out of turn.

I was another John-Boy Walton but with a slightly better postal service to work with. To experiment in my letters, I'd refuse to capitalize words. Some boys smoked in the bathroom; others rebelled against punctuation.

lila, i finally got your letter. sorry your parents won't let you go to see the Doobie Brothers. i love the Doobie Brothers. have you heard "Take Me in Your Arms"? sometimes i think about taking you in my arms if we ever meet, but i know that sounds crazy.

Two months later, a letter would come from Lila:

Dear Rob,

How are you? I loved your letter. You are crazy!!! Anyway, I really liked it. Keep sending them!!!

I'm doing well. Cheerleading tryouts start in a week. Wish me luck!!!!

Luv ya,

Lila.

I'd turn the page hoping for some passionate P.S., something more delicious and inviting than "Luv ya." But she kept her letters tight and bright. I always felt cheated -- hardly luvved. Until, of course, Lila wrote The Letter.

She was 17. The Letter was two pages -- not the usual one. I read slowly, savoring the first page. It said nothing. Lila was dating someone and the prom was coming and should she go with him. Then, on the second page, she mentioned her dream.

She dreamed we had kissed. She said that, in writing. And then she dropped it without elaboration! I psychoanalyzed her dream -- using the training I absorbed in my 12th-grade psychology class, which was taught by Mr. Seifert, our basketball coach.

I relayed my findings to Lila in five letters. At the risk of sounding too scientific, I concluded for her: You dreamed about kissing me, therefore you should kiss me -- ASAP.

My Lila wrote back:

Dear Rob, I made cheerleaders!!! Our first game is in two weeks! I'm still dating Joe. He's on the wrestling team.

Have a great summer!

Luv ya,

Lila.

No P.S., of course.

In 1980, we met for the second and last time. She was at Georgia Tech in Atlanta; I had left college for a semester to drive alone to California. On the way home to Florida, I stopped to see Lila.

We had written for 10 years, swapped pictures and swapped dreams. We had shed childhood together. What would we do now in person?

I met her outside her dorm and can't tell you what she was wearing or what we said. Almond eyes, I do remember. She showed me some of my old letters, and I had a massive seizure. What human wrote like that?

We had dinner at Steak & Ale. I paid. Out of some obligation to each other or to our letters, we kissed. Wish I could remember more about that part.

I never saw her again.

Two years later, after she had stopped writing, I called her mom in Tennessee and got Lila's new number in New Mexico. She was working at the National Aeronautices and Space Administration. Living with a guy named Carlos. Maybe he was a wrestler, too.

I had a few Miller Lites, then I called. I got Carlos, who went and got Lila. Our short phone conversation sounded like a bad letter. She was so far away. Oh, hi. Decoded, what she really said was, why are you calling me here and now?

We are too old for this, Lila was saying.

We are older still.

=1 ROB HIAASEN is a features writer for The Sun.

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