Love Letter to a Young Man in a Foreign Land
Marie A Bailey
I’ve started this letter many times, and many times I’ve ripped the paper from my notebook, crumpled it into a tight ball and tossed it into the wicker wastebasket. The last time, the crushed paper ball ricocheted off the mountain of other paper balls and rolled under my bed.
The night you left, that December night where we stood outside my apartment, I told you I loved you. The sight of me had surprised you. You didn’t expect me to throw on my thin blue bathrobe and race down the stairs into the parking lot. The night sky was clear. The air was cold. You knew I was naked underneath.
I said, “I love you.”
You said, “Don’t say that. I might run away to another country.”
But you were leaving for another country. Ecuador. You had joined the Peace Corps and would be gone for two years. We had only been dating a few weeks, but I loved you already.
I’ve been writing this letter every night since you left. At first, I just wanted to get the pain out and on paper, hoping that I might at best numb myself. I thought you were perfect, yet you weren’t at all what I expected or had ever loved before. I had, until you, loved tall, dark, lanky men. Men made of wire, whose hair and eyes were black and unsettling. Men who were artists and slightly insane.
You are nothing like them. Fair skin, fair hair, blue eyes. Thighs like rocks from all your years of long-distance cycling. A chest with soft hair that I loved to rub my cheek against. You are made of muscle and sinew, and I disappear in your arms. You are analytical. An engineer. Your sanity is so sharp that I’m almost driven insane.
Except that I love you. And this is the one letter I haven’t yet sent. I’ve written other letters to you. Boring letters about the people we both know, the places we’ve both been, the movies you are missing. I sent you news clippings about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, articles from Harper’s Magazine. You wrote to me about the water tank you were building, the village you live in, the bartering you had to do for supplies, the language you barely know. You sent me alpaca yarn. You beg for letters. You are lonely.
You don’t say you love me and I haven’t said it since that night outside in the cold, dark parking lot. You held me tight then as you kissed me one last time. And then, in that coolly sane way of yours, you turned away. I stood and watched you go and realized that I was barefoot. Did you ever wonder how long I stood out there? Did you look for me in your rearview mirror as you drove away?
When, more than a year later, you invited me to visit you in Ecuador, I began making plans before writing to you to say yes. I researched flights and bought underwear from Victoria’s Secret. We had only three months to secure our plans. We had only letters. You were able to come to Quito one day to stand in line and then place one phone call to me that could last only ten minutes. I felt special. For you, though, this was simply life in Ecuador.
After only a couple of days with you, I made the mistake of telling you I still loved you, even that I would marry you. We were still in Quito, on the verge of taking a bus to Baños and beyond. We had been drinking. Voicing my fantasies unraveled the plans.
I had made the common mistake of thinking I was more than a friend to you, that I was the only woman you had invited. Rather, I learned, I was the only woman who had accepted your invitation. You became angry. I ruined everything, you said. I should have been angry too but instead, I prepared to accept defeat and return to the States early, hide in my studio apartment until my scheduled return to work, and then lie about my fun trip to a foreign land. I wondered if I could survive the lie.
In the morning, your anger was gone and instead of trying to find me an earlier flight back to the States, you suggested I stay longer. You didn’t want me to go back. I was the only friend who had regularly written to you, sent you cassette tapes of the Talking Heads. You wanted to show me Ecuador. I promised you I would not say, “I love you,” again. We would just have fun.
In the small touristy town of Baños, I followed you up a long steep curving trail, learning quickly that you are the sort to say, “We’re almost there!” at every bend. My left knee went out on the climb down and I had to sidle to keep the pain at bay. You thought it was funny and yet you declared that I was a “superior woman.” I was keeping up with you and I could see you were impressed. I met every challenge you threw my way, from spending a couple of dank nights at a hotel in Otavalo where hot water was available only a couple of hours a day, to standing in line for a shower at a hostel, to helping you clean up your apartment after another Peace Corps volunteer crashed it for a party.
At last, I had to leave and while you said again you would come back to the States, I didn’t kid myself anymore that you would come back to me. I didn’t let our growing ease with each other trick me into forgetting your anger that night, your sense of betrayal. You had only wanted a friend. What you needed then was a friend, nothing more, and I had let my own needs get in the way.
Now you are finishing your tour and preparing to return to the States. In your last letter, you wrote that you would come back to California. Not to me, you didn’t write that you would come back to me. Only that you would come back to this state, to this part of the country where we met.
And so I’m trying one last time to write this letter. To say again what I haven’t said since that awful night. I love you. But as soon as I write these words, the fear comes over me. Will those words drive you away? Should I toss this letter with all the others I’ve never sent, never finished? Should I wait? Should I wait for that moment when I’ve disappeared into your arms, my fingers tangled in the soft hair of your chest, my lips near your ear? And then can I say I love you, finally?
* * *
Epilogue: I waited. I never sent the letter but he did come back and when he came back it was to me. We have been inseparable since he drove back into my parking lot on a warm June night in 1986.