The mundane, status-quo of that Thursday receded as I surveyed the stack of mail that arrived for me. Yeah, some people still find relevant things that arrive via the postman, if you can believe it. One letter was a charity, looking for money to cure paralysis. A rather lofty and worthwhile cause, but it was just another charity that had come to me in recent weeks, seeking donations for causes of all sorts.
Another piece of mail was a Figis holiday catalog. Tis the season for holiday shopping, after all (note to readers: Figis specializes in edible gifts. I’ve had mixed results on stuff I’ve purchased from them. No, Clark, I will not buy you the Peanut Butter Pie).
But the words “RETURN TO SENDER” have that power sometimes.
Actually, the words weren’t “RETURN TO SENDER” at all. Stamped in red was the decree that the “APO / FPO CLOSED” and that the address the letter was intended for could not be reached. APO/FPO denotes an armed services mailing address. The thing is the letter itself was sent 16 months ago. Thus the disbelief it’d turn up back in my mailbox.
If I was writing fiction here and looking to make this a tear-jerker, I’d start rambling off about an old friend who had gone off to war and died, tragically, without getting a letter that had been sent to them and how this was a reminder about that loss and how the main character was trying to overcome it and remained haunted by it. You could milk that story for gallons of emotion and pull at heart strings… Well, at least a capable storyteller could, whereas I’m a blogger, so the “capable storyteller” element remains to be seen.
But that story concept isn’t the reality here, not entirely. No one died, thankfully… Though I can’t say there were no casualties and no one was harmed.
You meet people along the way in life, all sorts of characters under all sorts of circumstances. Some are bit players you notice but never get to know, while others are integral characters. Sometimes the roles shift and backdrop characters become integral. Sometimes, people exit, stage left, early on and you think they’ll never be part of your own story again, only for you to suddenly come face to face with them years later. Seldom, where there once was nothing, it becomes something… At least for a time.
I had that happen with a girl I’d known through middle school. We weren’t just acquaintances, but I wouldn’t say we were normal friends either. We had classes together and interacted with each other there. She boldly told me sometime in 8th grade that she was moving to Maine and would never see me again. For the most of 18 years, I didn’t.
Long story short, I was re-introduced to her in 2010 by a mutual friend. She was a US Marine, had a pair of kids and ties to the Tampa Bay area still… We had a thing for a short while before she headed overseas on a deployment. During that deployment, I was a constant state-side contact for her, emailing back and forth (when opportunity presented itself for her to email), sending out letters in the US mail, the occasional care package with mundane creature-comforts that are rare and precious to a deployed soldier.
And, to be blunt, let's just say I got hurt.
This letter, the one that arrived on a cloudy Thursday afternoon that’s sitting, unopened, on my dresser, was originally mailed in July of 2011 – shortly after the shit had hit the fan between the Marine and I. We hadn’t fought, there weren’t hateful things said toward one another, bridges weren’t burned, but I tried to step back and cut the cord from her emotionally for my own sake. This letter – one of 38 that I sent over the months – was one written when I decided to break the ice and re-establish contact with her.
Hurt or not, I felt like I couldn’t abandon her. Despite the heartache, my job wouldn’t be done until she was back in the States. Off and on for the remainder of her extended deployment, I tried to remain a dependable entity state-side that I had been before.
At this point in time, I can say that the Marine got home after her all-too-long stay at sea that lasted beyond the originally planned length of the undertaking for her unit. Unfortunately, despite her return, our friendship has faded. Unlike that bold little girl who moved away, there was no declaration of finality. It is just estrangement that’s turned to silence. She’s resumed a life state-side – one without me in it. The few times we had talked after her return, conversations were stifled by awkwardness and an inability to just be normal friends. It’s how it goes sometimes, right?
That letter that arrived with a stack of junk mail is a testament to my dedication to someone I care about. It’s also a reminder of a friendship that has been lost to the vastly different worlds we live in and the different people that we are.
One of the last conversations between us – electronically, not face to face – was musing about that long deployment and a package I had sent to her that had been returned to me last spring (five months after I sent it). The Marine told me that she had written an article or a journal entry somewhere about my correspondence, the 38 letters from John (all of which she did not receive).
The proof of that fact is sitting on my dresser, with an “APO/FPO CLOSED” stamp on it. I wonder how far it must have traveled before returning to my mailbox. What type of adventures did the letter experience on its trek of countless miles?
The distance of that letter’s journey in 16 months pales in comparison to the gauntlet of emotions I’ve dealt with during that time.