Billet Doux

As I write this, POI, in London for work, is reading a long email I wrote him late last night.

"I'm assuming you'll read this in the morning, hence the subject line - and indeed the sun should be showing her face in your part of the world soon."

"You call everything 'her'," he texts, "I don't think the sun is so equipped." 

I type a single question mark and wait patiently for the wiseacre remark, sure to come. 

"No sungina," he responds. 

My mother would call this, "Playing piano to a cow." 

Nearly a year ago,  POI and I had our fifth date. We had dinner, then went back to his apartment where I met the rest of his roommates and visited the rooftop. It was the second New York rooftop I'd visited thus far - the first had been a swanky lounge/club called PhD to which POI invited me on our second date.

"Meet some peeps," he had said, when really he meant nearly twenty of his closest friends in New York City.

"Will they let me in if I only have my bachelor's?" I joked.

We were texting, but he had slapped his head, groaned. A few months later he would bring it up again and I smiled, knowing I had crafted a really good terrible joke.

We said goodbye a few days later, the fifth date. What is this obsession with numbering the dates, you wonder. Not an obsession - just a statement of what to me, seemed at the time to be crucial facts. Prior to POI I had never gone on more than three dates with anyone.

So that night, to be walking by the giant post office on 8th Ave., a massive reminder of a dying art - seemed a marvel in itself. We strolled alongside the steps and I recall thinking how odd and quiet that street was. I felt too, a light feeling - it's called "hope," I think. I thought about his rooftop from where the bright red sign of the New Yorker hotel could be seen.

I could, I said to him, not would - could - write to him when he was in London. But of course I would.

"I haven't written a letter in...probably twenty years," he said.

This was the expected answer. I was already doing that thing where I lowered expectations because I was beginning to like someone.

"I'll write," I offered, "You email."

"No no," he said, "I can pop out a few letters," (or something to that effect).

A few days later he left. As he was boarding the plane, I sat at my desk - my large white New York desk, still relatively unused - and wrote a few, carefully balanced lines to him on a hideous New York post card I'd bought at a tourist shop. Uncharacteristically, I added a feminine touch and sprayed it with perfume (though looking back this step was unnecessary and most likely exacerbated the myriads of odors - especially that emitted by the crazy crazy homeless man who hangs around the particular letterbox - that were sure to infuse the postcard along its journey). I mailed it that same hour, before his feet even touched British land.

It's in his possession now, perched precariously at the edge of his dresser along with the rest of my notecards and letters, sent steadily over the four months he lived in London. There are letter-pressed New York greeting cards with a few lines - "I miss you! See you soon!" - and stuck in between, multi-pagers on lined notebook paper, some written in cafes, others in spurts during tedious lectures and seminars- "I am sitting in my Spy Novel class and some girl is droning on and on about feminism. The professor is trying very hard to look engaged...." etc. etc. Even when I write, I like to hear myself talk. But that's beside the point.

He never wrote me back - not longhand - but there were phone calls, text messages and short, practical emails, mostly logistics regarding my trips to London. Though once, when I had not heard from him via text or email for two days and despaired that his affections were waning, I found in my inbox later that night a sonnet written to near perfect iambic pentameter.

It was one of those things; you're supposed to read it quietly and go to bed with a wan, wide smile while keeping certain cards close to your chest - but I told him immediately that I was speechless. Which, if you think of it, is an outright lie.
Edward Hopper,  "Hotel Room"   1931 Oil on Canvas 
Despite his never writing back, despite his never responding outright to anything I wrote in my letters (this is fine because I don't ask questions in my letters. I show and tell), not once did I suspect him of casting my lengthy epistles aside (as some of my best friends have admitted to doing so). This is the modern letter writer's entitled presumption. Like psychopaths and greasers, we are an uncommon breed (says the blogger too). A handwritten note is not only rare, it's more thoughtful; to write by hand is to use a different part of the brain, a part closer to the heart. Thus to receive a handwritten letter, when the writer in question could very well be writing other things to other people... that's equivalent to saying, You're welcome. I made you feel special. 

But that's not why I did it. For the most part - and accomplished letter writers adhere to this rule lest we waste precious time and costly, fancy stationery: know your audience. I knew POI to be a reader. And I knew him to be "into me," as the lingo goes.


When I visited London, I saw that he had propped the greeting cards up on a shelf. I asked where he kept the letters.

"The ten pagers?"

I laughed.

He pulled open his bedside drawer. I saw them there, scattered like old friends at a slumber party.

"What did you think," I said, "'Whoa this Betty blathers on and on?'"

"No," he said. We were not there yet - the stage of being honest. "I mean, you can get really serious sometimes (POI code for 'sappy') but some parts of certain letters were pretty funny."

He sat down at the edge of the bed to look for the excerpts and I left the room - not because I wasn't interested but because the "replies" I was looking for I found. He had kept my letters.


"Letters are just pieces of paper. Burn them and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish." 

                                                   -Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood 


Sometime in the middle of last week, I was automatically charged another ten dollars to renew as a domain name. 

I nodded to nobody - it was an email - and returned to the task at hand: retagging all my old published posts to organize them in a more accessible way. It's kind of like what I do best - reorganizing old clothes (stripes, sleeve length, thickness, color) - but in the digital sphere. Mostly with words. I'm not quite done, but the new "system" is more or less in place. 

That drawer I was afraid to open because I thought all my old sweatpants and badminton shirts would come tumbling out? Things are getting folded. The stuff that doesn't quite belong, I've deleted or moved into other, secret compartments.


I'm giving something away here.

I wouldn't call myself a romantic, not outright, but being the sort of reader who devours the weekly Vows columns in both the New York Times and the Washington Post and the sort of writer who claims, over and over again that she likes to write "about people and relationships" implies as much.

In a childish, nasally voice, I put my arms akimbo and say, "I am what I am."

POI, who despises sentimentality, often rolls his eyes and calls me a sap.

I like to rebut, "One of us has to be."

He is in the same camp as my father when it comes to things like tears.

"What's their purpose," POI says, "I don't get it."

But he does. More than once he's seen me cry, and more than once he's put his arms around me and said, "I don't like to see you so sad."


Even at thirteen I knew patience was a virtue. I dressed in the high-waisted khaki shorts and forest green polo shirts required by my (public!) middle school and felt like an ugly duckling. I looked ahead to sixteen. 

"Sixteen," I said to myself, "That's likely when I'll have my first boyfriend." 

What's that Yiddish proverb? Man plans, God laughs. 

At sixteen no such character appeared. There were boys, but I wasn't so different from them. I started playing badminton and gained thirty pounds. I looked ahead to eighteen. 

"Eighteen," I thought, "That'll be the year. I'll lose the weight. My hair will be longer. That guy (or hopefully most guys) will begin to see me in a romantic light." 

Eighteen came and went. Pounds were gained and lost. Hair grew. Was cut short. Grew again. Was cut short. Again. I turned twenty-one, my next "Ah yes, this will be the year" year, but it too, passed quietly sans a kiss or a even a brushing of fingertips. I had thought, when I embraced the ice cream maker my friends bought me for my birthday in the quiet Irvine apartment I shared with my brother, that I heard the window pane rattle. 

"Embrace that ice cream maker," said a sunny whisper, "Embrace the friends who gifted it to you. Embrace the giant burrito you're about to eat in that suburban chain Tex Mex restaurant and the laughs you'll have. You're a child still." 

I did. That night, I washed a Pizookie down with my first Jagerbomb at another suburban chain restaurant. I laughed a lot, to the point where I got hot and had to take off the emerald green hoodie I favored in those days. The years following, I made a lot of ice cream and embraced those friends many times over. 

A few years before I was eighteen and a freshman at NYU. Despite being surrounded by people, I felt lonely. It's a common complaint of life in the city, not just this city. I watched a lot of Law and Order: SVU and read a lot of Anne Tyler novels. In theory, I was "glad" to be in New York, a city I'd always been fascinated by and felt an indecipherable tie to. Mostly because I watched a lot of movies and TV shows that had been set here. It's a special place, I knew this. 

I lived on one side of Washington Square Park. I don't remember which side despite having written my address down twenty, thirty times over because I wrote many letters in those days. More than I do now. In theory, I was proud of that address. I could look ahead to a more successful (and perhaps deceased) version of myself and see people walking past Goddard Hall, pointing to the second (or was it the fourth) floor.

"That's where the writer Betty lived, during her one semester at NYU." 

It happens like that though. You get used to some things. You develop routes and routines. When you're lonely and unhappy it's easy to shuffle by. I (sometimes) went to class, ate lunch, came home, watched TV or blogged or read. I went out most often at night - not to bars or clubs but to take laps around the park, always alone. I hardly ever ventured beyond 14th street or below Houston. I saw very little of the city. 

One October evening I stepped out of the shower and into the hall which I shared with two other girls who were out. They were embracing the city. My roommate had left the window open and I a.) smelled the crisp fall air and b.) realized I was standing in a dorm room on the edge of Washington Square Park in New York City. I stood in front of my closet with the towel wrapped around me and was for five seconds supremely happy. I'm in New York, I thought. Everything I want, I get. 

The moment passed however, and a few months later I left New York. I might have thought briefly, "I'm done with this place," but it was one of those things I could neither write down nor say aloud. 


On Sunday night, I lay in the crook of POI's arm. I asked him if it was uncomfortable. I always do. My head gets heavy because I have a big brain. 

"You're fine," he said. He always does.  

Later in the night we'll shift - mostly apart because POI gets hot. But for the time being I stayed on his shoulder, listening to the blood pulse through the veins in his arms. The windows were closed; there was no breeze save for the rattle of POI's disappointing AC unit. But that crisp fall sensation I felt so many years ago in Greenwich Village revisited me. For a minute I forgot where or who or how old I was. 

The moment passed, just like the one before and just like the moments that'll come later. Moments that make you say, "Whoa." Then pause. Then, "Oh. Everything is as it should be." 

A few months later I'll still be here. It's one of those things I can write down and say aloud. 


In elementary school, I made a girl fall and then kicked her in the stomach. Partly out of spite, and partly because I found myself standing in a warped moment possessing strange schoolgirl power that was so rarely in my hands. I forget why I kicked her - I'll call her Lucy - most likely for no reason at all except that I disliked her. She had thick short hair, crooked, self-trimmed bangs - a dirty neck. She was fat. Her mass bothered me.

She wanted to be friends with me and my friends though ironically, we were ourselves constantly on the fringe of breaking up. Fractious factions so common to schoolyards filled with little (mostly Korean) bitches.

We were playing some schoolyard game or other. Or perhaps she had said something and I had pushed her. She fell heavily to the asphalt, landing on the corner of an empty foursquare court and I took the opportunity, lunging forward to kick her in the stomach. Not hard enough to send her vomiting, but hard enough so that she felt great discomfort in the soft flesh of her belly. (I have never been kicked in the stomach, so I have difficulty describing the sensation. Perhaps it feels like an external stomachache?) She lay on the ground, clutching her stomach and moaning, trying very hard not to cry. She did anyway, in a quiet, accepting way.

I looked around for angry adults but saw none. But still, she was taking her time rolling around the pavement and I feared a teacher would see this scene and think I had something to do with her odd position on the ground.

"Get up," I hissed.

She whimpered.

"Get up," I stomped my feet, threatening to kick her again.

Like a beached seal, she rolled away from me.

"Why did you do that?"

"Do what?" I was prepared to lie through my teeth. No one had seen me kick her, I don't think. I had moved quickly and was now standing straight up, hands in my pockets.

"You kicked me," she wailed.

"I didn't."

"Yes you did."

"Get up. Just get up." I reached down to help her up but she pushed my hand away.

"Suit yourself," I put my hands back into my pockets. The bell was about to ring. "I didn't kick you. You fell."

I walked away that day feeling tough in a shallow way. Was I a bully now? She never told on me - and why would she? She had no bruise to show for it, no proof except for the dried tears around her eyes. Physically she dwarfed me and had an anger management problem, an unfortunate result of being a poor communicator. She frustrated easily and was prone to cry. I recall many times wrinkling my nose in disgust as she sobbed over elementary school equivalents of spilt milk and wondered if she would still act this way if she could see herself in the mirror. Tall for her size and extremely muscular, she had one haircut for the entire time I knew her and dressed in boys' clothes, which I couldn't decide if her mother chose for her or were her own taste. And yet even at that young age I recognized something harmless in her - that despite her heft, she was utterly incapable of causing the harm I had caused her. I kicked her out of contempt, a feeling she felt towards no one - not that she was purely good, but that she had no high horse to climb up on while I, at the age of nine or ten, had many such phantom steeds.

We were friends and then we weren't. These labels depended on which way the winds were blowing from more powerful alpha girls - but even when we were "friends," I knew we wouldn't be for long. That was the nature of friendship in elementary school (and sometimes now): ever changing, trend driven, material based. I was allowed to hang out with my friends if I dressed a certain way, used certain words ("bunghole" and "hernia" were class favorites, as in, "Don't have a hernia, you bunghole.") and sometimes, although extremely rare, I would find myself at the center of command, capable of making or breaking someone's social worth because the other girls had suddenly decided my opinion mattered.

Early on, I learned this lesson which takes some people a lifetime to unlearn, provided they have the opportunity: Caring is death. Nonchalance is queen. It wasn't until middle school, when I consciously separated myself from these poison friendships and became friends with open-faced people who shared my sense of humor, my (feigned) disinterest in boys, my love for BBC America and movie-hopping that I learned a different set of rules which seemed to take me much further in my relationships: Loving people who love you back is much more fulfilling. Reciprocity is queen, along with caring, kindness and generosity.

And I was lucky too that around the same time, the former queen bees of my elementary school were learning the same things, within their respective groups so that by the time high school rolled around we found ourselves sitting next to each other in our honors and AP classes, inches taller, emotionally smarter, ready to rekindle old friendships in a genuine, lasting way. We were, after all, girls who had grown up together - if we couldn't care about each other, whom could we care about?

But noticeably missing from our reunion was Lucy, the girl I'd kicked in the stomach. Somewhere along the way she had fallen behind, or dropped out intentionally from the path we were traversing, choosing to take another road altogether and probably make new friends. She attended our rival high school which was tucked away in some valley just a few miles away. I thought often of her and the day when I kicked her in the stomach. It was a good story to tell - I was then starting to know the value of being a raconteur - but I always came up blank when people asked with incredulous faces, "Why? Why would you kick her?" There was no moral to my story. I had acted monstrously for a few minutes on a school day afternoon. In the moment, as my leg was swinging, my blind blanked. I felt the rush of some illusory justice - she had annoyed me, assaulted my senses, angered me somehow. A swift kick was her just dessert.


Summer Evening, 1947 by Edward Hopper

POI and I were chatting online.

"I'm thinking about going home the weekend of June 20th," he wrote, "There's a baseball game. Are we doing anything that weekend?"

I checked my calendar.


I was sitting at work, my mind flitting between whatever task was at hand and the myriad of windows I had open from Then it occurred to me that POI's question was a bit strange.

The last time he had gone home to visit his family he had booked his tickets without informing me. Not that he had to, but it had been on the weekend of his birthday, a weekend, I thought, quite suitable for taking me along to meet the family. But when I brought it up casually, carefully, at a dim, dive bar in Brooklyn while celebrating a classmate's birthday ("You're right," POI had said, looking around with raised eyebrows at the characters smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and dressed in purposefully mismatched thrift store rags, "You MFA'ers are a weird bunch.") it was apparent our thoughts were misaligned.

"I'm not in any rush to meet any parents," he had said. The implication was that I probably felt the same way. He put a hand up for emphasis. Waved it, like washing a window. Or backing away from it.

I nodded, shrugged. Okay, good to know.

Now a little over two months later, he was going home again.

A lot can happen in two months.

I considered his question, then typed, "This is just you going, right?"

"Well I don't know," he wrote, "We'd have to figure that out too."

I paused. In the world of clear responses, POI's words had no place. I didn't have time for limbo. I had things to move around on spreadsheets.

"Do you want me to go with you?"

"Do you want to go."

My boss asked me to spellcheck something for her. Two seconds later, a sales intern leaned over his computer to inquire if a sell sheet he'd requested was coming along.

"Sure," I said, and to the intern, "Yeah yeah." The whole time, eyeing POI's chat box.

POI is typing... 

"You would probably have to hang out with my parents."

Oh really? Meeting someone's parents entails spending time with them? I rolled my eyes, pursed my lips. If the intern saw, he smartly deduced his sell sheets would have to wait.

I took a deep breath. "Do you want me to go?"

Of course I wanted to meet his parents, but... I exhaled as I typed the rest:

"...only if you want me to meet them."

POI is typing...

Betty gets ready to fume...

It was nearly 6PM. POI was readying to leave for a beer while I still had another hour left at work. It was, as Gchat conversations about serious things tend to go, veering into the valley of miscommunication, where grassy slopes are strewn with the corpses of relationships cut short. Strangled by misinterpreted words sent digitally rather than face to face. I am no good at avoiding this valley. I could probably have typed us both into nooses. POI, thankfully, is not.

"This might be one of those things we are better off figuring out in person," he said.

I paused. My instinct was to "yell" at him in capital letters, something along the lines of, "YES OR NO! YES. Or. NO," But it was such a simple call to reason and I felt an odd wave of relief.

I nodded to no one in particular and typed an answer in agreement. It would be much better in person.

Other People Do It Better: Brian Doyle on the Heart

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end - not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of the child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman's second glance, a child's apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother's paper ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father's voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children." 

- Bryan Doyle, "Joyas Volardores," The American Scholar, Autumn 2004

Work, Life

It's apparent, after just two weeks working at my new job: I'm not cut out for this sort of thing. "This sort of thing" being what most people call a "real" job. 9 to 5 or, as in my current situation, 9:30 to 6:30, sometimes 7:30, sometimes later, depending what time my overburdened boss gets back to her desk and catches her breath, drinks water, eats something, and finally, finally, has her attention collected enough to focus on me, the hapless new girl who some five, six years ago might have been able to pass off her incompetence as relative to her age and general inexperience but who now, at the age of twenty-eight, is five to six years older than most of the other whippersnappers at the burgeoning startup and it's starting to show in her brain. In dog years.

I usually have about two minutes, maybe three, to ask her all the questions I've accumulated throughout the day. Questions that no matter how resourceful I try to be (or perhaps I no longer know how to be resourceful) I could not quite answer or wrap my brain around. I'm often embarrassed to ask them, even though my boss is kind and cheery - the sort of woman who says, with the utmost earnestness, "There is no such thing as a stupid question." Though of course there is. You just don't know until you hear it.

If she hears one, she hides it well.

My incompetence has much to do with sleep - or lack thereof - but I've walked into the office feeling refreshed on the rare instances when, the night before, I went to bed before midnight and the end - or the noon and afternoon and early evening result - is always the same: mental fatigue like you wouldn't believe. Like I'm solving Algebra II problems all day (Not everyone took calculus in high school). Except I'm not. Not even close. I'm pulling stuff from one Excel-like document into another. I'm asking people if certain things can be pushed back; asking other people if other things can be nudged forward. I'm chasing down the Creative Director only to realize he's not even in building but downstairs, smoking. Savoring a brief moment of peace while looking up at a narrow strip of sky between our building and the next. Or checking his phone for World Cup scores.

That need I can understand. I do the same thing, except I don't smoke or watch soccer. I drink glass after glass of water which naturally, prompts an unnatural number of bathroom breaks. The office's bathrooms are wonderfully designed - each stall is a fully enclosed room - a cell, more like - with a bolt lock that flips a tiny sign on the outside from green to red. "Occupied," it states, just like in airplane lavatories where you never get people pounding or pushing because they know someone's in there. I don't sob from stress or anything. I do, from time to time, just stand. I stare at the toilet and think, "What am I doing here?"

Then I go back outside and ask my boss, if she's around, more questions. Mostly, why things are the way they are.

Sometimes her answers make sense, "I don't know," she'll say, "It was like this when I got here but I'm trying to change it." Those answers make me feel better because I don't know either. Except I realize I'm not trying to change anything and then I don't feel better. I feel worse.

I'm also doing a lot of random things that remind me of my old assistant job where one time, I randomly had to drive an hour to Long Beach to pick up fresh uni for my boss's wife so she could gift it to some other boss's wife. Or that other time, when I had to run out and buy nice napkins because there were important people coming for a luncheon and all we had were paper towels. But it makes more sense here, the random things I'm asked to do because I'm assisting a whole team rather than a single person, though when I think about it, this whole team is subject to the whims of a single person. Namely, the Big Boss. Which is why, last Friday, I took three cabs to three separate Staples to buy a special kind of label paper that apparently, is a hot item because it sells like hotcakes.

"I guess everybody be buying the big labels," the guy said at the Hell's Kitchen Staples, (while I commend the employee for his use of alliteration, I recommend you avoid this particular Staples unless you like ultra-depressing office supply stores that stock everything from soda to magazines to Fourth of July t-shirts, all haphazardly displayed, except for the single office supply you need).

The label paper isn't special in itself. It's just a whole sheet, because the Big Boss likes big labels and we were making special binders with special big labels for a big special meeting and it had to be this and we were on a time crunch and oh my goodness, look at that mess of an office supply cabinet: we were out.

"Do you mind..." my boss began, and I finished her sentence, the one thing I picked up from my last "real" job:

"I'll run to Staples and get some more."

What I didn't anticipate was having to run to three Staples and finding myself on the East Side 5th Avenue Staples, which is so much nicer than the Hell's Kitchen one it might as well have been Bergdorf's vs. Marshall's. What I didn't anticipate was having a lot of time to think about things.

At my old job, I often had to take my boss's expensive car to the dealership or gas station. He would drive from his house to the office and then drop the keys on my desk.

"Gas," he would say, or, "It needs maintenance." If it was a particularly busy day, I would groan inwardly (sometimes outwardly) because those tasks took up precious time. But once I got behind the wheel, I'd be reminded that my boss and I shared the same preprogrammed radio stations (or perhaps it was his pre-teened daughter) and the drive to Chevron or to Audi Mission Viejo was not so bad. I would sing along to Rihanna or Nicki Minaj and smile at the people driving by who were amused both by my shameless crooning and by the fact that a very young woman was driving a very expensive car. But on many of those drives, I was anxious and drove with a foot much heavier than necessary; I had things to do back at the office, each and every one which seemed crucial and urgent; they could (at least as I imagined such things back then), affect my boss's impression of me. I would grip the smooth walnut woodgrain steering wheel and struggle to sit up in the ergonomically designed italian leather bucket seat. I would wonder if God was playing a joke on me for praying for specific things like, "To live in the lap of luxury."

I probably wasn't specific enough.

Mostly though, I wondered what I was doing if it was essential.

My old boss was a wise man. One day, after I'd spent many hours redoing simple tasks that I should have just done right the first time, my boss tapped my desk as he was leaving the office for the day. He had a dinner engagement somewhere. The driver was waiting outside.

"You waste your own time when you don't pay attention," he said, sympathetic in his own way, "No one else is going to take pride in your job. You have to do it."

I considered this. The next morning, I made sure to put coffee in the coffee pot.

Every job is supposedly essential to the organization it operates within. (Duh) As an assistant, I knew how I was essential, though because it was in such an assortment of ways, the big picture was vague. Now, I'm a "coordinator," my function more or less the same. People come to me for answers they assume I have. For deadlines they assume I know and schedules they assume I keep. They come to me to be connected to other people, mostly my boss, who is hardly ever around. I nod towards her empty desk with a look, "The seat is empty. Draw your own conclusions." But always, there is the familiar (and accurate) feeling I had as an assistant when even on my best days, when I forgot nothing and my boss and I and the company at large operated in perfect harmony, that someone else could and would, in due time, do my job better. This thought bothers me most. Not because I'm a perfectionist - far from it - but because I'm more competitive than I appear. More ambitious than I give myself credit for. So, writing. There's always that.

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