The One I Let Slip Away*

(for Carol**, wherever I may find her…though I likely never will…)

I still have her letters
a couple of dozen envelopes
postmarked in the spring and summer
of 1970.
Inside each hand-addressed envelope
are several neatly hand-written,
three-ring notebook pages,
the emotions, dreams and desires
of a nearly grown-up school girl
etched between the college rules.

These are actual letters –
the kind we don’t send any more.

She lived in Philadelphia.
I lived in Washington DC.
We met splashing in a fountain
after Nixon invaded Cambodia.
After that all we had was letters
because long distance was just
too expensive.

Right away
I’m reading
that she loves me.

And I’m reading that
she wants to be
an artist.

The letters are all addressed to me
But she seems to be writing
to a person
that I did not know.

I am trying almost desperately
to remember what she looked liked.

I want to see a photo
but the days when we wrote letters
when long distance was too expensive
were also the days
long before everything was a selfie.

Now all I have are these letters
and two or three faded mental photographs.

Across the decades
I see…
A pretty girl
long straight, light brown hair.
A shicksa goddess,
narrow but piercing green eyes
thin lips, a warm inviting smile.

Across the decades
I see
an embroidered cotton peasant blouse
the hippie chick uniform of the day.
She wears it well
though I have no idea if that is anything
she ever really wore.
It is just how I picture her
now.

Across the decades
I can’t quite see her whole face
But I do have a glimpse of her
naked.
It must have been the first time
we actually slept together.
Maybe that was the only time.
Where were we?
My apartment in Washington?
Did we meet somewhere in New York?
The home of a friend?
Furtive teenagers
with all the reason they needed
finally finding a place.

I see her kneeling on the bed
Alabaster skin
firm, uplifted
17 year old breasts.

Across the decades
That’s all I can clearly see of her.
That, and the look on her face that asks
“Is this OK?”

It was very OK.

I remember so much more now
because I have her letters
and they speak to me
across four-and-a-half decades
of a spirited young woman
flush in the the first wave
of self discovery.
A stoner
and a freak
just like me.

A mixed up kid
who found some strength
and affection
in even the distant presence
of another mixed up kid.

We could have been great traveling companions
Maybe we were soul mates
but something happened.

Her letters stopped coming in 1971.
Now, with all the technology at my fingertips
I wonder:
can find her?
Do I dare?
Is she even alive?
She was two years younger than me
But that was 45 years ago
And now
A lot of people our age
Are already dead.

In my first letter to her
I asked
“Is it real?”

In her last letter to me
She said
“It was real.”

But by then
the drugs had taken over
and I could no longer tell
what was real
and what was an hallucination.

After so many letters
that ended with
“I love you”

and
“Je T’aime”
– because we’d both taken French
in high school
and liked
the way that sounded –

The last letter ended with

“Take care,
Carol”

And it makes me sad
just seeing that now
and seeing
how fraught that closing is
with disappointment
and heartbreak.

And I wonder why
Why did I break that little girl’s heart.
because reading her letters now
is breaking mine.

And I want to reach through time
and hold her.
And I want somebody to reach through time
and hold me.

— — — — — — — — –

  • *Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir, “Time Capsule: 1969”
  • **Her name was Carol Schaeffer. Placed here in case she ever Googles her own name…
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