I live in the country but not on a farm.
This was the box my brothers and I marked in the pale green 4-H record books whose appearance announced the end of another steamy Kansas summer.
The designation seemed so perfect that I sometimes wondered if they’d added it just for us. We had no tractors, no feed lots, no fields to plow. My father worked for the state, not for himself.
And yet, we did have those two cows in the barnyard, and the twenty or so chickens next door, and the garden and the miniature orchard with the apricot tree we cheered on each spring, only to watch its blossoms lose their fight with a late freeze, year after year.
One fall day, after the record books had been turned in, I was wandering our non-farm when I came across a bright red balloon that was trapped in the fence near the apricot tree. I assumed the balloon had escaped from one of the plywood signs people sometimes nailed to trees next to our gravel roads to guide people to parties — eye-catchers alongside an arrow and a hastily scrawled Turn Here!
When I got closer to the fence line, I saw that this was no ordinary country balloon. This balloon had an envelope tied to it — an envelope that looked like someone had dragged it through our barnyard on the bottom of the boots my brothers and I wore when we fed the cows and chickens. Its corners were crumpled and its body was creased and it had stains that could very well have been poop-related.
Despite the envelope’s unkempt appearance, I was intrigued. The balloon had clearly arrived from Somewhere Else — one of those places all those people were going on all those airplanes that crossed our section of the Kansas sky, leaving contrails that looked like a game of Missile Command frozen by the unreliable Atari my brothers and I had inherited from a family friend. I was fascinated by the contrails, wondering where those people were going, wondering if I’d have the guts to join them, wondering what contrails even were.
So, like a stranded sailor who’s found a corked wine bottle washed up on his beach, I ripped open the stained envelope.
The letter inside was from a boy named Dustin who was about my age and who went to school in a small town in Nebraska — a comparatively far place best known for its football team, its corn, and how the first was named for the second.
At the behest of a wildly optimistic teacher, Dustin and his classmates had written letters to prospective pen pals before attaching those letters to balloons like the one I’d come upon, in the hopes that someone like me might write back.
I had questions.
How had Dustin’s balloon made it all the way from where he lived in Nebraska to where I lived in Kansas? What were the odds that I would find it? Or, for that matter, that anyone would find it? His balloon could have landed in the field across the road, or in the top of one of the cottonwood trees that towered over our property. It could have gotten caught in a power line, or at the end of one of the satellite dishes that people in trailer parks invariably had, even though they lived in trailer parks.
Then again, none of that had happened. Dustin’s letter had landed where I could find it. So I went inside and got out a pencil and a piece of paper and told Dustin I was fine and asked him how he was and explained my life to him. I probably used cursive because I had just learned cursive. It is likely that I told him about my two parents and two brothers and two dogs. I almost certainly mentioned baseball cards.
Dustin and I exchanged handwritten letters for a few months. Then, thanks to more immediate concerns, which for me included those baseball cards, the episodes of He-Man I watched with my brothers every day after school, and a longtime goal of getting a stick to float all the way down the drainage ditch that ran from the apricot tree to the barnyard, our correspondence fell apart, and my pen pal was lost to the fogs of the wider world, which I hoped, for Dustin, included growing up to be a “fierman.”
For me, the fogs involved Little League baseball games and Boy Scout camping trips and middle school dances where I huddled in a corner, avoiding the scary girls huddled in the opposite corner. In high school, I learned about physics and chemistry and interrupted the path of a curveball with my face, ending the baseball career that had seemed so promising back in Little League. I went to more dances, where I continued to huddle, avoiding the scary girls, who were now doing less huddling but might as well have been.
And then, after a blustery May day at the football field in my small town marked the end of childhood, it was time to follow the contrails. First, thanks to my grades, to Iowa for college. Then, thanks to my ability to put a ball through a hoop, to Greece and Spain and Russia and Atlanta and Chicago and Phoenix and Los Angeles. And Budapest and Buenos Aires and Basque Country, and now I’m just trying to impress you with my understanding of alliteration.
As I explored my versions of Somewhere Else, I didn’t have much cause to think about Dustin. Or pen pals, generally. Until, that is, I overcame (some of) my fears vis-à-vis the scary girls, and started going on dates. Real dates, I mean — the kind that involved me picking someone up from her apartment and driving her to a restaurant, where we made jokes about the waiter and the bad bread, and after which we sometimes kissed.
It was after one of these dates — not one of the ones that involved kissing, probably — that I had a reason to think about Dustin and the bright red balloon.
Going on dates is always a hopeful enterprise. It is also usually a futile one. Dating, then, has a lot in common with trying to find a pen pal by attaching a letter to a balloon and sending it into the sky. It isn’t just that dates rarely go as we think they should — that we can’t control the way people respond to us any more than Dustin could control whether his balloon got caught in the top of a cottonwood tree or found its way into my eager hands.
It is also the nature of the dates themselves.
We tend to think dates are mostly call-and-response, ask-and-listen. Interviews, almost, during which we ask about the other person’s day, or what movies he likes, or what she remembers of kindergarten. But in reality, the good parts of our dates are pretty one-sided. Once the date has gotten going, possibly thanks to the arrival of the wine, we listen to what the person across from us has to say, and then we say, “Aha! That makes me think of something!”
Maybe we don’t use that exact manner of speaking, because doing so would make us sound like Doc from Back to the Future, but you see what I mean. We are inspired to take the reins of the conversation — to talk about ourselves, just like Dustin and I did in our letters. Of course, instead of being separated by the few hundred miles of airspace that were between Dustin’s school in Nebraska and my parents’ house in Kansas, our dates are separated from us by a bar, the arm of a chair, or a table’s breadth. And, because we are adults, we have moved beyond sentence fragments that describe how one of our brothers keeps hogging the Atari.
Now, we tell stories. But these aren’t just any stories. These are our favorite stories — stories we’ve told dozens of times before. We tell these stories because, in them, we come off a certain way: heroic or hilarious or broken but in a cool way, like the lead singer of a band.
We use these stories to explain ourselves, to figure out how we fit into the world, to decide how we feel about things.
And yes, occasionally, because we want to get laid.
This behavior could be viewed as duplicitous; it could be thought that we are manipulating our listener by presenting the best sides of ourselves. But come on. Telling our best stories: this is no more manipulative than wearing a flattering pair of jeans. And sometimes, it’s downright essential. Maybe the person across from us has gotten a mistaken impression of us — that, because we made an offhand remark about wanting to learn guitar, we are the sort of person who would bring a guitar to a party. So we launch in: we tell a story that counteracts the guitar anecdote, maybe a story about how we once went to a party and there was a guy with a guitar and he was the worst person in the world.
We tell our stories to round out the listener’s impression of us — to help the person understand that we are a whole human, with all kinds of viewpoints on politics and religion and love and death and our childhoods.
The stories in this book are my stories.
Sometimes they are the stories I tell when I am trying to explain where I came from. Sometimes they are the stories I tell when I am trying to explain where I’m going. Sometimes they are the stories I tell when I’m just trying to make someone laugh.
All of them are the stories I write on my wide-ruled paper, put in my envelopes, attach to my bright red balloons, and send into the sky, in the hopes that someone will find one of them.
And write back.
Stories I Tell On Dates is available now.