The top drawer
of the bureau in my childhood bedroom is full of Important Things.
Growing up, it was the place I put stuff that I didn't want to lose,
or that I didn't want anyone else to see. Once I put something in
there I rarely took it out again. In the drawer, whatever it was
would remain safe and out of harm's way, not forgotten about but
never really remembered, like objects in a time capsule.
On a recent trip to my parents' house,
I opened the drawer for the first time in several years, only to
find the contents disappointing: a computer printout with my SAT
scores, an ancient condom my best friend had given me as a joke
before I'd ever even kissed a boy, an expired $15 gift certificate
to the Gap, and a collection of cards wishing me the best on various
graduations and birthdays. I had imagined there would be something
a dried corsage, a ticket stub that would make me
sigh and collapse on my bed in a flood of memories. Instead, I was
sifting through what could only be classified as junk. I wished
I had saved my letter from Jenny.
and I became friends in French class during my sophomore year of
high school, in 1997. She was a senior, two years older than me,
and by the laws of adolescence this meant that I should have been
intimidated by her. I wasn't. I liked her immediately. She was a
big girl with frizzy hair that came down to her elbows, and she
wore peasant skirts adorned with tiny tinkling bells. At our private
day school in Providence, Rhode Island, where everyone carried their
books in identical monogrammed LL Bean backpacks, Jenny used a green
army bag covered in buttons printed with slogans like You Can't
Hug Children with Nuclear Arms. While she wasn't exactly popular,
Jenny was definitely cool. Her friends were writers and painters
who seemed to have just woken up one day as high school students,
in the same way Gregor discovers he is a bug in The Metamorphosis.
They were into theater and indie rock, and after school instead
of going to field hockey practice like I did, they hung out on Thayer
Street drinking coffee and smoking behind Store 24.
Jenny was openly a lesbian,
and I liked this about her. It seemed like we could relate. I didn't
feel like all the other high school students, either. I was anxious
and depressed, and had recently started seeing a therapist. For
me, hanging out with Jenny was a way to express to my peers the
inner turmoil I felt. My outward appearance might have been that
of an average, preppy teenager (corduroys, Abercrombie & Fitch
sweaters), but I thought that perhaps people would look twice and
wonder what else was lurking beneath my surface if they saw me with
such an obviously complex person like Jenny.
Not that I was using her purely for my
own social gains. Jenny and I genuinely had a great time together.
She introduced me to the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco, and I became
obsessed with their music, memorizing the lyrics that seemed to
so eloquently reflect my angst. We would talk on the phone for hours,
and at lunch we'd show each other the late-night poems we had written.
I was a terrible French student, barely scraping by with C's and
D's, but I loved that class because Jenny and I always sat together
in the corner scribbling in each other's notebooks, two girls who
had better things to do than learn subjunctive verb conjugations.
Being with Jenny made me feel defiant
and rebellious by association. One afternoon we went to see Star
Wars in the local theater, and Jenny smoked a cigarette in the
parking lot, leaning against the hood of her car. At the time, smoking
was something I had done only in secret, late at night in the woods.
I thought she looked brave and like she didn't give a damn, smoking
out in the open like that. I remember a mother hurrying past us,
pulling her son by the arm. She shot us a disapproving look that
made me feel at once ashamed and thrilled.
I don't know why it never occurred to
me that Jenny might have romantic feelings for me, but it didn't.
Perhaps I was too wrapped up in my own troubled emotions to think
very hard about hers; or perhaps I was just being dense and naive.
At the time, I was making out with a sophomore boy named Josh who
skateboarded around campus and patched the holes in his jeans with
duct tape. On the weekends we would sit in his bedroom and listen
to Phish, and after a while he would lean over and start kissing
me, thrusting his tongue into the back of my mouth.
"I just don't think he's right for you,"
Jenny said one day over a bowl of pickles at Greg's, a restaurant
popular with our high school's theater crowd and Providence's geriatric
community. It was the kind of place that showcases its desserts.
Jenny swore they had the best pickles in Rhode Island. Every time
we went she ordered extras for the table. I chewed slowly and thought
about the way Josh touched my breasts. How he reached for them through
the top of my shirt, like he was feeling me down instead of up,
and once he was holding them he never moved his hands. He just gripped
them, like a child hanging onto a finger.
"I know," I replied.
I can't recall how she actually gave me
the letter, if she handed it to me directly or if she stuffed it
through the slats of my locker, but I remember that it was in a
purple envelope and that she had drawn a star next to my name. I
read it in the stairwell next to the English teachers' office. She
wrote that she was in love with me, that she thought I was beautiful,
and that the smell of my hair drove her crazy. My face flushed and
my eyes felt like they would swell out of their sockets. I crumpled
the letter into a ball and shoved it into the bottom of my backpack.
That night at home, I dug it out and tore it into a million little
The next day I told Jenny we had to talk.
We went into the art room and sat on the floor beneath a coat rack
of smocks. I told her I cared about her but not "that way." Then
I told her maybe we shouldn't hang out so much anymore. I said it
was because she needed time to get over me, but that wasn't the
truth, and we both knew it. I wasn't exactly afraid that people
would think that I was gay, although that was a small part of it.
It was one thing to spend time with Jenny when we were just friends,
but what if other people found out about her crush? I wanted to
be thought of as mysterious and offbeat, but in a way that stayed
well within the realm of what was considered "normal" by high school
standards, like Angela on My So-Called Life.
What I was really frightened of was harder
to pinpoint. At fifteen, I knew that I wasn't a lesbian, but my
sense of self was still very unsettled. Every decision I made felt
monumental: drinking my first beer, letting Josh get to second base,
I thought these were ways to define who I was. I worried that if
Jenny and I ever held hands or kissed, the action itself would somehow
become part of my identity. The sense of irrevocability scared me.
The most romantic thing Josh had ever done was to give me some carnations
he'd stolen off of one of the cafeteria tables. It was a small,
silly gesture, but one that I could manage. I didn't know how to
handle the emotions that Jenny expressed in her letter. They felt
too big, like if I tried to comprehend them I might be stifled.
It was early spring when Jenny gave me
the letter. Over the last few months of school I would smile at
her from across the hallway, or ask how she was doing in the line
at lunch, but I was careful to remain distant. We didn't talk on
the phone or go to Greg's, and I kept my poems to myself. In French
class I began sitting next to a quiet girl named Andrea. When she
graduated, Jenny went on to an all women's' college in the Berkshires.
I haven't seen or spoken to her since.
I wish I had done things differently.
I shouldn't have let my fears get the best of our friendship, or
been so quick to push Jenny away. In her novel Prep, Curtis
Sittenfeld writes "I have always found the times when another person
recognizes you to be strangely sad; I suspect the pathos of these
moments is their rareness, the way they contrast with most daily
encounters. That reminder that it can be different, that you need
not go through life unknown but that you probably still will
that is the part that is almost unbearable." I wish I had kissed
Jenny, just once, that day in the art room beneath a curtain of
paint-flecked shirts. Not because she loved me, but because she
And I wish I had saved the letter. To
this day it is the only love letter I have ever received. In the
grand scheme of things, I don't think that it would have made a
tremendous difference in either of our lives if I had kissed her,
but I'd like to think that if I had, Jenny would have filed the
moment away in her own drawer of memories. Something to take out
every now and again and hold.