“Letters to David”

by Cynthia Miller Coffel

Rural mailbox by Matt McGee

All through my twenties, those playful, makeshift years when nothing seemed serious or settled, my friendship with David was the most important constant. I was building what I thought of as my teaching career, those young days, and I moved to a new place every two or three years: I worked in a daycare center in Live Oak, California, first, then in a school for teenaged mothers in Ogden, Utah; next I taught English as a second language at a Catholic college in my home state of Indiana, then high school English in a little town in the Catskills. All through that time—through each new job, through the cardboard boxes and the packing string, the maps, the too-heavy-for-California coats and the not-right-for-Indiana halter tops, the cross-country Greyhound trips and the flights on United, my friendship with David was steady. I wrote him long letters describing each new apartment, each new group of students. In his ugly hand, in ballpoint pen, he wrote back about his yearly rafting trip with friends from high school, how everybody was changing, taking grown-up jobs, getting married, and why wasn’t he? Long-distance on the phone we talked late into the night about ex-lovers and sexual guilt, about the hostages in Iran or Reagan’s election, about the ways we were each going to improve our own little corners of America. I read The Untold Story of the Unions because David told me to, and Chuck Colson’s autobiography (“Don’t you believe people can change?” he asked); he learned about the Catholic Workers and about Pippi Longstocking from me.

We first became friends in 1975, during the summer of our junior year of college, a minister’s son and a religion professor’s daughter lifeguarding and working in the daycare at Ghost Ranch Presbyterian Conference Center in Abiquiu, New Mexico. At Ghost Ranch, on a moonlit hike up to Kitchen Mesa, we discovered that we’d both just broken up with Jewish chemists; we discovered, on a Jeep ride out to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, that we’d both read Saul Alinsky; around a campfire by Conjillon Lakes (my boyfriend playing banjo under the stars), we learned that we shared a particular kind of loneliness. I recognized his mixture of egotism and insecurity. He may not know it, I thought, but this boy needs me. When I left Ghost Ranch, David came out into the rain in his long green poncho and hugged me, with tears in his eyes.

After that summer we only met occasionally, and almost always, in my memory, in romantic places. We both moved to California to work as volunteers after college—I worked up north at the Live Oak Church of the Brethren Preschool; he worked as a legal aid for the United Farm Workers in Salinas and LA. In 1978 we met in San Francisco, and as the sun came up, wrapped ourselves in blankets and walked along windy Ocean Beach near the Presidio; we fed each other greasy noodles at the Peacock Café. That summer we watched night fall from the second-floor porch of the UFW house on South Alvarado Street in LA.

Later, older, before he started graduate school and after I’d gotten my first MA, we met in far-flung places: one hot Fourth of July in 1982 we sat on a blanket at Point State Park and listened to the Boston Pops play “America the Beautiful” from a freighter on the Monongahela; in 1983 we watched wild ponies from his little green tent at a sandy campground somewhere on the island of Assateague. By the time we broke it off—I would like to say that I was the one who ended it, but he had shown his disillusionment with me long before I stopped writing him—both of us, and the world, had changed.

Some people can anticipate the endings of things, I suppose; they hear the swell of violins before the crackling film fades black, notice the long shot of the coming snowstorm signaling that the heroine is about to meet her match, change her ways and lose what little bit of optimism is left to her. In those early days I didn’t see any endings. I thought it would always be David and me together against the world—not in the same state, maybe, but in the same spirit—working against all that was cruel in our country. David isn’t the man I left behind, exactly, or even someone I vaguely wish I’d married. Instead he’s the one I associate with my youth, with certain beautiful, carefree Western years, with a pleasant unsettledness, with pot kept in little plastic film canisters, with the feel of hard dirt under a sleeping bag, with Fleetwood Mac’s “Sentimental Lady” playing from his stereo at two in the morning, as well as with a few particularly painful discoveries. If this were a letter to David, in it I might explain to him, as I want to explain to you, why I am no longer traveling, no longer teaching, no longer sure that one ordinary person can make a serious change in the world, and where I have found my home.

In early letters I wrote David about the beauty of Live Oak, California, about the strange excitement of getting off the plane in Sacramento in my long red winter coat, and about the pleasures of—finally!—being away from my parents, away from the Midwest, on my own. At twenty-one I imagined no one had ever felt that way before, had ever looked at the glorious world stretched out before her, full of possibilities. I could do anything: go to Scotland and study for the ministry; teach English in Chiang Mai or Seoul; move to Cambridge with my boyfriend; hop a freight train and travel to Kansas, to Chicago, to Seattle; write a novel in my spare time. It seems funny to me now, and a little sad, that I thought I was proving my independence and my feminist credentials by working as a volunteer in a church-run daycare center out West. But like my friend David, I was a young person with ideals. There was a saying that was popular just then that told me that if I wanted peace, I had to work for justice, and that was what I wanted to do.

At the Live Oak Truck Stop Café, near Gum Street, across from the peach orchards and the railroad tracks, I’d write David about the worn-down Mexican mothers who laid sacks of tomatoes on the director’s desk in payment as they dropped off their toddlers, Rosie and Jorge and Zoomie, at the Live Oak Church of the Brethren Preschool. I’d write David about the good old farm wives, Nellie and Violet and Fern, who pieced quilts every Wednesday in the church lunchroom, and about the farmers who built the turquoise cross over the fireplace near the sanctuary. I’d write, always, about religion, about Pastor Will with his big ears, who told us that he was a pacifist, a Brethren, not because he thought he was better than anybody else but exactly because he knew the capacity for evil, for sin, was in him, as it is in all human beings. Being a Brethren meant being humble, Will would say: as well as asking Christians to live simply, to serve others and never, never, to take part in any war, Jesus Christ had asked his people to walk humbly with their God.

I wasn’t humble myself those days; I was certain that David, Dorothy Day, Jim Wallis and I could, in time, bring a certain peace to the land. That was what I told myself, at least. It was what I gave as my reason for all the moves, the tearful airport good-byes, the overlong hugs whenever I left David (“All that sexual tension I felt in Ghirardelli Square,” he asked in 1979, “was all of that me, or was some of that you?”), the lonely and triumphant drives into fresh new towns.

I was simply in love with travel, with being an outsider, with feeling a little off-kilter all the time and always just about to move on. I loved not knowing what my next address would be—Live Oak Boulevard or Beethoven Street or Maple Avenue—and I loved not knowing what kinds of faces would greet me when I walked through each schoolroom door. I felt virtuous and purposeful to think that I was helping Carla Ortega and Sunday Brown and Ester Martinez, those young women to whom I tried to teach English on the top floor of the old brick Washington Junior High building on 20th Street in Ogden, Utah. The real thrill of being in Ogden, though, was that I was far, far away from home; it was to look up as I was reading Waiting for God in the Arctic Circle on Washington Boulevard and see the snowy Wasatch Mountains out the window instead of flat, green land. It was thrilling to learn about the Mormons (not the boring Presbyterians), who wore holy long underwear to church; to visit the house where Brigham Young had brought twenty-seven of his wives; to feel that the moonstone roses curling over the railing of my shabby apartment porch were mine and mine only. Just around every corner lay something I had never seen or done or known about before. It was thrilling to see moose during a ski trip on snowy Alta in the rose-colored evening; it was fascinating to learn about Ogden’s seedy underground market for Vietnamese women; it was romantic to throw my clothes into a pillowcase whenever I had the urge to do so, hop on a Greyhound and head downstate or across the States to visit David.

At the same time I was proud to be making my way in the world, and even though in those early jobs I barely earned enough to live on, I never felt poor. If I didn’t have enough money on a certain day, I had the sense that I could always get it. I could steal and sell the walnuts from the orchard across the highway from the Diet Frostie; I could hawk my copy of Notes from Underground; I could work nights teaching English to those refugees—You Phet and Mai and Tra Dong—who came to Ogden from Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos during those years. Even if I only earned a few pennies, it wouldn’t matter. I would make enough money someday, I knew; there would be years for that, and in front of me I had all the years in the world.

“It’s the college syndrome,” my boss, Patrick, said when he offered me a job teaching English as a second language at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana, a little bit closer to home now but still far enough away. “It feels natural to move every three or four years because you’re still in that college frame of mind, but it starts to look bad on your résumé. After a while it makes you look flighty.” He should have known, I guess: he’d spent three years in Tehran; then three in Washington, DC; finally four or five in the ugly little city of Terre Haute, where I’d met him and where I remember thinking he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

During those years I couldn’t bring myself to buy pots and pans, and I worried about that. I didn’t know how to make a Thanksgiving turkey, as all the teachers I worked with did; I certainly never washed any windows. I was preoccupied, instead, with larger matters. My letters to David from Indiana are all about El Salvador and the Maryknoll sisters: Should I, like the laywoman Jean Donovan, join them? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do, to move down there? Just because I didn’t wear a white habit didn’t mean I couldn’t be in touch with God, courageous, and helpful—what did he think? In California I had taught migrant children to speak English; in Ogden I had counseled teenaged mothers. Wasn’t it time now to move into the wider world, to do more serious, daring good?

Instead I moved again, to New York this time, and for the first time in my life I noticed my lack of furniture and thought it odd. In California, my little one-bedroom place on Highway 99 had been furnished by the good people of the Live Oak Church of the Brethren, who lent me an aquamarine La-Z-Boy, a card table and three broken TVs, which I stacked on top of each other, under a painting of the Sutter Buttes. In Ogden I put silk roses on my cardboard-box bookshelves; in Indiana, African violets and hanging spider plants brightened the furnished rooms. In New York I had to buy my own things for the first time. I slept on a futon on the floor, settled little jade plants under the windows, and piled books in stacks nearby. The four rooms of the apartment looked—how shall I say it?—bare.

And then it all started to go bad, started to seem like a mistake, or a series of mistakes. I was closer to David geographically than I had been in a long time, and I was closer to thirty, too. When I looked out the window and saw the blue Catskill Mountains, I didn’t feel that thrill anymore: I longed for flat, green land. From my next, and last, teaching job I wrote David about Oneonta, the City of Hills, with its shabby beauty, its Black Oak Tavern, its cozy little Autumn Café. I wrote about my students, the learning-disabled boys who worked in their parents’ barns from four in the morning till ten at night and saw joining the marines as the only way they’d ever manage to leave town. In the structure of that school they were, like all the students I’d ever taught, the unimportant ones—not for them was the fancy technology bought, not for them the expensive football uniforms, the cheerleading squad—not for them and not for me. The stories they told—of an uncle burning the barn for insurance money, of fights with their fathers, of failing farms—seemed all too familiar, and the things I was trying to teach—To Kill a Mockingbird and “To Build a Fire”—seemed as tired out as I felt. I began to see how things were set against us; I wondered what I was really teaching those boys, and whether I was doing any good at all.

I visited David, driving down the long Pennsylvania highways past the ugly industrial towns, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and Reading, to Washington, DC, where he lived in a house with other professionals in a leafy neighborhood near Silver Spring. While I’d been getting my master’s degrees, he’d finished law school. He’d become more aggressive than I remembered him, and even a little boring; he talked about his relationship with Jesus in ways that made my shoulders tense. In between visits to the National Air and Space Museum and trips to see shadow puppets at the Indonesian embassy, he showed me pages in his address book, the names of places he’d lived all crossed out and scribbled over, and told me that he was tired of traveling, too. He worried about his dad, who had left home to set up a storefront church in Harlem. He worried about himself: Maybe he really wasn’t capable of intimacy? He was looking for a church to belong to, a woman to commit to and a place to call home. I was surprised to find that he didn’t always understand me, that when I was with him I missed writing to him. I missed describing my adventures and creating a brave, merry version of myself that was better than I’d ever really be. It became clear that David missed my letters, too. He seemed to like me best as I was on the page: entertaining, but easy to fold up and put away.

Even though I told myself it didn’t matter, that I was strong and independent, that I would carry on just as I always had whenever there was a bump in the road, I found myself crying all the time as I drove home from school past Neahwa Park, alone over Red Zinger tea in a corner of the Autumn Café, at the Good News Bookstore where all of the titles were Christian and ratty and hopeful, and sometimes in my sleep.

I stopped going to work. I called in sick day after day and curled up on my futon in my little apartment that looked out on the Center Street store, with its blinking pink-and-green Christmas lights and its cardboard Santa waving on the roof year-round.

I suppose I was in despair. I had never understood what despair was before, but I understood what it was during those days. I realized then that I had been wrong: all of those moves, all of those choices had made a difference. They had been serious, every single one of them. I learned something, there on the futon in my empty room, about the conflict between my desire to do good and my desire to live well in a much-less-than-good world. I know now that everyone experiences something like this at some point in their lives; I know now that growing up means leaving behind certain illusions: that the person you love most is wiser than any other, that one person’s actions can make society more just, that anyone’s motives are pure.

During those days, hiding out in my little apartment, I began to read as if reading might save me. Slowly I read my way through Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James. How I wanted to be with Henry, on Bellosguardo or at Lamb House in Rye, writing those long, slow, witty sentences in a brick house with an oak-paneled parlor and stone steps leading out to a garden room. I treasured the milky-white pages of those books, their heft, the way their spines broke and the pages opened in my hands. I loved the vulnerability of Henry with his obscure hurt, his pain over Constance Fennimore Woolson, his pain over his art. By the time I stopped going to work, one by one by one, seven other teachers had resigned from that small high school; when the department chairman knocked on my door and asked for my letter of resignation, I typed it up and turned it in.

I moved again, then, back home this time, driving across New York and Pennsylvania and Ohio to my mother’s house, helped by the man who is now my husband, whom I married years later among azaleas and rhododendrons at the courthouse in Seattle in the rain.

The last time I heard from David was twenty years ago; there was a letter in my mailbox, in his ugly hand. I don’t remember what his letter said. I only remember that I didn’t answer. I told my husband that I had nothing in common with him anymore, but I don’t suppose that’s true. What is true is that I was very young when David and I were friends, when I was traveling the country, when I believed that I had an answer to the problems of the world, and I am not so young anymore.

My husband and I moved again, and finally, back to the Midwest, to those flat, green fields that have somehow become my home. There were years when I thought I’d always be writing to David, always moving from state to state, always convinced that one lone person could make a serious change in the world. I remember those years with affection, but they seem like a long time ago.

cynthia miller coffelCynthia Miller Coffel is the author of Thinking Themselves Free: Research in the Literacy of Teen Mothers. With Rebecca J Lukens and Jaquelin Smith she is also the author of the ninth edition of A Critical Handbook to Children’s Literarture. Her literary nonfiction won The Missouri Review Editor’s Prize in 2007 and has been shortlisted in The Best American Essays 2005 and 2008. Her PhD in literacy education is from the University of Iowa.

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