Pen Pals (short story)

November 14, 1944

Dear Fabienne,

My father told me to write you. He said you are a nice girl and your family is nice to and that you wanted a pen pal. I want a pen pal to. He said he stayed with your family when he was in France. He liked your mom’s chicken.

I am in third grade. What grade are you in? Do you like school? I like all subjects except handwriting. My teacher is nice. How old are you? I am eigt.

I also like horses and my bicycle. It’s red.

Sincerely,
Emily

P.S. I hope they stop the war.

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16 January 1945

Dear Emily,

Good year! Thank you for the letter. I like very much to speak the English but is very difficult here for me. There is not person with who I can speak. Only my teacher but she is french also like me.

The war is bad. My village in Normandie was bombed. I had very scared. But I are okay. My family also. Now there are no more battles here in Normandie but in France yes. I hope it stoped.

I am 8 also. What is your birthday? I born 7 July. I also like horses. I have no bicycle.

Ton amie (your friend),
Fabienne

PS How was your Christmas?

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June 7, 1945

Dear Fabienne,

My father says the war is over in Europe but the dirty Japs are still fighting. Do you have dirty Japs in France? We don’t have any here in Iowa.

You must be happy. Daddy said Hitler was a bad man. I am happy my father is home and he says he does not have to go fight anymore. He says he is tired of Germans except for Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank is nice.

I told my friends at school about you that I had a French friend. They didn’t believe me so I got made and showed them your letter. They said you write your date funny. I said it’s French.

My Christmas was fine how was yours? Does Santa still come when there is war?

Your friend,
Emily

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July 14, 1945

Dear Emily,

I have received your letter yesterday and was excited to write you. Today is big celebration in France called Bastille Day. My maman says it is like birthday for our country.

I have news. I found an American! He was soldier here and married a French woman so now he lives here in my village. I practice my English with him also but don’t worry. You are my friend and also I write you. It will be fun. I will can write you better.

How goes the summer in Iowa? Is it hot? This summer there is a lot of rain so I stay inside. Daddy says it’s good for the grass and the cows, but I sad being inside all the time.

I hope you write soon.

Your friend,
Fabienne

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August 27, 1945

Dear Fabienne,

Hello! We are all very happy here now. Japan has surenderred. Daddy says all the boys are coming home now. I don’t know what he means though. There are lots of boys here. I think he means the soldiers.

Summer in Iowa is nice. Here we have lots of corn. You have cows too? We have two cows for milk and sometimes for pulling the plow if the tractor is broken. We also have chickens for eggs and sometimes for eating. We have a big garden and every day in the summer I go with my mom to pick vegetables and sometimes flowers. There are lots of tomatoes. There is also an apple tree in the front yard but it is too early to pick them.

My friends at school believe me now that I have a French friend. I am happy you can practice English with an American. I would like to learn French, but mommy says I have to wait until I am old enough. I told her you are old enough to speak French but she said don’t talk back.

I am excited for school this year but also nervous. The kids says fourth grade is hard but I don’t know why. It will be the same teacher.

I have to go my mom says it is time to go to bed. It took me three days to write this.

Bye,
Emily

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19 November 1945

Dear Emily,

I am sorry for not writing more soon. The work here been hard. The Germans destroyed much and I have been helping papa with the reparations of the house. I do not like it. He says now my brother is dead and I am older I have to help more with the farm.

My brother died in the war. It made me sad and now I miss him. The farm was for him but now is for me. I don’t want it. I want to move to Paris and travel the world. How is Iowa? It sounds beautiful. I would like very much to visit.

My American friend has taught me some words. He is from Pittsbourg. Do you speak the same English like the people in Pittsbourg? Mr. Roberts the American has taught me crack up means laugh. He crack me up. He also taught me what’s up means hello. What’s up? Do you use those words in Iowa?

School is good. I do very good in English class. I like reading. Do you like reading? I teach you French when I write. Here is French words. Joyeux Noël. That means Happy Christmas. Aurevoir. That means bye.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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January 17, 1946

Dear Fabienne,

Joyeux Noël and Happy New Year. Why do you put two dots over the e? Did you get anything nice for Christmas? I got two books and a dress for church. I like the books but I don’t like the dress. Yes I like reading.

I am sorry about your brother. My father told me he died but I did not want to say anything. I did not want to make you sad. I am sorry I did not tell you I knew. I don’t think we should have secrets. We are friends even thogh we have never met. I had a brother too but he died when I was young. He was older but in the pictures he always looks little.

How is the weather there? It is very, very, very, very cold here. The snow is up to our windows and we are stuck inside. I like the snow and want to play outside but daddy says I will freeze like a popsacle. I like popsacles but I don’t want to be one!

Write back soon.

Ton amie,
Emily
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June 29, 1946

Dear Emily,

I am very sorry I did not right write sooner. Your letter did not get here very soon. Maybe because from the snow? Then when I get letter I was very busy. The spring is always busy with the planting. We have a big garden as well with many vegetables.

I have been practice my English a lot. Mr. Roberts works at the boulangerie. He is boulanger. He makes bread. Every time when I go buy bread I speak my English with him. I buy bread every day for my maman. Here in France we call bread baguette.

I also learn English in my school but I think it is too easy. I tell my teacher that but she get angry. In my school we only have three books in English. I have read them all. They are good but I bored from them.

Okay, write soon.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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November 15, 1946

Dear Fabienne,

I don’t know why I have not writen sooner. I got your letter in summer but I waited. Then came fall and we had to harvest. Here everyone helps with the harvest. After that school started, so now I have time to write.

Here are some books in English. My father said it is expensive to mail them but that your family was very nice so it was worth it. He told me not to say that in my letter but we said no secrets. I hope you like the books.

You said you did not want to work on the farm when you are older. I like our farm but I want to travel too. My father says France is beautiful. I want to visit you some day. I am also bored here, especially in winter. It is cold and some times there is so much snow we cannot go outside.

We started cotilion this year. I don’t like it because I have to dance with the boys. They are smelly and gross and pick their nose. My friend Mabel tried to sit in the corner but Mrs. Wilson made us dance with these two boys.

It is November and we already have snow this year. My daddy says it is going to be a long winter.

I hope you write soon.

Ton amie,
Emily

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February 28, 1947

Dear Emily,

I practice to write the date like an American. To me it is stranger. Why do you write the month first? I don’t know why we write the e with two dots in Noël. We do it only for that word.

Thank you for the books! I love them. I have read one and I will read the others next. I can see my English improveing.

You are lucky to have boys were you live. Here in my village there are not that many. I kissed one but I tell no one. But you are my friend and we have nothing of secrets so I tell you. His name was François. He is one year older than I.

Also you are lucky to have cotillons. I will like to dance but I do not now how.

The winter here is cold but we no always have snow. Sometimes we have rain.

Again thank you for the books. I go read them now.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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April 5, 1947

Dear Fabienne,

I do not know why we write our date like that. That is the way we say it so that is the way we write it.

You kissed a boy? I don’t know any girls here my age who have kissed a boy. What was it like? My daddy says if I kiss a boy my lips will fall off, but I don’t believe him. I don’t want to kiss a boy now. Maybe when I am married.

I am glad you like the books. Would you like me to send more? Daddy was right. It was a long winter and I was really board. I read all my books so I can send some to you.

The winter my mother was very sick. She got very sick and she still is not well. She has to stay inside and sleep most days. The doctor says there is nothing we can do, but I go in there and talk to her. That usually makes her smile.

I hope you have a good summer. Life here is the same.

Ton amie,
Emily

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July 23, 1947

Dear Emily,

I am sorry to hear of your mother. My mother and father are well but they annoy me from time to time. My father is always saying I will live at the farm when I am older. I don’t want to. I hope your mother feel better.

Yes, please send the books. I have now read all the books you sent twice. They are good for practicing English. I have top marks in my English class at school. My teacher demands me to read out loud for the class.

No, my lips did not fall off! That’s funny. It was okay but I think I will wait but not until marriage. That is too long.

I hope you have good summer.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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March 24, 1948

Dear Emily,

It has been a long time since I wrote you. Did you receive my letter? I am sorry for writing again. I am worried you think I did not write you. Maybe you moved house?

I have been spending a lot of time practicing my English. I read all the books which I am able. Mr. Roberts the American man gives me some and my teacher brought more for the class when she returned from Paris. I really want to move to Paris when I am 18. I want to study at the Sorbonne. Do you know the Sorbonne?

Life here is the same. I miss your letters. How are you? How is Iowa? Is your mother better?

Please write soon.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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September 27, 1949

Dear Emily,

I am writing you one last time to see if you will receive this. I am sorry if I annoy you with my letters. I am preoccupied something happened to you. Are you well?

School is mostly the same although I now have more than one teacher. My parents’ farm is the same. My village is now more repaired, but many families are still gone.

I am 13 this year and so are you. Do you feel different? I feel very different. Now I have breasts. They are small but mother says I must wear a brassiere. It makes them itche. Sorry for the detail but we always say no secrets.

Okay, I hope you are good. Please write. I miss my American friend.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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November 2, 1949

Dear Fabienne,

I am sorry for not writing sooner. This has been a difficult two years. Not long after my last letter to you my mother passed away. I don’t remember, but I think I told you she was sick. It was a very bad case of influenza, and three other people around here died from it.

When it happened I just shut myself in my room. My father was worried about me but I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I just sat in my room and read lots of books. Maybe because I didn’t talk to him my father started drinking. He thought I didn’t notice, but I did. One night I heard a terrible noise so I ran downstairs. My father had fallen he was so drunk. He looked up and saw me and started to cry. He never cried before, so he must have been really sad. I started crying too and we hugged right there on the floor. The next day he threw out all his bottles and I stopped hiding in my room.

It feels good to write that. I haven’t told anyone about that night until now. I am glad you are my friend, and that I can write you about anything. People here talk too much.

Your story about the brassiere made me laugh. None of my friends talk like that. I don’t even talk like that except with you. I have the same problem with my brassiere. It’s hard because my momma is not here to help me, but my Aunt Jane (my daddy’s sister) helps out. She’s very nice. She is the one married to Uncle Frank, who is German but not really. He doesn’t even speak it.

The weather is colder now, and the leaves are pretty colors. Soon we will have Thanksgiving. Do you know what that is? Daddy says it is only American and Canadian, but the Canadians don’t count. That sounds bad. He likes Canadians.

Sorry again for not writing. I hope you are not cross. Please write soon.

Your friend,
Ton amie,
Emily

P.S. Next year I can start taking French class in school!

P.P.S. I’m sending lots of books in a separate package. Please let me know if don’t get them.
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January 21, 1950

Dear Emily,
It made me very sad to hear about your mother. I shouldn’t be so angry with my parents. After your letter I was nice to them, but not for very long. I can not wait to leave this place.

Thanks you very much for the books. I have already started to read them. They are much more difficult than the previous, but that is good. It will make me get better. Already I speak better English than my teacher, but she still criticizes. I told her Mr. Roberts should teach in place of her. She was cross.

I would like to tell you more news from here but there is none. Nothing occurs here. Have you kissed a boy yet? I have kissed two or three more but they are always strange after. Like they want me to be in love with them. Boys are silly.

I am happy you and your father are better. I will try to be nice with my parents but it is difficult. My mother always criticizes me and my father tells me I must stay on the farm. I tell them I will leave when I am older.

I wish you a good year. Write soon.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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April 10, 1950

Dear Fabienne,

I am sorry to hear you are having problems with your parents. Is it true you don’t like anything there? I want to travel the world, but I also like it here at the farm. I have been to the city (Des Moines), and I do not like it as much as the country. It is noisy and dirty. Here on our farm the air is fresh and it is quiet. I like the sound of the wind as it blows through the corn and the trees in our yard.

I have not kissed a boy yet. There was one boy Donald who liked me and asked me to dance at the last cotillion. I said yes, but I did not like him. He said he wanted me to go out behind the gymnasium so we could see the stars, but I know what he meant. I said no and he was disappointed, so he walked away and didn’t speak to me again.

I know what you mean about staying on the farm. My dad talks about it sometimes, but he is not worried about it yet. He just tells me to do good well in school and do my chores. It is okay. Now that my mom is not here, he does not get angry with me as much. Sometimes he just gets sad and sits at the kitchen table and stares out the window. When that happens I just give him a hug. I think we are closer now that it is just the two of us. I tell him he should find another woman to make him happy, but he says my mother was the only one for him.

I am doing very well in school. I like all subjects but especially science and math. My teacher says if I get good grades I could become a teacher like her, but I want to be an engineer. I don’t tell her that, though, because she will tell me women cannot be engineers. I think that’s stupid.

I realized you don’t have a picture of me, so here is one of me and my father. He probably looks older than he did when you saw him. He has more gray hairs and is going bald a little. I am wearing my favorite dress in the picture.

Good luck with your parents. I hope you write soon.

Ton amie,
Emily
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December 17, 1950

Dear Emily,

Sorry for not writing sooner. It was a very difficult summer. My father and I have been fighting more. He tells me I need to help him more with the farm, and that I should not spend so much time reading books and studying English. He says I will not need it when I am married and work on the farm. I tell him I am 14 years old and I do not want him to plan my life.

He has bad temper now more when he drinks too much wine. I think he misses my brother but he does not want to be sad so he is angry. My mother is silent. I do not want to be like her when I am older. Now if we are not fighting the family is silent.

To answer your question. I do not tell my father this, but I do like some things about our farm. I like the sound of the cow in the distance. How do you say, moo? I like the church bells in the distance, too. When here there is snow it is very beautiful, the entire world is white. But I am fatigued of living here with my family.

There is a boy who likes me. He is 18 and he says he will take me to Paris in the spring. Do not tell anyone but I think I will go. It will be my escape from my father. I will of course send you my new address.

Have a happy Christmas and write soon.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

PS Thank you for the photo. It is nice to know your appearance. You look happy with your father.

PPS Here is a photo of me. It is not good but you will know how I look like.

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January 29, 1951

Dear Fabienne,

I wanted to write you quickly. I am worried you are making a mistake going to Paris. I know you want to go but I think you are too young. What will you do in Paris? Can you find a job?

Please write soon.

Ton amie,
Emily

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May 17, 1951

Dear Fabienne,

I am very worried I have not heard from you. Please write soon to tell me you are okay.

Ton amie,
Emily

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December 17, 1951

Dear Emily,

I am sorry for not writing sooner. You were right. The excursion to Paris was absolutely a disaster. The boy Pierre came to my house one night and we walked quietly away. I had my bag and he had his, and he had bought two bus tickets to Paris.

The bus did not leave until morning so we had to wait on the side of the road. It was very cold and it started to rain but Pierre would not give me his jacket. I was angry so I took my ticket and my bag and walked to a barn that was close.

I was very tired and fell asleep in the hay. In the morning the farmer entered the barn and saw me. He is friend of my father so he took me back to my house.

My father was so angry he put me in my room for one week. He took all my books and said he would burn them and said I am never leaving our house again. I cried for one week until my maman told him to stop. He said I could not read books or write you or practice English with Mr. Roberts. I detest him.

Finally now it is Christmas and he said I could write you again. He also gave me my books because my mother told him. I think my mother is stronger now. She tells him I must be the person I want. I think she does not want me to be trapped like her.

Now I have started to kiss more boys and do more. Some girls at school talk about me but I do not care. I will not live here for very long. I hope you do not judge me like they do.

Well, that is my story. I hope you have good Christmas and good year.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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January 31, 1952

Dear Fabienne,

I am very glad to hear you are alright. I was very worried, so I am glad you are safe, even if you do not like being at home.

Do not worry, I would never judge you. You are a true friend and I can say things to you I do not feel comfortable saying to my friends. You have a very exciting life and I admire you for being so brave. I know your life will be full of adventure and I like hearing your stories.

Finally I kissed a boy. You must think I am silly for waiting so long but before they did not interest me. Actually I have kissed two boys but I only told my friends here about one. The first boy’s name was John. He is a boy in my class, and at the school dance he asked me to go behind the gymnasium and see the stars. I figured why not, because he is kind of cute. When he got close his breath smelled like onions but it was too late for me to stop him. He kissed me, but he was nervous and when I didn’t kiss him back he started stammering. Then I laughed and his face got really red. I was disappointed that was how my first kiss was, but at least I got it out of the way.

The next boy was two years older. He is known as the bad boy of the school. He wears a leather jacket and slicks back his hair. One day he offered to walk me home. I was a little nervous but also excited, so I said yes. He was very sweet and asked me lots of questions, and I wondered why people said he was bad. Then he pulled me behind an old barn and started to kiss me. At first it was very nice, but then he tried to put his hand on my chest. I told him no but he tried again so I told him to walk me home. He was disappointed but he did it. He didn’t talk to me after that, but sometimes I catch him looking at me in the hallways.

School is really good. I am in high school now and it is much bigger than my old school. Kids from several towns come there by bus. I am taking French! My teacher is not good, though. So far we have only learned etre and aller. We have to say them over and over. Je suis…Tu est…it is very boring. I am better than all the boys at science and math, but still my teacher makes me sit in the back. It makes me so mad.

I want to go on an adventure, too. I want to get a job and save money so I can come visit you in France. Maybe we can meet in Paris. Wouldn’t that be fun? I will ask my father if I can start working after school. My school work is easy and I get good grades in all my classes, so hopefully he will say yes.

I never thanked you for the picture. You are very pretty, Fabienne. I wish I were as beautiful as you.

Okay, write soon.

Ton amie,
Emily

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May 17, 1952

Dear Emily,

Thank you for your friendship. You are the only true friend I have. All the boys here want the same thing from me, and because of my reputation they think they will get it. I am tired of them. The girls are jealous because the boys pay me attention and not them, even though now I do not do anything with them. I have not kissed a boy in six months, but still the girls judge.

Nowadays I find solace in my books. My father has given up the battle and lets me read all day. I imagine he thinks it is better than spending time with boys. Mr. Roberts is very kind to me. He sometimes goes to Paris and when he returns he brings back many books. He likes to read too, so when he finishes his books he gives them to me. He says there is a bookstore named Shakespeare that sells American books.

Now I read many American writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Dickinson and more. I also read English writers and poets. Shakespeare is too difficult for me, but still I try. I love the poetry of the Romantics like Keats and Shelley.

For sure now I will go to the Sorbonne and study literature in English. It is my passion. I like French literature too, but not as much as American and English. Do you study these writers in school in America?

I look forward to hear from you again soon.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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January 1, 1953

Dear Fabienne,

I am sorry it has been so long since I wrote you. A lot has happened since your last letter. First, Daddy had a heart attack last August. It was really hot outside, and he had been working in the field all day. When he came inside at the end of the day he did not look right, so he went to the couch to lie down. Before he even got there, he collapsed on the floor.

I had to call the doctor, who came rushing over. Daddy was still breathing, but kept clutching at his chest and saying his arm hurt. The ambulance came and took him to the hospital, and the doctor drove me over there. Daddy was there for three days before they let him come home. It was the scariest moment of my life.

We were going to have to hire some men to harvest, but all of Daddy’s friends came and helped out. They were so kind to us. We could not have done it without them.

Daddy says he is fully recovered, but I know better. He walks more slowly now, and has to stop and rest. It is like he aged twenty years in one day, and it makes me sad to see him like this. I hope he recovers, but for now he needs his rest.

That is the bad news. The good news is I have a boyfriend. Do you remember Donald, the shy boy who wanted to kiss me a few years ago? Well, he’s still shy and very sweet, but he also grew up. He works a lot on his farm and other people’s farms, too. He is big and strong and handsome, and he told me three months ago that he has always liked me since we were young. He gave me a promise ring, and now we are going steady.

It is so good to have him around now that Daddy is not feeling well. Donald helps shovel our walk and fix things around the house. Daddy really likes him and I think I love Donald, but I haven’t told him yet. In fact you’re the only person I have told.

School is good, too. Finally my science and math teachers realized I am not going away, so they let me sit in the front row. I had to get my father to write a letter to the principal so they would let me take the advanced math course, even though I always have the best grades in the class.

I want to apply to Iowa State University, but I am worried about leaving Daddy. He says I should not worry about him, but I still do.

I am very impressed with the books you are reading. We have read some of those writers, but not all of them. I can tell your English is improving rapidly. I think you write better than I do now!

Bonne année! I hope this year brings you happiness. When can you go to the Sorbonne?

Ton amie,
Emily

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August 18, 1953

Dear Emily,

I cannot express the joy I feel as I write these words to you. I am moving to Paris! I have studied very hard and finished school one year early. The Sorbonne accepted me and I will be starting classes soon.

My mother is very happy and proud, but also sad because I am leaving her alone with my father. He is worse than ever, drinking more and yelling at the both of us. Now we just ignore him as much as we can. I do not want to leave my mother alone with him, but she insists I go.

I am very sorry to hear about your father, but I am glad he is okay now. That is good news about Donald, too. He sounds very nice. I hope to meet him. Are you still saving money for Paris? If you are, we can meet there. I would like that very much.

I must return to packing. I leave in one week. I will write you when I arrive in Paris.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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January 3, 1954

Dear Emily,

Sorry for taking so long to write! I know I promised I would write as soon as I arrived, but I have been so busy with my studies! I feel like I cannot have a moment to breathe.

Paris is as magnificent as it was in my dreams. Here there is so much energy and life I feel I must absorb it all. Sometimes I feel very sophisticated and sometimes I feel like a girl from the country. The women here are so fashionable I am very insecure about my poor clothes. Do you remember the bookstore called Shakespeare? I got a job there because I speak English well. All my salary goes to clothes.

Emily, the men here are so romantic. I met a man named Henri and he romanced me. I tell you and no one else, but I slept with him. I know I told you about the boys in Normandie but really that was my first time. It hurt, but the next times felt good. I do not see him anymore (he is a typical French man), but that is okay. To me the world looks a little different now, and I like it.

My professors are not like my teacher back home. They demand much of me and are not as impressed with my work. I work very hard to impress them but only sometimes do they say nice things. I enjoy the challenge.

Emily, when can you come visit me in Paris? You must see it. It is the most beautiful city in the world.

I hope your father is feeling better, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

PS Please note my new address. Write soon!

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February 21, 1955

Dear Fabienne,

I am so sorry for taking so long to write back. Paris sounds absolutely wonderful. I am so happy you escaped from your father, and that life there is what you wanted it to be.

My life here has been filled with joy and sorrow. Last January, not long after I got your letter, Donald asked me to marry him. It was very sweet. He got down on one knee and pulled out a ring and gave a little speech how he had always had a crush on me and how he would always have a crush on me. I was crying so hard I couldn’t even say yes, but he waited until I did before he kissed me. That was the happiest moment of my life.

But then on March 2, Daddy had another heart attack. This time he did not recover. He was in the hospital for a week before he passed away. I was crushed. You know how close Daddy and I were, especially after my mother died. Donald was there for me throughout the whole ordeal. I am so lucky to have him.

Originally we were planning on going to Iowa State together. We both had been accepted, and were going to start last fall. But I just couldn’t bear the thought of leaving. It was too much change at once.

In October we got married in a small ceremony and I cried the whole time, partly because I was happy and partly because my parents weren’t there to see it. After that Donald moved into my house. I think we will work the farm for one year and then go to Iowa State. I don’t know what we will do with the farm if we do that.

What is Paris like in the winter? I still dream of going there. Please write a detailed description in your next letter so I can feel like I am there.

I wish you all the best at the Sorbonne. Your life sounds like a dream to me.

Ton amie,
Emily

P.S. Here is a picture from our wedding. I wish you could have been there!

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April 2, 1955

Dear Emily,

I too cried tears of joy and sorrow as I read your letter. I know how much you loved your father, and I am very sorry to hear he is dead. It is tragic.

However it is a joy to see the smiling faces in the photo you sent me. Donald is a very handsome man and you are very beautiful. You have grown much since the last picture. I would have loved to have been there with you, but I am sure we will see each other some day soon.

Paris is now in springtime and it is a wonder. I know the cliché that Paris is beautiful in the spring, but it is true. Paris is beautiful in all seasons. In winter it is cold and often gray. There is much rain, and some snow. When there is a wind, it blows in between the buildings like in a tunnel. But when it is sunny the sky is a perfect blue. The building that were gray become crystal clear, the shadows precise, the air clean and crisp. It is glorious.

My studies are going very well. Of course the university has me taking all the regular coursework for students (French, philosophy, history, etc.), but as you know my real passion is American literature. I spend most days in the library or in cafés reading, and I feel like I am absorbing the grand literary tradition of American writers in Paris. I am quite far from Normandie!

You and I began writing when we were children, and now we are starting our adult lives. I am happy for you and for me. It is a great time.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
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December 21, 1955

Dear Fabienne,

I am so glad to hear you are doing well with your studies in your new city. It is amazing to me the little girl who wanted to practice her English is now studying it at a university! Oh, and thank you so much for the description of Paris. I’ve seen pictures, but reading your description made me feel like I was there. Oh, how I wish to go!

I think that will have to wait, though, with the latest news. I’m pregnant! We haven’t told anyone except for Donald’s parents, but of course I had to tell you! (By the way, Donald knows all about you, and says you should come to Iowa. I told him you are living in Paris, so the last thing you’d want to do is come to a farm. But don’t worry: I never share our letters no matter how much he teases).

Anyway, about the baby. I know it was not in our plans, but it just happened and we are thrilled. I hope you don’t judge me. You are out living this glamorous life, and here I am married with a baby on the way. I worry I am missing out on some great adventure. I don’t even know if we are going to college now, although Donald really enjoys being on the farm and we had a good crop last year. We might just try to make a go of it here.

The baby is due in June, so this will be our last Christmas with just the two of us. It’s strange to think, especially since we’ve only had a couple together.

Oh well, now I’m just rambling. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas (Joyeux Noël!) and that Paris is still treating you well. Write soon. I can’t wait to hear more.

Ton amie,
Emily

P.S. Bonne année aussi!

P.P.S. Did you go home for Christmas?

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February 17, 1956

Dear Emily,

Congratulations! I am so happy to hear the news about your baby. I would never judge you, you know that! You sound very happy in your letters, and that is the most important.

I did not go home for Christmas. In fact I have not been home since I left for Paris. My mother begged me to come back this time, but I refused. I cannot stand to be in the same house as my father. When I speak to my mother on the telephone she always tries to convince me to speak to him, but I threaten to hang up, so she has stopped trying.

But that is okay. Paris at Christmas is full of life, and there are a few friends of mine who stay here in the city as well because it is too expensive to travel home. We have our own little Christmas with a small tree we bought from a florist, and we each give each other one small present. It is the Christmas of poor students, but we are happy. And you say I have a glamorous life!

Believe me, your life with Donald sounds like a paradise to me sometimes. Remember how bad the boys were in Normandie? The men here are ten times worse. I cannot walk down the street without some man looking at me and trying to talk to me. I have gone out with a few men here, but nothing serious. I am only serious about my studies. Well, maybe that is not entirely true, but that is what I tell the men who won’t leave me alone!

I am thinking of you and I will go to Notre Dame to light a candle for you (I know you’re not Catholic, but I don’t think God will mind) and one for your baby. Please write when it is born and send a picture as well. Bon courage!

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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August 24, 1956

Dear Fabienne,

On June 22 we welcomed into the world our daughter, Beatrice Fabienne Johnson. Beatrice was my mother’s name, and of course I had to give her the middle name of my best friend! Donald said maybe that will convince you to come visit. I told him he just wants to meet a beautiful French woman.

We are so happy to have her around. She is just a little bundle of joy. I’ve enclosed a picture of her at one month. You can’t tell in the picture, but she’s very pink and healthy. Every day I notice something new about her, and she keeps me constantly entertained (and tired! I can barely get four hours sleep each night with all the feeding. I don’t mind, though).

Oh, listen to me. I must sound like a boring old mother to you. I’ll stop writing about Bea (our nickname for her), or I’ll just write pages and pages. And she’s only two months old!

Tell me more about your life. I want to hear something wild, something I’ll never do while living on a farm in Iowa. How are your studies? How about men? The Parisian nightlife? I think of you often, and now that Bea has your name I’ll think of you even more.

Take care, and write soon.

Ton amie,
Emily

_____________________________________________________________________________

October 15, 1956

Dear Emily,

I cannot tell you how happy I am to hear the news of Beatrice Fabienne, and to receive the honor of her having my name. I cried when I read your letter! She is a beautiful little baby, and I am sure she brings you much happiness.

Life here is good. I have started taking more and more American literature classes. They want me to focus on Hemingway and Fitzgerald because they were Americans and lived in Paris, but I think they were alcoholics and misogynists. I much prefer the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the beautiful sadness of Edith Wharton’s characters, but my professors are more interested in reading men. Even when I tell them Edith Wharton spoke French and lived here, they are unmoved. I will convince them.

You asked to write about something wild, so here it is. I am seeing a professor here. He is an American, visiting from Boston. He is a terrible lover (French men are just better at that, sorry), but our conversations are so intellectually stimulating I can overlook that. Unlike most French men I have met, he treats my mind with more passion than my body. Maybe that is why he is bad in bed!

Oh, I’ve said too much already. He is a nice man. I do not know how much longer I will see him (he is due to return to the States in December), but I will enjoy spending time with him while he is here. I think he is in love with me and it’s really quite sweet, even though I don’t think I feel the same.

I look forward to hearing more news about Bea. Thank you so much for the honor of giving her my name. Write soon.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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April 2, 1957

Dear Emily,

I have not heard from you in a while. I am sure you are just busy with Bea, but I wanted to write to say I am thinking of you. Here is a postcard from our trip to Versailles. It is magnificent.

I hope you are well.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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January 31, 1958

Dear Emily,

Now I am a little worried. You almost always write before Christmas. Please write and let me know how you are. I am thinking of you often.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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March 1, 1958

Dear Fabienne,

I am so sorry for not responding. The truth is, I could not bear to write the words I am about to write, so I didn’t. We lost Bea. One night we put her to sleep, and when we went to wake her up the next morning she was cold and not breathing. Even though the ambulance came right away, they still could not save her.

Sometimes I think I am cursed. First my mother, then my father, and now my precious little girl. It has been really hard on Donald and me. We barely talk nowadays. He spends much time as he can working on the farm so he doesn’t have to come inside. I just sit in my room and read my books, staring out the window. He thinks I’m punishing him, but I’m not.

I feel like I have aged ten years in this past year. Sometimes I start to forget Bea and I laugh at something I read or smile when Donald says something nice to me, and I feel guilty. I don’t want to forget her. Not yet. I miss her so much.

I’m sorry to say this awful news in a letter. I’m sure you’re having a wonderful time in Paris. Your letters are one of the few things that make me smile these days, so keep them coming, please. Oh, Fabienne. In some ways you know me better than anybody.

I dreaded writing this letter, but now that I have I feel a little better. I know that feeling won’t last, though. Please write and tell me all about your adventures. There are none here.

Ton amie,
Emily

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March 28, 1958

Dear Emily,

I cannot imagine the sadness you feel, and if I had the money I would fly over there and be there to help you. Unfortunately I am a poor student, so this letter will have to suffice.
You are not cursed, Emily, so don’t ever think that. The world gives us sadness and happiness, and this is your moment of great sadness. It is natural for our parents to die, but it is not natural for our children to die. That is why you are so sad, but the sadness will pass.

I remember my parents after my brother died in that brutal war with the Nazis. My mother cried for weeks, and stayed silent in her room for months after that. But slowly, like a bear emerging from hibernation, she realized the world was full of life. She dedicated herself to raising me and was happy once again. Sometimes I still see her sad, especially on the anniversary of my brother’s death, but I know she is happy in life.

You will be happy again, Emily. You will have other children, and they will be healthy and happy. You must try to find the light in the darkness.

The life here in Paris is good, but it seems trivial to describe it to you now. I think of you often and will now think of you even more. Please write soon, as I will only worry until I receive a letter from you.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

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May 1, 1958

Dear Fabienne,

You words cheer me up, so please send more. I may not write for a while, I am still overwhelmed with sadness. But please do write about your life. Give me as much description as you can so I can feel like I am escaping to Paris.

Ton amie,
Emily

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October 30, 1958

Dear Emily,

Autumn has come to Paris. The trees that line the boulevards are red and orange and yellow, and the pavement below them is covered with the recently fallen leaves. There is a slight chill in the air, and people have started to wrap themselves in scarves and coats.

In my studies I have started to concentrate on poetry. Some say poetry in English is ugly, that the sounds of the language are not fit for the beauty of the form. I disagree. To me poetry is about description and transportation, and English has such vocabulary that I can find a word for anything (although I still am learning the language).

Recently I learned I have been accepted to continue my studies here at the Sorbonne. I have decided to pursue my doctorate in Literature here. Though I will have to study French literature as well (that is okay, I like it as well), the faculty here are allowing me to focus mainly on Literature in English. They are still obsessed with the classics (mostly from England), but I will show them the beauty of American literature. Most of the professors are old, stubborn Frenchmen like my father, but I will show them.

Speaking of French men, I have started to see someone. It is early yet, but he is very special, and not at all like my father. He is kind and funny and very, very smart. He studies architecture here, and he is very talented. And he is so romantic, Emily! I have never met a man like him.

But I do not want to talk about him too much, in case it does not work. For now I will just say that I am thinking of you and Donald, and I hope you are happy.

Ton amie,
Fabienne

PS In case I do not send another letter before Christmas, I wish you a Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

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July 14, 1959

Dear Emily,

I thought of you today as I remember when we were young I wrote you a letter on Bastille Day. I believe I called it like a birthday for our country. That is what my mother says.

Speaking of my mother, she came to visit me here in Paris. I think she finally realized I was not going to come back home with my father there. She stayed for a week with me. It was only her third time in Paris, and we had a lovely time. I tell her she needs to leave my father, that she can come live with me, but she does not listen. She is afraid to change. I understand, but I wish her a better life.

For me life is wonderful. I received my diploma in the spring, and I have started my doctoral studies. The curriculum is quite rigorous, and I have spent many hours reading late into the night. It is hard, but I love it. I still do not know the focus of my study, as I am interested in so many authors. But I must choose soon!

Do you remember the man I mentioned in my previous letter? I am still seeing him. His name is François and we are very much in love. Currently he is working as an architect at one of the best architecture firms here in Paris, and enjoying his work. I suspect he is preparing to ask me to marry him, but I do not tell anyone that (except you, of course). If he does, I do not know what I will say. We are both still young, and I do not want to end up like my parents. But I love him very much and he is so good to me. Perhaps I will know in the moment!

I think of you often and hope you and Donald are doing better. It worries me not to hear from you, so please write when you feel you can. I would like very much to know how you are.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

March 8, 1960

Dear Emily,

I have great news! François asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Already we are planning the wedding. I have sent with this letter an invitation. Our wedding will be this August. I know it is not likely you will be able to come, but of course I had to invite you. If you cannot come at the least you will have an invitation for yourself.

Please write, Emily. I miss hearing from you and knowing what is going on in your life. I feel like I have a wonderful feeling but I cannot share it with my oldest and best friend.

As always I think of you and wish you happiness.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

April 17, 1960

Dear Fabienne,

These past couple years have been the darkest time in my life. For a time Donald and I separated. I kicked him out of the house, but that stubborn man just slept on the couch instead. He said he refused to leave me alone.

My isolation grew worse after my last letter to you, and it got so bad I would stay in my room for days at a time, the door locked. Donald had to do all the work including the cooking and laundry, and he would leave me meals outside my door.

Finally he had enough and told me that he would stop cooking and cleaning for me. I didn’t believe him, but sure enough I’d hear him cooking downstairs, thinking he’d bring me some. That food smelled so good, and I would hear him eating it downstairs, but he didn’t bring any to me.

He did the same thing the next day, and I tell you my stomach never growled so much in all my life. I realized he was cooking my favorite foods, trying to get me to come out. Well it worked. That night I came out of my room and down to the kitchen table. I sat down and he served me some, kissed me on my forehead and sat down next to me. I ate the whole plate and then another!

After that we just started talking again, about anything but Bea. It was awkward at first, but pretty soon it was like old friends catching up. I had lost a lot of weight, so the next few weeks I ate myself back to health, started doing work around the house again.

I don’t know what I did to deserve the love of that man, but I am so grateful for him. We put all of Bea’s things in a box and Donald put the box in the corner of the closet on the top shelf. It comforts me to know it’s there, and so far I have resisted the urge to take it out. I don’t want to go down that path again.

But enough about me! I was so happy to read the news of your upcoming wedding. I must say, Fabienne, in the worst times I would sometimes take out your letters and read them to make me feel better. You are a dear friend, and I am so honored to be invited to your wedding.

I would love to come, but August is an especially busy time on the farm. Since I have been sick–I don’t know what else to call it–Donald had to hire someone to help with the fields. That means money is really tight right now, and he needs me to be here so we can make some good money on this harvest and repay some debts. He has been here for me so much, I cannot leave him to go to France right now. You know I would if I could!

Thank you for the invitation, and for always being there. Please send lots of pictures of the wedding!

Ton amie,
Emily

_____________________________________________________________________________

January 24, 1961

Dear Emily,

Sorry for delaying so much in writing you. This has been a crazy time, and I feel like I have not had a moment to breathe! François and I were married in a small church here in Paris. My mother wanted very much to have the wedding in Normandie, but I refused. In protest my father did not attend my wedding, but I was glad. I am tired of that old, stubborn bastard!

The wedding was simple but beautiful. My mother came a week early to help arrange everything, and she did a fine job. François’s parents were there as well. They are lovely people, and for Christmas we went to stay with them in their village of Leucate, in the south of France. It is beautiful there, and I look forward to going back when it is warm and being by the sea.

My studies continue to go well. For some time I had a battle with my professors because I wanted to study any number of American female writers, but my professors always said no. Instead they wanted me to concentrate on French literature or at least an American males who had lived in France. Finally I agreed to do Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but only if I could analyze elements of misogyny in their work. There is a movement of French feminism beginning here in Paris, and I think my professors were so afraid I would raise a protest they agreed to my proposal.

So now I am “neck-deep” in those two authors. I must admit I find their writing quite captivating, but of course I would never tell my professors that! Hemingway in particular is a favorite because the Paris he describes is still very much alive now, and I do love this city.

I was so happy to receive your letter, and I am so glad you are doing better. You are lucky to have Donald, but he is lucky to have you!

Ton amie,
Fabienne

PS I almost forgot: thank you so much for the wedding gift. Of course it was a book! I will treasure it always.

_____________________________________________________________________________

January 3, 1964

Dear Fabienne,

Goodness! I just looked at the last letter you wrote, and it was from three years ago. Where did the time go?

Things have been so busy around here. The big news is Donald and I had another child. Her name is Evelyn, and she is two years old. I’m sorry for not writing sooner. I think I was worried about telling you in case something bad happened again. But Evelyn is healthy and happy and running all over the place. We also had good harvests the last couple years, so we were able to pay off our debts. It is a weight off our shoulders.

I have been trying to keep it together in front of Donald, but I can tell you the truth. I keep wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. Sometimes I watch Evelyn or Donald when they are not looking, and I feel like my heart stops and I can’t breathe. But then they turn and smile at me and I smile back, pretending everything is okay.

I know that things are okay, but still it doesn’t stop me from worrying sometimes. Donald wants to try for another baby, but I don’t want to tell him how terrified I am. I do want one, though, so we will see.

Anyway, enough about me. How have you been? Have you finished your doctorate yet? How is François? I want to hear all about it. I miss hearing about your life in Paris.

Ton amie,
Emily
_____________________________________________________________________________

October 18, 1967

Dear Emily,

I have been wanting to write you, but somehow life has gotten in the way every time. How are you? How is your family? I feel like life is moving very quickly and I do not have time to stop for a moment. It is like a carrousel out of control. Only now do I feel like I have a moment to breathe, so I wanted to write you.

Since my last letter many things have happened. After completing my doctorate (an arduous process full of painful moments and outright chauvinism which I do not care to recount) I received an appointment here at the Sorbonne to teach literature. Part of me did not want to, since some of my professors were very cruel to me, but I did not want them to win. We women must fight for ourselves, so I wanted to stick it in their faces and take the job! So far it has been a lot of work, but I enjoy it very much. And now I believe some of the male professors are starting to respect me. I hope so, at least.

My other big news is that François and I have a son named Étienne. He is two years old now. He is very energetic, and I complain all the time to François that he is making me do all the work raising him, but secretly I enjoy it. François is a good father, too. He is working hard at his job so he has a lot of late nights, but he always comes home in time for dinner and to say goodnight to his son. I only wish he had more time for me.

Do not worry about the frequency of our letters, Emily. We are no longer girls with a lot of time on our hands. We are busy women and mothers. I only hope we get to see each other someday, but for now we can continue our correspondence and our friendship through the mail.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

November 4, 1971

Dear Fabienne,

Yesterday I came across the last letter you sent me, and I gasped when I saw the date. I could have sworn it was just last year I heard from you! I read it again and it made me smile, so I promised myself I would take the time to write you a letter today.

I forget when my last letter was, but I think it was only when Evelyn was two or three. We now have a son. His name is Henry (after my father) and he is five. Two kids are a handful, but they are now at the age where they are more self-sufficient. They get along well, too, which is very helpful. Both are in school, and though the house feels empty when they are not here, I stay busy with the work around the farm.

I’ve also started helping out at the school three days a week, working with kids who are struggling with their reading. It’s very fulfilling to me, especially because you know how much I love to read! The children are sweet and I see them growing and improving.

How are your students? Are you teaching American writers, French writers or both? I imagine your students are on the opposite spectrum of mine. I am so fortunate Evelyn loves to read. I have been trying to get Henry to start reading too, but it is hard to get that boy to sit down! He is just like his father, and Evelyn is just like me, although I think she is smarter than I was at that age. I am trying to instill in them the love of learning so they don’t make the same mistake their parents made, not going to college.

Donald and I are good, although he lost his youngest brother in the war in Vietnam. It was a very sad time for him. Even though they were far apart in age, they were still close. It’s hard to believe that terrible war could touch us here in a small town in Iowa, but we’ve lost several local boys, and more are still over there fighting.

Anyway, enough about that. I want to hear all about your life, your work, your family, everything. Your son Étienne must be about six now. How is he doing? I look forward to your next letter.

Ton amie,
Emily
_____________________________________________________________________________

February 17, 1977

Dear Emily,

I am writing you because it has been far too long, and because I have some exciting news. Yesterday I was told I will go to the University of Chicago for a conference in July next year, the 13th through the 16th. I looked on a map and saw you do not live very far from the city. Might we finally be able to meet in person? I would like that very much.

The life here is good, but very busy as always. I have finally published a paper, but only on Moliére. It is very difficult for a French person (let alone a woman) to publish on writers who wrote in English. They do not think my opinion is valid because I am French. Bastards.

Étienne is doing very well. I too have tried to teach him a love of reading, and with two parents who read a lot it was destined to happen. I am grateful.

Sadly, his father and I are not doing well. He works all the time and I never see him. When he is home, he tries to spend as much time as he can with Étienne. That leaves little time for me, and I let him know that. And of course I still have to take care of all the house in addition to my own work.

Even though he says he fell in love with me because I am an independent woman, I still feel like he wants me to be like his mother, at home taking care of the family while he works. It is a stupid notion. We argue a lot now, and I miss the conversations he and I used to have when we were students at the university. I know it is foolish to think we could have that now that we are professionals, but I still want to be stimulated by my husband more than just in the bedroom! Even that is starting to disappear.

Well, I very much hope I can see you in Chicago next summer. It is still amazing to me that we have never seen each other or even spoken on the telephone, though I think at this point a telephone call would be anticlimactic. Let us meet in Chicago!

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

April 2, 1977

Dear Fabienne,

How exciting you will be in Chicago! Of course I will be there. It is about a six-hour drive for us, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Life here is good. I am sorry to hear about you and François, and I hope things have gotten better. I know what you mean about losing something in the bedroom. Donald and I just seem so tired these days, all we can do is kiss each other goodnight and fall asleep. I may not want any more children, but that doesn’t mean I want to stop doing the act that makes them!

I love that I can say things like that to you. Most of my female friends here are old fuddy-duddies even though they are only my age! Here all the teenagers out in California are having sex with everyone they meet, and I can’t even talk with my friends about it without making them blush. I swear I was maybe born French and taken here, although you wouldn’t know it from my terrible French!

Anyway, I’m very excited to see you. I’ve already told Donald those dates are non-negotiable. Send me your hotel information when you have it. I can’t wait to finally “meet” my best friend!

Ton amie,
Emily
_____________________________________________________________________________

March 28, 1978

Dear Emily,

I apologize for the brief message, but things are very crazy here. François and I are not good. We barely speak except about Étienne, and we have grown very far apart. I fear the worst.

I have enclosed the information for the hotel. It will be so good to see you. I need to speak with you, since you know me better than anyone. Just contact me when you arrive at the hotel. Will you be staying there as well?

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

July 18, 1978

Dear Fabienne,

I am so very sorry for missing our scheduled meeting. I hope you got all the messages I left at the front desk. Evelyn came down with the flu right before I was to go to Chicago, and I just couldn’t bear to leave her. She is better now, but I for a little while there we could not bring her fever down. I was scared to death I was going to lose her like I lost Bea.

I know you’re disappointed. I am, too. But I also know you’ll understand. After all, you’re my best friend.

Again, I’m so sorry. Please write to let me know you got back home to Paris safely.

Ton amie,
Emily
_____________________________________________________________________________

September 2, 1978

Dear Emily,

I waited to respond in the hopes my anger at you would subside. It has not. I do not understand why a simple childhood illness kept you from seeing me. And I do not understand why you insist on saying we are best friends. In truth we are two women who have never met, and have only written a handful of letters to each other as adults.

Fabienne

_____________________________________________________________________________

October 3, 1978

Dear Fabienne,

I understand you are upset, but that is no excuse to be cross. You know how much Bea’s death affected me, and I hope you would be able to see why Evelyn getting sick triggered memories of that with me.

I know you were looking forward to meeting. So was I. I cannot see how something like this would be so upsetting to you. Please write soon.

Ton amie,
Emily
_____________________________________________________________________________

November 18, 1978

Dear Emily,

I’ll have you know François and I are getting a divorce, and something that happened in Chicago is one of the main reasons. For that I blame you.

Please do not write. I do not wish to hear your apologies. Besides, I will be moving and will not send my new address.

Fabienne

_____________________________________________________________________________

November 30, 1978

Dear Fabienne,

Oh, dear! I am so sorry to hear this. Please don’t let this be the end of our friendship. We’ve known each other for over thirty years!

How can I make it up to you? Do you need me to come to France? I will, I promise. Just tell me where you are living and I’ll come right there.

I hope this letter catches you before you move. Please write.

Ton amie,
Emily
_____________________________________________________________________________

January 1, 1990

Dear Emily,

A little over a month ago I came across a bundle of your old letters I had wrapped in a rubber band and stuffed in a long-forgotten box. It was during another move (I seem to be doing that a lot these days), but somehow I had not come across them before.

It is a new year and a new decade, and I want to start it off right. First I want to apologize for my behavior. Of course I was sad you did not come to Chicago, but I understand why. I understood then, but my life was in such turmoil I had to take out my anger somewhere. You were the innocent victim.

The past twelve years have been an odyssey. It is true that something happened in Chicago, but it was the nail in the coffin, not the spark that started the fire. There I met an American professor who wooed me the first night. We had a torrid, three-day affair that I thought would end when I left.

It did not. Two weeks after my return to Paris, the man (his name is William) showed up at the Sorbonne. My marriage with François was so damaged at that point I just gave in and let my passion overwhelm me. Besides, I just assumed François was having an affair as well, with all his late nights at the office.

Only later did I learn he was not, and he had been planning on leaving his job for another one in order to spend more time with me. I did not do a good job of hiding the affair from him, and soon he found out about it. I felt like a fool, of course, and he was so devastated he could not bear to look at me. We divorced shortly after, and since Étienne knew about William he chose to stay with his father.

That is when the really dark time began. William moved to Paris and got a job teaching English to businessmen here, and since I did not have a better idea I moved in with him. At first he was sweet, but I was too sad about the end of my marriage, and I had no problem telling him he was to blame. He responded by turning angry, then violent.

I never believed a woman like me who believed so much in feminine equality could become trapped in an abusive relationship. But there I was, covering my bruises with makeup before heading to the university in the morning. Finally a kindly older professor–one of my former antagonists, ironically–noticed a cut on my lip and said something. Like a girl I broke down and cried right there in front of him.

Sadly, that was not the end. I tried to extricate myself from William, but he began to stalk me. Every time I moved apartments he would show up a few weeks after, though I had told no one the address and was extremely careful about looking for him. Eventually I had to go to the police, and it was a long legal battle that only recently ended with William being forced to leave France. He moved back to the United States, and I hope he stays there.

Now my relationship with François is non-existent, and my relationship with Étienne is barely there. With all the moves and legal complications–and the fact I did not want my son to see his mother with bruises all over her face–I only see him once in a blue moon, as you would say. Since I have missed so many appointment François has given up on me, and I have to beg him in order to see Étienne. I do not blame him, but I wish to repair the damage.

That is the course of my new journey, the first step of which was to write you. I do hope you’ll forgive me for being so angry. It was entirely my fault. The other steps are more difficult. I will repair my relationship with my son, and maybe with François. I do not hope he will ever take me back, though I still love him. There are too many years and too much damage between us.

The hardest part will be facing my oldest demon. Mother has been telling me for years I need to come home, but now I think she means it. My father has been ill for some time, and I do not think he will live much longer. I never told anyone until I told my mother last year, but my father used to beat me. It started after my brother died in the war. He used to hit me and tell me he wished I had died instead of my brother. Each time he left bruises he would insist on dressing me in the morning so my mother never saw them.

Perhaps that is why I ended up leaving François. I had a love I felt I did not deserve, and replaced it with one I thought I did. I do not know, but I do know I need to see my father and tell him how what he did affected me. I need to make my peace with him before I forever lose the chance.

Dearest Emily, you really are my best friend. I do hope you’ll forgive me and send news soon of you and Evelyn and Henry and Donald. I have not forgotten you, and I hope you have not forgotten me.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

February 1, 1990

Dear Fabienne,

How wonderful to hear from you! Wonderful and terrible and the same time. I know you say it is not my fault, but I feel horribly guilty I was not there for you: in Chicago, when you returned to France, when you were going through that terrible ordeal. I do not know how, but I wish I could have helped.

Life here has been a mixture of good and bad news, but I will start with the bad. Two years ago Donald had a heart attack. He survived, but he has not been the same since. The doctor told him to take it easy, so we’ve had to hire hands in the summer to help out with the crops. The landscape here is changing. All the small, family farms are being bought by large corporations, and we’ve already had several offers for our land.

I hate to sell the farm that’s been in my family for four generations, but I don’t know how much longer we can work it. Donald and I aren’t getting any younger, and I doubt the kids are going to want to be here. The town is dying as more people sell their land, and we are one of the last families in a sea of corn. All sense of community is starting to crumble, and the young kids seem more interested in watching television and doing drugs than learning how to farm.

Thankfully, our children got out. Henry graduated with a degree in engineering from Iowa State, and now he works for an oil company down in Texas. To think we were worried about him even graduating high school! Evelyn followed her love of books to the University of Iowa, where she earned her Bachelor’s and then Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She now teaches at the University of Oklahoma, not too far from her brother.

When we get a chance we drive down and spend one week with her before heading to Texas to spend one week with Henry. With technology these days we can talk on the phone for pretty cheap, too. In ten years I think you and I will be the only people who still write letters!

Speaking of which, let’s promise never to go this long again without writing. I have been busy with the kids and the farm and now (more and more) taking care of Donald, but I have always wondered about you and if you are okay. I’m sorry to hear what you have gone through, but I have faith that your journey as you call it will end in happiness.

Write back soon!

Ton amie,
Emily

_____________________________________________________________________________

December 14, 1992

Dear Emily,

Again I have delayed too long in writing you, but I did so only because I had so much to do. My first task, as I told you, was to return to Normandie. It is much more built up than I remember, but of course I left not long after the war.

I have spent so much of my life in the city, and I do love it, but we can never fully escape our roots. The scene there–the fields, the old farmhouses, the kind old neighbors now bent with age–filled me with such joy and sorrow, the happiness and pain of my youth.

My father was a shell of his former self, and by the time I arrived he was in the hospital bed from which he would never escape. I expected him to be angry with me, but when he saw me he burst into tears. He looked so sad and pathetic, I cried as well. Here I wanted to tell him how much he had hurt me, and all I could do was listen to him sob and tell me how sorry he was.

His tears washed away my anger, and the last few days in the hospital before he died were spent in peace between us. He died without much pain. I stayed with my mother a week afterward, and now I go to visit her regularly. I am surprised by how much I enjoy my trips back there, and I could even see myself moving there when I am finished working.

Repairing my relationship with Étienne and François was more difficult. At first neither wanted to see me, but I was finally able to convince François to see me. Perhaps it was because he was going through another divorce (to his second wife), he was in a more forgiving mood.

There I told him everything, about my father and the abuse (I never told him before), the beatings at the hand of William, everything. At first he was stoic, listening with an almost dispassionate face, but at one point he reached across the table and squeezed my hand. It was the most intimate gesture I have ever experienced, and I started crying uncontrollably. Thank God I was in his apartment and not in a café!

It was the first step in a long healing process for us. Right now we still talk, mostly about Étienne, but sometimes about ourselves. I do not deserve to hope for more, but that does not stop me.

Étienne is a different story. He is still young and full of anger, and even when I told him the same story I told François, he was not impressed. He blamed me for everything, saying none of it would have happened if I had stayed with them. I cannot fault him, though. He is right. Still, I try to repair the damage, and François tries to convince him to give me chance. Right now, all I can do is hope.

My only constant has been work, and that is better than ever. Finally my colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic are recognizing my work, and now I am frequently published. Perhaps I simply had to grow old enough that people began to feel sorry for me and publish my work! Still, I finally feel respected in my field and that gives me immense satisfaction.

So you see my life is still full of ups and downs, but right now I hope mostly ups. I am curious how you and Donald are doing. Are you still on the farm? Is his health okay? I miss you and think of you often.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

December 17, 1995

Dear Fabienne,

From your last letter it sounded like life was improving for you. You have been through so much, I hope that at long last it starts to bring you the happiness you deserve.

Last year it dawned on me that we have been communicating for fifty years, and I so desperately wanted to write you on that anniversary. Unfortunately, I too have gone through much these last couple years, and it was simply too much to write about when I was in the thick of it.

For starters, Donald had another heart attack. He had been feeling better and better, so he stopped taking his medication. Well, you can guess what happened soon after. He was working in the field when the tractor broke down, so he decided to walk back through the head-high corn that was thick as molasses. The tractor was over a mile away, and by the time he got to the house he was huffing and puffing.

I took one look at him and called the ambulance. He collapsed right there on the back porch. This time was much worse than before. He was in the hospital two weeks before they released him, and his doctor ordered him to completely sit out the harvest. He’s a good man, but he’s a city doctor, and just a kid. He doesn’t understand farm folk.

Well, Donald decided not to listen, had trouble again, and ended up with a stroke. He’s still got his mental faculties and can walk around some, but he can’t work the farm anymore.

That leads me to the other news. Because we couldn’t work it anymore, and because we had a good offer, we ended up selling our farm. It makes me sad to think I’m no longer in the house I grew up in, my daddy grew up in, his daddy grew up in and so on, but it’s for the best. Now we live in a tiny little house in Iowa City. Evelyn got a tenured position at the University of Iowa (we are so proud of her!), so we moved there to be close to her.

It’s good to see her as often as we do, and I’ve been able to make friends with some of the women in our neighborhood, but it’s not the same. I hate city life. I know you’d laugh at me if you saw Iowa City. It’s nothing like Paris! Still, I can’t help miss the sound of the wind through the corn, when there’s nothing but plains and sky all around you, the rumble of distant thunderheads and the sweet swell in the air before a summer rain. You kind of get that here, but it’s not the same. Even the farmland’s not the same. It’s like a whole way of life is gone, and I don’t know if it will ever come back for anyone.

Oh no, now I’ve gone and written a depressing letter. I didn’t mean to, but I guess I’ve been holding that in for a while. I can’t complain though, really. I see my beautiful daughter any time I want, my son is doing well and calls often, and Donald and I can still have long conversations. Some things have changed (like certain parts that don’t work after the stroke), but that hasn’t stopped us. I think of how he took care of me after Bea died, and I’m happy to do the same for him now.

But enough of my boring life here in Iowa. Tell me about Paris! How has it changed? Or is it always the same? Oh, how I long to visit. I promise, Fabienne, I will visit you before I die.

I wish you all the luck in the world with your son. I’m sure he’ll come around. All boys go through an angry stage (I know Henry did), and he’ll grow out of it. In the meantime, I wish you all the success and happiness in the world.

Ton amie,
Emily

P.S. Please note my new address!

_____________________________________________________________________________

January 11, 1998

Dear Emily,

You were right about Étienne. It took some time, but he finally grew up enough to forgive me. Perhaps it has something to do with him finally getting a girlfriend, but I will not complain! He is now talking to me and even visits regularly. He is absolutely in love with his girlfriend, but it will not last. He is not ready.

In even stranger news, François and I have been seeing each other again. Is that what you would call it? I don’t know what you would call it, but I don’t care. We have not defined anything, but after several months of sleeping at each other’s places I just quietly moved in. He still lives in the same apartment we shared when we were married, so it feels natural.

It is so much different now, though. We have both suffered through so much sadness we are now just content to be, without arguing about schedules or anything silly. And in the great irony of my life, I enjoy staying home and taking care of him. I’ve even started to cook, and although I’m terrible at it François is kind, complimenting me profusely when I do something good and saying nothing when I ruin a dish.

Work is as good as ever. I keep threatening to retire, but I simply enjoy it too much. I do teach a reduced workload, though. Now I only have one class of graduate students. I do not think I could tolerate the insolent, spoiled students entering university these days.

I do hope you are well, and that Donald’s health has improved. I keep you in my thoughts as always. Oh, and you asked about Paris. All I can say is this: Paris is eternal, so you should come see for yourself. You know you have a place to stay as soon as you arrive, and you won’t have to worry about a thing.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

September 12, 2001

Dear Emily,

The news from your country has shocked the world, and we here in France weep for your loss. We know all too well the pain of war, though I fear these bastards have learned nothing from our mistakes. I fear a long fight against whoever did this, those soulless, godless bastards.

I hope you and your family are okay. I know Iowa and Texas are far, far away from New York and Washington, D.C., but I still worry for your safety.

Please write when you can to let me know you are okay.

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

November 3, 2001

Dear Fabienne,

Thank you so much for your kind words. I feel the same way about the attackers! They are savages, but I don’t want to waste another thought or drop of ink on them.

I’m sorry in this sad time to bring you more bad news, but we lost Donald last year. He had another stroke and then another, and he was so incapacitated they had him hooked up to all these machines just to make him breathe. He was in a coma by the time Henry made it here, and we were all able to stand around him. We all agreed he wouldn’t want to go on like that, so after all praying around him the doctor turned off the machine and we watched him go.

I was devastated at first, but over time I grew to be at peace with it. He was always such a strong man, I hated to see him hobble around like he did after his first stroke. I know he hated it too, though he never once complained about it. Now I get to remember him the way he was when he was young, not how he was the last few years.

Fabienne, your offer to stay with you is so generous. It breaks my heart, though, that I can’t take you up on it. Our medical insurance is not like in France, and we had to use the money we made from the sale of the farm to pay for all of Donald’s medical bills. Luckily I own my house, but now I can’t even afford a plane ticket down to Texas to visit Henry. I’ve gotten involved in the local Democratic party (my father is turning over in his grave), and I’m trying to fight to change our current system. With a Republican in the White House, I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

Look to me, going on about politics. That’s not what you want to read about! I will say this: I’m going to keep my promise to come visit you. Starting after Christmas, I’m going to be saving fifty dollars a month from my social security check. I figure in two or three years I’ll have enough to come visit. Hopefully we’re still around!

I wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Ton amie,
Emily

_____________________________________________________________________________

July 14, 2002

Dear Emily,

Happy Bastille Day! I am writing you to tell you I finally did it. I retired from the Sorbonne, and now François and I have been enjoying a bit of traveling. We were in the south of France this spring, followed by a tour of Italy. Then we were home for a bit before heading to Normandie. Can you believe my mother still lives there? I am beginning to think she will live forever.

We are spending more and more time up there, mostly to take care of her but also because we both love it so. It is a wonderful escape from the city. The winters there are still dreadfully cold, but summers are lovely and bright and blue. I see us spending more time there in the future.

Étienne is with another girl (I’ve lost count how many he has been with since I last wrote), but this I think is more permanent. At least I think she should be. He is still immature and she is far too grown up for him, so I hope he realizes what he needs to do before it is too late.

I was so sorry to hear about Donald. Did you get the flowers I sent? I apologize for not writing more, but the stupid company would only let me write a brief message. Idiots! In any event, it sounds like you are doing well, all things considered. Yes, the American system of health care is foolish, but we have our own foolishness here too in France.

As you know, you are welcome any time. Also, as much as I love our letters, don’t you think it’s time we jumped to the twenty-first century? Here is my email address: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com. That way when you want to buy your ticket, you won’t have to wait for the post office to deliver the news to me!

Ton amie,
Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

To: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com
From: mamaemily@hotmail.com
December 25, 2002 4:47 PM

Dear Fabienne,

I’ve been putting off getting a computer for the longest time, but when I saw you had email I just had to get one. Evelyn gave me her old one and helped me set up an email account. I got hotmail, just like you! My kids griped that I didn’t get email for them, but I did for you. I told them I’ve been writing to you for almost sixty years, and you count more than they do! Besides, it was my way of always getting them to call me instead.

The real news, though, is that my wonderful children have given me the most amazing gift. They know how much you mean to me, and how I’ve wanted for so long to visit you (I’ve never even seen the ocean!), that they decided to give me a ticket to Paris for Christmas. Don’t worry, they said it’s round trip!

Anyway, I wanted to write you write away. When should I come? Are you still there? Oh, I’m so excited I can hardly type.

Ton amie,
Emily

_____________________________________________________________________________

To: mamaemily@hotmail.com
From: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com
22 January 2003 15H38

Emily-

That’s great news! François and I would love to have you whenever. Hurry up and get here!

Fabienne
_____________________________________________________________________________

To: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com
From: mamaemily@hotmail.com
January 22, 2003 7:03 AM

Fabienne-

Okay! I’ll book my flight. I’m so excited!

Emily

_____________________________________________________________________________

To: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com
From: mamaemily@hotmail.com
January 27, 2003 3:54 PM

Fabienne-

I got my tickets! Evelyn found me a last-minute deal. This is all happening so fast. I arrive in Paris Charles de Gaulle at 10:04 AM on February 17. It’s United flight 4731 out of New York JFK.

Is that too soon? Please let me know and I’ll change the tickets.

Emily

_____________________________________________________________________________

To: mamaemily@hotmail.com
From: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com
28 January 2003 9h07

That’s not too soon! It’s far too late! Bring warm clothes, and I’ll meet you at the airport.

Bises,
Fabienne

_____________________________________________________________________________

To: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com
From: mamaemily@hotmail.com
January 29, 2003 10:51 AM

Great! I’ll see you then.
_____________________________________________________________________________

To: mamaemily@hotmail.com
From: fabiennereynard32@hotmail.com
17 February 2003 07h44

Dear Emily,

I hope you receive this mail before you leave. Forgive me my English as i do not speak or write it well like my mother. I very sorry to inform you my mother is in hospital. She is very sick with tumor in the brain. She have had the tumor for sometime, but now is worse. She say sorry she have not told you sooner.

She have wanted me to write you that I will meet with you at the airport. I carry sign with your name. My mother want to go but the doctors say is not possible.

She sometimes has consciousness and sometimes no. I can install you in your hotel and perhaps we can see her after. We do not know long she will be with us, but I imagine you want to see her.

Kind regards,
Étienne Reynard

 

Copyright by Axel Schwarz

One thought on “Pen Pals (short story)

  1. I loved this short story, and enjoyed the simple but effective structure of the pen pal letters. It kept me so interested that I forgot I was in the Tyrol, and that I need to get out and enjoy the beauty!

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