When I was a child I corresponded with a girl named Louise, a girl who lived in New South Wales, clear on the other side of the world from me. My fourth-grade teacher had decided that we should all have pen pals. I don’t know how she found Louise or any of the other twenty or so children to whom my classmates would write, but I’m grateful that she did. Louise was bubbly, bright and warm. I imagined her living in a tropical house, more open to the outside than not. I imagined her feet dusty with red dirt. I imagined her cavorting with koala bears and kangaroos. I tacked all of the stereotypes I’d gathered about Australia onto her nine-year-old person. She enchanted me. Or the idea of her enchanted me, but that’s my adult self articulating a distinction I never made at nine, ten, or eleven years old.
Louise and I, we probably lasted longer than most pen pals do. I recall writing to her well into my sixth-grade year. I had been suffering at the hands of some girl bullies, and I was sad nearly all the time. Louise’s letters were one of the few consolations I had at that time in my life. She was the perfect friend. She would never betray me. One arm pitched on her hip, she’d yell at those mean girls to leave me alone. And then Louise and I, we’d run away, laughing, clouds of terracotta dust kicked up in our wake.
In those years I kept dreaming of Australia. Its climate seemed the balm that would take away all my stings, not only the cattiness of my once-friends but the pricking pain of my body, which seemed to be changing daily, quite without my permission. In no small way Louise got me through the fifth and sixth grades. She was better than an imaginary friend, though she served much the same purpose, I suppose — and yet I could substantiate her. Here, her handwriting! There, her tongue, which licked the stamps that brought her letters to me, across oceans!
Lately I find myself thinking a lot about Louise. We haven’t communicated since 1979. I don’t know whether she lives in Australia still. To me she is frozen in time at nine years old, dark braids and sun-kissed skin, more brown than red. Skinny, joyful, faithful companion, lover of koala bears and kangaroos, lover of me, pale indoor city girl. (Louise was probably just as much of a city girl as I was. But I refused to believe that of her. Her life had to be better than mine. It just had to.)
Louise gave the best to me and got the best from me. I’ve always been better on the page in person. I loved her, this girl I never did get to meet. If this is an exaggeration, you’ll forgive it, because it doesn’t feel that way: Louise saved my life.
Kids don’t think in terms of losing touch; they are far too focused on the present for that. So Louise and I made no arrangements to keep in touch. We grew busy. We became teenagers. And then we grew up.
All I can do now is write this. It seems fitting to end with words what began with words:
July 8, 2012
Dear Louise N., Newcastle, NSW, Australia,
Thank you for everything. I hope that life has kept you bubbly, bright and warm.
Sincerely, Sarah A., New York, NY, USA