I’m sitting at a table outside a café called Les Biscuits on a pleasant little surprise of a street situated between busy freeway interchanges taking important people to downtown high rises and back. Cars whoosh by like water rushing over boulders in a distant river. The sound always makes me think of words filling a blank page, paragraphs, chapters; pause, close the book, start again tomorrow. Sometimes, I think of myself as a tiny speck of India ink on that page, here in this city full of exclamation marks.
A cool breeze ruffles the leaves of the big sycamore tree out front. The first time I saw it, I thought, Any place that’s got an old tree like this one has got to be good. The café is owned by sisters who make cookies the size of your hand from an old family recipe. Their drinks are served in mismatched mugs, and their daughters sing old love songs behind a furiously steaming espresso machine.
I come here on the weekends to meet strangers. I hesitate to call them clients. This is not my job. It’s something I do because I love it. Come Monday, I’ll be back to organizing official forms and slim slips of paper into neat columns for busy people who don’t have time to pay their own bills. Those are my clients. They pay well and I’m good at my job. I don’t need the money.
People pass by on the sidewalk in puffer coats and spandex. Voices catch on the breeze, snippets of friendly conversation. The kids are so busy these days....He’s done this before, but I always forgive him...I swear, this croissant is going to add ten pounds...My boss is leaving the firm. Dogs on colorful leashes sniff the ground while their owners laugh. Dappled sun makes patterns on the scratched silver tabletop in front of me. I trace them, making letters out of shapes, turning them to words. My hand aches. I curl it around my mug, hoping it’s warmth will make the stiffness go away.
When I was in college, I addressed wedding invitations for extra cash. I loved sitting silently at my desk surrounded by stacks of exquisite envelopes in cream, ecru or lace. Letters and numbers, neatly unfolding under my hand, as one pile got smaller and the other taller. It never paid the bills, so I let my passion for handwriting settle into the margins of my life. I collected fine pens and stored them in an antique secretary, golden light pooling as I turned my unfinished thoughts and swirling stanzas into swoops and swirls on cream-colored paper. I filled journals and notebooks with stories and poems, thoughts and memories.
I have always been drawn to the written word, a common thread we all have, going back through the centuries to the beginning of time. It makes me sad that we’ve learned to communicate in utilitarian phrases, with keys and clacking machines that spit out soulless sheets of paper. Even so, I have to admit that I love a beautiful font, the matrix of dips and swirls appearing on the screen are almost as mesmerizing as watching the words in my mind appear on paper. Almost.
The absence of handwriting, it turns out, has made people crave it. They want their words expressed in the imperfect lines and dashes that can only come from a human hand. They want their thoughts turned into love letters, their poems to artwork and their family recipes to keepsake gifts. They come to me through word of mouth, a chain of texts through a network of friends. It's how everything is done these days.
More often than not, they want to know me, this person who they are trusting with their tender memories, their hopes and their dreams. I understand their desire for connection. They arrive at the café, eyes scanning tables furtively. They have a picture in their minds of what I will be. I know they are surprised when I am not the young woman near the door with her nose in a book, or the businesswoman with the chic coat and smart wedge of silver hair. I see it on their faces as they appraise me, a regular, middle aged soccer mom in Chuck Taylors and a cable knit sweater. Sometimes they chuckle as they sit down, embarrassed by the mistake, but eager to unspool their stories.
Today, a slim man in jeans and a flannel shirt arrives. We’ve already met through a flurry of texts. His name is Michel. I know that he wants a letter, in masculine handwriting. He’s about my age, dark hair flecked with grey. Delicate lines trace the corners of his eyes, a map of laughter and tears. He’s neat, impeccable, worn. He sees me right away, a flicker of recognition crossing his face. He slides across from me, looking slightly unsure. He greets me with a warm smile. His eyes are filled with sadness.
“This letter is for someone I loved very much,” he says. He has a hint of an accent, his words sound round and soft.
“A love letter.” I take my notepad from my bag and open it expectantly. "Let's start with the person's name."
“Actually, I have an unusual request.” Michel looks at his hands. “Can you just write the letter? Without names, I mean."
“So anonymous then.” I take my notepad out of my bag. “I can do that.”
“Yes, anonymous,” he smiles faintly. “Kind of.”
“Do you know what you want the letter to say?.” My pen feels heavy in my hand. I want to doodle on the margin of my notepad, but I hold still.
He nods. “I have it in here.” There is longing in his tone. He holds a small leather book in his hands. It’s slightly curved, as if it has been in a pocket next to his heart for years. “There are some things written down here. You can call me any time if it doesn’t make sense.”
“I’ll send you a sample of the text before I hand write it.” I open the book and look at the handwriting. It is neat, angular, lovely. Like an architect’s. “And this is the style?”
“Yes.” He says it quietly, almost reverently. “Exactly that. Or as close as you can come.”
“I think I can come pretty close,” I say, appraising the block letters. “Would you like me to mail the letter for you?”
“No, please. I’ll pick it up.” He slides his jacket back on. “Thank you, Maya.”
He stands. I watch him go, sensing how important this letter is to him. I leave the café and walk two storefronts over. Three Birds is my favorite stationery shop. Letty is there, behind the tiny counter, always smiling. I love the sound of the bell on the door, a soft, welcoming jingle. The shop is lined with letterpress cards, beautiful wrapping paper, Florentine journals, boxes of exquisite stationery. I choose a neat, masculine style, cream pages bordered in navy blue with matching envelopes. It has substance, heft. There is a slight pebbling to the paper, it will hold the ink beautifully.
I take the freeway back to my house in the suburbs, where the dogs bark and helicopters hover over distant tragedies. Rob has gone for a run and the kids are off with friends. I clean the kitchen and put dinner in the Crock Pot, pick up dog toys, throw a load of laundry in the washer. By the time I sit down at my secretary with my pens and a cup of chamomile tea, it’s late. The house has settled into sleep.
The small leather notebook sits next to a neat stack of finished recipe cards. I pick it up and leaf through the pages one by one. There are columns of numbers, expenses, utilitarian notes. I turn a page, and the words become personal, playful. I see what we have, even though we just met, it says. Don’t you understand how much I love you already? Neat, block letters, a conversation continued over time. Let’s stay in tonight, just us. I’ll make you dinner. As the pages turn, the handwriting changes just slightly, thoughts, moving from elation to despair and back to commitment, forever. I miss you, it says, I love you so much.
I feel this story, told in fragments of sentences and single words in my chest. You make me so happy. I write the words over and over on pieces of scratch paper, old homework sheets and sports schedules. I sit at my desk until after one, practicing the angles and lines of each letter. It feels important to get this right.
Each day, I put a piece of the story together. Words from the notebook travel through my mind, weaving in and out, stanzas forming, unraveling and re-shaping. It’s a puzzle that doesn’t fit quite right until it does. I text Michel with my questions, for specifics. He answers right away. I fill in the blanks, linking words, phrases, pages. The words flow from my heart to my hand to the page, line after line in perfectly angled sans serif. The letters paint a picture in ink of two people woven together by love and longing. I’m rooting for them. I want to see them off into old age, happiness, two rocking chairs on a porch.
By Saturday, the letter is finished. It’s beautiful in its symmetry, one of my favorite commissions yet. I meet Michel inside the café this time. He looks the same. Neat, worn, a different flannel shirt peeking out from under his sweater. I hand him the notebook, then the letter.
He takes the envelope in his hands, his eyes softening. He unfolds the pages and reads, never looking up. His eyes fill with tears. He wipes them with the back of his hand, like a child.
We are quiet for a moment, the sounds and smells of the café surrounding us, creating a warm intimacy. Rain pelts the tables outside.
“It’s all here,” he says finally. “The whole story of us. The memories, the feeling. Thank you.”
“You gave me a really good map,” I glance at the notebook lying on the table. “I just connected the dots.”
“You brought him to life.” He looks at me with liquid eyes. “Even the handwriting. It’s his. You did a wonderful job.”
“Do you mind,” I venture, “if I ask...?”
“Who he is,” Michel finishes for me. “I didn’t want to say. I thought you might think I was crazy.”
“Nothing is crazy, especially in this town,” I smile. Michel laughs softly.
“He was my husband. Caleb.” His eyes well again. "He’s been gone for three years. He died. It was so sudden, so fast. One day we were happy and the next...I've been half a person ever since.”
I reach my hand out and put it on his. I don’t know what to say.
“The funny thing is, all through the hardest parts, the darkest days, I could feel him with me.” Michel’s voice is full of wonder. “I could hear him speaking to me. His voice. It was so real.”
“Some people have contact with their loved ones after death.” I’m not trying to be trite, but it comes out sounding awkward. I shift in my chair.
“Then it continued. He spoke to me. At work, at night when the house was quiet. In the shower. I thought I was going nuts. So I started writing everything down in this book. Our book.” He traces his finger absentmindedly along its spine. “We used to write these notes to each other. It started off as a game, a funny way to flirt. He would hide it in my suitcase when I traveled. I would put it in the laundry basket.” He chuckles at the memory.
“I could tell.” I say. “It's sweet”
“Then, after he died, I would write notes to him. Like before. Then he started to answer.” Michel twists his fingers together. “It was as if he was trying to tell me things, but in strange fragments, single words. Dreams. I thought if I wrote them down...I tried. I couldn't make sense of it. I thought if I could find someone to write everything, in his handwriting, maybe it would all make sense.”
“That’s where I came in.” I slide my napkin between my cup and saucer.
“You did it. You wrote his letter to me.” Michel twists his fingers together. “It’s him, it’s us and it’s beautiful, Maya. It’s more than a letter.”
“It’s a memory.” I’m beginning to understand. “And a way forward. ”
“It’s what he wants for me, I can see it here. I know it now. ” Michel smiles through fresh tears. “He wants me to know how much I was loved. How much he cherished me and the life we had. And to see our memories through his eyes. Even though he’s not with me, he's telling me that he is. It’s all the things he never got to say. It’s his way of showing me that I’m going to be ok."
Michel thanks me again. We hug and he tucks the envelope into the pocket of his jacket. I know that I will never see him again, but his story will stay with me always. I watch as he steps outside, opens a sturdy umbrella and disappears into the city, the love letter pressed against his heart like a shield.
I take a deep breath and wrap my hands around a fresh mug of coffee, listening to the sounds of singing and steam, soft laughter and the clink of mismatched dishes, waiting for another stranger to appear, another page to turn, another story to unfold.