The postcard relationship

I met Wes when were both counsellors at the same summer camp in Rhinebeck, NY. I had just graduated from high school and he was a graduate student, a gifted musician, and willing to help me find my way through a troublesome summer.

For a couple years after that summer, he kept in touch. Contact was in the form of intermittent postcards, never from the same place, never with a return address or any information about what he was doing beyond his truly cryptic one-line messages. “It didn’t rain here today.” “The store was out of butter. “ “Thursday comes after Wednesday.” And my personal favorite: “Just changed my underwear.” They were all signed:  “W”  I understood. He was sending me a content-free message, intended only to signify that we were connected. 

As it turned out, not everyone else understood.

During Freshman Spring at Dartmouth I received a message in my college mailbox from the Dean’s office to stop by. I did, and was told that the FBI wanted to talk to me about someone I knew. The Dean offered to sit in, and did.

A time was set up and two very grey, straight, humorless men asked me a series of questions: Where did I meet Wes? (Camp Rising Sun.) Did I know where he was? (No.) When was the last time I saw him? (The end of the camp season.) Had I met any of his friends? (No.) Did I know that he had been working for the NYC water supply? (No.)  Had we ever discussed politics? (Yes.) What did he say about politics? (All governments suck by definition.) Did I know that he used drugs? (He’s a graduate student studying with Timothy Leary.)

And then, they asked, had I ever heard from him since camp? (Yes.)  What have you heard? (He sends me a postcard every few months.) What do they say? (Different things. You wouldn’t understand.) We want to see them. (This was not phrased as a question. My dorm room was only 150 yards away and I retrieved the three I could find.)

What does this mean about the underwear? (Nothing.) What do you mean, nothing? (Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.) What is he trying to say? (That he has nothing to say.) Then why did he send a card? (I guess he wanted to.) Why is he talking about underwear? (He isn’t talking about underwear.) But why does he say that he changed his underwear? (He had to say something.) 

I don’t know how long this went on. I remember it as scary at first, then irritating, and finally amusing. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand, it was that they couldn’tunderstand. Like a blind person trying to understand the difference between yellow and white, or a deaf person trying to understand the sound of an A major chord, they had no life experience or context to make sense of this. 

Years later, when I think back about that day, I realize how empty life must have been for them, unable to understand that one could send or receive a message where the content of the message was simply the existence of the message.

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