Dear 13-year-old Sara,
You don’t know it, but you just met your future husband. Yes, that’s him—the 21-year-old camp counselor with the hiking boots and shaggy brown hair.
I know, right? Scandalous.
Not really. Not in the way it sounds.
He won’t remember what you look like. When camp is over, and you’ve gone back to Connecticut and he’s gone back to California, and he sends a mass email to everyone who signed his yearbook, and you write back—he won’t remember your face.
Which is good because you are in “that awkward phase.” You desperately want someone to see past your boring, suburban, Jewish exterior into the humming, shadowy world of your inner life. Having a pen pal is good for that. For the next four years—still in the awkward phase, by the way—you will write to Chris about your family, your friends, your most mundane and profound discoveries, and the many injustices and heartbreaks of high school. Meanwhile, Chris will travel the world, writing to you from places with strange names (Corsica, Angelholm, Granada) that you will have to look up on maps. The stories he tells—picking grapes as a day laborer, hitchhiking (hitchhiking!!!) through Spain—will break open your world. You will glimpse a wide universe beyond your hometown, beyond your high school, beyond yourself.
He will listen to you. That’s the most seductive part of all. He will treat you like an adult, like someone with thoughts worth sharing. He will tell you about his own troubles and dreams. He will, occasionally, mention a girlfriend, but you won’t pry. You’ll just count the years until you graduate college. And in the meantime, you’ll copy and paste each email meticulously into a Word document. By your senior year of high school, that document will fill 1,800 pages. Ironically, you will save this document incognito in a file called “Just a thing.doc”—full of run-on sentences, overzealous poetry, and the sort of spelling mistakes that would make your English teachers cry.
Here’s the sad part: They will make you cry too, sometimes, on those nights when you realize just how in love you are, and just how much it will hurt when it falls apart. Inevitably, it will fall apart. That’s what you’ll tell yourself. Inevitably, you will meet in real life and he will be disappointed. The Sara he sees in front of him won’t be the Sara he’s come to know from the letters. She won’t be as funny or clever or wise. She won’t be as pretty. She won’t always know what to say.
But you’ll keep writing anyway, because it’s the best part of every day. You’ll keep presenting him with a carefully curated collection of memories and moments from your life—getting your drivers license, crying alone in the A&P parking lot because of a poem on the radio, doodling on a napkin at the prom—moments that will become like part of your DNA.
Some nights you’ll type whole paragraphs you would never dream of sending (Dear Chris, I love you. I love you love you love you love you. I love you so much. I love you!!!!!) and then enjoy the swoosh of the delete key as you swallow your secret back down into a comfortable compartment inside yourself. Some nights you’ll sit frozen at your desk, trying to grasp the enormity of the part of yourself you have invested in someone so far away. Some nights you’ll go back and read your favorite emails that he wrote you. You’ll push back your chair and stand up. You’ll plant your feet firmly on the floor and throw back your head. You’ll reach. Your fingers will stretch outward. You’ll open your mouth and howl silently until your jaw aches. It’s a painful kind of joy, but at least you have this, you will tell the empty room—at least you have this. Some people go their whole lives without this. At least you have this.
And this whole time, you will wait for yourself to grow up. You will wait, hung like a chrysalis, your wings folded.
But here’s the thing. Here’s what I want you to know—
It doesn’t have to fall apart. And it won’t.
Because you are the Sara from the letters. The funny, smart, sensitive version of yourself—the one with wisdom and grace. Don’t just sit around wishing you could be as interesting in “real life” as you are in your letters. Be that person. Start now.
P.S. It turns out trans fats are bad for you. So take it easy on the microwave popcorn.
Sara Kocek is the author of PROMISE ME SOMETHING (Albert Whitman Teen, 2013). She received her BA in English from Yale University and her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, where she taught fiction and poetry to undergraduates. A freelance editor and college essay coach, Sara has served as the Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, a literary nonprofit. She is also the founder of Yellow Bird Editors, a team of freelance editors and writing coaches based in Austin, Texas.