An Ode To Letter-Writing (Even If It's Over Email)

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Grads_In_Wonderland_2Designed by Ly Ngo.
Every once in a while, we all find ourselves digging through old emails (maybe an ex just got engaged and you want to go through the exercise of reading their old letters, or maybe you're just trying to remember that time your friend rewrote all the words to "Fading Like A Flower" as an ode to your 21st birthday). And, it's generally amazing. But, it's also a sort of rabbit hole where you get lost for hours, sifting through old memories, reading impossibly long letters, and reliving those emotions that sit dormant just below the surface.

One of the most striking things about this occasional time travel is just how much we used to write. In adulthood, as lives get busier and email means work, it's harder to take the time to write 2,000 words to your best friend in L.A. about your musings post-third viewing of Frances Ha. But, if that movie had been out around the time we were graduating college, we would have done exactly that. And, gotten at least as many words of free indirect discourse in return.

So, with that nostalgia for old friends and (sometimes self-indulgent) letters fresh in our minds, Graduates In Wonderland was a gem of a find. The book hits Amazon and bookshelves tomorrow, and is well worth a read. It follows two friends, Jess Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale, through their early post-grad years, across continents, career freak-outs, relationship trauma, health problems, seemingly brilliant epiphanies, and serious life moments — all in the form of their letters and emails back and forth. Reading through it (and it goes by fast) is a kind of hybrid between the most amazing nostalgia spiral and a very satisfying session of eavesdropping (extensively) on friendly strangers. Ahead, an excerpt of one of our favorite letters.
Grads_In_Wonderland_1Designed by Ly Ngo.
Rachel to Jess — Year Two, March 6
Help! Two problems! How the hell do you get glitter out of your eyelashes and how do you get the scent of a gallon of cheap perfume out of leather? Or maybe I should be more concerned that my feet are covered in grime and dirt and God knows what else. I also reek of the stench of a thousand cigarettes.

It’s 3 p.m. and I just woke up like this.

Last night, I finally met up with Jacques, who used to live in New York with Platonic Nick. I met him in the eleventh district, where there are bars with red neon signs and students sitting drinking on steps. I was here once three years ago and remember this street as the place where Rosabelle threw up under a table and we were forcibly ejected from a bar.

When Jacques arrived at the bar, a blur of dark hair and cologne, he kissed me on both cheeks, with a big grin, and then ordered a glass of red wine for me and a pastis for him. Pastis is a disgusting licorice-flavored cloudy drink. Jacques and I spoke in French about how he used to live in New York, in Williamsburg. He loves New York, like every French person I meet does, but loves it in a totally overwhelming, “How could you think any place would be better?” kind of way. I think it is the way Americans think about Paris, and it’s weird to hear it from the other side.

We were two drinks in when somebody tapped on the glass behind me. I looked to see a group of people grinning and waving at Jacques, who gestured for them to come inside.

I stood up to kiss each of them on the cheeks, but I’m still getting used to this. It’s one kiss per cheek, but is it their left then their right, or no, my left, your right, or WHAT IS GOING ON? If you mess this ritual up, all hell breaks loose. And also, when there is a big group, you have to kiss everybody and it takes forever.

Finally, while I was pulling away from the last guy, Olivier, we locked eyes. I know how this sounds, but I had never felt this sudden attraction for someone before. He has sandy-brown hair and light blue eyes, is about five ten, and has a dimple in his chin. I tried to look away, tried to distract myself, and tried not to have a look across my face that reads like my mind: “Hot Olivier, let’s ditch this crowd and go make out on a bench.”

We ordered a few more drinks and sat in the back, and I mostly listened and nodded. I ended up in a corner with a girl called Sasha, who is very tall and has dark flowing hair and a welcoming smile for everyone, even when she’s telling someone to fuck off. She was very direct and asked me what kinds of French guys I liked, and I kept trying not to point at Olivier and say, “Him.” Tall Sasha is dating Hipster Marc (this is the only way I can keep track of them), who has known Jacques and Olivier forever.

One of the girls invited us all back to her house, where her roommates were having a party. We left the bar and I fell into step with Olivier. He laughed hard when I tried to tell him that I missed my roommate in New York. Apparently, the expression I have been using for “roommate” has no real meaning in French, but roughly translates to “bedroom friend.” I have been using my made-up expression for years. Finally, those strange looks are explained.
Grads_In_Wonderland_3Designed by Ly Ngo; Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Books.
According to Olivier, my French is enunciated just fine but is formal, extremely polite, and slightly antiquated in a way that makes his friends laugh (With me? At me. With me?). Apparently, I use outdated expressions, such as “companion” for “boyfriend” or “moving picture” for “movie.” Basically, in French, I am the little old lady who lives across from my courtyard.

By the time we arrived at the party, I’d had four drinks and was so overwhelmed by all the new French faces suddenly among me. Tall Sasha took my hands and pulled me over to the living room to dance, where thick smoke hovered over everything, and bubbles floated around randomly from a machine.

At one point, someone became too enthusiastic about a particular song and started spraying silly string and throwing handfuls of glitter. Some girl spilled an entire bottle of perfume on my purse, but I did not care. I was at my first party in six months.

At 5 a.m., the lights went on. Sasha and I were still halfheartedly jumping along to ’80s music among the bubbles that were now puddles of foam. It was over.

The Metro wouldn’t open for another half an hour, so we walked around the neighborhood just to kill time (I love that there is actually a French word for this walking with no purpose: flâner).

We all exchanged numbers, and when they all disappeared around a corner, I immediately double-checked that they were gone and took off my boots. My feet were killing me. They have four-inch heels, and I’d been dancing in them for hours.

I wandered home in my stocking feet as the sun rose and the alcohol was wearing off and my mind was clear. If you cycle down French boulevards or peer into bakeries at pyramids of macaroons or wander through the Rodin Gardens, but you cycle and you peer and you wander with no company but your own, were you ever in Paris at all?

I’ve been contemplating this for a while. I’ve been here long enough to watch autumn start to trail off into winter. I just kept going to my classes, taking my notes, and then walking across the bridge home and watching Notre Dame behind the veil of rain. There are days where I don’t speak to anyone, and others where I speak only to the baker down the road.

But after last night, Paris feels completely different to me. I was in a different world. I wonder if I’ll see Olivier again or if he will just disappear into oblivion for me. But Hipster Marc wants to meet me on Monday for a coffee break at the National Library, where we both have to do our research. I’m meeting Tall Sasha next week for a movie.

See? There is still life in me yet. I’m saying this as much to myself as to you. Last night, I was not an old grandmother, except when I took off my shoes, rubbed my feet, and thought, “Shit. Do I have bunions?”

I’m also still trying to write every day.

And I am, as always, waiting for my next dispatch from Beijing.

Love,
Rach

Reprinted by arrangement with GOTHAM BOOKS, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © JESSICA PAN AND RACHEL KAPELKE-DALE, 2014.