"Mail Tape", excerpt

Tuesday 2/4/20

“What if I sent you an old VHS tape, and you came home and there was a VCR installed—Would you watch it?”

The question sounds commonly in my head. I wonder if you have a way of knowing it does. It’s technically more than one question, but the beginning part glosses over the fact that I do have a VCR, so I count it as just the one inquiry. Actually, it’s really three questions, because there is what I call the implied thesis query, which does not get voiced in my head, when I imagine my scenario, but I can say it now: If I knew you were on them, with someone else, in these intervening years, all of the people in these intervening years, would I watch?

But first: Why does it have to be a VHS tape? Why not a digital file, hard drive, Dropbox link? My prevailing sense is the format is a commentary on antiquated love. What has always struck me about love is how quickly it becomes superannuated. Something ends, and right away you start swimming. A rip tide tongues your feet. The official breakdown is on a Tuesday, and you need to get clear of the rip, or else by Sunday, even before, you’re walled in a past, with oceans above your holding center, detainee village. Even if you managed to tunnel out, to break through the ceiling, you’ll drown ad infinitum, and whose lungs have that kind of time?

So I get the mail the other day. And what do you think turns up? A tape. There’s a sticker on the side, the label, it’s yellowed. It says Rena Rides, in your handwriting. “I’m going to watch this,” I think. I lube up.

“Rawness,” you said, “works best.” Strange line. Singular. Then again, you kept saying you were reading La Rochefoucauld like I didn’t know him and repetition was the best way to clue me in. But this was your part of the country. I had just flown there. I said things, too, when I was in grad school. They struck me as important at the time. Maybe they were.

But perhaps I get ahead of myself with the VHS tape. You could be riding in a car. Could be riding a horse. I saw a photo of you online shooting a gun in the woods. Someone was advising you. “I am learning to shoot,” the caption said. The small town in northern New England, away from NYC. Two residences before thirty. Both wouldn’t have been yours. Probably neither. My guess was a professor was involved—centrally—and it was his place outside of the city, where you went. I figured you were freer there. Touched less on campus. The tape would have come from northern New England, his part of it, but I didn’t think I would see a professor when I watched. Nor horses or cars. Ski lifts or locomotives. What else do we ride? Waves and dreams.

“But this is morbid,” I start to think. One bends back the top of the cassette, that little plastic fold like a lid, or a crenel; one takes a pair of scissors, you snip the tape, it’s done, all taken care of without the noise or drama of using a hammer, or putting the tape in the garbage to hover over it later, asking yourself if you should pluck it out.

When I read your email about killing yourself, it was almost five years later. There were letters I just did not want to face. No that I was expecting the particular subject matter. I was expecting the pledges. From a time of different tenses when the subjunctive is God, the ruler. What we will be, how we will be, where we will be. The pledges are always protests against wavering before the wavering has actually visibly occurred, which has the ironic knack of first making wavering visible.

We sat in a hotel bar—because there were only two bars in town, and that was the one where the people who weren’t the undergrads went, which was theoretically both of us, though I had my dozen years on you in some ways, and not really in others.

People mostly didn’t go there. Staff from the college. Not the instructors. Kitchen workers, administrators, a janitor. Felt like you had to be in the know. Were we? One night, Burl Ives was on the jukebox. One Burl Ives song after another. Burl Ives Fest in Middle America on a Random Wednesday in a Sub Zero February. I didn’t realize he did so many folk songs. I said this can be our place, we can come back here when you are celebrated for what you do, and I am celebrated for what I do, we’ll come back when you are given some award, or do a speech for graduates, and we will repair to here, away from it all.

The email was long. I skimmed. Didn’t seem right to read it properly. Wasn’t anything I could do about it now. You said you thought it was normal to think how it would be to be dead, didn’t realize it meant anything until the therapist they had made you see said so, and now they were watching you. I think these were different “theys.” Parents firstly, medical people—so vague I imagine human shadows wearing blue cowls—secondly.

After I snipped the tape with the scissors, I didn’t put it in the garbage. I left it out on the toaster. I hadn’t used the toaster in as long a time as I hadn’t used the VCR. Toast is a more addictive form of bread, I tend to think. Burl Ives probably had a lot of toast.