My Childhood Pen Pal Convinced Me Our Future Was Together. He Was 51.

"There is a reason why you like it," Jet replies, "and that reason is shame." (An excerpt from T Kira Madden's Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls)

I wanted love the size of a fist. Something I could hold, something hot and knuckled and alive. What I wanted was my freckled cheeks printed on cheap paper, stapled at the ears, the flyers torn from telephone poles and the scales of palm trees, a sliver of my face left flapping in the wind. I wanted to be the diametric opposite of who I was; am. To get gone. I wanted limbs dangling from the lip of a trash compactor, found by a lone jogger who would cry at the sight of my ankles, my beaten blue knees with their warm fuzz of kiddie hair.

Did I want to die? Not really, no. I wanted the beauty of the doomed. Missing girls are never forgotten, I thought, so long as they don’t show up dead. So long as they stay missing.

I am nine years old in 1997, and I read magazines. I clip out so many images and faces that the remaining paper looks skeletal, like the threads of a crumbling leaf. My favorite magazine is called TigerBeat, with lips so glossed on the cover the paper looks wet. The clippings line
the perimeter of my room, scotch-taped around the edges, gleaming.

These magazines have girl parts inside and boys with shining chests and words that tell me how I should or should not act, how to make lifelong friends. This is how to make him wait; this is how to get crushed; this is how to line your panties.

Are you lonely?

Sure, I’m lonely, I write to myself, on the electric IBM Wheelwriter my Grandma Yukling gave to me. Grandma goes by Rose now, because her American co-workers at the bank told her it was easier to say. Rosebud — more memorable — they saw it in a movie once, and so she used it.

Grandma Yukling-Kam-Rosebud taught me to set the typewriter margins when she came and visited from Hawaiʻi. She told me to write an autobiography, because it’s a good thing — sometimes — to remember your life. Instead, I’ve been writing about a girl named Joni Baloney. Joni is exactly like me except she's white and athletic and people tend to grope her. She's bullied at school and chomps on sandwiches under an exotic, drooping tree. She can’t help her preference for baloney. In Chapter 2, boys rip off her underwear at recess and take turns wearing the damp cotton over their heads, so Joni Baloney runs away, pantyless, and joins a traveling freak show, rocketing horses off high-dive boards. Joni wears bikinis and makes it big and that’s that. I can do things like that when I write — pluck any thread of want and weave a whole world.

I can do things like that when I write — pluck any thread of want and weave a whole world.

I have a new favorite section of TigerBeat — the pen pal ads — because the kids seem lonely, too. The ads feature square blocks of photographed faces with little stories about each kid, a home address below the story. Anyone can send mail directly to the addresses, no
parents necessary, a feature that will soon be discontinued.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the magazine with a picture of myself. I wanted to look wanted. I handed my father a cardboard camera and clenched my jaw so the marbles of my temples would show. I covered my braces with my lips. When we picked up the photos from the drugstore, I felt proud of the stillness in my eyes — the absolute focus. In most of the pictures my hair is slicked back, but even without hair, I am still a girl.

To the magazine I wrote, Hi Hello my name is T Kira but please DEAR GOD forget the T. I’m obsessed with riding horses and I like to palm the tassels that hang from my grandma’s drapes and yes I would like a real camera for Hanukkah and yes I would like an instrument, any instrument, for Christmas and yes I do like the smell of a gas pump but really what I would really, really love is a pen pal, yes, and Thank you. I promised to write back. I promised to keep secrets. I wrote many lists like this but only chose the best parts to send. Small, sweet facts. I spritzed the envelope with Cucumber Melon body spray, sprinkling glitter all over the wet bull's-eye of sweet.

I see it in the checkout line at an East Boca convenience store. I’m at a Palmetto Park strip mall with my mother. My father is next door at the bar, but he doesn’t know that we know it. We’ll stop for groceries, my mother had said, picking me up from school, and check for your magazine. And let’s make a bet — will Daddy’s car be in the lot?

Daddy’s car is in every lot, or driveway, whenever we play this game. Whenever we come looking. It’s amazing, I think, really something, how my parents share this telepathic connection. A few months before the convenience store, my mother took one of my father’s golf clubs to his Jaguar. The cracks spread over the driver’s seat window until the glass went soft looking, like chiffon. Since then, I wonder why we continue playing the Bet Daddy’s Car Game.

My mother places cartons of juice onto the rolling belt of the checkout line. Behind the black cage wire of magazine rack, I see it. The dimpled smiles of the Hanson Brothers; Leonardo DiCaprio, tugging down the V of his shirt; each Spice Girl lined up in a row. I yank it off the shelf and please, just imagine it, opening something this beautiful with your own face inside. Your own shape shining on real paper. You could trace me with a pencil if you wanted to.

I show my mother, and then the grocery clerk, and then my mother again. Look, look, it’s ME! My mother grabs all the issues off the shelf, but I tell her to put them back. People won’t see it if we buy them ALL. I hand her the one magazine.

You’re smart, she says, I’ll keep you. She pets the top of my head.

Can we go in the bar and show Daddy?

He’s busy, she says.

It’s true — he always was.

That night, I read my ad aloud to myself under the covers, with a flashlight. I pretend to be a stranger finding me, folding a dog-ear over to remember my black-and-white face — a very interesting girl. I check and recheck the words to make sure my address is printed correctly beneath my picture — 7127 Baybreeze Court, Boca Raton, Florida, 33428. I wait for a pebble-tap at the window, a flashlight pulsing in a Morse code I will instantly understand, telling me to get moving, to come outside, to leave quietly. My bag is packed in my closet — it’s been there for months. I wait for any knock of the living.

Hundreds of letters arrive. Every day, after school, my mother pulls right up to the mailbox for me. We are supposed to have uniform mailboxes here in Boca, rounded and silver like bullets, but my mother does not believe in uniform. Instead, she purchased and installed a spray-painted hummingbird mailbox the color of a sunset, with wooden wings that spread two feet wide. I pull the bird’s beak to open the mouth of it, and letters burst from its tin stomach. I gather the letters in my arms, between my legs in the car; I press them to my chest.

Each letter comes in a different envelope, a new shape and bulk, different arrangements and patterns to their stamps. Each smells like it came from a different world entirely, and I do my best to imagine each country, state, bedroom, glass of milk. My favorite stamps have exotic animals printed on them. My favorite stamps come from Madagascar.

What’s Madagascar? I ask my father one night. My father knows everything.

He spins our globe in his hands until the Earth looks small. He lists off the oceans, the tiny seas. He sips his drink.

Here, he says, pointing. Right here. This little chunk of land in the water.

And kids live there? I ask. Kids like me?

Kids live everywhere, he says, and I’m terrified. Until this moment, I have never even considered children my age living outside the Mainland. That’s what we call the United States in my family. Everything except Hawaiʻi is the Mainland. My grandma Rose is from China, and Hawaiʻi, but in my mind she has always been curled over and ancient. Pink foam rollers in her hair, fingers like ginger root. Never, ever a child.

Most of my letters come from other girls in elementary schools. They tell me about their P.E. teachers, some hobbies, what their parents make them for dinner; they include the loopy initials of their crushes. Honestly, I’d expected more. I write back to as many as I can, but too many come. I keep the unanswered in the bottom of my dresser, the ones that do the least for me. Whenever I drop a new letter into the dark of that drawer, I open the drawer very quickly, looking away, blinking back the guilt of it.

And then there are the men. The men mostly write about their dreams. They dream of gangrenous toes and a God with pierced ears
and Bill Clinton dressed in a nightgown. Sometimes, they confess things to me: I want to move to California. I feel like a failure and was born a failure and will never not be a fat, old, failure. I’d like to learn to play the piano and leave my wife. They can trust me, they write, and I believe them. I have always been talented at keeping secrets. So far, it’s been my only job.

Jet tells me that I can call him J-Daddy and that this name is reserved only for me.

One man always asks me questions about riding my horses and how that must feel. To tame something so wild and dangerous, like a gun loaded right between my legs.

Jet, like the plane, is my favorite of the men. He wasn’t the first man to
write me, but I like his letters best. Jet has called me interesting, and
sweet seeming, and a different kind of pretty. He believes that O. J.
Simpson is a madman gone free. My mother doesn’t trust O. J. either,
so I immediately believe in this Jet.

Jet tells me he lives on a houseboat, but his address lists a street in Virginia Beach. He owns three yellow labs named after dead movie stars — no other family. Jet is 51, my father’s age, and he writes in tiny, lower case letters — always a runny blue ink. He uses crisp, narrow envelopes that smell like something sour.

What do you think about most often? he recently asked me.

My ponies, I wrote. And my heroes. Dominique Moceanu and the rest of the Magnificent Seven, but especially the white Dominique. I think about flying. I think about Drew Barrymore and how it would sound for Leonardo DiCaprio to say my name. I think about fax machines because those are crazy. Mostly, I think about JonBenét Ramsey. She’s my number one hero of all time.

Jet tells me that I can call him J-Daddy and that this name is reserved only for me. Reading this feels like the first glint of something grown-up in my life, a slice through my stomach clean as a kite through the sky. Reserved only for me. I repeat these words. I address him this way in all of my letters because I want to be his, and because he wants to be mine, and because nicknames sounds so very adult. I write Hello, J-Daddy, and My Dearest J-Daddy, and My Darling Daddy with all capital D’s, I want to know everything about everything you’ve ever done and I want to know how you did all of those things and were you scared when you did them?

I’ve stopped writing everybody else back, except the girl in Madagascar. The drawer has thickened so much it is difficult to close. If you want to know the truth, marrying Jet feels like the only thing left to do.

Doris Day, Judy Garland, Rita — these are the names of his dogs. Jet loves glamour. He promises that one day he will show me the classic films of our lives, promises that once I see the actresses' faces blown up in Technicolor, once I see the smoke of their cigarettes genie up and out of the screens, their slender wrists, their backless silks, I will understand what it means to be a woman. This is something I am dying to know.

I have a future with Jet, and that seems to be something all girls are supposed to have. I hear this word all the time at school, at home: Future. How about your future? Time magazine recently published a story about cars driving themselves on roads paved with magnets, but I can’t imagine myself inside one of them. Before Jet, I imagined myself murdered by 20, or off with Joni Baloney in a tent somewhere, nowhere in this future.

Now, I think maybe we could grow old together on his boat. I can see us holding each other through the darkness of Y2K, surviving. The world will rise with water, and I will learn how to swim. Maybe this future-me will even wear glasses. Our future, Jet writes. You and me. You are my future.

Lately, my mother walks around the house all night long while I’m trying to sleep. Ignore her when she does that, my father says, she’s just zombie walking, restless legs, but when he’s out at night, which is usually, I like to lead her back into her bedroom like a horse into a trailer. I say, Shhhh, shhhh — it’s just us. My hands tuck the blankets around her frame; my fingers comb through her hair. She stares right through me and says, What kind of person will you be?

Jet has been very specific about our plans to meet. I cannot tell anyone about it, and I suppose that makes it better. I know my father will not like J-Daddy, but perhaps, I think, my mother might come around. Maybe Jet will tell her about his childhood, and about his dogs, the way he holds them at night when they're too frightened to sleep, all the things he has told me. He could tell her about our real love, describe what it means for me to be an old soul, how he is the only one who has ever, truly, clearly, seen it.

We’ll live on my boat, Jet’s been writing, and travel the whole world.

I get seasick, I write, I get it real bad.

Not with me, he promises.

All I have to do is get out to the beach. Jet will drive his boat down the coast to Florida; he wants it that much. I will watch Natural Born Killers with my mother, our favorite movie, maybe sit at the typewriter and send Joni Baloney to the pyramids in Egypt, or the Academy Awards. My mother will say, So where’s your father tonight? Want to make a bet? But I won’t take her up on our gam, not tonight, no. I’ll say, Go to sleep, MomMom, and wait for her to take her pills, the medicines, the smokes and bottles she and my father keep locked away in their bathroom. At two a.m. I will call a local limo company from my new landline. I’ll walk down the driveway in my satin blue pajamas, meet the driver under the stars. To the beach! I’ll say, handing over the wad of cash I’ve been saving from my allowance. An interesting girl like you must have very important places to go, the driver will say, opening a door for me. We'll drive. I'll stick my head out into the salty heat until it crisscrosses my hair.

"There is a reason why you like it," Jet replies, "and that reason is shame."

At the beach, I’ll see it: the ocean glittering like a sheet of foil; Jet’s boat, lit up, windows blushing in the night, anchored. The sand will be cool by now, damp and hard between my toes as I run toward the water, toward the figure of a man splashing out of his boat, toward the lame waves frothing at the pier. We’ll meet in the water, Jet and I, and he’ll pick me up in his arms to carry me the rest of the way to his boat, our home, where music spools out of his radio. Jet will finally get to see the way I look when I laugh, and he will hear me sing his favorite lyrics, impressed that I know many words to many songs. I am cold, and he can see that through the satin, so he wraps his right arm around my chest and presses his other hand into my hand, and I say, Look at the difference of our hands, look how you could crush me, in my voice that has always been little. He is moved by this statement, and takes my whole face in his grip. I open my mouth for him, and, for the first time, feel what it is. He tastes like something adultlike but new — crushed leather couch, cinnamon — too perfect to ruin.

When I think about it, I write in a letter, I touch where I’m not supposed to, and when I touch like that I want all the lights out in my room so that I cannot see where it is I am touching.

There is a reason why you like it, Jet replies, and that reason is shame.

Do you know what it means to be a grown-up? This was one of the first things Jet ever wrote to me. You’d have to be very adult in order to answer such a question.

Do I know?

My mother found the letters when we were packing to move. A new house: bigger, grander, white with eggplant trim; behind the front door, a swimming pool. She approached me in our laundry room. I can still see the both of us: my mouth hanging open with its metal and springs, my mother’s hand opening and closing a fist. She didn’t know where to situate her anger, where to store it. She still hasn’t found the proper place.

My mother lay the white envelopes on the dryer. Her chin, too steady. Even now, when I see piles of mail, I swear I can smell the floral pinch of detergent.

There are bad people in this world, she said, and bad people always want the good ones.

But he’s my pen pal, I said.

No more letters after we move, she said. Not unless they’re to Hawaiʻi, to Grandma, and I’ll read them first.

She cupped her hands around the back of my neck. My mother. I can still feel her there. Water dribbled from my eyes, and I nodded my head yes. Jet and I might find each other again after middle school, or high school, or maybe a summer in between. But in this moment, with the weight of my head held firm, I knew I didn’t need him. Jet would have to wait.

Do you know what it means to be a grown-up?

How much I wanted it before I knew. ●

Copyright © 2019 by T Kira Madden. From Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden (Bloomsbury, March 5, 2019)

T Kira Madden is an APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician. She is the founding editor-in-chief of No Tokens, and facilitates writing workshops for homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals. A 2017-8 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in nonfiction literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts, she has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Tin House, DISQUIET, and Yaddo, where she was selected for the 2017 Linda Collins Endowed Residency Award.

Her debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, forthcoming from Bloomsbury on March 5, 2019.

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