New Love Letter by Keely O’Connell

Northern lights with a few pine tree silouhettes

When you got on the plane to leave Alaska, you left me at the airport holding a banjo case with a gun in it. I must have looked a little forlorn because a stranger patted me on the shoulder and asked me to play a sad tune. I didn’t know how, I said.

I ended up with the banjo because you were trying to return a gun to a friend in your hometown while visiting there for the holidays. You didn’t have a hard case for the pistol, so you broke it down and nestled it into the velvety box under the banjo’s neck. When we got to Fairbanks International, the baggage agents tugged at the clasps and gave each other significant looks. “It’s not really secure enough. Next time, bring a case that’s made for a gun, ok?”

When I got home, alone, I took the banjo out of its case and learned to tune it and play a few chords, glad for its voice in my house. I never even opened the velvet box behind the neck. Guns scare me. I wrote you a letter about that, tore up two drafts before I was satisfied. It was hard, telling you that something you love terrifies me. That was the first of the two letters I wrote that month that really mattered.

That’s the thing about letters. With a letter, I can spool and unspool an idea as much as I want, enjoy playing it out alone. I can write about something risky without being tempted to dodge or provoke or laugh it off. In writing, it’s easier to be vulnerable. So, when I lick the flap, seal it down, slide a letter into the mailbox, adrenaline squeezes under my shoulders: a letter mailed can’t be amended. A letter will find its way to your hands, no takebacks.

Do you remember how the temperature dropped right after you left? How it bottomed out and hardly shifted for the weeks you were away? Your voice on the phone grew frustrated, mine exhausted. I couldn’t chop enough firewood to heat my place at forty below. Your family was making you crazy. I wrapped my blanket tighter around my shoulders, pressed my cracked phone screen into my cheek.

On the night you came home, I picked you up from the airport at midnight, and we were both too wired to go to bed, so I sat on the floor and watched you unpack. Mostly clothes, but you’d brought me a red wool cap as a Christmas gift. I put it on, and my dog pressed his cold nose into my ear and looked sideways at you.

You reached into your suitcase again. “My parents got me a book for Christmas. How to Pick a Spouse.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Nope.” You slid it across the floor.

I flipped through it. “This guy doesn’t think you should have sex before marriage.”

“You probably shouldn’t.”

“My auntie threatened to break both my legs if I got married before I turned thirty.”

You paused with a flannel snap shirt halfway onto a hanger. “That’s kinda extreme.”

“My aunties had bad marriages.”

Another snap shirt. A click on the closet rail. “You’ll have that.”

“Don’t your parents hate each other?”

“Yeah, but my grandparents got married when they were real young…” you rifled through your suitcase and pulled out a leather gun belt. “…and they’re in their eighties. Happy together, still. Stand up, let’s see if this fits you.”

I stood and held my arms out to the sides while you buckled the belt around my waist. “My people are more of the ‘kick the tires’ school of thought.”

“If you were my people, we’d be married by now,” you said.

“You like me because I’m not your people, though.”

“Might like you more if you were my people.”

“Nah. You’re into liberal women,”

You tugged the belt on my hips, satisfied, kissed me lightly. “You’re not a real liberal.”

“Am too.”

You don’t believe abortion should be legal. I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in monogamy. That night, after you hung the last of your shirts in the closet, we put all that away in a hard case, tugged the clasps and deemed them good enough for now, then fell into bed together. With you, it’s as inevitable as snowfall. It’s like writing by hand, licking the seal, pressing it tight. It’s like sliding aside everything between us and finding a way to your hands. My voice in your cabin. No takebacks.

Remember how, that next day, we slept through breakfast, bought cheap champagne at Freddy’s, and took off south through the mountains in the early evening dark? It was thirty below, and the windows were whorled with frost on the inside, even with the blower on. It’s four hours from Fairbanks to Trapper Creek in good weather. I drove the whole way and the dog snoozed in the back seat. You sat in the passenger seat on moose watch and music and the moon rose nearly full in the southeast.

Over the drone of the radio, we talked through the hills north of Nenana. I told you about teaching in Arkansas. The time my ex and I loaded a curb couch into the bed of the pickup and parked it right in the middle of the dirt road out past Bear Creek Lake to sip hard cider and watch fireflies in the hay field. And the story about the ninth grader who walked up to a then-22-year-old me and solemnly asked “Ma’am, what are your three favorite sports?”

You laughed at my version of an Arkansas accent, at the idea that anyone would call me ma’am.

“I told him I wasn’t really into sports, and he goes, ‘now that’s too bad. My three favorites are huntin’, singin’, and church!’”

“Ha!” you sputtered. Then, more thoughtfully, “I think we’d be friends.”

“Probably.”

That got you thinking, and you asked me what I thought about teachers carrying guns in the classroom. I told you I thought it was a terrible idea and you disagreed passionately. We argued the nuances of it until we ran out of breath, then I grabbed your hand and you grinned. We could see way out to the north over the Minto Flats. I thought about all of the moose out there, long legs post-holing in the snow. You probably thought about them too, but differently.

“We’ll have mimosas with those guys when we get down there,” you said.

“Maybe in the morning. Did you grab the beer out of the fridge?”

“There were six left over from that case.”

“Good.” The radio fizzed, the dog shifted in the back seat. I felt my smile brimming. “I’m so glad you’re home.”

“I’m so, so glad to be back. I’m never leaving Alaska again,” you said. “I haven’t had a good talk since I left.”

“We’re good like that,” I said. “I think our talks are my favorite thing.” And they are. We poke and sweat and dig at each other, and then we backpedal and amend our hardest edges. Yes, I love writing to you, laying out the artifacts of my mind on paper like pressed flowers, but I love talking with you more. Our talks are my favorite thing because they soften us both.

In the truck, a grin spread across your face and you turned to face me. “So if our talks are your favorite thing, what’s your second favorite thing?”

“You know.” I kept my face forward but wiggled my eyebrows.

“Ooh.” You said, appreciatively, “Ooh!”

I snorted and you laughed and started scanning through the stations as we came down into the flats. Public radio was playing classical. “Public radio!” you huffed. “They usually have decent music, but there’s the awful communist commentary.” I rolled my eyes, but classical was too sleepy anyway. The crap country station out of Fairbanks was playing crap. Nothing felt right, nothing was eager enough or glad enough, and we’d lose the signal soon anyway, so I gave you the iPad. “Put on some Meat Loaf. There should be a cord.” You groped around and found it in the console.  

I don’t normally do the Meat Loaf thing where there are witnesses, especially people who are new and important like you are. It’s embarrassing. Most people don’t get it and I understand why — it’s campy as hell, and I’m a little embarrassed by how much I love it. But I really do love it, have loved it since I was little and my mom cranked it up in the kitchen, sparkling with flour. “This is baking music, Birdie!”

Climbing into the foothills, I started to grin at the opening riff, and you saw that and answered it, so I plain cut loose and sang along with just about every word, all-in, which is the only way to love Meat Loaf, who is all-in with motorcycle noises on the album and that baseball commentary and that whole thing with the wolf and the red roses, and I had to deliberately remind myself to slow down through Healy, because it’s hard to listen to music you love like that without driving too fast. “Let me sleep on it, Baby, Baby, let me sleep on it,” you sang. I took some frost heaves harder than I should. “I gotta know right now!” The dog glared from the back seat, too cool for this noise.

When the Meat Loaf ran out, you put on that Arlo song you like, “’cause I’m a man, and I like to work,” and wiggled your eyebrows at me when you sang about chopping and carrying three-hundred-fourteen armloads of stove-wood for a certain woman. Denali Village, dark and boarded up for the winter, eased by. Then Cantwell, then the high flats where the caribou live in the bowl of mountains. Then, the moon, almost full, got the best of me. I pulled over, and the headlights that had been dogging me slid by and left us in moonlight and silence. Blue night, bright enough to read by. We got out and peed in the snow. “It’s warmer this side of the mountains, huh?” We stretched, let the cold sink in just a little. The engine ticked.

“They’re waiting for us, I suppose.” I swung into the driver’s seat, a little clumsy in winter-weight Carhartts and bunny boots, slammed the door shut and fired up the truck. But when the headlights came on, it felt too jagged, the way the beams broke a sharp edge against the night and turned the moonlight dim. As I eased onto the road, real slow, I turned the knob and flipped the headlights off again.

You tensed up when I pulled onto the road in total darkness. We weren’t touching, and with the dash-lights off I couldn’t see you well. But whatever it is that connects us drew tight across the console. You are a cautious driver. Self-aware, you exaggerate it a little, make fun of yourself: “He’s comin’ in hot,” you’ll say of a vehicle approaching an intersection. “I’ll let him go by.” Even if he’s a hundred yards away, creeping at a mellow twenty. That gets me every time.

“It’s okay. I’ll be really careful. Put on something instrumental. Look.”

Do you remember how the night fell into place around us? How your breath caught in your throat? While you were away, I wrote a letter that named the irreparable flaws in our relationship. I wrote that tucking them into a little velvet box and hiding them under a banjo doesn’t somehow make them less lethal. I wrote that we were certain to fall apart. But a letter doesn’t demand participation the way a conversation does, and I didn’t want you to answer, so I put it in writing and slid it into the mail. With a letter, all that hard stuff became just a lifeless thing in an envelope somewhere. We agreed we could leave it untended for a while, so you drove with me into the mountains, and while we were there, I turned off the lights and set us adrift together in the night.

I knew the law-abiding grandma in you was panicking, was gnawing her lip as the road unspooled in the dark. But I knew, too, that you once said to me, “you can’t buy enough guns to make up for living in a world with no wonder,” and that the Alaska Range drenched in the full moonlight of a January night is a formidable bit of wonder. I knew that your soul was fizzing just like mine was because I felt it vibrate in that invisible bit of cable that’d been winding us closer since the day we met.  

New love, why do you want to bind me? It’s true that you make everything around us brighter, but what if I want to switch off the beam sometimes and move around in the dark with the animals and the shapeless scary things?

With the lights off, my peripheral vision cleared and I felt more awake. Fiddles and mandolins picked out bright points in the quiet. It felt possible to step out of the truck and touch the trees and snow, like we could strap on snowshoes and just go if we wanted to. Before, it had been like watching a grainy movie in the windscreen. Now, we saw how every tree cast a crisp shadow to the west, how the ridges curled around the valley, softened by snow. Our eyes were drawn upward to where the blue mountains laid back in the stars. “Beautiful,” you said. I thought a herd of caribou should flow across the road like mercury just then. It felt right for us to encounter something so magical.

New love, it’s true that you show me things I do not know to look for when I am alone, but what if I want to put on my snowshoes and wander off the surveyed route without you for a while, following the winding trail of a fox?

The highway wound on, dark as a river. I imagined what it would be like if a moose stepped out of the verge. I pictured the warm, heavy form suspended in the darkness on those impossible legs and knew it wouldn’t take me by surprise. I’d see its silhouette shifting against the snow in the trees and slow down, prepare to yield to a fellow traveler in the night.

I love to feel you there at the other end of the tension in our cable, closer and warmer with every click of the winch, but it frightens me that every step nearer to you narrows my path. I want to ditch the winch. I want an infinite spool. I want you and the fox and the danger and the darkness. All of it.

Music played, and I felt you smiling, felt your heartbeat slowing, felt the cable tightening between us.

“I can almost see better with the lights off,” I said.

“It’s really beautiful,” you murmured.

“That moon.”

Fiddles, banjos, mandolins, mountains, shadows on the snow.

I reached across everything between us and squeezed your hand. You squeezed back. Enough for now. I took my other hand off the wheel — no hands flying, just for a second — to turn the lights back on. The moonlight shrank away, the magic carpet blinked back into a truck. I squeezed your hand again. Smiled. I had led you into and out of the dark.

Meet the Contributor

Keely o'CONNELLKeely O’Connell is a writer and teacher based in Alaska, where she lives year-round in a yurt. A lover of boats, chainsaws, sled dogs, campfires, and skis, she never gets tired of exploring the wilderness. An essay of hers is forthcoming in Northwest Review, and she documents the weirdness and wonder of her fairly peculiar life at https://chasingpiggens.com.

Image Credit: Mike Goad/Flickr Creative Commons

Share a Comment