Handwritten Letters Have a Heartbeat

Jen Parkhill
46 min readFeb 18, 2021


Photography by Adam Coleman

I can’t think of a text message that didn’t rob me of the opportunity to hear the places where someone stuttered, or sighed, or paused. It’s in the pauses that we hear everything.

August 2019.

10am on Monday morning. I leave my therapist’s office and drive down Pacific Coast Highway to pick my grandmother up at her home in San Clemente to take her for breakfast. It’s a sleepy town of retired pro surfers, Volkswagon buses with surf boards hanging out the back, families, painters, old hippies. I grew up on these beaches. I experienced my first swim in sea water here, first kisses, the first time being stoned, falling in love. Those beaches were often a place to escape with a lover, a journal, my walkman. I sunk my joy and my pain there. I ran into the waves, fully clothed, just before heading to the airport the morning I moved to New York City. Just to taste the pacific one last time.

The ocean glares at me.

It’s August and I haven’t been to the beach once all summer. The comfort of my mother’s porch luring me back each time I reach for a swim suit. A now misplaced New Yorker, weary and full of heartache, I’d walked down to the ocean alone at sunset most nights after the surfers had gone, and built messages in the sand, spelling out elaborate codes and longings out of sea rocks to be washed away by morning. Where do I belong now? I was splitting my time between California and a sublet in New York with no real sense of belonging in either place.

A few nights I’d snuck out of my parent’s home as if 15 again, to sit under a full moon and watch the tumble of black water on the shore and wrestle with dismembering the phantom limb that is heartbreak. My love was gone. Without her, New York no longer felt like my home. And neither did this place where I had grown from a child into a young woman.

As I pull into my grandmother’s driveway, the front door swings open and my grandmother is standing in the door frame with her cell phone to her ear, speaking to her sister in Spanish, then to me in English, saying something about how my mother just texted and she can’t figure out how to continue the phone call and text my mother back at the same time and something else about an email, and now I’m here. She’s laughing, as she often does, at the absurdity of it all.

In recent months she’s learned to communicate using Bitmojis. Our string of texts have become an illustrated picture book which the smartest minds could not decode. Most times I find myself laughing and staring at the screen trying to decipher out of context words like “solid” with an illustration of a very hip white haired granny holding out a thumbs up. I eventually pick up the phone to call and ask what she had intended. This I’m sure is her secret ploy — to confuse me enough to cause me to pick up the phone — the thing she had wanted all along.

The modern world, though full of entertaining tools for connection, can often fail us in true communication. Not because more vulnerable options aren’t available on our devices, but because we rarely choose them. I can’t think of a text message that didn’t rob me of the opportunity to hear the places where someone stuttered, or sighed, or paused. It’s in the pauses that we hear everything.

Handwritten letters have a heartbeat. I like to see where the tear fell, where the pen slipped, where the ink smeared, where the size of the text grew then stiffened. Thoughts that come out rapid fire, messy, then slow to an intentional and crafted crawl. Letters are inherently private. Our handwriting, though legible by others, is uniquely our own. A thumbprint.

Text messages on the other hand, are screenshot and sent off into oblivion to be made a laughing stock in mere seconds. We’ve been a made a fool by our transparency more than once, bending us toward the art of withholding. We type our thoughts on the edge of a blade.

But of course, my grandmother is only just learning this. At 89, she is blind to the toils of the millennial textscape. Her quivering fingers can select a cartoon far easier than letters. Its a shortcut and her attempt to honor my mother’s request that she text her grandchildren rather than call if she wants responses from them. It’s dispiriting how easily we succumb to being condensed. She resists this in what way she knows how — a Bitmoji that retains some spark of personality that letters alone can’t offer her.

I take my grandmother to breakfast. She’s spirited and orders coffee before we have taken a seat. We pour our hearts to each other over sunny side up eggs and these breakfasts always leave me more emotionally full than a string of texts could hope to.

I’m in love with her face. I study it. And her hand, when she reaches for mine across the table, I feel its texture, its folds, its sweetness, its grit, its warmth. I love the way she talks with her hands. There is a gesture for every syllable, always two fingers walking when she is talking about going someplace. It sends laughter up my spine. I know so much about the intention behind each of those words by studying those hands, the feel of her touch, the squeeze on my arm, the expression in her eyes. And that laugh. Sometimes I think I could mute the words and understand everything just from feeling those hands squeezing my own. Often, we part in the parking lot and don’t talk or see one another again for months. But the warmth from that touch to my arm remains.

Years ago, while in college in New York, I had requested that my mother not leave me long voicemails. I didn’t have the “time” to listen. I was “busy” with my studies. Only now do I understand the thoughtlessness of this request and the way it devalued the opportunity for us to check in with our human voices. How to amend my mistake.

Text messages often feel like a test. Like the speed at which I respond is a measure of my investment.

I tell my grandmother to ignore my mother’s request about texting and call me as frequently as she wishes, though I always prefer a face to face visit when possible. I write her letters. I’m not good with communicating using technology. I’m an experiential and tactile person. I get lost in whatever is tangibly in front of me. I forget to check in with people who are not in the room. I forget to check the clock. I’m terrible with directions and need to be walked through them while on the route itself. I lose track of what I’m doing on my way to the fridge and start doing something else. At midnight my growling stomach reminds me I never finished making dinner. I go to the computer to return an email and then I’m watching cat videos on the internet. I sit down to watch a movie and find myself editing a piece of poetry. I’m hopeless.

Those closest to me are learning to have room for my tendency not to reply to a text “on time.” In my head I have replied. In my head we’ve shared a conversation, a moment, I’ve thought about that person and what I’d like to say in response. But sometimes my fingers don’t make it to the buttons. There are no receipts for the thought I gave to their message. They haven’t read my mind. Go figure.

Text messages often feel like a test. Like the speed at which I respond is a measure of my investment. Sometimes I need to think over the response while I’m in the shower or even over a couple of days. I’m not in the habit of sending immediate responses just to say I did but with this comes a sense of guilt. I like to give thought and time to responses. Sometimes that thought and time will consume an entire afternoon. And the world is still turning and sometimes I have to go to work and I don’t want to send it while waiting at a red light. These things are permanent after all. They’re up there in that cloud waiting to be used as evidence for how we were or were not there for someone. I overthink them to a fault.

I can be hot-tongued. I say too much, I’m too direct — bordering on what might be perceived as rude, too vulnerable, too honest. I’ve had texts that fly off the handle before thinking them through come back to haunt me. There’s no explaining it once it’s been sent. Or in moments I’m careless. One word replies. Or I’ll people please and say what I think the other wants to hear. The Latina side of me gets a little too spicy or the white blood has too many apologies, too many passive aggressive impulses. Somewhere there is a balance and I have yet to find it or combine it with the right amount of witt expected over text. I have learned to pause before responding and some of those pauses turn into days until a message like “are you ghosting me?” turns up on my screen. No. It is not personal. I’m just not good at this. Yet.

It’s taken time for me to accept the textbook Sagittarius that I am. You will find me forgetting to return text messages for weeks on end, calling you on my way to your house to ask if I can take you to dinner at 9pm after we haven’t spoken for months, or asking you to take a road trip with me to celebrate your birthday that was 2 months ago when the party is over and I can now share one on one time with you.

Here is what I love about road trips: the time in the car spent talking and listening to music for hours, solving life’s mysteries, and spilling desires, secrets, and insights is sacred time. Road trips for me are something akin to stepping into a confessional booth. Eyes are on the road. The changing landscape provides a blank canvas for your thoughts to travel, a hypnotic state where thoughts free flow and judgement is near null.

My mother and I adopted the ritual of walking the dog through our neighborhood at night when I was a teen. It was always there, in that darkness of sometimes fog and sometimes clear skies that we took our masks off and held each other’s thoughts. Our wishes, our pangs, our fears. I’ve realized that it doesn’t devalue a conversation to have one free of direct eye contact. It is sometimes the safest place to say what can’t be uttered in light.

I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was 18. I’m nostalgic for a time when I used to lay in my bed talking on a land line from beneath my sheets in the dark. Hours in minutes. And truths unfolding in the black of night where only our voices existed.

Since the start of the lockdown I’ve taken to getting into my car at night and sharing lengthy phone calls with friends across the country — the world. From there, my little private phone booth on the street, we connect. Some nights I have been amazed to see that those calls have been 4 and 5 hours long, ending only when the phone ran out of juice and putting me into bed at 4am feeling full of love. Those calls are often more vulnerable for me, more honest, more free, than a zoom or a FaceTime or a text message could dream to be where my own vanity gets in the way. There’s a standard for how one should be lit, how your space should look. I don’t want to look at my own face. Perhaps I’m not evolved enough to do these things without insecurity. And always there is the fear of unknowingly being captured in a screenshot. I want that time in conversation to feel sacred — private. I yearn for more simple time.

I want realtime intimacy and when that isn’t available, I want time alone to have it with myself. I struggle with the in-between, the good morning texts, the check ins, the texting out of boredom, the play by plays, and the “what did you eat for dinner?” It’s not because I don’t care what someone ate for dinner, and I would probably talk about that dinner until the cows came home if we were face to face. Text bubbles don’t do it for me. My way isn’t better or worse. It just is. I’m sensorial. I can’t help it. The text dings, but the dog needs a walk. Multitasking will land me lost in my own backyard with dog shit on my shoe. And so it goes.

Tears and elevated voices do not scare me. I grew up in a family of hot tempered Cubans. However, business-like exchanges with people I’ve shared life with terrify me. And text and email can feel that way — transactional — businessy. It can be so collected that I don’t know how to trust it as something human. Written words are a vital form of expression. But for some reason, I need at the very least to see them in your penmanship in order to remember a human wrote them if we are speaking on matters of the heart.

Growing up, loud voices translated into love and honesty. We lose it and forgive easily in my family. We are highly emotional, we cry, we yell, we show up at one another’s doors unannounced, we love hard, and forgive loudly too, and with a lot of equally loud laughter. The women in my family are outspoken, if sometimes to a fault, but they are also supremely loving. I suppose text messages can often feel a bit wimpy and bland for a person who grew up with such heated expressions of communication. I often find myself not knowing what to do with a bubble of letters or how to create one that will truly reflect me. Where’s the voice, the kiss, the hug that says, we worked it out.

Photography by Adam Coleman

There’s a great line in the film Jerry Maguire in which Cuba Gooding Jr says, “You think we’re fighting, I think we’re finally talking to one another.” Yeah. That’s the way I understand things too. I’m working to understand the languages of love and communication which are different from my own so that I can better love the people in my life. Not everyone is going to register the forms of communication that I understand as love. And the fact that I am learning to reign in my emotional reactivity, especially with people for whom emotional outbursts are absolutely not an expression of love or communication, is a conversation for another day. I am learning new modes of healthy communication that require a lot of mental untangling from my upbringing without losing the essence of what makes me me. Technology makes it all the more confusing to navigate. I’m not giving up.

I admire people who are capable of consistency in keeping a virtual connection burning at all times. I really do. I personally don’t feel the loss of connection in the void of consistent virtual contact, but that is a difficult thing to explain to someone who is in need of that other thing, that regular check-in kind of thing.

As a person who struggles with mental illness, the depression and anxiety that I live with makes the committee inside my own head quite loud. There are times when I simply can’t bring any additional voices or emotional triggers (via already anxiety inducing text messages) into the fold. As mundane as a text may be to some people, it can be the opening of pandora’s box for me. I’m learning tools for how to quiet the myriad of voices within me so that I can meet others in the casual conversation they crave. It is a p r o c e s s.

Maybe this is a really sagittarius thing to say and the earth signs are likely rolling their eyes (yeah we are going full force into astrological shit now and you can’t stop me), but hey, it’s the truth, when I see you, it’s all love. When I don’t see you, it’s still all love. I don’t require receipts. When one of my closest friends, who is also a sag, recently said to me, “girl, we are always family even if we see each other once a year,” for me it said everything. It says, I love you no matter where you are, who you currently are, what you are doing. It says, I respect your autonomy, and when I do see you, it’s delicious. To me, it says my love is unconditional. And I do believe she feels that from me on the other end as well. But it’s a thing we have spent years cultivating together and I can’t expect that kind of understanding from every person I engage with.

I value my autonomy and quality time with others equally. I loath group gatherings unless it is with people I share a particularly comfortable vibe with, and even then I can’t predict if I will be feeling social enough to attend that day. I am both a social creature and a recluse. I cancel a lot. But I also show up unexpectedly. I’m either a fly on the wall, or the loud mouth who says all the inappropriate things, or I’m buried in the kitchen “helping”, where I can talk to the host alone, or I’m spending the entire party in the bathroom with two close friends and reminiscing. I do the long extravagant goodbye or I sneak out the back door. I cry in the pantry and smile when I’m caught. I struggle with social interaction in the human world, and even more so in the land of translating the gesticulating moods I live by into a the context of various messaging apps which invade our personal space/time in a manner which feels robotic and foreign to me. Surely I am not alone here.


Above all, we all want confirmation of being seen.

November 2018.

Following the morning the words I’m not in love with you anymore fell from my beloved’s mouth, we spent that afternoon filling each other’s phones with carefully constructed fragments of language. We were on opposite coasts. We’d planned to talk on the phone again that evening following a busy day she had ahead.

Our 6am call had been brief. I’d laid awake, alone in my mother’s home the night before, weeping, worried, and unable to reach her on a phone that went straight to voicemail — an unusual occurrence. I contemplated calling the police, New York hospitals. We’d been apart some weeks. We had given up our apartment in New York City with a plan to save money in our home towns for a few months and then return, find a new place to live, start again, perhaps get married.

She returned to New York unexpectedly just weeks after leaving the country. She’d been given an opportunity to perform in a play in New York. I couldn’t keep up with whose couch she was sleeping on each night. I’d sent messages from the Universal Studios lot where the sound was being mixed for a film we’d made together with no reply. I’d sent an image of the sunset on the walk to my car. Sentiments about wanting my arms wrapped around her.

Her phone was off. I was worried for her safety. I was relieved when my phone finally rang at 6am, but the feeling of her digital disappearance was unnerving and familiar. We had spent months apart like this before. We had come to understand silence on the other end to mean one of two things — being extraordinarily busy with work, or that the other had met someone else. Just weeks prior I’d received a letter from her. She missed me. Couldn’t wait to be back in our city together. A studio apartment was all we needed. It couldn’t be the latter. Could it? What was the name of the cast member she’d been staying with? Was she sleeping in her bed?

Are you seeing someone? I stuttered through the distance.

Pause. Breathe. Pause. Pause. Pause.


But you want to be?

Yes. I kissed her.

Are you still in love with me?


She had to get off the phone. She needed to clean the dishes at the home of a friend she was staying with. Needed to shower. To leave for rehearsal.

Hours like days.

My dog at the foot of my bed, panting. How to console this human.

Later, a ding. Another ding. Another ding. Another. Another.

Can we just speak on the phone? I offered.


She had a coffee date scheduled with an ex lover, a woman she had given the words I love you to years ago, during an eight month period separated by distance, and a summer laden with betrayals on both sides. I think we should have ended after that summer, she’d said on the phone that morning.

I wished her a pleasant coffee date. I slipped my phone into my pocket. Sat, catatonic, on the couch. Awaiting a sea of dings that returned post coffee, then disappeared for hours more.

I looked at plane tickets to New York City, my mind warping ways to stuff the rabbit back into the hat. I had already planned to fly there to see her in her play and share Thanksgiving. I hadn’t pulled the trigger on booking my flight. I’d been spending afternoons at work at the survival job I’d taken in California, submitting the film we’d made together to festivals and googling images of engagement rings. For weeks the thought of proposing to her over Thanksgiving had fluttered through me while staring at a quick sand of student debt and trying to make sense of how to make a life that would be worthy of her. Perhaps I could leave tomorrow? If this was the end of life as I knew it with her, surely there was a more humane ending than a sea of text messages. I needed there to be. Perhaps she needed something different. I sat on my hands as best I could.

The conversation around marriage had left me feeling uneasy more than once. She was not a U.S. Citizen. Her visa was expiring. We didn’t know if she would get approved for another. I’d wanted to be her partner more than I wanted to be her ticket into the United States, but I would have done anything to give her the life she wanted. Could we have both? Was marriage what she truly wanted. With me? I didn’t want to be her captor. Or her savior. In the months apart I’d wanted her to have the space to listen to her internal voice. What she truly wanted. I’d feared this outcome.

While rehearsing for the play, she’d been sharing friend’s beds, sleeping on couches, living out of a backpack. Previous to our 6am phone call, I had offered to rent an airbnb for the time I was there to visit. I could sense that the nomadic life was taking its toll. I wanted to offer a respite. I also didn’t want to disrupt the experience she was having. She was making new friends, was developing a new kind of confidence that took my breath away. I wanted to support her without detracting from what she was discovering in her autonomy. Did she want me to come?

In recent months, I had been a selfish partner, consumed with work, with dread about how to repay my student loans, how to make something of myself, make use of my education. I reeked of scarcity. I had nothing positive to report. Our phone calls had dwindled. I couldn’t bear hearing the conversation stiffen, of being a negative energy that would taint the experience she was having in a city I missed with every fiber of my being. I lacked the strength to be honest with her about my crumbling mental health. I struggled with how to support her in the vastly different head space she was in. I beat myself up after each call for yet again letting the conversation center around me and my dread.

In recent weeks she had been distant. My intuition bucked. I’d swatted it into submission. She was enjoying her independence, I told myself. I felt her stretching into herself. I was proud. She would share with me if she wished to, but this time, this light, was hers. I gave her space. Space she very much deserved after enduring the emotional turmoil of being a patient witness to the decline of my mental state in the months previous to our departure from New York City.

I’d been running up hill in New York, smashing my head into closed doors. The grind culture of the city had taken its toll. I’d cupped my dream in my hand, slid my degree into my back pocket, and broke out in hives each time I put my catering uniform on and headed to the train. I ate what free meals came my way, handed out catering left overs to homeless people on the train, cried when we poured perfectly good food into trash cans at the end of a shift, stacked my days with futile artistic meetings for projects I had no funds to back. I attended open EPA’s (Equity Principle auditions) when I could garner the strength to face imminent rejection, emailed NY talent agents and casting directors, sent them headshots in the mail, spent what money I could on paying post production crew to finish a film my beloved and I had shot two years prior with hope I could get it into a festival, flew to Los Angeles countless times on credit to take agent meetings, coming back to New York feeling more and more dismayed.

I’d broken apart from a long time friend and creative partner I’d spent my first year out of college building a production company with. I’d lost our friendship. I was in mourning. I had nowhere put the grief of losing him and our collective dream.

The top agencies I’d been lucky to have meetings with in Los Angeles had passed on me after some close calls with signing. I was heartbroken. I was broke. I was in love with a woman I feared losing. I had no tools for sustaining a healthy mental state. For all that I’d learned in college about the arts, I hadn’t learned how to maintain my wellness while in pursuit of an artistic career.

I’d become a broken record. My mouth spilling endless and panicked thoughts about how I might turn it all around. I was exhausting company. I wasn’t present. The swirling anxiety my beloved no doubt had about her own future had no space to be comforted by me. My own mouth never stopped moving. Could we go on a date? Spend time together? She asked. I couldn’t afford to take her out for a meal. I couldn’t afford train fair. I was deeply ashamed. In fierce denial about the ways in which I was losing her. And all the while pretending for the outside world that we were getting by. Comparing hustles became a kind of greeting with friends. I was a fraud.

I’d laid my head in my beloved’s lap each night as she gently rubbed cream onto my hive-raw scalp. Our bedroom window was broken with no way to fix an A/C unit to it. It was July and our bedroom was 100 degrees. Mosquitos flying in and chewing us in the night. I was losing my hair. I was considering grad school. Did I really want that? Was it a loophole for delaying repayment on my loans? Was it an attempt to garner validation that I was in fact a valuable artist?

We’d been to see an attorney to get information on getting my partner an artist visa. To ask about marriage. A green card. What financial ramifications we might encounter. What if I moved for grad school. (I hadn’t even applied). What would happen with my school loans. What burdens might fall on her if we were to marry. And then we’d each been offered temporary but steady pay for jobs in our home towns. The lease was up on the apartment. It was time to go. For a while. It was time to leave our city.

On our final night in our Brooklyn apartment, we had sat on a bare mattress on the floor, the last remaining remnant of our home, after our belongings had been retrieved and taken to storage — a sort of digital cloud where our belongings could live and later be ordered back with the click of a finger on the company’s app. We wept. When we come back, we’re going to rip the face off of this city, I sputtered through tears. What I didn’t say: I need help. I’m unraveling. I’ve failed us. I’m sorry I’m not stronger. My mind is broken. I can’t burden you with this any longer. I don’t know how to care for myself. I don’t know how to give you the care you deserve. I’m terrified. I’m disappearing. I’m afraid to lose you. This despair is bigger than me. This is going to require the help of the people who brought me into this world. This will require doctors. This is not your responsibility to fix. This is not your fault. You deserve a healthy partner. I need to go take care of myself so I can come back to you stronger.

We’d meant to write letters to send one another off into the world with. When would we see each other again? The holidays? We apologized to one another the next morning as we embraced in the street for not having written words to slip into one another’s backpack as we parted like we had done so many times before. Neither of us had remembered or had “time.” Maybe neither of us had had the courage to write down what we were truly feeling.

I climbed into an Uber heading toward the airport regretting not writing that letter. Regretting being so consumed with my own fear that I neglected to leave her with words and affirmation and love amidst the chaos of our departure from our beloved city. What I didn’t say. What I didn’t say. What I didn’t say. What I didn’t say still haunts me.

In California, while lost in a mess of navigating a road to mental clarity and financial stability, I was also knee deep in finishing our film, a convenient distraction from the hard work ahead of facing my growing depression. No amount of accolades in connection to the film could have cured that for me. At the time, I believed they could. I was not yet at that place of harrowing surrender that would leave me with no choice but to seek help. I still believed that productivity and achievement could sidestep my need for healing.

I spent each day, in between working hours, looking at my beloved’s face on the editing screen. My love, my muse, my star. Beaming with pride at what we had accomplished, and praying its success would magically give me mental wellness or make all that we had gone through feel worth it. I had written the story long before I’d known her, and she had slid into the role with exceptional ease and creative genius. In my twisted brain, I believed that the completion of the film could immobilize the depression which had followed me most of my life and had rapidly increased in size upon graduating from college. That it might erase the pain of so many other projects I cared about remaining unfinished. Finishing this film became an obsession and a means to circumvent facing losing her, losing myself.

She began recoiling from my manic conversation about the film and conversation in general. I was sliding off a cliff. I backed off. I gave her space as my way of standing in silent support of the work she was pouring into her play in New York. Later to realize this would be terribly misread as neglect. I had failed her, first with deranged career chatter that left no space for how she was doing, and later in my silence.

Above all, we all want confirmation of being seen. To see and not say, to see and not show, through word and action, is a kind of withholding that terrorizes the soul. I had robbed her of the opportunity to feel seen by me. I focused on accomplishment, thinking this hustle would give way to a solid future for us both to stand on. I’d failed her in the simple acknowledgements, the day to day, the beauty in the quiet moments of connection. Why hadn’t I just sat down and listened to a piece of music with her. I had failed at this when we were together in person in New York, and failed louder when my poor skills with technology and finding ways to connect using them through distance left her feeling alone while I was miles away in California.

She’d told me she was low on money. I sent her a Venmo. She sent it back to me. She wouldn’t take it. I wanted to know she had enough to eat. I gave her a casting job I’d been offered. A few thousand dollars to be made in a short span of time. She took it reluctantly. She had a full plate but needed the cash. I helped her with the work. She could keep all the money. Maybe this could help ease her stress. I’d been offered a directing gig in New York. A few hundred more. I declined and recommended her instead. It was offered to her. And she took it. More on the plate. A few more dollars in her pocket. Was I helping? Was this me loving her? I hadn’t written the letters I’d intended to send. I didn’t know where she would receive them. Where would I send them. Where is she staying tomorrow. Did she have enough for train fair. How long until the check arrives. When is our payment for our storage unit due. Can I postpone payment on my loans? Can I afford the flight to go and see her in the play? $$$$$$$. Money. Success. Money. How do we get out of this hole. How can I keep from losing anything more.

I didn’t do the costless thing. I didn’t pick up the phone. Only to ask if she had sent the emails that needed be sent for casting. I didn’t pay the 30 some-odd cents to send a letter, to ask her how she was doing and tell her in words that she is loved. I called to tell her a famous director had watched our film. He was awed by her performance. I was weeping in the car afterwards, bursting with pride and needing to tell her. Why hadn’t I called to ask where she was sleeping, what she’d had for dinner. Or even a text. A song I thought she’d like. A simple, How’s my girl. No. Instead, I googled engagement rings. Does she want this at all. Now? I hunted down a sound engineer to finish our film. The film yes. Focus on the film. Then she will know how much I love her, believe in her, adore her. Finish the film.

No receipts. No receipts for the thought. The thought I was giving her, her heart, her mind, her future, her body, our life. I didn’t write them down. I didn’t look after her heart. I didn’t expose my own. I didn’t press my pen to the page and let my love be the loudest thing. No. No receipts to be found.

I have never viewed myself as someone who fears intimacy, but I am learning how frequently I have skirted around it, focusing instead on what can be achieved with the people I love, rather than truly allowing myself to be seen by the people I love — even at the risk of them viewing me as nothing more than a visitor in their life.

My mother left my life for a period of my adolescence. I grieved her as if she were dead. No one on earth knew me the way she did. A clamshell, I closed. Fearful of letting anyone know me that deeply again. I am a child of divorce. Fear of abandonment is ingrained in me and has caused me to keep my cards close to the breast more often than not — even when I have tricked myself into believing I am letting others in.

Her finger slowly sifted me from her existence. A photo stream here, a playlist there, social media connections, posted images deleted. Notifications. Ding — a box of our physical belongings delivered to her from our storage “cloud”. Everything gone. Swiped from history, dragged to the trash. Click.

People leave. It’s a fact I have wrestled with since childhood. I withdraw at the first sign of someone heading toward the door. I put on the armor of productivity and wait out the storm in the basement. The hinges of my escape hatch are always oiled and ready for service at the first sign of abandonment. I hum just outside of “all in” to keep myself safe from the pain of being replaced. I have lived my entire life as an understudy ready to bow and exit the stage and relinquish my place to someone more deserving or equipped.

Imposter. Fraud.

I’ve waited outside the stage door for every person I have ever loved. Every prospect of opportunity. Accepting what is offered on their way to the train. That square of pavement is what I know. And it’s me who has planted myself there.

I’ve run scared from people who have offered me more than what I believed I deserve, holding them at a safe distance. If I don’t attach fully, it won’t hurt when they go. It never works. I attach deeper than I let myself believe which is why I am still here 2 years later writing this tale. My true nature, the me before the me who learned abandonment, cries out to be all in, to speak desires, to study faces, touches, let myself love fiercely, loudly, presently, even in the face of imminent rejection.

Heartbreak can soften us. If we let it. Perhaps it’s that “nothing left to lose” mentality. Becoming hardened by hate, bitterness, resentment and their undercover counterpart, victimhood, are far easier to choose than love. But love, love will always be more gratifying. And I must wake up every day and choose it. Like my life depends on it. Choose it when it’s painful, and when it’s difficult, and when it’s chaotic, and when it’s easier not to, and when I don’t want to, and when my ego is flaring, and in the shape of “tough love” when it’s needed, and when cancel culture attempts to win, and when burnt bridges sound satisfying, and when revenge is tempting. I must continue to choose love.

If I’ve learned nothing else in two years of grappling with, unpacking, and healing heartache, it’s that unconditional love has nothing to do with any of those easier things. The memes that tell you to forget, block, delete, burn bridges, get over them by getting under someone else. None of that crap has anything to do with what unconditional love is or how personal and nuanced it is. No one but me needs to understand when and how I am choosing love. You feel it when your finger’s on it. And you feel it when it’s not. It’s a game of hot and cold that for better or worse I am committed to. And I’m not perfect at it. And I may never be.

The only love I’m interested in giving today is the kind that makes others feel free. Free to live the most authentic expression of their lives, with or without me at their side. I am not a victim or a saint or a villain. I am a human being learning what love is. And I am free to love people from any distance they are comfortable with receiving, and in whatever way registers in my belly as truthful. Nothing and no one can take that from me. I give it for fun and for free.

I make the amends I need to make in what way I know how. I write letters. I call friends despite the anxiety I get about phone calls. It may take a few weeks to work up the nerve, but I pick up the phone. I write again. I tell them they matter. It isn’t enough. It will never ever feel like enough. None of it can make up for the letters I didn’t send. But I hug my mom more often. I invite new friends for dinner. I cook them a meal. I look them in the eye. I listen more than I speak. I thank the stars for this incredibly painful lesson. I drink the milkshake that is love. Eat the meal while it is hot on the plate. Do no harm. Speak the truth. Try again. I may not get it right. But I try again to put my finger on love.

I wanted to store that somewhere no one could hack. I wanted something I could look back on, not with sight, but with the memory of human sound.

On that November afternoon, I phoned a friend in the city who answered while she was at work with the words are you okay? I hadn’t thought about the time of day or that she would no doubt be in the office. I stumbled around the backyard collecting dog shit to busy my hands. I phoned my mother who was visiting her husband in Austin and paced her empty house with my dog at my heels. I watched shadows stretch across the lawn and contemplated sundials and a time when time was measured in light. Until finally —

The dings returned. Another. Another.


I marveled at the sun’s ability to continue its routine.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

I sat down on the couch and punched letters.

Night neared its place in the sky.

Ding. Ding.

I guess we don’t need to talk tonight because I think we already just had the conversation we would have had, she said.

My stomach heaved. If I could just hear her voice.

No. No. No. These bubbles of grey text could not be all that I had left. I wanted to hear her breath fault and stammer. I wanted to store that somewhere no one could hack. I wanted something I could look back on, not with sight, but with the memory of human sound. I needed to know I was more human than what would forever be stored in some inexplicable cloud. I wanted more than ever to glimpse her face. Thousands of miles between us. Again. How could I have believed we could survive on tiny smoke signals vibrating from within our pockets. I’d sworn distance would not be the shore we wrecked ourselves on. Again. My nails gripped the wing of an airplane.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

I’d said things I’d meant. Others I didn’t. Consciously crafted arrows meant to sting, entice, debunk, endear. All of them misshapen and shielding pain I felt no right to express. There was no sense in attempting to keep someone who wanted to be free. It would not have mattered what I’d said. I could hear in those pauses, that little dot throbbing, how desperately she needed to let go of me. And if I loved her unconditionally, which I believe I did, and still do, I had to let her go.

I’d not typed any of my most vulnerable thoughts for fear of them developing as a photograph of my desperation. A little book of great wide need which could be held in one’s hand or be read and laughed at by the other woman.

There always seems to be the other woman in these stories. Naive to the think that men are the only people capable of attracting the other woman. I’ve experienced the phenomenon in many variations over the course of my life. I’m no victim. I am aware of the ways in which I have left that window cracked. I understand that it is the responsibility of the partnership to leave no room for a third to enter. I will say that the other woman who comes between two women is perhaps the most painful iteration I have experienced. Women endure so much pain to begin with that I still can’t quite wrap my head around the phenomena of two women coming together and choosing to cause one of their kind more suffering by engaging in cheating — whether it be emotional or physical. But then again, we are given so little room for our own pleasure in the first place that I suppose we take it where it is offered and as if it will never be offered again. Ultimately, a thirsty heart wants what it wants, what it needs, regardless of the collateral in getting that drink of water. It was me who left the drinking well empty. My mind understands this. My heart is less astute.

It’s understandable. I understand. I understand that giant aching need for love. I have been the woman on every which side of the coin of love. I know. I know the free-fall of each of the roles. We take the love before it runs off the plate. Eat the meal while it’s hot. A dog that seizes the steak and runs it into the other room to consume it before we can be stopped. We devour the love and affection that is available. It is scarce after all. It is sacred. I have done this. I have done this. I have done this. I dare not judge a woman who has done this.

I suppose what I resent is the mirror being held which allows me to see myself more clearly, and that may be the most challenging part of it all — to look myself in the eye and know me and find room and tenderness for she-her-me. And I have to wonder if we would do this, were we able to believe, fully, that we are deserving of love and that it coming at the expense of another does not make it more valuable. I have been this woman. This impatient love-starved woman. I am this woman. Haven’t we all been this womxn?

On a recent episode of The L Word — and by “recent” I mean recent for me because I never watched it when it was new, there was a story told about male lobsters and how they will help one another climb out of a burning pot of water, whereas the females will hold one another down and ensure that they all die together. Where were these instincts first constructed? How do we depart from them? What is the healing that needs to take place? These are questions for another day.

What I know is that we are what we love. In this I find a queer kind of serenity. A divine kinship with the other woman and the other woman in me, whom in another life, may have been my friend. We are uniquely different, and yet we have known, in our own individual way, loving the same human being. And that alone is enough for me to feel connected to her — the other woman, affectionate even. I can love her for offering that essential drink of water to that thirsty-hearted person that I love and adore. It may kill me that I couldn’t figure out how to be the person to provide it, but unconditional love….oh….it teaches me to be grateful it was found. Somewhere, that water was found. Drink, (my) girl. Drink.

Text became a coward’s tool that went limp in my hand. I wanted to run off the map with my phone left in a rain gutter. I could have walked across the 50 states to hear her speak her truth to my crumpled face.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

She’d called her lover to let her know that she’d told me the truth. That they were free to do as they like. I knew they would not waste time. And I didn’t want them to feel they had to, though privately, I thrashed in the feeling of being robbed of a human goodbye, closure, before they set off to consecrate a new relationship. The world spun in hyper speed. Had I left the couch. Had it been days. Years.

My beloved returned from her hallway phone call and resumed texting me. She came back to the text stream glowing. I could feel it through the phone. I knew I couldn’t steal her joy. That I didn’t want to. She wanted this. It killed me. And I also knew I had to get out of the way as best I could and let her have it.

The futility in trying to craft bubbles of words which could contain the complexity of unconditional love and feelings of betrayal coursing through me was unbearable. Regrettably, my fingers stabbed at letters that might keep my pride intact. But they also pierced truths, through all of the noise, that my love for her was bigger than the selfish desires festering within me. I knew I had never loved her more than that moment in which her happiness became unequivetably more important to me than my desire to keep her.

Text became a coward’s tool that went limp in my hand. I wanted to run off the map with my phone left in a rain gutter. I could have walked across the 50 states to hear her speak her truth to my crumpled face. And I also understood that this time was hers. I know as well as anyone the brimming splendor of new and all-consuming love. Especially the kind born of secrecy. Stolen kisses in hall closets and bathroom stalls and the half panic of being caught. I knew because that had once been us. I felt I needed to allow her the space to taste that bliss in the remaining weeks she had left in the states. There was so much that I hadn’t been able to give her. Perhaps I could give her this. Or at least stand back and not attempt to prevent her from taking it for herself. Perhaps I could resist the urge to inflict shame for following her heart, her desire, for chasing her one and precious life with both hands. Perhaps I could choose love, celebrate her joy, even from within a waxen sea of grief. I could try. I told her I loved her and put the phone down and took the dog for a walk.

In 2009 when I purchased my first iPhone a friend had said, it’s going to change your life. I’d not pictured this. I wanted a pie in the face, a knife to my throat, anything not to have my life crash on the screen of a telephone. A balloon let free and soaring off into the clouds with little fingers stretching toward a string just out of reach.

She told me we could pretend it had never been received. That she’d deleted it. I will never know if that message was read.

A few weeks ago I received a text message from my grandmother. At age 90 she has found new love. The message was paragraphs long. A few sentences in, I recognized it was not intended for me but was instead for her new “friend”. I let her know I had received it in error. I wanted the text to finds its intended recipient. She gave me permission to read the message’s contents. I’ve never received a text so long. I was awed by the honesty that she has not yet been trained to avoid over text. It was refreshing. And then disheartening. Perhaps even she is succumbing to this digital alternative for communicating. While my grandfather was still alive, the only time she turned her cell phone on was to make a call. Only in recent years has she learned to text. And like a teenager, newly in love, she uses it — often. She hasn’t yet learned there can be a down side.

During a particularly busy semester in college, I’d made the error of saying yes to more projects than my schedule would allow. It was a low and insecure period and no surprise, I combated this by stacking my schedule with “productivity”, leaving little time to sleep or feel. There was an evening in which I had just wrapped a two day film shoot in upstate NY and traveled back to my apartment in Manhattan to sleep for an hour before heading to an overnight shoot that would be followed by an early morning shoot for a third student project in a 72 hour span. A full night’s sleep was nowhere in my near future.

I was still grappling with the aftermath of an infidelity that had rocked me months prior. I’d been the first to ask that we take a “break” from the relationship. I strayed. It had sent both my beloved and me into a confusing tail spin of getting back together, falling apart, cheating and overall wreckage that left us now picking up the pieces of rebuilding trust. She became unnerved each time I was unreachable by phone. That evening, in that hour intended for sleep, we fell into a text argument.

In my angst, I’d sent a gruesomely detailed text message to my beloved. I’d articulated that in the lead up to our reunion after months of hurting one another, I’d laid face down on a table getting my pubic hair waxed by a robust Russian woman who kept telling me I have a very high tolerance for pain. My ass cheeks in the air, I didn’t let the woman see that I was weeping into the waxy paper beneath my face — not from physical pain, I hadn’t felt that — it had been overridden by the agony of how pathetic I felt getting my pussy waxed for a woman who had fallen for someone else. It was more than sex, they were in love, and she had no intention of ending the affair like she’d promised she would, and I started all of this — me, and here I was laying on a table hoping a dolphin smooth vagina would somehow change any of that. I’d wept on that table, feeling utterly ashamed of how well and how bizarrely I mask pain.

That pain was still rattling through me months later during the repairing of our relationship. My free time was scarce. In every tiny separation dictated by our grueling school schedules, I feared, with sheer insecurity, that she would reconnect with the other woman in my absence. That night, in my sleepy state between film shoots, and to my horror, I sent the text to the director of the film shoot where I was headed next. I did not send it to my partner like I had thought. I noticed the mistake and asked that the director not read the text — to delete it. She was kind. She told me we could pretend it had never been received. That she’d deleted it. I will never know if that message was read. But the point is that we have all done some version of this. It’s easy to do.

My grandmother’s text, though vastly different in content, reminded me how easily we make these mistakes. I told her I would only read the text with her permission. She said that of course I could, and we had a wonderful phone conversation about it afterward. I thanked her for sharing candidly about her new relationship, and what it meant to me as her granddaughter that she feels safe to share with me. But what I can’t figure out is if we could have had that candid conversation about her new relationship without the error of her sending me a text intended for someone else. Can those errors, or text in general, give way to greater intimacy, or further separate us from it? I can’t be sure.

I believe that relationships can be left with the same measure of joy and communication they begin with.

In the months that followed my beloved’s departure from my life, I watched her slip away piece by digital piece, without warning and without speaking to one another. Her finger slowly sifted me from her existence. A photo stream here, a playlist there, social media connections, posted images deleted. Notifications. Ding — a box of our physical belongings delivered to her from our storage “cloud”. Everything gone. Swiped from history. And yet the memory of the years we shared still lived in me, leaving me deeply puzzled by the sensation that years of our shared existence had been instantly and painfully devalued, eliminated, dragged to the trash. Click.

I sat stymied by how our life could be collapsed by these consecutive and unannounced clicks of her finger. I struggled to find hope that somewhere amidst this erasure, the moments we shared, so many of which had been full of profound goodness, for both of us I do believe, were still reverberating through space somewhere.

If it hadn’t become clear to me yet, it was clear to me now — I value the ability to have difficult conversations with human voices, with a pen, with a face.

In January an email came. She would be sending me a letter soon. She hadn’t called since my birthday in December. She’d hung up saying, “I don’t know when we’ll talk.” Would we talk. When would we talk. November she had offered that we could unpack this separation together over the following months as much as I needed to. But her call on my birthday had left me feeling the offer had been revoked. I resisted the urge to call. I sent a few notes in the mail.

I waited months for that letter. I would come to appreciate hand written words in the absence of that letter. I greeted the post office worker every afternoon in my bare feet, in socks, in pajamas. I slunk from the mailbox with a wet face when, again, those precious and private words that might offer me closer had not reached that box, my home, my hands.

“we have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served.”

In April I folded. I risked. If I was not to hear from her, I wanted to her to know I wasn’t angry. That my love is not conditional or dependent on relationship status. That I am grateful for her. That I want her happy. I sent a voice memo. I wanted her to hear it in my human voice. I didn’t want to intrude with a call. It was for her to have, to know. It didn’t necessitate a response.

An email came days later asking that I not be in contact. I obliged.

Ding. Ding. Ding.


From the storage company.

More boxes of (our) belongings would be delivered to her from our storage space.

Was she moving back to the city?

There are moments when the absence of the thing we most want can teach us what we value. If it hadn’t become clear to me yet, it was clear to me now — I value the ability to have difficult conversations with human voices, with a pen, with a face.

Perhaps in my optimistic and possibly naive brain, I believe that relationships can be left with the same measure of joy and communication they begin with. A chapter can be closed without erasing it from the book entirely. I believe that we are amalgamations of experience and who and what has taught us love — and even what love is not — and that too can be a gift we take with us toward our futures in gratitude. For me, to negate a relationship’s existence is to erase pieces of myself. When a closing ceremony of sorts, a post mortem, cannot be shared, one has to go out and find it for themselves.

This relationship, like so many, began using technology — text — as a vital component for communication. In the early days, we shared entire conversations existing of nothing more than strings of emojis. It is hard for me to admit that it would only be natural that it would end this way too — over text/email. We are always teaching one another the kind of love we expect and or accept. If what we accept is a text message in place of face to face conversation about issues of importance, it is later nearly impossible to demand or expect something different.

Deep breath. Big glass of water. Closure would be for me to find on my own. As Nina Simone once said, “we have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served.” I have gotten up from the table. But I will never forget the taste of that meal, that blink of time, when love in fact was served. I turn to the moon, the trees, and scan the air for the sweetness of those moments that a swipe of a finger cannot erase from my spirit.

There is a quote by Ethan Hawke that has stayed with me over the last two years. He says, “We were going to give each other the only thing we truly have to offer. Our time.” The moments of our lives, the moments we share with others, for as flawed as some of those moments may be, are written into the story of our lives. I am grateful for each and every moment. The beauty. The tears. The glances. The love.

I’ve not yet learned to trust screens. But I trust these trees. They’ve seen things with their leaves, more sight, I believe, than eyes can see.

Shortly after the breakup that changed the trajectory of my life, I received a package from a long time friend whom I rarely see or speak to. It was a “breakup kit” full of chocolate, fancy conditioner for my hair — self care items, a card. Gifts have never been my language but this unexpected gift made me feel held in a way I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I became obsessed with the idea of sending letters and care packages to people I missed and longed to hug or share a meal with.

I went on a mission to use tangible means to make the people in my life feel seen. I bought cards and candy for workers at gas stations who shared that it was their first day or seemed out of sorts, I encouraged guests in the restaurant where I worked to sing happy birthday to strangers, I tucked notes into friends cars to be found as they set off on a road trip, I sent body oil in the mail to people who needed a little self love, I carried crystals in my pockets to be given to anyone I came across who needed a lift and a little earth to tuck into their bra or pocket — a reminder they are loved. I made gift baskets for my talent agency full of homemade baked goods and kombucha, brought flowers to my mother, my grandmother, and to first dates regardless of gender. I celebrated new homes and new jobs with favorite snacks sent in boxes and listened when a co-worker said he didn’t have a refillable water bottle and brought one to sneak into his locker. I mailed books all over the country with little notes tucked inside. I became pen pals with a 50 year-old woman I’d met in a bookstore in Austin, and we would go on to share the most vulnerable truths of our lives over a series of letters with many months in between them. I stuffed flower petals into envelopes with simple notes that said, “I’m thinking of you”. I sent packets of seeds in the mail, saying “I love watching you grow.” A living amends to those I had neglected to make feel special, feel seen. I poured myself into making others feel validated, knowing it could never be enough to undo the moments I had not made her feel seen. But I busied my hands with spreading love to every person who crossed my path.

I laughed at myself. A lot. I saw myself in that episode of Friends when Phoebe is determined to do a selfless good deed and thinks she’s found it when she lets a bee sting her, only to realize that they die after they sting you. Was this me? I continued anyway. Not knowing if it could make any difference, or if my acts were self serving. I wept in between. And wrote never-sent letters to my beloved and tucked them in my drawer. I stomached deep regret. I recorded voice memos from within my car after work in the wee hours when I wished I could call her, when I needed a voice who would understand and laugh with me. I laughed and cried with myself. I dreamed up new and creative ways to touch someone unexpectedly. I shed more tears. I picked up my pen and persisted.

I still have the post it note my father wrote “Daddy loves you” on and tucked into my bag when I moved out of my parents home at 18. I’d discovered it while crying on the floor of my empty Hollywood apartment while eating in-and-out burger on my first rainy afternoon as an adult living on my own. I know how much notes mean. I am still working to forgive myself for putting so little effort into giving these gestures to others in past years. I have so much time to make up for. So many harbored notes to send. Life is far too short not to find a tactile way to express how much people mean to me. I am learning this. Better late than never.

They say grief is love with nowhere to go. I reach for ways to mourn a person who is still alive yet has been removed from my life. And it is possible to respect that choice and still be in immense pain from that loss. It is possible to continue loving a person who has chosen not to return that love. More complex, more lonely, but equally beautiful. Grief takes the time it takes and changes shape and I’ve been told that unresolved grief is mourning a person who has the possibility of returning. And that possibility, that hope, can be more confusing than mourning a person who is no longer in a physical body. It can become a loop of grief that cannot find resolution or a way out. And without contact, that closure is something one must find for themselves, piece by little peace.

Grief can be like mice that sneak beneath the car and chew the wires. How to start the engine. Now? I am still rebuilding that engine. And in the meantime, I find outlets for that love that they say has nowhere to go. I have so much love in me. I must find places for it to flow. I write letters. I write like I’m running out of fingers to write with. I write letters.

When a partnership ends abruptly, we open the filing cabinet of our minds and seek out the moments we should have pinned evidence on. The moments we neglected to see the writing on the wall. The ending. The lost hope. The absence of love. We search through our history, the inventory of images, of moments our minds have kept and built stories upon. Yes — that moment. That moment in the hallway, that was the moment they fell out of love. How did I not see it then. Denial is a drug. I’ve riffled through that cabinet, found the moments I said the wrong thing, held back tenderness, forgot to write the note and tuck it into the backpack for her to find. The moments I lacked the grit to set her free, to see how unfulfilled she was, failed to choose tenderness instead of harsh words, failed to choose the braver way to love her — from a distance. It was her unspoken need. And the hardest thing yet — to forgive myself for where I fell short. In all the ways I can now see, and all the ways I never will.

Today, in the 12th month of socially distanced living, in addition to the letters I write, the phone calls I make, I find myself checking on the people I love using the technology we have available. It doesn’t feel like enough. I still find myself quietly thinking of you, dear ones, most times rather than reaching for my phone. Sometimes that feels more real than what a text could convey.

Hello out there. I am thinking of you. I’m whispering to the trees about you, and hoping my messages of love reach you in the wind. This quiet is a beauty. I’ve not yet learned to trust screens. But I trust these trees. They’ve seen things with their leaves, more sight, I believe, than eyes can see. And energy is really something. Something beautiful. I’m putting my faith and love and breath there. Perhaps you will meet me. Perhaps you already have. My thumbs are tired. Are yours? I love you.

Photography by Adam Coleman