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SHORT STORY: Letters From Christopher Diamond

He sent me letters from Iraq. He told me stories that seemed he needed to get down on the page or else he would explode.

For Owen Glendening

*     *     *

The faint sun backs slightly out of the air this evening. There is a pond behind my house exuding mist when the air cools and the day turns silver. My property is silent and full of quiet safety. I sit by the pond with the last letter I will ever receive from Christopher Diamond trembling in my hand.

Christopher Diamond wrote me his first letter when he was fifteen and I was forty, in response to my fifth book. Rarely does a fan send a letter in which one of the following is not stated: “Your book changed my life,” or “Your book made me want to kill myself.” Christopher claimed I changed his life.

He said that my book made him want to read more. He never knew that books were enjoyable because they were always associated with school. But when he read my book he changed his mind, he said. He told me that he lent the book to a girl he had a crush on but could not seem to attract. She liked the book and it triggered good conversations. He had finally gained the courage to ask her on a date. She said yes and they would go out the next weekend.

Much of my fan mail either ends or begins with the fan saying something along the lines of, “I know you probably don’t read fan mail, but you should find it in your heart to write back.” Christopher’s was different. At the end, his said: “I know that you probably don’t read fan mail, and if you do, I don’t want you to write back, but I’ll keep writing to you.”

I considered the possibility that he really did want me to respond and that saying he did not would make me curious enough to respond anyway. The other possibility was that he simply wanted someone to listen to him, and that by saying I should not respond he would not have to face the rejection of allowing me to and not hearing back. Most fan mail was sent to me through my publishing house unless I gave them the information of somebody whose letters I wanted to come directly to my address. Christopher Diamond was the only fan I had ever done this for.

The next month I received another letter from him. He updated me on his situation with the girl he liked. He told me that they had kissed for the first time for “thirteen seconds, give or take” in the school library behind the philosophy section. The letter was three handwritten pages long and almost a whole one of those pages was devoted to what it felt like when she traced her fingernails down his back. He told me her name was Liana and that “her smile was all he wanted anymore,” a sentiment I would have warned him against running with if I could have. He ended by telling me that he had read another of my earlier books and did not like it as much. He said that I should “use shorter sentences.”

In a month he wrote to me again and told me that he and Liana had broken up. He did not know if he should talk to her or let her have her space. He updated me almost monthly on his life. Whenever one of my books came out he would write me a long review in his next letter — sometimes good and sometimes bad. When my wife died of lung cancer her obituary appeared in the New York Times and Christopher wrote me a letter telling me how sorry he was to hear about it, that his mother had died when he was thirteen so he “knew what it was like to lose an important woman.”

He would write to me complaining about school and how his grades were always low. He would write to me about the books he was reading: The Things They Carried was one of the first. It never occurred to me that a fifteen- to sixteen-year-old kid would even know who Tobias Wolff was, but he told me that The Barracks Thief was also one of his favorites. His school librarian had been recommending books. He told me that she was a good mentor for him and that he might have a small crush on her.

1999 was his senior year of high school. He wanted to leave the country but did not get accepted to any Study Abroad programs. He stayed miserable at home instead. In the year 2000, he got a job dishwashing in a local diner and fell in love with one of the waitresses. He was eighteen and she was sixteen. When she turned seventeen in early August of 2001, he asked her to marry him and she said no, and he wrote to me that he had been born in the wrong generation. My book came out in September of that year and in his next letter he wrote to tell me that he was at the reading I gave at the Barnes & Noble on 18th Street in New York City. I tried to remember the faces and guess which was his but I could remember no one.

I wanted to write back to him but I remembered what he told me in his first letter.

Ten days before Christmas, in 2001, he joined the army with his broken heart and wrote me military stories. He hated his commanding officers but made great friends with a couple of the other soldiers. He feared being shipped over to war but the point all along had been to leave the country anyway and so he said he would “take the world as it came.”

He sent me letters from Iraq. He told me stories that seemed he needed to get down on the page or else he would explode. And that was the clearest thing about them. Maybe it was the only thing we had in common, what with my lost youth and his adventure and my still isolation. His war letters were written with over urgency and extreme agency. I thought I could smell the sweat that dropped from his forehead onto the pages. His longest letter came after I had not heard from him for about four months.

It was written on ten pieces of typing paper and four squares of toilet paper. He said he had had trouble corresponding because it was hard for him to get his recent experiences on the page. He told me that the letter was so long because once he started he could not stop. His best friend killed a civilian in crossfire and had been missing for two months. Christopher then described the first person he killed. And the second. He shot the first one in a firefight, shooting randomly out of fear. In effect, he hit his target. That one was not so bad because he “did not aim and shoot but shot and happened to hit the right thing, and that was war,” he said. “But war was also hitting the wrong thing most of the time,” he noted.

He killed the second person when he was searching an abandoned building. The building’s silence was petrifying. I imagined him in a darkened room full of rubble with a trembling grip on his pistol. A man jumped from a hollowed out doorway and came toward him and Christopher turned quickly and “shot him below the cheekbone. Killed him.” He said it felt like he had no identity when he did that, that when he looked at the man’s open face on the cracked concrete, he did not feel guilty but afraid, because even though it happened through him he did not feel like he had done it, that his pulling the trigger was just as unintentional and unwilling and uncharacteristic of him as it was for the man on the other side of the gun to take a bullet in the head. It wasn’t his fault that he shot that man and it wasn’t that man’s fault, either, that he was shot. That was how I understood his feelings in that letter, at least, and his feelings about the war in general. He started to understand the ambiguity.

He continued to write disturbing letters from Iraq, with the exception of one beautiful letter. They were rounding up civilians and telling them to sit in the street. There had been warning of an air strike and they wanted to get everybody nearby organized and moved as fast as possible. Christopher described in two pages an Iraqi woman with her crying baby wrapped in a shawl. The woman walked to the edge of the crowd and stopped at Christopher. She stood in front of him and stared at him for a moment with “bright little dots in her pupils,” and in the moment that she was about to cry she thrust her body into his and wept on his shoulder, the baby between their bodies. He had not hugged a woman in a long time. He had almost forgotten how. His hands hesitated but he held her close and did not mind enduring degrading stares from his fellow officers. He already disagreed with them about most things, and they already didn’t like him.

That was not true of this woman. It wasn’t that she loved him for being there it was that she loved him enough to forgive him — not hugging him the love of acceptance but the love of desperate forgiveness. There was nothing he had needed more at that time than to be forgiven for the things for which he could never forgive himself. He could see down the back of her shirt and was struck by the way the muscles flexed between her shoulder blades with the jolt of each sob. He had “just fallen in love with her when she pulled back and walked away.” He was yelled at that night for touching her inappropriately. He wondered why she hugged him. He thought it was because he “looked more awkward than the rest of the guys.” I imagine he was the only one who still understood the meanings of his own discomfort, and looked awkward there because of it.

In his first letter when he got home, he told me that if he had not been writing letters to me throughout the war he would never have made it through. If I could have written back, I would have told him he was wrong.

He told me in one of his letters that it was the middle of the night and he was suffering a terrible anxiety attack. He was having nightmares about the war and was constantly afraid. He had been up biting his covers and breathing hard but decided to write me a letter to unleash it.

It was the cheekbone in the nightmare. Always the cheekbone coming apart, and always in slow motion when he remembered it in his dreams — the bullet slowly penetrating, the cheek slowly falling, sliding from the head. He no longer even remembered what it actually looked like, since the nightmares and morning flashbacks had told their own versions of the moment so many times, and seemed so much more real than the actual moment.

He got a job in an appliance store and fell in love with the manager. He was too intimidated to talk much to her. Her name was Celia and she was twelve years older than he. He always wanted to have conversations with her but had more or less forgotten how to speak to women, or how to speak with love (he had no friends yet either). He also knew that she would never engage in a relationship with somebody who worked in the store, so instead of talking to her he spoke to absolutely nobody at work. She was funny but he never laughed at her jokes because he was afraid to do anything around her, and after two months on the job she fired him because they had “communication problems.”

Christopher was in his late twenties at this point. Most of his letters after he was fired were about loneliness. The only person he ever spoke to was his landlady, usually telling him he was late on his rent. He began to drink heavily. He told me that he would stay in bed for days at a time. At one point he told me he hadn’t spoken to anyone for three days and he was thinking of writing a memoir about the war. A month later, a package was sent to my house containing the first thirty pages of a memoir, but he told me not to read it and that he was only sending it “as a sign of respect.” It was one of those times when I had to re-remember that he never would know that I was reading his letters. Some small part of him was still just writing fan mail, and some small part of me was still just reading fan mail. He wrote it because it gave him something to do and his loneliness was accompanied by creativity. If I were to write back I would tell him that that was why I became a writer as well: so that my loneliness had a friend.

But he wrote me the next month and told me that he had given up on writing and did not really have much else to say. It was the shortest letter he had written me and its two paragraphs seemed forced. The next letter was the same.

His letters revived soon enough, however. They returned to their original length but became less personal. They were about sports or politics or movies. He had even stopped telling me which books he had read and for the last few years, at the end of each letter, he always wrote, “I’m sorry I don’t have more to say,” or something like it. I had seen his life in all of its stages and it was sad to see it so diffused. I never thought of writing back. We had a deal and it was not up to me to break that deal. I was not his friend. For whatever reason, I was not supposed to be. I was the black hole that his letters disappeared into along with his faith, the idea that his voice was heard somewhere, his belief in himself, in the world. I was a listener and nothing else. I was powerless.

His suicide note was in the form of a letter to me. He drank himself mad and it was me whom he wanted to wave to on his way out. It was three pages long and his final reason was because he “didn’t stand a chance in this world.”

Didn’t stand a chance in this world. Who did? Against what? What would a true chance look like and mean for someone like Christopher? The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to tell him. I knew I was not allowed to tell him anything. But that I didn’t know what to tell myself.

I suspected that he had already killed himself by the time I got the letter.

*     *     *

I am old. I am quiet. I know more than he did. You’re right, I would have said to him, you don’t stand a chance in this world, but that’s no reason to kill yourself. The human experience is one of inferiority and faith, and if you feel like you don’t stand a chance in the world then you know that your heart is working correctly. You know you are rational and you know that you understand yourself. That’s not a reason to die. It’s a reason to live, I would have said to him. Not standing a chance is different than believing in love, I would have said, somehow, to him.

The sun is dark now and the pond is invisible. I lie on my back, unfold the papers and press them against my chest, thinking that maybe I will never have to move again. The still stars in the sky. The cool grass on my neck. Mountains are close, and yet the beauty of the planet seems emptier. Christopher’s voice was all I knew of him, and now I feel this silence. Christopher’s voice was one in which truth was second nature and his expression was clouded, difficult, insecure. He understood his condition but did not know that he understood it. These days, I learned, a voice like his is more likely to be choked to death than to achieve peace by being heard in the end.

After a moment I stand up and walk back to my little house where I write the dedication page to my next novel: In loving memory of Christopher Diamond.

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