When I was in the third grade, everyone in Sister Denise’s class was assigned a pen pal from a third-grade class in South Carolina. My counterpart, a girl named Erica, sent me a list of questions. Do you live on a farm? Do you say “bucket” or “pail”? What is it like living by a river? The first two were easy: No. Bucket. (Pail? Really?)
But that last question stopped me. What was it like living by a river? I’d never really thought about the particular geography of my upbringing. The river just was. There, the way the sky is there. A thing in and of the landscape.
My grandpa always said that his four daughters were like salmon; they went upriver to spawn. (Gross. True, and pretty clever, but gross.) He was born and raised and lived and died in southeast Iowa, the part of the state where the Mississippi is at its widest. Every five or ten years the river rises out of its banks and puts another wheezing small town out of its misery. The summer my grandpa turned 62, one year before lung cancer finally finished with him, the river crested at 13 feet above floodstage. I was 11. After they reopened the bridge, we drove over to Illinois, through the town of Niota, where a waterline streaked every vinyl-covered shoebox that was still standing, to a buffet dinner at the lone restaurant of note in Nauvoo, a town near death itself but too far inland to have the river play Kevorkian. At the Hotel Nauvoo, I sucked Shirley Temples from highball glasses and made mountains of mashed potatoes, thick brown gravy flowing down from their peaks. After dinner when we headed back across the river, it was too dark to see the small town that was no longer there.
At home, three hours to the north, we didn’t have floods like this. Weary from years of sandbagging, the forward-thinking people of my hometown built a floodwall in the late 1960s. And so in my lifetime, the river was never a threat. It was the opposite: a constant reminder of the world moving on while we stayed stationary. A prairie stands still with you. A lake has a slow, contained motion. The ocean rolls toward and away, but to stand on its shore is to feel you’re on the cusp of something big; you’re part of it.
The river, it passes. And all you can do is watch.
My upbringing on the banks of the Mississippi now seems quaint, of course. The idea that the physical landscape is what reminded me, as a child, that bigger things were happening elsewhere? Downright Huck Finnish. Now the internet is a bigger and better and faster and deeper reminder to small-town misfits everywhere that great things are happening everywhere else. It isn’t just a taunt, it’s a portal.
In pre-internet Iowa, pen pals were my portal. We sent handwritten letters. (I swear I am not as old as these details make me sound. I have an Instagram account. I listen to Azealia Banks. I use emoji.) After my school-appointed third-grade pen pal Erica, there was Kim, a girl my age I met at the hotel swimming pool in Kansas City on a family vacation. She was covered in freckles and her mother was fat. We traded a letter or two, but it didn’t really take. Then I discovered the diabetes circuit.
My sister, diagnosed with childhood diabetes at age five, had acquired a few pen pals — other kids who poked their fingers several times a day and gave themselves insulin shots in the upper arm or upper thigh or belly — by answering an ad in the back of Diabetes Forecast magazine. And some of those kids (girls, mostly) sent slambooks, stapled-together scraps of paper full of questions asked and answered. Analog Tumblrs. They were filled with proto-profile questions: What’s your favorite band? How old are you? This was the gateway drug. I acquired dozens of pen pals. Jessica in California. Melissa in New Jersey. Matthew, my first gay friend although I didn’t know it at the time, in Tennessee. Mina in Arkansas. They told me about practicing piano and going to their first dance. They sent stickers and school pictures. They asked what Iowa was like.
I don’t remember if I wrote that I had a boyfriend, or if I said my dad was rich, or what other lies I may have told. I do remember loving how I controlled the story of my life. My pen pals had no way of knowing that all of my pants were too short and my glasses too thick and I liked to stay indoors at recess and just read, because if I went outside the other kids threw kickballs at my head. They only knew what I told them: I ate bacon for breakfast, my favorite color was green, I got a Paula Abdul tape for Easter. I just told a few good details and left the rest unsaid, the way you reply when you’ve been on a disappointing vacation but don’t want to seem ungrateful when someone asks you about it.
The first time I realized my correspondents might be doing the same was when my only pen pal from Iowa, a girl named Kristin, sent a list of all the colognes she’d purchased her boyfriend for his birthday. Drakkar Noir. Cool Water. Aspen. First thought: Wow! How does she have the money to buy so much cologne? Those are, like, $50 each!! Second thought: Ohhh, she’s lying! She’s just listing all of the cool colognes she’s seen commercials for. Third thought: Ohhh, she’s probably lying about the boyfriend, too. About everything. I considered Kristin’s picture. She was chubby, with big, permed bangs and ruddy cheeks. Not exactly a fifth-grade heartthrob. Then again, you never know. She could have been the belle of Storm Lake, Iowa.
I kept these and all the other half-truths in a shallow plastic box under my bed.
One day, I just stopped replying. When I was 13, we moved to a new house, and I sold my Baby-Sitters Club books and stuffed animals at a yard sale. The long-unanswered letters went into the trash. That same year, seventh grade, I met my first real friends. You know, not the kids who grew up next door or happened to be in your Girl Scout troop. Not the weird kids I traded stickers with through the mail. The first friends I chose because we had something in common. My first real friend was named Rachel. She had the internet.
We used it to chat with boys. Or, we tried to use it to chat with boys. Most of our conversations were cut short because her parents paid by the hour. We spent most of our allotted time just looking for a chat room that seemed “cool.” When we finally found a chat-buddy, a self-identified 14-year-old (but maybe or even probably a fortysomething creepster?) in god knows what state, we told him who we were. Ann and Rachel, we typed. 13, we typed. Iowa, we typed. We didn’t mention the river.
Ann Friedman is a not-so-little lady from Dubuque.