F. and I were introduced by a mutual friend while I was on a visit to L.A. I was living in D.C., newly single and working at a political magazine. I had given myself a firm dating rule: no journalists. In a sleepy company town, where ethics precluded romantic liaisons with my sources, it had begun to feel as if I’d doomed myself to celibacy. F. was a writer who’d just finished his first film and was passing time as a listings editor. He was my best friend’s occasional tennis partner. “You’ll love him,” she promised, sending him a text as I shoved my bag in the backseat of her car at LAX. “I’ll have him meet us for drinks at this outdoor German place.” We hit it off instantly.
It started with a challenge. I told him that first night that I’d found Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist overly self-conscious, so he slid The Hundred Brothers into my carry-on for the red-eye back east. Antrim’s endlessly multiplying brothers and claustrophobic prose were right at home in the repetitious concourses of LAX. My perfume leaked in my suitcase during the flight, but I returned his copy anyway, with a handwritten note, reeking of the nape of my neck.
We spent the next two years courting each other with words—our own, but also those of any writer we thought might impress. We certainly weren’t the first to go this route. But like every romance, and every reading list, it felt like our own. The question “What are you reading?” became a convenient excuse to chat when we spotted each other online, to send links, to write long, complicated letters in which the subtext was always desire.
For him I read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, which I had dismissed, without reading, as rankly sexist. (My opinion didn’t improve much after the fact, but he argued that the main character was a true portrait of the male writer.) I sent him John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy after quoting a description of Smiley’s wife out of context. He told me it drove him near mad that the line didn’t come until the second-to-last scene in the book. I started compulsively reading novels set on the West Coast. A sticky July was spent filling in the gaps of my Lew Archer catalog; I hoarded tatty James M. Cain paperbacks and dreamed of smoggy afternoons and winters without snow. Was I falling in love with F. or with the idea of a city that lent itself so easily to narration? At the time I didn’t ask. I was grateful for a new place to inhabit, if only on stolen weekends and via Library of Congress subject headings.
A few months after we’d met, Farrar, Straus and Giroux released the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. We pored over details of their respective stints in D.C. as poet laureate at the Library of Congress, and I wrote him a letter from a dry lecture on deficit policy that happened to take place at the Cosmos Club, where Lowell had lived in 1947 and ’48. “Washington winter weather is rather like Paris I find, without the compensations,” observed Bishop drily in a December 1949 letter to Lowell.
Thomas Travisano writes in the introduction that “these letters became part of their abidance: a part of that huge block of life they had lived together and apart over thirty years of witty and intimately confiding correspondence.” The volume became something I’d curl up with after arriving home to an empty bed, their poems a means of expressing everything F. and I were still too tentative to say to each other. “Sometimes / I catch my mind / circling for you with glazed eye— / my lost love hunting / your lost face.” Our correspondence kept an oddly mannered and formal tone for all the flirty chatting. The novels we sent across the continent, the wry observations of two poets: it all allowed us to pretend this was a literary game, not one involving our very real, very breakable hearts.
Tell me why you love this book, I would ask, and he would.
Books were a substitute for the sex distance made impossible. I sent him Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and, on one visit to L.A., we snuck into the Los Angeles Athletic Club near closing and spent a blissful hour floating in the column-lined 1910s pool and exchanging chlorine-flavored kisses. There was an automatic romance to putting ourselves in the landscapes we’d shared through fiction. He sent Jane Smiley’s L.A.-based Ten Days in the Hills, which I abandoned somewhere in the middle of Day Four. “Politics in my lit feels like work,” I confessed. “Maybe I can just skip around to the sexy bits.”
After a year of mailing books, spending the occasional long weekend together, and enduring several tearful phone calls about how difficult the distance was starting to feel, F. packed up and moved east. He was excited to try another city; L.A.’s superficiality was wearing on him, he said. He envied the endless debates that every night out at a D.C. bar devolved into. He took a job at my favorite bookstore, while buckling down on his own writing. I kept at the grind of political journalism.
But the careful literary courtship remained. He tracked down a 1997 Granta on France in preparation for my first trip to Paris and greeted me at Dulles, upon my return, with Edmund White’s The Flâneur, which he’d been reading as I traveled. We leaned against the hood of his car in the airport parking lot awash in the fading, pink dusk of a late March night, smoking cigarettes and tracing our respective journeys through Paris—mine on foot, his on paper.
He learned my library. “You already own that, Connelly. Same cover, but a 1980s pressing,” he cautioned when I picked up a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I scouted out a memoir on textile manufacturing in the South for a piece he’d toyed with writing. But his writing stalled; screenplay ideas were stuck in revision, and the grind of a retail gig crushed much else. Despite putting ourselves in the same city, the romance was make-work.
We kept separate apartments. I would rely on his shelves for something to read on weekends spent at his place. From there I pulled an early Ian McEwan that I’d skipped, and over the course of months I reread Martin Amis’s London Fields. He had a copy of The Decameron in his bathroom, and I’d find myself perched on the window ledge in the mornings reading instead of getting ready for work.
F. knew I missed the books I’d put in storage when I moved to D.C. For my twenty-ninth birthday, he bided his time at the bar packed with my friends and, when we arrived home, handed me a stack of Joan Didion’s novels in mass market Pocket Press editions, piled atop a first edition of The White Album. “To Phoebe, on her thirtieth Birthday,” it was inscribed, mocking me for my habit of adding a year or two to my age.
Everything insisted that we had what it took. If I could talk books with him, if he understood why I wept over a novel, why I dreamed in columns, then all the rest should have fallen into place. But words weren’t, in the end, enough. And so two years and a cross-continental move later, we parted.
“I’m sorry that I haven’t written you back sooner,” he confessed in his final letter. “I tried a couple of times but the words just didn’t come out how I wanted them to. That is, they didn’t really come out at all.”
Phoebe Connelly is a writer living in Washington, D.C.