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Air Mail by Nathan Toplis


A young woman recalls a life-changing romance conducted almost entirely through letters.

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The last letter he ever wrote to me just said, ‘goodbye Lil.’ Nothing else. He had always been dramatic like that.

I took it outside and tried to burn it on the curb because I didn’t have a fireplace or a garden. I tore it up into little pieces and tried to burn it with a plastic lighter that I’d bought from the drugstore. I had to stop though, because the pieces kept blowing away and I was worried that they would land on the fresh tarmac. They were only smoking but I stopped anyway. The tarmac looked so clean.

That was in September 2022.

When I went back inside I thought about all the letters I had already thrown away. I had never told him that I had been throwing them away because I knew he wouldn’t like it. It just felt so childish to keep them all in a shoebox under the bed. If I had told him, he probably would have written again, just to tell me that I was not a very sentimental person.

He had asked me to start writing letters to him in May, four years earlier. He was going away in June for a long time. The first month was practice.

In my first letter, I asked him why he wanted us to write. He said that he wanted to see how it felt. He told me that it was more intimate than a phone call, even though we couldn’t hear each other, and I liked that he thought about things like that.

In his first letter, after answering my question, he talked about his memories of his family in Europe. He had only met them a few times, when he was very young, and then they had stopped coming because they couldn’t afford it anymore. He was going to stay with them because he wanted to go to college abroad. He was leaving in June.

Most of what he wrote, I already knew. That was the problem with writing to someone I saw every day. I’m sure he already knew everything about me too.

We worked together in a sandwich place on the ground floor of a mall. Our first conversations had all been about why we weren’t at college, since we were nineteen and everyone else was.

He was saving up because he wanted to study abroad. His parents could pay part of the cost but not all of it. I had taken too long to choose a subject and by the time I had started looking at courses it was too late. He asked me if I was going to try again next year. I shrugged, even though I thought about it all the time.

I liked talking to him because the other employees were all middle-aged or students. He didn’t have a wife to talk about, or any essays due in either. I think it made him more interesting. It also helped that we were on the same shifts a lot. The others all worked weird hours because they had classes or second jobs.

Not long after I first met him, we suffered through two weeks of opening shifts together. After that, we started seeing each other outside of work. I bought a calendar and started paying attention to how much he made in a week.

If our shifts finished at the same time, we would hang out in the mall for a while before going home. I noticed that he always bought food before we left. I asked him if he was getting bored of eating the same stuff all the time and he seemed kind of embarrassed. Then I realised that he was doing it to save money. For employees, everything was half off.

Every cent saved and every second in that shop brought him closer to leaving. I used the calendar and a calculator to try and work out when he might have enough. I wanted him to waste money in expensive restaurants, but I only asked once, on my birthday. As soon as I had said it, I changed my mind and never asked again.

It got harder and harder to think of what to write. He decided that we should stop talking about anything we had already mentioned in a letter and vice versa. I agreed. From then on, we didn’t talk much at all.

Everything I wanted to say was already in the mail. When I saw him, I found that I couldn’t speak without breaking the rules. Everyone assumed that we had fallen out and were no longer friends. They were very tactful about mentioning his name around me.

He was delighted. His writing became very affectionate, and he started calling me Lil. I could tell when a letter was coming – that would make my palms sweat – because he would ignore me rudely at work. He wrote very well, and he made me sound much prettier than I really was.

In June, as planned, he left. We were firmly in the habit by then and it didn’t take long before I was opening an envelope with an Austrian stamp.

He had gone to study at a college called Webster Vienna where the classes were taught in English. He regretted this later because it made him slower at learning German. His writing became very complicated. In one letter, he told me that Vienna was ‘a beautiful mausoleum for the Austro-Hungarian Empire’ because the buildings were all very tall and white like giant tombs. I asked him to send me photos so that I could understand what he was talking about. When he obliged, I regretted not asking for photos of him.

Once, I showed one of his letters to someone else. She was a friend from high school, a girl called Mia, and I showed it to her because I thought it would make her laugh. It was about a café where all these famous people had gone to eat in the past. When she laughed at it, though, I got very annoyed. It just seemed like she was laughing at something different from what I had been laughing at.

He wrote about Vienna, and I wrote about home. I tried to think of poetic phrases to use. I went to his house and looked at it for a long time with a notebook in my lap. It was important for him to imagine it so that he would want to come back. He would come back anyway, but I wanted him to want to. It was sad that I couldn’t think of anything. Houses just look like houses when you’ve seen them more than once.

I asked him if his family wrote to him too or if he wanted me to write on their behalf. My younger brother was in the same grade as his sister so I could find out how she was doing. He seemed a little uncomfortable with the suggestion. He told me that he spoke to them on the phone on Sundays. I felt special because even his family didn’t write to him.

I also wrote a lot about the strange people who sometimes came into the shop. One woman came in nearly every day and asked for black coffee from the machine on the left even though all of them were the same. Leaning over the counter and whispering, she would ask us to show her the cup first so that she could check there wasn’t anything in it. She was very thin, and most of the time she wore these loose, old-fashioned prairie dresses that hung down to her ankles. The manager told me that she had been a model when she was younger. She often laughed to herself quietly and forgot about her drink.

I don’t think he found stories like this this very interesting, because he never mentioned anything that I had written in his replies. In fact, even when the oldest supervisor quit suddenly and we all had to work double our usual hours to cover for her, he didn’t express any surprise. For a while after I noticed this, I wrote letters that were just full of questions. I was worried that he would get bored and stop writing to me. Then I got worried that I would look crazy asking him all those questions, so I sprinkled some of my boring life back in.

I was disappointed that he didn’t come back for Christmas, not even for a weekend, but I could also understand it. He had told me just before Halloween that his family weren’t happy with him because he didn’t have a job. I agreed that they were being really unfair. German, especially Viennese German, is a difficult language to learn. I wanted to explain that to them, but I decided not to because I had never met his parents before and because I didn’t know exactly what made it so hard.

In the spring, Sarah, a friend of mine who was a few years older than us, came back from college. She had left to study business management but had dropped out because she had found it boring. Still, she had gotten a taste for freedom I guess; as soon as we met she asked me to get an apartment with her. She didn’t want to live with her parents anymore.

I liked my parents, and I liked living with them, but I still thought that it was probably a good thing to do. I wrote to him about it, just to check, and he encouraged me. By March, I was living with Sarah and another girl in a two-bedroom apartment near the mall.

The other girl was called Amber and she was very quiet. I wondered how Sarah, who was not at all quiet, had met her. I never found out. They slept together in the bigger of the two bedrooms. Except sometimes, the guy Sarah had dated before college would come to visit. Then Amber slept with me, her head towards the foot of the bed.

He was my age. They weren’t dating anymore but Sarah still didn’t want to tell him about Amber. He might react badly, she said. She wasn’t sure. I asked for more hours at the sandwich shop and tried to avoid them all. I didn’t want to get involved.

I wrote about it in my letters, though. He was interested at first, and asked me to keep him up to date, but I ran out of things to tell him because the ex-boyfriend never found out. I thought it was pretty sad. He said they all sounded weird.

In May, I asked him when he would be finished with school for the summer. I wanted to meet him at the airport, but luckily I didn’t mention that. I couldn’t believe it when he said that he might not come back. He was thinking about spending the summer with his friends from college. I wrote another letter telling him what a stupid idea that was. He had spent all year with his college friends and would spend next year with them as well. He had even spent Christmas with them.

I wrote that letter very late at night. I was tired and angry, so I went to sleep as soon as it was finished. When I woke up, I read it again and decided not to send it. I sent a different one instead, asking him if he was worried about staying with his parents. I knew that he was still arguing with them. I suggested that he could stay with me instead or with my parents, who would happily have taken him in.

When I got his reply, I wished that I hadn’t thrown away the first letter. He was unhappy with me anyway so I might as well have sent it and then at least his response would have been justified.

In the end, he did come back but he stayed with his parents. By the time he left, I was glad to see him go. I felt bad for being relieved, but he had been moody all summer. I think that it was basically a waste of time for both of us.

He seemed annoyed that I was working so much but then he wasn’t happy when I was with him. It was like he didn’t want me to work, not because he wanted to spend time with me but just because he didn’t like to think of me being there.

After work one weekend, I introduced him to Sarah. That didn’t go well either. He insisted on sneaking alcohol into the bowling alley. I didn’t want him to, because it was near the mall and some of the employees knew me. To justify it, he started talking about how Austrian teenagers all drink beer; I didn’t really see what that had to do with the neat vodka in his water bottle, but I gave up anyway. I didn’t want to argue in public.

He was drunk by the ninth frame. When she got up to bowl for the last time, he shouted something about her ex-boyfriend, who I had named in my letters. The alley was busy, and it was too loud for her to hear him, but I was furious. He turned around and smiled at me afterwards too, as if it were so clever. I wanted to drop a ball on his face.

All summer I tried not to argue with him but at times he made it impossible. I decided that when he went back to Vienna, I would stop writing to him. That would be the end of that. I was the one who had been keeping the exchange alive anyway and I was sure that he wouldn’t miss me.

I was very surprised when I received a long letter before he had even left the country. I was even more surprised that it was an apology. He wrote that he hadn’t wanted to come home because he had lost contact with so many people. He didn’t know how to revive these relationships, so he was left with just his parents and me. He said that the former had been exactly as difficult as he was expecting. He had been left very lonely and frustrated. He told me all of this, and then he told me that it was still no excuse for his behaviour and that he was sorry. He begged me to keep writing to him and said that he would come back for Christmas this year and that he would be in a better mood.

I wrote back (to his Vienna address) that I was still fairly angry. I said that it would take a while for me to get over it. I described in particular detail how embarrassed I had been at the bowling alley. I wasn’t really as angry as I made out, but I wanted to see if he would get defensive or if he would understand.

He replied quickly and I was happy with his answers. In fact, I was even kind of excited by them. We had been through a difficult time and were still talking. That meant that we were closer than ever.

My excitement grew as Autumn continued. Letters went back and forth at a wonderful pace. He no longer just described the things that he was learning about but explained them as well. He asked for my opinions and responded to the things that I wrote about, no matter how boring or irrelevant. It began to feel like a real conversation again. I had not realised until then how dry our writing had become since he had first left. Now the warmth and interest had returned.

I read online about how people used to decorate their letters with ribbons and illustrative sketches. I couldn’t draw but I did everything else exactly as I had read it. I sprayed rose water on them, used coloured inks, and stuck pressed flowers to the paper. It took much longer for me to finish this way, but he assured me that it was worth it.

Things went on like this, and I was happy, until the day that I quit my job.

I had stayed up the night before finishing a letter and had only slept for about four hours. Then, I had forgotten the letter so that I couldn’t post it on the way to work. I got into the shop at one minute past six and was told that I was late. I was also told that I couldn’t have the holiday that I had requested because it overlapped with someone else’s. The first customer that morning was an old man with a big lumpy nose who swore at me because the receipts wouldn’t print. Then, after an hour, a man from the shop next door came in. He was very annoyed because someone had put our food waste into their glass bin. I took my uniform off and went home.

Instead of sending him a nicely decorated letter, I sent a plain one about quitting my job. Then I went to sleep. When I woke up, I started searching for new positions in shops and cafes.

Sarah got back from work in the evening. She was working as a cleaner at the racetrack. I told her all about it, and she couldn’t disguise how concerned she was. Amber wasn’t paying rent so if I couldn’t either then she would have to cover all of it. I promised her that I would find a job quickly.

He, on the other hand, was as happy as I had ever known him. He had been feeling guilty, apparently, for abandoning me there. Now I could find a real career.

I found this reaction a little strange. Most days, I had enjoyed working at the shop. I also thought that it was a bit ironic for him to be talking about careers. He still hadn’t found any work since moving away.

The pressure from Sarah was no great help, and I kept messing up interviews by saying odd, childish things, but eventually I found somewhere else.

It was the gift shop of a small museum. There were only ever two of us working at a time and it was never busy. It was sort of lonely in my opinion, but it paid more than the sandwich shop for less work, so that was nice. It also made him happy, because I was closer to culture and got discounts on the special exhibitions. This had suddenly become more important than my career. I was happy and so was he.

That new job was probably the last thing that we ever saw eye to eye about.

Things began to get worse again when he wrote, very apologetically, to say that he wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas after all. He was going to stay with an Austrian friend, he said, whose family lived in the countryside. They lived in a small village that still celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas.

I had no idea what that was, and I didn’t care. He had promised that he would come back.

It made it much worse when he pointed out that he had only promised to try. I replied that he wasn’t trying and then stopped writing for a month. I thought that this would make him even more apologetic. Instead, he had changed his position by the time I made contact again.

I was judgemental and controlling. He worried constantly about whether I would approve of what he was doing. He always had.

That didn’t make sense, I argued, since he could just choose not to tell me about certain things.

He didn’t reply to me again after stating his case. This frustrated me enough that I broke the rules and messaged him on Instagram. He blocked me. About a week later, my friend showed me through her account that the classmate he was staying with was a girl.

I wrote him a letter threatening suicide. I didn’t send it, but I didn’t destroy it either. I kept it under my pillow and then later on my bedside table.

I think I kept it because I wanted it to be true. I wanted to go crazy because then I could blame him for it. He might have come to see me in the hospital.

Sometimes I thought that I was going crazy, but then I would always realise that I was doing it on purpose. On a day off, I listened to ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes for an hour straight. I thought that I could see the floor moving. I did that because I had read that Brian Wilson had done it and the floor had probably moved because I was staring at it so hard.

I fantasised about jumping out the window of our apartment, that’s true, but we only lived on the third floor. I never made real plans or acted on them.

In a way, I was lucky that I had moved to the museum because nothing was really expected of me there. I could just go in, stand behind the counter for eight hours, and then go home. If the other person working went out of sight to do anything, like into the backroom, I could even sit on the floor for a while. Still, I missed the mall. I missed my parents too. I felt like I had built my whole life to his designs, and now he had suddenly decided that he preferred his own. I wanted him to come back and take it all off my hands. He could work at the museum since he had been so happy about my new job. He could move in with my friend since he had been so happy about my leaving home. He could pay my rent and eat my food. He could sit on the floor under the counter and wonder what I was doing.

Where would I be then? In Austria? No. I didn’t care about krampusnacht and Freud and whatever else. I would be outside somewhere. I realised then that I hadn’t left town in years, not since my dad had stopped taking me on camping trips. It didn’t matter where, just somewhere other than where I was.

One day in January, he unblocked me. I still don’t know why, except to be cruel, because he didn’t message me. I could look back then through the winter that he had spent with the Austrian girl, whose name was Hanna. It looked like a lot of fun.

I messaged him to say sorry, but he didn’t reply. I messaged him something mean and then deleted it before he saw. Finally, I called him. I wasn’t expecting him to actually pick up.

‘Hello,’ he said flatly.

‘Hi, how are you?’

‘I’m good, I’m back at college. It’s going good.’

‘Yeah, I’m still the same,’ I said. Then, after a pause, I apologised. It was almost accidental.


‘What for?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘It’s okay.’


‘I’m sorry too.’

And then we stopped talking.

It was a long time before I got that last letter, a very long time, but I guess he had been thinking about me. I suppose that’s kind of nice. I didn’t really mind the letter, I mean I knew that it was over, but I tried to burn it anyway. I tried to burn it because it was the end, so much more than the call had been. I hated that he was right about that.

Since I couldn’t do it, I decided to have the last word instead. I wrote one final letter of my own that just said, ‘goodbye,’ not even his name.

God knows if I had the address right – I had thrown all of his other letters away.


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