Just a Letter in the Mailbox
My niece wants me to write a love letter to her father. They are visiting from New York, and all the rooms have been taken over by suitcases, so I’ve set up my laptop on the kitchen table, where I’m finishing up some urgent work emails before I can take her to the park. She stands by my side, her head bowed, green glitter pen and rainbow stationary in hand, while she waits for me to look at her. I press send, then give her a big hug and a high five. I tell her I’m almost done. She grips my thumb and pulls it toward her, then very clearly and confidently says, I don’t know my letters yet, so I need you to help me write a letter to my daddy, because he didn’t come with us and I love him and I miss him. I have no children of my own and perhaps this is why my love for my niece scares me, it comes from an alien and unfamiliar place. But this task feels herculean because I despise her father, married to my sister, a man I refuse to call my brother-in-law because he isn’t my family, regardless of whether my sister chose him to be hers. My sister’s husband, I say, with no irony.
My niece has remembered to pack letter paper and spreads it out on the glass top next to my computer. A disembodied unicorn head floats at the top with the words YOU’RE SIMPLY MAGICAL curved over its gold-embossed horn. I ask her to give me a few minutes to finish up an email, but there is no email, I’m drafting one with no recipient that says, Fucking Hell, over and over and over. She is four years old, so I’m hoping her attention span is short enough that she’ll forget what she’s asked of me. But she is determined. Using all of her weight, she pushes a chair up next to mine, climbs up on her knees with one hand, still clasping her pen in the other. Once seated, she straightens her skirt, adjusts her sparkly headband, then folds her hands in her lap, and waits. I finally delete the email and close my laptop.
My niece writes this letter knowing that when she flies back to New York, her father will no longer be living at home. Everyone says he used to be a nice guy, but I’m not sure he ever was. Maybe Wall Street turned him into an asshole, I’m sure the finance bros in those skyscrapers over the Hudson didn’t help, but I think it’s deeper than that. Sometimes he will tell my sister that he made it possible for her to build her nothing business, that he could find himself a trophy wife who could cut herself into the shape of his life, if he wanted. Sometimes he will meet up with colleagues or friends after work and drink so much that he doesn’t come home at night. He falls asleep at the park in his suit, my sister in a panic, or sometimes on the doorstep, because my sister is fed up and won’t let him back in the house. Once, he took my niece to a bar after her ballet class, knocked some drinks back, put her on his shoulders before they walked out, and as he stumbled home, he dropped her on the sidewalk. My niece, shaken, pulled up her tutu and showed my sister the bruises on her knees, luckily, with no other injuries. I am furious with my sister when she tells me, because it’s too terrifying to think about what could have happened, but I’m ashamed after she hangs up with me, because I know who my anger is meant for. It takes time for things to change. He tells my sister he doesn’t have a problem, that she is the one who has ruined his life. My sister has finally said, no more.
My niece points to the first line and says, Aunty, please write, ‘Dear Daddy, I hope that you are having fun in Washington DC and that you like your new job.’ I am faithful to her wish. He has brokered his way into an entry-level, non-cabinet job in Washington DC, but tells the children he is working for President Biden, so they will tell their friends, and their friends will tell their parents, who will think he’s an Important Man. He’s used the separation as an opportunity to live out his White House dreams. He told the children he won’t be seeing them very often because the President needs him. Even then, my niece puts him first. As she is talking out loud to me, she wonders whether he feels good about his choice, whether he is fulfilled and happy, whether this is what he’s always wanted. I try to capture it all, hoping she doesn’t learn to graft this emotional web she has learned, but is too young to understand, onto other men who will inevitably become part of the geography of her future.
I am writing too slowly for my niece. She gets a bit impatient. She points at the next blank line and says, I need you to write, ‘Daddy, I just love and miss you so so so so so so so so much. I hope that you miss us too.’ She pauses for a moment and says, ‘Daddy, maybe we could see you when we come back, I hope you will come to see us in New York. It’s been a long time since I’ve hugged you.’ She leans over my arm and tells me that she wants me to write neater, pointing at a letter that has escaped into the margin. I’m trying to oblige. I don’t think this man deserves it. But who am I to say? Is everyone really trying to do their best, as the wellness industries would have us believe? My niece looks at me and says, He’s gonna come take a train to see us, right? I have no confidence that he will, not with the happy hours, the networking, the rubbing elbows, the powerful people, the jockeying to meet the Secretary of State, whom he thinks he’ll become one day. Of course he will, I reply. He loves you. She puts her head on my shoulder. I tousle her hair.
She hands me the letter and says, I’m ready to mail it now. I explain to her that letters need an envelope and an address, so they stay safe and the people working at the post office know where to deliver them to. I tell her they also need a return address in the top left corner, in case they can’t find the place it’s supposed to go. Her eyes widen. You mean they might not be able to find where my dad is living in DC? she says. She herself hasn’t been there yet. How does she imagine what a distance is? I tell her, Sometimes people make mistakes, so if that happens, then the letter will come back to us. We can always try to send it back again. She seems satisfied. My sister has gone out for groceries, and as we wait for her to text the address, I show my niece how to fold a letter in half. She tries her best but folds it into a shape that has no name, then crushes it into the envelope. I ask her to bring my wallet over and show her where I keep the stamps. She pulls a sticky square off the booklet, full of golden monarchs in a field, and carefully positions it where I tell her too, smoothing the bumps out. She turns in circles, giddy with joy, while I write the address in, then takes it in her hands when I’m done. Let’s go to the box! she screams, and runs out the garage door. When I catch up with her, she is on her tippy toes, trying to put the letter into the slot where the mail is delivered, and I don’t know why I stop her, because I could just toss it out with the rest of the junk mail coming in. Instead, I show her how to open the mailbox, and where to place the envelope. She jumps up and down, clapping, ecstatic that it is on its way. I ask her to put the red flag on the mailbox up, so the person picking up the mail knows there is a letter to send somewhere. She sticks her tongue out the side of her mouth as she lifts it, then runs back into the house while shouting to no one in particular, He’s going to get my letter, I can’t believe it!
After a couple of frustrating calls from my supervisor, I decide to take a walk. I put on my walking shoes, and a baseball hat, to keep the sun out of my eyes. I walk down the driveway and see the flag is still up on the mailbox. We must have put the letter in too late in the day. There is something I desperately want to do, but it would hold far too much of my own cruelty inside of it. If I looked back, as I am now, I would see that my niece hasn’t followed me out of the house, and she isn’t yet tall enough to spy on the mailbox from the corner of the front window. Perhaps she has already forgotten. If I could just take the letter out, tuck it into my pocket, and put the flag down. Trace the edges of the envelope as I walk up the slope of our street.
Mini-interview with S.R. Ponaka
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
SRP: I have been very lucky to learn from two wonderful writing instructors, Yelizaveta Renfro and Amy Friedman. Working with them transformed how I think about time, memory and narrative, and taught me to welcome even the most fragmented parts of my own life into my work. There are certain stories I might not have arrived at or been able to get to without their guidance, and the safety they provided in their workshops.
HFR: What are you reading?
SRP: Pandemic has me craving familiar books. I’m rereading Karma Cola by Gita Mehta, along with The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi. I’m also researching the relationship between psychoanalytic theory and the British empire, which led me to a fascinating book by Erik Lunstrum called Ruling Minds.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Just a Letter in the Mailbox”?
SRP: The piece was inspired by a tiny moment in my own life. Much of my work is focused on how mundane acts are layered with deliberate choices we make that create unexpected meaning. I try to tap into an unfiltered view of the inner world of women, to resist the shame of putting certain things on the page. I’m interested in moments where women talk about their anger.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
SRP: Right now I’m working on a set of mental health-related CNF essays that involve quite a bit of research. Longer pieces have a rhythm of their own that I’m learning to enjoy.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
SRP: As a woman of color who does not have an MFA, community workshops have been essential to my growth as a writer. However, I’ve learned that some instructors can hold an unpredictable, often wholly unexamined, resistance to marginalized writers and their stories. I would encourage any writer to disengage from workshop spaces that feel harmful, if it is feasible. You do not have to “finish” or “get through,” especially if your intuition is firing, or you feel alienated and unsupported. Staying can sometimes lead to more serious writing blocks down the line. There will be other opportunities to learn in places where you and your work are respected.
S.R. Ponaka is a psychiatric social worker, therapist and emerging writer living in the Los Angeles area. Her work has appeared in Bright Flash Literary Review. She was recently nominated for the 2022 Allegra Johnson Writing Prize. She is a Voices of Our Nations alumna and has participated in the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.