Thursday, January 29, 2009

The original desktop interface

Something I read about at Down the Road today made me think of something I haven't thought about in a long time... years, really.

When I was seventeen, I'd just changed cities and schools. I didn't have any friends handy, and I've never been the outgoing sort who rounds up new ones by the score or something.

It was just the daily drudge of getting up and getting out there. It’s funny how it feels. I’m an adult now and I have to work just to live. Back then I didn’t, but oddly enough, I felt more trapped. Today, I can at least conceivably resign and find another job. But back then, that was the school I was mandated to go to. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t just stay with my friends in another town.

I took French all through high school, right up to grade thirteen. I’m no good at it now but I was stumblingly conversational back then. Anyway, my French class was in one of the portables behind the school. At some point that fall, I noticed someone had scrawled something funny on my desk... someone from another class. I don’t remember what it was now, but it was intriguing enough that I scribbled some comment in reply. Later, there was a reply to mine. And a conversation was struck up.

Now this was in the 80s... a long time before the internet or even BBSes, cellphones and texting. People communicated face-to-face, or at home on dedicated phone lines, or through letters, and that was pretty much it. So this kind of thing, a two-way blind conversation, was rare. Nearly impossible. But this other person and I, united by geography (a common desk) but separated by time (different days sitting in it) managed the kind of thing that’s now so very common in email and chat rooms and forum boards. We forged a conversation, and a kind of friendship, without ever meeting.

After a couple of weeks I wanted to say more than just five or ten words written in pencil on the top of the desk. So I wrote out some stuff on a piece of lined paper, hid it in some of the joinery of the desk, and left instructions on where to find it. The other person did, and did the same. Suddenly we had actual artifacts of one another’s: letters.

Her name was Cheryl. She was a foster child, living in a home with people she didn’t like much (my guess is, she was probably afraid to get close to anyone for fear of the sense of loss when she would inevitably move on). She slowly revealed to me that she was troubled, but I never really did find out about what. We would tell each other of our friends (in my case, the ones I'd left behind) and interests, our hopes for our eventual careers, make fun of the teachers we had in common, and things like that. I can remember how excited I’d be, heading into that class, and what a crushing disappointment it was whenever there wasn’t a reply from her, and how fantastic it was whenever there was. I guess it went on for a couple of months, into the winter. I started talking about meeting up, and then the notes from her kind of tapered off. I got the impression she figured out I was one of the chubby nerds most girls wouldn’t be caught dead with, and that was that. For myself, I held onto those letters for years. I had them till four or five years ago, I think. They were just so magical. Not in what they said; they were kind of boring and shallow (I imagine my own were no better). But for what they represented. An impossible friendship, a happy secret, just a whiff of romance. Eventually, I just got tired of moving them from drawer to drawer... I knew I’d always have the memory of them inside me, so I really didn’t need the plain, sophomoric scribbling themselves anymore, and out they went.

I remember looking her up at the end of the year when the yearbook came out. That, I still have. She was a pretty girl, even tiny in black and white, and easily out of my “league”, as they say. She must have moved on that summer because I don’t remember seeing her in person or in the yearbooks subsequently. God knows where, or who, she is now. I wonder if she thinks back to her own excitement sitting in that desk, reaching under the ordinary wood for those impossible pieces of paper...

1 comment:

jim said...

For what it's worth, I kept the notes we passed for a long time, too, and I saw these people f2f every day.