Once upon a time, more than thirty years ago, there was a fifteen-year-old girl who was very shy. She read a lot of books, walked alone in the woods a lot, and spent most of her time in the world of her imagination.
Like most girls that age, she felt lonely and misunderstood. She had already developed a passion for writing. So, that summer, to fill her loneliness, she decided to use her writing skills to make up the perfect man, the one who would be her happily ever after.
She considered herself a sensible person, so she approached it logically. What did she like? What attracted her? Straight off, she knew: She had a special weakness for English accents, so her dream man would have to be English.
But she didn’t like cold weather, so he’d be from the southernmost part of England. She got out her family’s big red atlas of the world and looked at a map. The southernmost part of England was Cornwall. The only Cornish town of significance shown on this particular map was Bodmin. Fine. He’d be from Bodmin, Cornwall, England. What else? She started making a list. Hair, eyes, interests, personality, she chose them all.
Well, now that she had created the perfect man, he needed a name, right? J---- sprang to mind instantly as a strong but simple English-sounding last name. But what was his first name? C----? No, P-----. That was it. P----- J----. Her perfect man.
In time, summer ended, and the girl started her sophomore year in high school. Caught up in her studies, she mostly stopped daydreaming about her perfect man. But one day in Spanish class, the teacher told the students about an international pen pal organization, where they could pay a dollar and be matched up with a student in another country.
The girl didn’t allow herself to think too much about it as she filled out the form to indicate her own interests and personality and to choose the attributes of her future pen pal. But still, before she paid her dollar and handed in the form, she did check “England” and “Male.”
Several weeks later, the pen pal company sent each student back the name and address of the person they had been matched with. The girl opened hers, curious, but not expecting too much. Yes, it was a boy her own age, from England. Cornwall, in fact. Bodmin!
His chart of interests matched exactly the boxes the girl had checked. She raised her eyes to the top of the page to see his name. Her heart stopped. His last name was J----, the name she had picked for her perfect man! The first name was different, though: R----.
She wrote to R---. He wrote back. She wrote again. He sent cartoons, picture postcards, flirtations. It wasn’t hard to get to know each other. They wrote to each other for three years. It got so she could feel it when his letters were waiting for her in the mailbox, before she even got home from school.
It was inevitable. When she graduated from high school, she wanted to go see him. She had vacation time from her job that January. She bought her tickets. New Year’s eve would be her first night in London. R---- promised to meet her at the airport.
She thought she would recognize him right away, but it took her a moment. He was taller than she’d realized, pale and dark-haired. And he was waiting there for her. After a few awkward moments, they got on the train to take them into London. Before long, they were side-by-side, leaning forward, talking intently. Across the aisle, a total stranger looked at them and asked, out of the blue, “Are you two brother and sister?”
“No,” they laughed. “We just met.” But secretly, the girl was thinking: Kismet. Even strangers on a train could see the connection between them.
That night they roamed the streets of London, while around them, the whole city celebrated New Year’s Eve. In a foreign country, amidst thousands of total strangers, the girl felt at home at last. Later, the boy dropped her off at her B&B and left to return to where he and his roommate were planning to sleep in the car that they had driven there from Cornwall.
But after a little while, she heard him calling outside her window. He’d missed the last train. He couldn’t get back to his car, so he had nowhere to stay. She ran down to let him in. It all felt like a movie. She gave him a pillow and a blanket. He stretched out on the floor next to the radiator. She curled up on the bed.
The plan was for her to accompany the boy and his roommate back to Cornwall, where after a week, they would have to go back to school, and the girl would continue on her month-long tour of the country. But on the way, they stopped in Bristol, where the boy and girl took a starlit walk up to the top of a bluff to view the lights on the Bristol suspension bridge. Standing there beside him in the cold night air, looking down on the lights, for the first time in her life she felt a moment of absolute, pure, perfect happiness.
“I love you.” Which of them said it first? It didn’t matter. In that moment of perfect happiness, they kissed for the first time.
Upon arriving in Cornwall, the girl learned the proper way to make tea. She ate things she’d never heard of before: Eccles cakes, saffron buns, marmite soldiers, Cornish pasties. And, within a few days, she and the boy made love.
The week was too short. She didn’t want to leave him to finish her trip. She was torn. Then he decided to ditch school and come with her. It would be tricky, traveling for two on her budget for one, but she didn’t care. Anything to have more time with him.
They were lying in bed one morning, when she finally mustered the courage to tell him the story of her perfect man. By the time she reached the end, when she told about picking the names, the boy was looking at her very strangely. “What?” she asked him nervously.
“R---- is my middle name,” he said slowly. “My real name is P-----. C---- is my father’s name.”
The girl felt like the breath had been knocked out of her. Three years of writing to each other, and she had never known that. This was really, truly it. Fate was hitting her over the head with signs and portents. She had found her perfect man. But they were only nineteen. The weight of it all was both dizzying and terrifying.
They traveled together for the whole month. They saw Stonehenge and Cardiff Castle, Buckingham Palace, and York Minster. They fed swans in the park, browsed in used bookstores, and made a pilgrimage to the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. When the time approached for the girl to return home, they talked about what they would do next.
The boy wanted to come to the U.S., and for him to get a green card, they would have to get married. But he’d just witnessed his parents going through a messy divorce, and he was terrified of marriage. The girl didn’t care about the marriage issue one way or the other, because she knew that we were destined to be together, regardless of what it said on a piece of paper. They could get married for green card purposes only, and see where the relationship grew from there. She had no doubts that everything would work out. Together, they visited the embassy and learned about the paperwork they’d need to process.
All too soon, the time came for the girl to go home and leave her love behind. He’d follow in a few months, after they got everything arranged. That last morning, he brought her a single red rose, and, sobbing, she carried it onto the plane. She had exactly one coin left in her pocket: a single British pound.
Back home, time passed. The girl went back to work. The boy went back to school. The girl filed the paperwork to get him into the country. It got lost in the mail. The boy’s letters got further and further between.
And then one day she just knew. The same way that she used to know when his letters would be waiting in her mailbox, she knew that he had decided not to come.
Blindly trying to wrench herself back from the abyss where she teetered, she allowed an old friend of hers to come over to visit. She allowed him to make love to her. She felt sick inside, but somehow it seemed like a way to seize control of the situation before she fell apart altogether. She had done it, not the boy. She had broken the magic spell that brought them together as soul-mates, not him. She, of her own volition. But it wasn’t true. His letter breaking up with her was already in the mail.
It was worse than she could imagine. She could understand him being afraid of marriage, of emigrating to a new country sight unseen, of making a commitment to a girl he’d only known in person for a month. But this was worse. It would be “too hard,” he claimed, for them to remain friends. After three and a half years, and one magical month, he never wanted to talk to her again.
She became a whirlwind of despair. She dated a lot of men, slept with most of them, liked them all, but loved not a single one of them until seven years later. She thought the timing was interesting. Seven years, she had read, is the time it takes for all the cells in your body to die and be replaced with new ones. She could not love again while there was a single cell in her body that still remembered R----.
Yes, the above is a true story. Yes, it happened to me. And yes, it was during the resulting tempest of emotions that I began writing the first draft of The Seventh Magpie.
Now, when I look back on that time, the memory of my own image is blurry with the emotional tumult surrounding me, and R----’s has faded away to a few indelible impressions. Mostly I feel bad for putting him into such a situation. He was only nineteen years old at the time, OF COURSE he made the right decision not to uproot his entire life. I don’t even know if we’d still have anything in common today. I know that my life would have been narrower, and I would not have learned as many of wisdom’s lessons, nor met as many beloved people if I had been allowed to wrap my life around his until the end of our days. I’m sure I would have strangled him with the force of my expectations. He was the Perfect Man, after all. How could he ever have been just a person to me?
In the years since, I’ve had a very satisfying life, and I've learned to appreciate the benefits of Free Will instead of fickle Fate. I have a very happy, 19-years-and-counting marriage with my wonderful husband Ken. I wouldn’t change a thing. All the same, it was the friendship abandoned that I mourned the longest, the fact that R---- and I would never be able to look back together on our young foolish passions and laugh fondly, while sharing a good cup of properly made English tea. In memory of that long mourning, even after all these years, I still keep a few remembrances: All the letters he ever wrote me. A single British pound coin. And the dried petals of one red rose.