This story is published in collaboration with the Austin-based literary journal American Short Fiction.

My mother has been sending me letters lately. Not letters intended for me but rather letters she has been writing to various people in her life—important influences, she calls them. Relatives, friends, former classmates, coworkers. She has been writing two or three letters a week and sending them to me via email to look over and send back to her with comments. You’re a professor, she tells me, you know the right way to put these things. 

She says she wants me to be brutally honest with her, to pull no punches, but I rarely have anything negative to say. These letters are beautiful, after all. Not only beautifully written but filled with genuine emotion, honesty, thoughtfulness, insight. Each one is like a little portrait of her relationship with that person, a kind of love letter or a letter of thanks, and I rarely have anything substantive to say beyond praise. They’re gorgeous, Mom, I’ll tell her, so moving. Anyone would be lucky to get one of these. And I mean it. But my mother doesn’t believe me. She often sends them back a second time, or a third, to get more feedback, more comments.

It’s only just recently that I’ve come to understand that these are goodbye letters. Letters of departure, of gratitude and closure, a way of tying a positive little bow on each relationship should she never speak to that person again. She’s 84, and though I can understand the inclination to some degree, and even the urgency, my mother is in perfectly good health and nowhere near the end of her days, at least according to her doctors. 

“I want to do this while my mind is still lucid,” she said to me the other day on the phone when I brought it up. “I don’t want to wait until it’s too late.”

I said nothing to this at first. I have a hard time responding when my mother gets macabre. But after a moment, I reminded her that her own mother had lived well into her nineties and that it was hardly time to start hanging the crepe.

She was quiet then for a while. My mother lives in Southern California, in the same tiny duplex apartment she and my father had lived in before his death a few years earlier, and sometimes when she’s quiet on the other end of the line like this, I feel the distance between us and the loneliness of her life.

“Have you talked to Katherine recently?” she said after a moment.

“We don’t talk,” I said. “I mean, we talk about the kids, but that’s it.”

“It’s such a shame,” she said, as if she were speaking to someone else and not me. “She was good for you.”

This is a common theme lately, my ex-wife’s flawlessness, one that my mother seems unwilling to relinquish.

“I’m very happy,” I said.

“What’s her name again?”


“Yes,” she said. “And she paints.”

“She’s a sculptor,” I said. “A professor of sculpture too, actually.”

“How can you be a professor of sculpture?” she said, again as if she were not talking to me. “I remember the days when art was made, not taught.”

“I have to go, Mom,” I said, looking at my watch. “I have to get to school for a meeting.”

“You have so many meetings.”

“That’s the job.”


“Meetings,” I said. “Sometimes we have meetings just to discuss when we’ll be having the next meeting.”

She laughed. “Life in the ivory tower, right?” 

“That’s right.”

“I miss you,” she said, and it came out so suddenly, so unexpectedly, I had to stop myself for a second just to catch my breath, to process the desperation on the other end of the line. “Can we talk a little longer?”

I stood there, staring down at my feet, unsure of what to say. Finally I said, “I’ll call you later tonight, okay? After my classes are over. I promise.”

“And you’ll proofread those letters?”

“I will.”

“The last one’s important.”

“Okay,” I said.

Outside the kitchen window of my apartment, I could see the Texas sun high in the midday sky, the small dusty lot beneath my second-floor balcony, the flowering cacti and other succulents, the discarded pizza boxes and beer bottles left out on the picnic tables in the middle of the compound’s courtyard, the rusted wrought iron fences so prevalent in this part of San Antonio. It was not a view I would have imagined having at fifty, not a place I would have imagined myself living five or six years ago.

“And another thing,” she said, just as I was about to hang up.

“What’s that?”

“Please remember what I said to you about not showing them to anybody, okay—the letters.”

“Who would I show them to?”

“Just promise me.”

“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”

“Thank you,” she said and hung up.

Illustration by Lore Mondragón

When Erin got home later that night, we ordered tacos from the taqueria down the street and sat out on the front balcony for a while and talked about our days. It was springtime now, and the nights were getting shorter but also hotter, and we often brought a tall pitcher of ice water or a six-pack of beer out with us, just to keep ourselves cool. Erin lived on the other side of the compound, in a second-floor apartment just like mine, but since we’d started seeing each other—it had been almost six months now—she had been sleeping over at my place two or three nights a week, sometimes even more than that.

Erin and I weren’t the only professors from the university living here—there was a research biologist on the first floor; a couple of anthropologists, both single, living beneath Erin—but we were definitely the oldest, both of us on the wrong side of fifty, both of us recently divorced, both of us with children we felt increasingly removed from. In Erin’s case, her daughters were in college, one a sophomore and one a junior, whereas mine were simply on the other side of town, on the North Side, with Katherine and her new boyfriend, Noel. Both of my daughters were in middle school, and though I got to see them every other weekend for the full weekend and usually for several weeks during the summer, I knew it wasn’t enough. As Katherine often pointed out, if I wanted to see them more, I needed to move closer. And she was right. 

Unfortunately, moving closer would also involve seeing Katherine more, and Noel, not to mention being entrenched in their daily lives, and this just wasn’t something I was capable of handling yet. So here I was in this untenable position, one that I knew I’d need to resolve in the next few months, but for now, for the time being at least, I was hanging out here in the compound with Erin, spending my evenings drinking beer, listening to music, chatting with her about this and that. 

Most nights, when Erin had had a few beers, or when she’d had a few sips of mezcal, she’d want to talk about the various dramas in her department—she had a particularly contentious group of colleagues—or about the latest sculpture she’d been working on (she was always working on something new), but that night she just leaned back in her chair and sipped on her beer and listened to me as I told her about my mother and the letters she’d been writing. 

Out of a sense of loyalty, I had never shown any of these letters to Erin, but I had described a few in detail, including the latest one, the one my mother called important, a letter that seemed to be addressed to an old college roommate of hers, a woman named Eleanor. I hadn’t met this Eleanor before, nor heard of her, but I sensed that she had been an influential person in my mother’s life. Most of the letter seemed to lament the fact that they had fallen out of touch, and when I explained this to Erin, she just nodded and sipped on her beer, then looked down at the courtyard where a group of the other residents were setting up the charcoal firepit, playing music, laughing.

“You think she’s trying to tell me something?” I asked.

“Who knows?” Erin shrugged. “I think all these letters are probably trying to tell you something, you know?”

I nodded and reached for my taco, brushing cotija cheese off my lap.

Erin had a theory that my mother was writing these letters not for the nominal recipients but rather for me. That she was using this letter-writing process as a way of telling me about her life. Erin liked to point out that every time I read one, I’d remark to her later how strange it was that I hadn’t known this or that about my mother. I had no idea she’d studied English so intensely, I’d say. Or, Can you believe she once lived in Brooklyn? How could she never have mentioned that? And Erin would just shrug, as if to say, I’m telling you, your mother is writing a memoir, and the audience for that memoir is you.

But this letter to Eleanor felt different, and I tried to explain this to Erin that night, how it felt somehow more intimate, more personal, almost like a love letter.

“You think your mother and Eleanor were a thing?”

“No,” I said. “But I think that she loved her. I think she was a pretty important person in my mother’s life.”

“And she never mentioned her to you when you were growing up?”

“Nope,” I said. “Never once.”

Erin nodded.

“Do you think that’s weird?”

“I think this whole thing is weird,” Erin said and smiled, “if I’m being honest.”

“Be nice.”

Below us in the courtyard, the crowd was growing, and someone had brought out an ice chest of Lone Star, the music getting louder. None of this was uncommon for a Friday night. In the distance you could hear the rhythmic pulse of tejano music coming from one of the bars down the street, could smell the sizzling meats from the taqueria, more people flooding into the courtyard now, everything in the neighborhood getting lively. Aside from Erin and me, the average age of the residents in this compound was probably about 35, maybe 36 or 37. They were definitely a good bit younger than us, though, definitely at a different stage in life.

Erin had chosen this compound—and that’s what everyone here liked to call it, not a complex—because of its proximity to the cheap studio space that she rented on the South Side, and because this area of town, Southtown, was where many of the artists in the city lived. It was where a lot of the best galleries were. I’d chosen it myself for much more cowardly reasons: because it was as far away as I could possibly get from Katherine and Noel without being too far. I wanted to be close enough that I could drop by and pick up the girls whenever I needed to, but I also wanted to avoid situations where I might run into them in the supermarket, the dry cleaner’s, the hair salon, the movies. I leaned forward now on the balcony railing and fiddled with the label on my beer.

“I worry about her hurting herself sometimes,” I said after a while, looking down at the large group of people who had congregated below us. “You know, like falling down in her apartment and not having anyone to help her, or having an accident in her car, which I really don’t think she should be driving anymore anyway.”

Erin nodded.

I’d told her about how, the last time I’d been out there, my mother had almost backed into a young woman in the parking lot at Costco, how she hadn’t even seen her.

“Or hurting someone else, you know? That would be disastrous. She could lose everything. She could go to jail. Not to mention harming a totally innocent person.”

“But she won’t give up the car?” she said.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s a symbolic thing, I think. Like when she gives up driving, she’s basically giving up hope of ever being self-sufficient again.”

Erin dabbed at her chin. “Have you thought about homes?” she said. “You know, assisted living places?”

“They’re expensive,” I said, folding my arms across my chest. “But yeah, I’ve thought about them. It will have to happen one of these days, right?”

“Well, maybe that’s what this is,” she said, “these letters.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s preparing herself,” she said. 

“For assisted living?”

“No,” she said. “For letting go.”

After Erin had gone to sleep, I pulled out the latest batch of letters and looked them over again. Usually I just glanced through them on my computer, but I’d printed out and read through this newest group two or three times. There were five total, but the one that had caught my eye was the letter for Eleanor, and I realized now that there wasn’t anything particularly romantic in the letter, nothing particularly romantic in the language; it was just that the entire letter was so much more vulnerable than the others, so much more honest, almost confessional. 

In most of the other letters, my mother tried to put a positive spin on things—yes, my father had died, but she was keeping busy; yes, she’d lost a few dear friends recently, but she was grateful for the ones she still had; yes, her body was older, but this California weather sure made exercise pleasant. In the letter to Eleanor, though, she spoke honestly for the first time about her loneliness.

In the past five or six years, she had lost not only my father, she wrote, but also most of her other close friends. Several of them had moved away, but the majority had died. Just ten years earlier, she wrote, she and my father had had a rich and vibrant social life; now her socializing was reduced to the occasional coffee with a friend, a conversation with a neighbor in passing. 

I thought about how full and happy my parents’ life had been when I was growing up—the constant stream of parties in our house, the free-flowing booze and cigarettes, the laughter. And I thought too about how she had never spoken to me about how lonely she had been since my father had died, though I of course assumed that she often was, and how maybe what Erin believed was true: that these letters were not really intended for the people they were addressed to, they were intended for me; that she was not telling Eleanor she was lonely, she was telling me.

At the end of the letter, she mentioned to Eleanor that one of her biggest regrets had been falling out of touch and that she hoped, late in the game as it was, they might one day reconnect. Then she signed it “Love, HM” (her initials) and added a little flower just below that.

Later that night, I wrote back to my mother with a few minor suggestions for the other letters, mostly grammatical stuff, and concluded with, Who’s Eleanor? Can we maybe talk sometime about Eleanor? Then I added, Only if you want to, of course, and sent it off.

Illustration by Lore Mondragón

The next afternoon, after my undergraduate seminar on creative memories, I took my daughters out for frozen yogurt at their favorite place in the old neighborhood and then over to the new used bookstore next door so they could pick out some summer reading. Everything with my daughters was easy. I adored them and I adored spoiling them, and whenever I had a chance to see them—anytime Katherine texted me to ask a favor—Can you pick them up at tennis? Can you take them out to dinner?—I didn’t hesitate to say yes. But in the past month or so, I’d noticed that my being away from them, my living on the other side of town, had begun to create a distance between us. And I felt it that afternoon especially, driving north along Nacogdoches past the shaded streets lined with live oaks, and then later, when I dropped them at the house, the way they didn’t even hug me goodbye as they usually would, the way they just said, See you next week, Dad, and then took off.

I was trying to explain this to my mother later that day, as I walked around the kitchen, cleaning up, my cellphone pressed tightly to my ear.

“They’re teenagers,” she said. “I wouldn’t read too much into anything they say or do at this age. It’s so rarely about you, you know?”

“Still, I feel like I should maybe move closer to them, you know?”

“You always can.”

I was quiet.

“How do you think your girlfriend would feel about that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think she’d probably be okay with it.” I paused. “We wouldn’t see each other as much, of course.”

I looked out the window to the other side of the courtyard, where Erin lived.

“Unless she moved with you, right?”

 “Right,” I said. “Unless she moved with me. But I doubt that would happen. We’re not really at that point in our relationship yet.”

“Says you.”


“Says you,” she said.

“Right,” I said. “Says me.”

I was quiet again. In some ways my mother was no different than she’d ever been. She still had the ability to unmoor me with a short phrase. 

In Erin’s apartment, the curtains were slightly parted, and below that, on the weathered wall beneath her balcony, was the calavera mural that one of her neighbors had painted last year as an homage to Día de los Muertos.

“I wanted to talk to you about something else,” I said finally. “Something that’s been on my mind.”


“I’m worried about you,” I said. 

My mother was silent on the other end of the line, though I could hear cars honking outside her apartment. Finally she said, “Is this the part where you tell me you’re going to be putting me in the old folks home?”

“No, no,” I said. “I’ve just been thinking about you is all.”

My mother said nothing.

“You said you were lonely,” I said. “In that letter to Eleanor.”

“That was just a letter.”

“Yes, but maybe that’s something we could talk about,” I said. “Maybe we could talk about the possibility of moving you closer to me.”

“Closer to you?” she said. “No offense, but I’m not ending my days in Texas.”

Now I was the one to grow quiet.

“Tell me more about Eleanor,” I said finally.

“I’m not telling you more about Eleanor,” she said.

“Why not?”

She was quiet.


“No,” she said. “I’m not telling you any more about her, okay?” Then she hung up.

That night, when Erin got home from work, we sat out on the front balcony again, drinking frozen margaritas that Erin had bought at one of the food trucks across from the taqueria. I’d told her about my conversation with my mother earlier, how we’d talked about the possibility of her moving closer and how she’d adamantly refused, how it wasn’t even a topic that seemed open for discussion.

“She says that it’s Texas,” I said. “But I don’t think that’s it. I think she’s just afraid of giving up control of her life, you know?”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Probably.”

Down below us in the courtyard, a few of the other tenants sat in a circle, tuning their guitars, and farther off in the distance I could see several others gathered around one of the picnic tables, drinking beer.

Erin put down her drink after a moment and reached over and rubbed my shoulder gently.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know my life’s been kind of crazy lately.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “Your complications are my complications, okay?”


“Yeah,” she said. “Except when it comes to your ex-wife. Those complications are your complications.”

“Okay.” I smiled. “Fair enough.”

I looked over at the building across the way, the small gravel path and the garden beside it, an array of flowering desert plants, prickly pear cacti and yucca, and bougainvillea, all of them planted in the past year or so by our neighbors. It was strange, but I sometimes found myself missing this view, as if I had already left it, and this period in my life, behind. I turned back to Erin. 

“You know, I asked her about Eleanor,” I said, stiffening a bit. “My mother.”

“Oh yeah?” Erin said. “What’d she say?”

“She got kind of testy about it. Evasive.”

Erin picked up her drink again. “I wish you’d just show me the letter.”

“I told her I wouldn’t,” I said. “I’m trying to respect her wishes, you know?”

Down below us the tenants who had been tuning their guitars were now starting to play, one of them singing softly. Erin rolled her eyes.


“Just show me.”

“You want me to show you the letter?”


I smiled and then looked out at the succulent garden again, considering. In the far distance, police sirens wailed.

“Okay,” I said finally. “Hold on a sec.” I went inside to get the letter. 

When I returned a few minutes later, the sun was setting and the guitar playing was louder, and I sat there for a while, silently, as Erin read over the letter closely, her brow furrowed, squinting at certain sentences and then starting again.

When she finally finished it, she dropped the letter in my lap and shrugged. 


“Well, it’s definitely a love letter,” she said.

“How do you know?”

“I just do,” she said. “It’s obvious.”



I picked up the letter and stared at it.

“So this would have been before my father,” I said. “It’s kind of strange to think about, you know?”

“That she was in love with a woman?”

“No,” I said. “That she was in love with anyone other than him.”

Illustration by Lore Mondragón

After the party had ended down in the courtyard and after Erin had gone back to her own apartment to read, I sat at my desk and went through all the letters on my computer thinking of them as a kind of tapestry or collage of different periods in my mother’s life, and thinking also that the impulse to preserve one’s life in writing seemed to grow stronger as one grew older, and how in many ways Erin was right: the proofreading requests and all that, they were just a kind of ruse, a pretense.

I created a new folder on my computer for my mother’s letters and then organized them according to date. I opened up the letter for Eleanor again and read through it. Much of it dealt with my mother’s college years and also with the two years after college when she’d apparently lived in Brooklyn with Eleanor, and many of the people and the events that she referenced were not people or events I remembered her ever mentioning before.

Still, the overall tone of it, combined with the references and details, created a mise-en-scène of that time in my mother’s life—the sixties in New York—and implicit in her descriptions was a kind of longing and nostalgia for those days. I feel guilty mentioning this now, she writes toward the end, but that might have been the point in my life I was happiest. Was it the same for you? 

The first time I read this it stung me a bit, to think that the happiest time in my mother’s life might have been a time before I was born, but now I understood the question differently. She was asking Eleanor if she had loved her too. I sat there for a while, thinking about the fact that there had been an entire two years in my mother’s life I had never known about, like a deleted chapter in a novel or a hidden room in a house.

After a while, I shut down my computer and sent a text to Erin seeing if she felt like coming back over later. I told her that I was feeling a little strange tonight.

Give me twenty minutes, she wrote back with a little winking emoji and a heart.

For the next several days my mother didn’t call or email or text me. I could tell she was still angry about our last conversation, how I’d persisted about Eleanor, the fact that I’d brought up moving to Texas. I could tell I’d unsettled her, and a part of me felt bad about this, the way I used to feel bad as a child whenever I’d done something at school to embarrass her or our family.

I figured that she’d wait at least a week to contact me and that when she did there would be no more talk about Eleanor, but when she finally called me up a few days later, it was to ask once again about the letters and specifically the one addressed to Eleanor. At first I thought she was joking, maybe even teasing me, but then I realized she wasn’t, that she had actually forgotten about our last conversation, as well as the email I’d sent. My mother had had memory lapses before, often repeating the exact same story more than once, but never anything like this. 

When I told her we’d already talked about the letters, that she’d refused to discuss the one to Eleanor, she was silent for a long time on the other end of the line, and I could sense her consternation, her fear. I was sitting in my living room, staring out the big window at the cloudless morning sky.

“That’s right,” she said finally, trying to recover. “I was just wondering if you’d had any thoughts about them.”

I was quiet for a moment myself then, both of us were, and I could feel her embarrassment.

“Thoughts?” I said.

“Yes, thoughts.”

“Well,” I said, “I thought they were beautiful, as I said before, especially the one to Eleanor.”

She was silent again.

“You knew her in New York, right? Before Dad?”

“Yes. Before I knew your father. She was a very good friend.”

“And you lived together for those years?”

“Yes,” she said. “And also in college.”

I could hear something new in her voice now, a quivering, perhaps a panic or a defensiveness, and so I stopped with the questions about Eleanor. Instead I waited to see what she’d say next, and for a while she said nothing at all. Then finally she asked me, as usual, about Erin, about how things were going.

“Have you decided if you’re going to ask her to move in with you yet?”

“You remember talking about that?”

“Yes, of course.”

“What do you remember?”

“I remember that you seemed to be waffling, for one thing.”

I laughed, though it was strange to me that she could remember certain parts of our last conversation and not others. That her memory seemed to be selective. And for a moment I wondered if this was perhaps part of a game, if she was simply pretending not to remember the last time we talked, maybe regretting what she’d said or perhaps hoping not to have to discuss it again.

“I’m still thinking about it,” I said

“Okay,” she said. “I wouldn’t think about it too long.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’m serious.”

I said nothing to this, and outside the window a flock of grackles flew in unison above the empty courtyard.

“Also,” she said, “I wanted to tell you that you should be getting something soon.”

“What do you mean?”

“I sent you something.”


“A letter.”

“A letter?”

“Yes, only this one’s for you.”

I didn’t answer, shifting in my seat. 

“It should be there in the next couple days or so. And you don’t have to say anything after you read it, okay? It’s just something for you to know.”

“Okay,” I said. And then after a moment I asked her again about our conversation a few days earlier. “Did you really not remember talking about Eleanor the other day?”

My mother paused for a moment. “No, of course I remembered.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well I did,” she said.

Outside the window, the grackles began to move in broad circles around the courtyard, some of them starting to fly away.

“You know,” she said after a while, her voice wistful now, “I was thinking the other day about something you once said to me.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

But she didn’t answer me. She seemed to be off in another place, somewhere else. The grackles were now completely gone.

“Mom,” I said after a moment, “I really want you to move out here, okay?”

“Oh, not that again.”

“I do.”

She was silent.


But she’d already hung up.

I spent the rest of that afternoon looking at apartments on the North Side, closer to Katherine and Noel and the girls, closer to our old house, but everything I found was either too expensive or too small, and even the places that seemed suitable were cold and antiseptic. I drove around for close to five hours and visited more than half a dozen apartments, each one less remarkable than the last. Finally, toward the end of the day, I found one that seemed like a possibility. It was in a small modern complex with a pool and a fitness center, set back from the street in a quiet, shady suburb about half a mile from the old house. 

I talked to Erin about this that night as we sat out on the balcony drinking cold Modelos from a small cooler that she had brought over, both of us sweating, the faint sound of mariachi music in the distance. I’d hinted about the possibility of my moving up closer to the girls a few days earlier, and Erin had seemed to understand, though I could tell she’d been sad about the idea too.

“It would be big enough for both of us, of course, if you ever decided to join me,” I said. “No pressure though.”

She looked at me evenly. “Is that an actual invitation,” she said, “or just your way of trying to be nice?”

“It’s an actual invitation,” I said, taking her hand.

She looked away then, and a moment later pulled her hand away too.


“I don’t know,” she said.

“You don’t know what?”

“I don’t know about you moving up there,” she said. “You know, closer to her.

“This isn’t about her,” I said.

Erin looked at me.

“I’m serious.”

She shrugged. She had told me before that she could tell I wasn’t over Katherine, and though I’d tried to assure her I was, she remained unconvinced.

“You’re still in love with her,” she said after a moment.

“I’m not.”

“You are,” she said. “It’s so obvious.”

“I’m not.”

I touched her hand lightly and craned my neck to meet her eyes dead-on. “I’m with you,” I said. “Okay?”

She nodded.

“I’m not with her anymore,” I said again, steadily. “I’m with you.”

Illustration by Lore Mondragón

That night after Erin had gone to sleep, I pulled up the letter to Eleanor one last time, read through it in the same way Erin had, carefully, thoroughly, but I didn’t see in these pages the same thing Erin had seen. I saw only my mother’s mind grappling with questions beyond her control, struggling to assemble pieces of the past, as if the arrangement of these things in a particular order might give her some peace or explain something about her relationship with Eleanor that she hadn’t previously understood. More than anything, though, I saw a lament—not just for the past but for the passage of time and for the cruel irreversibility of it. Perhaps in another version of my mother’s life she ends up with Eleanor, never meets my father; in another version of her life she is maybe not alone. 

I shut down my computer and walked over to the other side of the apartment to Erin, the vague shape of her body hidden under the covers, the side of her face covered by her long hair. I slipped into bed beside her and wrapped my arms around her, slid up behind her. She stirred for a moment and then gripped my forearm, pulled it tighter so that it wrapped around her waist.

“Come closer,” she said, or seemed to say, her voice almost inaudible. 

“What’s that?” I said.

And then she turned her head slightly and said it again. “Come closer,” she said. “Come closer to me.”

A few days later, I received the letter that my mother had sent, the one she’d mentioned on the phone, the one addressed to me. It had arrived in the late afternoon while Erin was over, helping me pack my books into boxes. Earlier that day, I’d signed the lease on that apartment on the North Side. It had all happened so quickly, and it still didn’t feel quite real. In a month I’d be moving out officially, and a couple weeks after that Erin would be joining me, or so she’d said. Everything seemed so uncertain though, even now. 

And there was a strangeness about it too, something I couldn’t quite pinpoint, similar to the way I’d felt right after the divorce. Maybe it was just that I was moving again, sorting my few belongings into “toss” or “keep,” putting things in a neat pile in the corner, as if I were existing in a kind of limbo, a holding pattern, the past and the future now coming together in this liminal space, this nowhere land. Or maybe in the end that’s what this place had been about all along, only I hadn’t realized it before.

“Do you want to read it now?” Erin was saying, motioning to the letter in my hands.

“No,” I said, walking over to the kitchen table and placing it there. It was a thick envelope, and I could tell my mother had written a lot, that she was perhaps telling me things she had never told me before, things that she’d always wanted to tell me. It filled me with an odd sense of excitement and fear. I’d been talking to Erin about this a lot too: the new ways in which my mother and I had been growing closer, even as she seemed to be fading further away. 

I knew that she’d be secretly pleased about the idea of Erin and me moving in together, even if Katherine had always been her favorite, and I hoped it might be enough to inspire her to come down here and join us, though I doubted she would. Instead, I figured she’d remain out in California for as long as she could, writing her life story in letters and then sending those letters off to me or off to her friends, off into some other world, an act of both futility and hope.

And I thought too about the way that nobody really wrote letters anymore, and how in many ways it was sort of a lost art, like so many things—the simple act of putting down on paper one’s most intimate thoughts then dropping those thoughts into the mail, sending them off as a physical object, a permanent thing, something that was supposed to outlast even us.

I walked across the kitchen to grab my keys and wallet and then over to the doorway where Erin was standing, framed perfectly in the late afternoon sunlight, a strange, beautiful silhouette.

“You sure you don’t want to read it now?” she said again, touching my shoulder. “I could always come back a little later.”

“No, no, I’m sure,” I said and glanced back once more at the letter on the table, thinking of my mother alone in her small apartment, the quiet confusion of her life these days, the uncertainty of it. “I have plenty of time to read it later,” I said finally, turning back toward the open doorway and taking Erin’s hand. “I have all the time in the world.”

Andrew Porter is an English professor and the director of the creative-
writing program at Trinity University in San Antonio. His most recent collection of short stories,
The Disappeared, was published by Knopf in 2023.

This story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the title “The Letters.” Subscribe today.