Like a Box of Chocolates

by Alethea Kontis on March 18, 2005

 

Two days ago, I accidentally replied to a forwarded email. I completely insulted my boyfriend's editor in England in less than five sentences and it went straight to her inbox, jeopardizing his writing career and possibly my own. Yesterday was the big Publisher Showcase at the wholesaler where I work. Finally. We've been prepping for months.

I think we can all agree, this has been one hell of a week.

I went to see my friend Chris last night. I wanted to tell him about my crazy week, but I hadn’t seen him in so long that I had to start at the beginning. First I had to find out where the beginning was.

Five hours and dinner later, Chris was all caught up. I was almost completely hoarse. He gave me a big hug and told me what they all say: “When any of these things you told me about comes to pass, don’t wait so long before telling me again.”

Which is part of the reason I have this blog. I’ve got a great big mouth and I can tell stories with the best of them, but I have so many friends it’ll be lifetimes before I get them all caught up.

I walked to my car berating myself for the excessive display of verbal diarrhea I always seem to find myself getting into once I’m on a roll. Chris had gotten a few stories in edgewise, but not many. I hoped, like I always do after episodes like that, that he wasn’t leaning against the door in a slump, rolling his eyes and muttering to himself, “My God, that girl never shuts up!” I suddenly felt the overwhelming desire to go home, shut my door, and not come out for the entire weekend. A bad thing? Not at all. A slightly overdramatic agoraphobic reaction? Probably.

But maybe that’s just what writers do.

The day I met Andre Norton, she did most of the talking.

David Drake had told me to get in touch with her because “she has no idea what she means to the science fiction community.” I thought he was full of beans. How could a woman as huge and prolific and groundbreaking as Andre Norton not know that?

So I got over my fear and hand wrote her a messy letter on plain white paper and included a picture of me, David, John Ringo, David Coe, and my friends Leigh and Kristi

At the 2002 Southern Festival of Books. It wasn’t a gushy fan letter, it was more like a letter I would write to my grandmother. I told her what was going on with me and who I was...that I heard she had a library in town, and I thought that was wonderful. She had been sick so I wished her well. I don’t even remember the rest of what I rambled on about.

She wrote me a card back, inviting me to come see the library, High Hallack, after the holidays. I still remember staring at the envelope, at my address in what I assumed was Miss Andre’s handwriting. At her cute return address label sticker. Normal handwriting, normal sticker...just like every human being on the planet.

But I didn’t go.

I drove by the house...it was less than two miles from where I lived. It looked like every other house on the street, except that it had a big, black, oversized mailbox. I would try to drum up the courage to call or write...but who was I? Sure, I called myself a writer, but I hadn’t ever published anything. You had to apply to go to High Hallack. You had to prove you were working on something. Even with an invitation, I was an impostor. I was a wholesale book buyer with a Chemistry degree and delusions of grandeur. She’d see right through me.

So I didn’t go.

That January I decided I was going to get serious about writing. I was a writer, but what was I doing? A writer writes. Didn’t matter if it was just for me. I had to write. I needed to write.

By the end of January, I had a bi-monthly book review column in the local free press and I had written a television pilot. I wanted to try to write short stories again, and I wanted to start a novel. I wrote a story that spring...my first story in almost ten years. It was 17,000 words, and it took me four days to write it.

That July, I went to Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp and had one of the most life-altering weeks of my entire life. Sitting at a table with Scott Card and eighteen of the most amazingly talented people on the planet, I came to the realization that my delusions of grandeur weren’t delusions at all. They were possibilities. These people—these amazing people who mattered—were my peers. We were writers. When I got home, I called Miss Andre and set up an appointment to visit the library. Scott Card told me he was jealous.

I don’t have any books signed by her. I don’t have any pictures of us together. But I have her letters. I have her Christmas cards. I have the books I bought from the sale of High Hallack right before she moved, the proceeds of which went to fund the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

More importantly, I have the memories. I can look back on the totally surreal and unique experience of having the Grand Dame of Science Fiction all to myself for a few hours. I smile at the image of us scooting around High Hallack in desk chairs as she gave me the grand tour. I remember her sparkly voice as she read to me passages from a humorous book of ridiculous and true answers to actual test questions. I remember the complete shock and honor I felt when she asked me if I was planning on coming back to work in the library.

My boyfriend was the first to discover that Miss Andre had been sent home from the hospital and placed in hospice care. He hadn’t wanted to tell me, but he knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t manage to write her one last letter. She had just written me to wish me luck on the Elemental anthology and thank me for some book trade magazines I had sent her. I had opened the card with a smile. It never occurred to me that it would be the last.

I was fine until I was staring at my envelope—sealed, addressed and stamped—waiting patiently by the door for me to take it to the post office. Because that was it. That letter would be the last of our correspondence. I hoped she would live long enough to read it. It wasn’t full of sappy sentiments or anything...it was just a typical letter. I wished her a belated happy birthday and drew her a picture of a cake. I told her what was going on with me and the anthology, and I thanked her for her kind words. I told her that we were thinking of her, and that we sent our love. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering or remarkable. It was just me. And I just wanted her to know.

She held on for three more weeks. I’m sure she was flooded with letters. I tell myself it was enough time for her to have read mine.

I was busy helping an author sign books at the Publisher Showcase, so I didn’t even know about Miss Andre's death until a friend mentioned it right before the show was over. I was so keyed up from the show, so high on adrenaline, that it took a little while for it to sink in.

And then I started crying.

I cried all the way home, and in the shower. I cried when I woke up in the middle of the night, and I cried in my dreams. I cried in the morning, when I opened the windows and smiled at the sun...that damned sun that keeps rising and setting without a care in the world.

Why did Miss Andre’s passing upset me so much? Who was I? I wasn’t a family member or a friend she had known all her life. I was just some tiny little person who met her a handful of times and sent her book catalogues. I held no claim on her soul. So why did it tear me apart like it did? She was a famous woman loved by millions of people. She was a Great Lady and a Grand Dame and a thousand other things I could only hope to be. But she was also a nice woman, an incredibly humble person, a librarian, and a lover of books.

And she was my friend.

My friend Robin read my palm once, before she knew me very well. She told me I didn’t have many acquaintances. I was shocked, because I pride myself on the massive number of people I call friends. “No,” she clarified. “What it means is that you either love people, or you don’t know them. There are few in between.”

The nicest thing an ex-boyfriend ever said about me was that if Armageddon happened and he somehow got to choose the ten people left on the planet, he would pick me to be one of them. “So you could love everybody,” he said.

Death hurts by not hurting. It is numbness, the absence of feeling, the opposite of every wild, spontaneous impulse that makes life what it is. I realized, while I was kneeling in the bathtub, wishing the water was ten times hotter than it was, that by having all these friends I was only setting myself up for disaster. Was it worth it? I hadn’t even finished asking myself the question before I had the answer.

Yes.

Of course it’s worth it.

I love having friends. I want as many as my heart can hold. I want them all. Even if it means that eventually and painfully I’ll have to lose every single one. The minutes andhours and years on the roller coaster of happiness and sadness with them are worth every second of gray numbness.

My boyfriend's editor received my guilt present yesterday—a huge box of chocolates delivered to her office from “that vulgar American picture book writer with the big mouth.” They went over extremely well. She gushed about them and laughed about what had happened, and then she offered my boyfriend another contract.

It wasn’t the way I would have liked to do it...but I think I’ve made another friend. I certainly hope so. Because when I get to heaven, I want there to be a heck of a lot more than five people waiting.

I just hope they all bear with me while I catch them up.