I revisited my past last weekend. Did I time travel? As near as feasibly possible I did, yes. I am moving house soon and am currently dismantling my home of 11 years, deciding what comes with me and what goes. Shoved at the back of a cupboard, untouched for the whole time I have lived here, and in reality much longer, was a box of letters. A very large box of letters. In fact, all of the letters I received from the point at which I went to university aged 18, to my mid-twenties.
I read every one of those letters. I read from 6pm on Friday evening until 1am on Saturday morning. I was on the sofa again by 7am and read through the day. I returned from the theatre at 11pm and folded the last letter away at about 2am on Sunday morning. I am sure those letters bought joy, comfort and some sadness when I received them, but reading them 20 years on in one intense sitting was a truly hilarious, heart-warming and eye-opening experience.
We all know teenagers and young adults are a seething mass of uncontrollable hormones, right? We probably all remember when the benchmark of a good night was whether we had ‘pulled’ or whether the current object of our infatuation was in the pub. But my God, I didn’t realise how ardently we articulated this. Sex, it turns out, was the constant topic of conversation.
There was the urgent and hilarious: “I am so horny I nearly crawled across the bar and asked the hot barman to give me an orgasm”, “I am such a seething mass of hormones that I want to rip the clothes off every man I see”, and one letter from a friend on the occasion of me losing my virginity, “now you know how amazing sex is you’ll be gagging for it all the time, eh?” Poetry they are not.
Battles born out of immature emotions colliding with maturing sexuality are faithfully charted. An 18-year-old friend casually drops into conversation that her ex is using her handcuffs with a new girlfriend, before describing in exhaustive detail a ‘he said, I said, I stared out the window and pretended not to hear him’ exchange. I recall being frequently annoyed (jealous?) at her bragging about her sex life. I expect when I read that letter 22 years ago I rolled my eyes at the mention of handcuffs before devouring the more familiar territory of drawn-out teenage drama. I read it with more compassion this weekend.
Then there’s my worried Mum writing during my first week at university, encouraging me to use my thick duvet, including recipes for “tasty but cheap” meals, and then at the very end casually dropping in the brand name of her pill – “better to be safe than sorry”. I didn’t grow up with my Mum so never had the period or first boyfriends chat with her. I imagine this sudden concern for the potential impact of a horny 18-year-old experiencing independence for the first time was deeply mortifying for me at the time.
And there were letters from boyfriends demonstrating such maturity that I would welcome them now. One received from a 20-year-old telling me what our relationship meant him, but also explaining that with the heartbreak of his first love still fresh in his mind he didn’t want anything very serious right now. I do remember receiving that one. I also remember my flouncing hysterical response and the look of hurt on his face as he rushed out of our favourite university haunt, and I am embarrassed. Reading it now I see integrity, kindness and respect and the subtle bear with me message. I have no idea how much time he took writing that letter but it has taken me 20 years to appreciate it.
I don’t know what made 18-year-old me squirrel away those first letters and then faithfully add to the pile for some seven years. And I don’t know how they then escaped the inevitable purges that have come as a result of living in eight flats in the intervening two decades. I am very glad they did.