In December of 1988, I opened up my first letter from my new penpal. “Dear Danielle,” I read, “I am Heela Naqshband. I am 9 ½ years old. I have very dark brown hair.”
This was before anyone had the internet – before, even, many people I knew had computers. Writing letters was the only way to keep in touch – long distance phone calls were way too expensive. To a fourth grader, getting any kind of mail was special, and having a friend who lived far away was really special. Heela was the first friend I had who lived outside of New York. She was the first person I knew who wasn’t Catholic or Jewish. But we had so much in common! We liked the same TV shows! We liked the same music! Everything about her was both exotic and familiar. And judging from the pictures she sent, she was so pretty.
Based on the letters I saved, we wrote for at least four years. There’s an entire year – 1989 – that I saved no letters from, though I’m certain in that first year of writing we must have written frequently. I can’t say why we stopped writing – though I wouldn’t be surprised if I was supposed to write last and didn’t. In the summer of 1992, the summer after seventh grade and the date of the last letter I have from Heela, I suddenly had a social life and friends. I spent less time in my room reading and more time out. However, as a teenager, I often thought about Heela and how she was doing, but I was too embarrassed to write after having not written for so long. The years progressed. I was in high school. Then college. Then I was teaching. Somewhere in there, social networking happened, and I joined Myspace.
Over the years at home and the many moves I made as a young adult, I had come across her letters in the same box over and over. Did she still live in Nevada? Would she even remember me? Packing to move in 2004, I opened the letters again and realized I might be able to find an answer to these questions. A quick search on Myspace revealed that a Heela Naqshband did, in fact, live in California. It had to be her. I sent a message, and we got back in touch after so many years.
Fast forward 9 years, 25 years since that first letter. A cold December morning, a tiny Mexican restaurant. We were finally meeting. I was anxious, but for no reason. Meeting Heela wasn’t like meeting someone new. There was no awkward small talk or weighted silences. It really was like we had known each other our whole lives.
Well, most of our lives, anyway.