The Poetry Project

The Burden of Communication

Alexis Bhagat

I have a box of letters that I sent to my girlfriend in college, which she gave to me when she decided to get married.

She had to put away or let go of some things from her previous life, and these letters she returned to me. She handed them to me in front of our old place in Grafton, New York, next door to the Peace Pagoda. I remember a great deal about this day, how I met her on the road and she gave me a ride home, how I offered her tea, and she drank water. We sat under the apple tree. She handed me the box of letters. I congratulated her on her news, and cried after she left. I do not know if any of this is fact – if these are real memories or false memories or retrieved memories – but more importantly, I don’t know if you want to know about the day, if any of it has any meaning for you. This is the burden of communication.

In that box, I recall, I pulled out two small books – a letter that took me a month to write, written in the margins and blank space of a technical book, and a collaborative letter that the two of us had written. I placed the letter that took a month in a box of my old journals, and I placed the collaborative letter into a box of artist’s books. And then rest of the box, I left alone, untouched, untouchable.

In 2004, I opened three letters at random for inspiration.
In 2008, I considered burning the letters in the box.

Besides that, the box has sat, barely touched, moved from place to place over the years.
I know that within this box there is a letter that describes a telephone call.
The telephone call happened on Tuesday, July 27, 1999, and the letter was written on Wednesday July 28. I would like to tell you the story of this telephone call, as accurately as possible, so I would like to find that letter, but somehow I can not bear to open the box and carefully sort through the dates and contents. I must instead remember this phone call. I remember that I said “If I say it, then it will be true.” Right after that telephone call, I said that: “If I say it, then it will be true.”

I will use the numbers to get there, these magical codes that connect voice to voice.

“Remember the number to call
0-1-234-567-8910 – 
xxxxxxI don’t even know any other numbers” 
xxxxxxxxxxxxxsaid a play by the Firesign Theater

Once I remembered thousands of unique numbers. Now I only remember a few, mostly burned into my mind in the last century.

212-219-2950. That is the number to call. Again, that’s 212-219-2950. Make that call right now.

917-846-9146, Brenda’s cell phone
917-555-1015, my older brother’s cellphone, now my younger brother’s cellphone.
717-824-3950. My grandmother’s landline.

It was black rotary wall phone from before I was born, attached to the wall just outside the kitchen. And then at some point it moved into the kitchen, replaced with a cordless phone base unit. It was July 27, 1999, and we were sitting at my grandmother’s dining table – my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, my younger brother. The telephone rang. My mother answered it. It was Brenda, she asked to speak to me.

  • Are you alone?
  • No. We’re all about to eat.
  • Can you go somewhere where you will be alone?
    I went upstairs to the extra bedroom, that was once my aunt’s, and later my older brother’s. I told Brenda that I was alone. She told me that my brother was dead. I said nothing.
  • Are you still there?
  • Yes
  • Can you tell your mother?
  • Yes
  • You tell your mother. I will talk to your mother in the morning and arrange tickets for all of us to get to Atlanta
  • Thank you
  • I’m sorry

I went back downstairs to the table, set for a celebration with food and vodka. My mother asked “Well, what did Brenda have to say?” and my body froze, a kind of paralysis, as my throat churned with the burden of communication. Soon my whole body began to shake and my younger brother stood up and held me, asking what is wrong. I shouted “I can not say it. If I say it then it will be true!” My mother collapsed at these words. My younger brother moved over to comfort my mother. Meanwhile, my grandmother, who had been asking “What is going on?” with greater insistence, began to hit her teacup with a spoon and to shout “will someone please tell me what is going on?” My grandfather, a very sweet man but not graceful, said “oh will you please shut up Margie? Can’t you tell that her son is dead?”

And then my grandfather said it. I never had to say it.

Work from Memory Palaces: Visions, Echoes, Forms with Lucy Ives