The Drop Ceiling Letters

Never buy a house with drop ceilings. Drop ceilings hide a multitude of sins, the effeminate, affable house painter warned, shaking his head like you would at a child old enough to know better. He gave us a quote to remove the ceiling tiles and framework and patch and paint, and then he gave us an affordable one to leave it all up and just paint the fake wood paneling below.

Were we high when we bought that house? I remember we’d sold our old house in a day and took the train back and forth on weekends from northern Virginia to north Jersey. It was a seller’s market there too. When we first visited the drop ceiling house, the owners brewed hazelnut coffee and set out fresh pastry. It had just stopped raining and everything was green and bright outside. They had a smiling golden retriever in the backyard. We fell in love with the dining room, where I once took a picture of our favorite cat sitting at the table in a chair, the Game of Life spread before him. He looks like he’s waiting his turn. He doesn’t necessarily look like he’s winning, but it’s so hard to tell when you’re still in the game.

It was a great dining room. The walls were painted brick the softest shade of sage. I believe when we opened the can later to do touch-up, its odd aroma prompted us to rename this shade ass paint. I guess I do kind of miss that house, just not the drop ceilings or the unexpected pond in the basement or the tiny downstairs bathroom some moron had tacked on. Later, other morons would find it very aggravating.

The effeminate, affable painter found a stack of letters tucked above a ceiling tile in our soon-to-be baby’s room and handed them over eagerly, if hesitantly. He probably found stuff like that all the time, never sure how old it was or how explosive it might be. These letters were decades old, left behind by a teenager for someone else to deal with. Please take care of my horrible secret. Signed, The Terrible Boyfriend

I was more mother than teenager then. I was bloated and round, not just in the belly but in the face, the ass and thighs. Even my fingers plumped in pregnancy like obscene sausages. I was brimming with life and wonderful, terrifying hormones.

I felt a mother’s protective instinct when the painter handed over the letters. I almost didn’t read them because even an almost-mother can smell someone else’s pain. This stack of letters reeked.

I read them, but only to make sure they didn’t reveal a murder or the location of buried treasure in the backyard. In our first house, we thought we’d struck gold while moving an azalea, but it turned out to be a partially decomposed bag of poodle. Never bury your dead pets in plastic garbage bags. There’s another tip for homeowners. You’re welcome.

Back to the letters. I don’t know who I felt worse for: the poor girl who wrote them or the poor guy who hid them in the drop ceiling. Neither seemed particularly likable, but you can still feel pity for unlikable people.

The girl was in college. She slipped a picture in one letter. Dark, shortish permed hair. Indeterminate height. University of Delaware sweatshirt with a white turtleneck underneath. Wary but confident smile. Cute, I guess, but prissy is the word that comes to mind.

Our boy was out of high school but still living at home, either skilled labor or burger slinger at the White Castle, maybe bagboy at the Stop ‘n Shop. I never got the sense of what attracted the one to the other, but it might have simply been the mysterious blend of different worlds and hormones. I gathered they met at a party and that lover boy already had a girlfriend he didn’t want anymore. Miss Delaware bought that one. She was raw need, but not the physical kind. She was more like when are you coming to see me again? I thought you were coming this weekend? Everyone loves to play hero, but not when it involves a lot of driving and nagging.

Her letters became progressively desperate. The first two aimed for cool detachment and missed the mark. By the third letter, it was clear our hero wasn’t writing back. She said she missed him, but in a tone that suggested she really missed the opportunity to shackle him to her dorm bunkbed. She said she tried to call but wasn’t sure his brothers were giving him the messages. By the final letter in the stack, she said she wasn’t used to feeling discarded. She said she hoped his girlfriend never found out what he was really like. I pictured him reading and re-reading this last part before shoving the stack up into the ceiling for good. I bet when he laid in his darkened room that night, he kept reading that part again and again in his head.

When do you think he realized he’d left the letters up there? Do you suppose he’ll wake at 3 a.m. a year and four months from now and think Oh dear god, the letters! Do you think he married the oblivious girlfriend? Is it possible he married Miss Delaware? (no way, right?) Do you think he died in a car accident, and that’s why he never came back for the letters? Or maybe he never wrote her back because of the accident, and it was a thoughtful brother who stashed the letters to save the oblivious, mourning girlfriend further despair.

I threw those stupid letters away right after reading them. We had a terrible trash compactor in that house that would stop working in a few months, and I distinctly remember dropping the letters and slamming it shut. I felt like I’d wrapped myself in a smallpox blanket. The deceit felt catching. Months later when I discovered Found Magazine, I kicked myself for throwing the letters away, but I probably did the right thing. Maybe I shouldn’t have written about them here. Your secrets aren’t safe anywhere, so don’t think you can hide them in drop ceilings. Never buy a house with drop ceilings. You know all of this already.

The only thing we still have in this picture is the Game of Life. Just played it Sunday with my kids (and won).
The only thing we still have in this picture is the Game of Life, which I played on Sunday with the kids (and totally, unexpectedly won).

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I decided to make Friday a day I post more creative writing pieces. If you have to wash your hair on Fridays, I’ll understand. I probably won’t post every Friday, though you should still wash your hair. 

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23 thoughts on “The Drop Ceiling Letters

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  1. Enjoyed the piece. Fortunately, since investing in our own hair cutting clipper things and using the 1/4″ attachment, washing my hair on Friday does not cause me to miss other stuff.

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  2. I liked the line about shackling him to her dorm bunkbed…this was really fun to read. And thanks for saving the photo of the cat for the end, nice touch. It’s funny, I was planning on using shampoo today. Thanks for the reminder, hard to keep track sometimes. Cheers, – Bill

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  3. This piece was haunting and sweet and striking all at once. I was on a group text with my siblings and mom just yesterday. One of the topics was my mom finding my brother’s love letters from various girls – she wanted to know what to do with them – read or throw away. My brother told her to read them…if anything to see how far he’s come since the angst that those teenage years caused them both.
    As you can imagine, the hair stood up on the back of my neck as I read the parallel story of your strangers.
    You are fantastic writer. You always find a way to reach out and grab me and I thoroughly enjoy the experience. I’ll look forward to many future Fridays…I’ll wash my hair on Thursday night 🙂

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      1. I know!! I found some I’d written to my hubby while dating and remember thinking, “Where did that sweet woman ever go?” Come to think of it, he wonders the same thing 🙂
        Random comment here…this is that same magic house with the mystery man on the stairwell, right?

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      2. Different house. We moved around a lot before our oldest was school-aged. Each house holds its own collection of memories and quirks. You just made me think of one for the house in between drop ceiling and upside down dude. More stories 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Bill up above wrote about young love this week too, how heart-wrenching it can be, and now, even as crumbling spectators, we remember and feel that fresh pain. This is a beautiful piece.

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  5. Love this. I laughed out loud, I cringed (dead poodle in a bag), I appreciated the advice re: dropped ceilings. I am more curious about why someone would stuff those letters in a hidey place rather than just throw them away? Clearly there was nothing of precious sentiment to warrant keeping them.

    I look forward to next Friday. I can wash my hair anytime.

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  6. I love this so much and for so many reasons. First because I love your writing. Second because you have the BEST stories (see #1). Third because my teenage heart could just feel what these two were feeling.

    Can’t wait for next Friday!

    Sherry

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  7. oohhh…more reasons to look forward to friday’s!
    love the piece.
    i wonder what i would have done? My first thought is google! find the guy. see what happened!
    but i love the little mystery here, and the reminder of BOYS!, and how easily my heart was broken years ago…
    nostalgia reigns.
    loved it!

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  8. This is such a fantastic idea for a series. I hope it is every Friday, and maybe I’ll just stop washing my hair on Fridays anyway so as not to jinx the continuation of the series.

    Okay, onto Horrible Boyfriend. Although I will be laughing all day at “the tone that suggested she missed the opportunity to shackle him to her dorm bed,” my sympathy lies completely with Miss Delaware. I would use much stronger language in real life, but for now I will say that Cheating Boyfriend is a cotton headed ninny muggins. I actually knew a guy like him in college, and just stumbled across him on FB. He wound up marrying the original girlfriend, and the cheating relationship faded into the night.

    So my vote that he is either happily or unhappily married to Original Girlfriend.

    Can’t wait for next Friday 🙂

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  9. ass paint? bah! and my favorite paragraph was the one where you ponder when he realized the letters were there….
    fun to think of those scenarios- and as usual – I enjoyed the woven details that give us a feel for your life’s journey…

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