You won’t remember me. It’s been twenty-nine years since my last letter.
I always did my homework alone, because my mother didn’t know enough English to help. I always finished it early, so that I could watch you on Boy Meets World. Your gapped-tooth mischievous grin, your chokers, your hair-flipping. I knew bad boys at school, but we didn’t have any like you. You were a white bad boy, which is a good bad boy. And you made being wounded look so cool.
I thought you would understand and that you would then elevate me to your level, turn my hurt into cool too.
So I took risks for you. There had just been another shooting in our housing project when I asked my mom if I could walk to the store by myself. I think she only said yes because it was just a domestic dispute, which is not a term in the Vietnamese that I grew up with.
I followed her advice to walk like I knew where I was going, as if I was up to urgent business, even if I felt scared or got lost. No eye contact. That invites people to kidnap you, she’d warned. I passed the landlord’s office where I’d perform stories to get extended grace periods on the rent check. I passed the laundromat where I played boat in the rolling carts and collected empty boxes of single-use dryer sheets to make beds for my toys that I took extra good care of so as not to seem ungrateful to her passing refugee glares.
I hurried past the TCBY frozen yogurt shop where my mom and I met my dad when he picked me up on his weekends; she didn’t want him coming to our door anymore. Her new boyfriend was jealous and resentful that my dad was white. Like you. Maybe he will be jealous of you, too.
I made it to the Lucky’s supermarket that greeted me with the swish of automated doors and a gust of air conditioning. I felt fancy. Maybe that’s why I didn’t stoop to steal you on the cover of Tiger Beat Magazine. Maybe it’s because my mom told me that when she, at the same age I was when I fell in love with you, tried to steal an apple from the market but was interrupted by Viet Cong spraying bullets. One killed her neighbor who dropped dead in front of her where she hid in a drainage ditch. I can still hear the thud. As kids do, she thought that everything bad that happened was because of her. So I paid for the Tiger Beat with money I’d found or saved from lost teeth.
I paid, but I still felt ashamed. She’d always taught me not to flush my pee in order to save money on the water bill, and here I was spending money on magazines. I slipped the magazine under my shirt and into my outgrown waistband as I walked up the stairs to our unit. She zeroed in on my paper-flat stomach immediately. I hurried to the bedroom she and I shared, and for some reason she let me go.
When she was home, I’d sit in the closet where I usually pretended that my dolls faced catastrophic forces of nature, barely surviving. Here, I organized toys so that I appeared to be doing something while I daydreamed of you, whom I protected from the worst of my imagination. Daydreaming was a risk too, a waste of time, I’d been shown. When she was gone, I pulled the magazine out from under our mattress or in between the volumes of books my dad sent me—anywhere I thought she wouldn’t look and find you, this desire I had outside of her. I stared at your pictures until my vision blurred you into movement—winking, beckoning—whatever I thought romantic gestures were at nine years old.
When the pages were worn enough for me to start flipping through the rest of the magazine, I discovered addresses in the back. There were P.O. boxes of agencies where readers—I—could write letters to teen heartthrobs—you, the good bad white boy.
I wrote you a letter. It started out normal enough. I mimicked niceties about your show. You’re a really good actor. Then I conflated you and your character. I felt bad that your dad isn’t around. Then it got sad fast. I wrote to you about how stressful it was to be poor and not have enough money to help my mom out because she was always stressed and that’s why a part of me didn’t want to help her, which makes me feel guilty, and then she brings these boyfriends over—I miss my dad as much as you, or Shawn, did on the show—because I know she hopes they will pay some of our bills, but that means more time my mom spends away from me, and that is good and bad. Even though we can’t understand each other, we’re all the other has.
I held onto the letter for days. I was afraid to send it because then you’d know me—you’d know her—better than anybody. I didn’t tell anyone anything. I didn’t think anything I had to say was important, but here I was putting it all in rainbow Bic ink and getting all congested from tearing up but holding it in.
When she found the magazine, Mom said she always wanted a kid who was famous.
So I decided to send the letter. My dad worked at the post office, so I always had holiday stamps. I mailed a Christmas stamp to you in the summer.
It wasn’t until fall that you responded. My hands trembled as I sliced open the envelope imprinted with more postal ink than you’d think it would take to get a letter from the nice part of LA to our part of LA. There was a lot of possibility in that moment. I’d hoped that you’d read every word and grow a crush on me too, not because I was suffering, but because of how I wrote about it, how I was surviving it.
You responded with merely a signed photograph.
I knew it was fake too. My mom had shown me how to tell the difference when I had to sign some documents for her. You’d had some assistant open my letter, unfold my life in ink, and stamp your signature on a black-and-white picture of you perched on the type of stool that I imagine they have in acting classes. You treated me the same as everyone else who wrote you a letter. I sat in the closet with my hurt and the photograph, barely surviving.
I’d told my dad when I wrote the letter—not what was in it—but just that I had. I told him I used one of the stamps he gave me. He said it was cool, and I remember feeling better about it, then. My dad, after all, was the one who showed me movies and shows and music and taught me to love all of it. But something in me must have known that parental “cool” was just to cover up concern about this kid’s new phase of writing fat letters to strangers. I must have known, at some level, that no one thought what I was doing was “cool,” certainly not you. I must have known because I burned the next letter I wrote to you with a match from my mom’s fishbowl collection of matchbooks from restaurants her boyfriends took her to.
I never wrote back to you, never bothered to even Google you (when that became a thing), until now. I’m telling people that I’m writing all these letters to people who I know have forgotten me—I’m sure now, child star, that you never even saw my letter, never saw my name—so that my daughters won’t forget me. But I think what I’m really doing is trying to remember myself. So, I guess, in a way, I’m always writing back to you.