Registered at Writer’s Guild West
Dear Jennifer is the definition of friendship. As if a shoe box filled with various stationaries, envelopes and notes addressed to Jennifer are found in an old dresser, the events that mold this young woman’s life are revealed. Everything we know about this woman, from the time she is six until she’s 35, we learn through the thoughts of others. By piecing together information written to her through the years by relatives, teachers, friends, and lovers, Jennifer is revealed.
The first time Michael writes to Jennifer is in the first grade twenty-five years ago when he passes a note in school. Michael is ‘caught’ in the cloak room with another little boy and Jennifer comes to his rescue. This marks the beginning of their life long, special friendship.
Jennifer’s family is New England blue blood; her father is distant and preoccupied with work and her mother, domineering and controlling of Jennifer and her sister, Gail.
One year separates Gail and Jennifer and when they become teenagers Gail does her best to rebel in every way possible. She dates too many boys and goes too far. She barely studies and always eats too much, to her mother’s dismay. Except for the devotion the sisters share for their Grandmother Maxwell, they are quite opposite. Jennifer studies hard, quietly excelling in appropriate girls’ sports. However, they both try in vain to please their mother and long for their father’s attention.
Michael and Jennifer remain close in high school even after he tells her he is gay and having an affair with a choreographer in New York City. His father, finding the boy’s letters, beats him and Michael at the tender age of sixteen leaves for California to “become a dancer.”
Gail squeaks into Wellesley and lasts all of one term before becoming pregnant and marrying a blue collar guy. The ultimate insult to her mother.
Jennifer, ever diligent in her studies, finds encouragement through a gifted high school teacher, Miss Rosen, who gives her the courage to explore her mind and use her intelligence. In spite of the unhappiness expressed by her mother, Jennifer leaves for a non-ivy league school, Duquesne University, to study science.
Michael and Jennifer continue to write to each other. He regales her with his fledgling dance career and many lovers and she writes of her studies and the sexual feelings she is having toward her graduate assistant, Fran, a woman. Because her sister is busy bringing up a baby and her mother is busy matchmaking for Jennifer with the country club’s young Princetonian, Martin Greenwood, no one thinks it odd when Jennifer brings Fran home for Thanksgiving. Sleeping together in her childhood room with mother and father just down the hall is dangerous but exciting. Ultimately, the closeness and acceptance she longs for from her father are severed when, while he is visiting Pittsburgh on a business trip, Jennifer stumbles in on her father’s private relationship with his secretary.
In California, Michael suffers a career ending knee injury forcing him to move to Chicago and start a new career this time with a much older lover who ‘helps him out’ financially.
Disillusioned and disappointed in her family, Jennifer leaves school before obtaining her Master’s and relocates to California. Michael and she continue to write and continue to support and love each another, each being the others one true friend.
Finally, Jennifer meets someone who adores her, Claire. Though their lives are closeted from most of the world, Claire’s family is as supportive as Jennifer’s is unknowing. Even Gail, who has shared everything from toothpaste to bathrooms with her sister over the years, is clueless about her lifestyle until Gail finds out her husband is cheating on her. She flies to California unannounced for emotional support from her little sister. Surprise.
Gail keeps Jennifer’s secret knowing the disastrous results to the image of the ‘proper’ Maxwell family. All goes quietly for a while. Jennifer gets a promotion and returns to Pittsburgh with Claire being introduced as her ‘roommate.’ The letter from Michael that would change all of their lives arrives postmarked Atlanta. Michael has AIDS, a relatively new problem in the early eighties. He is alone now without any means of support. Jennifer offers to marry Michael. With her health insurance in effect, he would be covered medically, but more than that, he would live with Jennifer and Claire until he died.
The next few months’ Michael’s and Jennifer’s feelings for one another and the sacrifices they make are a test and a revelation of the true meaning of friendship. In spite of every effort, mother and father find out about the sham of a marriage and eventually what they consider being the unacceptable lifestyle of their daughter. Gail, father, mother, and Claire each try in their own way to understand what’s happening and why but only Jennifer and Michael know the special love they share.
June 1, 1970
Legal to be behind the wheel? Lookout pedestrians-wild woman of New England, friend to soon to be world famous dancer, hits the streets at earth shattering speeds, so as to be only a blur in the eyes of the passer-bys so no one can recognize her passenger, just kidding. I’ve got to stop taking those uppers before I write greetings and salutations to stuffy but adorable childhood friends. Do you realize we’ve known each other for 10 years? Two sixteen year olds ready to conquer the world; you in literature and me, ah, to dance.
I promise to write and tell you all about summer stock. Isn’t it exciting? Even though I’m only a stagehand, I finally get the chance to be around other artists; someone else who breathes, sleeps, and eats to the rhythm of the heart. Ah. Can you believe my Dad thinks I’m going to finally be a “man” working with my hands and learning a trade? Poor old guy just doesn’t get it. Oh, well. You get it, don’t ya’ Jen?
Congratulations for talking your parents into letting you stay home instead of going to stupid camp. I really can’t promise I’ll write, you know how crazy the theater is, but you can bet we’ll have alot to talk about in September. I’ll miss our long talks in study hall. Your friendship has meant more to me than you’ll ever know. Tell all those stuffy-ass geeks I may or may not return in the fall. It depends if Broadway calls.
Yours ’til the final curtain,
P.S. Antonovich is too long for the marquee, what do you think?
August 4, 1971
I am sitting on Cannery Row with the aroma of fish strongly in the air wondering if John Steinbeck walked near by on a similar overcast morning, years ago. My drive across this great and vast land over the summer has proved to be interesting, educational, enlightening, but most of all, fun. When my friend and I planned this trip, we thought a visit to the homes of great American authors would be an interesting way to determine an itinerary. By the way, the longest distance between two coasts is definitely from Faulkner to Twain to O’Neill to Lewis to Fitzgerald to Hemingway to Steinbeck. Yet, we made it! And the return trip will be a much more direct route so I have time to prepare once again for the burst of energy from eager young minds.
In my travels I have thought of you often, my friend and student. It troubled me so to see you in tears in my office the last day of school. At seventeen, I remember, one can feel tremendous pressure. What to do with one’s life, what to study, where to go, whom to please?
Possibly, if you look at the future as choices, rather than decisions, the doors may be less difficult to open. For instance. Your family wants you to go to Wellesley, a lovely school with an excellent reputation. The English department is superb and you love the written word. However, since I have known you, your interest and passion for the sciences, particularly, chemistry, offers an endless range of possibilities for experimentation and discovery. The field you have mentioned to me, research pharmaceuticals, sounds like an opportunity for you to be a pioneer of unknown territory. It certainly would make this old soul more comfortable knowing someone with your conscience was involved in the development of future chemicals and drugs.
The opportunity to learn in an academic setting and study with the minds you respect is a privilege most young people do not comprehend or respect. Even though you are only seventeen you must think as an adult now and your mother and father have the right to express their opinions, as do I and other friends, but the final decision, Jennifer, is yours. It is your life.
Do not feel you are forsaking literature if you choose Duquesne. Books will always be there and even time to read them! Your mother’s reasoning that pharmacy is not a “feminine” profession is a difficult one for me to grasp in this time of life. However, you may reassure her that it is not an entrance requirement to burn one’s bra to have a scientific mind.
This letter has become a mini-novel. I flatter myself to think that maybe Steinbeck had the same flourish of thoughts here. Maybe it’s something in the air? Ah, if life were only as simple as a walk on the pier.
If you have the time, I would love you to work for me next year. You could organize and type my dissertation notes from the trip. Yes, education is an on going process at any age. This trip is my first step towards my doctorate.
One, very important point, and then I must close. Remember most “doors” can be opened and closed more than once. Whatever your decision be aware that you can change your mind. The one thing your mother and I may agree on is the ultimate “woman’s prerogative.”
Enjoy the remainder of the summer.
Miss Emma Rosen
I’m sorry I woke-up your Mom last night but I didn’t have any idea what time it was and I desperately needed to talk to you. I’ve been up all night and I think the tears have stopped long enough to write but one never knows. I’d like to talk to you in person but I can’t come home until I’ve got my act together. If I cry in front of my father there’s no chance for me to survive.
I know now you were right. I shouldn’t have surprised Robert. I only dreamed of being in his arms again, that’s all I’ve thought about since he went on tour. Last night(it feels like a lifetime ago) when I knocked at his apartment door my heart was pounding with anticipation.
He opened the door looking fabulous, naked to the waist, his body taunt and chiseled. His laughter stopped abruptly when he saw me. For a moment I felt like he was going to close the door in my face but his smile quickly returned and he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into the apartment.
Jen, I went through every emotion in a split second. Ecstasy, fear, relief, joy. I love him so much. But it was all over so quickly. As I set my bag down a man I had never seen before came from the bedroom. Robert hastily introduced me to “Peter.”
You know I feel so stupid. I loved Robert. I believed his letters. I thought he felt like I did. But I was wrong. Peter, it seems, has been in Robert’s life at least as long as I have. He had the nerve to say to me, “that he’d heard a lot about me,” and, “what a promising young dancer I was.” Fuck him. Fuck him for being there. And fuck Robert, too.
I called you right after I left the apartment which is why I was pretty unintelligible. Not that this letter will clear things up. I’m going to stay in the city for a while. No sense my Dad thinking something’s wrong when I told him I’d be at auditions all week. Robert said I could crash on his couch but I couldn’t. Don’t worry about me. Haven’t you heard? A fine young body like mine has no trouble finding a warm bed in New York. Shit.
June 12, 1984
Dear Jennifer Marie
It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting at my desk writing to you with a broken heart. What did I ever do to deserve such treatment? Didn’t you go to all the best schools, have access to the best dance instructors, read the latest books, see the hottest plays? Didn’t your father and I buy you a sports car for your high school graduation? And even if you didn’t think of me, what about your father? How could you deny him the thrill of walking you down the aisle in a church filled with all our friends? What will they say? How can I ever explain that my youngest daughter finally decides to get married and then runs off like a tramp with someone we never met?