philately

The postman probably thinks you’re insane.

They probably also wonder why you do this, why there are so many letters going out when so few come back in, why, when letters, letter-writing, and the post office are all supposed to be dying, you refuse to let them die in peace with all your myriad correspondence. They probably think you are the sort of vigilante hipster who only writes with artisanly sharpened pencils.

And chances are they deliver your incoming mail as well as manage the outgoing, so they probably observe several things: there are some addresses that write you back, there is a home address that unabashedly sends you packages with stickers and pictures on them, there are cards from distant relatives, and postcards with inside jokes.

And then there is that one address you write to, less frequently, that never writes you back.

You are five or so, and your dad has taken you to work.

You get to play with the expo markers and the whiteboard, and while you like that, it’s not quite your favorite. The board got erased before you came in, will get erased again, and you dislike working with such impermanent materials. You learned this fact young, and this was why you took to the walls with markers when you were younger still: walls lasted. Your parents, of course, flipped out and plied you with other materials, and you are now more interested in sheets of printer paper.

But only used printer paper–one side blank, one side printed on– you’re only allowed to draw on that kind (because to only use one part of the animal is wasteful and also your dad needs the blank ones for work). There are no windows in the office (it will be the last one of your dad’s offices like that) though there is a ficus (there will always, relentlessly be a ficus).

On the way out, you hold your dad’s hand and someone wheels what seems to you a huge cart of recycling past.

There are moments that make you think your heart is a magnet and that you can feel the world shift as it shudder-swings toward a pole. When you become an adult, you will be able to count these moments on one hand.

And this is the first: this anonymous man pushing a cart piled with mountains of used paper, one side printed on, the other side clear, still so much blankness aching to be filled up.

When you got to fifth grade, your school did an invention fair. Your job was to invent something within two weeks and you couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t been done before.

What you ended up making was disappointing: a portfolio with all the necessary amenities for correspondence: pencil holder, clips, paper, envelopes. But hey, you were nine, maybe ten. What could you have done?

Then, you saw the girl with the stamps.

Why do stamps have to taste gross? She’d asked. She made little scraps of paper with different flavors of adhesive on the backs, so they’d be more fun to lick than the regular kind.

You were in awe. You hadn’t even thought about making an extant thing better, and now it seemed so obvious. Here, finally, was someone who had had an Idea.

You and your friends traded stamp flavors among yourselves so you could have the full flavor experience (the girl has signs posted saying explicitly Not to Do That because germs but you were nine and reckless). Banana was gross, even to someone like you who actually liked banana flavor, but the others, cookie dough and chocolate and strawberry, were good.

You walked off with your friends and your collectively licked scraps of paper, faith in your peers restored and convinced you had caught a glimpse of the future.

Years later, it really surprised you when the post office made stamps self-adhesive instead.

This is the third post office in southern Ohio you and your mother have visited, because you are trying very desperately to pick up a few more sheets of the Lunar New Year stamps. Your mother has been a real champ about this, because you are sometimes unable to explain why you are drawn so powerfully to purchase what are effectively stickers for grown-ups, but she humors you. Drives you, even.

You ask the nice postal worker there about the New Years stamps.

“Oh yeah, those,” she says, and pulls out at least one hundred sheets of the stamps you have been chasing across the city in a sheaf. She flips through it, nonchalant. “How many did you want again?”

“Three.” You watch her fan them out like cards in a deck, thousands of gold-edged puzzle pieces, blue and gold.

“These are really pretty.” She counts out three, and then laughs when she catches you staring. “You sure you don’t want another?”

You end up getting four, and leave with your waxy envelope full of ram stamps. Collection has always been important to you: things too sacred to use, like the snake, dragon, and horse stamps you have at home. Some day, eight years from now, you will finally have a full zodiac.

“I like having goals.” You tell your mother.

“You’re philatelic.” She unlocks the car so she can drive you both the fifteen minutes back home. “The one for coins is numismatist, which I always remember because it sounds so great.”

“Yeah.” You agree, buckling your seat belt. “Like you’re an arithmancer or something.”

Save a stamp! entreats the lettering under the a square outline on the return envelope. Then: Electronic service requested, starkly and snarkily, as though you’re the one being difficult by not paying your bills online.

Don’t you care about the stamps? You worked so hard to collect them, went to so many post offices to find just the right ones–doesn’t it make you sad, using up all these nice pictures you have on crud like credit card payments?

Look, here’s a simple way to save your precious stamps: don’t use them. Conserve and preserve. Aren’t you philatelic? Shouldn’t you be trying harder?

Doesn’t it bother you, using them all up?

The thing about magic is that it always comes with a cost.

Stamps are their own kind of sorcery: stick the appropriate charm on the envelope and it will go where you tell it to. You used to dream about the department of lost letters, magics gone wrong, letters that ended up in limbo for years, slowly finding their way to the descendents of the addressees.

The thing about stamps is that they are created to serve a purpose. They’re useful. Take away their use and they cease to exist.

It’s like asking someone to cancel their newspaper subscription for the sake of their paperboy. Sure, you’re saving someone a trip to your apartment through the early AM streets, but if enough people are that considerate, there won’t be any newspapers left to deliver and the kid’s out of a job.

It’s fine to talk about conservation when the thing you’re trying to save has lasted perfectly well on its own without human interference, like certain animals or coral. But when it’s man-made, it’s different.

It must be used to survive, or else you destroy the thing you mean to save.

Truth be told, it’s bad letter-writing etiquette using both sides of the paper and you know this, but you do it anyway. Call it a bad habit.

There’s just a lot to say, and if writing on both sides is too informal for etiquette then whatever. You write close, speak in slangs, all spiked, slanted capitals, lowercase g’s with sinister hooks, and the recipients of your letters know what they’re getting into before they slit the envelope.

This is the cost of magic: the postmark, the ink laser printed over something beautiful to nullify it. Sometimes when relatives send you birthday cards you trace your finger over a foreign stamp and get sad, but you’re old enough to know that you can’t have rarity without sacrifice.

So you tear open the envelopes and the double envelopes, make your replies, and keep waiting for that black hole address to cave. You are as relentless as a windowless office ficus and this is your magic: sheets and sheets of commemorative stamps, some squirreled away in wax envelopes and others carrying letters to their destinations, spells in effect.

And does it bother you? The writing beneath the stamp square asks. Doesn’t that make you a bad collector, using them like that?

You stuff the return envelope into the post box and walk off. Because, no, it doesn’t.

You wouldn’t want something so bad if it was so easy to keep it forever.

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