Gateways: Dear Alex by Alex B Reynolds

TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Alex B Reynolds. After majoring in television writing and producing at Columbia College, they have worked primarily with New Millennium Theatre Company on parodies and pop-culture mashups, in addition to a Halloween-themed burlesque show for the Flaming Dames LLC. Most recently, Alex had a reading of a fantasy one-act called NPCs at Otherworld Theatre’s Paragon festival. Alex tells us they have a strong penchant for satire and comedy. They’re the only things Alex takes seriously. This story is called, “Dear Alex”

Every year on my birthday, I write my future self a birthday card. I started doing it as a teenager: “Dear 15-year-old Alex: I hope high school is going great. Are you still into Final Fantasy? I hope David and Brandon leave you alone this year, and I hope that you’re still close with Megan and Phil. Happy Birthday! From, 14-year-old Alex.” It was cute. Every card was like a photograph of who I was when I wrote it: “Dear 17-year-old Alex: I’m so jealous that you’re only two months away from seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Just in case no one else says it today, you are super cool, and I hope you have a happy birthday. Cheers; 16-year-old Alex.” It was a form of self-care. It forced me to be nice to myself, if only for the length of a card. “Happy birthday, 20-year-old Alex! Wow, 20. Two decades. Your teens were an awesome adventure, and you should be proud of all you’ve been through. I wish you the very best this year. 19-year-old Alex.”

At first, I tucked the card away in my closet and dug it out on my next birthday. Then I started mailing them. They would always come back a week later, so I still had to tuck them away for almost a year. But I liked the ritual of sealing, addressing and stamping the envelope and taking it to the mailbox. I made more of an effort for myself that way, and that made it more special. Before long, I started putting money in the cards like I was my own grandmother. “Hey, 24-year-old Alex. Happy Birthday. I hope you’re well, and I hope Lost had a great ending. Anyway, I can only assume you found a better job by now, but even so, here’s $20. I hope it helps. Love, 23-year-old Alex.” That was the one. The card I wrote when I was 23. That was the first one that got a reply.

A week after my 23rd birthday, I got a card in the mail. It wasn’t my card to my future self; the envelope was different. I thought it was just a late arrival from a relative, but then I read it: “Dear 23-year-old Alex: Don’t get your hopes up about Lost. The Constant will always be the best episode.Thank you for the $20. I do have a better job than you (barely) but I also have a prescription for Zoloft, so, there’s that. Anyway, happy belated birthday; Love, 24-year-old Alex.” It had to be a joke. The mail carrier read my card and decided to mess with me. But why? We barely knew each other. More importantly, the card was in my handwriting. Was this really from future Alex? Was I going to crack time travel this year? Was I living the movie The Lake House as both
Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves?

For months, I was obsessed with the card. My family didn’t understand. My friends thought I was playing a prank. I became isolated. I was too distracted at work and was fired. Thankfully, a friend hooked me up at a company with health benefits – a better job, like the card said. But it meant that I could finally afford a therapist. After a quick recap of childhood trauma, I told them all about the birthday card from the future. I asked what I should do with it – should I try to mail it back to the past? Would that create a paradox, or would sending a new one create the paradox? I was diagnosed with anxiety. I got a prescription for Zoloft. And to top it all off, the last season of Lost wasn’t all that great. Everything in the card had come true. But how did it happen? I certainly
didn’t crack time travel at 23 – I was a poor art school graduate. I just assumed that someone else in 2010 was going to open a portal or a doorway to the past where people can throw birthday cards to themselves, but no. No portal. No doorway. No explanation for any of it. So, I took my Zoloft. I went to work. I started dating someone. And when my 24th birthday came around, I did what I always do: I wrote a birthday card to my future self.

“Happy Birthday, 25-year-old Alex! Congratulations on a quarter-century. I hope you figured out the mystery of the time traveling card by now and got the chance to clear your head. Are you still dating Kris? I hope that’s going well. And listen. Just in case you do write back, can you share some winning lottery numbers with me or something? I still sleep on a futon. Also, here’s $20. Love, 24-year-old Alex.” I put the card in the envelope. I addressed it, stamped it, and put it in the mailbox, exactly like the year before. Every day, I ran to see if a reply came. I waded through stacks of bills, credit card offers, insurance offers, ALDI coupons, and student loan overdue payment notices. Finally, exactly one week after my birthday, an envelope arrived with my Handwriting: “Dear 24-year-old Alex: Don’t get your hopes up about Kris. Thank you as always for the $20. I really need the money right now. And don’t knock the futon, it’s still in great shape. Anyway, I hope you had a happy birthday. Make good choices. Best Wishes, 25-year-old Alex. P.S. The winning numbers are 6 10 28 33 67 14.”

I checked the other side of the card. I checked the back of the card. I checked inside the envelope again. Nowhere did it say when those numbers would be pulled, or for which Lottery game they were. Was I just being a smartass with me? Or was I actually trying to stop myself from “really needing” $20 in a year? I decided to give myself the benefit of the doubt and checked the paper: Mega Millions drawing tonight, PowerBall tomorrow, State Lotto the next day. Maybe this was my birthday present to me. I ran to the corner store and bought tickets for all three games using the numbers from the future. By the end of the week, I had lost three times. Future me was taunting myself. Well, I wasn’t going to let a birthday card from the future ruin my life a second time. This time, I was going to make sure that nothing in the card came true. I moved in with Kris, cementing our commitment and cutting my rent in half. We shared a bed, so I gave the futon to my little sister to take to college. I sabotaged everything that card said – except for the lottery. Every week, I still played the numbers. Every week, I lost. I started playing in different states, too. Before long, I spent half the week in the car. I played the numbers in Minnesota, I played the numbers in Idaho, I played the numbers in New York, and I just kept losing. Kris wanted us to spend more time together, but I couldn’t really explain why that wasn’t an option. Between work and playing the lottery all over the country, I had little time for anything else. We broke up. I was kicked out. My rent doubled in a studio apartment with no furniture. Worst of all, the cost of gas and lottery tickets took its toll. By my 25th birthday, I was $10,000 in debt. But my little sister bought a bed, so she gave my futon back. Everything from the birthday card came true. Again.

“Dear 26-year-old alternate dimension time-witch Alex: Winning numbers our ass! My heart is in pieces, I’m worse than broke, and I’m more alone than ever because of you. Us. Whatever. I don’t see how things can get much worse. Help me out. Help yourself out. Tell me who wins the Superbowl. Warn me about an impending tragedy. Don’t just shoot the shit with me about Dexter. We can get it right this time. I really, really hope you’re having a good birthday. Warmest regards, 25-year-old Alex.”

Envelope. Address. Stamp. Mailbox. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I waited. I didn’t want to do a thing until I knew what my future self had to tell me. This time, we would get it right. This time, we would change everything. But a week went by, and nothing came. Two weeks went by, and still nothing. A month after my birthday, it was pretty obvious I wasn’t getting a reply. Maybe the whole thing was a joke after all. Or, maybe, 26-year-old Alex didn’t write a reply because there was no 26-year-old Alex. Everything started getting worse after that first card, so maybe this was the year it all came to a head. This was the year I was finally electrocuted or hit by a bus or poisoned in a gas leak. Why else wouldn’t I write back? Only one thing was certain: something terrible was going to happen to me. For six months, I only left my apartment to go to work. I wore a
bike helmet everywhere. I didn’t talk to anyone. They shut off my power. It didn’t matter. I was ever vigilant against the thousand ways I could die every day. Then, on my half birthday, the flood of bills and overdue notices was interrupted by an envelope – with my handwriting. My heart nearly exploded as I tore it open like a starving opossum and read the card inside:

“Dear 25-year-old Alex: Don’t get your hopes up about Dexter. Anyway, happy belated birthday. I would have written sooner, but I’ve been pretty busy. As for the Superbowl, I’m sorry, but I don’t really follow sports. Love, 26-year-old Alex.” And that was it. It was the most casual, boring, least helpful birthday card from the future yet. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in all my life. It snapped me back to reality. I had spent three years so obsessed with what was going to happen that I completely ignored what was actually happening. I lost my job, my friends, my relationship, way too much money, and – very nearly – my own sanity. I spent the next three years working harder than ever just to recover from all the damage I caused myself. It took that long to buy another birthday card. So, if you take anything away from all of this, let it be to just live your life. The more you try to control the future, the less you’re going to enjoy it when it gets here. Anyway, I hope you get this card. I hope it makes a difference. And here’s $20. I hope it helps. Happy 10th birthday, Alex. Love, 30-year-old Alex.

Karolyn Blake is an actor and improviser in Chicago with a passion for dogs, laughter, and inclusive spaces. She is a founding member of the Shrews Improv and proud to be a singer in the Shanty Shipwreck Show. You can see and hear her every month in Starlight Radio Dreams, recorded live at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro and available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.