Rachel receives a mysterious postcard from 1938.
You can find out more about Gyda Arber’s project here.
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Artist – Title – Album
0:00 Alog – Apeland – Unemployed
1:47 Daniel Lanois – Space Love – Flesh and Machine
2:37 The Greenhornes – Unnatural Habitat – Broken Flowers Soundtrack
3:57 Daniel Lanois – Space Love – Flesh and Machine
4:30 Tim Hecker – Live Room Out – Virgins
6:26 Teebs – My Whole Life – Ardour
7:18 Daniel Lanois – Space Love – Flesh and Machine
7:54 Roy Orbison – Blue Bayou- The Monument Singles Collection
8:09 Tim Hecker – Black Refraction – Virgins
10:44 Daniel Lanois – Space Love – Flesh and Machine
12:45 Daniel Lanois – Tamboura Jah – Flesh and Machine
13:20 Tim Hecker – Black Refraction – Virgins
14:45 Tim Hecker – Stigmata II – Virgins
15:52 Tim Hecker – Stigmata II – Virgins
18:02 Tim Hecker – Stigmata II – Virgins
22:33 DVA – Bunky – Botanicula Sountrack
25:23 Daniel Lanois – Space Love – Flesh and Machine
28:15 Daniel Lanois – My First Love – Flesh and Machine
30:36 Jon Hopkins – Breathe This Air (Asleep Version) – Asleep Versions
31:00 Jon Hopkins – Immunity – Immunity
Rachel Prince & Gyda Arber
I’d been traveling for work in the beginning of the summer, and then spending some time with my new boyfriend, Benjamin, who’s Canadian, so we were exploring the West coast of Canada. And I got a text message from my neighbor saying there’s this postcard, this random postcard. She’s like, “We’re looking at it, and it seems like it could be something really important, but it’s also really strange.” And it was, indeed, very strange.
So I returned to New York City at the end of that summer, maybe August, and grabbed a massive stack of mail from my neighbors. Mixed in with all of the other things, like bills, bank statements, and a load of junk mail is this bright, vintage postcard. It was faded, and a little bit tattered on the side, and a little bit water-damaged.
The image on the front is sort of a polka dot cornflower blue, and the background of it says, “Greetings from Coney Island, New York.” It’s this amazing sort of retro font, and then little snapshots in each letter, the quintessential images of Coney Island, like a lovely pin-up babe coming out of the sea, and the rollercoaster scaffolding, and iconic New York City buildings, and a long stretch of beach.
So I flip the postcard over, and handwritten, in script, in very well-penned, beautiful ink it says:
It’s winter now, but I found myself with no plans today, so I took the subway to Coney Island. Remember that day in the park, steeplechase… We splurged and went to Philipman’s. Today I only had a nickel, so it was Nathan’s for me. It’s pretty lonely out here, and cold. It’s just how I feel without you. Will I ever see you again?
I don’t know if you’ll ever get this card, but I feel compelled to write, if only to say I miss you so.
Upper case M.
It’s made out to me, Ms. Rachel Prince, but I had no idea who it was from. The date on it was January 15th, 1938.
I remember flipping it over really quickly in my hand and testing the sort of pliability in the card stock… Is it legit? I was examining for inkjet, but actually couldn’t tell; it was like, no, this is a real postcard that someone found in a box somewhere.
Is it a Rachel Prince that was alive 50 years ago, or maybe it was my great-grandmother who I actually share my name with?
My great-grandmother was from Minsk and she traveled over to New York either with his husband Elias, or maybe they met in the Lower East Side. Beyond that I don’t know anything, but I’ve seen a few sort of beautiful black and white pictures pictures, but that’s kind of it. Yes, the stories didn’t really get passed down too far in my family.
There was a little weird feeling of like, “Oh, maybe someone’s kind of fucking with me,” but it was way more interesting to imagine someone had a relative that died, like their grandfather died, and maybe his grandkids are going through his room and they find this postcard made out to Rachel Prince, and then realize their grandfather had this romance with someone they never met and then sent it to me, thinking that I was maybe a 95-year-old lady living in this building in the West Village. But then you’re kind of like, “Wouldn’t they actually make the effort to put some contact information on there and not just send the postcard unexplained, with no way to reply?”
Yes, I totally had a moment where I knew I was in love with him. So, the hallway of the building needed to be retiled, and I was asking my friends at the theater where I was performing if anyone knew of anyone who was good at repairing things, and so Aaron said, “Oh, I can do that,” and I was like, “Dude, you’re like an actor…” I want a guy who can tile, and he was like, “No, no, no, I can tile. I can tile!” I was like, “You’re my friend, and then if you’re not good at it it’s going to be weird…” but he convinced me that I should hire him to do this tiling job. I think it was two or three days we were doing this in a row, and it was hot, it was summer, and he just took his shirt off one night and was tiling, and I don’t know, there’s was something about this man with his shirt off, tiling in my hallway, and making sure all the tiles are perfectly aligned, and… It was very overwhelming.
I think he stayed over that night, and that was it. We were together. But yeah, I mean, if the tiles need to be replaced some day, I think that would be really hard for me.
* * *
Okay, so the second piece of mail arrived in pretty quick succession… I think it came within six weeks. I was home, checked the mail, opened up the box… It was in an envelope with just my name handwritten again, Ms. Rachel Prince. It was like, “Okay, this is a thing now.”
I remember just tearing it open in the lobby, not even being able to go up into my apartment, like, “What’s going on?!” It was this super-cute retro card with a man and a woman canoodling in front of a big heart. It just says, “Valentine greetings.” It’s still 1938, but it’s February 14th, of course.
Valentine’s day today. The city is filled with couples, arm in arm, smiling and full of love. It’s difficult to be happy when the one I love is gone. I can’t stop thinking of last summer. It seems so far away now. I’m so miserable and lonely without you. Everyone else’s happiness, especially today, seems to be a personal offense. I know they don’t mean it that way, but it’s hard not to watch.
I can’t forget all the things you told me about. Portable telephones able to fit in the pocket, that also have music and hold books… It sounds a little bit like a tale out of amazing stories. Are you there now? I wish I could be there with you.
Thinking of you always,
So the plot’s thickening, and it’s getting weirder, too, and almost there’s this moment of being like, “Wait, is this… Did I actually visit the past for a minute?”
Aaron and I are both actors, and we worked at this little theater together a lot, and I wrote my first play, called “Suspicious Package,” and I cast him as my lead voice-over actor in the show. I was rewriting, and so I would make him record things and then I would try to lay it out in the piece, and then I would realize I needed something else, and then I would write that, and then I would wake him up, because I was doing these all-nighters, getting this done. I would be like, “Just record this, record this!” and he’s like, “Which voice is this? Is it the producer or the detective?” I was like, “The producer, the producer!” and he was like, “Okay,” and then he would do it. Like, I’ve woke him up… He’s so patient, the most patient man. Woke him up in the middle of the night, read it perfectly, go back to sleep, and then like 45 minutes later I’d be like, “Okay, okay! Wake up, wake up! I need you to read this line, I need you to be the detective! I need you to read this!” And he would wake up, and again, first take, nail it out of the park, and then roll over and go back to bed.
The show did so well, we decided to do a sequel the following year, and he co-wrote that with me. That also, crazily, got this amazing New York Times review, so we were selling out, and selling out, and selling out, and extended, and extended, and extended.
* * *
There was no fucking way to track the letter; there’s no return address… I remember even looking at the stamp, and it just said “Brooklyn,” it didn’t even say which post office in Brooklyn. There was no tear in the veneer; I just didn’t even know where to start. Then I was like, “Do I go to the police?” Maybe the cops will be able to figure this out, and dust it for fingerprints, or something – which is absurd, like they don’t have better things to do… Like, “I got a Valentine from 1938 and I really wanna know who it’s from.” Like, it’s just not happening.
I came home, and he was just right there, on the living room floor, and he knelt down and he had in his palm this diamond. And he was like, “Here’s the diamond, but I have this other ring you can wear in the meantime. Will you marry me?” And it was so sweet!
So you would think that I’d be highly suspicious of my new boyfriend, Ben, except the thing about Ben is that he’s a man of science. He’s this very practical, Canadian lumberjack geologist. He just barely scrawls me handwritten notes, and they’re always just like, “Be back after work. Love ya.” I just literally was never suspicious of him.
So many decisions when you get married… Oh, it’s just this endless, like, what color of napkins… You’re like, “I don’t… It doesn’t matter, you know? Is there a beach? Is it gonna be gorgeous? It’s gonna be 75 degrees and sunset?” I’m sure it will be fine, you know? But…
We didn’t do engagement photos, because we both thought those were really cheesy, and we were going to have wedding photos, so… It’s, like, one of those regrets…
August 5th, 1938
I feel compelled to keep writing, though this is starting to make me question my sanity. Was this all a dream? I obviously can’t tell anyone what you said about time travel and all that… It was so easy to believe you when we were together, but now that you’re gone it makes me fear you were never here at all. If it weren’t for Shirley, I think I’d check myself into a loony bin. And yet, some of the things that you said are starting to come true. Things are looking bad in Germany…
Shirley is doing well, she is a lovely baby. She’s starting to roll over and to sit up on her own. It reminds me of you every time she smiles. I’ll try to enclose a picture in my next letter. We both miss you so…
P.S. We’re having a heat wave, 93 degrees yesterday. We slept on the fire escape, but some folks have even taken to sleeping on the beach at Coney Island. They had to add extra cops to patrol the area, can you believe it?
By the time I received the third letter I was getting ready for a big move, the move from New York to South Africa. Ben and I had decided to move together, he had a job offer in South Africa, and I decided to tag along. I didn’t decide, he invited me… Asked me. Begged me to come with him. I didn’t wanna do long distance anymore, so I was keen for the adventure. But this was when I realized I was going to have to change my address, and I was like, “Oh no!! What’s gonna happen…” I was getting stressed out about losing the story. I was getting stressed out, but I think there was some part of it that was connected to me leaving New York. Like, if I leave New York, the city just goes on without me, but I’m not totally comfortable with that. Like, if I leave New York, do I just disappear?
So my father had wanted us to come up and visit him for the weekend, so I arranged to get an understudy. I went up to visit my dad on Thursday, and Aaron couldn’t get Friday off of work, so he was going to come up first thing in the morning Saturday; he was going to be on the very first train. Then Friday I didn’t hear from him at all, which was weird, but sometimes he would get really busy at work, and then the next morning I was texting him and like, “Are you on the train?” and he didn’t respond to any of those messages either. I tried calling a few times too and no response, but he was the kind of guy who goes in a quiet car and turns his cell phone off. So I’m like, you know, he’s probably just on the quiet car. I don’t know, I was just rationalizing all of this strangeness.
The train came, and it was the last stop on the train, and he didn’t come off the train. He was never late to meet me once in our entire relationship, so I knew something was very wrong at that point. I was definitely feeling very ill.
* * *
March 10th, 1939
Enclosed is the picture I promised. It really doesn’t do her justice. Shirley is the sweetest child. Each and every day she reminds me of you in some new way. The way she sleeps at night…
There’s a growing sense of unease… You wonder, like, am I being watched? I don’t know what this person looks like, but maybe they know what I look like. Could I be the only person getting these letters, and if so, why? Why is someone directing all of this energy at me? There is a little fear, realizing it’s not just something to make you smile and feel happy for a minute, but clearly there’s a story that’s going somewhere, and you have to be part of it, whether you like it or not.
So at this point one of the actors in our show, his name is Art, was planning on swinging by our apartment, and he had a set of keys to pick up props for the show that day. So I was on the phone with Art and I was like, “I haven’t heard from him… I think something’s wrong.” He was like, “I’m just coming up to your apartment now, it’s fine. It’s fine.” So he opens the door, and he’s like, “Oh, his stuff’s here. His shoes are here… He’s totally here. He missed the train, no big deal,” and I was like, “Art, he didn’t miss the train. Will you check on him?” And Art I guess opened the door to the bedroom and was like, “Oh… Oh, he doesn’t look okay.” I was like, “Call 911, call 911!” and hung up with him and he called 911, and… I guess he must have called back, I don’t really remember a lot after that, to be honest with you.
I knew he was dead at that point… I mean, I just knew.
I don’t remember crying very much, I just remember, like… It was just shocking. I couldn’t believe it, I could not believe… You know, the last time I talked to this guy we were talking about, like… Oh, this is like the worst – so I had an ovulation app on my phone, and we wanted to have kids, so literally the last conversation I had with him was I’ve looked at my ovulation app, and the wedding was a month away; so I was like, “Baby, I’m gonna be ovulating on our wedding night. I know you wanted to have kids, but did we want to have kids, like, next month?” And he was like, “Isn’t that the whole point of your wedding night?,” and he had this cute little smile, and I was like, “Okay, I guess we’re gonna do this.” Then I went to bed and I never spoke to him again.
I went from talking to my fiancée about our starting a family to – there’s no wedding, he’s dead. My show is canceled, I mean… Nothing. My whole life was just ripped… Ripped very violently away from me, in like 5 minutes, on one phone call.
I couldn’t eat… I didn’t eat anything for probably three weeks. I mean, I had little bites of things, but I couldn’t keep any food down, I wasn’t hungry at all. But I would drink bourbon… I could eat shumai, for some reason those little shrimp dumplings didn’t upset my stomach, so I was able to eat those.
I didn’t work for like three months, I guess, at least. I couldn’t function, I just like cried all the time, I was a mess. It was awful, it was so awful…
* * *
By now I knew that I was leaving my apartment for sure, and plane tickets had been booked for South Africa. I had filed my address change, and obviously I had gone down to the post office to just triple-double confirm that everything was going to be forwarded to my permanent address, my post box Upstate. I had spoken to my mom who had promised to be checking my mail and opening it for anything important. Everyone had been briefed that this thing hopefully would show up in its new home, but… It never did. I was like, “Well, it was good while it lasted. Now I’m moving on and there’s no way this story is going to continue.”
He was reading when he died, and there was a ribbon that he had as a bookmark. A few months ago the book got kicked, or moved, or something, and the bookmark fell out. It was devastating, because now I don’t know where he was in the book, and it’s like a loss to me that I don’t know if he was on page… I mean, it was somewhere in the middle, but I don’t know if it was the page 150, or you know, 175… You know, it’s such a small thing, but not having that knowledge anymore is really profoundly sad. The finality of it pretty rough… Pretty rough.
It was crazy settling in South Africa, a completely different experience, and then about nine months later I came back for my first visit home, and my mom had a stack of mail for me. She’s like, “Okay, there’s something really important from the IRS, and also you need to renew your driver’s license, and I think your great aunt sent you another check…” And in the stack of mail WAS A LETTER.
December 14th, 1941
I can’t do this anymore. A lover from the future, who miraculously travels to 1936? Absurd. Why did I ever believe you?
Clearly, you were only the inventor of fantastical stories, not a time traveler. I don’t know why I’ve wasted so much time writing to you, carefully putting these letters aside. How could I ever have thought that they would ever arrive in, what – 75 years from now? I still miss you every day, but I’m so angry. Angry at you for leaving me, angry at you for showing up in the first place. Everything would be so much better if we’d never met, except for Shirley. I need to move forward with my life; for me, but most importantly for her. She needs a mother, and I’ve met someone who loves me, and her. And she wants to take care of us, and give Shirley the family she so desperately needs.
I’m sorry, but I can’t write to you any longer. I can’t keep holding on to a ghost.
This is like the most dramatic breakup letter I’ve ever gotten, and it’s not even really for me, and it’s not even from a real person, but I remember being appalled, feeling super responsible. Like, “Oh my god, I’ve really hurt someone.” It does seem very cold, and mean, and angry. You’re like, “What? But I was this person’s everything, and now just nothing, and he’s moving on.”
It’s obviously the last letter, I am getting cut off, it’s over, and with the change in tone, I sort of had this little feeling of like, “Okay, I think I know where this is coming from. I think it’s this guy that I used to date.” It was definitely not a happy parting; a lot of words were exchanged. All digital words, never handwritten.
He was mad, he was upset. He thought I didn’t exit in a very compassionate way. He thought I was cold and abrupt, and was forever angry that I wouldn’t just use the telephone to talk. Yeah, it was messy. I made the decision to reach out to him. I texted him, “How’s Shirley?”
I had spent the last four years being an artist with Aaron, and… Gosh, I just felt like I had so much to say to him, and I so desperately wanted to communicate with him. I just had a vision of getting a linen postcard; you know, slightly yellowed, with this handwritten text on the back, from the past. My vision of it was from Coney Island, from the beginning.
He texted me back and said, “I think I know what this is about.” He’s like, “It’s this gift… It’s this art project that my friend is doing. My friend Gyda is sending these letters to strangers… I decided to buy it for you, I hope you enjoyed it, and I wish you well.” He’s like, “I bought the gift for you because I knew, knowing Gyda, that it was going to be beautiful, but also that it wasn’t going to have a happy ending.”
You know, I still wonder what happened, because his heart stopped, but was he having chest pains the previous day, and didn’t go to the doctor? I was out of town, so I don’t have any information. I don’t know, I feel really abandoned by him… I know it’s not his fault, but like… I feel betrayed, I feel like he left me here, and… It makes me so upset, it makes me so angry.
I feel like the letters were a way for me to put some of that down somewhere… I don’t know… It’s funny because everyone I know that has really experienced a loss, they say, “You never really get over it, you just learn how to deal with it better.” I’m definitely not over it, I’m just dealing with it better.
* * *
July 22nd, 1969
I’m sorry I doubted you my darling. You told me men would walk on the moon, and here we are. I thought of destroying that last letter, but I didn’t want to lie to you, about all the years between letters.
I’ve got so much mixed of feelings. I’m not sure at all any more about what you said. For years, I thought you were a phony, or at best a creative soul, unable to separate your stories from reality, but now… Can it all really be true?
August 3rd, 1985
Thinking of you again. Florence is gone. She was such a comfort to me after I lost you, and here I am, withered again. The memories are what keeps me going. I find myself retreating more and more into those days we spent together…
That beautiful, happy summer, so long ago…
June 23rd, 2008
Today on the street when I passed you, you took my breath away. I swear you look just as I remember you, but so much younger. You didn’t notice me. How could I walk up to you, and tell you how we’re going to meet soon? Your future, my past. You were wearing red, just like that day we met…
October 10th, 2012
I fear this will be my last letter. The chemo and surgery haven’t been too successful. I lived a long life, so I guess I can’t complain too much.
I still miss you though, every day. I hope there is some kind of afterlife, and I’ll see you again soon. I can’t wait to ask you all the questions I’ve stored up over the years… What made your journey to be possible… Was it really just a coincidence… Why 1936? Hoping I’ll see you on the other side…
Nick van der Kolk, Host & Director
Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Producer
Brendan Baker, Producer
Paulus Van Horne, Assistant Producer