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A Brief History of Sent and Received Notes | Caleb Hildenbrandt

A Brief History of Sent and Received Notes


When I was eight years old I was playing in a church gymnasium—one of those indoor basketball courts attached to Baptist megachurches—and found someone else’s note.  It was against the wall, crumpled up, in lined notebook paper and heavy blue ink.

I uncrumpled it and it said:

“Dear Chad, I like you.
Do you want to be friends?  Check one:
[ ] Yes  [ ] No.”

It felt as if I had stumbled upon something terribly important.  I knew who Chad was (one of the older kids—I liked him too) and so I walked to him, at the far end of the gym, and said, “I found this note.  It’s for you.”

I held it out.

“I know,” he said.  “I read it.”

“Don’t you want it?”

“No.”  He turned away from me.

“Why not?”  I asked.

“Just don’t.”

I put the note in my pocket and walked away.  Later, still convinced I had stumbled across something important, something vital and significant, I showed the note to my dad.

“Oh yes,” he said, “The old check-box note.”

The idea that this note belonged to a whole genre of notes, that there were others like it, that they were sufficiently prevalent, and sufficiently established, that my dad had been aware of them from his own childhood, simultaneously robbed the note of its mystique and added to its significance.

I kept the note for years in a shoebox where I kept letters.  While I knew it didn’t belong to me, it felt too fragile to throw out.


When I was twenty-one I was an English major taking a class on regency novels and I got an email from a classmate that said she really liked hearing what I had to say in class and that she thought I was smart and a good dresser.  I replied to her email and said that I didn’t know who she was, despite the fact that she named and described herself, what she looked like and where she sat.  She emailed me back and also sent me a friend request on Facebook.  When I accepted it a chat window immediately popped up.

“hey, thanks for adding me! now you have a face for the name lol”

“Yeah,” I said, “left side of the room, got it now. :)”

I actually still didn’t recognize her face, but hoped I would next time I went to class.

As we chatted, she said things like “Certainly!” and “I couldn’t agree more” and “No doubt.”  When I asked her what she wanted to do after school she said,

“I want to freelance and open my own bookstore.
My goal is to leave people breathless with my own words :)”

When she told me that she had seen the Lovely Bones movie over the weekend I said “NICE,” even though I thought The Lovely Bones was a sentimental wreck and that Sebold was pretending catharsis could substitute for literature.

At one point she told me that she “laughed out loud” at something I’d said.  She asked me where I went to high school and I said that I had to run.  We chatted once or twice more and decided to meet up for drinks, and then decided to just meet at Panera Bread instead.  While we were there I ran into a friend that I hadn’t seen for years and I was glad that I was dressed well that day because I thought my friend had been very successful after high school and I wanted him to remember me this way in case it was years before we saw each other again.

When Panera Bread closed we both agreed that “this has been fun” but didn’t make plans to meet up again.  After that semester ended I still saw her around campus occasionally, and if she saw me, we waved and smiled, and if she didn’t see me, I would watch as she kept on walking with a glower.  Her permanent facial expression when she wasn’t talking to people was a glower.  She now writes a blog which is pretty well-written but is mostly about the boys she has dated.


When I was twenty-two I was still in school and taking a linguistics class and sat behind a girl with very short hair and very large breasts and very short skirts.  I emailed her one day suggesting that we go out for coffee and the next time she saw me she said “Sure” but that, just so I knew, she was in a relationship.  Our schedules didn’t work out and we never actually got coffee.


When I was twenty-four I was married and still in school.  I was studying in the student union and had to go to the bathroom and as I walked there I passed by two girls sitting at a café table at the student union’s café and one of them, the one facing my direction as I passed, was very beautiful.  When I walked back to my seat where I had been studying I turned my head as I passed their table to get another look at the girl sitting there.

When I finished studying I tore a corner off a page of my scheduler and wrote “You are beautiful,” except it was all in small capitals and filled the pyramidal shape of the page-corner, so it was more like


I stood up and debated for a long time whether or not to leave the note on the table in front of the girl, whether or not it would be creepy, whether or not it would be wrong, given that I was married.  I decided it would be okay as long as I didn’t stop walking as I slid the paper onto the table and as long as I walked away very fast, so as to avoid even the slightest hint that I was trying to initiate a conversation with the girl.  (In fact I did not have any intention of starting a conversation with her.)  As I passed their table a third time, note in hand, I decided against it.  As I walked away I told myself that the girl was actually not that beautiful.

That evening I threw the note in the wastebasket of an empty bathroom and then masturbated in one of the bathroom stalls.


Three weeks ago I took the bus to campus, bringing my bike with me, with the bike sitting in the bus’s bike rack.  As I wheeled my bike to the lock-up in front of the building I teach in, a girl was also locking up her bike and going through a complicated process of dressing and undressing from, I suppose, biking clothing to indoor clothing (it was November and 7:38 in the morning and therefore very cold, although the inside of the building was kept very warm.)  She asked me how I brought my bike with me on the bus and I explained how the rack worked and how you had to take an early bus if you wanted to use it because the later busses were fuller.  She accepted this information with what appeared to be interest.  I went into the building and turned the lights on in my classroom and booted up the computer and projector and put on my tie and combed my wet hair (I had been in too much of a hurry to catch the bus to finish dressing at home.)  I thought that maybe I’d been too distracted talking to the girl, who had been cute in a flustered, blushing way, to lock up my bike, so I went back outside and passed the girl at the door as she entered, and we smiled, and I wondered if she noticed that this time I was wearing a tie and that my hair was combed, and I verified that yes, my bike was locked, but I could see obliquely through the glass doors of the building that the girl had stopped and was again going through some complicated adjustment of her clothes or bags.  Not wanting to see her again in such quick succession, I walked around the building and entered by another door.

That afternoon I had an appointment off-campus and when I went to get my bike I found a note in my helmet that said,

“You were cute.”

I flipped it over and wrote on the back

“I was just about to leave the same note.”

and tied it with a piece of string to her handlebars.  I hadn’t been about to leave a note, but as I had been walking out of the building I had been thinking about the girl and how she had been cute.  I figured that because I had taken an early bus that morning and because I didn’t usually enter by that door that I was unlikely to ever see that girl again.

A few days later I passed her in the hallway and I ignored her because I wasn’t sure what to say.

A few days after that I was riding the early bus again and saw her as the bus passed her and we made eye contact through the window.  After I finished setting up my classroom I walked back toward the entrance because I figured it would be a good idea to actually talk to her but she met me coming and we both said “Hi” and we both smiled but then she ducked into a bathroom.  She left two bags at the crooked entrance and I went back to my classroom.

During my office hours I wrote another note:

Sorry I brushed past you on Friday.  I felt awkward, I guess because telling someone that you think they’re cute seems pretty much like something someone would do if they were trying to be in / open to being in a relationship (“flirting”), which isn’t the case, in my case.  I mean it probably wasn’t the case in your case either. But, anyway, sorry.  I meant what I said but I probably shouldn’t have said it.  I don’t want to be awkward if we see each other again.  Let’s be friends.  My name’s —–.

I went back to the entrance and tied the note with string to her handlebars.
The next time we passed each other in the hall, she didn’t smile, and neither of us said hello.


About Caleb Hildenbrandt

Caleb Hildenbrandt is the author of American Paranoid Restaurant, and curates The Flaneur Interviews.

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