By Kelcie McKenney
In the fifth grade I paid $1.95 for a best friend.
My French teacher pressed us to try a pen pal service that would let us meet new friends across the globe. I wasn’t all that interested in France—my French was a mumble at best—so I set my eyes on England instead. I sealed in a check, a survey about my interests, and the hopes of meeting an international friend into an envelope addressed to the International Youth Service.
It took weeks before the first letter arrived, but when it did, I could hardly contain my excitement. Written in round, school-girl handwriting was a message from a girl named Charlotte. She was my age, she loved to dance, her favorite color was blue, and she lived six time zones away in Bolton, England—a place I had only dreamed of existing.
I replied to it that night.
From there, we started writing each other frequently. We’d talk about our small lives, compare differences between England and America, and gush about how excited we were to have a pen pal. Gifts were mailed on Christmas and birthdays, becoming tangible tokens of our relationship that had reached 3,850 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Each letter ended with hope for the next:
Well please write back soon. Love from your UK’s best friend Charlotte.
As our friendship progressed, so did technology. We chatted on instant messenger and started Skyping weekly, our low-quality webcams keeping us connected miles apart. It was there that I first heard Charlotte’s British accent, and she’d always laugh when I said something “American” in my Midwestern accent. Her eyes would crinkle and she’d throw her head back, shocked at the way I said aluminum or garbage.
“We’ve just got to meet each other,” Charlotte said one night, well past 1 a.m. She was sitting in the dark on her bunk bed, trying to keep quiet so she wouldn’t wake her sister.
I relentlessly agreed, but neither of our parents were very keen on the idea of allowing their fourteen-year-olds to travel internationally. I kept pressing at mine, anyway. It took over a year before my mother folded—my dad relented much earlier. For every Christmas and birthday gift I asked for cash, I kept babysitting, and even started working at my neighbor’s catering company. I saved up until I could afford a plane ticket from Minneapolis to Manchester, UK—the city nearest to Charlotte’s home in Bolton.
The summer I was 16, I boarded a plane for my first international flight alone. I’d flown alone before, to visit my cousin in Georgia, but an overnight flight across the Atlantic was something else entirely. I thought I’d be terrified, but instead, the idea of meeting Charlotte, finally, kept my fears at bay and instead fueled me with an indescribable excitement. That morning at the airport, my cheeks ached from smiling so much while my stomach flip flopped in anticipation. I could hardly sleep during the nine-hour flight. The first thing I saw right before the plane touched down was a grassy field filled with sheep. That’s when I knew it was real.
I nearly tripped off the plane, my heart pounding as I rushed to get to my bag and customs. The line inched along, and when I finally reached a UK border agent and explained that I was visiting my pen pal for the first time, they made me wait so they could check to see if the family was real. I sat in a chair right across the border for what felt like forever, my stomach twisting into more knots, but my smile didn’t falter. After about 10 minutes, they gave me the OK to go.
Dragging my massive suitcase behind me, I walked out of customs and scanned the crowd for Charlotte’s face. It took a second to spot her, and I was surprised at how odd it was seeing her in person and off the screen. Her face looked the same, but blurry webcams can’t fully capture a person’s expressions. We both started running towards each other.
Finally giving Charlotte a hug was unfathomably great, and both of us held on as long as we could. Her mum started crying, but tried to brush it off by wiping her tears on her shirt and trying to corral us in the direction of the car park. Charlotte and I couldn’t stop giggling.
“I can’t believe you’re really here,” Charlotte said, poking me in the arm.
“I can’t believe it either,” I managed to say from behind a grin while poking her back.
My first time in England flew by. We took walks along the countryside and her grandparents drove us around town to get the full tour. I met her friends and her family over meals at the pub. At night I slept in her bottom bunk, but before crawling into bed we made a ritual.
“Alright, nightly hug time,” Charlotte said each night before wrapping her arms around me in a tight squeeze.
“We’re making up for lost time,” I said. Those Skype hugs just didn’t cut it.
That week ended too quickly, and eight days later I was dropped off at the airport. During the car ride there we took one look at each other and started crying.
“I don’t want you to go,” Charlotte said.
“I don’t want to leave,” I managed to say.
By the time we got to the airport we both had streaks of tears running down our face. We gave each other one last hug, promising we’d try another visit next summer and that we’d Skype soon.
That first trip jump-started a tradition of visiting each other once a summer—switching back and forth between Minnesota and Bolton—but the letters and Skyping didn’t stop. We grew closer to each other’s families. Both of our mothers were named Julie, so mine was dubbed Julie Mom and hers Julie Mum. Our families started sending cards and gifts too, and it wasn’t long before Charlotte’s grandparents were signing “Your English Grandparents” in their letters to me.
Through high school, we remained close. Charlotte was there for me when I went through my first breakup. I skyped with her only a few days after, trying to express how broken my 17-year-old heart was. She told me everything would be alright, that I was beautiful, and that she’d always be there. When my mom had her first then second seizure, Charlotte was there. She listened to me freak out and promised I would be ok. When we both got into a university—Charlotte at University of Cumbria in Lancaster and me at University of Minnesota—we celebrated online, squealing over the webcam at how proud we were of each other.
With our subsequent trips we started traveling. First it was Chicago, where during rush-hour traffic outside of the city, we took goofy photos in the back seat of the car and laughed until our chests hurt while singing the chorus of “Chicago” by Frank Sinatra over and over again.
Two summers later, we went to Duluth for a weekend, visiting one of my friends from college. When we were 20, we spent a weekend in Lancaster at her University, took a night road trip to Wales and ran straight out the car and into the Irish Sea, visited one of Charlotte’s friends in Liverpool and Formby, and spent a weekend away in Edinburgh, Scotland.
On our first night in Scotland, after spending the day exploring Calton Hill and the Edinburgh Castle, we walked around after dinner looking for a place to buy a drink on a Wednesday night. We walked nearly around the whole of Edinburgh, our calves aching, before we found a hotel lobby with an open bar. We ordered a drink and sat near the window where my mind wandered about how lucky I was to be seeing different parts of the world. This trip wouldn’t have been the same, or even possible, without Charlotte.
“You’re like a sister to me,” I said between sips of a bubbly Schweppes drink we had both settled on.
“I feel the same,” Charlotte said. “You’re my favorite American.”
“I hate that I only get to see you once a year,” I said.
I left for home at the end of that trip the same way I had on my first visit: crying and with a long hug.
The following autumn I studied abroad in London for the semester; it was the closest I’d ever lived to Charlotte, yet I was still a four hour train ride away. When I got my UK number, the first person I called was her, sitting in my temporary flat’s living room. We had plenty planned during my time abroad. She’d be in London for a weekend during a teacher’s conference for school and I’d be visiting her in Lancaster for a weekend later in the year.
We organized a trip to Rome right after finals, the week before Christmas. I saw the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps for the first time, all with Charlotte. We flew back to Bolton to stay with her grandparents on Christmas Eve, settling in for two more weeks before I’d fly back to Minnesota.
On Christmas morning we awoke filled with childlike enthusiasm. Instead of skyping on Christmas like we had done for years previous, we were together. I joined in on their family tradition that day, opening exchanged gifts and devouring an English Christmas dinner—with liver pate and a baked ham—with her mum, sister, and grandparents.
“I’m really glad you could be here,” Charlotte said while we sat on the couch watching the Queen’s Christmas Message. She had a glass of wine in one hand and a paper crown on her head—the result of a recently popped Christmas cracker.
“I am too, Char,” I said, setting my glass of wine down and squeezing her hand.
“Do you remember our first Christmas Skype?” she asked.
“Yeah, it was the first time I used my webcam, and we had to call each other on the phone because your mic wasn’t working.”
“Right,” she said with a laugh. “This is so much better than that.”
It was my first Christmas away from my family in Minnesota, but I couldn’t feel more at home. With my pseudo-sister next to me and my English family around me, it felt like Christmas ought to. Charlotte and I would be graduating soon and hopefully getting jobs. We knew things were going to change, annual trips would get more difficult with busier schedules, but in that moment on Christmas, I realized how lucky I was. Forget distance, forget means of communication, forget cultural differences, Charlotte was my sister—not by blood but by experience. And that wouldn’t have been possible without $1.95 and a stamp.
Kelcie McKenney is a writer, editor, and artist who is passionate about feminism. She currently works as Digital Editor at The Pitch , where she writes and edits for Kansas City’s alternative magazine. You can find Kelcie watching internet cat videos, eating brunch, taking photos, and reading mystery novels.