Uncommon Creatures: Selected Letters to Tatiana

an Essay by Caitlyn Renee Miller

Pohang, South Korea

Dear Tatiana,

You asked what it’s like here? It’s like clawing my way toward being happy for maybe the first time. But perhaps you meant what is Korea like, not what are your deep-seated psychological issues like?

If so:

Korea is a hundred places at once. Our little neighborhood is a mix of the brand new and very old. We had dinner tonight in a restaurant I can only describe as ramshackle. It was obviously constructed as a small, shed-like structure and then expanded over time. Imagine a building of brick and drywall and concrete and wood beams and corrugated metal. The food was pretty good. A block away is the posh (I’m not being sarcastic) Dunkin’ Donuts where I had coffee this morning. 
There are mountains everywhere. There are tiny villages and sprawling cities. Sometimes people realize we don’t speak Korean and speak to us more vehemently, like something will click in our minds and we’ll suddenly be able to understand. I’ve had the strange experience of reliving what it was like before I could read. I see words everywhere that carry no meaning. They are pictures, decorative.

Friends hold hands in the street. Yesterday I saw three men in their sixties linked together. And yet there are many topics that are considered impolite to discuss. It’s a place of opposites, I guess.

I like opposites because I think that’s what people are made of,


Greenbackville, Virginia

Dear Tatiana,

Since getting back from Korea, I work Wednesday to Sunday and my days off are Monday and Tuesday. Sunday night, covered in grime from the garden center I’m managing, I drive to Derek’s mom’s house to spend my faux weekends with him. I listen to a local country station during the hour-long drive. The deejay has a Diane Rehm quality to his voice and often seems baffled by the equipment he uses to broadcast. Sometimes he restarts songs after about thirty seconds to interject corrections to his previous statements: “We are not broadcasting live on 97.5.” Once he shifted gears for ten minutes to play only theme songs to old television shows. After each theme song he gave a short, priceless synopsis of the show: “That was the theme song to the Rockford Files. The Rockford Files takes place in modern day.” Once he started playing one song on top of a different song like a drug-crazed rave deejay. And of course, he plays classic country songs. “That was ‘I Wish I Was a Teddy Bear,’ specially requested for Kathy. It’s her favorite song.” I have questions about this. Has Kathy heard any other songs in her lifetime? Does she collect dolls? She collects dolls.

It’s local election season, so I see a lot of signs endorsing candidates in people’s yards. Beau Oglesby is running for State’s Attorney. Dale Smack is running for Orphans’ Court Judge. It’s so rural where I live that everyone’s names sound like they’re a villain tying some poor girl to a train track.

Derek and I gallivant around and kayak and cabin camp and take long walks and fight and have sex. It’s a pretty good life.

Work is work, but I’m learning a lot and only one-third of our employees have quit since I started in March,


Salisbury, Maryland

Dear Tatiana,

Hearing from you made my day. And yes, I’m living my dream — writing for a little money, living closer to Derek. If there’s one thing I deplore, it’s getting what I want.

Also this week:

– My mom had surgery

– My sister’s work project — a space rocket — exploded

– I developed a cluster of zits on my neck that I put a Band-Aid over. Then, when I took it off, I had a bunch of sticky stuff in the shape of a Band-Aid that turned black and looked worse than the zit cluster.

Has any of this ever happened to you?,


Salisbury, Maryland

Dear Tatiana,

I’m sitting alone in a darkened room eating Greek yogurt (strawberry banana). I’m lonely and want to call you but prefer imagining you out doing something glamorous, wearing that shiny shell purse you like. You are unavailable to take my call.

If you were around, I’d tell you about what I saw on my run today. It’s fall so every other family has exterminated their existing lawn to start over; they believe they’ll finally achieve perfection this year. The next-door neighbors hired a team of people who worked tirelessly to coax up tiny tufts of fescue. The result is a lawn electric. It’s an ocean of green, green grass. It’s so close to a crayon color that it gives my body a weird feeling when I look at it.

Derek and I are house- and cat- and dog-sitting for his mom and stepdad. Yesterday a lost dog came to the house. It felt like that horrible scene in Fantasia. I had visions of the animals in our care multiplying in perpetuity. The lost dog had a tag with his owner’s phone number and his name: DOG. Dog spent the night in the garage. He just about clawed the shit out of me when I went to check on him this morning. His owner picked him up at 7:30 a.m. His owner also owns the orchard up the street. He expressed remorse.

Meanwhile, the cats have been (in Derek’s words) “stress vomiting” quite a bit,


Salisbury, Maryland

Dear Tatiana,

I was just thinking about what we’d be doing if you were here and decided I’d take you to the zoo. Not because it’s “one of the best small zoos in the country,” but because they have two capybaras with glorious overbites. Derek and I go to see them a lot. He wistfully calls them majestic, and we linger by their enclosure, give all of the other animals a cursory glance, and finish by checking back in with the capybaras. Sometimes they aren’t in full view, and I consider that to be a wasted zoo trip. 
This is the same zoo that used to house an emotionally disturbed brown bear. The sign on his pen read, in part:


What’s this bear doing?

You may notice our male spectacled bear behaving “unbearably.”

This bear has some habits we’re trying to understand better. Sometimes the bear may look like he’s hurting himself, but don’t worry — our zookeepers are keeping a close eye on him. They are trying different ways to change some of his behaviors.

I know this from a photograph I just transcribed — one I’m glad I took. It seems like they have successfully rehabilitated the bear, and the sign is no longer posted. Great for the bear, sad for me because that was probably my favorite Salisbury landmark.

Also, the flamingos are deafening,


Guanajuato, Mexico

Dear Tatiana,

The ice cream here is not good. I don’t know enough food words to describe it, though I’m not sure I want to learn more. It disturbs me when people say “umami” with a mixture of reverence and pride. I think Mexican ice cream is a mixture of natural flavors and disappointment.

I just finished reading a new book that taught me a lot of new words unrelated to food. I’m carrying them in my pockets like marbles.

How are you? I read the story you sent while I was rushing through my tea, which I spilled the majority of because I snatched the mug out of the microwave so that I could chug the tea while it was still very hot. And when I spilled it, I was angry because it did not burn my hand, and was thus not hot enough. That’s a true story. Nonetheless, I’m lucky to have this time to read and write while Derek studies Spanish. I guess I’m also lucky for the unscalded skin I’m sporting.

Sometimes I wish I could trade lives with you anyway because you seem to have it all figured out.

If this is an illusion, please do not shatter it,


Salisbury, Maryland

Dear Tatiana,

The self-harming bear at our zoo has died. He fathered a daughter bear, which is a huge deal because spectacled bears are endangered and rarely born in captivity, and because he was 24 years old (600 in dog years if my conversion is correct). But here’s the other thing about bears: they aren’t good fathers. They get jealous and try to kill their babies. So the dad bear had to spend what turned out to be his final months in quarantine. He never got to meet Alba. She’s cute and playful and likes to eat carrots and tear the bark off of trees. Derek and I went to the zoo last week (one of the first visits of our marriage) and had yet another mystical capybara experience.

Capybaras communicate with longing looks (as do I),


Caitlyn Renee Miller’s poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared online, in print, and in two anthologies. She is the author of three non-fiction books for young readers. Caitlyn lives in Salisbury, Maryland, where she works as a writer, editor, and part-time school librarian. You can find her most recent essay here.