Love Letters and Other Things That Didn’t Happen

You think you want that person who rejected you to be sorry. To come crawling back for you. Maybe you get over this desire and, you know, rise above it. You move on. At least, you move on until a night you can’t sleep and you start rehearsing a rewritten past. You would’ve said this. This person would’ve said that. You would’ve said this and–pow–this person would know how brilliant and wonderful you are.

14 and in Houston visiting mom
14 and in Houston visiting mom

This rewrite beats the original version where you sputtered and fumed all the way home, slammed to front door, and threw your purse across the room breaking a vase.

But what happens if he does come back?

When I got his letter I’d been married 5 years. It had been 10 years since we worked together. We never dated, but for months he let me believe he was single and about to ask me out. When I realized the truth, I threw my fit alone in my room, and then we stayed friends. Until the letter.

Not the great letters he wrote to me when I was overseas. Not the letters he wrote pouring out his feelings about the girl he was going to marry. Not the letters describing the first years of his child’s life. No. The letter that said, “I think about you…” A letter that asked if I remembered needing to borrow his room to get ready for a wedding. A letter where he rewrote his own scene in which he didn’t leave the room.

Sure, years before I wanted him to regret explaining how he needed a girl he could marry (whatever that means), but this letter didn’t make me feel flattered or pleased. There are compliments that flatter and compliments that disturb. Well, compliments that aren’t actually about you at all.

In fiction, characters learn information they don’t want to know. They learn things that change they’re thinking, their path, their choices. In real life, I wrote back to my letter writer and told him that we could go on being friends if we never mentioned this one letter ever again. I also suggested marriage counseling. He never wrote back.

In fiction, I might make a character take a road trip to meet her letter writing love. (My letter writer and I had seen Cyrano De Bergerac together after all.) Oh, the things that could happen on the road–and what would happen when she got to her destination? Would her husband have followed? Or no road trip. I could go with the letter writing madness. In this instant-messaging age, the characters could exchange wild letter–real letters with ink across paper. Or the letter writer could realize his mistake and determine to get that letter back. He becomes a stalker. He’ll do anything to get his words back and she’ll do anything to keep them. Or show them to his wife.

Why stick with it-really-happened-that-way when there are so many other possibilities?

10 thoughts on “Love Letters and Other Things That Didn’t Happen

  1. I was just thinking this today – why, when we are supposed to be so good with words, do we only think of the *perfect* thing to say hours after the event? (Perhaps because we are better at writing than talking? Fortunately we can then gift it to a character at some point …) All these broken hearts, all the nights spent sobbing listening to Rickie Lee Jones’ ‘Company’ (hope that wasn’t just me …), all the guys like this who have wasted love – it’s all power to your writing. Isn’t there a sweet film called the Love Letter? (Small town America, an anonymous love letter goes astray, each character think it is for them from the person they secretly adore – brings the whole place alive). Bring back pen and paper!

  2. Letters have so many possibilities. The written correspondence can have a life of it’s own…as if the words of each person have their own relationship with each other beyond the relationship of the people who write them or beyond a relationship with reality. A true fantasy life of words is born, even if the letter writters themselves don’t see it. I suppose the same thing happens with spoken words, but there is something magical about written words.

    I glimpse this fantasy life of words sometimes when I catch myself writing something just because I like the way it sounds, not because I really mean the words,

  3. Kate, I suppose it would be easier to think of the clever thing to say if people would sit there and wait like paper does. Now I’m curious about that movie–though stories on paper will always be my true love.

  4. Terrific post — not least, because I can sympathize with the people at ends of such a letter’s route. (“Younger and stupider” doesn’t quite work as an excuse.)

    In a way, this ties back to your post from… earlier this week, I think (no: last week) — the one asking if we’d ever used fiction to get back at somebody. This is (or can be) the other side of the coin, but they both get at the same thing — fictionalizing solutions to our own dilemmas.

    [Aside: ha ha, my PC’s random oldies playlist just coughed up “Don’t Ask Me to Be Lonely,” by The Dubs.]

    Ever write somebody a real letter that you didn’t send, but hung onto — only to have the unsent letter turn up later, at an inconvenient moment? (No, I haven’t, but that’s the stuff of real horror in my mind, way beyond SAW III etc.)

    Forgot about Rickie Lee Jones — haven’t listened to her in years. Thanks for the reminder, Kate!

  5. Rickie Lee Jones, yes- but my big heartbreak album in the eighties was Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello- still can’t listen to it today!

    My teenage daughter writes reams on her Xanga site and on Facebook- but finds actual letter writing intimidating- somehow the paper and ink is more of a commitment then a computer screen, though paradoxically, the audience is much wider – but perhaps, more impersonal.

    And JES- my novel is a “fictionalized solution to my own dilemna” in a certain sense- I play out a scenario that I feared in my own life. By playing it out in fiction, I not only lost the fear, I changed the final outcome- like taking control of a bad dream right before the monster kills you by turning and fighting back.

  6. Words are always important because they are how we define our lives. Spoken words are great in the moment (if you can find the right words) but they don’t stick around. A letter, though, is you making your life a story. And it’s much more concrete than the internet.

    A chance to tell our own story, isn’t that what everyone wants? Isn’t that why people become writers? Letters define our intimate stories. Novels the stories in our minds. What is it that blogs and fb and twitter define? The internet is such an interesting phenomenon in this equation. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

  7. Pamela

    How many women can relate to this story!
    I love Jes’s idea of revenge. I told you I love revenge.

    I suppose we can say in a novel, what we can’t in real life. Isn’t it interesting that they man in question didn’t say this to your face, but he had to say it in a letter. A letter is intimate and impersonal at the same time. I remember talking to a friend J while we were in college. I said something about a boy L, we worked with and a rumor that I had just heard that I was dating him. We had gone out when he got back from the summer, but it was just a friend thing since he was still in love with M. J was suprised and insinuated that I was dating him. My opinion was I was not. Later looking back, I wonder if he had put her up to finding out. Was he the source of said rumor because he could not face me to broach the idea himself?

    I think writing is where you can rewrite these situations, explore these situations and the motivations, or just be yourself with no societal filter, which is empowering.

  8. Love letters have a special place in life, a place I think calls for the being written with pen and ink, certainly printed if the handwriting is as dreadful as mine. While searching through the garage-cum-study, looking for some misplaced manuscript, I came upon a trove of letters, one an exchange between someone I’d thought was the one, another a series of letters to and from my sister when I was living in Mexico City. Each batch was like a time capsule, making me alternately pleased and less than pleased at my earlier selves, proud of many of the sentiments and insights, embarrassed by some of the others, certainly ahead of the game by small degrees. But the thing your essay reminds me of is the sense I have that I want all my letters and writing to be love letters, expressions of true sentiment to and about persons, places, and things, hopeful that in retrospect I will have less to cringe at than I have to feel proud of. It is no small thing to have someone to write love letters to, no small thing to have places, things, friends, animals about whom to write of love.

  9. “It is no small thing to have someone to write love letters to, no small thing to have places, things, friends, animals about whom to write of love.”

    Shelly, this is really beautiful. Thanks.

  10. I am a story teller. The real events, peppered with the way I can spin them just so to create the more perfect story has always been more important to me (a talent if you will) rather that the actual structure of what happened.

    Life is what we make it. So is reality. So is our past. So is our future.

    Amazing post!!

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