I hadn’t thought about the letter in years, but I knew what it was as soon as I saw it — a note from someone I don’t know anymore to a person who doesn’t exist.
Maybe someone else could have left it alone. I couldn’t. I pulled at the edge of the red envelope, freeing it from a small stack of similar letters. Some were cards. Some were on stationary. Some had beads. Others, stickers. Many “sealed with a lick ’cause a kiss won’t stick.”
I sat next to the box full of buried memories and I started to read.
I’m not going to tell you what any of the letters said. I would say they are for me, but I’m not even so sure of that anymore. They were to the person I was, the man my love saw and wanted to be with. A version of myself who wasn’t really even much of a person yet, me before the metamorphosis.
Shattering is extremely, tantalizingly conducive to mulling over alternate timelines. Breaking up naturally leads to those endless, fruitless “What if…” questions we ask the bedroom ceiling at night. There are no answers there. But almost two years into my transition, rediscovering the old cards and letters felt like dipping into another timeline. The missives were meant for someone else, someone whose memories are stored in my mind, snippets and clips that are both warm and distant.
They’re Schrödinger’s love letters, here and not at once.
I don’t think I’m going to surprise anyone by saying that I didn’t stop reading after the first. One by one, I pulled them all from the little stack — my own personal section of bittersweet strata. Some lines made me smile. Some made me take a deep, calming breath. The past meeting the present found its own odd balance. I knew the ending of the story now, which you may never have guessed if you only had the letters to go on.
There was only one that I struggled to finish. A little folded piece of green construction paper decorated with beads and stickers, so packed with emotion that the words don’t entirely fit on the rectangle. It was a promise, a note from the past about a future that would never exist.
When the relationship ended, as I stuffed some boxes in the closet and tried to sort out what — if anything — my life would be, I wanted to do things “right.” I talked to my therapist. I asked friends for advice. I read whatever relevant books I could find. The message that kept popping up over and over again was distance. I couldn’t leave past threads hanging around like some kind of telltale heart, pulsing from the darkness.
I acted more like a wounded animal than a person. Maybe that’s how the box of letters escaped my attention. There were times where, had I remembered them, I would have been tempted to rip, shred, toss, burn, anything to free myself from what I could remember.
But I’m glad I didn’t.
You know how when the stress of the week tangles together in a knot at your shoulders, and asking someone to rub that spot hurts for a moment before your muscles start to relax? Of course finding those letters stung for a moment. As I put them back into the box, though, I felt soothed.
A breakup can lead you to question everything. What was even real? The things that hurt? The things that were good? The ending can creep backwards in time, with “Not right anymore” becoming “Never been right,” even if you’re not sure that’s true. There are so many frames to look through but seemingly never the one that you need, the one that lets you see the truth. You pick your narratives, even if you change them every day. Some facts and events remain, but you can bat what they meant back and forth forever if you want to.
The letters meant that I hadn’t been living in an illusion. I wasn’t myself yet. She wasn’t, either. We were waiting to be, and we lived in that place of wonderful and terrible tension together. We didn’t know all that we should have, but that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t real. In time, we grew. And we grew apart.
The ending doesn’t make the beginning untrue.
When I was through reading, part of my brain said “Maybe you should throw these away.” But it was a hollow suggestion. My heart wasn’t in it. And the words didn’t cut. Years after they were written, and so long since the breakup, I felt more curious than apprehensive. My story is between the lines, after all, a marker for the anxious person who was waiting to be against who I am now.
I tucked the letters back as I found them, and I put the box in the closet. I’ve been trying to forget about it. I’ve been trying to forget that I even have them. Not because I’m tempted to look again, but because I want this moment again. I want the memories to sink back to where they were and one day find them again, to rediscover them as whoever I’m going to be when I eventually pull one from the stack again.
I can’t lie and say that time heals everything. There are some things that waiting can’t, and probably shouldn’t, patch over. But time will certainly change you. I don’t feel any anger or malice to the woman who wrote those letters. I feel sad for the man who they were meant for, how much pain she was in and unable to tell anyone. The words aren’t monuments to something that twists and burns. They’re still sweet, even if I know they’re not at all meant for me.
I can let them rest for a while. They’ll find me again someday.