The Ex-Files: What I learned after rediscovering letters from past girlfriends
Everyone who has made a long-distance move in their life — when they decided to take with them only what they could fit in their car — has been tasked with deciding what is absolutely necessary. Clean underwear, maybe some dishes. But on my multiple cross-country moves, I made room in the mid-sized sedan for a sentimental item or two.
That included a small wooden box my grandfather made when he was young. When he gifted it to me, it included some poker chips and a deck of cards.
At some point, I removed the chips and cards, and felt like this would be a good place to store letters I received. And over the course of time, all the letters had one thing in common: they all came from people I dated.
Receiving these letters from old girlfriends at a time when texting and emailing was already so much easier made it feel disrespectful to throw them away. And without giving it much thought, I’d stick them in my grandfather’s box.
That’s where they rested, largely untouched after their initial reading. As I would add letters to the box over the years, I wouldn’t go back and read the old ones. There was a certain anxiety I had, like acknowledging that I held on to them would reflect an inability of mine to let go of the past. Tucking them away, out of the light of day, was OK. I wasn’t clinging onto a lost love, but storing memories away the same way I would do in my head.
And yet, during a recent bout of spring cleaning, there it was: my grandfather’s box.
Why that day seemed like a good day to go through the letters I can’t quite say. Maybe it was my upcoming 40th birthday, and I wanted to see if there were any common threads in these letters that might explain why I was still single. I was surprised to see how many letters had accumulated. And once I started reading them, I also was surprised at what I had forgotten about my past.
Dear Kevin. I am so glad that we got to know each other this summer. It was one of the best summers of my life, and I'm sad it had to end. I know we are both going to have a great freshman year of college at our respective schools. I painted you a painting of the Seattle skyline as a reminder of our time together this summer and, since you are leaving Seattle, a way for you to still feel close to home. I look forward to see what life has in store for us down the road.
I remember that painting, and I remember feeling bad about being talked into throwing really nice artwork in the trash when another girlfriend came along, jealous that there were remnants of the past hanging in my apartment.
The next one, written on handmade paper, read:
Dear Kevin. One of the first things I grew a liking to while studying in Slovakia was the plum brandy...I'm not sure if this is a place you would actually enjoy, it doesn't really seem like 'you,' but I've always been happy that we've been able to remain such good friends after our breakup, and I wanted you to know how life has been, and here's hoping life is treating you well.
That one I received when I was still in high school, and I ended up going to prom with her after she returned. She brought some of that plum brandy that evening, and it didn’t go well.
So all of these letters were a nice reminder that I was always a model boyfriend, and a model ex-boyfriend. Everyone was always able to move on with ease. But, of course, that’s not how it works. And if each letter I went through marked a chapter, there were chapters that were less pleasant to revisit, like this next one.
Dear Kevin. I know you don't want to hear from me right now, but your roommate texted me and he's worried. He said you aren't eating much and that you haven't been to work. I've been torn between whether or not I should write you, and if it would actually help or hurt. But if you never listen to anything I've ever said to you before, please listen now. You are important, with or without me, and you need to take care of yourself.
I remember that this did help, and I remember being very motivated by it. At least for a little while. I lost a bunch of weight (in a healthy way), made new friends and had a great time. But as time went on, and the letter collected dust in my grandfather's box, the motivation faded as well.
It was around then that I received a slightly less gentle letter. This next one arrived in my early 30s.
Kevin. I've told you this before that you are probably the smartest person I have ever met. But I'd rather be with someone half as smart as you that is doing something, than to be with a waste of a genius.
For the record, I am no genius. In fact, a friend told me once that, while he cares about me very much, he would never hire me to be his doctor or lawyer. I’ve often thought that if I was that smart, I would have been able to figure out relationships a long time ago.
As I got to the bottom of my grandfather’s box, there was the last letter. It was not the oldest under any circumstances, which makes me think that I intentionally buried it.
Dear Kevin. I love you so much, and it is hard to believe how quickly and deeply we fell in love. Every moment I spend with you is so special. I remember our first kiss in the car, and the first moment I knew I loved you. But I know that if there is a chance that I can make it work, I owe it to my marriage to try and make it work. I don't know what the future holds, and I don't know if I will ever see you or talk to you again, which breaks my heart. But this is what I need to do.
That one hurt. And spare me the judgment. There isn’t a day that has gone by where I haven’t punished myself for that. If there was a letter that didn’t need to be written, it was that one. The kiss in the car, knowing that I severely impacted more than just my own relationship, and saying goodbye for the benefit of two people, neither of whom are me, needed no written reminder.
After I re-read that last one, I cried. And I started to wonder what I had been thinking, keeping all of these letters over the course of 25 years. What exactly did I have in mind back then, saving painful reminders?
I thought about that a lot after I put my grandfather’s box away. And what I sort of landed on was that if I knew at some point down the road I would end up reading these, then the odds were good that by the time I did I had overcome whatever sort of heartbreak and pain I had felt at the time that I received them. And instead of these being a painful reminder, they could be a reminder of how far I had come.
And it hit me that maybe the one person who really needed to write me a letter was me. That while the words from loves lost were in fact reminders of things that I have overcome, maybe I needed to give myself a little reminder, too.
So I sat down, and wrote a few drafts, but I just couldn’t seem to get across to myself exactly what I wanted to remind myself of. And would I put it in my grandfather’s box, only to forget about it, and find it years down the road collecting dust on another day of spring cleaning?
So I landed on a different kind of letter to myself. A letter I could see every day. I had my best friend take me to a tattoo parlor (something that every other day of my life up until now terrified me), and on my left shoulder I had tattooed “you got this.”
Nothing fancy, in Times New Roman (the font I like to read my copy in on the radio), but a daily reminder that whatever letter may arrive next, I got this.
I’ve decided to keep the letters, at least for now. While the tattoo was for me, keeping these letters is now for them. I may never see any of my exes again, but it’s my way of saying to them, that no matter what trials and heartbreak they may have had to deal with over the years, no matter what letters they may have received in the mail, they’ve got this, too.