Today, in a bizarre toast to you on your day, I made the decision to go through my box of old love letters. Back when we started dating I went to TJ Maxx and bought a box with purple lilacs and French script printed on the cover. What a perfectly romantic place to store the letters you’d been sending me from school! How heartbroken our little teenage hearts were when you left! We knew it was the beginning of a long road paved by the military; lined with long-distance, hard-work, and loneliness.
Your letters were sweet and short and written in between desperately busy days. You wrote to me about how beautiful I was. How sweet and kind. How much you looked forward to seeing me again. How much you looked forward to the next part, the next month, year, whatever, because it all meant we were closer to seeing each other again and always inches closer to the ultimate: life together after school. You wanted to see me wake up in the morning and hold me at night. You wanted to tell me you loved me and laugh with me. You wanted to be friends. You wanted to be family.
What do I do with those letters now? Do I throw them away and pretend they never existed? Do I reduce them to some manipulative scheme and dismiss them? Do I let them sit in my heart and feel the love I felt when I was 18, 19, 20, etc., etc, etc.
I’d like to think it was real. If you were manipulating me I don’t think you knew it. I’m not sure you loved me as deeply as you claimed or as intimately as I needed, but I think somewhere and somehow you loved me. In some universe, when you addressed cards as my love, I really was your love. When you wrote me that I was beautiful and would be a perfect mother and wife, that you would take care of us and protect us, you didn’t know yet I would need protecting from you. You didn’t know that you would tell me someday you wouldn’t want kids because you didn’t want them to grow up to be like me. That one day you could watch me tip the man in the parking lot and look at me, seriously, and say “I fucking hate you” and pretend you never said anything at all. I don’t think you knew on our first Valentine’s Day when you called me your heart and soul that on our last Valentine’s Day you would get me a blank card on the way home from work and never write in it.
Buried even deeper in the box is a list of things you loved about me where you told me I was smart. I don’t think you knew we would get in a door-slamming, sleep-on-the-couch fight because you thought men were smarter than women, and especially that you were smarter than me. That you could tease me and call me dumb and useless and I would laugh it off.
How do I reconcile these people that I knew? There was the sweet, sensitive boy who wrote these letters. He surprised me with a weekend to the beach one of our first married summers. We took a ferry to an island and spent the days eating seafood, sleeping on the sand, drinking and smoking cigars and singing 90s songs on the porch. We were at home together. You used to open your arms up to me and ask for a hug while you were on the couch- I loved that you did that. I would be busy, cleaning or folding clothes, and you knew that sometimes an interruption was best. Your arms were strong and warm.
How was that the same man who could leave me alone in a house night after night for hours at a time? Who could disappear to a bar with friends without caring to tell me when he’d come home? Who wouldn’t hug me or touch me or speak to me unless I begged him? Who could scream til he was blue because I took too long curling my hair?
I used to think the kind version of you was the real one, and the dark version was the one that needed excusing, and there were plenty of excuses. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe that version was real enough, but those roots can only grow so deep. At the core and buried underneath is your darkness and sadness and hatred. I think it might be rotting you away, because it certainly tried to rot me.
I’ll put it so you can understand: I think your kindness is real in the way paint is layered on the canvas. You’ll paint it on thick enough until even you believe it and everyone else sees something beautiful. In the end, though, the canvas is weak and thin and when the paint starts to chip off there’ll be nothing beneath but sadness.