Going into my first surgery was scary and lonely, even if it was just to get my tonsils out. I’d been putting it off for months. So, I did what any woman who’d spent her childhood writing in diaries would do: I wrote myself a letter.
My plan was to read it after surgery, when I expected to be blackly depressed from the anesthesia. Remember, this dark feeling won’t last forever. I was a little embarrassed by my sentiment, but I was going into the operation already feeling low. I had just returned from an ill-fated trip to England to see if a friend and I could start a romance. While there, I came down with my umpteenth infection, finally accepted that I needed to have my tonsils cauterized, and painfully absorbed another romantic disappointment.
While I was recovering in a recliner eating fruit popsicles, a man was considering what to do now that he’d been laid off. As part of his investigation into career options, he made an appointment at UCLA Extension with my colleague who was meeting with prospective design students while I was out. The man forgot to write the appointment in his calendar. When he called to apologize and reschedule, he was told he could meet with the regular advisor at 2pm the next Thursday.
The man was also a letter writer. In preparation for our meeting, he sent an introductory email. I’m a mid-life career changer with a BA in English from the University of Kansas… It went on in a revealing but endearingly businesslike tone.
When he appeared in the doorway of my office, my body turned to cotton. He was handsome, yes, but there was something else. It was almost tangible, like an unspoken agreement we had already made. While we proceeded to talk about web design, which was the purpose of his visit, my skin felt magnetic. We quickly moved beyond graphic design to other topics, including the best places to live in Los Angeles. I wholeheartedly recommended my neighborhood in Santa Monica, already imagining him closer. As it was, I was leaning so far over my desk that I could’ve sneezed my heart into his lap.
When he left, I was both elated and sad, because his charmingly formal email was all I had. I called my friend in the other office.
“I just met the cutest guy ever!”
Yes, I was 35. I read her his letter over the phone. My problem is that I have a lot interests and I don’t know which one of them to develop into a career. She agreed he was adorable.
Out of the hundreds of people I had met as a student advisor, he was the first one I wanted to date. So, I set about writing a reply that would reflect both my professionalism and romantic interest. I neglected to inform you of something you may be interested in, in what I hope was our otherwise informative meeting. Our annual student art and design show was scheduled for a couple weeks later. I said it would be the perfect opportunity for him to check out what kind of things students do in our classes. It was both a collegial invitation and an overture.
He said he would try and make it. It was non-committal, but I stayed cautiously positive for the whole long month leading up to opening night.
After a day of hanging the show, I was waiting in the gallery, agonizing over what the next hour would or would not bring. I was struggling to control my high hopes and yes, high heels, when there was a ding. The elevator doors opened. I looked up and there he was, walking towards me in a black sweater and new blond beard. I was thirteen again. The doors closed behind him, finalizing his arrival. It would have been more cinematic only if there had been a wind machine.
“You came!” I said, not playing it cool.
We walked around the gallery, being arty and civilized, until we had talked about every piece worth talking about. My fancy shoes made me about five inches taller than he was, and they were killing me. But through the pain, I could feel my idea of perfect, like chicken pot pie by candlelight. Finally, I thought. The search is over.
Then he mentioned his girlfriend.
I was stunned. “I can’t believe you have a girlfriend!” Seriously, I could not believe it. Because he was friendly rather than smooth, he somehow convinced me to go on a walk. I changed into tennis shoes, which were much more comfortable and made us closer in height. I looked like a corporate woman on the go in my black skirt, sweater and athletic socks. As we left, my friend gave me a concerned smile that she tried to mask with support.
We walked nearly all of UCLA that night, condensing our autobiographies into a couple of hours. We’d both broken our collarbones as kids, neither of us had any cavities, and both of us had gone back to school to be English teachers only to learn that the job was way too hard. It was clear that we had finally found each other.
So there we were, inside a Serra sculpture, under the stars, profoundly relieved. I wanted to kiss him so much that I felt a little nauseous. Instead, I fled. He followed, and we ended up at a nearby parking structure with terrible lighting. The night ended with a sort of Victorian sexual tension.
The next day, he requested my real email address. I received a long letter with the subject line message of a personal nature. He explained the sensitive timeline of his fading relationship, which involved a complicated schedule of separate trips to France and Japan. On top of all this plane travel, he and his girlfriend lived together but were planning on moving out of the area, separately, in the next couple months. He wrote that while we hadn’t even gone out to dinner together, we may need to soon consider whether to prioritize living in the same town. Yet it didn’t feel crazy. I printed his letter and kept it on my nightstand.
I am ready, I replied. I want to go on a date with you, straight up. I politely suggested he revisit his considerate breakup timeline, which I didn’t think did anyone any favors. I promised myself not to fall for someone who was only available by email. Except, of course, I had already fallen for him and we had agreed to no longer email.
He left for France the next day. He would be gone for a couple weeks, driving through the European countryside.
To get through it, I wrote postcards. I felt pregnant with our relationship, like I was writing for two, full of eager expectation yet resolved to take care of myself. I had been wrong about men before, and even though this felt different, I didn’t yet have enough evidence to be sure that he was going to deliver. I optimistically addressed the postcards although I feared they were maybe just another writing exercise. They collected in a stack on my bookshelf. I wasn’t sure if I would ever give them to him.
Then, at work, I received a postcard in French.
Once he was back, things moved quickly. We went out on our real first date sooner rather than later. After our first kiss, we looked for apartments in Santa Monica. On a trip to New York City a few months later, he asked me to marry him. A year and a day after he emailed me a letter in preparation for our meeting, we were married.
Some time during those first few months when we were already combining our laundry but weren’t yet engaged, I came across the letter I had written to myself before the tonsillectomy. The paper was warped with post-op tears since I really had become blackly depressed during my recovery. I re-read it, feeling a little foolish about my third-person intimacy. I thought about sharing it, but wasn’t sure. I really had written it just for myself and it was a little embarrassing. But there he was, sitting in the living room, and I knew he’d understand.
This essay also appears on Medium.