Recently, it occurred to me that I've never written a love letter. It being Valentine's Day and all, I thought that perhaps I should, if only to say that I've done so. The love letter is one of the great literary genres, I reasoned, and a budding writer like myself ought to have at least one to his name. The problem, as with many literary endeavors, turned out to be defining my target audience.
A fellow on the bus recently asked me if there's "anyone special" in my life. "Just me," I chortled.
That's when I hatched my brilliant plan.
My mother was naturally aghast. Having a son who writes a love letter to himself is, of course, not a mother's dream come true. Her fondest hope -- not an entirely original one, but deeply held nonetheless -- is to see me "settled down" with a wife and assorted progeny who, she maintains, she'll extravagantly indulge. This latest development in my romantic life didn't seem to further her admittedly admirable goals. My subsequent attempts to elicit help from her in composing my love letter -- effective phrasing, sensitive pacing, etc. -- were pointedly rejected. I asked to see the letters that my father had written to her. She refused.
So I set about to compose my words of love to myself by myself. Intense self-absorption, I've observed, is a virtue in letters of love. This, of course, I have in abundance. Nevertheless, the first drafts of my love letter were disasters. Witness this aborted mess:
I can't live without you.
I was coming on too strong. This letter lacked that tone of joyful abandon, that certain joie de vivre that makes love so appealing in its nascent stages. One should save obsessiveness for after you've gotten to know each other better. Relationships take time. Romeo, after all, didn't kill himself at the beginning of the play; he had to work up to it. It's called dramatic tension. Finally I hit on my new opening line:
How are you?
This seemed far superior in every way. I come across as interested without being clingy. And just in case I ever decide to rewrite this love letter as a musical, note how easily "How are you?" converts into lyrics, rhyming as it does with a wide variety of courtship behaviors and romantic passions -- woo, coo, rue, blue. (Not to mention certain legal actions -- sue, due -- that, regrettably but frequently, follow romances in the modern world.)
I relayed this promising first sentence to my mother, adding that it, of course, needed to be developed further, but she should feel free to comment.
When I didn't hear back from her, I continued to my third revision on my own.
Love letters, I've noticed, are full of endless chatter about nothing. This flow of verbiage is intended to obscure the anxiety one feels at the prospect of being (or not being) desired. In his misogynist but otherwise charming manner, Valmont, the hero of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," says of his own letter-writing efforts: "I talked as nonsensically as possible, for without nonsense there is no tenderness; and that, I believe, is the reason why women are so superior to us in writing love letters." In my best imitation of a nonsensical 18th century Frenchwoman, I set about doing just that:
How are you? I so enjoyed the day we spent together yesterday. I really think we've got something special. Not that I'm asking for a commitment.
I felt this letter had spawned even more layers of ambiguity, which became more disastrous with each syllable. I sent it off to my mother, pointedly noting that her suggestions would be useful.
But still she was silent.
In my solipsistic rage, I generated draft after draft of my love letter. Each eventually turned into a rant against my own inadequacies -- a common enough stratagem in love letters. To make oneself seem pathetic is the oldest trick in the book. Love chugs along smoothly when one lover encourages the perception that the other is stronger. In my case, it was difficult to determine the dominant party.
I had just about given up. Finally, I received my inspiration in the morning mail. My mother had been listening all along. At long last, she had taken it upon herself to respond.
I had to applaud her terse assessment of my efforts: "My son, you are 24 years old. Live."
Enclosed was a love letter my father had sent her. And, boy, was it a beauty:
I write in this early morning hour, parted from you for just a while, yet missing you terribly, consoled only by the image of you resting and dreaming of me -- a greater gift than I thought I could ever have, far more than I ever hoped for and infinitely more than I deserve. And yet, there it is. What a gift, a blessing, a miracle we have in love. Happy Valentine's Day, my darling.
Sobering as it was, even this didn't have the desired effect. Even my own father was more romantic than I.
How right Hesiod was to describe Eros as the god "who breaks the limbs' strength" and "overpowers the intelligence in the breast." I concluded that I could distinguish myself as a young writer working in other genres. So I went to the grocery store and, alongside the hordes of married men, bought a Hallmark card for my beloved, and left it at that.