The first time I read a love letter that wasn't addressed to me, my heart danced a guilty little dance.
A confession: Not only wasn't the letter mine, but it was written to a woman I was dating. She was in her bedroom, deciding on shoes; I was killing time in her kitchen, nibbling almonds. On her counter, the usual mess: a few photos, an address book, small piles of bills. Perhaps I looked a little more closely than I should have, but atop one pile, seated like a king, was a love letter.
I picked it up, I did, and I can't say I'm proud of that. But once I did . . . well, there was no turning away. That love note, rough-edged and wrinkled, had a curious effect on me. Confusion, yes, and a hint of vulnerability, but something else too. What her other man had written--a year ago? ten years ago? I had no idea--felt strikingly similar to a note I'd scratched out to her only a few weeks before. Not the words, exactly, but that flood of emotion, the playfulness, the optimism. It all seemed so familiar. A question twittered in my mind: Was our relationship as special as I had thought? At the same time, his note was clearly his own, with its inside jokes and (vividly) spelled-out desires. In fact, I could hardly believe it was written to the woman I thought I knew. I read it twice.
Three times, actually.
I wondered why she had left it there. It was probably by accident. But it also could have been by accident-on-purpose, in which case what was she telling me? Had he touched something in her that I hadn't? Did he mean something to her that I didn't? And then the bigger questions swooped in: What role did this letter play in her life? Was it something she had unearthed to remind herself of how good love can get . . . or how fleeting it can be?
Why, in short, had she saved this nine-line scrawl? And was she so different from everyone else?
I began to consider what these much-folded pieces of paper might symbolize for us, emotionally; why some we toss within moments, why we hang on to others for decades. Is it because each letter from an ex represents a road not taken? And each letter from the person we're still with reminds us of what brought us together? Or could it be because a love letter recalls that moment in our life when someone saw our best self?
So I started collecting other people's love letters. I contacted everyone I knew, and asked if they would send me any they'd been keeping. Eventually, I even assembled a team of researchers to do more legwork (these brave souls went so far as to call their exes . . . who called their exes) until the web expanded far beyond our own circles.
I wasn't interested in the kind of correspondence typically found in love letter collections. Not the quill-tip pen variety that Ben Franklin sent to Mrs. F during their courtship. I sought love letters, e-mails, text messages, and postcards written by regular people in relationships probably much like yours. And who wants to look only at letters that present bouquet after bouquet of love's red roses. Modern love is complicated. It bobs and weaves, takes two steps forward, one step back. I wanted letters that not only captured the whispered promises of endless love, but also candid moments of uncertainty, bitterness, and regret. The thorns.
Envelopes began to arrive, each holding what, until the moment I opened them, had been a very private message. Inside the first, a tender apology. The second brought two single-spaced pages of triple-X lust. After that: "I'm not feeling what you're feeling." In the end, I had hundreds and hundreds stacked in my living room.
Here's something I learned about love letters: most die an ignominious death. They're torn up, tossed out, and fed to the dog. Burned, buried, and flushed. The letters on the pages that follow are the survivors. They were saved and savored. And, now, they're shared: Every letter in my book, Other People's Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See, is printed with permission from its writer.
Who wrote these letters? You name it: helicopter pilots, musicians, sociologists, sales reps, students, retirees, housewives, computer programmers, consultants, construction workers, architects, teachers, kids, lawyers, store clerks, filmmakers. The faithful and the adulterous. Maybe someone you know. Maybe your lover.
Gathering these letters provided me with a rare opportunity: the chance to freely poke through other people's intimate correspondence and not feel the least bit ashamed about it, as you might one day should you let your eyes wander for too long on someone's kitchen counter. After all, while almost everyone will get a love letter at some point in his or her life, it's unlikely to be passed around the dinner table. More often it will be squirreled away in the back of the file cabinet in a folder falsely labeled "auto insurance." (Note: If this is where you've been hiding yours, now might be a good time to rethink that.)
Like those still-hidden letters, the notes collected were written only for a lover's eyes; they are unflinchingly honest. Reading them is like picking the lock on a stranger's heart and peering inside during the most intense moments of his or her life. But the fascination here is more complex than a simple case of voyeurism. Because, on a deeper level, the heart you're looking into is your own.
This post was compiled from excerpts from Other People's Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant To See. Click here for more Huffington Post Valentine's Day coverage.