Dear Mr. P & Mr. H,
It has been a long time since either of you received a letter from me, aside from the Christmas cards I send to all my friends. I'm not entirely sure why I feel moved to write one today. Perhaps because I am in my hometown, staying in a house just a few blocks from the house you grew up in, P, as well as from the schools we attended together. All around me are the neighborhoods where we would walk for hours: you each eventually figured out that I would much rather walk and talk all evening than go to a fancy restaurant or a movie.
I was not, I confess, a very good girlfriend, either in high school or college. Tremendously self-conscious, absurdly slow to pick up on flirting, too introverted to be much fun in large groups. Too often I would worry myself sick over something instead of simply enjoying your company. And yet, I did enjoy dating you, and I know you each helped make me strong for the years that have followed.
P and I had known each other since kindergarten, and so I was quite surprised when we realized we liked each other. I still remember being out at some overnight school trip with several other students and teachers. You and I were talking at breakfast, and one teacher told us that we would be riding in separate vans to the competition. Neither of us protested, but I remember noticing a strange reluctance in you and in myself -- we didn't want to get up from the table and get into our separate vans. I had had crushes on boys before, but I had never felt such a quiet and certain desire to stay with someone, to talk with him. In the years since, when I have been tempted to look for fireworks to determine if I like someone or not, I have remembered that quiet desire, and I have waited for it.
H, on the other hand, was like a fairy-tale prince, appearing almost out of nowhere and showering me with beautiful letters on creamy thick paper, taking me out for concerts and carriage rides, insisting that we go through the entire bookshop holding hands. You dazzled and treasured me, and you gave me such music, so much music that I can hardly go a day without hearing some song you first played for me. You terrified me with your talk of down-payments on houses, baffled and delighted me with your patience and affection.
Those are happy memories, but I'm still not sure what kind of letter this is. Perhaps a thank-you letter? I thanked you long ago for the good company and magical days, but perhaps I have not explained how grateful I am you for your protection. Don't try to remember some night of particular danger -- the protection I mean came long after we parted company. First, you have protected me from discontent, for while I liked you both very much, I eventually realized that I didn't want to marry either of you. When P broke up with me, and when I broke up with H, I was sad, yet I never doubted that these decisions were wise. Nor did I feel that I was less a person, less able to meet the world, because you were gone. That has saved me from much groaning and discontent.
Yet here is a paradox: just as dating you taught me that I don't need to be dating or married to live a happy life, you also taught me how wonderful dating can be--and in that way you have protected me from settling. The respect you showed me, the creativity of your care for me, and the integrity of your behavior puts most men to shame. With your examples as my standard, I have never been tempted to give a second glance or a second chance to men who lack those virtues.
It has been a long time since I saw either of you, but that is natural. We have each built good lives for ourselves and for those we love. You keep building, and I'll do the same. Some of my prettiest bricks, there near the foundation, came from each of you.