Last month I went to a place I hadn’t been for a while: my apartment. My condo in Boston, that is. For the past three years I’ve been living in The Middle, in a small city on the Great Plains where my partner is an extreme weather photographer. But since I’m an East Coaster born & bred, I never gave up my Boston apartment, renting it out instead. Now, two things had changed: my partner and I decided to move back East. And, he was no longer my partner; as of Easter, when he’d proposed, he’d become my fiancé.
So when I returned to my Boston home this spring, it wasn’t just my bi-annual landlord’s trip to swab the place out between tenants. I evaluated my condo through an HGTV lens: what would make this space, which I’d bought six years ago, into a home for my fiancé and me? Ours instead of mine?
My renovations: redo the 1973-era closets into His & Hers walk-ins. Repaint my study gallery white so it would function as my fiance’s photography studio.
And remove all traces of another former tenant: the guy who, when I’d bought the place, had lived here with me.
This guy — whom I’ll call This Guy — was a so-close-and-yet-so-far guy. We’d lived together seven years — most of my 30s. We were dear friends. We were good at playing house, driving to antique stores on weekends to buy embroidered napkins, martini pitchers, paintings of whales. But within our beautifully appointed home, something was always missing, and eventually we split — in a way that at first was a terrible wrench and then mellowed into a fond, distant friendship. He was now in a happy domestic partnership, and I was engaged. From time to time, we texted each other photos of our dogs.
There was no acrimony, and I wished for This Guy only good things. Still, it seemed unsavory at best and bad mojo at worst to invite my fiancé into a home that had anything of This Guy left in it. So I began going through the apartment, systematically removing china, shell collections, a lamp shaped like a globe — anything that reminded me of the era in which we’d lived together.
This was poignant but also fun for me — because I’m the kind of person who freaks out when there’s a big spoon in the little spoon compartment of the cutlery drawer. My fiancé jokes I’m like the husband in “Sleeping With the Enemy” who requires that all the soup can labels face forward. Which, I kind of am. So I was enjoying making piles of things to donate, to send to family — until I found the empty book. High on my library shelf, a book that wasn’t a book but a cardboard box painted to look like one, meant to conceal — whatever you wanted it to conceal. Money. Jewelry. A loaded gun.
Which, emotionally, this was: the non-book contained all the love notes This Guy had ever written me.
I took it down and sat cross-legged on the floor, cobwebby and dusty. I hadn’t put the notes in the non-book. This Guy must have done it. But there they were: seven years worth of “I wish you a splendid day, beautiful”; of “I’ll see you tonight — little French place for dinner?”; “Car parked across street. PS, you look like an angel sleeping.” Of a matchbox inside a Sucrets box inside an Altoid box, and tucked within them all a tiny origami swan of the sort This Guy always used to make, which, when unfolded, bore our initials inside a heart.
Still in OCD mode, I started going through the box, reading each note before slipping it into the trash. But about 1/3 of the way through, I stopped, not because I was sad. It was throat-aching, of course, to read about the hopeful people we’d once been, building a life from an accretion of daily details, and to be reminded that that life was completely gone. But we hadn’t been right for each other, and I was grateful we were with partners who were meant to be.
It was that I couldn’t put love in the garbage. Wasn’t that the worst kind of karma — to put any manifestation of love in a blue plastic box with soda cans and junk mail, to be tossed out in the alley—even if that love no longer existed? Which raised the question: didn’t love, once it had existed, still exist in the universe? Love was energy, and tenderness was a gift. How could I just throw it away?
Yet how could I possibly bring my fiancé into a home that had somebody else’s love in it? Troubled, I put the notes back in the non-book and went out to dinner.
Over the next few weeks, while staying in the apartment, I polled family and friends as to what to do. One suggested I ceremonially burn the notes, which I thought was a great idea until I considered logistics: my apartment’s fireplace was nonworking, and I doubted the City of Boston would look kindly upon my kindling a bonfire on the Commonwealth Mall. Another friend suggested I go to a place This Guy and I had loved and release the notes there. I thought about it — but the effort seemed disproportionate to who we were now, and a little mawkish.
“I’d leave them,” a third friend said. “They ARE love, right? and what harm are they doing? We all have pasts.”
“You could mail them back to him,” suggested a fourth friend—admittedly something of a drama king. “Ha, ha, ha!”
In the end, it was my mom who offered me an idea that felt right. “Give them a kiss goodbye,” she said, “and send them off.”
Eventually, this is what I did. There was a box in the apartment that had once contained an excellent bottle of 15-year-old Dalwhinnie — This Guy’s favorite drink. I took his notes from the non-book, put them in the Scotch box, and latched it. Then I took it to my building’s recycling bin, said, “Thank you,” patted it, and set it in a nest of magazines. I closed the lid with the hope that, because I had put this love in the recycling bin, it would regenerate in a form useful to somebody else. It would become paper another couple would write love notes on, perhaps.
I went upstairs to my newly neutral apartment, ready for my fiancé and I to start our own life there. A month later, I heard through mutual friends that This Guy was engaged, too. I felt nothing but happy.
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers, and the recently published novella The Lucky One. Jenna is one of Oprah's Top Thirty Women Writers and helped found Boston's Grub Street Writers, where she has taught fiction and led novel workshops for over 15 years.