Have you ever seen two kids have an argument? As a teacher, I mediate kid arguments all the time, and man, is it a fast process. Usually, I just listen to each kid yell their grievances at me (Why are you shouting? I’M NOT SHOUTING!), then I get to demand they apologize to each other, and enjoy what is almost always an instantaneous resolution. When you’re a kid, forgiveness is usually the cheapest, easiest thing in the world; it’s a hug, a laugh, and, boom, instant friendship!
It doesn’t always come so easily though, even for kids. I remember when I was in elementary school, a friend of mine told me she had a sister and months later, I found out it wasn’t true at all. Boy, was I mad. I didn’t speak to her again until middle school, when she totally called me out on it in the locker room, that I had refused to forgive her for such a stupid, little thing. There I was, in my gym shorts and training bra, being publicly shamed for having held a grudge for so long. I decided, from then on, that forgiveness would be a virtue everyone would come to associate with me: I was gracious. I was understanding. I was forgiving. Never again would I be that 12-year-old in the training bra, bitterly refusing to let go of a past slight. Never!
But as an adult, forgiveness is like Pilates class; when you do it, you usually feel great afterward, but sometimes you feel awful going, awful doing it, and awful afterward, and you know you should have just stayed home, watched Hoarders, and gone some other time.
Almost a year ago exactly, I had a pen pal. Yes, that’s sort of weird, and yes, it really happened: I had an adult pen pal, a former college acquaintance. Truthfully, I knew I had met him in college, because those were the Facebook friends we had in common, but I didn’t remember him in any way. He hit me up on Facebook with this completely random and unexpected gesture, saying, Hey I think everything you post is rad, and you’re rad, and we should be friends. It happened to be a really solid time for me; I had finally learned how to effectively manage my depression and anxiety, and was really living a half-decent life, going to back to school, getting my sh*t together in a really grown-up way. He asked if I wanted to be pen pals. I said, "Uh, sure."
You can probably imagine where this is going if you’re human and have a pulse.
I had no idea what that meant. I was hoping he understood that clearly he would be the first to write, because I had no idea how grown-up pen pals worked. He was living abroad, enjoying what appeared to be a very glamorous, bohemian lifestyle. In the photos he posted, it was clear that he had a dog and cool-dude digs. And oh, he was handsome. I wondered where the hell he’d been in college, when I was pining after some miserable artsy kid who eventually left to study acting in England.
And then his letter came.
It was a four-page explosion of scribbled drawings, backstory, hopes, and dreams… and it felt like a masterpiece. I spent hours pouring over it; I brought it to work with me, carefully enclosed in a book, like something precious, secret, almost sacred. I showed it to my best friend in quiet wonder, asking,Who the hell is this guy? And what the hell is this wonderful thing? I spent days crafting a reply. I poured my heart into it; this process was fun and new and wildly curious and exciting. The next few months proceeded like this, eagerly awaiting letters, trading ecstatic Facebook messages, pinging each other to exclaim that the mail had arrived—we traded exclamations of I got it! I got it!!!!
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We shared our hopes and dreams, our greatest fears, our weirdest inclinations; soon I felt like I knew him better than I knew most of my closest friends. Trinkets were exchanged. He sent me a little drawing pad, a cartoon, and a dedication on the first page. I sent him a friendship bracelet (remember how easy those were to make? Apparently not so much for adult hands). Our avoidance of any topic even remotely romantic felt electrically deliberate, the implications present at every turn.Where do you see yourself in five years? With someone I love, somewhere good.
You can probably imagine where this is going if you’re human and have a pulse. I fell head over heels in love with him. It was the single most romantic thing to ever happen to me; it was like a movie. It actually might be a movie, probably one starring Rachel McAdams.
We arranged to meet in DC in the spring. At this point, everyone knew this special thing that was unfolding in my life. What will you wear? What will you say? This is it! He and I texted for days beforehand. We chatted about everything, as we usually did, easy and effortlessly, as though we’d known each other forever. The conversation veered toward romance. My pulse quickened. It’s hard to find love, he wrote. Sure is, I said. Well, I’m going on a weekend trip with this girl I’ve been seeing, so we’ll see how it goes. Cross your fingers for me!
Girl. I’ve. Been. Seeing. The words punctured all the air in my tiny apartment as I stared at my phone. Even as I began to tear up, I furiously started making excuses for him. Of course he’s seeing someone, Mikayla. What did you expect? He’s a guy. Guys have needs. This is understandable. I forgave him immediately, because that’s what you do. Back in that middle-school locker room, I’d stood there in my training bra and chosen to become someone generous, so I wasn’t about to become an ungenerous girl in a matronly support bra in my own living room, butt-hurt at my pen pal for taking girls on dates.
So instead, I cheekily told him that I couldn’t really cross my fingers, because I was in love with him myself. I tend to go balls to the wall with stuff like that. He rambled on a little about feelings, and timing, and distance, without ever really saying anything in reply.
I went to DC anyway, of course. I had a plane ticket, and my mother was expecting me, and when your mother is expecting you, what the f*ck else is there to do? I wasn’t giving up, either. No. I didn’t care who the this girl was; he and I had something special, and I had pages upon pages of letters to prove it. What was he thinking? I felt like I was gearing up for the fight of my life; he belonged with me. Why couldn’t he see that? I wrote him a good-bye letter just in case, feeling positive that I would show it to him someday, when we were old and married, and laugh about how he almost lost me entirely once. I tucked it into my pocket for good luck.
We planned to meet at a coffee shop at noon. He was two hours late. I cried into an overpriced latte and told myself he was probably late because he was losing his mind in confusion. I forgave him immediately, trying to feel magnanimous while wiping the snot from my nose.
When he finally arrived, he gave me a bag of coffee as a gift and asked why I was crying. I told him, mustering up my best Rachel McAdams, that I had fallen in love with him, that this was something special, something worth fighting for, that I would move to his far-off country for him if that was what it took, that I could teach anywhere, if it meant we could have our shot. He rambled on a little about feelings and timing and distance, looked sad, and then asked if I wanted to get gelato. I wanted so badly to ignore it, but the no was written all over his face, all over the way he very delicately physically separated himself from me. I tearfully shrugged and said OK.
We spent the rest of the day together, exploring DC, eating food, taking photos. I felt like I was holding myself hostage. I really just wanted to punch him in the face and leave, but I felt guilty. I couldn’t leave him like that; he hadn’t asked for any of this. We drove around in his mom’s convertible, listening to old indie rock. We drew pictures and left them in a box by a garden. Two cartoon characters saying I don’t know and I don’t know either. At the end of the day, I gave him the good-bye letter I wrote him. It was generous and sad. I couldn’t be his pen pal anymore; it wasn’t fair to me, and it wasn’t fair to the girl he was with.
That night, he told me he had reread all of my letters (which he had inexplicably brought with him) searching for signs, for clues, wondering where he had gone wrong. Had he missed romantic signals somewhere? He thought we were clearly just pals. I felt guilty, like I had ruined this wonderful thing we had by breaking an invisible rule. I didn’t forgive him, because there was nothing to forgive; it was all my fault. As I sat on the plane the next day, I texted him that I missed him already. He texted me back a link to a song in Portuguese. I desperately searched it for some hidden meaning.
Within my brokenheartedness, I felt an undercurrent of guilt, like I had wronged him by falling in love, that I made something out of nothing, that his intentions had been pure and I had somehow sullied it with my own agenda.
I don’t feel that way anymore.
In hindsight, I’d like to go back to that day and punch myself in the face, then get the hell out of there, as far from him as possible. I’d like to tell my former self that I didn’t do anything wrong.
Look, even now I want to believe him! Maybe he didn’t mean to lead me on; it is so ingrained in my nature to forgive him, to try to understand, to make excuses. Maybe he never meant for it to go that way at all; maybe he honestly, truthfully, never even thought about it. Maybe he’d ignored the scribbled hearts ALL THE F*CK OVER MY LETTERS. Maybe he has intimate female pen pals all the time, and nothing like this has ever happened… but seriously, that just makes him stupid, which is almost as bad as being cruel. And guess what? You don’t have to forgive stupid, either.
His relationship with that girl was just slightly more serious than he’d led on; they’re now married and have a child. I unfriended him on Facebook and unfollowed him on Instagram, although he doesn’t seem to know it yet because he still likes all my posts (hi, I guess you know now).
I unceremoniously tossed his letters out with the trash one day.
Intent is a thing, I know. It’s a thing, and it matters. And forgiveness is also a thing, and it’s nice, and it feels good. But for f*ck’s sake, not everyone is worth forgiving. I don’t feel weighed down by any continued resentment, but I feel free from the obligation to be gracious and forgiving. There is plenty of room in my heart for both.
Sometimes things don’t end in a hug and a laugh and, boom, friendship! Sometimes the most someone deserves is not you—and that’s not heavy, that’s not a burden. The girl at the coffee shop who waited two hours for a guy who didn’t appreciate her? She deserves my forgiveness. As for the rest, I’ll be the girl in the matronly support bra opting out of Pilates class, waving my middle finger from the couch as I watch Hoarders. And I don’t feel bad about it one. Single. Bit.