Dear John, or Whatever Your Name Is

There is nothing more pathetic in the land of romance than receiving a Dear John letter -- except, perhaps, receiving a Dear John email mistakenly sent to the wrong email address.

I received such a misdirected missive last week. The woman's words all sounded so cold, yet so familiar -- the protestations that she just couldn't feel that way for him, that there was no good way to say "let's just be friends" without saying it, so she would just have to go ahead and do it -- in quotes, no less. Somehow, this sounded exactly like all the Dear John phone calls and Dear John "dates" I'd endured in years past.

But once I realized the email wasn't really meant for me -- I've been married for 14 years, after all, and don't really have Jesse Jackson's kind of free time to mess around -- I was relieved...

...and then horrified. Because below the woman's short kiss-off was pasted the man's original entreaty, the email that started it all: his fumbling, heart-breaking attempt to explain and deny and then explain again his feelings for this apparently undeserving creature; to ask her to bed and almost to the altar without ever having had a real date; to try to turn their few still-fresh kisses, which he seems to remember more clearly than she does, into an offering of his entire soul -- if she would only deign to take it up, turn it over in her hand and open it, like a present.

As if love were an unexpected holiday.

Instead, she opened it and gave it right back. Not my size, was all she could say. Can I get my money back?

There should be -- there must be -- a criminal indictment from all this, but there isn't.

History records much more devastating Dear John letters than this, of course. Ernest Hemingway at 18, recuperating in a Milan hospital from an injury suffered while serving as an ambulance driver during World War I, fell in love with his nurse, 26-year-old Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky. "Ernie, dear boy," she wrote to him later, "I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart."

Hemingway took his revenge by immortalizing her in A Farewell to Arms.

The age of email has much more prosaic methods of coping with romance. "The Rodent," a columnist writing for attorneys on the job-hunting website emplawyernet.com, recommends his fellow lawyers end office romances by "send[ing] your Dear John/Jane letter via email for fastest action. This also avoids leaving a paper trail that might be used by a former special law firm friend trying to prove the relationship to a jury."

"How womantic," to quote the late Madeline Kahn.

Of course, even a positive email can prove the death of romance. Just last month, Claire Swire and Bradley Chait were the talk of Britain when she sent him an email thanking him for a wonderful time and he forwarded it to his friends, who sent it to their friends, who sent it around the world. The last the public heard, she was in hiding and he was in danger of losing his job -- not because he acted like a cad, of course, but because she'd sent that original email to his work address.

I wrote back to the woman who sent me the Dear John letter in error, just to tell her so. I hoped she would respond to me -- maybe show a little embarrassment, a little remorse. I don't know how I intended to follow up. Maybe I would ask her out myself, woo her and dump her -- something even crueler than her paper dismissal. But I didn't hear a word.

Maybe I never should have told the woman her letter went astray. Maybe I should have kept her waiting too, wondering what his reaction might be.

I couldn't write to the guy, of course, since I didn't have his correct email address. So I don't know if he ever got his Dear John email. I know he will, eventually. But in my mind, he hasn't yet. I picture him still waiting for a happy reply, never getting it, forever imagining a better world.

Sorry, guy. There's very little consolation I can offer. There's only one thing you can be grateful for. At least she didn't say she felt like your mother.

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