Letters unsent

By R. A. 


For a couple of decades now, I have spent more time than I would care to admit writing letters that I never send.  Most of them are, not surprisingly, love letters.  I have come to see them as a sort of dialogue I have with myself, because I don’t actually send them to the person I am thinking about, the erstwhile subject of the letter.  The quality, value and style of these letters varies wildly, running the range from sentimental rubbish to things I think actually help me understand myself and my motivations better; a form of psychoanalytic exploration. 

My interest in writing this essay at the moment (you have no idea who I am of course, and have most likely never met me) is to explore why – beyond the obvious practical questions, such as modesty or self-doubt – people in love write letters they don’t send. I imagine a lot of us do it some form or another, or at least run through some version of this exercise in our heads. 

I also happened to be reminded recently of a woman I had been in love with, or so I thought, but was too shy to approach when we worked together, so I re-read an old letter I wrote to her when I was caught up in the moment.  A fair amount of time has passed since I last saw her, and naturally reading my unsent letter brought me directly back to the times when I knew her last. 

A few years ago, I was working in Istanbul..  For approximately a year at that time, I found myself deeply preoccupied by a romantic crush on a woman I worked with.  It was an unusual situation for me, seeing somebody that I somehow longed for every day but never really came to know. The feeling waxed and waned over the months – springtime was especially vexing – but ultimately walked itself around in circles and “went” nowhere, so to speak… it was never consummated in any sort of relationship. We never even became friends, beyond a kind of collegial acquaintanceship. 

We worked in one division of a very large company, which could be described as a corporate but relaxed environment.  It was in some ways a very Turkish sort of workplace, but had some elements of American or northern-European style professional norms tacked on around the edges.  Social life in Turkish workplaces differs somewhat from the European or Western environments I had been familiar with up until this point.  As one of my colleagues said to me when I first started, “Don’t expect them to be chatty or make small talk, and don’t take it personally when they don’t.”  That turned out to be a fair assessment.   

During my time there, I picked up a fair amount of cues about what is acceptable and unacceptable when dealing with colleagues in Turkey.  Different groups of people had small cliques they would sometimes have lunch or take their tea with, some and had gone to university together or had some connection outside of work, but while the atmosphere was generally relaxed, very few people made any visible effort to befriend their colleagues.  I recall eating lunch alone pretty much every day for that year and a half, like some socially awkward exchange student. 

The woman in question and I worked on different ends of the same open-plan room, and interacted frequently on work matters.  But this is pretty much where our social life together both began and ended, aside from the occasional greetings in passing in the halls or on the streets near our office.  My interest in her took a muted form.  Every morning I would walk into our office and glance toward her desk, to see if she was in for the day.  I can to this day recall every outfit she had ever worn, or when she wore her hair differently.  It wasn’t as creepy as it might sound at the time.  I remember thinking that I had never seen somebody who paced back and forth talking on the phone as much as she did.  Yet all of these observations were meaningless.  I became resigned to the small pangs of melancholy or silent affection I would experience on an almost daily basis. 

Even to this day, I only have a very limited sense of who she is as a person; I had seen her CV of course, and knew she had spent some time abroad in the U.S. and France, but most of what I knew about her personally was gleaned from talks with another colleague who was a mutual acquaintance of ours.  I knew she was religious and had a serious long-term boyfriend, which of course helped temper my interest in her. She was also younger than me, and I assumed she would be marrying her partner at some point. 

More importantly I wouldn’t want to embarrass her or myself, or be seen by our other colleagues as “too friendly” with her.  She had been in her position for a long time, and was respected for the quality of her work.  Whereas I would move away from both the company and the country at some point, she would likely remain and continue her professional life there.  There was no need to add any embarrassing incidents to her life, nor feed the inevitable and inescapable gossip machine that develops when you put a group of people together for any memorable amount of time.  So, I simply worked with her, always a little secretly pleased and nervous when we had to work on some small thing together, as I would anybody else.

But my outward professionalism hid the turbulence of an intermittent emotional chaos.  I would obsess about picking the right words in emails.  I would think sometimes about jokes I would make to her, practising their casual delivery in my head.  I read very deeply in to her messages to me.  I would try to engage her on different topics.  But alas, to no real avail.  She remained quiet and polite, friendly in a general way, but distant. 

One event, just a few seconds in time, gave me some sort of false hope for months.  She was getting herself a drink at the water cooler, maybe 7 months or so after we started working together, and as I was walking past her on the way somewhere, my eyes lingered a little too long on her… I was, in that sort of pre-“MeToo” sense, checking her out.  And of course, she just happened to turn from filling her glass at that instant to meet my eyes.  Her eyes locked with mine for maybe 4-5 seconds, but that was it.  No hint of emotion, no smile, no scowl.  No hello.  Nothing.  Her face was simply its usual blank screen.

The water cooler… seriously, what could be more cliché?

Yet the very next day she added me as a friend on social media.  My overly excited sense of romantic fantasy saw this as a sign of something deeper... if she hadn’t had any interest in me, at least she had realised I was interested in her.  I had imagined at the time, hoped, that we were about to embark on some type of connection outside of the daily tedium of our workplace.  I sent her a brief but friendly note to say I was happy to meet her finally, that sort of thing.  I waited expectantly, tensely even, to see what her reply would be.  But beyond a couple of short notes in the months that followed (she once wrote to wish me a happy holiday…  which amounted to a mere four words), there was nothing.  She was as disengaged in that forum as she was in the office.  And because I couldn’t imagine what she thought of me, or even worse, if she even thought of me at all, I kept my distance and didn’t try to engage in anything more personal.  And yet I still to this day see that little green light informing me that she is online sometimes. 

And this was how it ended.  We sat in the same room for 18 months; we exchanged pleasantries and talked about work issues.  We had lunch together exactly two times, where our conversation was warm and funny, but existed only in that very particular time and place, never to be mentioned again.  That was it… and nothing more.

Of course the time came when I left my job to take up another position elsewhere.  In the month or so leading up to my leaving date, I spent some hours in the early morning on maybe a half-a-dozen occasions writing out and revising a letter to her – concise but affectionate, friendly yet respectful – that basically told her how I had felt in the previous year.  I revisited a joke we had shared which had made me laugh deeply and honestly at the time, and I also mentioned a time where I had been impressed with some decisions she had made that I agreed with but were unpopular with our superiors.  I told her I hoped to see her again someday, in a different time and a place. 

Was I making too much of a passing crush on an admittedly beautiful and seemingly very intelligent stranger?  Would she have been the great love of my life under different circumstances?  Could I have overcome my natural shyness around her if we had met by chance at some social event?  I have no way of knowing.  There is still a letter with her name on it sitting on my PC desktop even as I write this.  I imagine it will stay there until I retire the machine in favour of a newer model; unsent, unread, little more than a lifeless memento of those months that will never be seen by anyone but me. 

I wrote a brief email telling her I was leaving, as did with a half dozen other colleagues I had genuinely enjoyed working with.  I still think about her sometimes even to this day, where she remains perfect in my mind, an image or maybe an illusion that has no real connection to who she was.  I am reminded a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro describing the unrequited, and inevitably hopeless, affections of two colleagues in The Remains of the Day.  A stiff upper lip was deemed to be the done thing in the times he was describing.  Today it just seems somewhere between quaint and depressing. 

Reading my letter to her again not only evoked those times, but also led me to question my motives.  Were my emotions really about her?  I didn’t know her any more than I might know a TV actress.  And more worryingly, why did I spend so long imagining myself to be in love with somebody who I wasn’t involved with when I didn’t actually seem to be able to bring that type of passionate intensity to the women I was actually involved in real relationships with at the time?  Many of those relationships (the, um, real ones) I regarded with a type of instinctive caution, even trying to keep them emotionally distant in some ways. It’s almost as if the detachment of something unrequited allowed for a safe fantasy of what a “perfect” relationship would look like, whereas the reality of actually being close with somebody is messier, confusing and ultimately less satisfying.  Except for the fact it really existed.  Was what I had thought of at the time as a hopeful romance just some form of narcissistic self-absorption?  

The English author Anthony Powell once wrote, "Self-love seems so often unrequited."  I never used to understand what he had meant by that, but thinking back on those months today, now I somehow feel like I do.