A salutation is gesture of sincere utterance that either says hello or offers a goodbye. The sign off defines a relationship. ‘Yours sincerely,’ is business-like, professional, cold, and objective. It offers no warmth. It leaves one with the feeling that what has come before was merely a transaction, a letter to the electric company stating payment is enclosed.
‘Yours truly,’ is even trickier. It suggests there is some faithful bond between the writer and the recipient, a lasting attachment of devotion that cannot be broken by goodbye, a kind à bientôt, until next time. The word truly carries the subtle suggestion that everything else that passed between two people was a lie, and that may have been the case. Relationships are deceptive.
People get hurt because they read meanings into things rather than from things. Jane’s Dear John letter to me was signed with a curt ‘Yours sincerely.’ I have the feeling she really wanted to say ‘Yours truly’ because she had been lying to me about how she really felt. If there is a truly or truthful version of how she perceived us I will never know now that we have broken up. I wish her the best, but I wish I had some modicum of clarity. I’d feel better with a bit of clarity.
I am not sure what I did to hurt Jane. Even if I had, she would never have said because truly isn’t ‘Yours with clarity.’ People never tell you how you’ve hurt them. Was it something I said? Something I did? I still don’t know. I don’t blame her for not wanting to reveal the truth to me. If someone is wounded, they rarely show where their vulnerable point was.
Jane knew I was leaving for three months overseas to work on my thesis. In the end, I stayed longer. The work was important to me. I wanted my doctorate. Jane thought education was pointless. Maybe that was the problem between us. I stayed longer because there was nothing at home for me to hurry back to. And with a broken heart, I could be just as miserable while I was doing something constructive far away as I would at home.
The international postage system in those days was remarkable. Letters moved with a speed that is now the domain of emails and text messages, though people who break up via text messages are just being tacky and I will give Jane credit for both penmanship and emotional courtesy. She wrote me a standard breaking-it-off letter. The problem, I later realized, was that we were still dating when she wrote it. It had been posted three days before my flight. That had to hurt because I felt that our final, tender hours together had been a lie. We were walking in High Park. The cherry blossoms were coming to the end of their bloom, and as the petals fell and scattered on the wind, I couldn’t help but feel that the beauty of what Jane and I shared was also being scattered to the wind.
When I arrived at my London flat, jet-lagged, and dizzy from the time change, her letter was already on the table inside the front door of the flats where the custodian lined up the letters alphabetically each day. My first reaction was no one had taught her how to write a proper personal letter. It began “Hey,” and most of her sentences were fragments that wanted to communicate what she felt but fell short grammatically. Those fragments left me wondering if there was something Jane wanted to say and could not. Perhaps English had never been her forte and possibly the reason she felt I was wasting my time pursuing my PhD in English literature. Letter writing is a lost art. At least she hadn’t texted me.
Letter writing was drilled into me by my grandmother who wrote personal letters in a very archaic and flowing script. My Gran had practiced her art during the First World War without realizing that letters to and from the trenches were censored. She kept carbon copies of each message and in one – I was the intrusive descendant who found her cache of correspondence after her death and read each one before tucking them away with the belief they were historical artefacts – she wrote to a soldier who had been her beau telling him that his brevity, his postcard of ticked boxes where the only personal element was a check mark beside “Send more socks” left her distraught with the belief he had fallen out of love with her.
Gran probably never learned if the young man was or wasn’t still in love with her because the next piece of correspondence in the stack was a telegram from the beau’s sister in Regina informing my Gran that the young man had been killed in action. I don’t know if she even got around to buying the knitting needles or the regulation khaki wool. The letters from the beau were returned to her.
My Gran’s stationery was scented with lavender. When I was a brat to my mother, my grandmother made me learn how to write an apology letter. That letter was signed “Every faithfully, if you forgive me,” in a pleading, aulic tone. ‘Every faithfully’ means ‘you can trust me…please trust me, I won’t do whatever wrong I had committed again.’” I realized letters can be punishing as well as soothing. My father wrote love letters to my mother. I have never been permitted to read them and I don’t blame Mom for keeping them private, but when I asked her if they made her feel good about herself her reply was, “Like a million dollars.”
I sat in my flat overlooking St. George’s Square. The landlady had been kind enough to leave a packet of coffee beside the kettle and a small pitcher of cream in the tiny refrigerator. I tilted back in my chair, looked at the residents’ garden, and wondered what should happen next. Should I reply to the letter? No. That would be awkward politeness – etiquette taken too far. She I write a letter back to her asking why she did what she did in the way she did it? No. That might end up sounding vindictive. There are two people to every piece of correspondence. Writing letters is like playing tennis. One person hits the ball and another returns the volley. When one receives a goodbye letter either from a dying relative or regarding a dying relationship the correspondence becomes a matter of talking to oneself where the recipient of thoughts and observations is reduced to silence. The best a person can do when the recipient vanishes is to vanish too.
A day or so later, I was in Boots Pharmacy and found some stationery that I thought suitable for writing to my parents to keep them up to date on my progress. The bottom of each page was decaled, and the envelopes had ragged flaps to match the decal-edged paper with its bearded ends. I didn’t care if my mother took the time to write back to me. We had arranged for long-distance phone cards so we could talk once a week or twice if I was running short of funds for groceries and train fare to libraries in other cities. But nonetheless I wrote to my folks. I tried to put into words the places I’d seen, the books and manuscripts I’d read, and the immediacy the past has when one holds something old and rare in one’s fingers and learns from it.
I thought of going to the London Eye and sending Jane a postcard of myself against a mock backdrop of the city’s vista but decided once I was on the wheel that the gesture would be pointless. To her, the London Eye photograph would just be another picture for her to toss out either immediately or years from now (if she was sentimental) and had to clean out a drawer. I had the picture taken but I sent it to my Mom.
Even if I had sent Jane the picture postcard of me in one of the wheel’s gondolas, my arms spread to embrace a whole new experience, what would I say? “Wish you were here?” That wouldn’t be right. She had written me a Dear John letter, the kind soldiers used to get when their girlfriends or wives found someone else at home while the combatant was off serving God and Country.
For the first several weeks in London I wanted Jane because I missed her, but I didn’t want her there because she didn’t want me. If she missed me, I could experience a vicarious schadenfreude, though putting anything of that nature in a letter would be mean and even meaner if I had written it on a postcard. No. I did not wish she was there. I wished her the best, but I wished her the best from the safe distance where recovery from a broken relationship is possible. That kind of distance is what embraces a ship as it sails off into the horizon, shrinking in size and importance until it can no longer be seen. Out of sight and out of mind.
Besides, postcards are the worst kind of letter. There are two types of postcards that I detest, and the worst is the photo Christmas card that friends with kids send me. One couple always dressed up in matching awful seasonal sweaters with the children scattered around their ankles in footy sleepers. What put me off photo cards last year was that the Christmas family gathering, now that the kids were older, had been taken on a beach in New England and a very buff guy minding his own business photobombed the corner of the image. The kids were dressed up in sleepers even though they’d outgrown that kind of gear, and every member of the family had a red snowman sweater and Santa cap on. I could tell they were sweating profusely and just wanted to get the whole thing over with. The shirtless guy was carrying a surfboard and looked like he was in a hurry to find his Christmas gear before someone pointed out he was almost next to nature.
Several years ago, I made the mistake of dating two women at the same time, both of whom were Sarah. They were from different backgrounds, different parts of the city. They went to different universities, studied different subjects, and moved in social spheres that, as far as I could tell from their online existence, never intersected like the edges of a Ven diagram. There was no way they knew each other.
Both Sarahs announced they were going to Italy for the summer to study art – one to Florence and the other to Venice. I thought ‘Italy is a big country…what are the chances?’ and dismissed the possibility they might accidentally encounter each other. Secretly, I was counting on one or both to fall madly in love with someone they met overseas for their studies and in doing so excuse me from the duty of having to write a goodbye letter to one or both of them.
Fate is an odd beast. They met in the Coliseum in Rome, began talking about home and people they knew as they sat down at a tiny sidewalk table for espressos and gelatos. They sent me souvenir postcard of a ruined city, their middle fingers raised, and the salutation about what I should do to myself. I admired their ability to put me in my place. That’s what a good letter can do if it is meant to do that.
Jane had my undivided attention, and our relationship still went wrong. I wanted her to be my one and only. My last day with her was spent in the park and I remember looking into her eyes as I picked cherry blossom petals from her hair. I wanted to kiss her. I was falling in love with her, but I was too much of an idiot to do anything about it. The blossoms were pink, and they reminded me of the blush in her cheeks. She’d been out in the spring sunshine all day and was sunburnt. I think I told her she looked deep pink, but I forgot to add the blossom part. If I wrote to her now and said what I had forgotten to say the message might read like a letter of unconditional surrender and I won’t give her the joy of that. Besides, the truth behind our beautiful day in the park was that she had, in her mind, already broken off our relationship. I just had to go to the other side of the Atlantic to find the letter.
It was still early in the morning and London was alive. I went for a walk through St. George’s Square, up Denbigh Street to Tavistock, and all the way to Victoria Station. I must have passed at least ten letter boxes, all painted red, some with ERII on them and others with GRVI. The open slots looked hungry. But I passed them by and told them, sincerely and truly and with fond regards, I would feed them if I met someone who also wrote letters but didn’t need them because we had so much to share with each other.
Bruce Meyer is the author of 67 books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and literary non-fiction. His most recent collections of short stories are Down in the Ground (Guernica Editions, 2020) and The Hours: Stories from a Pandemic (Ace of Swords, 2021). His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes. He lives in Barrie, Ontario. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Meyer
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