There can be few things as satisfying as burning the letters from a former lover.
Yes, future biographers may rue your rash and hasty act, but there's a visceral satisfaction that comes from tossing each handwritten note onto the fire while exclaiming "Take that, you creep!" or "Burn, you harpy!"
The flames lick at the edges of the paper, and soon the cursed calligraphy is unreadable, rendered into ash, an ash as bitter as the shattered relationship itself.
Unless, of course, you've conducted your entire courtship by e-mail or instant message. Then what do you do? And what do you do if instead of wanting to burn your correspondence, you want to keep it -- forever and ever until the end of time?
Are we in danger of losing an entire generation of intimate communication because it's vanishing into the ether?
Probably not, at least if the many people I've spoken to over the last few days are any indication. These are folks who quite meticulously save their e-mails.
Frankly it never occurred to me to save my e-mails. I wish it had. I'm sure I've gotten off some good ones -- you know, a few pithy lines, little zingers, bons mots that would cement my reputation as a modern day Oscar Wilde, if only I could remember them.
It may be that I'm the wrong generation. I have letters from my mother and my friends scattered among the boxes in my attic. I still have My (Future) Lovely Wife's love letters, sent to me in Europe, where I was successfully being an unsuccessful expatriate novelist.
I probably stopped saving letters around the time I stopped getting them. That's when e-mail took over in my life and in most other people's. But as dependent as I am on e-mail, it's an evanescent thing, a tool I use with no thought of collecting or hoarding. Would I save a Post-it Note I'd jotted a thought on?
Others, especially those younger than I, see e-mail as a faithful reflection of themselves, a surrogate diary or journal.
Kevin Rohleder, a 23-year-old computer consultant from Vienna, saves any personal e-mail that he might want to read again. Scrolling through the messages reminds him where he was at different points in time.
And he thinks e-mail has certain advantages over handwritten correspondence, chief among them being able to save your outgoing messages. "There's a couple of occasions where I've written a letter that I wish I had a copy of," he said.
Kevin saves his instant message conversations, too, using a program called Gaim that automatically archives IMs.
"The very oldest ones I have are from my senior year in high school and are about me trying to figure out who to ask to the prom," Kevin said. "It's just a funny thing to remember. At the time it probably wasn't as funny. Now it's funny to look back on."
Well, don't keep me in suspense, man. Whom did you end up taking? "I ended up not going, actually." (Sorry, ladies. He's married.)
Jenny Schumi, 30, a doctoral student at Harvard's School of Public Health, grew up in Minnesota. When she headed off to college on the East Coast, she was miserable. Away from home for the first time, she would print out the most "comforting" e-mails from friends and family to hang on the wall near her desk.
Except for a two-year gap when she left her first graduate program, Jenny has a complete set of the daily e-mails her father started sending out in 1993. The messages feature random musings on his day, Minnesota sports news and family updates, but Jenny's favorites are the ones he sends when her mom is traveling and he is left to fend for himself.
Said Jenny: "Preparing a sandwich, he cut his hand on the can of tuna and sent off the memorable, 'I have to remember that they are opposable thumbs, not disposable.' "
Joelle Faure, a law firm office coordinator who lives in Arlington, has four years' worth of e-mails from her boyfriend. He, however, has none of hers. "I know he deletes mine," she said. "I know he does. I think men just don't save them in general."
Her boyfriend does have a box into which he tosses birthday cards he receives, including those given to him by girlfriends before he met Joelle.
"I don't quite understand that," she said. "It doesn't bother me. But if I had bad memories, I don't think I'd want them around."
Finally, perhaps there is a digital equivalent to the purifying fire that incinerates letters from old lovers. A 28-year-old reader from Washington who prefers to remain anonymous told me she goes through a ritual at the end of every breakup. She saves all the IMs and e-mails from her boyfriends, down to the most mundane sort of get-milk-on-the-way-home-honey sort of missive. And when the relationship is over, she uncorks a bottle of wine, sits down at her computer, then tearfully and ceremoniously deletes them one by one.
"I have to read them all first," she said. "I have to remind myself what happened in the relationship, the good times and the bad times. . . . It takes a long time, especially with a long relationship."
It took her 31/2 hours to scrape her last boyfriend off her hard drive.
"Hitting that delete button is really cathartic," she said.
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