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Dear Mags,

You’ve been here before. But don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s a lesson to be learned if you only have the patience for it. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to strive, not merely for next time to be different, but for you to behave differently next time. You’ll have to mean it, I’m afraid.

When people show us who they are, we owe it to ourselves to believe them. That’s not the same as condemning them. Not at all. But you must learn to listen to what people are really saying. To accept what you’re really hearing. When he told you that he “respects” your beliefs but isn’t interested in learning about them; when he said that he “respects” your intention to wait but doesn’t understand why you’d want to; when he said that he “really likes you” but isn’t ready to commit to something serious—you knew. You knew that this man—as you’ve told so many dear friends in the same circumstances over the years—is not looking for what you’re looking for. You knew he was not the father of your kids. So why didn’t you tell yourself? Why aren’t you your own friend?

I’ve done some soul searching, for both our sakes, and I’ve realized that I owe you an apology. I’m sorry. Sorry for the lies I’ve been telling you without realizing. I told you that a good man could never want you; that you’re too broken, too damaged; that you always need to be the strong one. I told you that you need to impress some weaker-willed person with your comparative goodness, so he’ll never see how pathetic you are. Well it’s not true. It is not true. You deserve more. You deserve what you truly desire, because what you truly desire is good. Don’t you know that you were made for it? Don’t you know that you were made to be loved?

A lot of nonsense is talked about love. How we used to laugh about it! Love, our teenage selves thought, is minty kisses. Love is vodka and cranberry juice. Love is taking all our clothes off and going skinny dipping, then discovering leeches, and laughing until our throats hurt, the crickets sing, and the sky beams orange dawn. Love is feverish and cruel, then—like a terrible period—it moves on to bother someone else. Then love—this “love”—happens again. And again. And again, and again, and again. But it isn’t real.

Real love is Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. Remember the funeral? When the Mass was about to begin, and he walked up the aisle with his walker. He thought no one could hear him as he reached out to touch the coffin. You heard him, though. He whispered, “Bye Margaret, tell Jesus I’m nearly ready.” You were kneeling on the other side, praying. Do you remember what you were praying about? Sure, you do. You were thinking about her final years with Alzheimer’s and the day she wet herself at the parish picnic. And how awful it was because no one knew what to do. No one except Mr. Peterson. He appeared at her side, kissed her cheek, covered her lap with a blanket, and wheeled her away without so much as a sigh. You prayed then—and again at the funeral—that one day you’d have that love.

And you know what? It might not look the way you expect. It might not be so thrilling, or so tall, or have such an impossibly chiseled jawline. But I really do believe that when you’re done crying your heart out, when you’ve finished banging your head against that wall, after you’ve read and re-read this letter—however many times it takes for you to forgive yourself—you will find it. Claim it. And cherish it forever.

Your better self,