Other People’s Email

by Andy Stevens

I get a lot of other people’s emails. I call them “sender-confused.” With sender-confused emails, the sender would probably be embarrassed or frightened to find that they’ve made me privy to their personal affairs or the affairs of someone else. Just recently, I received a memo from a school board requesting a parent-teacher meeting to discuss a student’s classroom troubles, a note from a college admissions counselor letting the intended recipient know they aren’t taking enough credits to remain enrolled as a student, and a message from a preschool suggesting a child take speech therapy classes. (That all of these surround schooling is probably a timing thing). In cases like these, I often reach out to the sender to prevent them from sending more emails and further airing private information on the public internet. And often, they thank me.

Mistakes happen. The fact of the matter is that the internet is a complicated mesh of tenuous connections controlled by a very error-prone and gullible species. Sometimes all the noise generated in my inbox is the cost of doing business and living life online. Either way, spam, almost spam, and sender-confused emails don’t keep me up at night.

But a few weeks ago, I started receiving sender-confused emails that managed to catch and hold my attention in a way that’s never happened before. They were highly personal but poorly written. They were from what seemed to be a genuine business email but from an unencrypted connection. There was no immediate call to action, there was nothing to be gained by the person sending these emails to me, yet some of them landed in my spam folder. If this was a phishing attempt or some other scam and not some sender-confused email, it was the strangest one I’d ever seen. And I didn’t want to care, but they got to me.

It started with a short email from a stranger, whom I will refer to from here on out as “the sender.” Attached to the email was a vCard, a file that contains contact information. The email said this vCard contact was the sender’s business loan connection. I never clicked on the vCard to open it and see to whom they were referring, I figured this was a small mistake, or maybe the attached file was malicious. Either way, I just let it pass and went about the rest of my day.

A week later, while checking my emails one morning before work, I found another email from the same sender. This email contained a screenshot of an email thread with a major police department stating that they, the sender, would be willing to testify against me in a credit card fraud case. Well, not me, but the person to which the sender thought they were emailing. It was strange to me that the sender would want to share business contacts with the intended recipient in one moment, only to insist on their willingness to testify against them the next, but life is strange, and a lot can happen in a week. Personally, I’ve never wanted to get involved in a case of mistaken identity (go figure), and I wasn’t going to choose this particular moment to try it out. I ignored this email as well.

Shortly after lunch, the sender sent another email, this one a complete reversal from the last. I’m willing to start over, the sender said, to try to build a relationship again. I loved you and will never stop loving you. The sender owned up to their shortcomings, though they didn’t mention what they were. The important part was that they promised to change.

Usually, this is where I would have reached out. This last email was profoundly personal, and the romantic in me was touched. If not for a mistake, I wouldn’t have been reading these emails. But, the storyteller and poet in me were intrigued. A narrative was starting to take shape in the span of three tonally different emails. I initially read it this way: the sender had lent some money to the recipient, which I assumed was their lover, that the recipient had never returned. Maybe the relationship soured, and the sender pursued legal action out of spite. But at the same time, the sender was so infatuated that they were willing to look beyond that, perhaps foolishly, and start anew.

I received no new emails for the rest of the day and the next. Honestly, I hoped the situation was resolved, and the sender and recipient had made amends.


I should mention that all three of these emails were sent to an additional email address. I can only assume this other email address was the intended recipient’s. But why include mine if the sender knew the right address all along? Maybe the sender had been ghosted and was trying every email address they could think of to get in front of the intended recipient. Perhaps the intended recipient had given out a fake email address that was mine. Whatever the case, I didn’t feel entirely wrong in not immediately correcting the sender because there was a chance the emails were still getting to the right place. Too, I held off writing an email to the sender to save them from the shame of knowing they had sent their messages to a stranger. I’ve never corrected someone so vulnerable before, and it seemed to be, well, delicate. But, more on this in a moment.


Two days later, just long enough for me to forget about the first batch of emails, another email arrived. In stark contrast to the sender who wanted nothing more than to try again and who confessed their eternal love for the recipient, this sender was a firebrand lashing out at the recipient for being a professional manipulator with a host of abusive personality traits. The sender called out the recipient's body issues, battles with severe dysmorphia, their lack of sex drive being unnormal at their age, and called their pervasive insecurity pathetic. The sender said enough is enough, that they were sorry for the intended recipient’s next lover, that the intended recipient was only hurting themselves and the ones they loved. The recipient made everyone miserable. I’m done, the sender said, taking all the blame, being the victim, and having words put in their mouth. They wanted out. They thought they loved the recipient, but they were wrong. I could hear the sender’s rant in my head, not quite at a shout but frothing all the same.

Maybe everything the sender said was and is accurate. Perhaps this is just what happens to a scorned lover; they revolt and fire all their guns at once. I’m not entirely sure if I could disagree with them, given the information I had at the time. But after reading this email, I had trouble taking sides. That the sender vacillated between emotions so quickly made me believe that either the recipient knew how to push all the right buttons or that the sender exhibited their own brand of instability.

In exchanges like these, it’s always fascinated me how quickly people are willing to re-write their own personal emotional history so that all of their previous thoughts and emotions have always added up to equal the way they were feeling at the present. It was obvious that the sender had indeed loved the recipient, they wouldn’t have written it otherwise, but at this moment, they relinquished all those memories to scorn.

Later that evening, I received another email. This one was short, staggered. The sender didn’t know what to say. The recipient blamed their behavior on stress and anxiety. The sender was out tens of thousands of dollars, and the recipient didn’t even acknowledge that. You said you loved me more than anyone else, said the sender. Pay me back. Please.

I didn’t know the real motivation behind the emails at this point. Was it all about the money? The sender had made it clear that they wanted out, and maybe the money was the only reason they were still in contact. Or was the money payback for a broken heart? Too, I had questions about the recipient. Was the recipient telling the truth? Were all of the things the sender said about the recipient true, mental health included, and if so, could I demonize them as the sender did, or was I meant to pity them, knowing full well how debilitated the recipient might be? Or was it just a ruse on behalf of the recipient, part of a con? These people, these characters in my head and their motivations, were hard to pin down.


I mentioned before that the sender also sent these emails to another recipient, what I assume to be the intended recipient. Here, this information becomes vitally important in understanding what quickly became a much larger story.

Let me level set: the one truth about email is that there can be hundreds of thousands of recipients but only one sender. And so it goes that unless you click the “reply to all” button, a reply from one recipient is only ever delivered to that original sender. It dawned on me that I might only ever see one side of this story. If an email thread developed from one of the sender’s emails, I’d miss vital information and perspective that would help me make sense of things.  My only source of information could be the sender, who could be a vastly unreliable narrator, telling their side of the story through a jaded fog.


I wondered why I was spending so much time thinking about these emails. Normally I don’t seek out all the sordid details of bad romance to entertain myself. So, what was compelling me to invest so much in this particular breakup? Perhaps not knowing the full story lent an air of mystery to these emails that I found compelling. I didn’t have to look for it, either; it showed up at regular intervals in my inbox and announced itself, like a push notification for a streaming TV show that comes out on Wednesdays. It has been almost a decade since I’ve been in a relationship, and thanks to the pandemic, I don’t have much of a social life outside of my family. Maybe human interaction in any form, even by proxy, satiated a craving I didn’t know I had. But something about these emails, beyond the specifics of love loss and bad loans, spoke to me. It seemed to point to something important that I hadn’t quite grasped.

My mind drifted toward the literary implications of this situation. Again and again, I returned to the comparison of poetry’s dramatic monologue, a poetic form in which there are two parties, but only one is heard, and the other is assumed. It’s a fascinating device that reveals the speaker’s motives and character in their own words. That the sender tended to reveal so much about themselves in these email exchanges (and why wouldn’t they, these were always meant to be candid) only heightened the comparison. But then, there I was, thinking of the sender and recipient as characters.

In a story, all the characters are forced into cooperation, to dialogue and action, by the author's will. In comparison, this story, the one I watched unfold in real-time in my inbox, was entirely controlled by the whim of the characters themselves and their own decision or indecision to cooperate. Taking things one step further, the characters themselves are the actual authors, and like the characters, these authors may or may not cooperate in crafting this story. The more I pulled back, the more any analysis or distinction became blurry. But then, this is all assumptive of art. It begged the question: was this art? Or was I just framing it that way because I’m a writer, and this was a written exchange?

As much as I drew parallels between the epistolary and the dramatic monologue, the simple fact that this was all real and not masterfully planned by a single creator made it extremely difficult for me to call this art. To phrase it as a question: because this didn’t have the intention of art, was it disqualified from becoming art? Maybe. But it did move me in a way that experientially felt very much like art. This voyeurism, let us call it what it is, seemed to illuminate so much of how we communicate, both in form and technology, and how we navigate anger, heartbreak, and trust in a digital age.

If only others could feel what I felt receiving these emails out of the blue and being drawn so deeply toward them, if they could have this same experience, if they could be unwittingly invited in, maybe they’d get it. And that’s when I thought of audience.

If this email exchange were simply between the two parties it intended to be between, then no, I don’t think this would be art. But because I existed as an audience member, watching it play out as if it were staged, and I saw and insisted on it being art, then it became art because of my insistence, or art because of its insistence on me, or if not art, then life imitating art very closely. All of what I believed to be true of this experience, that it meant something more than what it initially intended, was qualified by my presence and how I experienced it. It didn’t have to be me. It could have been anyone in my shoes, but this time it was me, plucked from internet anonymity and given a front-row seat. And to be honest, that made me feel special in a way, privileged for the opportunity to witness something so intimate, especially without the players realizing that I’d be paying such close attention.


The next day I received four emails from the sender. The first, sent in the middle of the night, sounded like it had stewed a while before it landed in writing. The sender was agonizing over the recipient going dark, over the recipient setting up the sender by no-showing to a planned meeting, twice. What followed boiled over into a string of profanities and name-calling: narcissist, disgusting, psychopath, neurotic, controlling, calculating, torturer. F you F you. But somewhere in the middle of it all, a call to reason: I didn’t mean anything I said, and you know it.

What was said that wasn’t meant? There was something immediate and obvious looming, but I didn’t have to wait long to know for sure.

Less than half an hour later, another email appeared in my inbox. While the recipient’s email was in the “To:” field alongside mine, there was a third email address, the one to which this email was aimed; however, there was no identifying information given, no name attached to a salutation. They’re driving me crazy, the sender said. I’d never touch them. They have me saying things out of anger. They’re a highly skilled psychopath. I have to stop, the sender said. This will end badly for both of us. But I’d never touch them.

Maybe the sender was right. Maybe they would never touch the recipient in any violent manner. It’s true, yes, people say things they don’t mean when angry. Awful, terrible, violent things; they can become the most wicked version of themselves. But hearing the promise of violence uncaged from someone’s throat changes things. You can’t unhear it. The sender was pushed beyond reason, or the sender was in a prison of their own making, but either way, this marked a new extreme within the pendulum’s swing.


I wondered who this third address represented. Maybe it was the address of a mediator or neutral third party, a shared friend, maybe a business associate. Maybe the sender was alone in all this and needed allies, so it wasn’t just their word against the other; maybe it was a lawyer or therapist. I wondered what the third party felt reading the email. Did they want to console the sender? Did they want to de-escalate the situation? Did they take sides, and whose side were they on? Or were they weary of this mess, tired, unwilling to help at all? Whoever it was and however they felt, I would never read a reply in their own words.

That afternoon, another email was sent to the third party, the recipient, and myself. This email was almost emotionless compared to the vitriol of the other emails. The email read: don’t support [the recipient] or people like them; it’s in your best interest to go no-contact. I’m done.


Relationships don’t work out for any number of reasons. Just because a relationship fails does not mean that any particular party is to blame. After all, people break up amicably all the time. But if the burden of the breakup weighs heavily in one particular individual's favor, an entire world of possibilities is unleashed. Reading these emails, I forced myself to look back at some of the failed relationships I’ve been a part of, how I drifted in and out of love, and how I chose, wrongly, a distance over a shared examination of the state of the relationship when I felt things change inside of me. I thought of the mean things I heard from the people I broke up with, things I never thought I’d hear someone say to me. Looking back, maybe I was deserving of them.

I remembered when it was my turn to have my heart broken and all the ways I hated and loved and hated to love my significant ex. I remember thinking, if only I could say it with clarity and understanding, lay out their rationale in exacting terms, then they’d understand, know how I felt, and maybe, just maybe, come back around and love me again. Couldn’t they see how wrong they were?

The last of the four emails I received that day arrived just before dinner. It appealed to the recipient’s sensibilities. The sender wrote: you were never honest with me; you only wanted money. You were never going to visit, even though all the while you told me how you were looking forward to the visit. And it was apparent you weren’t coming. You never booked your tickets. You made me suffer. You were so cruel.


Over the next few days, the sender didn’t send another email to my address. Maybe they were, as they had stated before, really done with it all. I re-read the emails I had been sent a few times, and honestly, I didn’t know where things could end after this. The narrative had started to take on a different life. The sender was caught in a loop of anger and frustration, and longing. Even though I was simply an observer, I felt fatigued as if I were a central character. I wanted to walk away, but I needed to know how it would end.

In my life, I tend to avoid reality TV, tabloid journalism, and social media (with some exceptions). I’ll admit I had a passing interest in gossip for a small period of my life. The problem with all of it is that it never represents a whole story. Bits and pieces are held under a microscope or squeezed until something compelling is extracted from them, and it’s almost entirely unfair. And yet, here I was, three days removed from the last email and compulsively checking my inbox and spam folders for another note, anything that would bring closure. The question ringing in my head was one of place and reciprocity: when do we let someone in before they’ve earned that privilege? It had a spot in my heart, having been mistakenly invited in but perhaps standing in the doorway eavesdropping for far too long.


Four days later, the pendulum swung back in the direction of hope. The sender forwarded an email to the recipient demonstrating ways to help them raise money professionally. I won’t go into details, but the two were planning to meet up soon to discuss the particulars. And this time, the email closed with the word “love.”

In the four days since I received this last email, I could only imagine how the two hashed things out. Or was it more likely that the recipient just said all the right things to stay in the good graces of the sender? I didn’t want to assume the worst. I wanted to assume that love prevailed and things were really going to get better between the sender and recipient, but given all that I had seen, all that I had inferred, it just felt like another trip around the merry-go-round.

The next day’s email was predictable. The recipient had assets of their own this entire time but still bled money from the sender, going so far as to leave the recipient’s family unmedicated and uncared for because they wouldn’t liquidate their assets or take out a personal loan. The sender defaulted for the first time in their life because of all the money they lent to the recipient.

A few days later, the sender somehow knew that the recipient had been paid a significant sum via online banking and demanded their money back with plenty of colorful language. The sender sent a screenshot of a typed-out but unsent dispute with the bank in their mobile app, and then a few minutes later, a screenshot of that dispute fully submitted. By the look of it, the things the sender had promised were coming true.


Then, a little bit later in the day and without warning, I received an email containing a picture of the recipient’s genitals. A close-up. The sender sent a screenshot of the original email containing the picture to the third party, the recipient, and me. I check my email on my phone, and by some cosmic miracle, I was in my house at the time and not standing in line at the grocery store when I saw the picture. There was some text stating something to the effect of “this is what the recipient keeps sending me,” but I didn’t let this one stick around in my inbox so that I could get a real read on things.

This was where I drew the line. I reached out in a separate email to the sender demanding to be removed from any future emails and stating that I was not the person they meant to send emails to all this time. I could have just blocked the sender, and in retrospect, that’s what I probably should have done, but part of me wanted them to know I was privy to the emails. I guess in my mind, I still wanted them to make the right choice when sending their emails, to not include me and anyone else that shouldn’t have access to them, even though, in retrospect, I should have done this much, much sooner. And yes, part of me wanted to know how the sender would respond, and if I’d blocked them, I wouldn’t have had the chance.

My email, of course, didn’t stop the sender from sending more emails. Two days later, I received the longest email of them all. Much of what the sender said was the same as their previous emails, only this time, there was more of it. But the tone of this email was slightly different, very much inviting the recipient to “test” them. The sender volunteered that if they didn’t receive a large amount of money via Western Union soon, they’d be using every tactic imaginable to press charges. The sender also stated multiple times that they weren’t violent and only said violent things to defend the honor of their deceased spouse, who the recipient had claimed the sender killed. The sender’s therapist backed this up, stating that their reaction was provoked by the recipient. The sender was angry that they never got a chance to see any of the things all that money had purchased. The sender had paid for plane tickets, clothes, the recipient's pet’s medication, and many other things, all adding up to a very large sum of money.

A few moments later, another email asking for the money the sender sent to the recipient’s mom and for the recipient’s grandfather’s funeral.

Later that night, more explanation about the violent comments. No prosecutor would touch them, the sender said, given the circumstances.


Around bedtime that night, I got an email directly from the same major police department that I had ignored at the beginning of this debacle. A detective from the Vice Crimes Section wanted to question me regarding an Obtaining Under False Pretense case that had been opened against the receiver. The hammer was coming down, and the sender was pinning the receiver for wire fraud. And now that the police were involved, I felt my hand was forced. I had to respond. I Googled the name of the detective just to make sure this wasn’t part of a ruse; they were mentioned in some news articles from their city as being a detective on actual cases. So, as politely as I could, I said I was aware that the sender, whom I mentioned by name, was probably looking to press charges against the receiver, who I was being mistaken for, and that I had asked the sender to stop sending me emails. They quickly thanked me for my reply.

A day later, the sender apologized for sending the emails, and said they’d stop sending any in the future.

The play, the serial novella, the poem, whatever I was calling it, had come to a stopping place, at least for me, the sole constituent of the audience, with myself becoming one of the characters. I had asked to be removed from the room with the action. I’ll admit a part of me was saddened, yet I felt as if I had deserved to be uncovered, to be found out. How long was I willing to let this go on, anyway?

The art I had longed for this to become was a very seedy, sordid kind of art. Good art changes people. I wasn’t sure I felt changed having experienced this, at least in the ways I thought I’d be changed. I had always known that these sorts of things happen to people, these scams, cons, grifts, whatever you want to call them, and had wondered how folks let it happen to themselves. I mean, I shouldn't pass judgment, was I not at parts rooting for the two to make amends, even with a front-row seat to the financial beating the sender had taken? No, the sender ultimately did the right thing by involving the authorities to get their money back. If I were in their shoes, I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do it any sooner than they did. I can only assume what the letters from the receiver must have been like and how powerfully the sender fell under their spell. As a writer, that might be the strongest curiosity I have in all of this.

And maybe that’s all this art was meant to instill in me. Maybe the situation at hand was a cautionary tale about the kind of relationship perils one can fall into in an online romance. But the watching, the introspection, the probing of character, maybe that was more important to me as a writer and an artist. Maybe this art was, in a weird way, a statement of artistic preference that I agreed with, an art that was close to real but weird, raw, hyper-real. Neon. Maybe this was an art of dualities, the high-minded mixed with the dark underbelly. The hatred and the love, cursing, as in “I f-in love you.” Maybe that all made sense to me.

I have the email address of the recipient, their name, the sender’s email and their name, and the city in which the charges are being drawn. I have no clue if I’ll ever search for the outcome of the case. I’ve dreamt about emailing the sender directly just to ask about things, see if they’re doing okay. I feel a certain kindred tie with them now. I probably wouldn’t reach out to the receiver since I know so little about them, having never read a single word of their own. But I know they’re out there, and at least one of them knows about me. For now, I’ve relinquished the veil of anonymity, at least until the next sender-confused email lands in my inbox.

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