It begins with a breakup that takes all night.
Is this normal? I’m not sure. This is my first breakup, because this was my first relationship (sorry, high school boyfriends, but you don’t count. I still treasure the poems I wrote about missing looking at your dirty Converse sneakers under the table during biology class), and I was under the impression that it would be a lot cleaner than this.
But it’s not, and we’re in a hotel room in Palo Alto, and it’s midnight and there is nowhere I can possibly go and nothing I can possibly do but stay here and listen to my sandcastle of a long-distance romance—with a man nine years my senior and polar opposite from me in every way including, it’s becoming apparent, those that mattered (the literary merits of Haruki Murakami, bacon as a food group, the frequency with which one should sharpen one’s knives)—crumble.
i. the tracks of my tears
The sun rises the next morning. There is nothing to do but shower and venture back into the world of the living, and so I do, fumbling as I wedge my contact lenses in between my swollen eyelids and painting my dark circles over with a heavy coat of foundation.
I am not one to wallow in my bed. I got that out of my system years ago, during my third, wasted semester of college, and now come hell or high water or surprise all-night breakup session I will participate in the world, puffy eyes be damned.
And so this morning, when the sun rises and I confirm that this was not a dream, I get out of bed and I shower and I grit my teeth and I embark on what I have come to think of as “the North American crying tour.” I must make it through one day at the office and one overnight flight from San Francisco to Atlanta and just to hammer one last nail in the coffin housing my dignity, a commuter flight from Atlanta to D.C. at 7 A.M. It occurs to me that someday I am going to find this funny. It might even be funny already.
I make it through a solid three hours, a testament to the power of business email to dull anyone’s senses to the point that they can no longer experience normal human feelings. At 11:30 A.M., I run out of email, and I cry in the basement of my software company’s hip Palo Alto headquarters, face first in a synthetic leather IKEA couch next to a foosball table. I pray that none of the engineers decide that they need an 11:30 A.M. foosball tournament to get their creative juices flowing. I’m not sure they understand crying. (This is a generalization, I know. Engineers have feelings too. You’ve seen the iPhone 6 lines.)
At 5:30, I go to SoulCycle. At 6:07 or so, I begin to cry in SoulCycle. I continue to cry in SoulCycle, in part because I’m sad and the instructor keeps shouting inspirational things about how I’m a warrior and a rockstar but really I’m just a leaky faucet, and in part because I am now one of those assholes who writes essays for SoulCycle’s Twitter feed about how SoulCycle transformed them from a leaky faucet into a functional human.
I leave SoulCycle with an endorphin high that propels me through one last tortured farewell with him in an airless hotel room and to the airport and through the boarding process and into a seat and through the air until we get somewhere over the mountains, when it occurs to me that I haven’t slept in a day and a half and that the relationship I spent the past year of my life cultivating has crumbled like a sandcastle and also that the music on my iPod is all from high school and not only is it depressing, but it’s also kind of embarrassingly bad. I take another Xanax and turn up the Dashboard Confessional because I’m on an airplane and there’s really nothing else I can do about my life at this point.
I land in Atlanta and stagger toward the gate where I will board a commuter jet to my final destination. The boarding area is full of fat white men in business suits who look like they are off to D.C. to lobby for the NRA. I look haggard. Red-eye flights are cruel. Red-eye flights are crueler when you’ve spent most of the previous day wallowing in your own angst. I feel like the Michelin Man.
The airplane to D.C. is smaller than I like and freezing. I grab a blanket that some previous passenger has abandoned on a seat, probably after contaminating it with Ebola, and wrap myself in it. I curl into my window seat. I thank Airplane Jesus for granting me this window seat. I begin to cry silently into my neck pillow. It occurs to me that this may be my nadir: wrapped like a burrito in a stolen blanket that is probably contaminated with, at the very least, the common cold, on a commuter flight to D.C. surrounded by fat white men in business suits, sobbing like the world has ended with my face molded involuntarily into my best “I Love Lucy” crying face.
The woman next to me orders a bottle of wine and drinks the whole thing between 7:20 and 8:00 A.M. I want to hug her. I don’t, but I want to.
My girlfriends, who are the greatest girlfriends in the history of the universe (more on this later), pick me up at the airport with a handmade sign. I cry at the airport. I walk into my apartment and I drop my suitcase and I make a Family Circus-esque beeline through the 600 square feet, scouring every inch for signs of him and cramming them into the bottom of my storage chest.
I haven’t slept in two days but the thought of sleeping is daunting. Instead, I make an appointment with the eye doctor. I send my closest coworker an email to tell her that I’m not functional today and that I’ll be back in the office tomorrow. I put on my bikini and I climb eight floors to the roof of my high-rise building and I bake in the sun until my eyes feel dry again.
ii. a little help from my friends
My friend J____ takes the bus down from New York City to spend the weekend with me. (See “the greatest girlfriends in the history of the universe,” above.) We drink, and drink some more, and we go to a pizza restaurant with my sister and her husband and the four of us order a quattro carne pizza to celebrate the fact that I am no longer dating a vegetarian.
“Do not talk to him,” says K____, after I confess that he is still contacting me, asking after my well-being. I waffle and mumble about how I feel like I have to, because I’m worried about him, and this and that and every excuse I can think of to cling to the last grains of sand before they wash into the ocean.
She is right, of course. She always is. Several days later, I text her in a panic because it’s worse than it would have been if I had just quit talking to him. She talks me down from the precipice and doesn’t even say “I told you so.” I make a vow to myself to always listen to K____ because she is always right and if I take her advice, I will be more okay than I would be otherwise.
“Time and distance,” she says, again and again. I write it in my journal. I repeat it to myself. Time and distance. Time and distance.
“I don’t know how many more breakups I have in me,” says A____ ruefully. We are discussing how very sad breakups are, and how surprised I was by this fact. I think back on how much of an uncaring asshole I must have been to my friends when they were going through breakups in the past. I expect that the next time someone gets dumped, I will show up on their doorstep with chocolates and insist on petting them and pouring wine down their throats until they politely ask me to leave.
iii. the sound of silence
What happens next is this: the pit of panic that sits like a walnut in my chest, knocking occasionally to say “hello” and to remind me that it exists, is knocked loose. It rockets around my insides like a pinball, rendering me helpless in the face of the crazy that I’m usually capable of tamping down enough to function. I’m not sure what this says about what I was doing with my feelings while I was building the sandcastle that was my relationship.
I do an excellent job at acting like a functional human being. I feel slightly bitter that my coworkers don’t know how hard I’m working at being functional. I consider mailing them physical copies of documents covered with the stains of my tears, but this seems excessive. When I’m not hiding in the corner of my office crying, I am aggressively cheerful. People ask how I’m doing and I shriek “FINE!”, which seems like a fairly obvious signal to them that either I’m not fine or I’ve discovered meth (which is probably a distinct subcategory of “not fine,” now that I think about it, but fortunately for everyone involved, I’m not cool enough to know where to get meth).
My officemate is on vacation for the week. This is both a blessing and a curse. A curse, mostly, because she’s a comforting presence and without another human in the office, I’m free to listen to Taylor Swift without headphones, which is healthy for no one. A blessing, though, because there’s something kind of delicious about shutting the office door, curling up in a ball in the corner, and crying into my chest. It’s kind of like when I say I’m working from home and I’m actually on the roof deck checking my email on my phone. Only soggier.
I begin to feel aggressively lonely. I feel lonely in a way that is unfamiliar to me, a sworn and avowed curmudgeon who typically prefers a book for company. I spend a Saturday afternoon at brunch with friends and go home to my empty apartment and sit in the dark with my panic. It’s bewildering, because two weeks ago when I was in a long-distance relationship and I never saw him anyway, I was perfectly content to spend a Saturday night with no plans taking myself on a date to the movies or devouring a novel at the Barnes & Noble down the street.
I log onto Facebook and watch a video of my high school classmate proposing to his girlfriend at Disneyland.
I fear that when the world spots me alone, now, they’ll know that I failed at sustaining a relationship, that I’ve failed at sustaining many relationships, that I am not actively choosing to be alone the way I used to but rather I have been left alone. This is the walnut of crazy zinging its way into my brain. When the rational part of my brain resurfaces, I am able to remind myself that the relationship failed because we were not the right people for one another.
The rational part of my brain seems to surface more and more infrequently. I feel like I am scuba diving without the appropriate gear.
I need to be constantly entertained. I fly to Washington to visit my parents for a fortuitously timed vacation and spend ten days trotting after my mother to the grocery store and the pharmacy and the nursing home to visit Grandma and and Pilates and the hairdresser, anything to give me something to do with my brain other than think about how aggressively sad and lonely I am right now. (I’m not sure that my poor mother knew she’d need to expend as much energy taking care of me on this visit as she had to when I was three. Next time I visit, I expect to find that she’s hired me a babysitter. In my defense, I no longer need my diaper changed, and I am capable of making my own breakfast that doesn’t involve eating poisonous mushrooms off of the lawn, to name some of my primary failings as a three-year-old.)
I watch the clock tick down to my inevitable return to D.C. and I think about sitting alone in my apartment and I begin to panic again. When I resurface, I remember how much I like to spend time alone and that I spend plenty of time in the company of others and that it’s absurd to expect that life is always going to be easy and that sometimes I am going to be underwater without the appropriate scuba equipment and that this is not a permanent condition. Time and distance. Time and distance. Time and distance.
iv. love is a battlefield
I begin to think in really, really bad metaphors. Worse than the scuba diving metaphor.
I feel like a jellyfish.
I feel like a leaky faucet.
I feel like a used Kleenex. No, that one’s kind of gross. I feel like a wrung-out washcloth.
I feel like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull, cut a six-inch valley in the middle of my soul. Wait, that one’s kind of good. Oh, that’s because Springsteen wrote it. Dammit.
I feel like a wrung-out washcloth.
v. don’t think twice, it’s alright
I begin to think about the exciting things I can do when I’m over him. I calculate that this will be true after two things happen: 1) My criteria for new boyfriends does not consist of “a curmudgeonly vegetarian in his mid-thirties who likes German philosophy and runs marathons and likes to play Leonard Cohen songs on his guitar” and 2) my criteria for new boyfriends also does not consist of “a barely legal ginger who subsists entirely on beef jerky and listens to Nickelback.”
I count myself lucky that I don’t believe in the notion that there’s only one person out there for me. Like, it sucks to get dumped, but it must suck A LOT WORSE when you think you found #TheOne and then they move on without you. Also, it must suck A LOT to break up with someone who you’ve been dating for longer than a year. And divorce must just literally be the worst thing in the universe. Except for getting widowed. Oh my God, everything is more terrible than this and I will probably be over it after my next case of the hiccups.
In the grand scheme of breakups, this one is not actually that bad. The panic walnut is bad, but the breakup itself is not bad. I envision us having a civil conversation several months from now. I recognize that it is probably for the best that our relationship ended when it did not only because it wasn’t, like, #MeantToBe and also because I was apparently incredibly emotionally constipated and I need to spend a lot of quality time navel-gazing and figuring out why I’m such a nutcase, and then maybe I need to become a missionary and do some things that don’t involve thinking about myself and crying into my pillowcase.
And so here I am today, three weeks out, bobbing like an under-equipped scuba diver in the toxic and beautiful ocean that is love and relationships and friendship and heartbreak and really bad metaphors. I feel like a real adult now: like I can go write a terrible first novel featuring a thinly veiled version of him in a supporting role and throw it out, like in a while I can go meet someone new and we can laugh about the time that I got dumped in a hotel room in Palo Alto and I had to wrap myself like a burrito in a stolen blanket and cry into my neck pillow and all the fat white businessmen on the plane must have thought that I was a tragic, raving lunatic. And I was a tragic, raving lunatic, and I think that for a few more weeks—maybe even a few more months—I might still be a tragic, raving lunatic, but that’s okay because we are all tragic, raving lunatics bobbing in the bad metaphor ocean and I don’t really think there’s much we can do about that.