ain’t nothin’ but a number

When I was seventeen, the sleepy-eyed 26-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Peggy in 42nd Street fell hard for me. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he’d start, his thumbs pressing the tape into the back of my neck for far longer than he needed to, “but—you’re beautiful.” I’d giggle and look away, not sure what to do, unused to being told I was beautiful and uncomfortable that it was coming from someone older than my sister. (That’s always been my barrier. Are they older than my sister? Then they’re old. Sorry, sissy.)

The night before we opened, he was gone. I think it had more to do with him showing up strung out every night than with him preying on the underaged star, but I was left with the keen sense that I was swimming in deeper waters than I could handle. I was seventeen and a young seventeen at that, and I had read enough Cosmopolitan to be terrified by the prospect of… well… you know.

Time passed, and to my great relief, I discovered that Cosmo had exaggerated the number of alternate purposes I would find for my scrunchies in the real world. (Tangentially, I sometimes wonder what would happen if women were as pushy about the ideas they read in Cosmo (http://jezebel.com/5919206/cosmos-44-most-ridiculous-sex-tips) as men are about porn. Would our nation’s emergency rooms suddenly be filled with men suffering from unspeakable chafing injuries?)

(When I was 21, conversely, I fell hard for the sleepy-eyed eighteen-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Nadine in The Wild Party. It started as a means to check a certain box off my senior year bucket list, but before I even had a chance to remind myself that I was a wild and unfettered senior and not a cradle-robber, I was smitten. Time and geography eventually separated us and now when I stalk him on Facebook I sort of feel like his older sister, which is something Freudian that I don’t want to think about too much.)

I am so aware at every moment of how old and how young I am, of the precise spot I occupy on the space-time continuum. It’s a spot that seems to shift depending on who’s looking at me. “You’re so young,” my coworkers say to me every once in a while when I make a reference to being born in 1989 or admit that I’ve only seen “Saved by the Bell” in syndication.

But that doesn’t happen as often as it used to a few years, during my first year at the company when I was 23. Now I gleefully join in teasing the new generation of 23-year-olds—I work at a software company where there is always a new batch of 23-year-olds, wunderkinds who write software code that solves the most existential problems of CEOs on the Fortune 500, then wake up the next morning to realize that they left their laptop at the bar. “Infants,” I tell them, “you’re all infants,” mostly because they are infants but also because I need to say something to make me stop worrying about the fact that I am no longer a wunderkind myself. (Mostly, though, I take great pleasure in being just older enough that I seem wise without being totally irrelevant yet.)

I feel lately like I’ve been in an extended renegotiation process with my feelings about my age. I had just turned 24 two and a half years ago when I started dating a 33-year-old, which made me feel more special and precocious than anything, even more than working at a company where people regularly marveled at my youth. “I thought you were older,” he said at first, which felt like bullshit given that we’d known each other for a year and that I look so young that, as an adult, I have not once but twice been asked by TSA agents if I’m under twelve. (If you’re under twelve, you don’t have to go through the backscatter X-ray. If a TSA agent thinks you’re under twelve, even though you’re carrying a branded corporate laptop bag and you have a fully grown set of adult breasts, he will actually turn off the machine and ask you your age.)

My next boyfriend was 36. I guess you could call it my older man phase, though I think the second relationship was something of an attempt to make up for the first one, which ended disastrously when it became apparent that I was actually 24 and that even smart 24-year-olds who don’t like brunch are still basically children. That breakup left me reeling. I had just turned 25 and I was watching the new generation of infant geniuses take up the wunderkind mantle at work and my ex-boyfriend had just written me a screed informing me that our breakup was my fault for being immature. (“Imagine one’s girlfriend, nine years one’s junior,” it began, as though I had performed some kind of Catfish-style bait-and-switch instead of just being a pretty girl of ambiguous age with a deceptively robust vocabulary.) So I found a new thirtysomething to prove that I was still special, and then I realized that I’m actually 26 and that even smart 26-year-olds who don’t like brunch are just barely not children and not remotely qualified to get married or have them.

I am dealing now with the repercussions of my older man phase and, at the same time, with the first stirrings of the notion that I’m no longer the freshest thing on the shelf. It was so disorienting to be introduced to my older boyfriends’ family and friends and to sense that they were wondering quietly—or not so quietly, in some cases—what role I was supposed to be playing. I recall a dinner with that first boyfriend’s college roommate and his wife where I was suddenly, keenly aware of how young I was compared to all of them, that two nights later I would be taking Fireball shots at the bar for my friend’s 25th birthday, that I didn’t use eye cream.

(As an aside, last summer I went on a series of terrible dates with men—let’s call them boys—closer to my age. One of them texted me five minutes before our second date to tell me that he hadn’t left his office yet; another smoked three cigarettes in my face and told me that he thought Uber was evil. They had roommates and plans to go to grad school in a couple years, maybe, and I felt old all over again, with my wristwatch and my career and my burgeoning awareness that occasionally, I understand where fiscal conservatives are coming from. It was a mindful attempt to not date people who are older than me just because they also don’t like brunch that taught me that perhaps I should just not date anybody because everyone is terrible in their own unique way.)

I rely so much on my age to tell me what I mean at a given moment. I am younger than you, I am precious or irritating; I am older than you, I’m worldly or maybe I’m pathetic. At 26, fast approaching my late twenties, it occurs to me that from now until many years from now my age will be mostly irrelevant. There are only a few things you can do after 25 or so to be impressive beyond your years and since I’m not about to found a company or publish something literary, I’m pretty sure I’m about to embark on several years of being decidedly average for my age. In ten years or so it will become weird that I’m not married; in fifteen, that I’m not a parent. (And then eventually I think I’ll become one of the kind of old lady who people describe as a “firecracker,” whacking manspreaders on the subway with my cane. Or maybe I’ll just get a cane now and start whacking manspreaders with it.)

Much of growing older makes me sad. The notion of putting away childish things: that I no longer find the joy I once did in novels written for teenagers, that I can’t make the time to perform in community theatre musicals. That I’m never quite as joyful as I was as a child or even as a teenager, that I’ll never be as excited as I was on the first date I ever went on, when I was fifteen (and he, of course, was seventeen). And I’m not naive enough to think that I am anything approaching old, no matter how often I tell my 23-year-old coworkers that they make me feel like a grandmother. I am well aware of how much is left in the world for me to discover.

But for most of my life I’ve built my identity on being little, precocious, special, and that’s really the childish thing that I’m putting away. When I was seven the principal of my elementary school pulled me out of class and made me read out loud from a novel to some visiting official from the school district. I felt validated—whatever that means to a seven-year-old with giant glasses and no friends—in the same way that seventeen years later, I felt validated because an older man that I thought was sophisticated told me that he loved me. It’s been kind of disturbing to realize that such a pillar of my identity is so perishable.

And at the same time it’s invigorating, to realize that my Finnish ancestors all lived until they were about a hundred and ten so I’m only a quarter of the way done, and I have three-quarters of a life left to remake myself into something that doesn’t rely on other people perceiving me in a certain way for me to feel validated or like there’s a reason for me to be here. Like, hey, I’m a person in my own right, and I’m special because I’m special, not because I know more words than the other kids or because I don’t watch Keeping up with the Kardashians. That means that I have to supply another reason why I’m special, of course, which is scary, but it also imbues me with a sense of purpose. Every time I write another chapter of my novel (once every twelve weeks or so, which doesn’t bode well for ever finishing), or get a thank-you email from a coworker, I feel a little closer to finding who I am irrespective of my age and what I am or am not doing with it. I feel more confident that I am doing it right by being alone. I feel wise, almost.

the butterflies are still there

Ten years ago, I had a flawless first date. I have no qualms about bragging about this because none of my other firsts have been so storybook-perfect. My first kiss startled me so much that instead of kissing back, I hiccupped. My first relationship ended in a hotel room and not even in an exciting “I cheated on him during a coke binge” way. My first date, though, was one for the ages: making out in the back row of the movie theatre, and ice cream afterward, and I think we even planned it over the phone because that’s what people did back then before Tinder.

It was so perfect that a few days later when he called me to tell me that, essentially, I was too young for him—which at a young and inexperienced fifteen to his seventeen, I was, but still—I wasn’t just gobsmacked but downright offended. How could he possibly have held my hand and bought me a movie ticket if he didn’t intend to take me to prom in five months and introduce me to his parents and post a picture of us together on MySpace?

Ultimately, though, it made sense to me, because after all, things like that didn’t happen to girls like me. I have always been susceptible to this illogical line of thought, that 1) there is a species of woman called “girls like me” and 2) we are by some universal dictum excluded from being honored by experiences that fall into the category of “things like that.”

If you asked me to define either of these, I would probably be embarrassed into taking it back altogether, because empirically speaking, “girls like me” means short white girls and I know plenty of short white girls who are often privy to “things like that,” which I suppose refers to good dates that lead to good relationships and good marriages and, you know, good houses that are well-decorated and not living alone in an apartment that looks like a homeless person’s been squatting there. (This is a more current characterization of the species. When I was fifteen, “girls like me” were girls who bought “Well-behaved women rarely make history” bumper stickers and read everything that had been published about sex on the Internet as some kind of theory-based preparation for an event that would occur in a distant and unfathomable future, maybe in a decade after we were finally allowed to go to parties where parents weren’t present.)

Clear as it was that this storybook first date was an anomaly, it’s been a decade and I don’t remember what it felt like when S_______ slipped his arm around me in the back row at “The Aviator,” but I remember how giddy I was. And how my stomach sank when I realized that this had been a mistake on the behalf of the universe, that Cupid had mistaken me for one of “those girls” and let me go to the movies with a cute boy, and how I felt some of those butterflies that had rendered me practically unable to speak for the whole night die away.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the flock of butterflies that lie dormant in my stomach have never come to life as energetically as they did that night when I was fifteen and S_______ took me to the movies. It’s been four months since the breakup of my first ~*real*~ relationship, and now that I understand that the pain of disappointment is in direct proportion to how long you spent feeling giddily certain that this was the stuff of love songs and that Pinterest wedding boards are for basic bitches but maybe you should start thinking about what your first dance song should be. That’s some curl-up-under-your-desk-and-cry level pain. That’s the kind of pain where if you aren’t careful, you might start thinking it’s okay to quit showering. Fortunately, as I’ve discovered lately, that pain does subside to the point that you can listen to Leonard Cohen again and refer to the vagaries of your relationship like you refer to old friendships that have faded over time. And you shower.

It occurred to me a few days before Thanksgiving, as I wondered whether enough time had passed that I would be able to listen to Mariah Carey’s seminal Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” without caterwauling, that it might be time to dip a toe into the dating pool again. I haven’t been actively avoiding dating, but nothing has come of the occasional flicker of flirtatious eye contact with dudes on the Metro who don’t look like their favorite hobby is beer pong on the weekend with their bros. (It occurs to me that perhaps what I think is “flirtatious eye contact” is me giving crazy eyes to innocent strangers trying to get home from work. This has burned me before.)

Because like all good millennials I don’t understand basic face-to-face human interaction, I signed up for OKCupid, where you can curate away your crazy eyes and your general inability to speak English when you get nervous. I engaged in witty banter with a few sparring partners who looked reasonably unlikely to be serial killers, and a couple of these sparring sessions turned into dates. And not only did I not get murdered, but I even felt the stirrings of my long-dormant butterflies.

It was such a relief to discover that even though I’m 25 now and not fifteen, and I have confirmed through personal experience that a breakup is the emotional equivalent of getting a cavity filled every day for four months on end, I’m still capable of feeling butterflies. Butterflies. If I could ask for just one emotion for the rest of time, it would be butterflies, butterflies like the ones that practically knocked me off my feet when I was fifteen and the cutest boy in school wanted to take me to the movies. Butterflies like I felt when I was 24 and my boyfriend told me that he loved me. The sensation that anything could happen and the certainty that whatever happens, it will be good; the belief—the self-delusion—that although an infinite list of possibilities invariably includes negative ones, they could not possibly happen to me because the universe is smiling on me.

No first date has made me as nervous as that very first one did. This is a good thing, certainly, because I think the only thing that got me out of the minivan and into the movie theatre that night was the fact that my dad circled the parking lot long enough for us to finish listening to “Stairway to Heaven” while I did some deep yoga breathing and thought about how pretty I looked in my red sweater and my corduroy flares (blissfully unaware that nobody who doesn’t want to look like the Keebler Elf should wear flares, but then again, it was 2005 and we’re lucky I wasn’t still wearing a T-shirt from the Limited Too), and I can’t really get away with having my dad drive me to dates in a minivan these days.

It makes me a little sad at the same time, though, to know that I’ll probably never be knocked off my feet by butterflies the way I was that first time. I suppose every time my illusions are shattered—that ice cream doesn’t mean the prom, and that bringing someone home for Christmas one year doesn’t mean that they’ll be there the next—my flock of butterflies is pushed a little closer to extinction. I remember how my stomach sank when I realized that I wasn’t going to the prom with S_______. And sometimes, despite my best efforts to think about neutral things like whether I prefer Brie or Camembert or whether I would rather date Ben from “Parks and Rec” or the grown-up version of Seth Cohen from “The O.C.”, I remember what he said to me that night in August and how my whole body went numb.

But in spite of that, a flicker remains. Mostly because butterflies are so goddamn fun. When someone whose hands are unfamiliar puts those hands around your waist, runs them through your hair, looks at you like you’re something new and shiny and unencumbered by the baggage that maybe one day you’ll share with them and they’ll carry as their own—is there anything more fun than that? Anything more fun than walking on air, than dancing around your living room the next morning lip-synching to Mariah like you’re fifteen again and this boy is going to invite you to the prom?

I’m grateful for my little butterfly farm, for those strivers that have survived every cull to help me steadfastly ignore the likelihood that any good evening will lead to disaster or, at the very least, disappointment. Without that blind optimism, after all, girls like me would just quit showering altogether.

baby’s first breakup

prologue

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.

“we”

I enjoy not having a tapeworm. (Granted, I would spend a lot less of my life grunting on a spin bike if I had a tapeworm, but I’m told there are some unpleasant side effects that aren’t worth the calorie burn.) I also enjoy not being royalty, in no small part because I really like wearing bright colors and I’m pretty sure Kate Middleton isn’t allowed to do that anymore. Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that you’ll never find me using the royal “we.”

At a certain age—26, maybe; 29 if you got a particularly harrowing graduate degree; 19 if you’re Mormon and you want to find out if sex is really as hard on furniture as it is in Twilight—people start to use a new pronoun. Suddenly, where once you were “I,” you become “we.

We. “We went to Green Pig last week. We had the short ribs.” “We can’t do brunch this weekend. We have a wedding to go to.” “We bought a Dyson. It’s amazing.” You, who were for so long a singular entity, are now part of an amorphous two-headed blob that will at some point probably grow to include a dog and maybe some babies. You’ve been subsumed. You aren’t a whole person any longer; when your other half is away, you have to replace them, you can’t face a night alone on the couch with only your television and your mind for company.

I can’t envision myself as a “we.” For 24 years, I’ve been a me, a singular entity who does most everything by herself. I live alone, I see movies alone, I dine at restaurants alone. I thrive alone. I contemplate the mold in my shower alone. This is unusual for a 24-year-old in the circles I run in; I am an outlier. Most of my friends and peers have coupled off, or at the very least, they live in a city where they know scads of people and they always have someone to call for brunch or dinner or a drink. Me? I go to Meetups and talk to strangers. I go to ballet class on Friday nights. I set routines and follow them slavishly and only my whims can disrupt them.

When I’ve done some normal activity with company, like going to dinner or to a movie to to a show, I revel in the feeling of using “we.” “We went to Kapnos last night. We had the charred octopus.” (By the way, go to Kapnos. Have the charred octopus. Holy crap.) It’s so refreshingly normal! I’m just like everyone else! I do social things in the company of others! The truth? I can only handle a “we” for so long. My closest friends know this, and they aren’t offended when after spending hours with them, I leave to go spend an equivalent number of hours with myself.

The prospect of losing the reliable pleasure of my own company is what scares me about coupling and marriage. I’m certain that I would stop relishing “we” if I had to use it to describe my every activity. I’ve decided—and perhaps 24 is too early to make this decision, but tell that to my ten million friends who have gotten engaged within the past few months—that I want to hold onto my “me.” It’s not that I don’t want to get married, per se, because I certainly want to give my friends a party with an open bar and listen to them tell me how beautiful I look in an expensive dress that’s supposed to indicate that every bad decision over the past six years of my life didn’t happen. Rather, I’d like to get married in a way that doesn’t force me to sacrifice my “me.”

I don’t want to be totally alone. I like the idea of falling in love with someone and I think it would be comforting to believe that whoever that is is the best person I could possibly fall in love with all the world over. But I can’t fathom the idea that to do this is to incorporate another person into my life full-time. Maybe I’m just self-centered or maybe I have too many thoughts crowding my head to even consider adding another person’s well-being to the mix.

Can I do something different? Is that allowed? Can I ask the world to let me buy a vacuum cleaner on my own or even to accept that I might want to live by myself some of the time? Is my other half somewhere on their couch wondering these same questions and feeling vaguely nauseous at the idea that they might have to choose between love and their own identity? I’d like to travel on my own and dine at restaurants with a novel instead of a boyfriend, but I’d also like the security of knowing that someone wants to spend more time with me than with anyone else. I’d like to have my cake and eat it too.

Come at me, boys. But only if I’ve explicitly invited you over, because if I haven’t, it’s quite likely that I’ve made a hot date with a stack of week-old newspapers and a plastic dish of homestyle tofu from the Chinese restaurant down the block.