If a worldwide pandemic sounds like an inopportune time to fall in love, it was an even worse time to get my heart broken.
It was in a sense like dining in the dark. With the noise of a normal social and work life muffled, with no parties or travel arrangements or end to COVID in sight, every taste and sensation of new love was perilously sharpened into focus. On paper we were perfect for each other. He was a Gemini, a serious writer, had perfectly tousled Jon Snow hair, took anti-depressants and went to weekly therapy like me. Every little thrill with my Writer warranted a dance around my kitchen. Every gap between our conversations and dates left me biting my nails, anxious to talk about writing, ideas, and love, to have his head nestled in the crook of my shoulder again, feeling calm, perfectly understood and appreciated.
Following suit, the break up happened in dizzying surround sound.
For once I don’t want to write about a break up, even though it would probably help, to create a story that’s coherent and digestible so I can move on, a true post-mortem which answers the question, “What the fuck went wrong this time?”
What would I write this time anyway? That I have once again borne my heart and soul to a man who changed his mind? That I was blinded by his goodness and didn’t see the shadows? More or less the same basic narrative. More intensity, maybe, but same cliché.
He tells me, “You’re the ex I’m proudest to have.” I try to skew it romantically, like how Bob Dylan will always look fondly to Joan Baez, or how Brad Pitt still has yearning eyes for the insanely sexy Jennifer Aniston, so many years after he publicly humiliated her, but upon closer examination, admiration is such a sad substitute for love.
Like Groundhog Day, like Russian Doll, like every day in this pandemic, the formula of my heartbreaks remains quite static. Men make me feel crazy for loving them. Delusional. Like I was the only one driving the car, like it’s my fault, like I held them there against their will! But no, they were willing, enamored and persistent accomplices. And when they let me down easy, they act like it’s a favor to me. As if my being smart, successful, pretty and fun meant they hadn’t really done me any harm. Meanwhile my poor heart went through a pork grinder. But no — of course my life wasn’t messed up — I’m a high functioning melancholic.
The first few weeks after a breakup are always the same, too. I am frantic with grief. I am reaching out to friends and they are telling me he is an idiot and monumentally selfish, obviously, and they always had a bad feeling about him anyways. I am drinking many cocktails. I am crying to my mom and she says something like “A 24-year-old man has the maturity of a 16-year-old boy.” I am nodding half heartedly with my therapist when she says some people are simply too scared to let anyone in: they see someone giving them love and instinctively run away (a phenomenon I’ve never understood, by the way). But, eventually, I stop with the tearfulness and histrionics and begin to process slowly, like an old computer whirring back to life.
Historically, break ups are always a period of intense growth and accomplishment for me, probably because my shattered ego requires something greater than what is lost to feel close to whole again. Many find solace in working out, so much that Khloé Kardashian had coined and franchised the term “revenge body,” yet this concept brought me no joy. I was more about the revenge mind, so to speak. I threw myself into intellectual pursuits and new projects, outlined new career goals. After one break up, I interned with a US Congresswoman, ghost wrote her speeches and editorials, carried a clipboard around at important meetings, and fancied myself a fashionable young politico; after the next I took up French, won a short story prize at my college and had my first ever 4.0 semester. These were also often periods of great creative productivity: I turned the ghosts of men I loved into paragraphs and poetry and made them immortal. The self-esteem gains from these efforts almost made the pain more bearable.
Meanwhile, in quieter contemplative moments (commutes to work, walking to class, lying in my bed at 1 am) I feel every feeling quite thoroughly and mull things over so obsessively that, by the end of it, I’ve processed everything quite well. Getting over failed love is an art I’ve been forced to master. I dislike that it’s all become so routine, but at least there is a blueprint to my break-up grief. And by now I know it always gets better, and one day it stops hurting altogether.
But this process involves a great deal of forgetting, focusing on the new, the future. To live, you must deprive this diseased love of its oxygen, and let it die. The brain is nimble and efficient, with its crafty tricks. Women forget the trauma of childbirth so they can have more kids and spread their genetic material far and wide. And we forget traumas of love, so we can get on with our lives and maybe love again. I knew one day I would read these words and all the ink I’ve spilled over him and not be able to feel it.
We forget the lessons sometimes too. Forget that you can’t make someone love you, or that you can’t make someone want to stick around to be your real boyfriend and go on stupid couples trips together and meet each others families. Forget that these are things they have to want to do. And they didn’t want to do it for you.
There in fact is no choice but to forget — but I didn’t want to forget the love I felt for My Writer. A love that jolted me from the flatline of my life. A love that made me feel like a wellspring of goodwill and compassion. At one point I thought, because I could so acutely read his thoughts and predict what he was going to say and do, that I had known him in a past life. He had told me once that I was a cosmic proof of concept that someone utterly compatible to him exists in the universe, that if he believed in a God, he would have prayed for someone like me.
But he was never a soulmate, he was merely a styrofoam dummy of one, painted by a meticulous artist, one who must have worked day and night perfecting his face and abs and arms, but had little wherewithal to work on the mechanics; the inside organs were all screwed up and sometimes a spleen fell out of an eye socket, in a manner that was equally endearing and frustrating. I felt, and on some level still do, that he was in love with me too, yet he ended it by saying he was unable to give or receive love at the moment.
I’m not sure what to learn about myself from this time’s failure. I feel like I’ve learned enough. I’m ready to no longer have to glean wisdom from disappointments. What was I gathering all this knowledge for anyway, if love is something so beyond my control?
How many lessons do I need to go through, how many more periods of growth? And how come some people, lucky in love, never have to learn these lessons at all? Maybe these lessons are not essential to living. Maybe the conclusion this time is that this pain is simply meaningless.
This new sensation, the temptation to dive into nihilism, is strong, but it is built on the unsettling experiences of the past year — an impending election with dire, elephantine consequences, a pandemic that has locked us up in our houses and within our borders, this amorphous threat to our lives and loved ones, fires raging across the West coast, floods and hurricanes sinking our cities. It seems we are watching the world burn and we can’t do anything about it. The entire idea of “the future” seems shakier than ever. Sometimes it’s felt better to ignore all the big stuff and focus on the microcosm of my own life. But my little pain, this quotidian and quaint little heartbreak, I can’t do anything about that either.
So… I’ll just wait it out. I’ll follow all the break-up rules, all over again. I will feel everything, until I emerge, at some point later, wiser and stronger, even though it’s hard to fully believe in this moment. At the very least, I’ll take the experience — the godless elation, the nights spent crying, the listless longing — as concrete evidence that I’m alive.