August 1, 2002
One breakup leads to another
reaking up is a drawn-out process, no matter how fast and sudden the breakup incident. The words I can't do this anymore are only the prelude. They set in motion the lonesome effort of disassembling an edifice that was constructed jointly, of untangling threads and pulling them apart. Sometimes they are brittle threads and fracture easily; other times they are rubbery and stringy and have to be cut.
She broke up with me on February 15th because she could not bring herself to do it on Valentine's Day. I had sent her an e-mail that morning, almost as a second thought. I sensed something strange last night, I wrote. We lunched in a crowded sandwich shop and though I only heard the half of it when she said she couldn't do it anymore, her expression filled in the missing words. There were 'issues,' she told me in a pained whisper, as if they were sitting there, like her purse, beside us. I staggered back to work nonplussed.
We'd begun seeing each other two months earlier in a fit of mutual intoxication so heated and rushed that now, looking back at the blurred memories, I can barely pick out any details. She had a lissome, petite figure, and dark ruffled hair that complemented her playful, I'm-coming-to-get-you air. Her energy, being too much for just her, flared out and filled me with an itch to sing mariachi love songs in the shower and get jiggy with it in her condo's mirrored elevator. On the few occasions when I managed to regard her with any semblance of objectivity I saw a self-assured colleague, a smarter consultant than I, a woman crazy about her career, crazy about children, crazy about cooking, crazy even about me. So alive did I feel, so full of buzzing, tingly ions coursing beneath my skin, that I was surprised to find I didn't glow in the dark.
I felt chosen those first few days, as if I'd won a lottery without buying a ticket. I drifted in a haze of elated disbelief that was dampened only by my fear that someone would soon catch on, that some mean-looking lady would call the Mismatch Hotline and scream, Those two over there! Split them up, for Chrissakes!
In the weeks that followed we ambushed each other in the office every day and caroused after hours for strings of nights interrupted only by exhaustion or visits to out-of-town clients. I gorged on her words, her scent, her foibles. Maybe I was overdoing itthen again, I was coming off a three-year dry spell during which the closest I'd gotten to love was while secretly watching cheesy Meg Ryan movies. Nothing for a long time and then suddenly I'd found a girl who was so good in so many waysin enough ways, it turned out, to keep me from noticing her reticence and other 'Keep Out!' signs that in saner conditions I would probably have heeded...and thus seen the open doorway before she shoved me out.
A single bullet was all it took. As in much of her worklike the shrewd verdicts on strategy she delivered to cowering corporate managersher shot was precise and final. Too proud to beg, I did not try to fight her decision. Her condescension was humiliating. Couldn't break up with me on Valentine's Day? Please. And of course, she had broken up with me. Who breaks up with me? Who? And who authorized it? I wanted to call customer service. I wanted to explain to the manager, No one has ever broken up with me before.
Anyway, what could I do after that bullet?
I wouldn't allow her to see how sore I was. Instead I played the good sport. Sure, let's be friends.
I thought by pretending to be friends I could figure out why the breakup left me so screwed up. I already knew it was not that we'd been 'perfect for each other,' in the hackneyed sense of having a lot in common. She was an up-by-dawn riser, I have to be hauled out of bed any time before nine; she was a workaholic, I consider work with the healthiest disdain. Nor had our lives become so intertwined that her abrupt departure created a social void. It is true I'd neglected my friends for a few weeksbut they took me right back when it ended. And I did not take ill without her: no hives or shortness of breath, no chest aches, no depression. If anything, I missed the sex, and the smell of her hair.
Even though being pals sucked it was better than not seeing her at all. We did brunch or coffee. We walked from Crissy Field to the bridge and back. Outside I was Mr. Casual, Mr. A-Okay. Inside I was hopeful, then angry, then both at once. Anger I understood but I was baffled by the hopefulness. What was I hoping for?
A friend used to dictate embittered letters to his secretary while torturing me with his latest relationship fiascoes. Dear whore, the letters would start, or, Dear bitch from hell. He never sent them, but they helped him vent. While I was still angry I tried the same palliative, yet obtained no relief. I guess I didn't hate her.
Over time the anger faded and caution and aloofness grew in its place. Instinctive prudence escalated to more draconian preventive measures. I embarked on a no-expense-spared defensive buildupleathery skin, scales, barbed quills, and a venomous stinger to boot. I needed to be ready to face the ever-present threat of meeting someone new.
By the second or third week of our relationship my sense of being chosen had given way to a feeling of happy entitlement. Three years I had waited in line, goddamn it, and now, I began to realize, my turn had arrived. I had this relationship coming; it took its sweet time but I'd earned it. Without any lingering anxiety about getting caught to hold me back, I slipped into my most natural and truest self. Thus began the unprompted sharing of intimacies and fears, the unrestrainedand, I later realized, embarrassingemotional displays, the nibbling of earlobes on buses (We're like chimps grooming each other on a nature show, she complained), the stem-in-teeth delivery of roses in mobbed bars. I relinquished the discipline to concentrate on work, or friends, or the world outside, because I didn't want to and because, as I spontaneously discovered and promptly confessed to her, I had never felt so free.
Perhaps if the relationship had been shorter, I would not have gotten so carried away. Maybe if it had gone a bit longer, it would've peaked naturally and I might have understood, the way she did, that there was no future for us.
I've always believed I know as much about illusions as the next person, and am as good at discerning between doable goals and silly daydreams. I understand that the more plausible the dream, the more it seems to be here already, waiting only for time to make itself true. All my relationships have sparked some degree of future expectation, from the modest anticipation of seeing her the next day to the heady illusion of seeing her forever.
As it was, I had just enough time in those two months to develop an illusion. I didn't wed us in my daydreams, nor did I name our children, but I did extrapolate the relationship along its most probable pathalong the path that I had already imagined, over and over, during those three solitary years; the path that I not only wanted, but deserved. And that path led to something that was more than just dancing and movies and sex and wine guzzling contestssomething that was cozy and sturdy and immune to the fickleness of time.
That was what I was hoping for after the breakup. I may have been Mr. Nonchalant on the outside, yet inside I was pining for what we could have hadthis 'future' idea of us that seemed so real I could have grasped it, so just-around-the-corner I couldn't help yearning for it.
Our awkward friendship was put on hold when she departed for an extended assignment in Paris. We did not speak or correspond for six months.
In her absence I finally took a cool-headed look at all those 'issues,' all that baggage I had previously ignored. I revisited the times when she became morose without apparent cause, when her mood turned so dark that it sucked the energy out of the room, out of me. I recalled how she oftentimes remained silent for hoursnot in a relaxed, dreamy way, but in a hermetic, intimidating manner.
She kept reminding me that I barely knew her, as if resigned that I would never know her as much as she needed to be known. She hid her emotions beneath that veneer of flirting and friendliness. Only once did she open up to tell me about a lengthy and troubled affair she had ended before meeting me. For an instant I was exposed to the jumbled wiring of her innards. I even asked her if I was her rebound man; she said no. Whether she told the truth or not, I wanted to believe her. I thought the solidity of my feelings for her was sufficient to shore up any unsteadiness in her feelings for me.
While she was gone I also began datingmuch too soonanother woman. In a blatant act of self-corruption, I opened up for business before the structural repairs were completed. The relationship advanced as slowly as the previous one had been hurried. I was so skittish, there was no other way for it to develop. But that was the new and improved mebulletproof. I could have written a terrible song about being bulletproof. It would've gone something like this:
Can't be courted, can't be rushed.
Can't be found and can't be lost.
If she can't get close,
I can't get caught.
When she returned to the U.S., nine months after the breakup, I thought I had finished untangling and cutting all the threads. I accepted I had been her rebound man. I knew she'd been bad for me; she was too selfish, too mired in her own crud. And Ishame on meI had devalued myself in the service of a dead-end relationship.
What an idiot I'd been.
I was done with her. Boy, was I ever done with her.
Until she called.
Until I heard her cheery, infectious voice. I'm back, she announced.
Dormant hope resurfaced. I may have dissected the girl and the relationship, but I hadn't yethell nogiven up on the illusion.
My brain stuns me sometimes. Not by its capacity to reason, but rather, by its ability to play stupid tricks on itself, its power to ignore fact and logic and to prolong self-delusion. But being in awe of one's mind is no excuse for letting it run in circles.
Eighteen months after the breakup (nine after her return from France), we drove up to Lake Tahoe for a platonic ski weekend accompanied by several other friends. By that point I was only seeing her every two months. The last day I saw her we were on a lift by ourselves, chewing gum, not talking much. I was tense, still hopingbelieve it or notfor her to say something. Who knows what?
Next thing I knew I felt as if we were back together, as if I'd imagined the breakup and everything after it, as if I'd only dreamed of getting over her and meeting my new girlfriend. Instead I was still with her, stuck in the same place, and what struck me the most about that momentary disorientation on the liftwhat ultimately dispelled the residual illusionwas the choking weight of her, sulking by my side.
My subsequent relief was soon chased away, however, by the realization that I was becoming just like her. I was a walking clam, friendly and flirty as long as no one pried me opena stellar illustration of 'too selfish,' and 'mired in his own crud.' I was doing to my girlfriend back home the very same thing my ex had done to me.
Since then, even while attempting to shed the cowardice I mistook for cautious self-protection, I have come to appreciate the full, metaphorical meaning of the word 'baggage.' Having acquired my own has helped bring into focus the childlike state that preceded it, and I wonder sometimes if one can ever be capable again of letting it all go.
In time, my new girlfriend and I gave up on each other. It's too soon to analyze why that relationship failed, but can there be any doubt of the role played by my triple-reinforced, steel-plated body armor? If I could write a terrible song about being bulletproof, it would go something like this:
Can't be damaged, can't be touched.
Can't be fooled and can't be robbed.
Can't feel a thing,
Not even love.
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