I can’t help but consider the fact that my big love — and its love lost equivalent — dictated the trajectory of my entire adult life. And though I’m a big believer in free will, it’s difficult in retrospect to find a piece of my bigger story — my calling, if you will — that wasn’t influenced by my most formative relationship to-date.
How do you erase a decade of scorned love? And if you could, would you want to?
As a hopeless romantic, I’ve dealt with my share of heartbreak in my twenties. But also, they’ve been limited: “hopeless romantic” seems to imply that I’ve let one or two lovers shape my entire view on romance (accurate). Blame it on a Cinderella upbringing. I put tremendous focus on the few who left a mark, knowing the emphasis I put on finding a knight-in-shining-armor from late adolescence — and how I learned to approach with caution later on. But there’s an entire story to unfold from there, so read on.
My story seems to champion one of a modern feminist: young adult female pulls herself up by her bootstraps. Gets an advanced education. Makes her way in the big city(s). Becomes independent. Here’s the catch: it was spurred, at least in part, by heartbreak.
When independence is fueled by rejection, the world can feel a bit cold. But must we forget the hard parts in order to be vulnerable while being self sufficient? Like them or not, they’re part of your story. But how much of it?
Sometimes vulnerability feels naive — maybe that’s because it can seem so removed from day-to-day reality— and there are times I’d pay high dollar to simply wipe away the years of “hard knock” life lessons in love, in jadedness, rather than acknowledge them. But would I, really? Perhaps it’s not naivete, but a willingness to look at the potential for hurt and still choose to go all in; to not regret the pieces that shaped you — past, present and future — even if that means really seeing those things honestly, without rose-colored glasses. But that requires feeling. Revisiting the strongest moments of impact can feel raw, assessing the unknowns of life without pretense, judgment or justification.
It reminds me of the scene in Mama Mia when, 20+ years later, a heartbroken Meryl Streep (the picture of grace, if you’re watching the movie rendition), recognizes how little her heart has healed since her first true heartbreak. Confronted with the reality of those feelings, she poignantly sings:
I don’t wanna talk / about things we’ve gone through / though it’s hurting me / now it’s history / I’ve played all my cards, and that’s what you’ve done too / Nothing more to say / No more ace to play / The winner takes it all / the loser standing small / Beside the victory / That’s her destiny …
In love, the winner takes it all. But for how long?
In my heart of hearts, I sometimes think I moved across the country leaving a ghost: a ghost of the life I thought I would have, with someone who left my life abruptly — along with it the idea of a life I had wanted to build with them. Perhaps it’s silly to think that I had that strong of a sense of identity at that time to even imagine a life as concrete as all of that, but to this idea I say — we don’t give enough credit to the imaginations of the young. I knew what I wanted then, perhaps more than I do now, hearkening the quote from Socrates (paraphrased) that as we get wiser perhaps the only thing we actually gain is the understanding that we don’t know anything with certainty. While that opens our mind certainly to new information, it also shatters the thing in romance that puts all hope and faith in another. In an idea. That they could be a foundation in your life, as easily as a 401k or a mortgage.
Perhaps it’s the ease I miss. Certainty in another provides an ease. One I haven’t felt since amidst the hustle. Amidst the constant push. Maybe that’s why love is so all-encompassing? It provides an alternative reality to the drain of a self-interested world.
I was on my front lawn. He had called, as he had every night since I met him.
He was reliable in that way.
Or maybe it wasn’t even evening. Time blurs in our memory, at the points which are most especially painful.
I was planning a party for his white coat ceremony, which was to be held a mere 36 hours from then. But I knew.
The night prior, he had reached out wanting to talk. Days before that (in retrospect, our last in-person meeting as partners) he had pulled back when kissing me goodbye, absentmindedly questioning in private whether our love would have survived the long-distance scenarios we had always planned for: himself in medical school wherever his applications took him, myself either pursuing a Fulbright scholarship abroad or Teach for America in the South.
And at that moment, on my childhood front lawn, when he called to tell me that he “couldn’t do this anymore” and that I was not to “wait for him”; to move on, as he was “no longer the man I had fallen in love with”…I entirely fell apart.
I vaguely recall my dad shaking me temporarily out of the stupor (that would last for months) the first time, offering to take me to my favorite restaurant for breakfast. I went, begrudgingly. But I couldn’t eat.
Do you remember the last time you couldn’t eat? Out of emotional overwhelm, at least: not flu or hangover.
It feels rare. So, despite the sinking feeling of it, I hold onto that memory. Because it meant a great deal. As a turning point, it directed me to the life I now live.
A life of adventure. Of curiosity. Of seeking: meaning, fulfillment, adventure — and everything in between. Could all of that equate to the pursuit of closure? I don’t think the yearnings are synonymous, but they are related. I left a life in the Midwest that didn’t have an equivalent in my heart — or mind — elsewhere. It felt gratifying that he — and his memory — didn’t chase me to the coast, but it also felt like a nagging perplexity. Would I ever feel like I was enough, despite my incessant need to run from a man who left me feeling crushed at home?
I don’t know that I sat down in this moment expecting to share one of my deepest love stories. But that’s just it. Without it, how can I honestly carve out the reality of heartbreak? The aftermath? The rebound? The resurgence? It’s the makings of a life of a woman standing in her own power, instead of the space of another. So there you have it. I know many of you have a similar story. One that left you laid bare. One that required you to rebuild, from the ground up. One that included despair — can’t eat, can’t sleep — and upended a particular vision for your life, as well as your feelings of self worth. But one that also opened doors of potential, even if created as a contingency. These paths matter just as much.
Nearly five years later. New city. Me. Master’s. An apartment with a view.
We fell into that ease.
In an entirely different way, I saw him. Asking to meet before I left Chicago for Boston, I had expected closure. I suppose I received it, too. It felt…timeless.
We met at a mutually convenient location. Corner of State and Division. A random Starbucks. Feel out the awkward. Get through the pleasantries.
We did. He smiled a bit too much. In an apologetic way that made him seem like he was trying too hard to recompense; in a way that made me want to kill the in-person equivalent of exclamation points. Forced. Forcing through it.
The air cleared. Like a bit of smog, lifted. His shoulders slacked a bit. I saw something in his eye that felt nostalgic. We kept catching up. I didn’t want it to stop.
He was proud of the things I had accomplished; as if my “making it” had validated our separation, making him feel vindicated for ending things in the way he had, if only for knowing that I was “okay.” I wasn’t certain I wanted to give him that clearance, but I certainly did want to show to him — and myself — how I had “made it” in his absence.
And so, I invited him to come by. Platonically, of course. A few dishes to wrap, as a symbol of my upward trajectory to a new position in Boston. We could wrap dishes together, couldn’t we? In a tragically poetic version of our life together, unlived. In another world, we’d be packing dishes…to a move from the city to the suburbs. Together. With a dog.
We laughed. I asked about his effervescent grandmother’s health. He endearingly asked about my mother. We knew the hidden meaning behind each inquiry. We just …. were.
Time slowed. Have you ever felt that? It was like one of those photoshoots where a million snapshots are taken per second. Everything was laid out, suspended in a moment.
He was there. In my life. Again. I held every second close.
Wrapping up the final dish, we sat down on the couch. I put my head on his shoulder. There was a lifetime in that completely unassuming touch. A flash back — and flash forward — of a life unlived, a partnership given up. Illuminating, bittersweet.
And that was the end. It was also a midpoint. To everything else in my life. Regardless of how I’d like to position all of my life decisions, this moment was central. I cannot deny it. Which makes me wonder: Who else is awash in escapism from love, lost? Who is ready to admit they are living in denial of love because love, lost is too painful to bear?
“I am so happy we had the closure. I’m just sad because I felt like I had reserved a part of my heart for that person — for that moment — and now I just feel empty.”
I said this to my mom in winter 2016. It feels just as valid now, romantically. The complex juxtaposition of happiness and sadness — whether the ache of longing or the fear of abandonment — feels like the most natural way to describe love — and love after love— as much now as it did then. And while I’ve grown so much as an individual that it feels like a moot point, I look at that woman on a precipice of change with compassion. Who was I, in that moment? Earnest yet unsure, that version of me was still trying to tie her sails to the paths of another.
Taking scissors to that notion was the bravest thing I have ever done. Accepting a world where my heart was empty — and scared, but open — was a revelation. Everything else is just a nicety; context of a backstory.
I am immensely proud of the person I’ve become since, but I can’t help but wonder: Was it all a response to that moment on the lawn? How could it not be? Does my feminism become negated because it was purchased as a proof point in my capacity to endure in absence of the man who broke my heart? Maybe that’s where it started, but that’s not where it ended. Maybe that’s the magic: that love, lost is a formative part — but only one part — of the story.
Here I am, back where it all started. Asking all of the questions. To an empty lawn, full of memories. And into a heart that is as big as it is stitched together, as wise and aware as it is a bit jaded — while fighting with all its might to remain open. A heart that begs for more unwritten moments, to ensure that a professional path catalyzed by a jagged heart is just as valid as any; and that a woman as her own professional catalyst is just as valid as a heart on fire for love. A heart on fire for the world may just be the cure for heartache this woman has needed. Or, maybe it always was what was meant for me, lying in wait just beyond that outstretched lawn.