Even as it was happening, I didn’t know we were breaking up.
What I did know was that my guts roiled whenever I thought about him coming home. I’d had four months alone, living in that house, making new friends, starting a new job—while he lived an hour and a half north, living there, working there. After four months of a commuter relationship, however, his loneliness caused him to observe, “We didn’t move from Colorado together so we could live apart in this new state. I’ll have to quit my job, but I’m moving down there.” From the moment of that announcement, to the day he arrived in my recently-adopted town with a vanload of his belongings, I felt sick.
We had been together for six years, meeting in Colorado, then weathering the long-distance years of my graduate study in Idaho. Once I finished in Idaho, I got a job teaching at the University of Colorado, in Colorado Springs. He lived two hours from Colorado Springs. Most weekends, I went to see him. Eventually, he quit his job and moved to live with me. Eventually more, we both realized we needed the chance to make more money, to feel connected to friends and community. We agreed on Minnesota, which had a lower cost of living and, for me, was home to a host of college pals and relations, and he and I made the move. Then we landed jobs in different Minnesota cities. Surprisingly, only when I was looking at him from a distance across our new state did I find I could exhale again. I hadn’t even known I’d been holding my breath.
He was 16 years older than I. When we met, he’d just turned 40 and entered therapy—to deal with the childhood abuse he’d suffered but never dealt with, to deal with the OCD that had him flipping the blinds open and shut three times every day, the minute he got home from work. When we met, he’d been renting his house for seven years. I was the first person, outside of his landlord, to enter it. When we met, and I started staying over, he got hives. When we met, and I started staying over, he noticed envelopes were out of line, the remote control was at the wrong angle, the CD’s weren’t alphabetized.
When we met, he was the one who couldn’t breathe. Yet he’d been lonely. And I learned quickly how to ease my way through the fields of landmines, taught myself where the triggers were. I stopped touching things, acting casual in his space, presuming I could make plans for us.
Then, six years later, he was the one moving to follow my lead. I was the one who couldn’t breathe. At the time, even as it was happening, I gasped but didn’t fully comprehend the constriction of air.
The rub was that I’d decided early on that I loved him. If I loved him, I would do anything, compromise any objections felt deep in my belly, to keep it going. Everything in my life’s experience had taught me that love meant choosing someone who would have me–and then never leaving, no matter how agonizing the feeling of falling asleep night after night, too often his lack of touch smacking me with rejection; no matter how jealous he acted about my smallest interaction with any other male; no matter how our individual strengths (his ability to fix anything; my ability to trust in people’s innate goodness) turned into reproaches of the other’s weaknesses. The lesson I had taken from my parents, books, movies, and television was straightforward, if flawed: once committed to the idea of love, quitting wasn’t an option.
The bigger rub was that, six years in, I would tell him I loved him, and his response was, “I don’t think I love you.” I met this statement with a response that I am actively training out of my own daughter: “Fair enough.”
He had red hair and blue eyes. I have red hair and blue eyes. He would say, “I’ve never liked the way I look. I’m not really attracted to red hair and blue eyes. I like brown hair. Brown eyes.” I would agree that brown hair and brown eyes are lovely.
And once his breathing would calm into steady rhythm in the darkened bedroom at night, I would let tears leak down to wet my pillowcase.
I stayed because I loved him, and everything I knew about love meant seeing it through until
Bless the subconscious, for my aware mind wasn’t assisting me a whit. By the time we moved to Minnesota, we had put in years together, established routines, traveled around parts of the U.S. and Ireland, created inside jokes, relied upon each other for comfort and support, accustomed ourselves to the tugging, dissonant, familiar sense of being Not Enough. In no way did my brain contemplate a break-up. We had moved together. Hence, we should be together. On the phone one night, after I recounted a wonderful evening in my new city and he recounted a measurement of the four walls of his rented bedroom two hours away, he went so far as to up the stakes by halting, hemming, stuttering, “I, uh, well, er, I, em, have been thinking and, well, you know, uh, think, well, I might love you.”
The neutrality of my response to the words I’d been craving for six years should have been my first clue.
Then he drove up to my house in my new town, just before the Christmas holidays, with his vanload of belongings. I tried not to vomit. I paced as he pulled in. I forced myself to throw open the front door and hug him, telling him, “Welcome home.” I felt acid run up my esophagus. As I put my arms around him in reception, he burst into tears.
Were we in a film, viewers of this scene would have leaned over to each other under the guise of grabbing a hand of popcorn, whispering, “These guys are SO over.” In real life, lacking a script, we had no idea.
For the next three months, we play-acted, him getting temp work, me solidifying my new friendships and job, perhaps knowing I’d need to faint into them in the near future. The only thing I heard clearly in my mind was, “You’re almost 30. He’s 46. He had a vasectomy when he was 25. He’s never wanted kids. You’ve always wanted kids. Where do the kids come from in this scenario?”
That conflict of agenda was the only thing that was unambiguous. Simultaneous to asking myself these questions, I would muse about how I would be with him forever, since I loved him.
Yet I hoped for kids.
But I loved him.
What the subconscious does in such situations is this: it finds a way to agitate for change. I started mentioning how I was almost 30 and had always hoped for kids. He countered, rightly, that he’d never wanted them and had assured it wouldn’t happen. A few weeks later, as our continents continued to drift, he offered up the idea that maybe having kids was a possible road to happiness for him after all; he offered to get his vasectomy reversed.
The rapidity with which I pointed out the low odds of his regaining reproductive powers should have been my second clue.
His last-ditch offers felt like a desperate afterthought. Of course, I still loved him–with a messy, choked affection newly-tinged by acrimony.
Teetering on the precipice of unmet need, we cried—thirty-two nights in a row. Tentacles clawed at my guts.
During daylight, I smiled at my new friends and made every student feel special.
Then we cried and laid in the dark on a futon on the floor, and we hugged each other, and we cried. For thirty-two more nights.
Still, I didn’t realize we were breaking up.
You see, I loved him.
As time passed, I started emailing with friends about how wracked I felt, about how I was meeting men in their 30’s who were single and wanted children. While I had no interest in these men, they had put my senses on alert: they had shown me possibility. Time passed, and something nebulous, unformed in me, hammered for release.
I wanted him to know. That I had seen possibility Not Him.
At the same time that I loved him.
One day, I headed off to teach a night class and tossed out, with no thought behind it, “I’ve been trying to put a finger on my feelings when I write emails to my pals; if you want to see that process, just read the emails.”
That night, as I stood in front of students lecturing on cause and effect, he did.
Before I drove home, I called him from my office, to see if he wanted me to pick up anything.
He was crying. He sounded like he wanted to vomit. Like tentacles were clawing at his guts.
He’d read my emails and been more than enlightened. He’d been destroyed.
Strangely, I had needed that.
His unadulterated pain powered me–
to the point that, after three more nights of holding each other and weeping, I could say, “What if we didn’t live together, as we try to repair this?”
You see how much I didn’t know we were breaking up, even as I engineered the thing?
What ensued was—in retrospect—a nearly comical tug-and-pull of trying to make the other into the Bad Guy. So long as I didn’t announce “I think we need to be done and move on” first, then he would have to. In the retelling, when the script was written, I could be the maligned one. Somehow, it was very important not to be the offender.
But also—in retrospect—I can see that I was the one who kept pushing, kept suggesting alternatives, kept offering to help him find an apartment in a neighboring city. The night before he moved into that apartment, we lay in the dark, holding each other, crying still and yet, this time promising, “It’s not a break, really. It’s not like we’re closing the book. We’re just starting a new chapter.”
So I helped him move out, helped him become lonely again, in that new state where he knew no one. Me? I thrived, unable to believe the deep breaths I was drawing, joking with my students, percolating as I sat at the coffee shop with my new friends. When he would call, I’d agree to our meeting, never letting him see how grudgingly I gave up the hours. I’d drive to his city and, as it felt, put in my time. He got more clingy. I got better at driving back home fast.
At some point, probably on the highway between his city and my town, it dawned on me that we had broken up. This dawning came, I’m sure, only after he decided definitively that he was done in our new state, where he was alone and lonely, and that he was going to move back to be near his family, in his birth state.
With well-contained zeal, I helped pack up the vanload of his belongings and helped to point it eastward. I was very helpful. As his van nosed out of the parking lot, I sat in my own car and wept. At the same time, my fingers tapped out a lively tattoo on the steering wheel.
An hour later, I filled my lungs from the very bottom of their deflation, punching out their sides into wide curves, tightening the flow only when it reached my tonsils, hovered near the smile on my lips.
Certainly, he and I talked on the phone after his move. Being home, in the same town as his family, was stressful. He thought maybe he’d head back to Colorado. He did. Then that didn’t feel right either; he left to return to his home state. Then,
I don’t know.
Apparently, for me, the clearest sign that I’ve broken up with someone is that I no longer know where he is.
Now, thirteen years later, I have greater clarity. From that relationship of my 20’s, I was left with:
Evidence that my biggest decisions were fueled by shaky self-esteem
50 extra pounds on my frame
The knowledge that I was viable relationship material—not always to be relegated to the role of supportive friend
An acceptance of honest loneliness as preferable to agonized togetherness
A realization that love is not the answer to a question only half considered
Something inside of me broken
Something inside of me reborn