Here there be dragons

A love lost in a bagel shop. That’s where I was – ordering an everything bagel with egg and scallion cream cheese – when I watched from outside my body as my heart broke in this relationship for the last time.

As the woman behind the counter passed me my order, I realized with a rising sense of panic and urgency that I had to get out of there. I had to leave that shop and also this relationship immediately and if I didn’t? I was going to die. A suffocating rush of pink started to flush up painfully through my chest, into my neck and up my face as I tried to hold back the searing tears that by this point were pushing through my eyes and catching in the back of my throat. Time slowed down just enough to acknowledge what I had been resistant to believe or accept for months: This is all just utterly and spectacularly over.

As this realization silently fractured like a thunderbolt beneath my ribs, I looked up at my boyfriend’s face as he chatted and paid the cashier. I love you, I thought to myself. And also I have to leave you now. I do not understand how we got to this place.

Jay looked up and smiled, waiting by the door so we could walk back to the car together, his sneakers squeaking on the worn linoleum as he casually strolled outside totally naive to the disaster that was about to unleash. It was in this moment – the moment that is now seared like an iron brand into my memory – that I realized sharply and suddenly and with an irreversible sadness that this thing we were trying to do, this relationship, is done. I would never, ever get what I need from this man or this life. 

In the aftermath of it all weeks later, after I had moved out of the big house at the end of the cul-de-sac in silicon valley and banished myself about as far away as you can go without disappearing entirely – to a town 250 miles north near the sea – with nothing more than my dog and a pile of boxes, when I finally had the time and the emotional willingness to sit with and start to examine the disoriented pieces of my life, it is that moment I think of, standing outside a bagel shop on that Sunday morning in December. The moment – when something solid and something real, when an actual part of whatever it is that makes us all human – split apart in my soul and set my life adrift through space like an untethered astronaut alone in the galaxy.

***

It was not the announcement of Jenna and Will’s pregnancy that got me, or even the news – shared as though it were a bonus gift in the same sentence – that another mutual friend couple were also having a baby, due the same week in the spring. It was Sunday, and we had run into Jenna and Will in the parking lot on our way to the bagel shop in old Palo Alto. Jay and I had just picked up an old desk from someone on NextDoor to put in our guesthouse which I had been redecorating all winter. We had planned to grab some food and walk the farmers market before heading home. To our surprise and delight, we happen to run into Jenna and her husband as we passed through the parking garage. Of all the couples in our friend group at Stanford, Jenna and Will were by far my favorite people and I had known for awhile that they had been trying for a baby. Only a few weeks earlier, Jenna and I had been in my kitchen commiserating about how triggering the seemingly endless onslaught of baby shower invitations could be when you are childless – even temporarily – and not by choice. 

Now the four of us were standing in a parking lot as Will gushed with excitement over their pregnancy news, and Jenna announced that Ricardo and Fatima – another couple in the PhD program – were also having a baby. My initial reaction was real joy: I was so genuinely happy for them. How could you not be? The look of pure love on Will’s face when he looked at his wife, the way Jenna’s eyes teared up with what I imagine was a combination of sheer happiness and also relief as they told us – it was impossible not to share in that kind of palpable excitement. A new baby. They were going to have chubby, beautiful new baby and that was their everything right now.

But as we said our goodbyes and started to cross the parking lot towards the bagel shop, something inside me shifted. In hindsight it almost felt like someone had lit a match which had started a deep burn, as if there was a kettle in the middle of my chest whose top was starting to tremble and groan under the growing pressure of the hot water underneath. And while I had a sense of why I was feeling those feelings, I had no idea how hot or how fiercely it was about to explode.

When the emotions hit, they ricocheted like a fiery, physical tidal wave of sadness, anger, disbelief, guilt, and grief that stunned me into a suffocating silence. I hid behind a pair of dark sunglasses, knowing that if I tried to say anything – no matter how mundane – the dam would break and I wouldn’t be able to stop whatever kind of nuclear reaction was happening inside my body from spilling and spinning totally out of control. It was a terrifying sensation of being emotionally burned alive from the inside out. Everything hurt. It was becoming hard to breath. My world was a Dali painting and the clocks that I had so desperately tried to ignore were now melting down the sides of time, screaming and shrieking and begging me to listen to the reality of my life. By the time we left that cafe, I knew that my four-year relationship was over. 

Weeks later, while in the process of packing up closets of clothing and belongings, in this bewildered state of resignation and confusion I came across a long silk dress that Jay had bought me last spring before our trip to Hawaii. It is a beautiful dress, with a high neck that parachutes down to the floor in long, flowing folds of gold, green, and crimson colored fabric. I remember looking at that dress in the Anthropologie catalog as Jay peered over my shoulder and coyly placed an order that he surprised me with the night before we left for the big island. I remember thinking how perfect that dress would be for a Hawaiian holiday…and also to hide the signs of an early pregnancy at a friend’s wedding later that year. I also remember how much this thought pleased me when I wore it for the first time on that vacation, thinking that the next time I put it on we would be halfway to having a baby. I thought about this all with a sense of detached sadness and numbness as I gently folded the dress into a box and sealed the top with shiny clear tape.

Looking back on all of this – from that moment in the bagel shop to the act of packing up a life into storage – it is amazing to me the kind of mental gymnastics we allow our minds to accept in order to maintain the illusion of what we want to believe. The reality was that when I put that dress on in Hawaii last April, we were no closer to having a baby than we were when we broke up 8 months later. At the time, I was simply just more willing to ignore the emotional sirens going off everywhere in my life than to admit that we were broken beyond what love and therapy could ever possibly hope to repair. How could all of this time, this love, this work, this building of a life simply add up to…nothing? How could we have absolutely nothing to show for this four years later? And most troubling…how could I have done this to myself what feels like yet again?

In my experience, the willingness to get real honest about why a relationship ultimately falters doesn’t actually happen in the moment the relationship finally dies – it’s all those cliche stages of grief, ultimately cumulating in a come-to-Jesus moment usually well past the relationship expiration date. In this case, it was a recognition months later that I had done this, all of this, to myself. It would be easy for me now and really forever, to craft a narrative that basically paints him as bad and me as blameless, and I know this because this is essentially every story you’ve ever heard me tell about every boyfriend I’ve ever had. They were shitty, and I was shiny, and that is more or less the order of things.

It is easy to make this your truth because everyone – your friends, your family, sometimes even HIS friends – are conditioned to accept this version of reality. It provides a scripted role to for everyone play in the aftermath of relationship catastrophe, including and perhaps most importantly, carving out a character for yourself that reiterates your own blamenessless because Christ. How do you accept that you did in fact do this to you? You chose to stay in spite of waking up to a red dawn day after day, in the face of all of the booming red parachutes falling from the sky, as your own body and life splintered apart hollering over and over that this relationship was not enough no matter what your heart and your mind continued to lie to you about. But those lies are a call to arms to comfort you in your despair, to assure you that everything will be all right, and to insist that the next time – the next man – will be so much better than what you’ve left behind.

How would any of us ever leave a relationship if not for the lies we tell ourselves.

But be warned because here, in those false stories, there be dragons. This final chapter you have bought into, this narrative you have not even had to convince yourself or anyone else is true because it felt so easy to accept and carry on, is a cautionary tale. It is the moment of truth. The choice between the red pill and the blue pill, when you have the option to emotionally burrow and go underground and shut down your consciousness yet again. Or?

Or not. Or you can listen. Or you can take a breathe and take a peek at what really just happened here. You can decide to look at what really went down in your life and the role you played in getting to that point. That break in your soul might be what catapults you into the darkest night of your soul but also the blessing that gifts you into the rest of your life.

My heart broke in a bagel shop. And through all those cracks, somehow gave me permission to let the light in.

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