Here there be dragons

You will be in a bagel shop when your heart breaks in this relationship for the last time. Egg, avocado, and scallion cream cheese on an everything bagel to go. The woman across the counter passes this to you as a sense of urgency rises in your chest and you realize you have to get out of there, immediately. You can feel your face flush hot and pink as you try to hold back the searing tears that are now rising up your neck and catching just short in your throat. You are conscious of what is happening as if time has slowed down just enough for you to suddenly understand with perfect clarity what you have been resistant to believe or accept for months.

As this realization silently untangles beneath your ribs, you look up at your boyfriend’s face as he chats and pays the cashier. I love you, you think to yourself, and I don’t understand how we got to this place, here, and now. He looks up and smiles, waiting by the door so you can walk back to the car together, his sneakers squeaking on the worn linoleum as he turns to go outside. It is in this moment – the moment that is now seared like an iron brand into your memory – that you realize sharply and suddenly and with an irreversible sadness that this thing we are trying to do, this relationship, is utterly and permanently broken. You will never, ever get what you need from this man or this life. 

Later in the aftermath, after you have moved out of the big house on the cul-de-sac in silicon valley, about as far away as you can go without disappearing entirely to a town 250 miles north with nothing more than your dog and a pile of boxes, when you have finally have had the time and the emotional willingness to sit with and start to examine the disoriented pieces of your life, you cannot shake the feeling that in that moment of revelation, holding a bagel in your hand on that Sunday morning in December, you felt something physical – something solid, something real – break apart in your soul. 

***

It was not the announcement of the pregnancy that got me, or even the news – shared as though it were a bonus gift in the same sentence – that our other friend couple were also having a baby, due the same week in the spring. We had run into Jenna and Will in the parking lot on our way to the bagel shop in old Palo Alto. It was a Sunday and Jay and I had just picked up an old desk from someone on NextDoor to put in our guesthouse. We planned to grab some food and walk the farmers market before heading home. Of all the couples from Stanford we knew, Jenna and Will are by far some of my favorite people and I had known for awhile that they had been trying for a baby. Only a few weeks ago, Jenna and I had commiserated in my kitchen about the number of baby shower invites we continued to get and had bonded over the realization that we had both stopped attending these events because they can be triggering to participate in 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 Jay’s PhD program – were also having a baby, due at the same time. 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 want 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 started to churn. In hindsight it almost felt like a deep burning, 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 water inside. I knew where this was going though I had no idea how hot or how fiercely it was about to explode. When the emotions hit, they came in as a tidal wave of sadness, anger, disbelief, guilt, and grief that stunned me into a suffocating silence – I knew if I tried to say anything that the damn would break and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. By the time we got to the bagel shop I felt like I was going to be sick. And by the time we left, I knew that my four-year relationship was over. 

Weeks later, while in the process of packing up closets of clothing and shoes in this bewildered state of resignation and confusion, I came across the long 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 it would be for a Hawaiian holiday…and to hide the signs of an early pregnancy at a friend’s wedding later that year. I also remember how much this had pleased me when I wore it for the first time, 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 that dress into a box and sealed the top with shiny clear tape.

It is amazing the kind of mental gymnastics your mind will do to maintain the illusion of what you want to believe. We were no closer to having a baby last April than we were when we broke up 8 months later. I was just more willing at the time 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.

In my experience, the willingness to get real honest with yourself about why a relationship ultimately falters doesn’t stop at the moment of death; it continues well past the expiration date. 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, which includes your own. A call to arms to comfort you in your despair, assure you that everything will be all right, and insist that the next time – the next man – will be so much better than what you’ve left behind.

But be warned that here, there be dragons. This relationship end story you have bought into, this tale 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 warning and it is a lie. And it is how you end up in a bagel shop on a Sunday morning in December feeling the weight of your heart as it shatters into a million little pieces.

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