I once received a questionable piece of advice from my normally sagacious father: if you spot a shark in open water, swim down underneath it. (This based on a rather dubious claim about sharks being poor downward swimmers.) Unfortunately, this suggestion to literally go deeper rather than swim toward the shore imprinted itself onto my adolescent brain as a template for dealing with a variety of confrontations as potentially painful as one with a shark, including the most painful of all: the breakup.
I'd gone to school to learn how to be a writer... Wait a darn second! Breakups, school, and now we're diving (groan) into the past participle? What's going on here?
Fine, I'll fess up. Here's the formal warning: this piece is going to be about an old relationship. Or, more accurately, about my inept attempts at ending one.
Let's start over.
I'd gone to a school in the same city as my high school girlfriend, and that school just happened to have a writing program. The fact that I was at least marginally interested in writing; that the school's motto, "Expression Necessary to Evolution", was ultra hip; and that Emerson College cost 10k less than most Boston schools, were the only reasons my love-added teenage brain needed. I gave up my scholarship at Ohio State; cashed in the savings bonds my grandparents had been gifting me since I was two; and made the move to Massachusetts.
That I had no idea what I was doing became apparent a few months in, when I tearfully confessed to said girl that I regretted the move. At the time I was confused by her silence, although after ten years of marriage, I realize her restraint was probably due to that venerable tradition of "holding your tongue while silently cursing your partner for being a total pansy who apparently has no idea what (s)he wants". Either way, this was probably my first attempt at the breakup.
We had met in high school. For all of its awkwardness of those years, despite the anxiety and the uncertainty that comes from the near-certain knowledge that we have not yet grown into our skin, it is still the place we come back to. That ill-defined period between our tweens and our twenties holds more than the sum of a half-dozen years' experience. It holds up a mirror, reflecting the vision we held as children of the adults we wanted to become.
Me? ... I wanted to be seen as I saw myself deep down: intelligent, nuanced, fun to hang out with, and even passably charming. Not as the socially inept, acne-prone, Asperger-lite stutterer I saw in the mirror. Unfortunately, most of my friends were typical teenage males, more inclined to identify with and shine a spotlight on the latter traits than the former. When someone your age comes along who sees the person at the end of your personal roadmap, it's a beautiful friendship. When this same someone is also willing to touch your junk, it's love.
Unfortunately, by chasing after said girl I had fallen victim to a classic fallacy of first love: assuming that it could serve as a surrogate for all of my other needs. School was interesting, but I was friendless, bored, underfunded, and the party scene was nonexistent. The perks of a private room, a similarly friendless girlfriend, and a 19-year-old's libido were somewhat compensatory, but eventually when I wasn't with the girl I had come to Boston for, I was contemplating how and when I was going to gracefully make an exit.
Despite these private thoughts, I was like that ill-informed diver fleeing the specter of a shark, going deeper while trying to get away. We moved in together. We talked about whether we'd spend our lives in Austin or New York; what we'd name our children; how we would be when we grew old. In hindsight, the fact that New York was then the last place I wanted to live, that said children would have been named after cartoon hippos, and that she absolutely hated when I said her name with my old man's voice should have given me pause... but such is love.
When we were not planning the details of our lives together, we fought. I'm sure the list of things we fought about was poignant, compelling and obviously one-of-a-kind, but I'm coming up short on details. I do remember that when not fighting, I was often thinking about our next fight, and how if it were big enough, if we both got angry enough, I would be able to tell her how I felt. As if conflict could somehow clear the way for courage.
Where did I get the idea that anger was the only way to face the spectre circling in the waters overhead?
I have a vivid memory of walking along the frigid Boston sidewalk, hands thrust deep into the pockets of my too-thin jacket, contemplating The Breakup. In fact, the memory doesn't correlate to one particular moment on one particular sidewalk. When I conjure it up I'm simultaneously passing the theaters adjacent to my school, following alongside the tall swaying cattails of the Fens, or heading up Newbury Street as my lips go numb from the cold. Only the plan is consistent. Let her down easy. See other people. Find out what its like to be young and single and poor in a big wealthy city full of students and brownstones and tourists. Maybe even get a proper jacket.
While I waited, the winter passed, and then another. We made different plans for the following summer, and decided we'd both spend the next fall studying abroad. Same time zone, but different countries. Logistics-wise, the timing for a split was never going to get better, and we both knew it. Still, when she suggested we break up at the end of the spring, my adrenal glands fired in horror at the same time my endorphins fired in relief. For a moment the fight or flight instincts looked at one another in shock, then flight turned and ran (typical!) while fight, though bewildered and not quite sure what he was doing there, made the counterintuitive case for us to stay together.
Anyone who remembers their teenage years as the most emotionally confusing period of their life has never found themselves fighting to hold on to a relationship that they know should end.
What the heck had happened?! Was it because in my head the whole thing would only work if we stormed away from each other in anger? Was it because I had control issues, or that I was terrified, or just wasn't ready to deal with the situation as a rational adult? Whatever the reason, we stayed together that day, and for approximately a year after. The summer kept us happily busy, but the semester apart was punctuated by frequent fights, followed by a few months of curious ennui on both of our parts, followed by a fateful afternoon where I showed up with my new roommate to pick up the bed we shared, one of the few pieces of furniture that had originally been mine.
To get there, I had to finally figure out how to break up with a live-in girlfriend. Ironically, having spent most of my college years with said girl as my only close friend, my knowledge of break up tactics was probably not where it needed to be.
The only planning-related insight I could actually come up with was that it was better to break up in the morning than break up in the evening. After all, I needed time to pack and carry out the essentials, I couldn't afford a hotel, and it would have been awkward to ask a friend to help. Although truthfully, coming back later to pick up the bed was also fairly awkward.
The other problem that required an unjustifiable amount of brainpower to solve was sex. When you are 21, and living together, it means you're having sex practically (or literally) every day. While this didn't stop me from planning the breakup, I was ethically aware enough to know that you don't have sex the day before you drop the big one. I can't remember how I ended up handling this aspect exactly, but I do remember my somewhat ridiculous game-day statement that at least we hadn't had sex in the past 24 hours. For some reason this did not have the anticipated effect of making everything just fine, but it did make me feel like less of a jerk.
After picking up the bed, my new roommate remarked, "she was not happy."
This surprised me, which wasn't surprising, considering how rarely I made a conscious effort to consider her emotions. At that point in my life I was spending most of my time in my own head, wrapped up in my own problems or dreams. Said girlfriend had become a supporting character in the Amazing Life of Aaron Ansel, a lively but cliched production written and performed before the Bechdel test was really a thing. We both knew the curtains were due to be drawn, but those particular set of stage instructions must have been omitted from the line notes.
Being married now eleven years to a love who isn't my first, but will hopefully be my last (not counting those inevitable nursing-home flings) has taught me some basic rules about decisions. First, if it's a big one, don't wait too long to make it. Second, the how is just as important as the when. And most importantly, if you fear a confrontation, don't try to duck underneath it. Swim toward it with all your might, and then give it a good punch in the nose. (On the other hand, if it's a shark, poke in the eyes or gills... that nose thing is apparently nonsense).