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 potentially painful confrontations, including that 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.
Still here? Ok then, 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-addled 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.
It became apparent I had no idea what I was doing only a few months in, when I tearfully confessed to said girl that I regretted the move, missed my friends, the whole nine yards. 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 what would become The Breakup.
I should make it clear we had met in high school. For all of the 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, high school 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.
My vision? Simply put, I wanted to be seen as I imagined the adult version of myself: 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. Regretably, most of my friends were fairly typical teenage males, more inclined to identify with — and therefore highlight — the latter traits than the former.
So when someone my age came along who saw the person at the end of my personal roadmap, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. When, after an un-disclosable amount of time, this same someone willingly touched my junk, it was love.
A year older than me, she was kind, articulate, and ambitious, and I learned early on that she would be going to Boston for school. When I visited during her freshman year, it was first love of a different sort. With its cafes and squares, brownstones and parks, culture oozing from the brick streets, I felt like I imagine someone visiting London for the first time would feel. I was enthralled. In a later phone call, I think I said to her, “I can’t believe that a city like that exists in America.”
I was following her, but more so, I was following my own desire to explore a world beyond the limits of my experience. At the same time, I was committing a classic fallacy of first love, by assuming said girl could serve as a surrogate for the entire universe of a nineteen-year-old’s 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 graduating and moving to Texas or New York; about what we’d name our children; how we would treat each other 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.
Inevitably, 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 as for the details, I’m coming up short. 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.
Where did I get the idea that conflict was the only way to face the specter circling in the waters overhead? As if anger could somehow substitute for courage…
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, it’s not a single memory of a single sidewalk. 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 thoughts are 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 coat.
I walked through that winter, and then through another. We made different plans for the following summer, and decided we’d both spend the next fall studying abroad in 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 school year, 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 — the pansy — turned and ran while fight, though bewildered and not quite sure what he was doing there, made the completely counterintuitive case for us to stay together.
Anyone who remembers adolescence as the most emotionally confusing period of their life has never found themselves at twenty, fighting to hold on to a relationship that they know should end.
When flight crawled sheepishly back, he was profoundly confused. What the heck had happened? Was it because we hadn’t been fighting? Did I have control issues, was I terrified, or just not ready to deal with the situation as a rational adult? Whatever the reason, that ambitious and articulate girl stayed with me that day, and for approximately another year until I left. 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 my credit, it wasn’t a fight. Sadly, that’s the only credit I probably deserve. 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, which is a nice way of saying it was a shit show.
Despite having several years to plan it, I could count on two fingers the things I had taken the time to plan. First, I had decided the morning was a better time to break up than in the evening. I needed time to pack and carry out the essentials, I couldn’t afford a hotel, and because our few Boston friends were shared, it would have been too awkward to ask for help (although truthfully, coming back later to pick up the bed was probably even more 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 even 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 24 hours prior. 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 with my own problems. Said girlfriend had become a supporting character in the Life of Aaron, a lively but cliched production where the female characters were written 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 script.
Now this could be the part of the story where I pause and reflect soberly on how difficult it really was to part ways with my best friend. I could talk about how I’ve omitted many of the experiences that enriched, empowered and enlightened me, or how I regret being so inconsiderate to her then and for some time thereafter. But time marches on, the image in the mirror changes, and at the end of the day there’s really not much we can say to our first loves, except that we wish them the best, and we’re sorry for taking the bed.
Being married now eleven years to a (true) 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 that I wish I had known when I was younger. If it’s a big one, don’t wait too long to make it. 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, don’t get angry, and calmly explain that you have to go. (On the other hand, if it really is a shark we’re talking about, poke it in the eyes, gills or nose… and then get the hell out of the water).