This essay was originally published in the fourth issue of Witches Mag.
The morning after we break things off, I hear my alarm blare and immediately walk to my bathroom, sit down on the toilet, and begin to cry for the first time in four months. There is nothing glamorous about it, or even endearing. There is only me, my unwashed hair, 1970s bathroom decor, and a small handful of deep sobs that feel like medicine.
Eventually I will insist that my sadness isn’t really about him, but about losing another opportunity to fall in love with someone. I’m not there yet, though, so in the first few hours of radio silence between us, it is entirely about him. I am indulging in sweet, scattered memories: a cardboard sleeve around a cup of earl grey, a nervous hand on the small of my back, a suit jacket, a whispered apology when he went to kiss my neck and knocked my earring out of the way. I grab my phone and look at the photo of him that I sent to Valerie, our mutual friend who set us up. I zoom in on his nose, remember it pressed up against mine. I think of his right hand brushing my hair out of my eyes, inching up my leg, and let myself long for his chin, for the creases beside his eyes. He is wearing a tie and a simple smile, the ideal attire for a wedding on the east side of Providence.
But we only went out once. The whole thing lasted a month, give or take. So when six weeks have passed and I am still talking about him in therapy, I feel stupid for being so hung up on a man I barely know. My therapist, a woman named Camille who is only a handful of years older than me, is running out of platitudes. Self-conscious about my schoolgirl sadness, I try to convince Camille and myself that I am not heartbroken because of this man in particular. I am sad because I want to be in love with someone for the first time, and losing him means having to start all over again. I am now 23 years old and have never had a boyfriend, and my lack of companionship is a void I keep trying in vain to fill. It’s not really about him — he is only a symbol of what could have been, my therapist and I decide. As I repeat these sentiments each week, the silver rock and band on Camille’s left hand glare up at me, and it feels like she’s giving me the finger. This is one of several things I will never admit to her.
The wedding is in a house museum, a regal brick building named after an old white guy. I arrive late, since I wasn’t invited until an hour earlier, when he sent me a text reading: I’m at a wedding in Providence and I don’t know a soul. You could be my plus one? We meet for the first time on the grandiose staircase leading up to the house, and his voice sounds different than I’ve imagined — softer, more benign than most men’s. We live in different states, so we’ve only learned about each other through Valerie and through our previous month of exchanging wistful written messages over the internet. We spend an hour walking around the afternoon reception, a semi-formal party a few months after the couple’s more intimate wedding ceremony. He gives me a tour of the house as if it were his own, and I try to keep my smiles coy.
“Out there’s my garden, where I was standing awkwardly by myself hoping you would answer my text and come rescue me,” he says. He points to a framed piece of art on the wall above my head. “This,” he announces with faux confidence, glancing back and forth between the portrait and me, “is actually a painting of my great-great-grandparents, who built this house by hand.”
I can tell he is nervous and feels responsible for continuing the conversation. He doesn’t seem to believe he’s entitled to my affection, which is a stark difference from the few other men I’ve been on dates with this year. As we walk around the ceremony, he catches me off guard with questions to fill every silence.
“Do you sit in cafés and read poetry a lot?” he asks, and I hesitate to confirm or deny.
“Do I seem like the type to do that?” I say, wondering the value judgement of each choice. He says I do. “I mean, if I had a book of poetry I wanted to read, and I happened to be going to a café, I would like to do that.”
He nods, listens like he’s studying for an exam.
He buys me two glasses of wine from the cash bar as we learn each other among passed hors d’oeuvres and two brides and no dancing. We walk past a grand piano, and I say that I’ve always wanted to learn to play but have never gotten around to it. “Someone was playing ‘Valerie’ before, which made me think of Valerie, of course,” he explains, his syllables lingering long and careful as he continues. “Which then made me think of you, and then I wished you were here with me.” Val has been trying to set us up all year, and she is ecstatic when I text her confirming that her two best friends are finally in the same small city and hitting it off. Val will feel bad later.
Why am I crying in my bathroom, you’re wondering? When I am feeling pithy I tell my sisters, “Because I’m waiting for my boyfriend to get out of rehab!” This makes them laugh because it is entirely false but feels entirely true. He isn’t my boyfriend, but I think he could have been, and he isn’t in rehab, but he works in one, four hours away from me in bumblefuck Vermont, where he lives on-site with his clients and no cell service. At the wedding, he tells me about what his new job entails and how it’s taking a toll on him. He says the work is difficult and depressing, and that the brand-new bags under his eyes are only a small symbol of how heavy he’s felt lately. He mentions overnight shifts, morning meetings, group therapy, the opioid epidemic. I retain only bits and pieces of the details he provides. Selective memory on my part.
After the wedding, we walk to a coffee shop where neither of us drinks coffee. He orders a sandwich (something with tofu), and I order a tea (earl grey with lemon, my usual). I slip into the bathroom while he waits for our order, and I text Valerie again, telling her that she was right to rave about how wonderful he is, and she tries to FaceTime me as I’m pulling up my tights. By the time I step out of the bathroom, he has paid for my tea, and it is sitting on the counter in front of the cash register. I thank him for paying and reach for the cup, but he stops me, putting his hand between my hand and the tea.
“Wait, it’s way too hot,” he says. “Let me get you one of those cardboard things to hold it.”
I sneak a text to Val: oh fuck I love him.
We sit outside the coffee shop on Thayer Street and talk for hours as the early October sun sets. I wear his suit jacket and cross an item off my bucket list. As I revel in the mix of nerves and thrill, I’m both intellectually stimulated and sexually attracted to him — a winning lottery ticket, a home run in the bottom of the ninth. We have the kind of rapport that reminds me why it’s worth getting out of bed in the morning. He asks me questions about myself as we effortlessly wander into conversations about politics, about addiction, about getting older, about Valerie. When I tell him that I have a crush on my dentist, Dr. Ochoa, he asks me why.
“He’s just, like, kinda cute and nice to me.”
“Is that all it takes? Kind of cute and nice?” he asks.
“The bar is so low for men these days,” I joke.
“I actually have a crush on my dentist, too,” he says. “But my mom is my dentist.”
When he makes a joke he keeps a straight face, fully committing to the bit, risking the possibility that it will fall flat on the wrong audience. I do not know if his mom is really a dentist, and perhaps I never will.
“You know, I’m actually a really good person to have a crush on,” I tell him. I notice that when I catch him off guard with something charming, his smile consumes his normally stoic face without his permission, like an uninvited guest arriving at a dinner party.
“He’s so pure,” I tell Camille, “that I had to be honest with him. Talking to him feels like talking to a priest.” I lean forward on her couch, talking with my hands, and feel the band of my skinny jeans tightening around my waist.
Camille reminds me that I don’t really know he’s pure, since I’ve only met him once. “But I do know, because of Valerie,” I bite back, getting defensive. “She’s known him for years, and he’s her boyfriend’s best friend, and she agrees with me.” Camille stays silent and lets me fill the air, the way therapists do in movies.
“I have a secret fear,” I finally spit out, and Camille picks up her pen on cue, “that the shortcut to filling this void in my life is to just get a boyfriend. What if I never really figure out how to stop feeling this way because I just meet someone and then all my longing goes away? Wouldn’t that be easier than trying to work through all this baggage of feeling like my life is missing something?”
“That probably would be an effective shortcut,” she says. “And I can’t wait for the day you walk into this office and tell me you’ve met someone wonderful!”
“Didn’t I do that six weeks ago?” I challenge her, resisting an eye roll.
“Yes, but I mean someone wonderful who wants you back.”
When my sisters and I were growing up and starting to crave romantic relationships, our mother would tell us, “He is only the gravy in your life. You are already the turkey and the mashed potatoes all on your own.”
This is a healthy lesson — a truly feminist moment in my mom’s parenting — and I still believe it to be true. In college, I felt completely whole without ever going on a date. I lived a wildly romantic life, coming of age in New York City, taking classes that challenged me, writing in every café from Harlem to the Financial District, loving my friends fiercely and loyally, and wearing a lot of winged eyeliner. I reaped all the benefits of long-term independence, of learning yourself on your own terms, by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree.
Then I turned 22, and graduated from college, and moved away from all of my friends in New York, and had a dream in which I met a man for a date in the neighborhood I grew up in. The man, a faceless figure, lived in the green saltbox house a block away from my parents’ house on Long Island, where my childhood friend Amy lived. In the dream, I lay on Amy’s couch with the man on top of me, fully clothed and fully silent. His body pressed mine into the couch cushions, our noses touching, chests melding into one. When I woke up, I could feel the physical weight of the dream man on top of me, and it set off a timer. My mother would call this timer my biological clock. From that moment forward, I have tried to return to that pressure, that enveloping feeling of physical intimacy.
My first attempt to fill this void came a few weeks later in the form of a coworker with a sweet demeanor and rich parents and poor judgment. He had a girlfriend, and I knew that from the beginning, but it didn’t stop me from taking the bait each time he offered it. On a frigid Friday night in February, he gave me a ride to New York to visit my college friends, since he was driving there anyway to see his girlfriend. I accepted the offer; he didn’t tell his girlfriend. We spent four hours on I-95 telling each other all the things we couldn’t discuss during the workday — how lonely I was in my office, how annoying our other coworkers were, how I’d never had a boyfriend before, how unhappy he was with his girlfriend, how they’d cheated on each other in the past. When he dropped me off at my friend’s apartment in Park Slope, I collapsed on her couch while she stared at me, blinking performatively, begging for details. I was so overwhelmed with the promise of what could be, of the space he could fill in my life, that I was silent, crushed on her couch under the weight of all my hope.
It would be wrong to say I don’t feel whole on my own. I am sure that I am complete as an individual, and the void I keep talking about in therapy refers to something that is missing from my life, not from my own sense of self. I know this distinction matters, but sometimes I can’t remember why. On the days I can’t, I think of the men in Christmas movies who work too much but realize in the end that family is what matters most, that life isn’t complete without a loving wife. Each year in December, I watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family, in black and white and all its glory. We take turns reciting the film’s lines from memory, and every year, we cry when George Bailey kisses the staircase railing. Mary! Let me touch you! Are you real, Mary?
“I’m feeling really vulnerable right now,” he tells me, blushing in the passenger seat of my car, after talking about falling in love with the lyrics of an album. We are parked illegally behind his Prius, so I put my hazard lights on, and the clicking sounds like a countdown. It is the last conversation we have before I kiss him. I don’t remember the name of the album.
I drive toward the water and we spend a couple hours kissing in my car like teenagers. Around midnight, while sitting with my head on his shoulder, I feel a paralyzing insecurity creep in. I start to speak but stop myself as soon as I begin. He catches my first syllable and asks me what I’m holding back.
I shoot my eyes up and ask him, incredulous, “You like me?”
He is confused. He says he does.
“I’m surprised you like me,” I say. “I’m surprised you don’t think I’m too loud or too much.” First date. Poor guy.
“I didn’t think you were too loud or too much at all tonight.” He kisses my forehead, handles it well.
With my head still on his shoulder, I tilt my chin up to kiss his neck, just once, in the small amount of space between the top of his suit collar and his jaw, then face forward again.
I make a mental note for myself: this is what it’s supposed to feel like.
He takes my left hand, presses my fingers between his, and rubs my palm. Secretly, I wish he’d loosen his tie, let me unbutton his shirt a little bit and run my fingers along his chest. I can feel my desire growing, and I can feel the void filling. I am falling for him and for the moment, and I am too in my head — this is always true. To compensate, I get flippant and sarcastic and pull my hands away from his.
“What are you trying to do, read my palm?” I joke. Soft-spoken and sweet, he gently says no and continues to lace his fingers in mine.
I am an asshole. He is a vegetarian. And I think he would be intimidated by how demonstrative my mother is. There are so many reasons I should not feel so hopeful, but I am drunk on the promise of what could be. I should remind you again that this is not really about him. He is only a symbol of what could be.
My phone plays Lorde’s Pure Heroine, an album about suburban teenagehood, from the cupholder of my Toyota Corolla as he tells me about his college girlfriend, and I try to figure out if he has a void he wants to fill, too.
“We were living together, and we were way too young for that kind of commitment,” he says. “Being in a serious relationship with someone now, at 26, would be completely different.”
I’m distracted by Lorde, singing a line that will ring in my head for weeks: We’re biting our nails, you’re biting my lip. I’m biting my tongue.
“Seeing my sister get married,” I say, cautiously, “and seeing how feminist her relationship is has made me really want to, like, come home to someone at night,” I reveal. Maybe the internet raised us, or maybe people are jerks. But not you.
“I feel the same way,” he says. “I’m not afraid of settling down anymore like I used to be. I never imagined I’d get to this point.”
In this moment I decide that if I have a son, I will name him George Bailey.
I am okay with being a woman who cries over a man on the toilet on a Wednesday morning. I have never been naïve enough to judge heartbreak, even before I had experienced it myself. But on the days when the pain isn’t sharp, and it’s the dull underlying void wreaking havoc, I condemn myself for my desires. Am I getting worse at feminism as I get older? Why can’t I return to the satisfaction I felt as a single college student? Who wants a dry turkey breast without gravy on it?
“Do you feel like you’re in high school again, kissing in a car like this?” I ask him.
“Yeah, I kind of do,” he says, and I go on to ask a question I already know the answer to.
“Did you do this a lot in high school?”
He laughs quickly. “Definitely not. Did you?”
Parked in front of a big house somewhere off Blackstone Boulevard, there is a comfort that comes with this subtle reassurance that the moment is rare for both of us, and asking the right questions because we want to communicate this to each other. It fills the car.
Gently, he follows up, “What about in college?”
I put my guard back up, because answering a question about how often I kissed in cars during college feels much more revealing. “I went to college in New York City, so no one had a car,” I tell him, pleased with myself for concealing my inexperience and coming across as clever all at once.
“Right, so you just made out on the subway instead?”
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” I say with a laugh, and he knows I am kidding but he cannot know to what extent.
I make a mental note for myself: it has never felt like this before.
“You have a real connection with somebody, which is more than I can say,” one of my single girlfriends tells me the weekend after we break things off, trying to cheer me up. “It might lead to something one day.”
In the week after the wedding, his messages get shorter and increasingly inconsistent. Each time I turn off my phone to teach a class, I hope that I will turn it back on and see his name appear, but I don’t. He is kind to me even as he ends things. He blames his job, how the work is making him depressed, and the distance between us, but he swears that it’s nothing personal. You are so open and engaging and I love talking to you, he writes. I just wish we lived closer to each other. We leave things open for the future — maybe in five years, or when he’s back in town for the holidays, or when he just has decent cell service again.
This feels like the sad part of a romantic comedy, he writes. I really want to spend time with you again when the circumstances are different. I am forgiving, and not completely surprised, given the distance between us.
It’s definitely still a rom com, I write back. This is all rising action.
We’re not even 30 minutes in, he insists, and in doing so, he makes it nearly impossible for me to move on. He has given me hope, which in the midst of a breakup, is the cruelest thing you can give to someone.
I sit in this purgatory for nine months, while we each go on to date other people, and our communication fades in and out as the seasons pass — even after he moves home to Providence, into an apartment a few blocks away from the staircase where we met. My feelings for him come and go like a dull, lingering headache that’s not quite bad enough to urge you off the couch to take Tylenol.
The following autumn, a year almost to the day after the wedding, I meet the man who will become my boyfriend for the next ten months. This relationship is easy to settle into. He is starkly different from the man who invited me to the wedding — stubbornly logical while the last was more sensitive, predictable instead of erratic, always hedging where he was reckless. I compare them, unfairly, for longer than I want to, and longer than I care to admit to my boyfriend (though I don’t think he’s blind to it). Four months of our relationship are spent in quarantine, which is its own kind of purgatory — a suspended reality socially distant not just from other people, but from our real lives, from our responsibilities and obligations. I spend most of my time in his bedroom, where all we do is eat and drink and talk and fuck.
One morning in April, I wake up in my boyfriend’s bed at 6 am, and I am so happy to be next to him that I can’t fall back asleep. I lie there with his arm under my neck, watching him sleep. This is the moment I finally stop comparing these two men, and more importantly, the moment the void gets so full it renders itself invisible, the way a hunger pang only goes away once you fill your stomach. Eventually he wakes to my face right next to his, and I am wearing a big, goofy smile. This is the moment when I know without a doubt that I am in love with him.
In some ways, finally meeting someone wonderful who wants me back confirms my greatest fear: that life is better when you are in love with someone. I FaceTime my sister one night in May, and when she sees how happy I am, how uncharacteristically giggly, sitting at my boyfriend’s kitchen table eating ramen noodles while he does the dishes, she assumes I must be drunk. I feel like a happier, more grounded version of my usual self when I am with him. More full.
He breaks up with me in the summer because he is moving across the country to begin a six-year PhD program and he is unwilling to be in a long-distance relationship, despite promising the opposite all year. After the initial pain of the heartbreak, I am left with the seemingly plain fact that my life is objectively worse without him in it. There is less laughing, less kissing, less emotional support, less to look forward to. When I tell my friends, and my mom, and my therapist this, they remind me that I deserve to be with someone who is willing to prioritize me and our relationship despite any amount of distance. The person I’m meant to be with long-term, they insist, won’t be able to fathom living his life without me, and think about how that kind of love will be even better than all the fragments of romantic love I’ve experienced in my 25 years.
I am hesitant to accept this narrative, though, because it requires me to admit what I’ve been suspecting since age 22 — that turkey and potatoes do indeed fall flat without the gravy. That we get over a breakup by believing the encouraging promise that doing so will make room for another, better relationship. That twice now, men have chosen their careers and convenience over companionship with me — a choice I envy their willingness to make as I sit alone in my bedroom, missing them from a distance. That I am somehow still in purgatory, treading water all throughout my twenties, until this major puzzle piece of my adult life finally shows up and buys me a ring.
In one of my graduate school classes, I learned about what communication scholars call “speech acts,” which are statements that perform an action. For example, “I’m sorry” is both a sentence and a reparation of harm done. In The Hunger Games, the townspeople know “I volunteer as tribute” is more than just a sentence (it’s practically a death sentence, if you will). Saying “I do,” under certain circumstances, can legally bind two people, can fill a void, can rescue a woman from a decade of treading water. Of course, people get divorced all the time — hell, people get widowed — and why am I so dedicated to these heteronormative, patriarchal standards of legally tying someone down, anyway? Maybe it’s because I am out of fucking breath.
When my boyfriend and I officially define our relationship, and when he officially ends it, both events feel artificial. I text my friends in November, I am officially someone’s girlfriend now, and I am underwhelmed by their responses. Can’t they see that everything is different now? It’s a simple text message, but my life has changed, don’t they know? And then, on the flip side of the relationship, he says he wants to have kids with me on a Sunday, but on Monday morning he says, “I don’t think long distance is even worth trying,” and suddenly everything has come undone. Where does that love go? Where can I put it? Nothing has changed and yet with just a handful of words, the void starts creeping back, begging to be filled again.
The day before he moves to Michigan, the day before my feelings remain but his label goes from my boyfriend to my ex-boyfriend, he holds me tight while we sit on the brown leather couch in his living room. I put my face in his chest, sobbing, unable to catch my breath, like I’m a kid at the ocean on Long Island again, getting wiped out right where the waves crash, all that salt water thrashing in my lungs. Before I pack up the last of my things and leave, I ask him to lie on top of me on the couch for a little while, just so I can soak up the last of his weight.
Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
words by the month