I Got Dumped, Got Cancer, & Got Over It

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
We were Jonathan & Alex. Referenced as a unit and joined by an ampersand; Alex was my first love. True, he wasn't the first one to whom I'd said, "I love you." That was my high school boyfriend, but we also used grape-flavored condoms, so I reserve the right to question my teenage judgment. Alex was the one who gave the word meaning.

I'd done it. I'd survived my 20s, passed through the halls of heartbreak and hallucinogens, and emerged with a TV producer's six-figure income and a boyfriend I loved. After a year of bliss, we abandoned our respective roommates and moved into the Brooklyn brownstone of our collective gay dreams. I'd become the person my 22-­year-­old self would've called a "sellout" — and I loved every fucking minute of it.

We rarely see catastrophe coming. All too often, we're enjoying the clear, blue sky from which it falls.
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6/24/14, 7:30 p.m. — Fort Greene

I was the first to arrive at the apartment that night, armed with groceries for dinner. I'm the type of cook who needs the Internet to cut an onion, and therefore had become the hunter­-gatherer of our new household. I was not to be trusted with boiling water, but shopping I could do.

We'd just moved in, and the dust of recent construction had yet to fully settle. I inhaled the scent of fresh paint and smiled. Home.

Unpacking the ingredients, I heard Alex's key in the lock. I turned to greet him, shocked to see his face stained with tears. I froze in confusion. He began weeping in wrenching, horrific sobs. When I reached for him, he pulled away.

"Don't. I don't deserve it."

My heart pounding, I sat and waited. For what, I had no idea. Alex collected himself and spoke.

"I don't love you enough to live with you."

For a moment, I felt nothing. If you've ever been blindsided by a lover, a relative, or a bullet to the back, you know this moment. It's not denial, because there's nothing to deny yet. Reality has changed so suddenly that it's impossible to absorb. It was a tectonic shift, in one sentence.

"Wait. Does this mean you're breaking up with me?"

A dreadful, affirmative silence followed. I couldn't catch up with the collapse. Our home, our relationship, our love — all destroyed. We'd lived together for a total of two weeks.

"How long have you felt this way?"

"A few months."

"A few months? And, you couldn't have told me before we moved in together?"

"I thought that if I just powered through, it would work out. But, I was wrong. I feel like you don't see me. We don't connect."

It was an intangible problem. There was no infidelity, no handsome bogeyman to blame. Just a bulletproof statement of fact.

We ripped into each other, screaming and crying. Finally, the door slammed shut behind him. I sat at our brand-new dining table, in shock.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
7/20/14, 1:00 p.m. —­ Beth Israel Hospital

Dr. Gerhard was a short man with a hand­shake that reinforced his reputation as a surgeon. He studied my file and frowned.

"Unfortunately, Jonathan, this is testicular cancer."

Another impossible sentence.

Dr. Gerhard launched into a surreal monologue. He would schedule the surgery for next week; we had to remove my testicle as soon as possible. There would be a CT scan to determine if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and a chest x-­ray to ensure it hadn't reached the lungs. The good news: If caught early, testicular cancer was extremely curable. But, it also moved fast.

"I know this is a lot to take in."

I nodded, numb.

"Our R.N., Andrea, is going to guide you through pre­operative instructions. You're in good hands."

He was correct. Andrea was an angel with a french manicure. She smiled tenderly and began to go through the information. I stared at the floor. Nothing made sense.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm not sure."

She tilted her head in a way that made it impossible not to cry.

"Do you need a hug?"

I did. There I stood, clutching a stranger, staining her scrubs with my tears.

"You're in my prayers, sweetie. I'll light a candle for you."

I'm not religious, but in that moment I was grateful to be included. In the face of so much uncertainty, there was something reassuringly concrete about a candle.

7/20/14 ­ 1:45 p.m. — Babies"R"Us

Here's the thing about crisis: It has no respect for circumstance. Sometimes, your phone dies right after your cancer diagnosis, and the Starbucks next to the hospital doesn't have any plugs, so you drift into the closest store which happens to be a Babies"R"Us, and there's a plug by the entrance, so you fall on the floor and wait for your phone to reboot while crying hysterically, and a pregnant woman walks in and looks at you like you're batshit, but fuck it, you just found out you have cancer so if this lady thinks you're crazed, it doesn't matter in the long run, which may be the short run because HOLY FUCK YOU JUST GOT CANCER.

I called my friend Kelsey. She came immediately and hugged me in the way that only someone you've known since high school can. We agreed that perhaps it would be best to leave Babies"R"Us. It was time to eat our feelings.

At lunch, I ordered a titanic mac 'n' cheese and washed it down with a 2 p.m. Manhattan. Until this point, I'd thought of cancer as something Susan Sarandon got in Stepmom. Now, here I was, seated across from my best friend, planning the worst week of my life. The timing was a cruel joke: On Sunday, I had to move out of the brownstone I'd shared with Alex. My family would arrive on Monday. On Tuesday, I'd be in surgery. I was terrified, but I was not alone.

Everyone needs a set of Cancer Friends. They're the people who'll wait outside the CT­Scan, hold you while you cry in mortal fear, and humor your repeated requests to watch Clueless because Alicia Silverstone is the only person who can make you forget that your balls are attempting to kill you.

I credit Dr. Gerhard with a successful surgery that removed my right testicle and the cancer along with it. But, my friends, my family — they're the people who saved my life.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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8/22/14, 2:15 p.m. — Conference Room 2B

"I hate to do this right now, but I have to let you go."

This was my welcome back to work.

"The budget cuts have been more severe than anticipated. I'm sorry."

All I could think about was the high-rise apartment I'd splurged on as my fresh-start bachelor pad. Make money like a rap star, spend money like a rap star — this had been my financial philosophy, and I now understand why TLC had to Kickstart their comeback album.

Breakup, cancer, job loss — what could possibly happen next? Maybe I'd be wrongly accused of murder?

I fell apart. Why not? I'd spent years building a beautiful life and in eight weeks, it had been demolished. Suddenly, I was stuck in an early Sandra Bullock movie, where the protagonist must endure insurmountable loss before finding herself — and Harry Connick Jr. It's the type of film that ignites my inner cynic. But, when Hope Floats appeared on Netflix that night, I pressed play and wept for two hours. To be fair, I would've sobbed at a NutriBullet infomercial. Any narrative was preferable to my own. Anything but this shit summer with its relentless insistence that the universe was chaos, love was for suckers, and death was closer than I ever imagined.

9/30/14, 1:00 p.m. — The Ace Hotel, Los Angeles

As most of my friends can tell you, finding solace in a Sandra Bullock movie is my personal rock bottom. Fortunately, I surfaced before hitting The Lake House.

Shortly after losing my job, I was granted a month-long fellowship for emerging screenwriters in LA. In September, I sat across from one of my mentors, listening to the story of how he'd abandoned all other pursuits in order to make his first film. It was a gamble — but his trip to the rodeo had paid off. He now had a hit film that would eventually earn an Oscar nomination.

I, on the other hand, had always made the safe career bet, and my winnings reflected this. I was a writer who had been seduced by an executive's salary and had settled into a career on the wrong side of the table. I had the talking points to get through any industry soiree, but in the cold light of day, I was a different person — one who had compromised the most essential parts of himself.

Here, in the sprawling, disconnected expanse of Los Angeles, I finally got it. This was a risk I had to take. I would return to New York to move out of the apartment I could no longer afford, and I'd come back here with the only thing I had: nothing left to lose.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
10/21/14, 10:00 p.m. — Fort Greene Park

Alex and I had unfinished business. If that sounds like a line from Kill Bill Vol. 2, well, that's where my head was when I wrote him a Very Bad Email.

Have you ever written a Very Bad Email? The VBE is typically written at 2 a.m. and is fueled by insomnia, magical thinking, and rage. Then, it sits in your Drafts Folder, tempting your inner warlord to decree emotional genocide. You never, ever send the Very Bad Email.

Unless you do.

My VBE was particularly insane. I managed to construct a narrative in which Alex was some kind of a mustache-twirling villain, cackling at my misfortune. I was the helpless victim, tied to the railroad tracks, julienned by the wheels of an Alex­-conducted train. It was so unfair. Unfair that my life fell apart, while his proceeded in perfect harmony. I all but accused him of giving me cancer. Then, the day before I moved to L.A., I pressed Send.

I didn't expect a response, because cartoon villains don't respond to emails from their martyred exes. But, minutes later, a text appeared:

"Meet up tonight?"

We settled on Fort Greene Park. Alex waited at the entrance as I approached. We walked in silence for a moment, allowing a late­-night runner to pass. Then, Alex exploded.

"What the fuck was that email? How dare you presume this hasn't affected me? I've gone through hell too, and if you can't see that, it only confirms that we never connected."

I had a choice. I could continue to fight him on my imaginary battleground, or I could simply admit the truth.

The truth: He wasn't entirely wrong. With him, I'd built an image of a relationship, eager to achieve that mythical ideal of bourgeois stability — the house, the husband, the coffee-table books. It was unlike me to settle, which is probably why I did such a good job of convincing myself I hadn't. Instead, I cut my losses and headed to IKEA. But, everyone knows cheap furniture breaks.

So, I came clean. The breakup had been brutal, but it wasn't his fault. We'd simply hit an inevitable reality. We loved each other, but not enough. With that, the fog of blame lifted, and a familiar tenderness returned.

"You know, even during all this shit, there were moments when I missed you," I said.

"I missed you, too."

Quiet settled over us. We sat together, with the concrete steps cold beneath us. I wanted to linger in this moment; it felt like our last. But, it was late, and I had a plane to catch in the morning.

03/16/15, 3:15 p.m. — Los Angeles

There's a version of me that exists in an alternate universe. He's still living with his boyfriend, printing money as a TV exec, and rocking two testicles. He's also miserable. His world never cracked open, and he's resting on a bed of regret, purchased from West Elm.

Then, there's the me in this universe: a broke, ball­-less wonder, hurtling through life with renewed passion and purpose. There's a dizzying freedom in a blank slate. As we get older, we tend to forget this. We become enamored with our tethers, fearful of releasing the very things that hold us down.

As I write this, I'm sitting in my modest studio apartment in Los Angeles. It's not the gorgeous brownstone I shared with Alex, nor the chic loft I rented after we broke up. This place calls to mind those hungrier days — a time before compromises and comfort. Life hadn't congealed, and every day surged with possibility.

I haven't found my dream job or my Harry Connick Jr. I'd be lying if I told you that starting over in a new town is easy; it requires being your most beautiful and brilliant self at all times. You've got to bust ass harder than everyone else at the party. Your heart aches, because you're not "there" yet. You lie awake at night, haunted by desire. What pushes you is the thought of breathing again, after holding your breath for so long. You yearn for the air of opportunity, the excitement of the ledge.

This is the year I jump. The year nothing is guaranteed, but everything is risked.

Let me put it this way: I gave a fuck when I lost my job. I gave a fuck when I lost my boyfriend. I gave a serious fuck when I got cancer. If I've done my math right, that means I have approximately zero fucks left to give. Time to take life by the balls (or in my case, just the one) and fly.
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