The first time I was dumped, it was over email. I was in ninth grade and the initiator of the breakup—my second-ever relationship, though we only met in person twice—used Comic Sans. Not even a black typeset, but a cheery, rousing cobalt blue. He let me know it was time for us to be over. I must have read the message a dozen times, my mind pretzeling over the situation that what I’d thought was permanent (or as permanent as a fourteen-year-old can imagine) was now, suddenly and without my knowledge, over. I realized that there was a whole series of actions — conversations, strategizing — that had been going on in his head, though I had no idea. When I called my best friend, who’d introduced us, she used a pitying, careful tone that let me know she’d known what was about to happen, and that was almost worse than the breakup itself. I healed. I never looked at Comic Sans the same way.
These were years that sensitive was hurled at girls like me as if it were a missile. I got good at healing because I was always agonizing over tiny moments. I got good at being alone because several of my friends stopped talking to me after I came out as bisexual, and the rest followed. It wasn’t so obvious at the time — first I stopped getting invited to the mall, or over to someone’s house to watch movies and eat Jarlsberg cheese on stone wheat crackers. I agonized over losing these friends, the girls who I’d shared trampolines with, who’d heard me sing along a little too loudly to Mandy Moore’s part in A Walk to Remember. Girls who’d call each other on their cordless phones and read the dictionary to each other in funny robot voices until our moms yelled at us to go to sleep. Ultimately, this was my lesson in heartbreak: anyone can choose to leave you at any time. I thought: maybe I didn’t show them enough that I loved them, although I knew that it was the opposite. My love was a torrential downpour. Nobody in middle school even had rainb oots on.
As I got older, something shifted. Other, more accepting people had rain boots. I stopped having the same issues of keeping friends and relationships in my orbit. In my early twenties, I fell in love several times — the kind of love that makes every commonality between you and your person seem like a miracle. “He’s thirsty after we watch Seinfeld together, too,” I thought, dazed by the kind person pouring me a glass of water in a dorm room that wasn’t mine. Songs on the radio sang to me. We made each other mix CDs and decorated the edges of the track listing with little ballpoint penned hearts. Then, suddenly, the old pain returned as that relationship came to an abrupt end. A phone call, this time, instead of an email. At least with an email, you had evidence of the shift; a phone call disappears into thin air. You can convince yourself, if you really try, that a phone call was part of a terrible dream.
I graduated and moved back home with my parents. It was 2010, and any person who found a job felt like they’d won the lottery. All of my high school friends dumped their collegiate Bed Bath & Beyond purchases in a closet and returned to their old bedrooms and older habits, only now we could buy alcohol. Those years I only dated people who didn’t care about me; people who would’ve offered a quick rebuttal to the term dating in conjunction with what we were. We drove around late into the night, those flickering lights of Manhattan like a taunt for lives we’d been promised but couldn’t afford. I got a job where barely anyone spoke aloud, all of us plugged into our separate computers with our dress-code-appropriate gray jeans and closed toe shoes, and I’d mark a comma that I thought should be removed, and sometimes my boss would mark for the comma to return. I deleted. I replaced. When I got into graduate school, I thought: things have to get better now.
They did. Before I met Her, I was in love with graduate school itself: the fluttering, undulating anxiety of my classmates was as familiar to me as my own mother. We were a specific group, this gaggle of writers who’d sit two or more years out from their professional lives to devote to a craft. I tried not hard to think of my student loan money as borrowed, but as my very own. I moved seven miles from my parents, to Morningside Heights, a neighborhood surrounded by parks, bustling with coffee shops and students in light blue Columbia hoodies. My new apartment was a strange duplex with a spiral staircase that seemed doomed for an alcohol-related fumble and a room so small that I couldn’t fold my comforter and open my closet door at the same time, but it was mine. My new roommate liked wasabi peas and cereal, two things I never considered buying, and made friends as easily as I’d lost them in my early teen years. We were a good pair. I spent days waiting for the tides to turn, for the sensation of being liked by a group to erode.
When we met, I was dizzied by her — that floating, destiny-laden feeling that prompts you to mention someone over and over for no reason at all. Once I saw her pull a small Bosc pear out of her bag and thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I fell in love fast, so fast that those memories feel like they belong to someone else, or happened in a movie I’d watched many times. Walking through the park in the sunshine; slurping miso ramen across a wooden table while Joy Division ominously predicted that love would tear us apart. Looking back, I can see the beginnings of the breakup budding underneath conversations about the future, life after graduation. At the time, the thing I felt was — for the first time in a long time, and maybe ever — excitement about that future. Plans poured out from me, a web of projections and hypothetical visas and holidays. I knew what cake we’d serve at our wedding. The rain boot scenario returned. It was inevitable, but that didn’t make it any easier.
Those initially heartbroken hours were the longest of my life. As long as I didn’t tell anyone, I reasoned, maybe it hadn’t happened at all. I laid down on the floor of my kitchen and examined trails of crumbs I’d never noticed before.
This time, I was surrounded by a different kind of person: emotion-keepers. In a group of writers, being emotional — so sensitive — wasn’t a burden, but a blessing, at least in terms of your work. My characters grieved and ached and collided with their own desires and deteriorating realities. I was taken care of by the friends that surrounded me, those large-hearted friends who reminded me to have my favorite waffles and squeezed my arms when I cried in inappropriate places. That year, it was the worst heartbreak I ever had, but the most loved I ever felt. When I started working on my debut novel Willa & Hesper, about two years after this breakup, I read all those archived emails I’d sent to those friends and was startled by how acutely I felt every single moment of that time. A trip to the grocery store was chronicled as if it were a mission to Antarctica. In a way, I guess it was.
As Mary Oliver wrote: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” I didn’t set out to write a book about heartbreak, but when I started what I’d envisioned as a short story, it didn’t stop. Characters twisted out of my own experience and followed unique journeys. Suddenly I wasn’t just remembering falling in love in Columbia’s grand buildings, but researching Georgian history. My characters yearned, but they also ruminated on inherited trauma, took care of their ailing family members, and began new lives across the world. Heartbreak was only the beginning of the story, not the end.
Heartbreak was only the beginning of the story, not the end.
In 2015, I met my now fiancee. It wasn’t the same plummet into love that left me forgetting who I was and what I cared about; the plummet that turned me into a human catalogue of another person’s perfection. We met in Brooklyn and talked about our favorite Bjork and The National albums, and got cupcakes for dessert. At the cupcake shop, two of my classmates from graduate school happened to stop in, and one of them gave me a wink like, this date seems to be going excellently. Then my past walked away, onto Vanderbilt Avenue and away from the me that I was now. Our date continued until the shop was ready to close, and they gave us a free cupcake to take home. We shared it; the marshmallow frosting coated my teeth. Afterwards, after Christine got onto the subway, she texted me to ask when our next date could be. It threw me; I was so used to being the adorer. It never occurred to me that a relationship should have each person on equal footing. That our raindrops should fall at around the same pace. “Tomorrow?” I suggested, with hope.