What Happens When It Doesn't Hurt

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

We sat through a movie in silence before I did it. American Animals was playing at the Music Box, where we had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Rocky Horror Picture Show the summer before. We left the theater and walked back to my house. I sat him down on the couch and told him we should just be friends. He agreed. I said my piece, he agreed. We said it was the mature thing to do.


The only other prior experience with “uncoupling,” about two years earlier, climaxed with blowing tear-filled snot into toilet paper while scream-crying to my mother that she couldn’t possibly understand. Making a day of it, I compiled a delivery order of $30 worth of carbs from Domino’s, sat on my basement floor, watched 10 Thing I Hate About You, and wallowed. I composed and (regrettably) sent an after-the-fact desperate text, blasted the music he had shown me, and sat down in the shower.


It was my unadulterated time to feel, let everything come crashing down, let my fears and sadness escape reality, my emotions run rampant. It let me transcend into a state where everything was so magnitudinous and miserable that there was nowhere to go but up. My body released all the bottled-up sadness in the form of tears and sweat and mucous. Then it all got washed down the train, wadded up and thrown in the trashcan, gone. It sucked. When I say it sucked, I mean it was completely great.


This time was infinitely better. And when I say better, I mean uncertain. If break up no. 1 was the world crashing to infinite microscopic pieces, no. 2 was a pothole. A pothole that the city miraculously fills over the next day.


I had preemptively set up a plan for my evening post-deed. I lined up the Reese's products he had given me for my birthday, queued Call Me By Your Name on Apple TV, and prepped a playlist. I looked forward to rolling around in self-pity. It was going to feel so good. But when his Uber picked him up from my house, I hugged him goodbye, locked the door behind him, and felt remarkably nothing. No immediate spell of the sobs, sinking into the ground with my back pressed up against the door. In fact, my initial reaction was to cheer. I waited until he was a non-offensive distance away and then fist bumped the air in my living room. This might have made sense if it was a toxic relationship that dragged on for years and I was finally getting me and the kids the hell out, but it wasn’t. It was a nice, sweet relationship that had to end because of difficult circumstances (long distance, first year of college, etc.)


Between bursts of joy, I felt a little sick. Not sick in the way of losing a lover, but sick in the way of unease. Why wasn’t I rotfiapomot (rolling on the floor in a pool of my own tears)? Sure, I choked back a couple of peanut butter cups, but they didn’t taste that good. They kind of made me nauseous. I showered to “our” playlist, but didn’t cry. In fact, I had gotten a little bored of the songs. I brushed my teeth, went to bed early, and slept like a baby.


On paper, this is all great. Doesn’t everyone wish for a no-muss, amicable breakup? Isn’t that what we’re all working towards, why we read advice columns on the best lines to use, coping mechanisms, and tips on how to remain friends? We must have figured it out. People must be jealous.


I woke up the next day to texts frantically asking “how’d it go?!??” I replied, “it went fine.” Their immediate reaction was to think that I was “putting on a brave face.” But I wasn’t.


At this point it goes without saying that I missed the drama of it all. I hated the idea of picking up and resuming my normal life the next day, but I had no reason not to. The story was too boring to be worth telling to my friends, so I kept it brief. Was it even a real breakup if I wasn’t inconsolable for at least an hour?


Being fine ended up taking more of a toll on my mental state than being unfine. My lack of feeling set me into a quiet tailspin of questions, confusion, and waking up unsettled. I examined the validity of the relationship, my own ability to feel, and the permanence of the situation. Were we really going to stay broken up if there was no turmoil to mark the event?


Even if the balloon manages not to pop, the air still has to escape somehow. Like a slow hiss through an imperceptible hole.


For a couple nights that summer I formed a habit of waking up 4 or 5 hours after I fell asleep, parched and grasping at for my staple anxiety lifeline, a full cup of water within reaching distance of my bed. In those hours, I felt a way that can be only described in cliches: (empty, existentially doomed, alone, pointless). I couldn’t point at the time to the breakup as the source of these episodes. It was more of an unnamed looming unease. The world came crashing down but it looked like kicking pebbles around in a parking lot.


As the summer progressed, listening to my playlist of “ruined” songs wasn’t an instant gut punch, but a subtle paradigm shift. He was just gone, not to return for the foreseeable future and that was just it. An absence, a chapter end. I didn’t cry at those songs because I didn’t really feel like he was gone. I’ve found other things to fill his absence, at least superficially. It’s just past now, and it’s not enough to complain about.


In the long run, it’s unclear to me which way is “better,” which makes me think it’s neither. It feels good to feel, and we should allow ourselves that, undoubtedly. Catharsis is good. But you don’t always get it even if you’re looking for it. This, to me, makes the notion of breakups a little harder to digest. People enter and leave our lives and it doesn’t always have to hurt. But sometimes you want it to hurt, and it doesn’t. I don’t think there’s a way to prepare for which outcome you’re gonna get. We’ll always find different ways to feel it. There’s no right way to feel, which seems obvious, but is a little hard to swallow.


The one thing I do have to show for our breakup is the 10 pounds I gained by steadily pounding the rest of the birthday Reese’s over the remainder of the summer.


JR Atkinson, Fall 2018

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