I want to be sad. I want to lumber through my house, brush my teeth, and forget about people. I want to focus on my body and protect my heart — with muscle. Since the breakup, I’ve been going to the gym almost every day. I added an extra day to my workout week and added another set to every lift.
I refuse to say “heartbroken” because the word sounds mawkish, but I think that’s what I am. As I write this, I’m on vacation in Florida with my family. I keep wandering away to walk on the beach alone. Spring Breakers and couples pass by. I do not say “morose” or “shattered,” but here on the edge of the Atlantic, these words seem true. I feel it in my body, a weight I’m carrying around, and that’s him.
I miss having a second set of eyes on the world, a different set of thoughts to compare mine to. My ex was more perceptive than me. Where I see cynicism and dark portents, he only saw the world as it was — kids in matching bathing suits playing in the surf, handsome men on the beach. He did not project his thoughts on everything around him as I do. He was fully aware of his inner self and where it ended, something I struggle with. I fall into a habit of thinking where everything is symbolic, everything becomes a reflection of myself. This mental state is regularly associated with sociopaths and sufferers of schizophrenia — and, apparently, writers. I become the main character in my inner narrative. He was simply a character in the world and delighted in it.
He probably would not admit this to anyone, but he fostered an indefatigable kind of joy. I stood in awe of it. I have never been able to produce that in me, that excitement for living. I think I’ve touched it a few times, but I don’t live in that place. With him, the world always seemed better.
There are countless articles online that instruct on how to handle a breakup. Many list “what to do” or “what not to do” with cute illustrations. I do not believe such a personal thing like a breakup can be reduced to a set of rules. Every breakup is different — they are mysterious, brutal things. They feel like deaths.
When you’re newly single, people expect you to stumble home drunk. They pardon you if you start crying while reading a book. You are given some bad nights and tragic fucks. But at some point you have to lick your wounds and move on, and you have to do that yourself. No one can get you out of the pit. I’m on my way up, I think, but I keep getting stuck on my mistakes. I regret for moving to L.A. and I regret so many things I said.
But something has helped. I just finished a book called Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, published posthumously. Gratitude is four essays that Sacks — a surgeon and renowned medical writer — wrote in the final years of his life. The fourth and last one, “Sabbath,” was written two weeks before his death of terminal cancer. It was a death he saw coming and he faced it as only a writer can. At the age of 81 and facing some brutal final months, Sacks writes:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
I want that intercourse. I understand the beauty of it, the exchange one has with writing. His essay “My Own Life” closes with this powerful sentiment: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
I read it on the beach and when I finished, I was crying. It might seem silly to apply his words to my little breakup, but I’m in the middle of it and it feels huge — the sorrow threatens to swallow me whole. I know that in a few years I’ll look back and wonder how I ever let myself be so sad. I may even feel stupid for letting anyone make me this sad. Perspective will likely make this period seem small and survivable, the same as all my past breakups now look, but I don’t have that perspective now. So following Sacks’ encouragement, I confess there that I am grateful for the relationship and even grateful for the pain that followed it. It makes me human. I have been in this world and been in love.
My drive from California to Georgia was a mad dash to get him back, but when I arrived, he had moved on. He had hurt enough. And I was the one who left him here — another regret. But I actually can’t be sorry for that, because I had to go to L.A. and do something with my career. It was magnificent and exciting, and I might’ve gotten more out of it if I hadn’t felt linked — by love and heartbreak — to someone back home. When we finally talked, face to face, I saw it in his eyes: we were over. We had to be over.
What I didn’t tell him is that I was going to propose. I had a ring — a cheap one, purchased with the budget of a writer in his first editorial job — but still a ring. In the rough months since, which have seen me fall into a heavy depression, I have come to understand and even agree with his reasons for ending the relationship. I have not once thought about gratitude.
Maybe gratitude comes at the end, after you put aside the anger and resentment. I cannot say I’m there yet, but I am grateful for whatever this can teach me, whatever lessons I derive when the dust settles. Love is a thing that will sustain and shatter me all my life, a repetitive, belligerent thing. At its cruelest, it still connects me with the world outside of myself — the world he understood and loved. Everyone has felt this. Everyone has been broken in love.
I could not imagine being Oliver Sacks and having to slowly let go of these things, to watch your body surrender them. If I was to die soon, the only thing I’d leave is this issuance: value the intimacy, because it’s really more important than your job. It’s more important than a raise or promotion. At the close, you won’t miss the money — you’ll wish the touch, the moments of warmth and breath. That’s the stuff we build our lives on.
A shallow fixation on my body may not be the healthiest way to recover, but it keeps away the drugs and gives me a reason to see the strange people who populate the gym late at night — a bizarre array of characters whose private lives I have invented. I have given them all fantastic backstories — an ex-KGB officer, a thief on the run, a dominatrix. They ask me how I am doing. And I’m doing better.
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