I was driving to the grocery store when it happened. Nearly eleven months to the day after the engagement was called off, and it finally hit me. Josh Groban’s “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” was playing and why, out of everything that’s happened in the nearly 350 days since I last laid eyes on him, that was the thing -- the catalyst -- that did it, I’ll never know. Maybe it was the fact that we’d listened to Josh Groban’s album on repeat one late December as we drove from Austin, Texas to Kansas City, Missouri. Maybe it was the fact that it was nearly Christmas and I was alone. Maybe it was the beautiful lyrics mixed with the beautiful voice mixed with the beautiful music that made me want to reach out and grab someone’s hand -- except I knew there would be no hand to grab. Maybe it was a combination of all three. Or maybe, just maybe, neither Josh Groban nor the Christmas carol had anything to do with it. Maybe my body was simply done pretending that everything was fine.
In the immediate aftermath of the called off wedding, I handled everything well. Too well. The first few days after he left, I didn’t even cry. Not one single tear. I was staying with my parents at the time -- a true sign of failing at adulthood: when your friends and family are scared for you to be alone -- and my mom questioned me for days on end. Don’t you want to cry? Scream? Break something? I didn’t, though. I carried on with my life as if everything was fine, as if the love of my life hadn’t just moved -- without me -- halfway across the country, as if I wasn’t alone for the first time in years, as if I wasn’t completely and utterly broken in every possible way that a person can break.
A week after he moved out, I was on Tinder. Friends, though cautiously wary of the idea, introduced me to the apps that had been created during my absence in the dating pool: Bumble, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel… I tried all of them. I went on dates. I had brief affairs, trysts, and flings -- careful to circumnavigate feelings. The need to be with someone was persistent, as if I was constantly cold and the only way to warm up was to have a person near me. It was an itch that couldn’t be scratched. An addiction I couldn’t kick. I needed someone with me, always. Because whether it was texting or grabbing drinks -- no matter who it was with -- if I was just with someone, I wouldn’t think of him.
I ran away from a few decent men during this time. Men who are the kind you date and bring home to meet your parents. Good, honest people who deserved better than how I treated them. Their only fault? Falling for me. I enjoyed them when they were a distraction, but the moment anyone tried to be a more permanent fixture, I bailed, oftentimes without a trace. Calls and texts would go unanswered because I couldn’t bring myself to tell them the truth that I was so expertly avoiding: that I was still in love with my ex fiance.
In July of this year, six months following the breakup, I decided that I needed a change of scenery -- and a break from dating. I gave up my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, pitched an idea to a literary agent, and set out to travel around the country for a year. It would be my own “Eat, Pray, Love” meets “Wild” meets every other “journey of self-discovery” book written by upper-middle class white women. I would spend the year alone. I would get back to my roots, whatever that meant. I would let go of whatever feelings were weighing me down and holding me back. I would re-energize. I would find myself.
Except it hasn’t exactly played out like that. Being alone has, at times, felt like a gift and at others, like a prison sentence.
Though I pitched this yearlong road trip to my agent as a visionary and completely original idea, the truth is that it’s not. It was an idea that my fiance and I had often talked about doing -- the kind of fantastical idea that keeps you up at night and makes you wonder “can we really do this? Could we really be that free?” And the truth was, of course, we could have been. At the time we were both freelancers living in Austin, Texas and the idea -- though unconventional -- could’ve been done. We could’ve made it work. He could, dare I say, have been doing the trip with me right now. But he’s not. And who’s to blame for that, I don’t know. It’s something I’ve struggled a lot with. The “why.”
When relationships end, people want the scoop. The story. They want to know why. The problem with our breakup is that I could never come up with an answer as to the “why.” It was either that there was no answer or a million tiny ones -- and, to this day, I’m still not sure which is correct. Why it ultimately ended, I don’t know. But I do know that we had the cards stacked against us from day one.
When you date someone you work with, there is an unspoken “ride or die” mentality to it. It will either -- and, forgive me for quoting this -- end as Taylor Swift once so poetically stated as “forever” or “down in flames.” There is no such thing as an easy inter-office breakup. And so when you make that choice to begin a relationship, you realize, on some level, that it will either end in a “forever” or with one or both of you leaving the company. Our case was somewhat different, in that we were still together on our last day of working together. But the question stood: had we never dated, would one or both of us still work there? Personally (and I’m sure much to the pleasure of many readers who, in forums, have alluded to such), I feel as though I bear much of the blame in the way things went down. Was I his Scarlet A, so to speak? Possibly. And though he never said it, never accused me of being the reason why we one day found ourselves both unemployed, the feeling of responsibility will remain with me forever.
Still, we trudged on. Two partners losing their job at the exact same time would be enough to end many a couple, but we fought through. To say things were strained would be an understatement and I will not pretend like we didn’t hit our breaking point many a night, and then again the next morning. There were periods of time where we slept in separate bedrooms, where only one partner was bringing in enough money to pay for groceries and cell phones and student loans and the literal roof over our heads. There was resentment. There was anger. But there was still love.
Eight months after being terminated, we moved from Austin, Texas to Washington, DC and for a period of time, it was good. And then, well, as you probably can guess, it became… not good. We were living in the same city as my family, and he was a thousand miles from his. We were hanging out with my friends, and he was a thousand miles from his. We spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family because my home was here and, you guessed it, we were a thousand miles from his. Looking back, I still don’t know if I was selfish to expect him to give up everything and move to my hometown -- because, at the time, it really did seem like the right move, no pun intended. But could I have been more understanding about his struggles with his new town and his new job and his new friends? Absolutely.
To say that I lost the ability to empathize sounds harsh and cruel, but I think it’s an adequate description of my mental state at the time. He was clearly struggling with the transition and yet, after months of struggle, I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. We slept in separate bedrooms. We barely spoke to one another. We criticized one another in deeply cutting, terse statements. We’d lost the ability to fight -- because fighting takes effort. And putting an effort into our relationship was something we’d lost long ago.
For the month leading up to the official end of our relationship, I fantasized about life without him. I took off my engagement ring. I turned my nose at wedding magazines and wedding planning and wedding discussions. I turned my nose at him. I recoiled when he touched me. I stopped trying. I gave up.
And, so, when one night we quietly and coldly stared at one another and said “I’ve had enough,” I was relieved. It was over. I could breathe. I didn’t think about what this meant in the long run. I didn’t think about the fact that this man who, deep down, I was still in love with, would be leaving me forever the next day. I didn’t think about what this truly meant. I just knew that, at the time, I was unhappy and I so badly wanted the unhappiness to be over.
And so he left. And I carried on with my life as if nothing was wrong. I didn’t cry and I didn’t scream and I didn’t break things. I went on dates and avoided emotional intimacy. I gave up on adulthood and got rid of my apartment and sold my belongings. I traveled up and down the East Coast. I got drunk and publicly joked about my failed relationship. I wrote columns about it. I landed an agent because of it. I exploited it -- my life, and his life. And in the end, after selling out and selling him out and trying to find something out there that would make me feel something again: I finally did. I found sadness.
I found a Josh Groban Christmas carol that brought me to such hysterics that I had to pull my car over on the side of a highway. I found the emotions I’ve both been lacking and avoiding for the better part of a year. I found the reason I still feel empty: I’m not over it. I’m not over him.
I lie awake in bed now and retrace every step and every thought and every word. I think about how I let a few months of hardship derail what I thought the rest of my life would look like. I think about the fact that, thanks to me, he lost his job and he lost his partner. I think about how much I miss him. I think of the scent of his cologne. I think of the way he smiled when I walk into a room. I think of the children’s names we had picked out and the wedding dress that had been purchased and of the honeymoon discussions and retirement plans. But most of all I just think of him. About how much he loved me and how much I love him. I think about the irreparable damage I’ve done since our breakup. I think. And I think. And I think. And then, sometime around 3am, I turn my brain off because I can’t think anymore.
Living in regrets and what ifs is no way to live. And it most certainly is no way to move on. But in order to move on, you first have to acknowledge the hurt. You have to acknowledge the pain. You have to let yourself cry and scream and break things. And, so, eleven months later, I find myself turning off my brain and then allowing myself a few silent sobs. I do this because I’ve deprived myself for too long. I’ve pretended like everything is fine for too long. But everything is not fine, and it took being alone to realize that. It took being alone to realize, try as I might, to be over it, I’m not. And truthfully speaking, I don’t know if I ever will.