It’s date night at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Hollywood, and Patrick and I are poring over the museum’s collection, reading the stories attached to each artifact with lurid fascination. There’s an awkward vibe of sexual tension among our fellow museumgoers. With linked arms or hands cupped over their mouths to suppress a giggle, most of them are probably wondering if they’ll get laid afterward.
“You can get some great gift ideas here,” Patrick jokes as we snake our way through the clusters of couples. Patrick and I aren’t on a date — not in a romantic sense. That’s because we’re exes.
Patrick is one of my favorite people. But when we broke up six years ago, we were mired in a jumble of frustration and anger. At the time, our relationship simply lacked momentum.
The original permanent museum was founded by a Croatian ex-couple who were trying to give new purpose to objects that were significant during their relationship. After touring internationally, the museum put down roots with a permanent location in Zagreb in 2010.
The second permanent location opened its doors in Los Angeles during this past May. And when one walks through the exhibit, what could easily be mistaken for a collection of quaint curios is transformed into a hall of horrors for the heartbroken.
If placed in an everyday context, many of the pieces in the exhibit’s collection are mundane and ordinary at best: a jar of pickles, a nearly used-up tube of toothpaste, an engraved Zippo lighter. But placed under acrylic cases with stories on card stock, along with the location and time frame of the relationship, they’re painful reminders of infidelity, ugly breakups, unrequited love, remorse and plain ol’ fucked-up situations.
With Wedding Dress in a Jar, what looks like a dense wad of napkins stuffed in a jar turns out to be the result of a scorned wife who could not bear to see someone else wear her dress, so she crammed the entire thing into an empty pickle jar.
Fake Breast — a pair of sculpted breasts — was bequeathed to the museum by a wife who was made to wear them because, well, they were larger than hers and turned her husband on.
Blue Jeans is a pair of tattered jeans representing a husband who suffered brain damage as the result of a motorcycle accident.
It seemed a bit perverse to glean such intimate deals of an unknown person’s life. But it was comforting to know that these items were donated anonymously, given away in the name of art and novelty, and in an effort to forget. It’s comparable to the ceremonial cleansing of bad spirits with sage.
I thought about the box I kept in my bedroom closet with stuff from past relationships. I’ve never been very sentimental, but after a breakup, I do allow myself to keep a couple of items and discard the rest. As I was going through the stack of cards, handwritten notes, music mixes and plushies, I realized that my romantic history seems pretty mundane.
But of course, there are things that aren’t tangible and can’t be neatly contained in a box. How can we ritualistically erase memories of experiences? Unfortunately, the memory-erasure procedure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does not exist. And what about ephemera left strewn across the Internet? For instance, Patrick designed the logo for my blog, which I still use.
And in our digital age, do we ever fully close the door on someone? Whether they were casual encounters or long-term, serious partners, we remain connected to them on Facebook or spy on them by way of Instagram.
My reconnecting with Patrick had taken the form of a slow dance. We saw each other at mutual friends’ barbeques and at weddings. Earlier this year we started up weekly phone calls, during which we informally talk about money advice.
Our thoughts and feelings are fluid, and they change all the time. If we choose, the same can go for our relationships.
After agreeing that we could both use a breath of fresh air away from the crowded museum, Patrick and I headed out to the back patio. It was a brisk evening. While the patio was lit with dangling strands of lights, it was oddly dark for being in the heart of the bustling, touristy part of Hollywood. Fellow patio loafers looked like faint outlines in motion. A couple snuck up a staircase. We sat on the stairs, waxing philosophic. Maybe we were there as “just friends,” but isn’t friendship an awesome thing in and of itself?
It turns out that that same evening, several blocks away from where we were, Patrick’s friend fell off the roof of a three-story apartment building. After a series of futile surgeries, he passed away the day after. His friend had recently reconnected with an old flame, who was there with him during this tragic occurrence. After Patrick’s friend hit the pavement, the girl hurried to his side. She told him she loved him, and although he was immobile and didn’t speak, he looked at her as if he understood. When Patrick recounted this to me over the phone, I could tell he was crying. “At least he died knowing someone loved him.”