I fell in love with Graham when he just returned from Wal-Mart after picking up a couple forgotten necessities for dinner. I came out of the bathroom, he handed this little pack from the plastic bag to me.
“What is it?” I asked, flipping it around, looking at the bright blue and orange paisley print.
“It’s for your glasses,” he said. “So, you’ll stop wiping them on your shirts.”
We’d been dating for months already. I had teased Graham before about his big nose leaving spots and streaks on my glasses when he kissed me. For those who’ve never had to wear glasses, it will never have occurred to you how much they get in way when making out with someone, but they do in the worst way. Sometimes the smallest kiss and you pull back to find a fog in your vision. And not that Graham was the first guy to do this, but everything about Graham was larger, from his fingers to his height to his…well. Most of the time, I wear contacts anyway. It wasn’t a big deal, just something to sweetly mock. But then he came in with that cleaning cloth.
He hadn’t asked me if I needed it. I wasn’t aware he noticed that I cleaned my glasses on whatever smooth material was around: shirts, sheets, blankets, paper towels, washcloths, literally anything. A cleaning cloth is not something I ever would have bought for myself. Maybe because I’m lazy, or cheap, I’m not sure. I have a tendency to put off things if I can make do with something I already have. Luxury necessities, like sunglasses where the lenses don’t pop out or clothes drying racks when there’s a perfectly good curtain rod, seem more indulgent than a weekend in Paris. But Graham took care of me. It was a point of character for him. Rather than the chocolate, or flowers, or jewelry that most men buy, he gave me something of use. And for three bucks, he got me in return.
“Oh, thank you,” I said, knowing the small inflection wasn’t nearly enough gratitude. But it was all I could muster while everything in my chest seemed to drop to my knees. That’s what falling in love with Graham felt like, a plummeting feeling. It truly was instant. I knew I loved him the moment I realized what the gift was. I didn’t even open the package. But in a span of two seconds, I went from knowing that Graham was a guy that I liked, if reluctantly, to loving him, utterly and despite myself.
And now, a bit shy of a year later, I’m left to wonder if it was a mistake. Do I regret plummeting over Graham? Do I wish I’d never met him? Is loving someone ever a mistake? At the end, we always reflect back on the beginning, we consider the “what if” manipulation of time as if imagined changes in the past can bring some sort of solace to the present. Perhaps sometimes it does. If I think of life without Graham, I lose the feeling of his massive hand wrapping around mine, the summer dates sitting on his porch letting him in a piece at a time, the wandering at the Louisville comic-con and waiting in line for Alan Tudyk, and the first night I spent with him still exhausted and filthy returning from Bonnaroo. I would lose breathless bouts of laughter and tickles, home cooked meals, cuddles during scary movie marathons. I would lose so much joy.
Then the matter of a breakup becomes the balance of equations. Is the joy worth more than the ache?
Of course, I was never very good at math.
But here’s what I know about the weight of a breakup. It’s not the fear of being alone, or the jealousy that there’s someone else, it’s not the panic at doing something new or never finding someone else. Those things can ruin the mind, but none are the ruin of the heart. What curdles the heart is the empty space that puts every step off center like an unfinished arch. Because more than anything else, the part that drives me crazy, the part that makes me heartsick and want to keep my face buried into my pillow and the wet spot from tears and snot, is how someone who used to help you fill up the universe has left a black hole in place.
I used to wake up in the morning with a cheek kiss from Graham as he went to work before me. When jobs didn’t pull us apart, we converged back together each afternoon in sweaty workout clothes. We cooked and ate. We sat together watching our shows. We showered together. We moved from the living room to the bedroom together, even as we did separate things. We slept with limbs touching, holding, grazing. Sometimes, I noticed our breaths slowing to the same pace as sleep overtook us. If I was the inhale, he was the exhale. There was no air without both of us.
With him stripped instantly from my life, it is like not being able to breathe. That smallness, the world being condensed into something that only contained the ephemeral ‘we’ becomes unbearably large again and there’s a new sort of falling sensation like drifting out in space and it’s just as quiet. I wake up in a large bed alone. I speak to no one. I stare at my face in the mirror as I brush my teeth with the toothbrush that stands by itself in the cup when I finish. I have a longer drive to work now. I do my job, the only time I speak. I go to yoga. I get groceries. I cook for myself. I fill up the last few hours of the day with whatever sufficiently distracts me. Texting other guys eats time more rapidly than anything else, but even then that occasionally makes my room feel more vacant than it already is. At times, especially on the weekends, I catch myself and I talk to myself, just so my voice isn’t rusty. But of course, this loneliness didn’t feel nearly as isolating before Graham. It’s only the after.
And my only wish is that falling out of love could be so easy as falling into it.
I can remember the moment I saw Samuel, my first boyfriend, as a freshman in the college dorms. He made me believe in love at first sight. He was a stranger, tall with long blonde hair just past his shoulders. We walked by each other in the common room. He was leaving. I was coming in. The world slowed down and my gaze followed him out the door where he met some friends. I didn’t know his name or his story. He was no one but I could replay the passing of our shoulders as vividly as pressing play on movie. Over six months later, he entered a friend’s dorm room and I recognized him immediately. I could still recall the hitch of my breath as he had walked past me, the same as it did when he shook my hand and I got his name. Loving Samuel was less of a plummet, and more like magnetization. In a simple meeting of the eyes, he went from a stranger to the center of my orbit and I went from someone who had never been in love to feeling consumed with it. As we spent long nights on the porch of the dorm halls watching the moon, sharing art projects like his paintings and my poems, or dashing out in the rain loading boxes and suitcases for my move to an apartment he would visit every weekend, I grew to love him more and more, long term additions to an instant switch.
Over two years later, when we broke up, I spent months not sleeping at night. I purposefully took closing shifts at the bar I worked at in order to avoid the quiet darkness without Samuel. I stayed up until six or seven in the morning, then slept until three, getting up in time only for work. I felt listless, empty of want or desire. I missed him endlessly, even knowing that he left me for a younger girl. Even several months later, when I thought I’d moved on after dating other guys (and by dating I mean blowing or sleeping with), a Facebook post about Samuel and his new girlfriend being intimate sent me into a tailspin where I ended up on the roof with my cat Edgar, pounding back a bottle of peppermint schnapps until my date picked me up. I used to think moving on would be the moment I was sure I’d never take him back even if he asked. Then I learned that moving on meant not imaging him wanting me back. The latter took years.
Even now, my heart lingers with my last ex, Ray. While I was in London, he knocked up another girl in February, despite our plans to try to reunite when I got back in March. That was three years ago and I still think about what it would be like to run into him. I think about how my heart would race and beat madly against my ribs. Then I wonder if he still loves me even a fraction of what he used to, because even that would be more than what most people get, and I wonder if I could bear to help raise a child whose mother I think so little of. And, of course, the fact that I wonder about either of those things, even as the farthest of musings from any truly serious consideration, reminds me that I certainly still love him.
More than anyone else, Ray made me feel mad, mad like Sylvia for Ted, mad like Gatsby for Daisy, like Heathcliff for Cathy. We were a natural disaster and I fell for him as quickly as the skies could turn dark. For years, he was a co-worker I barely noticed since I was preoccupied with Samuel. At first, Ray was entertainment, another guy like all the others to fill the void from Samuel’s desertion. He wanted a relationship even less than I did. Gradually, whether I stopped calling or they did, the other guys dissolved away until it was only Ray. But I didn’t love him, I didn’t dare love him until he said it first. The night he did, we were out of town to train another bar in the company. Just days before, we’d both slept with other people, so that night had been chaos, drinking and flirting with other people, trying to hurt each other. But we ended up under his sheets anyway. We had fought, long and heatedly, breaking only to fuck on the hotel bed.
“I’m falling for you,” he told me afterwards, drunk and with a cut in his voice that I feared meant he might cry. “But don’t love me,” he said. “I’m not worth loving.”
It was too late though. With those words, I broke like the levees. Everything flooded over and I loved him until I felt like I was drowning in it. A few whispered sentences and Ray and I went from terse fuck buddies to a two year hurricane of tempers, butting heads, and unending need for each other. One night changed an entire part of my soul, a part I’m trying to get back over four years later, because storms are a brief state of the atmosphere, but the aftermath is what we live with for the rest of our lives.
We fall in mere heartbeats, like I did with Graham. Yet, it will take millions more for that love to fade.
I fail to see the balance in that equation.