My breakdown was initiated by an away message. Remember those? (If you were born in the ’90s, think status updates.) In college, mine were comprised of lyrics by bands like Dashboard Confessional and Something Corporate — deep stuff like “so long sweet summer” written in blood red Comic Sans. But most of the people I knew wrote theirs with a more utilitarian purpose. They’d say “brb gettin some food” or “out with my boyz” or simply “class.”
…or “being lazy with ben <3.”
I was updating my LiveJournal when I saw it. “Who the hell is Ben?” I asked out loud to no one as I typed those exact words into an IM and hit send. My heart drummed loudly. Pyramids crumbled… mountains dissolved into sand… the polar ice caps melted around me as I sat, still, waiting for a response. Then, just as the last descendants of the human race were about to gasp one collective final breath, her words appeared: “you don’t know him.”
My heart sank to a spot just north of my loins as the gravity of the situation set in. “This is it,” I thought. “I’m losing the love of my life… HOW CAN THE UNIVERSE BE SO CRUEL?!” I entered these and other batty declarations into the AIM chat window as my ex calmly reminded me that six months earlier, I had broken up with her and immediately started dating someone else — a girl I was still dating — so it was perfectly reasonable for her to be going out with somebody new.
“We belong together,” I pleaded. “Can I call you?” She answered no, put up another away message and returned to being lazy with what’s-his-name (whose name I knew but didn’t want to say because it was decidedly more masculine than my own). Over the next few hours I alternated between leaving her voicemail messages and sobbing. At some point I thoughtlessly broke things off with my new girlfriend.
Things came to a head when I threw my keyboard into the hallway, prompting my roommates to come running. They asked what was going on. I told them, in no uncertain terms, that I would never be happy again — that at 19 years-old, I had just lost out on love forever. I said I was thinking about quitting school and going to stay with my cousin in Philadelphia for a while. “Maybe I can get a job in a factory somewhere…” They exchanged nervous glances. Not sure what else to do, they made me chug a Red Dog and dragged me upstairs to watch TV.
In the days that followed, I unraveled more and more. During class I would scribble awful poetry in the sidebars of my notebooks. I dyed my hair black and smoked copious amounts of cigarettes. I ate only when reminded to do so and in two weeks had lost over 20 pounds.
The whole time, I continued calling my ex. She would answer, too — one in every few attempts anyway. She said it was because she was scared for me. Often she would cry when I told her what I’d been doing to myself… about the scars underneath my wristband. But she wisely stood her ground. After all, she was happy in her new relationship. When I started asking inappropriate questions like how big what’s-his-name’s dick was, it usually heralded the end of our conversation.
One day, the two of them came into the K-Mart where I worked part-time, just as the store was about to close. Someone at the door told them they had only a few minutes to shop. Gleefully, they went off, hand-in-hand, to find the items that they needed. Moments later they returned with a pack of batteries and a DVD. I just stood there in my big stupid red vest and watched them check-out. He paid. The color drained from my ex’s face when she saw me. That night I went home and shaved my head. In the morning I resolved to start talking to girls.
First: a co-worker who liked Nine Inch Nails and had her own apartment. I could tell she was similarly damaged. Within days we were taking turns sleeping at each others’ places. While I was in the bathroom one night she told one of my roommates she was falling in love with me. The whole thing blew up in less than a week.
Next: a girl from my philosophical literature class. I stopped her in the hall and asked if she’d like to go out some time. She said she had a boyfriend. Then a few hours later she sent me an e-mail saying she’d changed her mind. In time I learned that she did have a boyfriend, but he was wheelchair-bound from a car accident over the summer. I should’ve stopped things there but didn’t. Fortunately, the affair dissolved quickly on its own.
On Devil’s Night — a big party night where I’m from — I called my ex to let her know that me and my roommates were having a small get-together and she was welcome to come as long as she didn’t bring what’s-his-name. The phone rang once and he answered. I said something Canadian like “Listen buddy, this has nothing to do with you.” To my disappointment, he was kind. He told me that he’d been dumped a while back and knew exactly how I was feeling. “You’ll get through this,” he told me. “But you need to stop calling.”
He was right. For the first time in two months of craziness, I felt embarrassed. After we hung up, I went downstairs to my bedroom and considered hurting myself. But instead, I pulled the covers over my head and listened to the party upstairs. Throughout the night, my friends checked in on me and I pretended to be asleep. The next day I apologized to them for how I had been acting. I didn’t call my ex again.
Near the end of the semester I saw her walking, alone, on campus. It was fall and everything around us had a strange yellow tint — like a centuries-old photograph. She approached me and asked how I was doing. I told her I was moving back home to finish up the year at a local college. She nodded but made no comment as to whether or not she thought this was a good idea. I asked how she was and she said okay. I told her I was sorry for everything and she hugged me tight.
When I checked my computer later, her away message had changed to a frowning emoticon. I updated my own to say “Packing.” Then for a long time I hovered over her screenname. I ran a hand over my now stubbly scalp, and with the other I clicked block. As I loaded up a box with CD cases and a few textbooks they wouldn’t take back at the bookstore, I wondered if I would ever feel all right again.