When I was working in the ER, we’d often treat a “last ditch effort.” This was the patient who was, for all intents and purposes, deceased. Paramedics had been doing CPR for over an hour, or the patient had been found down with no indication of how long they’d been without a pulse, or they’d have an injury that seemed far too traumatic to survive. So we’d roll up our sleeves and try a Hail Mary, which sometimes involved cracking the patient’s chest open and the trauma surgeon massaging the patient’s heart back to life. Most of the time it didn’t work, but when it did, it was enough to keep us going for the next hundred last ditch efforts.
I thought a lot about this while driving the 400 miles to my boyfriend’s school in Northern California. It felt like the thing between us was at its end and all we were waiting for was for someone to pronounce it dead. But I stiffened my upper lip and placed my hands on the steering wheel, telling myself that I would be damned if I didn’t crack that chest open and massage the heart back to life with my own bare hands.
At the ER there were patients who seemed to be in perfectly good health until they encountered the big thing that killed them, like a gunshot wound or a car accident. Our relationship wasn’t like that; it was like the 80 year old man who had heart failure and diabetes and cancer and liver issues and a hell of a lot of luck for living this long. And then one day he just keels over and dies, and you bow your head and say “he lived a long, good life, but it was his time.”
But fuck it, I wanted to crack his chest open too.
The world laughs at you when you only date one person. They think you’re naive and dumb and should go out there and see what the world has to offer. But I know what the world has to offer. It’s men in their twenties who behave like twelve year olds, superficial dating apps where men don’t favor overweight short Latina women who wear prescription glasses and list “writing” as a hobby, and people who aren’t as smart or as funny or as honest as he is. It’s a swamp filled with cheap condoms and roofies, and I don’t want to wade through it, thank you very much. My truth is that I will never find anybody as good, and I shouldn’t even bother.
But it looks like I’m going to have to. He is a great person, but as far as relationships go, this one isn’t healthy or sustainable anymore. And if I don’t want to be alone forever, I’m going to have to face the scary world and put myself out there at some point. I’m also going to have to accept the thought of him with someone else: sitting in her car singing his favorite songs, eating with her at restaurants where we used to eat, holding her and kissing her and loving her. Him treating her better than he ever treated me because she’ll be shiny and new to him. But I’m going to have to grow up and deal with it. Fear of both of us dating other people shouldn’t be the reason I stay in an unhappy relationship.
I don’t want to leave. He’s my first love. And the truth is I’m never going to love like this again. I might love in a different way, in a better way, but I will never have a first love again. That ship has sailed. And it feels like it took half my body along with it.
But I can’t go in having already given up. I need to give it that one last try. So I buy a breakfast sandwich at the crack of dawn and embark on a six hour journey to get my heart broken in person.
There’s the kind of breakup that happens in terrible dramatic bursts, plates smashed, names called, horrible things said. Cheating and betrayal and deceit. But then there’s the kind of breakup where one person strips their skin and lays their soul out on the floor, and the other quietly steps all over it and doesn’t even notice.
“I love you,” he says, monotone, while I stare at him with my arms crossed.
But what difference does it make? I let him know he’s been emotionally unavailable and distant for months now. He knows this. I tell him the simple things I want, extremely simple easy things he can’t find it in himself to do: to text me at least just a couple times a week to check in and catch up, to help me plan occasional trips up north (not more than once an academic quarter) so we can see each other more than just for 5 days every 60 days, to tell me he’s thinking of me and he misses me and he misses my brain and my body and some bullshit about my eyes sparkling. I don’t want expensive gifts or fake mushy “you’re my forever ever” or a codependent relationship. I just want to feel like I have a boyfriend. I want to feel wanted. It stings to know he puts more effort into his run of the mill friendships than he does into a relationship with me, and it hurts even worse that he’ll readily admit to that but do nothing to fix it.
He looks at me and he shrugs as if I just asked him what’s on TV tonight. I lay out my hurt and insecurities and he says that he is sorry, but he hasn’t been ready for that kind of thing before and he’s not ready for it now. By “it” and “that kind of thing,” I mean a loving, healthy, non-emotionally distant relationship with someone he’s known for a decade and he’s had as a girlfriend for over a third of his life. I’m at a loss for words. I know he doesn’t expect me to just roll over and say “Oh okay, I’ll wait for you to maybe someday perhaps change your boredom with me so that you can treat me like I’m your girlfriend and I matter to you.” I hope he doesn’t think that little of me.
I hate the notion that it’s the woman’s job to keep her man entertained. It’s pervasive in our society: “Oh, he cheated on her because she wouldn’t give him oral anymore and the new girl would.” “He left after the love died when they had 3 kids and he couldn’t be bothered to help her with parental duties so she had to take on the responsibility of all 3 kids and then he got offended that she stopped having sex with him because she was so drained at the end of the day.”
“She got old so he left.”
That being said, I have done nothing to warrant boredom. I have my flaws and my issues, but at the end of the day I’m fully aware that I’m an interesting, accomplished, witty and bright woman who is a solid 7/10 in most light (8/10 in candlelit and 6/10 in fluorescent). I’m far from perfect, but I’m not some bland blob with no personality. Not that it matters, but the sex has always been consistently awesome between us as well. So what the fuck else does he want me to do? Should I grow wings? And also, what if we stay together and move in and get married and have kids and pay bills? If he treats me so coldly now that we have no shared responsibilities, how will he treat me after all that?
I hate knowing that there’s nothing I can do. Most people would think that the issue between us is the distance, and maybe the fact that we’ve been together for 7 years. I can’t change either of those things. But I do also know plenty of couples who at least act like they’re still interested in each other after marriage and kids and decades together, and long distance couples who compensate for the distance by at least making sure they tell each other “I love you” once a day by text if they’re both too busy to talk. Meanwhile I haven’t felt like I’m somebody’s girlfriend in months, even years. And the power is completely in his hands, to step up and say “I’m sorry, I’ll try” but he can’t be bothered.
Who the fuck does he think I am? Does he realize I’m not a moon-eyed 16 year old anymore? Does he know I grew up and I actually am learning to love myself now? Does he know I’ve listened to the entirety of Beyoncé’s Lemonade?
I want to leave, but I feel tethered to the spot. I keep thinking over and over, “I don’t want to lose him.” I feel pathetic.
He has been an excellent friend. He was there when I was struggling, when family members got sick, when I felt that my life was in pieces. When I was down, he was always there. He’s been my rock. He’s my best friend. I couldn’t count on him to do romantic things but I could always count on him to help when I truly needed him. We grew up together, from two high school kids to now in our mid twenties. He’s my first love, but there’s more to that: he’s the first guy I ever went on a getaway with. He’s the first guy whose apartment I stayed at for a week, and we bought groceries together and did homey stuff like watch TV while eating pasta together. He’s the first guy I did grown up stuff with like talk about our credit scores and shop for a laptop and figure out our life plans and fine, other grown up stuff. He’s handsome. He’s reliable. He’s a fantastic fucking person, even if he isn’t the best boyfriend. He’s one of a kind. We like the same music and TV. My mom loves him. My dog loves him. Even my readers have grown to love him from the stories I’ve told about us. He’s B. He smiles at me and my knees still go weak since the first time I saw him in that high school cafeteria ten years ago. Being with him has shaped my life. I don’t know where I end and he begins.
I can’t imagine life without him. But life with him is tearing me apart.
And then I realize. All these memories I have of us being happy are from over a year ago. The last time he called me “beautiful” was months ago. The last time I felt loved and appreciated by him was… I don’t know.
So I tell him this. I tell him I feel unappreciated and worthless and I can’t go on feeling like this. I ask if there’s a reason he’s so distant with me: is he mad at me? Did I do something? Is there someone else? Is this because he’s found everything he needs up here and I’m just down in LA, an afterthought? He tells me there’s no one else, he’s not mad, he’s just really comfortable and doesn’t know if he’ll ever change. Essentially, this is how it’s going to be. I feel dull shock at how forward he’s being about his resignation toward the relationship, but I’m not surprised by his honesty. He’s always been honest, even when he knew it would rip me to shreds.
I tell him I can’t live like this, and that I feel cornered into either staying like this or leaving, and that I don’t want to do either. I ask him what he wants through ragged breaths, trying not to cry but the tears spilling out my eyes nonetheless.
A few tears fall out of his eyes too, but he tells me the situation ain’t changing. He says he wishes he was ready to give me that kind of love, but he’s not. Good old “it’s me, not you.” The decision is clear to both of us. It’s time to call it quits.
We grab breakfast together; I fidget with my meal and he sits, charming as ever, looking at me sideways and I feel a knife rip into my insides. I drive him back to his place. We hug, we kiss, me pathetically pulling him in but knowing deep down that it’s his loss all the while, and as he grabs his bag from the front seat I blurt out a strangled “I love you,” and he softly replies “I love you too.” We both know it’s goodbye.
I pull out of the driveway and start my way down to Los Angeles. I stare at the rows and rows of cars on the highway, all of us moving at a snail’s pace. Slowly, achingly slowly, moving onward, my insides hollow and throbbing with hurt, biting back tears, onto a new life.
Something died. But now I know that its death is giving life to something different, something better. And it doesn’t hurt as much.
It was its time.