He’s GONE! — The Crashing, Crippling Reality of a Breakup
The front door slams, shaking the windows of the suburban home like an emotional earthquake, while, in the middle of a nearly empty room, a lone woman stands mute, except for sporadic hiccupping and the hacking, disbelieving moans of loss. Tears rise to overflow from the corners of her eyes and fall onto the silk embroidered bodice of the dress she wore in celebration of their 8th anniversary, a date never again to be honored.
She looks at the door, hears again the reverberation of its angry-handed closure, and wonders, for the first of one million separate wonderings, what happened. What went wrong? What could she have done differently? Somewhere between her heart and lungs, sounds the shivering toll of doom. Unspent oxygen catches in her throat. She can’t release it. Panic and despair race to set up housekeeping in every corner of the brain. Whether the kernels of discord, deceit, or things left unsaid began days, weeks, months before, this is the moment she will always remember, the instant she ceased being part of a couple and devolved into… that scariest, most painful of unknowns.
For other women, perhaps the dreaded news didn’t announce itself with a banging portal. The feckless farewell can arrive in the post, via “Dear Jane”, in an email “Dear J”, or worse yet, a text or Tweet. “J, I’m sorry, it just isn’t working for me anymore. I hope you will try to understand and forgive me.” — 100+ characters with spaces, everyone a tear in the fabric of someone’s life. Despite advancements in technology, or an evolved perception of psychology and what makes people tick, breakups have not gotten smoother, more efficient, or less agonizing. Truth hurts, they say, and the truth is…He’s gone.
My congé (French for “leave taking”. The French have a deft semantic option for even the most horrifying circumstances. Think how well guillotine rolls off the glottal stop.) came in an email, one week after a stupid argument, and seven days after we’d somehow stopped talking. Working night shifts at a hospital 80 miles from our home, my husband had been away three days. We exchanged emails during the week, and for the first time in a long while, he revealed the issues that bothered him and expressed long-held frustrations. I wrote back eagerly, thanking him for his candor and asserting my genuine willingness to work diligently toward our mutual happiness. When, on a Wednesday, he arrived home very late, I didn’t know he had quit his job, packed all the belongings he kept in his rented “work week” room, and planned an escape.
In the morning, he lay silent in our darkened bedroom as I dressed and prepared for work. Before leaving, I stepped ‘round the bed to his side, sat, and spoke briefly about how I knew we could work through this since we had conquered so many obstacles in the years we’d been together. “Will you be here when I get home?” I asked, looking toward the so-beloved face then in shadow. “Yes,” he said. I kissed him goodbye. It was our last kiss, and I can still recall how his lips didn’t move toward mine, though I am certain, I think, that they answered mine once we touched.
Throughout the day, I called. He never answered. Then, when the last class was over, I opened my private email account, and there it was…the note from hell. As soon as I saw the sender, a million super-sharpened quills rolled and stung in heated, molten waves from head to toe, triggering a jolt of incipient panic and giving warning of the torment to come. There was no point in delaying. I opened the email, desperate eyes travelled at light speed over the words to get to the “hard part”. There it was, neon flashes of “long sleepless nights”, “lack of self-expression”, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing”, “I need to go now.”
The seconds it took you, dear reader, to scan those short phrases, that is how long a break-up can take. The legendary blink of an eye indeed. What many people don’t understand is that the reasons are less consequential than the reality. After the first cataclysm of comprehension, every second carries a virus of defeat and dissonance. Recently on NPR, a woman shared her bizarre experiences with the physical world. Regularly since childhood, and for no known reason, she would open her eyes after a period of sleep, a spin, or a blink, to a world that had literally shifted on its axis. Nothing was where it ought to be, and initially, the disorientation was so alarming that she screamed, calling out to the children she had been playing with, “Where am I?” In truth, the view hadn’t changed, but her vision of it had bizarrely slipped by 90°, creating an alternate, alien world.
After a breakup, the trajectory of all things has similarly re-calibrated and physical spaces become instantly contaminated. His half of the bed is empty, though his glass case lies forgotten on the bedside table. The blue toothbrush is missing from the jar in the bathroom. The toilet seat is down in his bathroom, no towel left damp on the floor. The undershirt he threw in the dirty clothes hamper retains his scent, but there is no body to go with it.
Suddenly, even the breakfast table becomes an enemy. There you sat in tandem, each with a piece of the morning paper, or a bit of office news to share over English muffins and lattes. At an end, too, is the grin of greeting when you open the door to welcome him home, or he you. Servings for one line the freezer, instead of takeout for two. There is, and this is the nihility that defines all other emptiness, no one there. Corners, surfaces, spaces all echo the absence of the one who left. Some days that whispered din is louder than jet engines over JFK.
In literature, journalism, and poetry, illuminating description of a topic becomes a linguistic Rosetta Stone. Descriptive language reveals nuance. It is one of the most challenging areas for writing instructors; how to teach students to look, not for the obvious, but for the sublime, the exquisite details that make a situation, person, or object memorable. One exercise I’ve given to students takes a simple object and asks them to milk it of every descriptor. Place a chair on top of a desk. The students must describe it. Conspicuously standard responses include four legs, the back, and seat with cushion. These are easily listed. When urged on to greater specificity, mouths drop. “What?” they say, “It’s just a chair.” And so, the teacher grabs the teats of the exercise and shows them how nuance, shading, and synonym can transform the mundane. With practice, they will see the scalloped edge of the top rail, define the shape of the turned spindles, count the stretchers holding the legs perpendicular to the seat, note the etched brass tacks around the arm support cushion and the distinctive grain of the polished wood. Intrigued by minutiae previously unknown to them, an apt pupil can soon wax architectural about chairs in a pantheon of modalities.
The same can’t be said for an illustrative approach to naught, zero, the vacuum, and the nothingness that is a relationship cut in half. Where do you go with a 0? Think of it this way. While a human being may have intrinsic value occupying space, being on the planet, a human alone is not a relationship, or at least not one that would recommend itself to anyone other than Narcissus. An imperative element of alliance is an other. Thus, when one partner abdicates, abandons, betrays, packs up, moves on, the relationship is instantly decimated, gutted, obliterated. This occurs regardless of the worth of the remaining individual. It is an amputation, invariably without anesthesia. A forest that is clear-cut is not a forest.
One’s mind is no refuge. Like a 78 speed record on an old Victrola, the fight, the scene, the argument, the moment replays, circling the spindle like a perpetual cyclone sustained simply by the misery of recall. His words. Yours. The tears. Recriminations. Pleas. Your brain cannot bat away the fly that is this continuous hum of battering consciousness. At any moment during the first weekend of our final battle, I could have turned to hug him, said I was sorry that I’d been so insensitive, pulled him to bed with a kiss and a whispered apology. He actually came to the gym after I left him a note and took the treadmill next to mine. Did I turn and smile? Offer a welcome? Touch his hand? I did none of those and the unforgiving features of recollection reminded me of that omission daily, no, dozens of times every day, like a series of frames looping through an old projector. He arrived at the gym. I was happy - but proud and unforgiving. I didn’t smile. He arrived at the gym. I was happy - but proud and unforgiving. I didn’t smile. He arrived at the gym. I was happy - but proud and unforgiving. I didn’t smile.
It matters not that he likewise said nothing, made no gesture other than his arrival. His behavior I had no control over. My own was driven by wanting to be right, instead, as my mother always said, of being happy.
The merry-go-round of “what ifs” circles in perpetuity, regurgitating those hours, minutes, seconds that might have made a difference. The person remaining analyzes every fiber of speech, action, and thought with an eye to rewriting what has already passed, a fruitless endeavor that chains her to memory day after day, and crushes rest night after night.
“He’s gone” invariably causes a split in consciousness, a living of life on parallel, but distinctive, tracks. Two, perhaps even three, pathways can be distinguished by the emotional ordeal. One channel is damaged by emotional trauma. The pain centers of the soul, heart, and brain have gone on tilt and are unable to withstand sadness that inexorably rises, crests, and crashes every waking hour and sleeping second.
The second path of life impacted post break-up is usually professional. Issues shared by women that have been through it include: “I couldn’t face them. I had to ask for a couple of days off, …for illness.”, “‘Work was my salvation. The others aren’t nosy, and they gave me space. I needed lots of it. It was weeks before I told them anything.” “Somehow I was sort of normal at work. It was like another world, one where I wasn’t hurting.” “At work, all I have to do is keep working.”
These remarks reveal the blessings of a work life. Regardless of what is happening on the home-front, the oasis of 9–5 stays blessedly normal. Work provides a structure, schedule, and a group of people whose relationship with you is not necessarily personal. Marianne recalled wiping tears from her eyes as she created lesson plans in her pared-down living room — his favorite chair, flat screen TV, and archived Sports Illustrated magazines were gone. Still, she was able to face 22 familiar young faces with a tenuous equanimity when Monday rolled around. Each evening, despite her sorrow, she went through the rote steps of grading papers and preparing for class.
Though not a death per se, the loss of a spouse is no less a cause for grief. Never mind that he wasn’t perfect, or that you had even thought about separation or divorce yourself. His decampment constitutes an emotional Grand Canyon, a mile deep and a hundred long, whereas your man’s annoying behaviors and habits devolve into mere cracks in the pavement of life. Friends and family, of course, may soon offer that you are “better off”, “well rid of him”, or “lucky to be out of it”.
When historians write about the Civil War, one of the more grotesque topics in a five-year span of brother against brother, burnings and terror, death and betrayal, is the subject of severed arms and legs. During the course of the war, churches often became surgeries, offering needed benches and other flat surfaces for the wounded to lie on. These stout furnishings allowed for bandaging, operating, and the cutting of limbs. Before the days of antiseptics, infection was a major problem, leading to wounds so putrefied that the smell overshadowed the fear of death. Thus, often battlefield doctors or others roped into the gory task, simply amputated injured appendages. This proved a “safer” remedy than digging for the ball, making a vain attempt to clean the wound, and then sewing it up deftly enough that healing could commence. The stump left after an arm or leg was severed would usually be cauterized, effectively sterilizing the wound and sealing it against infection. It is said that one Surgeon General asserted that the “Civil War was fought at the end of the medical Middle Ages.”
Those valiant fighting men of 150 years ago had a stump to show for their efforts, limping through life as national heroes. Spouses who have been abandoned have empty spaces, aching hearts, and haunted nights but no physical wound that would account for the snail’s pace of their recovery. One thing that can help though, is a strategy demonstrated by those same soldiers. Whether sawn at the ankle, calf, knee, or thigh, many of them were fitted with a wooden or carved stump and off they went, back to their wives and families, to whatever work they could find to do, moving forward one step at a time, because forward is the only direction in which there is hope.
He’s gone, but somehow, I must live.