These days, we keep having conversations just to say we can’t keep having conversations. I spend an hour on the phone with the last man I dated, listing all the reasons we aren’t right for each other. There is all of the logic — all the distance and the differences and the past disappointments. At the end, I say, even after all of that, I still want to be with you. And he says oh yes, absolutely, I am still completely in love with you.
But we aren’t together anymore, not in this version of the story. In some interpretations, we aren’t even on speaking terms, not for the last thirty-eight-and-a-half days, at least. This interpretation — no, these interpretations, I should say. There are multiple feminisms, I contain multitudes, so on and so forth. The story changes based on who’s telling it, based on whom I’m telling it to. Based on how my therapist reacts, how much I’ve had to drink. Based on if I’m getting my period or if it just ended.
Mostly, though, the story depends on what I want it to be. In one version, I move on and meet someone new. How I meet the new one varies, since I can’t dictate every detail. Most likely, I finally give in and download a few dating apps again, despite all my protesting. That’s how I met the last one, after all, so can The Apps really be that bad?
(Yes, they can. They are. In every version of the story, with every shifting variable, this fact remains.)
Banter begins on The App, until eventually the new one buys me a cosmo at Art Bar in the West Village, and I start to get butterflies each time his name appears on my phone. But I think you already know this story: after the one who breaks your heart comes the one who heals it. The new one doesn’t make you completely forget the last, but he certainly stops you from writhing in your sheets alone at night, trying to remember the sensation of the last one’s arm draped over yours — heavy like a good, stable thing, like the foundation of your childhood home. At the very least, the new one stops you from missing the details of the last one’s body, stops you from missing the smooth curve of skin where his shoulder meets his neck.
In this version of the story, I say they were right. This is it, I tell myself. I’ve let love back in and it’s highlighting all the ways the last one was wrong for me. When the girl gets broken up with, the secrets start to leak out. If the match has totally expired, the secrets spill all over the center island. I didn’t realize how much they were fighting, her sister says to their mother. She didn’t tell us there were so many issues between them.
The last one becomes a distant memory, and I write some metaphor about a small town and a rearview mirror. I can’t believe I ever settled for less than this, I tell my best friend. I didn’t know how wrong the last one was for me until I met the new one.
But then there is the alternate version of the story: the one where I let the last one back in, despite the hour-long phone calls about our incompatibilities, because I want to, because I want to stop missing him and I am sick of forcing myself to stop missing him. I want him and all of his imperfections, all the ways he’s mistreated me and all the ways he’s made up for it. I want the ways we disagree, the ways he keeps me grounded. I want my summer sadness back in his bedroom, I want the freckles on his hands. The new guy is still out there somewhere, and it could work out with him and probably a dozen others. But in this version of the story, every person I meet, in every circumstance and demographic, I only want the last one more. I am only reminded that he is my favorite person on the planet. Time passes, and it is supposed to heal, and of course it does eventually, in the other version of the story.
“The one” that I “end up with” is always mentioned by these people giving me advice, both solicited and un. Suddenly my most down-to-earth companions become set on the idea of soulmates.
But in the other version, with the new one: won’t he have flaws, too? I look at the relationships, the marriages around me, and for fuck’s sake. No matter who I choose to be my co-protagonist, there will be days when I want to wring his neck, and vice versa. I’m not too naïve, too much of a hopeless romantic to recognize how difficult long-term partnership is.
But it is supposed to be easy in the beginning, or so they say. That’s always part of the story. And we were easy, for a minute there. Before there was a global pandemic and a cross-country move. Before there was a racial justice movement and record high unemployment. Before his work became all-encompassing and mine disappeared. Before he spent all of his days on Zoom and my solitude started eating away at my brain from the inside out.
Love isn’t enough: this is what The Wise Ones with the podcasts and the Instagram graphics tell me. You have to talk about your non-negotiables. Amor does not vincit omnia, you need to be practical.
So I ask my sister about her fiancé. I am marrying him because I am actively choosing to, she insists. Not because he is some fairytale soulmate.
But I see the way she looks at him: like there is no other. Like his flaws are perfectly crafted just for hers, despite that one day last year when she told me she was annoyed by the sound of his breathing. And she’s right that it’s a choice, but the choice is informed entirely by how much she loves him, and she always admits this detail last. I watch each day as she becomes more and more sure that he is her favorite person on the planet. I can relate.
No, no, I shouldn’t say that. I have no idea what it takes to make a relationship work long-term (although they met only three months before I met the last one). I am just on the early page of the first story, blinded by my heartbreak, pining for what I can’t have. I just need a distraction: a new job or a hobby or a more active social life. I just need the pandemic to end for real. I just need to meet the new one. I’m a romantic: I’ll never feel settled until I find someone else to project this energy onto.
Most people who are later in their own stories tell me to be patient, to hold out until it’s perfect. No, no, I shouldn’t say perfect, they warn me. He’s going to have flaws. But perfect, nonetheless, like mine is. Then I look at their partners, and I think: good God I would never choose someone like that, never ever in a million years. And I know they feel the same way about my choices, about my love for the last one, because they have told me so.
These people don’t seem to realize that technically they, too, could find someone else to fall in love with, even after years and years of marriage, if they had to. But they wouldn’t make that choice. Now might be a good time to note that the worst thing the last one ever did to me was move out of state to enroll in a graduate program he applied to before we met.
I want to rebel, to prove to these people that they are wrong, that I’m not destined to meet someone better. Different, yes, of course I will eventually. And of course my love for him will fade my longing for the last one: it has to, it would be wrong if it didn’t. But I have always been a contrarian. I want to dig in my heels and hold onto the last one just to prove that there isn’t some Prince Charming waiting for me on the other side, like a first prize trophy for being strong enough to hang up the phone once and for all.
There are multiple feminisms, compulsory heterosexuality exists in all of them. “The one” that I “end up with” is always mentioned by these people giving me advice, both solicited and un. Suddenly my most down-to-earth companions become set on the idea of soulmates.
I worry about what they say when I turn around. Sad, silly little girl, I imagine. She doesn’t realize what’s to come in the later pages of her story. She doesn’t realize one day she’ll be happy with a new one, just like I am. This is one of the stories I tell myself, my own insecurities on full display within it.
These days, all I want to do is rip out each and every page of my story, tear them all to shreds I can use as tinder for my redemption arc.
(Back in the earlier pages, the ones no one else has read: it is our first night sleeping in the same bed and the last one is telling me about his mom as a little girl, how she sat outside under the streetlights to do her homework each night.)
It took me a decade of searching to find the last one, and I know that I could technically meet the new one tomorrow, sure, but that doesn’t seem likely. Not without the search completely consuming me like it did before. I am told by people who are already in relationships to be patient. You can’t just be with the last one because you’re afraid you won’t meet anyone better, they say. You have to be brave enough to be alone, says a woman being interviewed in a podcast about why she didn’t start dating until she was — gasp! — twenty-two. I’m the one who doesn’t know how to be alone, right?
I tried to author a new story for myself this past spring, moving to New York and getting out of a pandemic and all. Every choice I made followed what I have been taught is the “right” thing for a single person my age to do. I treated other people’s advice like a roadmap toward real love.
I moved in with a great roommate and flirted with a doorman in Williamsburg on my way into work each morning. I drank on rooftops with friends of friends who picked up the tabs with their Wall Street salaries. I had a one-night stand with a man with a tattoo of a basketball on his chest. I went speed dating and didn’t match with any of the twelve options. I read my writing at a bar in Brooklyn and made friends who are in a band. I tried to fuck a former flame, failed, and finally let go of an old fantasy. I went to SoulCycle twice a week and Al-Anon once a week and spent a Sunday morning kneeling between the stained glass windows of a progressive Presbyterian church. I deactivated my Instagram and Twitter accounts before booking solo trips out of state. I stood in a long line beneath a hot early autumn sun waiting to see the Liberty Bell and wondered what the fuck I was doing alone in Philadelphia. After all of this, I am still in love with him.
(Last time we spoke, a few weeks ago, over FaceTime: he tells me I am the most beautiful person in the world and I never want to be with anyone but you and I just want to stare at you and appreciate the view because I took it for granted before and I miss you so much I even miss your bobby pins and your black nail polish and no one else I date is ever going to live up to you and you were so good to me I could never say anything bad about you and I wish you could see how perfect your body looks to me and I never want to read anything that wasn’t written by you and I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you. Yada yada yada, compulsory heterosexuality, relationships should be easy. Time to move on, you know the story.)
I don’t tell anyone I am speaking to him again until we’ve stopped having these conversations, but I find ways to drop hints. Over ravioli and boxed wine in a senior citizen development on Long Island, I ask my mother and grandmother how they’ve managed to deal with grief so gracefully throughout their lives. My mom’s brother died at thirty years old in 1989. How did you keep going after that loss? I ask them. How did you carry on with the knowledge that your life was objectively better before you lost him? My grandmother is wildly intelligent, but she never believes me when I tell her so. I think the natural human instinct to stay alive is stronger than we realize, she explains. Something in my body, not in my brain, kept me going every day. It was biological, not intellectual, living with all that grief.
I bury myself deep in the cerulean seats of the Long Island Rail Road and wonder how much of my desire to love and be loved is purely biological, predetermined by some Neanderthal ancestors. How much of what I feel and want is entirely out of my control, despite my constant analyses, despite my constant attempts to move on?
Healing isn’t linear, everyone says this. But what do you do when you know you are plateauing, and it might be on purpose? Because to give up this feeling — of loving and being loved — feels traitorous, foolish, ungrateful. I didn’t know it was possible for me to have this kind of love until I was twenty-four, and on bad days, it feels like it was a glitch in the system, a happy accident I’ll never be able to replicate. It is the most remarkable, spectacular thing to be utterly true to yourself around a person and still be loved by them. How can I walk away from that based on the intangible, unreliable promise that the other version of the story will be better for me?
I went to SoulCycle twice a week and Al-Anon once a week and spent a Sunday morning kneeling between the stained glass windows of a progressive Presbyterian church. After all of this, I am still in love with him.
As I grieve this relationship, there are days when I am so sure that the success and adventure offered by New York City will do nothing for me compared to how happy I’d be if instead I moved in with the last one in a small cottage in the middle of nowhere. I could grow a tomato garden and adopt a beagle and finally learn to play piano. We could drink tea on a cushioned porch swing in the evenings and only have sex that feels like real love and maybe even have two daughters, one named after each of our grandmothers, just like we always planned.
But this is only a fantasy of happily ever after. Ah, fuck, it’s compulsory heterosexuality again. How do I get perspective on a situation while I am still living through it? How do I intellectualize something that is purely biological?
Relationships shouldn’t take convincing, they say. But then again, they imply, other things most certainly should. Moving on takes convincing. Letting him go, too. Forgetting the feeling of his fingertips tracing circles on your knees. Accepting the 631 miles separating you. Returning to The Apps again. Not reading his tweets every day, even though you are desperate to hear his voice. All of this, yes, you need to convince yourself is the right thing to do.
Maybe I am asking people for advice because I don’t want the responsibility of deciding what’s right. I am terrified that missing out on the other version of the story is the same as settling for less than I deserve. But then I remember the last man I was set up with by a friend, how he yelled at me about astrology on a street corner in Midtown East. I know what else is out there.
But what’s out there is infinite. And whatever it is I choose — and by that, I mean whoever — I’m sure I’ll convince myself it was the right choice. I’ll stand up in front of all of these people and profess my love, tell another story about how all the roads led me to this spouse. Fuck, there it is again. But really, it is less like “invisible string” and more like La La Land. It’s more like Joan Didion and “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
I carry around the feeling of being loved by him in my pocket, but I do not let myself dive back into it completely. I pull it out when I need to, flash it like a VIP pass in a bouncer’s face. I tell him to look, look at this, sir! I shriek. Look at how well I used to be loved by someone. No story is linear.