STEP 1: REMOVE ALL REMINDERS FROM YOUR HOME
Quickly, take down those pictures from where you stuck them in the top corner of your mirror, the ones you glance at as you snap your bra closed first thing in the morning. Your faces, pushed together in the way you’d only stand beside someone with whom you’ve developed a legitimate closeness, will remind you too powerfully of a hope you cannot allow yourself to harbor anymore. And the pictures that were carefully placed inside of ornately jeweled frames, the ones you’d trimmed unevenly because you’ve still not mastered the art of the cutting with scissors? Those need to be yanked free and must no longer decorate your coffee table or that black thing you bought that West Elm calls a “console.” It’s okay that, to this day, there are still three empty frames that sit in one of your desk drawers, a glaring reminder that once images glowed happily from beneath some glass but now there’s just some emptiness. But remember: it’s not just photographs that will stir up longings or cause you to feel nothing but fragile in that way that you hate. No, there’s other shit cluttering up your home, stuff that’s barricading up your mind with useless remnants from the past. These tangible items will corrode your heart bit by bit in a way that will feel like the sting of acid must as it runs through your veins. The stuffed animal he won at a fair, the one you named? He needs to be carted off to the nearest dumpster immediately. Colorful magnets that live on the front of your refrigerator that were purchased on a happier day than today need to be buried under trash like empty pill bottles and dyed corks of red wine because, if you can’t see them anymore, maybe you can convince yourself they never existed in the first place. And those dried flowers, the ones he gave you on that first night? Well, those need to be destroyed. Besides, daisies aren’t your favorite flower anymore. You like pink peonies now.
STEP 2: WHATEVER YOU DO, REFRAIN FROM LOOKING IN THE MIRROR
The person whose reflection you see glaring back at you is someone you won’t even recognize. There is hollowness in her eyes, a deadness in her smile. Her pallor will have turned a truly unflattering shade of grey and the dimples in her cheeks won’t be nearly as pronounced as they usually are. Those dimples – usually your favorite physical feature – will no longer indent in a manner you think of as charming. No, it will just look like you’ve got two holes pounded into the centers of your cheeks and you’ll notice them immediately on the rare moments you do find yourself settling into a bland grin. Just face the fact that looking at yourself will only give you painful ideas that maybe the reason it didn’t work out is because he was drawn to girls who don’t appear lost and instead behave like an Orthodox Jew might during Shiva: cover the mirror – all of the mirrors – so you have no need to be reminded of the dead.
STEP 3: WRITE LETTERS, BUT WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT FUCKING SEND THEM
More than the actual ending sometimes is that icy sudden stab of awareness that you will eventually have more to say and he will no longer be there to listen. There’s nothing lonelier than not feeling validated by the person who used to validate you daily – hourly – and sure, you know that it’s completely pathetic that you gave someone that kind of power over you, that you actually needed someone and didn’t just want him, but there will be ample time to berate yourself for that imbecile-like choice later. Now, you see, is the time to focus on getting what you have to say out and accepting that the release that comes from the act of catharsis is far more essential than some person hearing what you have to say. It’s not like the taking in of information will change anything. Besides, your emotions equate messiness in his mind and they always have because he’s kind of a child. But you – you’re becoming far too aware of all that you feel right now and you’re trying to decipher it all and you know that it’s an amalgam of emotions swirling around inside of you and that they must have congealed into sharp shard-like shapes because you can feel them poking you and there’s just nothing in there that feels fully formed anymore. It’s the feeling of deft confusion that hits you the most frequently, rebounding against your stomach and the back of your throat, the places you always feel the most sensitive to the smashes of pain. When you try to sleep, it’s the knowledge that something that once was very real is now just a memory that keeps you awake and afraid. But it’s not just about the necessity of purging emotions that makes you feel the desperate want to communicate with someone who barely deserves to even hear your voice anymore. There are things – basic and benign things – you still want to tell him. You want to talk about that television show you both used to watch and you are dying to tell him about a movie you just saw. You do not want to tell him that you saw the movie in the first place just so you could try to take your mind off him for a fucking nanosecond or that the boxing scenes held you riveted and you wanted to watch all of them twice. He knows, after all, that shit like boxing, with all of its graphic realism, is the kind of stuff you normally turn away from, that it’s the stylized Tarantinoesque violence that holds you captivated. Maybe you don’t want him to know that all of this has already caused you to change. Part of it is that you’d sooner disrobe while hanging upside down on a stripper pole covered with pubic lice than admit that you’re now so dead inside that you just wanted to feel something – anything – to prove to yourself that a piece of you is still there and the reaction that came with watching someone onscreen have his nostril cartilage reassembled from just a punch was the kind of thing that allowed you to feel alive. You do, though, sort of want to tell him that he changed your life with his presence so significantly that you are certain every bit of you was scattered and then reassembled the very first time he smiled at you. There will be a desire that feels very real that will make you want to inform him that you will never be the same again now. You’re really going to want to say that he will never be the same again either, that you got into those corner shadows he tried to pretend weren’t even there – that he finally beckoned you in so you could get a closer look – and he will have to now live with the truth that you probably know him better than anybody else. And knowing all that you do – the good shit and just how much damage is still there, glistening and growing underneath a swarthy surface – you loved him anyway. You will want to say all of this. For a little while, you will almost convince yourself that you owe it to yourself to be heard and you’ll begin to hear some kind of inner chant, a rhythmic reiteration, that he should know just how you feel. But consider the consequences. Then consider them again. Hold onto your thoughts. Protect your fucking dignity. Write it all down and keep it for yourself because he doesn’t deserve to have more truth and you’ll need all of the details and reminders of what really was one day when you finally need to be honest with yourself in a way you would rather avoid, especially during the winter when the sun sets too soon.
STEP 4: PREPAPRE FOR YOUR FRIENDS’ SUPPORT. THEN MAYBE GET SOME NEW FRIENDS
“I never actually thought he was all that good-looking,” says the girlfriend you’ve had for almost two decades after it’s all finally – irrevocably – broken beyond recognition or repair. Now, you don’t much care about her opinions about masculine aesthetics because you clearly have different taste from one another anyway, but it’s also impossible to pretend that this isn’t the same person who used to ask to see pictures of you with the guy you cared about and would then say, without provocation, “He’s very handsome.” You will wander away from that friend on that day knowing that she will ultimately do absolutely anything for you – except be fully genuine – and that’s just a reality you cannot quite handle right now. Another friend will tell you that she never quite felt he was good enough for you and you kind of know she’s got a point. Still, it’s not an expression that allows you to feel any kind of comfort because all it does is make you wonder why you miss someone who might have been leaps and bounds beneath you. You’ll walk into the kitchen of your parents’ house and catch them talking about one time when he hurt you and their unrelenting focus on only the worst of it will make you feel protective of what once was. “You don’t have to turn him into a terrible person now,” you will say quietly, evenly. You will watch as a sharp expression of fear settles in their eyes as it occurs to them that they have just made you very angry. You will recognize the shift of the expression as it morphs quickly into pure pity when they realize that you are angry with the wrong people.
STEP 5: FOR FUCK’S SAKE, DO NOT GO ONLINE
Holy hell, is this a hard one. It’s necessary, though – and you should trust me because I’ve learned the hard and humiliating way. The internet, though your favorite way to shop and read news and pass interminable amounts of time in what feels like a continuous crisis, is your fucking enemy and it’s time to start treating it that way. It’s time to equate the act of going online like you’d think about wading into the ocean on a day where there’s been a massive hurricane warning and sightings of ravenous sharks in the area. Stay away. If you don’t, here’s what will happen:
· Every time you get a ping that alerts you there’s a new email waiting, you will feel a catapulting shock of misery that Net-A-Porter cares about how you’re doing on this foggy Tuesday but the man you showed nothing but sweetness to could clearly care less.
· You’ve already deleted him from your Twitter and your Facebook – you’re not a fucking lunatic, after all – but you will scroll through those sites with your thumb the way you always used to do, but the reactions you have will not be the same because nothing is the same anymore after your world implodes. The projected happiness of others, something you have always rooted for and loudly celebrated, becomes almost a personal affront to you and you will feel more isolated after connecting with people in the online universe.
· Every shopping site you arrive at to wile away some dragging minutes will lead you directly to a page that features an item you would have bought for him just to see him smile. You’d sooner slice your own spleen out with a rusty butcher knife than ever buy the guy so much as an expired and rotten stalk of broccoli, but you will push that fury away for the briefest of seconds and wonder if he’d prefer the tee in black or navy.
· You will wonder about his life and what he’s sharing with the world. You will not go any further than wondering, but that doesn’t mean some people won’t randomly inform you of what they have seen and it’s in those moments when you know for sure that the world is unkind and perhaps the Amish are onto something.
STEP 6: TAKE PICTURES OF YOURSELF AND HOLD ONTO THEM
This step, dear friends, is indeed a study in masochism, but not entirely. Part of it is that you need to record the accuracy of the moment for purposes of posterity. When you falter – when you finally understand the magnitude of what it’s like to truly long for another human being – you can go back to the image and remember just how this person made you feel. You will probably notice as you look back that you appeared very tired then. You will see that you were wearing sweatpants while it was still light and sunny outside. You will become aware that you didn’t even put on mascara because the act of fiddling with your lashes simply felt like it would take too much energy and you had nothing left to expend once you’d already gotten out of bed. You will look shittier than you ever have, worse even than in that video taken of you the morning after your twenty-first birthday when you came closer to alcohol poisoning than you ever have before or since. But you will also probably look closely at those photos and, after you focus constantly on all of the flaws, you will start to see the small glimmer of light that will always shine from your eyes and the deepness of your smile, though those smiling muscles feel like they’ve atrophied. You will startle yourself one clear day with a realization that you still somewhat look the same after everything that’s happened and you will know that the real you is in there and you will find the energy to excavate her so you can again be the person you know you want to be.
STEP 7: FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT AND WHERE THE RELATIONSHIP SHOULD GO NEXT
You will always be the kind of person who forgives, at least a little bit. You know other people are greatly flawed because you are full of flaws, too. And you have learned that the old adage about time bringing about a semblance of healing is not total and complete bullshit. There will be mornings when you do not think of him when you wake up and drink black coffee. You will buy tiny skirts and you won’t wonder about what his reaction would be if he were to catch a glimpse of you wearing it with nothing but heels. You will go full days when a reminder of him doesn’t hurt in the slightest – when his face doesn’t even resonate in your mind – and you will forget eventually to even congratulate yourself about moving on. You will begin to care tremendously about somebody else. You’ll start sentences that contain his name and you’ll notice that the people you’re speaking to will flinch slightly, so unaccustomed they are to you including him in your repertoire of breezy tales. And then you’ll get a text or an email from him and it will be casual and friendly and the reaction you have to receiving it out of the blue will be exactly the opposite of what you’d expected it would be. There will be no emotion that spreads inside of you except what feels like utter calmness. Your heart won’t beat the way it once did. You won’t wonder what he’s really trying to say because you take him at face value now and your responses will be truthful, though perhaps a bit less warm than is your custom. You’ll revert to humor fast and you won’t worry that you’re maybe texting back too quickly because the game is over now and you’re not about to really play it again. But if there is mutual kindness – if there is a coating of respect to his words – you can begin to communicate. You will refrain from going the flirty route. You will change the subject when he mentions that sometimes he thinks about how you look naked. You will react sarcastically and flippantly when he tells you that he thinks about you sometimes jumping up and down on your trampoline while wearing a white tee that’s wet and you’d have to really concentrate to recall what he looks like when he’s naked. You can be friends again – maybe. You can confide in him about your feelings – sometimes. You can look at yourself in the mirror late at night and remember what it was he loved about you in the first place but you don’t need for him to tell you anymore.
STEP 8: IF YOU ARE A WRITER, FOR GOD’S SAKE, DO NOT SUGGEST THAT THE NEW MAN YOU’RE DATING CHECK OUT YOUR WORK
Sure, it’s lovely to build an audience and nothing can explain who you are more quickly than sending a link or a book to someone new and suggesting that he just go ahead and read chapter two. But stop yourself from doing this because knowing too much about you without a ton of explanatory context will scare the living shit out of him and you are someone who has no respect for someone who scares too easy, even if the guy’s got a point to be terrified. You have always been a person who reveals yourself in layers and that is something that shouldn’t be altered because it’s normal to do that and not everyone should know what they’ll mistakenly believe is everything. You have to try to remember that there are people out there who will think that, just because you’re writing about something, it means you are still consumed by it. A regular person who is still essentially an enigmatic stranger will not understand that sometimes you just write for writing’s sake or to relieve a bit of emotional pressure that is not really caused by the subject you’re exploring. And you cannot deny that the average person will worry that he will one day become your next subject and you will have to assuage his concerns while stopping yourself from saying some version of, “You don’t yet mean enough to me to be weaved into my writing,” because that will make you sound like an asshole and one day you might be surprised by how much you’ve started to care. Just point him towards your reality TV recaps and tell him that it’s more than okay that he doesn’t watch those shows and therefore has no idea what you’re even talking about. Tell him to read the first paragraphs only so he can see how you compare The Real Housewives to the work of J.D. Salinger and Flannery O’Conner and then call it a fucking day and change the subject back to him.
STEP 9: KNOW THE DREAMS WILL CONTINUE AND FORGIVE YOURSELF FOR WHATEVER GOES DOWN DURING YOUR UNCONSCIOUS HOURS
You are who you are. You’re a person whose memory is sharp, at least in the last few decades of your life. Your psyche processes things fast and it takes control, even when you actively try to ignore what it wants you to think about during the day. If there is a reminder of someone who once changed the very foundation of who you eventually became that you encounter during the afternoon, that reminder will manifest in some bizarre manner during your dreams. The visions you have will be vivid and you will wake up remembering almost all of them. Many of your dreams will be classic in their construction and they will often be somewhat disturbing. You will have nonlinear stories racing through your dream state wherein you will try to make phone calls and can’t dial or write text messages you can’t seem to send. You will see a version of yourself on familiar street corners and you will try with all of your might to get to his house and the streets will shuffle and shift and you will no longer understand where you are anymore. And you will wake up and roll your eyes at yourself and you will know that you are just the kind of person who will always search for meaning, even as you become someone who finally realizes that not everything makes sense. Then you will get up for the day and snap your bra shut and put on some mascara and walk out the door with a smile on your face because it’s Tuesday and you’re not broken anymore.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.