Know what heartbreak feels like? It's a continuous plummeting in the way back of your throat right near where the words usually form, a rhythmic thudding with zero rhythm that also feels like you're being strangled by the hopes you used to have for tomorrow. It's a burning you swallow with every single gulped breath. It's the purest of your dreams ricocheting through the sky like fireworks that never explode or pop – they never sparkle with the kind of fiery light a piece of you thinks might be the one thing that will actually save you.
It’s the collection of ideas you'll one day never believe originated in your own mind. It’s the halting language made up of sentences that went skipping over the synapses in your brain because the synapses are connected to the logic and venturing anywhere near where the logic resides is too painful right now. It is the knowing of everything and the absolute knowing of nothingness. It’s being speechless for the first time in your whole life and accepting such a condition because your words are only made up of feelings anyway and they taste way too salty.
Losing a person you adore almost beyond comprehension or reason somehow grounds you in this odd way, but that upon which you’re standing is splintered, fractured. All around you are jagged pieces of what you swear are the things that, properly assembled, can make you feel whole, but first all the scattered pieces must be gathered in arms that tremble. Only then can you even attempt to form something solid. You exist for now in an atmosphere where not even a cactus could grow. Your memories and your once-certain beliefs collide and cause you to jerk forward from an internal undertow and you second-guess every single move you make.
There’s a rearranging that must occur – a rearranging of your life – but right now it’s just so hard to do the heavy lifting. You start with the things that are the easiest to control. You decide starving yourself is probably the best place to begin because maybe it will be satisfying to feel the ache in your stomach instead of your heart or your head. A perverse feeling of accomplishment comes when you catch a glimpse of your new jutting clavicle. It appeared so quickly! And if you can stand to stare into the mirror, you will also see cheekbones that are way more pronounced than they were two days ago and maybe you will even find it in yourself to admire how big your eyes are despite the fact that they are filled with a dimness. You comfort yourself with the realization that probably only you will notice your dull eyes because you have not only mastered the art of starvation; you’ve also become adept at lying to the world.
You spend a lot of time gazing out of windows now. At night, the huge glow from the moon has awakened you more than twice and you search for answers in its illumination from the comfort of your bed. In the car, you become almost lulled into tranquility by the blur through the glass and it’s probably because the cloudiness of the outside matches the murkiness that’s taken up temporary residence inside of your head. You drive faster than you should just so the features of the world will appear even more fuzzy and you turn up the volume on the radio until the steering wheel shakes and you listen hard to lyrics that confirm that others have also been stuck in this place.
You’re not alone – and this is something you know well. But with that awareness comes even more awareness and you admit to yourself that someone else caused you to feel alive. This is one of the thoughts that causes you the deepest paroxysms of shame because what kind of grown woman knows with a total certainty that her day somehow means less because that day doesn't include hearing about his day? You look down slightly while you mentally answer the question: it’s the kind of grown woman who still prays for his joy and his bliss even while simultaneously longing for the day before you even knew he existed and walked this planet with such a magnetic fucking presence.
Heartbreak is the plodding of an evening when a soft mist trickles down from the sky. Had you been sailing instead through a happier time, there’s a chance you would have gone outside and held your arms out in front of you like you were reaching for something you’d actually end up holding and you’d feel the rain bouncing lightly off your smooth skin and the tiny poet who has bunked inside of you clutching a pink crystal in some metaphysically-approved hemp teepee since you were sixteen years old would whisper something lyrical, like how the mist could serve as the most basic form of a spiritual baptism. But because you are currently treading water and every part of you feels suffocated by your exhaustion, the only thing the mist really conjures up for you right now is how the water probably comes from the tears some seriously frustrated angels have spouting out of their eyes because the idiot they’re trying their damnedest to guide keeps fucking up.
And speaking of the weather, it starts to remind you of a house in a horror film. Go with me on this. You know how a kitchen in a Nancy Meyer romantic comedy is the kitchen that appears in your most glorious fever dreams with its vast whiteness that somehow never feels stark and the large island in the center and all of those slicing utensils placed exactly where you’d want them to be if you were cooking breakfast for the love of your life? Now imagine that kitchen in a film about a home invasion and suddenly those clean white walls are just a canvas for the eventual blood spatter and the island is something you’ll get chased around by a taunting masked killer wielding one of the sharp knives that will never again be used to slice red peppers into slivers for a lovely frittata – and that right there is how the weather feels. In happier times you craved the sun. It made you feel wistful, present. You’d take pictures and see the future in the sun flares that bracketed your image. But now the sun feels like it’s mocking you and you find yourself longing for a storm so you can look up slowly at a sky that’s the color of steel. You know the thunderclaps that will accompany the literal rains will hands fucking down be the most peaceful thing you've heard in days.
You sometimes forget about the way you’ve been cracked open. Whether it’s some form of a defense mechanism or that PhD you earned in Being a Tough Bitch finally coming through, you don’t wallow around the clock. Minutes and hours can tick by and you’re caught up in something different, something that doesn’t reside next to the pain. You’ve become so masterful at changing the subject that sometimes you even fool yourself into forgetting. You tell stories and you listen. You relate and you flirt. You smile with your mouth clamped closed (all the better to put the focus on your dimples) at some guy who just happens to stand right behind you as you both wait for your coffee. When he says something in a low voice that requires you to step a bit closer, it’s actually very funny and so you laugh and there’s been such a hollowness in your laughter for the last few days that the moment it comes out for real, the sound and the force of it together almost stun you silent.
Sometimes you find yourself slinking away from the spiky cocoon of sadness and into the haughty land of defiance. It’s as though some detached version of yourself has been stretched out on a supple leather couch waiting for you – and she just got a perfect spray tan. She’ll smirk when you walk through the door, stretch like she’s some exotic feline creature you’re not allergic to, and then commend you on your clavicle and applaud that soon she’ll be able to count your bones. Then she will look you dead in the eye and remind you that you have gone through this before, that it was way worse in the past, and you got through it the way you never thought you’d be able to do. You don’t think about the sleepless nights that ended those faraway heady days with any kind of regularity. The man you once would have sold your blood or your future for rarely even passes through your mind anymore. You know time really does have better healing powers than aloe and it’s in those moments when everything suddenly feels clear again that you throw your arms around the smugness that comes from remembering that everything will always be temporary.
While you’re still in a headspace ruled by strength, you make some bold promises:
1. You will stop associating him with a certain time of day because that time of day will roll around every twenty-four hours and there’s just no need to literally torture yourself like clockwork.
2. That tendency you usually have to harden and then hide? That was the old you – and she sucked. This upgraded version you’ve worked your ass off to become would never choose to hibernate inside a bullshit fortress made out of resentment and shattered dreams. Fuck. That.
3. Also, it might serve you well to fight the urge to hate yourself for things that aren’t actually your fault. You know full well that suggesting the two of you get together and having the audacity to have a birthday are not the sort of things that would have freaked out a different man. You have always been the kind of person who said what is on your mind and maybe it didn’t work out for you all that well in this particular situation, but plastering your mouth shut and not having the courage to even whisper what it is that you want is the kind of thing that could kill you and you’re not going down like this.
4. The final thing you remind yourself of in the moments defined by a semi-potent strength is that you had a big hand in bringing about this ending. You’ve learned a lot in your life – you’ve seen a lot – and the one thing you just can’t do anymore is make the same mistakes, not even if it’s with a different person. You chose this outcome because you had to choose this outcome, because you weren’t willing to lose yourself, and a part of you that still breathes underneath the heavy debris made up of bargaining and shame is a little bit proud.
But part of legitimate heartbreak – not the generic nonsense that came before, the stuff you once so foolishly believed was as bad as it could possibly get – is the fickleness that invades your soul and causes you to forget the bad times like you’re an amnesia victim. What remains is a shattering you can taste whenever you close your eyes and see the hazy vision that you swear is his perfect profile. It’s the cracking open of your heart whenever you find yourself recalling his physical perfection that was almost astounding. It’s the deadening that overcomes you like a thorny avalanche when it’s completely quiet and you have to accept that you really and truly cherish a person who you know cherishes parts of you, but not the entire you. It’s experiencing the feeling of being cracked open because you know that his successes or his failures wouldn't have changed your opinion of him and what he meant to you and it’s followed jarringly by the crashing understanding that the affection he felt for you was temporary and conditional. It’s sitting your dog on your lap and slowly explaining to her that she probably won’t see him again and even though your sister reiterates constantly that your dog doesn’t understand a single word you’re saying to her except for maybe her name, you know this animal as well as you know yourself and you watch as she blinks a few times before staring directly at the floor at a void you’re certain she can see. And maybe more than anything else, heartbreak feels like failure. It's knowing someone really well, listening to someone really hard, believing in someone with everything you can harness, riding his intensity like a wave, having good form while doing it, appreciating how he's different from you and growing from that exposure until the tide rushes in and hits you from an angle you didn’t see coming even though you sort of helped to sculpt that wave and you’re left so dazed that it’s hard to believe someone once taught you how to swim.
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. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter