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C K

54

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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and [Think I’m] the Bomb

He and I were a study in contrasts, two hues at opposite ends of the color wheel. I was the Yves Klein Blue to his Hermès Orange: he, a doctor with the brutal ambition and singular focus of a Chinese gymnast, at odds with my sluggish prefrontal cortex and 25mg Adderall prescription. Where he had a five-year plan with backups and a secretary who knew his schedule three months in advance, I fell prey to circumstances of careless planning, the frequent victim of broken $3 street umbrellas. He wore bowties, favored Rachmaninov and used the word "plebeian" unironically; I had a rotation of clothing I referred to as my “fancy overalls” and indulged in a genre of early-2000s 'white girl music’ so synthetic and syrupy you could marinate your assorted fruit chunks in it.

It’s incredible, really, what even a drop of ambiguity can do to permeate an otherwise secure female psyche: He dropped me like the forgotten second verse to a television show theme song, and had I even an ounce of left-brain functionality available at the time, I would've realized how little I meant to him and moved right along. Had I confronted my pain, he would’ve offered some easy out— "I'm becoming a vegan and don't want to expose another person to my wearisome thoughts on lentils" or “CrossFit is consuming my life” or "I'm actually a homosexual"— and I could've saved myself months of wondering and wallowing.

But that’s not what happened.

Here’s what did: In what amounted to four carefully-chosen words— “This isn’t working anymore”— and the three to five seconds it took me to utter the phrase, "I'm not continuing this conversation and I'm taking the next cab!” I was single for the first time in over a year, heels in hand, reduced to a tangled mess of heartache and smeared mascara before I'd even met my driver at the corner. That, I suppose, is how all heartbreak functions, on some level: One day you’re a normal citizen, paying taxes and worrying about panty lines, and the next, you’re barefoot and drunk and totally unhinged, demanding chicken fingers in a Carl's Jr. Or something like that.

Those who've conquered their own share of heartbreak are quick to point out the quiet grace of moments like Sunday nights spent alone, but if that was even a possibility, I didn't embrace it: Mine was an inelegant heartbreak, unrivaled by any cinematic version of a sniffling protagonist lying catatonic on a velvet fainting couch in silk pajamas. Mine manifested as a protruding sadness that overtook my unshowered body, cloaked in shredded sweatpants from Bar Mitzvahs past, and nights spent pouring bags of Cheetos into my quivering mouth and re-reading Joan Didion's "On Self-Respect."

I'd blindly accepted the doctor’s dismissal in such a shell of self-defense that I hadn't even thought to ask why— the non-legal equivalent of initialing without reading the fine print. I’d pushed away any conflict for the sake of immediate personal security, and, in the following weeks, would unknowingly create the reasons why for him, reasons likely far worse than any truth. It wasn't that I so wanted him back, but that I wondered what it was, exactly, that was the problem. I hadn't let him say it, and instead took it out on myself.

The first time I ever felt truly heartbroken was at summer camp: I asked a boy to dance at a so-called "ice cream social," he said no, and I went into the sort of weird, anaphylactic shock not uncommon to tweens who've taken an unexpected interest in the radio's brand of singer-songwriter heartbreak, specifically but not exclusively brought on by Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn," which my mother always changed during car rides due to its then-suggestive lyrics involving the word “naked.” But years later there is no camp counselor to tell me it's okay, that boys develop more slowly than girls and ice cream socials are not the be-all, end-all of one’s romantic life. There's no practical way to lift myself out of it, no particular pep talk that could appease this feeling, destroy it or dull it or make it seem less.

Instead it happened in stages. First I hardened— Fuck the digametic sex! Woman power! Gloria Steinem! bell hooks! That one book about The End of Men!— and then I peeled, treasuring small moments of calm contentedness, speaking in whispers, moving more slowly. I wanted to hold things softly in my hands, to treasure people I knew for not for things I’ve grown to love about them, but for the times they suffered, the times they felt small and insignificant, like I did. I became a ticking time bomb, moved to tears by anything at all in three seconds flat— the wrong Ed Sheeran song or even an especially compelling Downy commercial meant game over for me. And acceptance speeches? Forget it.

In my discomfort I developed a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others. Before long, I was changing in subtle ways, with the Google search history to prove it: I became more conscientious of my actions ("how to throw away batteries") and felt more moved to help, both others ("volunteer opportunities NYC") and myself ("therapists near me"). I was moved by some cosmic force I don't quite understand the chain reaction of, but ultimately comes down to nothing more than this: I have been hurt by the universe and don't want to do anything to hurt anyone else in it. I don't want to send out whatever cosmic wavy infrared lines Oprah knows about but the rest of us can't see. There is a quiet camaraderie that exists with this particular brand of misery; one so quintessential to the human experience that it's one of the most profound human experiences you can share with  your cashier, the President, the man who catcalls you in front of the laundromat, and your grandma's best friend, Susan: the experience of being alive, of feeling close to someone and of having it all evaporate.

Gradually, in the thick of heartbreak, I became a lit grenade, a woman at the hands of the universe. I was ready for whatever was to come next. I wanted to start a collection, take up knitting, adopt an elderly cat with an endearing deformity. I wanted to take all of the tiny things I loved and catalogue them, to spit out every fleeting thought I’ve ever had, every word or design or sound that’s come to haunt me in dreams and tell you about it: Ombudsmen. Concentric circles. The ding of a toaster. I wanted to take everything that pained me and look it at. I no longer bristled from my sadness.

There’s a Buddhist principle, bodhicitta, that connotes an enlightened mind, motivated by compassion for all living beings through an understanding of our mutual pain and joy. Just as we're told to “lean in” to our careers, bodhicitta teaches that we must lean in to our pain, to the things that scare us, discomfort us, sadden us, hurt us, put us on edge. We're not, after all, wilting creatures who'll set ourselves on fire if presented with a shred of criticism or defeat. We're stronger than we think we are, and owe it to ourselves, at the very least, the momentary courage required to explore the things that frighten us. Knowing the infinitesimal directions our future paths could take, we can't beat ourselves up over the circumstances of the past. I feel no contrition in my relationship with the doctor, cruel or callous as he may have been, but will always regret not walking away from it kicking and screaming, purse swinging.

And I will never again date a man who wears bowties.

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