I loved Connecticut for so long that part of my brain still insists I check on him, like he’s something in the oven that might be burning. Only he’s gone, and boundaried enough to ignore my texts. How are you doing? I ask, although what I mean is Do you miss me? Sometimes I miss having a partner, but mostly not. Around me, other people are tethered to husbands and children, and I am riding my bike through red lights in the rain with no emergency contact, coming home to my half-empty apartment whenever I like. I have chosen this, and ambient loneliness is a fair price to pay for the unspooling wonder of this freedom. But still: what about Connecticut? What is he doing? I picture him in the dark, dishes piled high in the sink. In our relationship, I was always the one who opened the blinds.
In rebuttal to the vanity of my assumption that he could not be OK without me, I get a text from a mutual friend, one who has not picked a side after the breakup. It says, He is doing very well, actually! It’s the first weekend since we split up, and I still haven’t washed the sheets he last slept in: what could he possibly be doing, and how could he be doing very well? What about all the Saturdays he languished on the couch, his depression syrupy and contagious, while I named things we could do together, prodding him to go outside? During the quarantine, I joined an online support group for partners of people with mental illnesses, but none of them knew how to get their partners off the couch either.
And now he is doing very well. Exclamation mark! I, meanwhile, am trying with furrowed brow to reassemble myself after a relationship that lasted a half dozen years, a relationship with someone who buffered me from the specific perils of myself. He could name every bird that flew by and recall the particulars of geopolitics in obscure countries and also, also, he kept my latent sex addiction packed in a protective layer of sawdust. Now I am alone and easily jostled and I don’t know what that little brown bird swooping past is. I am in withdrawal, only without the commensurate joys of being the one who got dumped.
Connecticut and I need to talk about logistics, untangling of insurance and streaming services and our city-approved domestic partnership, but when I call him, I hear him light a cigarette and summertime floods over the line. He is outside; no one is pressuring him not to smoke. How does he feel, I ask. He tells me mad at first, and then relieved. “I’m excited about the apartment,” he says. His Brooklyn (Brooklyn!) apartment has appliances so new that the protective sticker is still on the refrigerator. The light in my own refrigerator flickers like the corridor of an abandoned hospital in a horror movie. When he moved out, Connecticut left all the furniture, the beaten-down couch and the chipped bookshelves. He says that I did the best thing for us, the brave thing, and that he couldn’t have made a change this big on his own. He says, “The romantic part of our relationship was over a long time ago.”
I knew it, I’ve known it for a long time, for years, and still, him naming it is like looking into the face of something stillborn that I carried to term. He stopped wanting me years ago, and I hung out in the rejection, hoping. Somehow I let sexless years slip past, COVID-anxiety and Zoom-fatigue providing fresh excuses for settling. He was my quaranteam; he made me feel safe. What is that oft-mangled Ben Franklin quote about those who would sacrifice liberty for safety being worthy of neither? There is no aphorism that covers the experience of fighting with a frustrating yet beloved partner in the dildo aisle of a suburban sex-toy emporium where you have gone because the world is still locked down for the pandemic and yet you are shockingly, humiliatingly horny. Why did I drag him along all this time?
Because I loved him, I guess, and love him still. I want to explain, to him or to somebody, how it feels to reach for someone who takes his pants off in the utterly unselfconscious way one would undress in front of a houseplant or the cat; how it feels to be ducked; how it feels to want someone who only crowds near when you are preoccupied. I was engulfed and abandoned, drowning while I dried out. Once, he came into the bathroom while I was brushing my teeth and stood behind me, playing the guitar. I asked my psychiatrist to up my meds. Anxiety circled my body like sneakers in a dryer.
The sexless interlude solidified between us like caulk. Marry me, he said, and I said no, so we both felt rejected and hurt. I offered to stop bringing up sex in couples therapy, and he was so relieved that, briefly, he seemed happy with me. And yet, I wanted him still. Normally, when someone doesn’t want me, I lose all interest, some self-protective airbag inflating to cushion the rejection. It did not deploy. Both lonely, we opened our relationship, and I found a girlfriend, and he had sex with his ex and I was jealous but also wished I could see them together, and I looked for porn that might show me what their bodies would have looked like. He told me that she was soft. My own body is small and hard as a pebble in a shoe, but it deserves more love than this.
Now we are broken up, and aggravatingly, I still want him. No wonder he’s doing well (exclamation point), a borough away from my eyeballs and expectations and disappointment. This is all the things I am afraid of: that I am not lovable or missable, that attachment to me is only circumstantial.
“I don’t believe it,” my friends say, when I tell this story. It’s been, what, a month?
“Just over that.” I am counting time with a precision of someone nine, about to turn ten.
A pitiless detective in my brain tries to solve the mystery of when he stopped wanting me. This detective notes his restless-leg syndrome, and asks how long I was sleeping on the floor beside the bed to get away from him kicking me in his sleep. It was cold on the floor, I confess, but I thought it was OK. Since he left, I wake up every morning and marvel at all the me-warmed space on the mattress. Someday I may look back on my years of sleeping bed-adjacent with anger, but for now, despite my gratitude that he is gone, I keep missing him. Or at least missing the early days of us, all sex and watermelon, and even the middle days, when we went to the zoo and to exotic grocery stores where we purchased foods we had never heard of.
The less Connecticut wanted me, the harder I worked on my body. He liked soft, but I carved myself into hard lines. With gritted teeth, I hold my plank. Control, control– I’m in a barre class, and my flat-back chair is a perfect 45-degree angle. Around me, other women are straightening their legs. I will hold impossible posture after impossible posture until I feel like I have control of my life. I bend myself backwards until my hands find the floor, then I fold forward like a pocketknife over my legs.
Breakups and death both involve a lot of contractor bags. It doesn’t matter who broke up with whom. It matters who leaves the apartment. The person with the empty picture hooks, with the squares settled in the dust, that person will feel lost and abandoned. What do you want to do, Connecticut asks, with all these framed photos of us? I think of my mother asking, as she and my stepfather prepared to move, if I wanted my baby photos or if she should throw them away. My closet is crammed full of picture frames, things I don’t want to look at. In the fridge is a jar of lemons that Connecticut brined in salt for me before the pandemic. Sometimes I clean out the fridge and I think, I should really do something about those lemons. Then I just leave them there for future-me to deal with.
When Connecticut moved out, he left behind a pair of guitar hangers bolted into the wall. Years ago, I didn’t want him to sink them into the wall, those complicated anchors and clamps sprung behind the drywall. I knew that someday we would break up and they would be hard to remove, and that the wall would need to be patched, and I wouldn’t know how.
I have chosen to be unpartnered, or at least not to have this partner, and even though it was the right choice, the loneliness blisters me every time I come home and, sweet relief and desolation, nobody calls out my name.
One month after the break-up, Connecticut takes a picture of the sky in Industry City and posts it to Instagram, announcing that we have parted ways. I text him that I miss talking to him, that I hope we can be friends soon. He does not text me back. Once we drove through the countryside, listening to Colin Hay sing “Waiting For My Real Life to Begin,” and he got quiet and so did I, a recognition that we were both pacing outside a door. The waiting part is over now, and Connecticut is not wrong. I stretch out alone in bed. Just because it feels terrible doesn’t mean we’re not actually doing very well.