Things My Ex Taught Me

During that awkward time we tried to be friends, my ex kept telling me I’d taught her a lot in our time together and she knew she’d taught me as well. But she never specified what it was we were supposed to have learned. I came up with this list the other day when I was feeling especially vindictive. I realize a lot of my distress stemmed from the fact that I was too afraid to speak up or share my real emotions, but there was no doubt a power play in our relationship, and she absolutely had the upper hand.

Things my Ex taught me

  • It’s unnecessary and excessive to be open about a relationship
    • Ignore each other in public
    • Don’t talk about each other to others
    • Refrain from referring to each other affectionately
    • No physical contact unless we’re alone
    • No couple selfies
    • No profiles pics of the two of us
    • Because only gooey, mushy, clingy couples do things like that
  • The person with the most relationship experience has authority over the relationship
    • They get to decide what’s okay
    • They get to tell you how you should feel about things
    • If this is your first romance, you don’t know what you’re doing, so anything you think and feel is likely wrong
  • It’s okay to dwell over your ex with your new partner
    • And it’s okay to constantly compare them
  • It’s okay to hold your partner hostage emotionally by:
    • Refusing to commit to the relationship
    • Talking openly about other crushes
    • Insinuating that if your partner asks for “too much” you won’t want to date them anymore
  • It’s okay to exclude your romantic partner from your friend groups
    • All of them
  • It’s okay to deny your partner the labels they want and reject all labels rather than coming to a compromise
    • And then go around using your own label without your partner’s consent
  • It’s okay to refuse to admit you might be together for a while
    • And normal to assume that you won’t
  • It’s better to be roundabout with emotion
    • If you’re upset, don’t tell your partner—wait for them to find out and ask you about it
    • If you think your partner is upset, don’t ask them about it. Wait for them to tell you exactly what’s wrong up front
    • If you start talking about emotions stick to the theoretical and avoid the practical
  • Ignore patterns of behavior. Get hung up over the little things
  • Your partner’s concerns and fears will become unimportant if you treat them like they’re not important
  • It’s okay to simultaneously take advantage of and be irritated by your partner’s lack of experience
  • Even though you’re more experienced than your partner, and they’ve never had sex before, and they’re really self-conscious about it, don’t be the one to bring it up or open the discussion. Wait for them to make the first move.

 

I was so shocked that anyone would want to spend any amount of time with me at all, let alone even entertain the idea that she might want to spend the rest of her life with me–that when she refused to commit to me, refused to commit to a long-term relationship, said it was unrealistic for me to expect that of her–or of anyone–I believed her. I believed that no one would want to be my life partner. I believed that she was totally in the right to keep her commitment hanging over my head. Emotional blackmail. I thought it was okay. Because I loved her. And I was waiting for the day she’d say she loved me back. It was worth waking up every morning afraid today would be the day she left. It was worth the emotional tug-of-war. It was worth consistently being told that I was wrong. It was worth the pain of never knowing, only guessing. At least I thought it was. I felt lucky she was giving me anything at all. I thought it was okay. Because she said it was. And I believed her. Because I loved her.

 

Those Little Things

Remember how I said the people you love should make you appreciate the little things more? And how since I’d started dating my ex, I was distracted from those little things?

A few days ago she sent me a picture of a bird with the caption “I thought you might like this.”

What the fuck is the Universe trying to tell me?

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Terminal

Terminal

I’m walking around the darkened, quiet airport terminals at 2am because our flight has suffered a 24 hour delay. Normally, unconventional sleepovers with friends are my jam, but tonight my only company is the three girls from my school whose courtesy doesn’t seem to extend beyond the occasional pleasantry and having agreed to give me a ride to Chicago; and one other guy, an annoying tag-along from another school going on the same trip, who no one had bothered to introduce me to. I couldn’t sleep and was tired of listening to their petty, privileged complaints and ignorant comments. One of them was so angry that we had to sleep at the airport, complaining about not being able to shower or do her makeup. While I was just glad we had a place to stay for free and pleased with the food vouchers they gave us as compensation, she spent quite a bit of time whining and ended with “I think this is the saddest I’ve ever been.” I sucked in my breath silently, thinking, Oh, honey. I’m so glad you’ve apparently never cried yourself to sleep because society hates you, or because you hate yourself, or because the one person you trusted the most broke your heart.

I decided to wander by myself.

The stilled airport was like an enclosed city, an independent ecosystem encased in modern conveniences. There were food courts and restrooms at each terminal, and the lounge areas populated themselves like tiny cities with people sharing common goals and destinations. People lay wrapped in their coats and scarves on the floor and on benches. A few walked around as listlessly as I, but never made an attempt to interact with their fellow ramblers. Humans bedecked in security garb huffed occasionally into walky-talkies, and workers in neon orange or green pushed carts, dragged buckets, or joined the sleepers on the benches, though always in an alert upright position.

I took whatever turn seemed to hold the most surprises. I found a yoga room and itched to practices my poses, but there were people asleep inside, so I walked on. At one point I found an outlet and charged my barely conscious phone, taking a quick nap while I waited for the numbers to tick slowly up. I tried the Internet kiosks, checking email and social media to see if anyone missed me yet.

At one point I passed a small exhibit of an airplane taking off. Pausing to examine the model, I noticed a sound effect of a bird chirping. It was too stereotypical and generic to identify the kind of bird, but the natural sound seemed so out of place in this very modern, very square, very grey structure, I paused in surprise to listen. It sounded so—nice. I’d only been in the airport for ten hours but it seemed like years since I’d listened to a bird…

Well, of course, it had been a few months. It was winter after all and most of the birds were gone…but it was more than that, wasn’t it? I continued to walk, thinking. I tried to remember listening to the birds this fall, or in summer or spring…I couldn’t remember a single moment when I’d sat in the grass and closed my eyes to focus on the gentle chirping. I could pull up plenty of memories from previous years, but nothing from this year. An entire year? An entire year without really listening to the birds? Was I too old? What was different?

Then I remembered.

When you fall in love with someone, it should be someone who makes you appreciate the little things more. Like the rain or the way the sun rises or pinecones or birds. Not someone who—distracts you from those things.

I’d been crying off and on for the past two days, and it seemed like I was going to start again.

How did I let her become such a parasite? Six months after the breakup I’m about to leave the country on my first big, semi-solo adventure and I still want to call her so much it hurts.

So many things remind me of her. A snippet of a word or voice. A flash of an image. Familiar sayings or jokes we may have shared. Or the feeling that if she had been there with me, I wouldn’t have been so lonely.

Despite the fact that being with her distracted me from being myself, from doing what I wanted, from my friends, from the things I used to love.

Despite the fact that our last conversations, if they moved beyond casual life updates and hey-how’s-it-goings, always ended in anger or tears.

Despite all this, she was still someone I thought of as I prepared for my first flight.

I just got over being proud of myself for not wanting to call her the last few times things got really rough. It’s not like I’ve been pining for her non-stop. But the fact that I’ve relapsed into yet another of my bad former habits made me want to end everything, and I’m not even joking. I’ve been more suicidal in the past few days than I have since the thought first occurred to me when I was sixteen. If I wasn’t going on this trip, I’m almost sure I would have done something to act on it. While we were walking around Chicago I thought about “accidentally” falling into the street or waiting till I was alone to flip myself over a bridge. Before that, I’d considered walking alone down the nature trail to the walk bridge or the tower with my razor, two bottles of Advil and the last of my anti-depressants.

Christmas had sucked. My family situation was getting worse—now my mother wouldn’t even hide her disdain for me and my life choices. I know I’ll never be able to tell them that I’m non-binary, and if I get an s/o again my parents won’t even care, but not in the good sense of the phrase. My friends seemed once again to be slipping away, and having seen my ex once more as she prepared to leave still left me shaken and sore. All I could think was her spending time with the family she was becoming closer to and working so hard to preserve while looking forward to train adventures and winter break with her beloved boyfriend, a trip we had almost taken together, a trip that would definitely have destroyed any remaining desire for self-preservation on my part. And despite all that I still wished I had said yes, still wished I was with her right now instead of three almost-strangers with barely any way to contact the people I loved.

How can someone so wonderful, so understanding, so gentle, so comforting, so calm and so kind be such a toxic presence in my life? And why do I want to talk to her about that when all that could possibly do is make things worse?

As much as I want to hate her, I still love her. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. But I need to. I need to move on. I need to be able to open up to others. Maybe if I hadn’t been so afraid, maybe if I hadn’t forced myself to move so slowly, that sweet freshman my sister had tried to set me up with might have been the one I was texting in the hotel and pining for in the airport terminal.

They say there are stages of grief. “Stages” implies that they eventually will end. Mine seemed to keep going in circles, from sadness at my loss to bitterness to regret to anger to acceptance, but almost as soon as I move on to acceptance the fucking universe throws a monkey wrench in there and makes us cross paths, forces us into the same room, lets me hear about the tornadoes in Texas so I frantically message her asking if she’s okay on her train to the bf. And then the sadness comes back. The bitterness. The loss. I tried to make myself angry that night, tried to speed up the process, but the tears came instead, and I sat in the middle of a lounge crying in a pathetic little ball on the floor.

I need to accept it again, and leave it there. I need to let go. I need to move on. I need to let the light back in.

But as I prepare to get on a vehicle no one in my family has laid eyes on, and set foot in a country I’ve never been in and surround myself with strangers speaking a language I barely know, clinging to what I know best seemed like a safe and comfortable defense mechanism. As hurtful as it is in the long run, in this moment I find comfort in thinking of her, no matter how tormented the thoughts may be.

I think it’s weird these places are called terminals. Terminate means end, and terminal implies an ending to something. An end to a journey, maybe, but for me it’s just the start, and for others, it’s somewhere in the middle. The building itself doesn’t even seem to have an end. My initial goal to walk from one end and back again was thwarted when all I found was turns and circles. No end in sight, but loop upon loop of people and places and left-behind feelings. People come in with so much baggage and clutch it to themselves protectively and comfortingly. And then they walk in circles, under the illusion they will eventually find the end, not knowing the place they are looking for might be right next to where they started.

 

Mysterious Ways

Someone or something does not want me to forget my ex.

We’d agreed not to speak to each other outside of our jobs at the end of October. After weeks of silence on her end and me finally giving up, she somewhat randomly (from my perspective) confronted me about all the little things she hated about me. How I acted. How I ate. How I talked. How I interacted in different groups. I’d previously just been upset, but now I was mad. I was fucking pissed. For the first time since we started dating, since we broke up, I stood up for myself and fought back. She was taken off guard and we both fled the scene in anger.

I resolved not to contact her again, and this time she was the first one to reach out, proposing a solution I was not thrilled about. I told her we both needed space, we’d both be traveling soon anyway, and once we returned, maybe then we could see if it was still worth sorting things out.

She agreed.

I was remarkably relaxed about the whole ordeal. This time I’d been the one to break ties, and it gave me a sense of power, rather than the helpless despair I’d always felt before. If I saw her I smiled and said hello and went on my way rather than stopping to chat or pretending I didn’t see her. At first she seemed shocked that I was acknowledging her and refused to respond, but after a while she started saying hi back and smiling. We even managed to sit next to each other at an event (by accident) without getting mad at each other. We managed to have a civil conversation.

Then on one of my low days I happened to see her upset and suddenly I was worried about her all over again. Coincidentally, the next day we bumped into each other in the hall, and stopped to catch up. She was overwhelmed but fine. And so was I.

Then, though, she came to my apartment to visit my roommate. I didn’t feel like talking to her so I pretended I didn’t see her, but she kept throwing words my way till it was too rude for me not to say hello. But I was irritated.

Then we passed each other in the hall again and she waved and said hi but stopped in her tracks as though shocked when I waved and said hi back.

“Wait, what?” she spluttered.

“I said hello,” I snapped, wondering why she had to make a production out of every time we crossed paths.

Then one day it randomly occurred to me that she has been dating her current boyfriend for longer than she’d dated me. The fact hurt more than it should have. Maybe it would have been easier to deal with if she hadn’t started dating him only three weeks after breaking up with me.

As I ruminated over this I remembered something she’d posted on her Tumblr, which I’d read before deleting my account. She’d said something about not understanding how he could think of such nice things to say about her. That no one had ever done that for her before.

At the time I’d just been a little upset reading about her boyfriend, but thinking back on it, I realized what that meant.

It meant that all those things I’d said to her didn’t mean anything.

All of my compliments, all of my encouragements, all of my critique, all of my praise. None of it had meant anything to her. None of it was good enough.

It made me feel like I had wasted four months’ worth of words on someone who wasn’t listening.

Two nights in a row I tried to block out these thoughts by binge-watching “Once Upon a Time” on Netflix. It was starting to work–I was getting caught up in the story, though the constant references to “true love” were a bit depressing.

Then I spent a morning with a friend and we went to his apartment. He lived on the same floor as my ex. Randomly, I had just found out that he knew about us, when I’d thought he hadn’t. He was taking me to see his cat. We took the elevator.

When the doors opened on his floor there she stood with her arms full of laundry.

I was too shocked to muster up some sort of fake hello and didn’t even step out of the elevator until my friend did first. She stared back at me with a startled “Hello” directed at both of us.

I’ll forever be grateful to my friend for what he did. He went up to her and gave her a huge hug. I knew it was mostly because he was happy to see her once more before she moved out and left the country, but whether he knew it or not, he was also blocking me from her view until I could get out of her view enough to excuse the fact that I wasn’t looking at her. He then engaged her in conversation until she boarded the elevator and threw a generic goodbye to both of us.

Thank God she didn’t hug me, text me, or ask me how I was doing.

My friend led me to his apartment. “Of all the people to randomly be on their way down as we come up,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all fine.” I was in a bit of a daze, not sure if I should have handled that differently. Am I the only one in the planet whose ex still had that kind of affect on me, after only four months of dating and six of breakup? And why, for fuck’s sake, do our paths keep crossing? Before, she would always seem to pop up when I needed her most. Now, she seems to appear when I most want to forget her.

I know the Universe works in mysterious ways but I wish it would lighten up. I can’t wait until we’re in different countries. I need her out of my head. I need to move on. Every time I get close to being okay she pops back into my life. Even deleting her on all my social media can’t keep her out of my line of sight.

Maybe someday I’ll understand and be grateful; there’s still this crazy part of me that thinks whether either of us likes it or not, we’re going to continue to fall into each other’s laps. It makes me wonder how she felt when she saw the door slide open and me standing in front of her. On her way down to her car, preparing for her new life elsewhere. And suddenly I was there.

Whatever device of life this is I hope one day I can look back and appreciate it. But right now I’m left wondering.

What it Means to be Safe

What it Means to be Safe

Each time I think about the subtly spiked looks that spit between us now, or the blunt words that gently bruise my shaken shoulders, my mind spirals back to the dipping of the mattress when your knees joined me on the bed, the faint creak when you leaned across the curl of my body and carefully covered me with the blanket you gave me the night the scars came back.

My head fizzed with the leftovers from my first drink. A newbie, unnecessarily tipsy. My fresh bones ached; my sharp and shiny monsters crept closer, warded off only by the felted warmth of your gift. I remember your hand on my back as I tried to sleep, its careful kindness a soft stone on my skin, and the quiet voice that questioned the sniffs I tried to bury.

There had been a night where it was I stroking your red curls in my lap while your drunken eyes refused to close, two of us on the strange couch, several dark weekends ago. In my bed you watched over me, as I had with you. My pathetic child’s voice crept past my hands. Your softened response: “I’m not angry.”

Your hands on my back sketching love on my shoulders, fingers longer than mine that held a story, that caught my hands, my hair, my hurt, fingers that the night before handed me the glass while wide eyes watched and waited with me when the buzz entered my body for the first time. Arms that curled around me when we sat in the park admiring the midnight haze and rare summer chill.

I remember what it feels like to be safe.

Leaning on you felt like leaning on a tree—broad shoulders like supple branches carrying the weight of life, your spine a sturdy trunk wrapped in the rings of your years and sheltered by experience. You were sturdy and firm. I relaxed into your soft bark, the jacket I’d lent you in the darkened chill. A shoulder to tuck my head into, kinky red hair rustling against my face. A mouth that sighed, happy.

Your legs lead me through the night when my restless yammering took us around campus. My nonstop chitchat fueled by the fizz and my hyper limbs calmed by long fingers sketching love on my shoulders.

And when I remember your calm smile, your wide eyes searching for mine, your tentative laugh at my tipsy giggle, the tree of your body planted near me, I ache harder for the strength of your branches and the calm of your voice. My stomach ticks when I think of you and heaves when I see you. I know the bright green eyes don’t search for me, long fingers don’t reach for me.

Before I can look into your face again I have to hear your voice—quiet, patient, steady. A calm wind where there had been storm. I have to taste the sadness trickling in the darkness, a sorry sap I know I have to tap.

The distance placed by months of crackled words and severed glances slips behind us when you join me on the step. Bitter concrete sends chills seeping up our skins. The inches between us may be miles or years or forests.

But my arms yawn and my spine shakes when my soggy voice creeps out from the crevice of bent shoulders.

You ask before I let your fingers gently draw across my back. A note of kindness left behind. There was a time we could have shared a note of sorry, of love. I missed you.

I need to feel you again. My demons snicker that you aren’t here; your sturdy trunk has fallen to the storm, your branches cracked and splintered in the grass.

I hug you again. I feel your bones again, I feel the fabric of your shirt, the soft and sticky of your skin, the knots of your hair, the firmness of your arms. Your fingers swirling slowly on my back.

I’m sorry. I missed you. Thank you for coming back.

It’s a different kind of touch; beneath your bark are things I can’t see. It’s a familiar sketch, but sullied and softened. I’ll never be a solitary name carved in your trunk. I’ll never hold the secret part of you I’d tried to see.

But this I can hold—this solid body, this sturdy tree. These gentle branches. The lively heart.

I feel you hold me again and remember what it feels like to be safe.

***

Kitties May 2014 082

Sometimes it’s the safest places that become the most toxic. The tree that withers and decays will still give shade until its putrid remains rain down, smothering those who claimed its haven.

There are different methods of coping with the pain. I don’t think anyone hurt me like you.

Worse than the scores by my own hand on this body that is mine. Worse than the sizzle of the two times you hit me when you were drunk.

Jagged phrases, blunt glares and deep silences.

The eyes that searched me for safety now stared at my arm as if shreds of my flesh were falling off like pieces of a smacked puzzle.

The fingers that sketched my canvass with love have by now counted the slices on my skin months after my shaking hands put them there.

The lips that met my cheek after one too many, pressed against my hands one damp midnight after work, now curled with words invented to smart.

Subtle promises and loaded gifts, snapping back with tart glowers if I took my reaction “too far.” Branches that guided and protected now lashing as at intruders in a bitter storm. Your trunk once planted near me now settled firmly opposite on the plastic benches slicked with October mist.

I snapped that night, the night you sat with me for hours in the dark chill jabbing words at me that cut deeper than my lithe blades, leaving marks more sour than the ones already splattered into my skin.

My core shook. No arms but my own shielded me from the midnight weighted down by autumn. Fingers longer than mine extended, curled and waiting, joined by the familiar murmur of my name. I pulled back, refusing the jaded caress and ignoring the cloying softness.

You can’t hold the blade unless I let you, and I was ready to snatch it back.

Our gazes clashed and for once it was you who couldn’t stare back.

My child’s voice broken by months of maybes and sobs you didn’t deserve now lashed out with stinging truths and long-awaited questions that stumped your ready mouth.

The tree never recognizes the wood of the axe that slices at its trunk.

You’d failed to see I had roots of my own. You never noticed the rings of life curling through my trunk.

Our branches had been tangled for too long. I was done waiting for the wind to set me free.

And when you saw how firmly I was planted it was you who took the fall.

The scars will no longer be for you. The pain has changed and so has the cure. I am alone but I am free.
No one’s branches protect me but my own. I’ve learned what it feels like to be safe.

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