Boxes labelled dangerous
The next step in a process that never ends
Do not open
I saw my ex as soon as I walked into the Starbucks. She was sitting at a table outside, talking to some person. I didn't acknowledge her. I guess you could say I was pretending I didn't see her, but it's more than a semantic difference. If she had spoken to me, I wouldn't have said, "Oh, I didn't see you." In any case, she didn't speak to me. We sat in such a way that I was in her line of sight and I know she saw me. Even if I wasn't sure that humans just aren't that oblivious to the presence of people we recognize all too well, she had to pass directly in front of me to leave, and when she did, the way she power walked out of the room, determinedly facing forward, it was clear she was deliberately not acknowledging me either. Or pretending she didn't see me.
There was a part of me that wanted to stop and ask her, what do you feel about what you did? Of all the breakups I've had in my life, the one with hers was the worst, and I've had some nasty breakups. While other girlfriends did hurtful things, and I did stupid and hurtful things that I later came to feel horrible about, in most of my breakups there wasn't much lack of honesty. Most twisted truths were quickly exposed, explained, and explored. If anything, in most of my breakups, there was a surplus of honesty, saying too much, digging up feelings best left unexplored. With this woman, and this will sound like hyperbole for effect but it isn't, she literally went from convincing me she truly loved me and wanted to be only with me to deciding to be with another man in the space of about an hour. Committing that description to writing, it sounds extreme to the point where you would have to suspect that it must have been obvious at the time that such fickle feelings could not possibly go undetected. It was real though, and it was made possible by a slow process of weeks and months towards that moment, so that the context was that I believed her entirely right up to the very moment she went and betrayed that belief entirely. Whether it was a lie, a betrayal, a fickle change, or whatever, I don't know, but the results for me were the same. It made me question if you could ever be secure about another's feelings after discovering that someone can express something to you with their eyes that isn't in their heart.
It was a truly shitty thing for one human being to do to another, which actually made it easier to move on from her. With most of my other bad breakups, usually in retrospect I would reflect on my actions and slowly come to realize that I had done some stupid, selfish, insecure things that created the circumstances that were ultimately the core cause of the end of the relationship. I would go from blaming the other to realizing the faults were my own. With this woman, though, the process was reversed. The level of my devastation on the night she made her choice is something I don't know if I can ever put into words. It wasn't actually the last time I saw her, but it was the killing blow, and everything after that was just bleeding. But, as intense as the heartache that I physically felt in my gut was, I had a route out.
Not that this was the one time I didn't deserve a lot of blame. The reality is that I should have left her months, if not a full year earlier before we reached that point. The romantic side of me would like to say that it was love that kept me in it, and, sure, that was a part of it. But I'd be lying if I denied the part of me that was just weak and afraid of being alone. There were many times when I felt things had gone too far, and I said I couldn't take it, and I turned to walk away, but then turned right back again. With my back to her I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff from which I'd fall eternally, without anyone to ever catch me. She also tried to break up with me many times, and I would persist my way into keeping the relationship going. Ultimately, I lacked a lot of self value, and so I helped set myself up for the fall.
That was the kind of thing I thought a lot about following the final breakup, going over this reason and that reason for why my own failings as a person were the cause of my suffering. But...
This time was different from other breakups. No matter how I went around it, no matter how many ways I could criticize myself, I could not avoid the fact that she wasn't blameless. Quite the opposite. For my side of things, I might be responsible for my feelings, but she is responsible for her actions. No matter the perspective I take, the way she handled the decision to go the way she did, her actions that one night, were just wrong. I can imagine all sorts of motivations for why she might have gone the way she did, from outright evil to innocently flawed, but no matter how you cut it, she's as responsible for hurting another human the same way a person who impulsively pulls a gun during a fight is responsible for the lasting effects when it goes off. Whether manslaughter or murder, for maybe the only time in my life, I ultimately realized, in spite of all my usual instincts to go the opposite way, that my anger at the person I had broke up with was justified. That I was genuinely better off without someone who either lacked the understanding or morality to act better than that.
Which helped me move on, as much as you do. When I was around twenty, I asked my friend Linda, a generation older than me, if I was going to regret every breakup I had and would have. She told me then that every relationship becomes part of you, and in their own way will shape you. I've since learned how right she was. I'm never going to have zero feeling or opinion about any of my exes, but you do get to a point where the memories crystallize into lessons, and you can choose to be damaged or improved by them. In this case, I thought about how I held on too long because I had a low sense of my own value, and that needed to change so I wouldn't get into similar situations.
Improved by the experience and secure in the knowledge that I was justified in thinking of her as having failed to act with common human decency in a critical time, I felt like I was beyond her. And then I saw her face, ever so slightly changed by the years but unmistakeably her, and I felt like shit. Somehow she was a trigger for feeling something similar to how I felt before all the evolution since. The night just before I saw her, I was having sushi with two good friends, and I was telling them how well things were going for me. While each of them had revealed some challenges they were facing at that time, from existential to practical, when I was asked how I was doing, I had nothing I really needed to go into. We laughed that I was boring for having everything going so well. Twelve hours later I see this face from my past and somehow all that reality of my life becomes bullshit.
While she was sitting within view, there was a certain anxiety, a hint of the fight or flight reflex, as it's not known if one of us might say or do anything. I think we were in that state for about twenty minutes. I'm pretty sure she was having her own reactions, because there was the frame of a screen door between us, and I don't think it's just happenstance that she kept herself continually positioned behind it in a way that our eyes couldn't meet. That low level anxiety kept any more revelatory thoughts from surfacing, but as soon as she left, I started to suddenly feel like my life was pathetic. Somehow, her life must be all rosy, with everything going more perfectly than any human I have ever known in my entire life to have ever been able to achieve. And by contrast, my life is full of meaningless drivel, successes that are a little sad because of the way I cherish them, a lack of having progressed in any meaningful way since I knew her, and delusional that I even have a path in front of me.
What bothered me most about the whole thing was that I was bothered. More than anything else, it was frustrating to know that in spite of all evidence and conviction to the contrary, I could be made to feel otherwise because something more visceral inside me just says fuck you to what I know, and hands me a non-negotiable contract on what I'm going to feel. I know the feelings are completely irrational and will subside, but I resent them while they take up residence in me.
One of my best friends, Diana, happened to call me shortly after my ex left the room, telling me she was in the area, so she stopped by for a chat, which helped me get right into the process of getting over this sting to my heart from the past. By next morning, and many online and offline conversations with friends, I'm totally over it. Just a reflexive stumble in a path forward to a better life with better people. All good, except... I know that if I leave it at this, the next time I happen to see her around, at that next completely unanticipatable time and place, I'm going to feel the same way. I know this in part because I saw her one other time, a year or more previous to this, just passing on the street, and I felt largely the same. From that time to this time, not much seems to have changed. The feelings aren't going away on their own, they're just sitting there for whenever they get triggered.
All my friends advised that it's normal to feel something when you see an ex, and that I shouldn't beat myself up for having feelings, with more than a few of them pointing out that I tend to treat my feelings like an unwelcome condition that is unrealistic for me to expect to manage. However, it's not that I want to be without feelings, it's that I want to know exactly what it is my feelings are trying to tell me. I believe that negative feelings are just one point on a compass trying to give you direction. Just as positive feelings generally guide you forward, negative feelings are giving you as much guidance by telling you what you need to move away from. Feelings don't use words, but they are no less a communication from inside of me. If I can listen clearly to what they say, then maybe I can be a little better off. I don't expect I would ever feel completely nothing when seeing this ex, but, I do think I can get to a place where I don't question my whole life just because she happens to not have conveniently died so that I would never have to see her again.
After that day, I get introspective, trying to see if I can figure out what need is not being met, what fear might be having its screams stifled, what illusions I might be unwittingly indulging. I go over a mental inventory of what made her so special to me, what had me loving her so much, and if I'm missing something that only she provided. Thinking it through, I find my memories had become an unordered collection of images and impressions. I can remember us walking around the top of Roppongi Hills being completely happy, but I have no idea if that memory is from the happier times or if it was just an oasis in times when things were turning to shit. Even when things were going really wrong, there was enough happiness to fuel hope. It's hard to think through why you are, or were, so compatible with someone. In many ways, it seems that the more you can tangibly list reasons why you like someone, the less genuine it is. Shouldn't love be more amorphous than two people having definably similar attitudes, like, for example, about diet and exercise?
Just as I'm having trouble delineating the qualities about her that I had cherished, I'm having trouble defining the sentiments that have soured into hurt. As I turn over each new memory in my mind, at first I feel twinges of pain. Sometimes it's from remembering something obviously hurtful, like specific moments I discovered she had been lying about who she was with. Other moments sting because they're fond memories and the echo of their absence reverberates painfully. I decide that I need to confront these feelings head on, because recent evidence indicates trying to bury them does not work. As I do so, I discover that each time I steel myself to fall into a pit of uncomfortable memories, the feelings instead dissipate into nothing too important. It's as if I was opening boxes of feelings, with big warning labels on them saying the contents were too painful to revisit. But, opening them anyway, I discovered the warning label was all that remained. What I have is an overall vague notion that memories of her should be uncomfortable, but aren't.
I now see that there is another stage to the methodology of breaking up with someone that I don't know if I should be happy that I'm getting pretty good at. In the time since breaking up with her, at a certain point, it was the healthy choice to just forget about her and go on to other things. I put my feelings into a box that I shelved somewhere in the back of my mind. But that box, quarantined from the rest of me, sat there like a landmine, good memories mixed in with shrapnel of painful feelings. As a person I moved on, making the causes of the retained hurt less and less relevant, while still preserving the hurt itself in amber.
The way to stop that isolated hurt from remaining is to have no box. The time is past due to expose every page of the scrapbook within to the sunlight of where I stand now. There were some really uncomfortable things in there, but I was determined to confront the most painful memories I could stand. I talked about them with friends, I mulled them over in private, and was kind of surprised at how hollow they felt. At first I thought maybe I just wasn't able to capture an elusive emotional core, so I'd press harder into the memories, but I'd find there was no emotional core. Like many fears, the threats were worse than the realizations. Within days, I got bored of thinking about it.
Once I recognized that I had created for myself an empty box of hurt that had no rational causation because the relevancy had departed, I realized I had set myself up to fall prey to a standard cognitive fallacy. My brain, like all human brains, when faced with feelings without a definite source, will retroactively find a cause. My brain knows two things, that I saw her, and that I feel bad. When it tries to determine why seeing her feels bad, it can't find anything immediately obvious about why she should be a cause of hurt, so it looks around for other possible causes. What I do have are some worries about what I'm doing with my life. Who doesn't? So my brain attaches those concerns to the negative feelings, and constructs a narrative about how it must be comparing her life to mine. My rational brain wants to point out that I don't know, or care, what her life is like and it's irrelevant to the life I had just been telling my friends I was happy with anyway, but that part of my brain is too slow. The feelings have already decided I feel sad, and it takes a little under a day for me to recover from a bout of emotional food poisoning.
Next time I see her, I think it'll still be awkward. Let's face it, there just aren't any good social protocols for this kind of situation. So, on the surface, it'll look a lot like the last time we were within a few metres of each other. I'll just act as if she is no different than any other stranger, and she'll probably do the same. And that's fine by me. Without any boxes to be opened, she's just one of a category of people that happen to be on the same planet as me that I don't need in my world.
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