Breaking Up With Both A Person And A Place
When we lived in a co-op with 32 other people, my girlfriend and I were deeply in love. But some relationships work because they work, and some relationships work because of context — and our relationship was the latter.
The community of queer women in Harvard’s class of 2014 was tight — almost claustrophobically so. By the time senior year rolled around, every Saturday night party organized by the Queer Students and Allies or outing to see Mary Lambert/Janelle Monáe/Andrea Gibson perform in Boston brought with it the likelihood of bumping into my ex, my ex’s ex, or my best friend’s ex.
Awkward turtles abounded. Sometimes I would double check with a mutual friend before going to see if a certain person I really didn’t want to run into would be there. Sometimes I just went, because Mary Lambert is worth certain sacrifices.
After one particularly difficult breakup junior year, I moved into the Dudley Cooperative House to rekindle my relationship with food. If there’s one thing I’ve come to know about myself, it’s that my stomach and my broken heart don’t mix. Food nauseates me when I am anxious. The way to get around that is to put myself in the way of deliberately positive kitchen spaces — to let food be a refuge, a source of community.
I was one of 32 undergrads living in the house. We did all our own cooking and cleaning together and rotated chores on a biweekly basis. There was a walk-in fridge full of vegetables and more dried garbanzo beans than we ever had time to cook in one semester. I learned how to make bread, to soak kidney beans, and how to have difficult conversations about things like music volume and the type of cheese that we ordered in bulk.
Senior fall, I started to date one of my housemates. She lived one floor below.
We had voiced attraction to each other the summer before but didn’t act on it — then she moved in. I bumped into her for the first time since summer break when I was wrapped only in a towel en route to the shower, and then again in the kitchen as I made myself stir-fried veggies after rowing practice. We smiled and talked about our summers and made eye contact that lingered.
One week later we celebrated the new semester with the rest of our housemates at the mixer, a party that moves from room to room.
The night started with karaoke and margaritas on a ground floor bedroom with three walls covered in tin foil. Upstairs we wrote compliments for our 32 housemates on pieces of construction paper scotch-taped to our backs. Later we played life-size truth-or-dare Jenga with planks of wood (someone completed a naked lap outside the house), spun the bottle, and, finally, had a dance-off in the driveway that ended with a noise complaint from a neighbor.
The bottle didn’t spin in our direction, but my soon-to-be girlfriend and I lingered behind our housemates in the hallway and kissed.
I loved how living in the co-op gave us shared spaces for intimacy. When I was washing the dishes in our industrial-size kitchen, my girlfriend would come up behind me and slide her hands around my hips. I melted into the soap.
I looked forward to seeing her, to doing readings for class sitting next to each other in the alcove of sunlight near the front door. I loved sorting mail into her box when it arrived on the front stoop. On Sundays we made each other breakfast with heart-shaped slices of beetroot on top and, when the weather was nice, ate outside on the porch.
In the co-op I was part of a support system that could hold me, no matter how complex and messy I felt.
The kitchen became an intimate space that I looked forward to in particular. I was in love, and we were surrounded by 32 other complex, vibrant, alive people going about their own business of cooking and living and loving and crying and writing papers and solving problem sets. If I needed to vent, someone was there to listen.
In the co-op I was part of a support system that could hold me, no matter how complex and messy I felt.
One thick April afternoon, one of my housemates came into the dining room in tears — she and a long-term partner had just ended things. This housemate and I weren’t particularly close, but the three of us who happened to be in the room at the time leapt into action. One housemate gave her a hug; the other brought a pillow and stroked her hair. I went to the kitchen to make a pot of rooibos tea to share.
“Keep on crying for as long as you need,” my housemate said. “We’re here for you.”
This is what community looks like. We give and we receive — food and advice and stories.
Graduation came and went.
The birth-to-college map I had followed for so long burned into pieces. After all these years of structure, what was next?
The cooperative house community dispersed. My former housemates moved into apartments with significant others in Somerville, Massachusetts, or went on to finance jobs in New York City or to tech paradise in San Francisco. My girlfriend and I accepted the same free housing gig in a cinder-block building in Harvard Law School. We shared a kitchen and several bathroom stalls with a hallway full of astrophysicists, none of whom I got to know by name. Our job was to hand out sheets and towels and to be on call if anyone locked themselves out of the building.
My girlfriend and I stopped kissing in the kitchen — there wasn’t any space, and what if one of the astrophysicists walked in? When one of us had a bad day at work, we would come home to a conversation with a support network of one, rather than a support network of 32. There’s only so much that one person can do.
Early on in the relationship, I held my lover in my arms and let myself imagine the sweet forevers — the apartment with a tomato vine on the windowsill — grad school, family Thanksgivings, our lives intertwined. We could tell the story of how we met as something certain, a well from which to draw buckets of comfort year after year: the perfect domestic bliss.
What happens when those forevers take flight into a Boston summer sunset, over the Copley building — gone?
I grew frustrated with her. We fought over mundane things, our voices staccato and an octave higher than usual. The cinder-block walls echoed our arguments.
Which was all a way of articulating:
I want a kind of love and safety and support that you cannot give.
Some relationships work because they work, and some relationships work because of context. Our relationship was the latter. Place determines the kinds of interactions you can have in that place. Outside of the cooperative house, outside of that temporary stability of senior year, we couldn’t be together.
Some relationships work because they work, and some relationships work because of context. Our relationship was the latter.
We broke up in a boil-over rage one Tuesday at 9 p.m.
So we’re breaking up, then. That’s it?
Teary and directionless, I walked outside and met an old friend. We climbed the steps of Widener Library and looked across the quadrangle of grass, purplish in the night, to the steps of Memorial Church. Convocation was held there some four years ago, back before we made a mess of things by loving one another. I didn’t know it then, but in a little more than a year, one of my rowing teammates would get married on those steps.
My friend put her head on my shoulder, her arm around my back. Her octopus tentacle earring dug into my clavicle, but I didn’t want to move. When I dried my eyes enough to look up, the clouds looked like little islands I could hop between.
Can I do this?
Love and safety and structure seemed as far away as those clouds.
For three arduous weeks, my ex and I were still living next door to each other. I stopped eating regularly because I was nervous that we would run into each other in the kitchen. Her eyes could kill.
People complimented me as I lost weight. I felt like I was disappearing. I didn’t want to disappear — I had just forgotten how to eat.
It is virtually impossible to hide from your millennial ex on the internet, but I did find refuge. I met up with 30-year-old queers who had nothing to do with my college through the Autostraddle Boston community. They too had survived heartbreaks. We went to Shakespeare in the Park and ate crackers with pesto while sitting on checkered blankets. I slept on their couches on the nights I wasn’t on call in the dreaded dorm building where my ex slept and ate. I house-sat for a travel writer and her orange cat.
I said goodbye to Boston.
“The key is first breathing onto the scoop of the utensil, darling.”
Lindy and I sat across from each other at a rickety table on her porch. Dense vines twined around the railings. The air was dense with Southern Hemisphere summer — February 2015. I cycled here from Auckland.
“Yes! Yes, that’s it.”
The spoon adhered to my nose for half a second before falling to the porch floor. I picked it up and tried again.
It is virtually impossible to hide from your millennial ex on the Internet.
“Breathe a little more condensation onto it next time.”
Lindy took a deep sip of lemongrass tea and exhaled, long and smooth into the afternoon.
“Lindy,” I ask, “how did you and Murray meet?”
She paused, teaspoon in hand, and closed her eyes while she stuck the spoon to her nose. “At a Shakespeare meet-up, dear. Friends of friends introduced us. It was only a few years ago.”
Lindy and Murray grow fruit together on the outskirts of Whanganui, New Zealand, and distill the sweetness into kefir. Their love for each other seeps through the trees.
I gave Lindy a botched history of my own love life, because that is what you do while learning to carry a spoon on your nose. “Being a queer woman among a small community of queer women at university brings its own set of messes. It’s a relief to be so far away from all that now.”
Lindy’s spoon finally clattered to the table. We both laughed.
“It’s not a failure to end a relationship when it's its time to end,” Lindy said, matter-of-factly. “The failure is in not learning something from that. And you loved! That itself is something worth celebrating.”
My favorite question to ask couples: “How did you meet?"
Gorgeous stories bubble to the surface: “Drunk at a bar... she was stuffing french fries into a keyhole." "Our friends introduced us and it just fit." "We sat down at a restaurant and realized that we both wanted a family, that we were done with dating.”
Two love stories are never the same.
August 2015: I rode my bicycle to the grocery store in a coastal town in Queensland, Australia, to buy an avocado.
I was about to swing my leg over the top tube when a blonde woman with a Canadian accent smiled and said, “Hey, you must be on a big bike tour!”
Five minutes later I rode to her house. We stayed up late sharing stories of water births and woke up mid-morning to tend the garden, mounding dirt over potato sprouts.
We rode our bikes to a wildlife reserve and parked by a tree to walk. The path wound through a paperbark forest surrounded by swamp. Our steps covered wooden planks and stepping stones — tall cylinders of concrete — that would be almost submerged in the wet season. That August the ground was dry, dry. There was less than a foot of rainwater in the tank. We took short showers.
“Twenty years ago, I traveled from Canada to Osaka to work as a ski instructor and English teacher,” Peg said to the trees. “I lived in a 13th-floor apartment in the city. One day I opened the door and stared straight into the most gorgeous blue eyes attached to the most gorgeous man I have ever seen.”
That guy was Pete, who later said that when he saw Peg, his tongue rolled out across the floor and he had to roll it back up again before he could talk to her.
Pete had a dream two years before this chance meeting on the 13th floor. In his dream a woman was walking down the beach with a child in each hand. When he saw Peg, he knew that she was that woman.
In October 2014, the morning I left Los Angeles for Fiji, I opened up my Facebook feed. One of my rowing teammates from university, who's now in medical school, is getting married. The groom? Her lacrosse-playing boyfriend, who will soon join the Army. In their photos they look like Barbie and Mr. Athletic Savior of Our Nation. Their photos were taken on the very steps where I mourned my heartbreak last July.
My teammate is 23. My mom gave birth to me when she was 24. My best friend’s mom was married at 23.
I am 23.
Why would someone voluntarily commit to an early onset of domesticity?
For a millisecond, I was painfully jealous. I long, sometimes, for domestic stability. The longing creeps up at odd moments: when I am cycling under a viaduct in New Zealand or setting up the tent I now call home.
Here I am, floating on two tires of air, learning to love myself in motion.
I want a tomato plant. I want a sunny porch. I want four walls and a lover to come home to. I want a landline telephone and Boston snow.
To still want these things is terrifying. I am a solo female touring cyclist. I define myself in motion. I am tethered to no one but myself. I don’t want to get married. I want to be the peripatetic person, the writer, I am becoming.
My longing for the stability of a home, a garden, and a relationship is, in the end, half-baked. Domesticity is something I do desire slightly, but not enough to follow the map.
A year and a half ago I broke up with a person and a place at the same time. The finality of ending things — with my girlfriend, with a city I love — set me free.
After all this time, I’m learning to let myself yearn. I’m learning that unresolved yearnings are a truth of human life. I burned my maps, and I have more regrets, possibly, than I would if I had followed them. Burning a map opens me to more feeling, not less. But that’s OK, isn’t it? Pain is livable.
I burned my maps in search of wonder, in search of the world’s wild beauty. And here I am, floating on two tires of air, learning to love myself in motion. I am alive in the mess of being — free in the grasp of the unknown.