March 22, 2019 | Narrative
the other side of heartbreak
By the time I was 12, I’d been dubbed a late bloomer. And it was true: I was late to my birth, late to shedding 60 pounds of “puppy fat,” and certainly late to most events before 9 a.m. But in the age of Tinder, Bumble, and countless other apps, which all my friends had joined months ago, I was—and as a 20-year-old, still am—also late to experiencing love. I won’t say I’m “incapable of love.” I’m too young to make judgments like that. I do know, however, that I am bad at love. And, as a general rule, I don’t like doing things that I am bad at.
I came to this realization when I first started dating. I’d met him when I was just 15. Our story was something out of a Disney movie: We met at a mutual friend’s New Year’s party, hit it off, became best friends, and then started dating. And I was excited to have my first boyfriend. Really. I saw him as a rite of passage, my path to womanhood. I could finally join my friends as they grumbled about their boyfriends through hangovers from the many drinks they’d downed to forget them. Only it didn’t work out that way.
My boyfriend gave me little to grumble about. He was the type of boy who makes every other guy look bad. He wrote me songs. He held my hand. And when I told him Valentine’s Day made me nauseous and that I didn’t expect any gifts, he gave me a Friday the 13th present the night before. It was a maneuver so clever that I didn’t have the heart to decline the stuffed teddy bear he handed me.
So yes, nothing to grumble about.
Or so I thought. But around a month into the relationship—which lasted, astonishingly, an entire 15 months—I began to reconsider. Was he really what I wanted? Did I even like him?
These thoughts scared me. As a person who’d always been so certain of herself, it was terrifying to feel unsure about such a central aspect of my life. I mean, the boy was friends with all of my friends. If I broke up with him, he’d take most of my social circle with him, because if I was the one to break up with him, I’d be the bad guy. That was just the way high-school politics worked where I lived. So I swallowed my feelings for months, trying to ignore the growing pit in my stomach every time he leaned in.
I’d grown up hearing unique truisms like “Love is a fart; if you force it, it’s probably going to be shit”—but I was stubborn (or stupid) enough to try anyway. Over time, though, I began to question exactly how much of our relationship had been fueled by peer pressure. I came to realize that the answer exceeded an acceptable amount. My mother had always told me I was one of those people who was born to be alone. This statement used to offended me. But the deeper into my relationship I got, the more the truth began to strike me. For me, my first boyfriend had been just that: my first boyfriend. A coming-of-age landmark, a social checkmark in my list of things to accomplish.
More than anything, his love had felt like an obligation to me: a shop full of china so fragile it could hardly help crumbling under my bulls’ horns. While we were dating, no one of the opposite sex even seemed to exist to my boyfriend, but my eyes strayed frequently. Of course, I never acted on those impulses; the sheer principle of the matter forbade me from doing so. And when he wanted to hold my hand during movies, I could only focus on how clammy his felt. In fact, when he told me he loved me, I sometimes felt like crying. I spent months unable to look my reflection in the eye.
“If you don’t like him, then stop leading him on,” my friends told me. If only it were that simple. They were in love with their boyfriends, despite their grumbling. They couldn’t possibly understand. I couldn’t just look my boyfriend in the eyes and utter the magic words that would set myself free.
It took me 15 months to work up the courage I needed. And when I did, I was on the wrong side of the breakup—socially, at least. Emotionally, he was a wreck. And sure, my friends outright stopped inviting me to places, but at least I didn’t cry myself to bed like I did while I was dating him.
“He deserved better,” my best friend told me before ending our friendship. And what could I do but shrug? She wasn’t wrong. When I saw him with another girl soon after, I wanted to feel jealousy, rage—anything in the spectrum of emotions that would be considered “normal” for a teenage girl in my shoes. Instead, I was happy for him: He deserved the world. More than anything, I struggled with my feelings of apathy.
I didn’t want to feel apathetic. I wanted to feel pain, I wanted a love so consuming that it would set my soul on fire just like it did in those old Hollywood movies my parents liked to watch. I’d never thought the most painful part of my first relationship would be my guilt. That relationship weighed on me in so many ways. But none of his friends knew any of that. All they saw were the tear stains on his cheeks, and that was enough to earn me the title of “heartbreaker.”
Looking at the experiences I’ve had since then, I’d say I’m pretty bad at love. And, like I said before, I don’t like doing things I’m bad at, so until I figure it out, love is pretty much off the table. It’s just not a priority right now, and probably won’t be for some time. Despite the social pressure to date that I face from my friends and family, I don’t think I need to date to be happy with myself. Until further notice, I’m fine with having “commitment issues.”