Ten years ago, in December, two days before my senior thesis was due (my intellectual baby, if you will), my long-distance boyfriend of four and a half years came up to visit. I had spent all day cleaning my dad’s house for his arrival. I had birthday presents prepped. I dressed up, thinking we’d go out to a bar where my college friend worked, have a drink, maybe see a movie.
Instead, he walked through the door and dumped me. “Can’t this wait until after Christmas?” I asked, stunned, although I’m pretty sure my eyes flicked over to my senior thesis, which was still open on my computer screen. (Look, I have always had my priorities.)
Hadn’t I known this was coming? he had asked.
No, I told him. It was true. We had not been getting along as well as usual, but I thought it was growing pains: he had just graduated from college and moved out of his parents’ home. He was looking at graduate programs and trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. His parents’ marriage was failing in some massive ways, and it was negatively affecting him and his brothers.
This started a multi-month depression in which, to say the least, it was hard to function like a normal person. December holidays were a nightmare. New Year’s involved ill-advised karaoke, too much to drink, and trying not to look at my ex’s MySpace and Facebook profiles. (He declared himself “single” devastatingly quickly.)
There were bright spots: I graduated summa cum laude as an “outstanding undergraduate” of my school, I walked in the ceremony with friends I still treasure today, I had honors cords (I got that goddamn A+ on my senior thesis: come hell, high water, or really poorly-timed breakup), and my best friend of now-twenty years came to visit. I got into law school and found out I was moving to San Francisco, the city of my family history and childhood dreams.
And still, I remember thinking that this was the end of my life as I knew it.
It was. I’m glad.
These days, I frequent a few internet forums, which focus on drawing firm boundaries with people, including and especially family, and demanding respect. Part of it is the joy of pure drama: your overbearing in-laws did what?! Part of it fuels my obsessive need to prepare for handling any interpersonal situation that may require a firm hand and polite smile. That shit takes practice, and I have been socialized to be a Nice Girl with Good Manners. Sometimes saying “no” is revolutionary.
Over the past few days, a twenty-year-old girl with a story similar to mine has been posting, asking for advice. Her ex-boyfriend has an emotionally abusive mother; he dumped the girlfriend when she started pointing out the mother’s, er, “quirks.” She’s 20, she’s heartbroken, she wants him to see the abuse and appreciate her for who she is. And it needs to be now.
Oh, honey, I wanted to say to her. It’s so clear to me that her boyfriend is okay with being who he is, and who he is is not who she wants him to be. I want to tell her that I remember sobbing on the phone to my mother, asking how I could ever love someone again, how could I love them the same way, how would anything ever be okay again. I remember my mother sighing and saying, “Well, you will. It doesn’t seem like it now, but you will. You’re mourning the death of a dream more than the relationship itself.” She was intellectually believable, even if I still thought that you might as well wrap me up in some Miss Havisham garb and let the cobwebs form over my presumptive wedding cake. At 22.
I had no idea.
What I did tell this girl was: it’s hard. It’s so hard. I can tell you all the things that come of time and experience, and maturity, but you’re not going to believe me or grasp that now. It’s too fresh. So for now, do the things that you’ve been meaning to do. Do the things he wouldn’t have approved of. Do something you’re afraid of. Do something alone.
All these little experiences will fill time, until it’s a year, two years, five. Pretty soon, it will be ten years later, and you won’t count your months by the time it’s been since you were dumped. Before you know it, you’re going to grow into the person you were always meant to be. Before you know it, ten years will have passed, and you will sit back and think, oh, but I have lived.
Ten days ago, I won a backstage pass to hang out with She Wants Revenge, one of my favorite bands, period (and incidentally, a band whose first album was the soundtrack of that breakup, but also to my first wild and wanton years in San Francisco).
I was sitting there, listening to sound check (and taking notes for a specific manuscript I have percolating, one involving rock bands, 1990s San Francisco, and the joy of getting the fuck out of the Central Valley), and I took a second to really soak it all in.
I asked them to sign my research notebook, in the hopes that their dark dirty songwriting magic will rub off on my own writing. They did. I talked to a 21-year-old girl in a bar who was going to the same show I was, who loves the band too. (Also, she was tipsy, but she also thought I was “no older than 26,” which I will happily accept.) I took my mother, who has loved SWR as long as I have and who drove up 3.5 hours, to the show the next day.
For the last ten years, I have lived in San Francisco, less than a mile from the ocean. I went to law school and I passed the Bar on the first try. I research history and read books and go to rock concerts by myself and my network of friends has expanded beyond my wildest expectations. I get to call myself a writer, because that’s what I do. This is all I ever wanted, and in many ways, it is more.
I want to tell this girl, life is so much more than your relationships. Life is so much more than waiting for unhealthy people to get with the program. Life is too short to wait for unhealthy people to get with the program. Live for yourself.
But she won’t hear it. How can she? The hurt is too fresh.
I want to tell myself at 22, if you thought life was interesting before, if you thought you had a plan for how it should be: it’s about to get so much better. All these things that I have done: these are the makings of a life. A real life.
But I wouldn’t have heard it. How could I? The hurt was too fresh.
I would not trade the whispers of what I wanted at 22 for the reality of my life at 32.
Maybe I have to thank that boyfriend for dumping me.