A few weeks ago I flew to the deserts of Arizona and Utah to meet the girl that I had been in a tumultuous, on and off, transatlantic relationship with for the better part of 2 years.
We were going to road trip from Phoenix, up into Utah to see Monument Valley and Zion National Park. The trip would cover over 1200 miles, taking us from Airbnb to Airbnb, from desert hike to desert hike. Everything we had planned was supposed to be beautiful and I just wasn't excited about going.
A few days before I headed to SFO for my flight, someone asked me if I was looking forward to the week. I gave an overly honest answer and they quickly changed the subject.
No, I'm not looking forward to the trip. I'm actually sort of dreading it.
I had this feeling that she and I were going to drive all over the deserts of Arizona and Utah together, and that by the end of the week our we would no longer be.
I was born in the desert, and although I live in San Francisco now, when I return to the desert I feel at home. But the desert is harsh and some things can't survive there. Our relationship turned out to be one of those things.
She and I met a few years ago at a conference in New York City. Neither of us had been there before, and so we walked around Manhattan till 4am talking and talking and never running out of things to say. It was one of those stories.
But at the end of the weekend, she had to fly home and so did I. Only she was from Europe and I was about to move from Austin to San Francisco. Our homes were very far apart.
Somehow without really trying, we stayed in touch despite the distance and time zones, fell in love and did a good job of getting on planes to see each other. Between the two of us, there was something on the order of 12-13 flights in the past couple of years.
If there was one constant in my life since moving to San Francisco, she had been it.
But things between us hadn't been right in 6 months and as I boarded my flight I couldn't shake the feeling that something horrible was about to happen.
We got there and the hikes were beautiful. The drives were fantastic. That part of the planet is amazing. But we fought every day, and I ended up doing my best to sleep on the couch most nights. When we would talk, I could feel the emotional distance separating us.
Looking back, I can see that things were broken going into the trip, and a week on the road wasn't enough time to fix everything. I knew that in my heart, but I suppose I had been stubbornly hanging onto a dying love I believed I could revive if I tried hard enough.
But with each mile we drove it was unraveling, and by the end of the week I knew it was time to call it.
We spent our last morning together crying and holding each other as we slowly, tearfully shattered the glass surrounding each other's hearts. Breaking them. Hurting ourselves and one another in an effort to put an end to a love that I couldn't sustain on my own anymore.
I cried because I knew that I didn't have anything else to give. I had run out of strength. I'd spent months, knuckles white, holding it together, and as I relaxed my grip, everything began to drift. I knew she was letting me slip away. And I wondered what I had been holding onto so very tight if I had been the only one holding on.
I felt the incredulous feeling when something that has defined so much of your life ends in a moment. You think, “I can't believe this is actually over.”
I took a shower, we packed our suitcases, washed the dishes in the AirBnB, and then I got back behind the wheel of our rented Jetta and hopped on the road.
We were in Southwest Utah outside of Zion. From there, I would drive the car down to Sedona, Arizona to drop her off with family she was meeting up with, and then drive myself to the absurdly named Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.
That day, I drove a total of 380 gorgeous post-breakup miles all the way from Southern Utah, past Grand Canyon, through Sedona, and back down into Phoenix. I'd get drunk at the airport bar before flying home.
After the tears that morning, you'd expect to ride in silence, but we really enjoyed the drive back down together. Maybe we were both in denial. Or maybe our brains were going to take a few more miles to catch up to our hearts. Or maybe that's a sign of the strength of the connection. I have no idea, I just know that while it wasn't a romantic week, those final miles we had together were incredibly easy.
As I walked through the airport, the emotion of what had happened wasn't hitting me at all, or maybe it was hitting me all at once. I couldn't tell, but I was disoriented. Was it that simple to just get on the plane and fly away?
After such a fissure, does life simply keep moving forward as if nothing happened?
The lack of emotion seemed too easy, and I wanted to make sure they stayed that way until I got home to San Francisco. Hello airport bar.
Ordinarily, I have a strict rule about not drinking for domestic flights. It's a waste of money and a bit desperate to require liquid courage in order to get on a plane for a few hours. And frankly, I like flying a lot.
But I made an exception at the Sky Harbor that night, and I like to think that the Sky Harbor was willing to turn a blind eye to my indiscretion. It surely understands the heartbroken travelers who pass through each day, and it passed no judgement as I saddled up to the bar, ordered a big salad, and proceeded to fill time and empty my glass.
In retrospect, I probably should have ordered something more substantial than the salad. Maybe I wanted to make one healthy choice that evening.
As I sat at the bar, I hoped that I would simply float all the way back to my apartment in San Francisco, crash land into my bed, pass out, sleep dreamlessly, and get up the next morning, and head to the office to start working without falling apart. There would be plenty of time to process later, but the last thing that I wanted was to break down at the airport.
It was much better to be a bit sloppy than to let the waterworks start just yet. There'd be plenty of time for that once I got home.
I figure that I'll be processing this relationship for a little while. I'd known her for close to 4 years, and a lot has happened in life since that night in Manhattan. What's more, a love story across a couple of continents and an ocean is, by definition, an epic. When things were good, nothing was better. When things were bad, it was downright ugly.
Some of the best things I'm most proud of in my life were a direct result of being with her. In particular, I'm proud of that when things got so rocky towards the end I refused to give up. I now know what it means to fight for someone, and I know what it means to refuse to let go of something beautiful.
But some of the worst things I've ever done and am most ashamed of happened in that relationship. It's very difficult to reconcile the two.
Frankly, I may never be able to reconcile everything that happened. Once things arrive at a certain level of broken, maybe it's impossible to mend them. People can heal on their own over time, but the scars of lost love will linger for us both.
After all, breakups are fucking painful, and there isn't much any of us can do about that. In the aftermath, there's a certain emptiness that must set in as we clear out the rooms of our hearts where we had made a place for the other. Taking down picture frames full of memories and putting things in storage or giving them away at a yard sale. Clearing things out to make room for what comes next. Hoping the next time is the last time we fill those rooms up with new memories.
Some mornings I've found myself lying in bed letting the emptiness wash over me. It's a strange feeling, my chest hollow and my mind empty, wondering what happens next and who I am now. I allow those moments to take over. I need to let the emptiness to be here now, and I know that as days pass I'll notice the emptiness begin to fill itself with something new.
Maybe for the first time in my life, I'm not afraid of feeling empty. Maybe the lack of fear is a kind of fullness in and of itself. All I can do is wait for the empty to run its course because there's nothing I can do to speed it up.
But while I wait, there are two things I can do.
I can be grateful for the time we had together, for what we meant to each other, and for what I've learned about love as a result. There's no sense in losing any of the good.
The second thing I can do is ask forgiveness, both from her and from myself. There is no fixing the broken love that in pieces stares back up at me. The only recourse is to apologize that I couldn't keep it safe, to ask for her forgiveness, to forgive her, and to forgive myself.
It's platitudinal to say "things don't always work out" when things cut you this deeply, but painful things like this really do happen and the only way I know how to move forward from the pain is to let go of all the anger and frustration and make sure I have nothing to regret. That means I have offer as much grace and forgiveness as I have to the whole situation. To her and to me. To the us that can never be.
I know it's over, and I don't think it's worth racking my brain to try and figure out why it didn't work. Sometimes things simply don't work out, and if there's one thing I've learned about pain it's that a lot of it is unavoidable. Because of my auto-immune disease, I learned a long time ago that every step of mine was going to be painful.
Asking why doesn't get me very far. And if I focused on the pain too much, I'd be distracted from the life that was unfolding in front of me.
And that life is still really beautiful.
On the one hand, my heart is broken and there are tears that need(ed) to be shed. And I'm only half of that equation. Somewhere a few thousand miles away, someone else is broken as well.
But there is so much to be grateful for. I know what love feels like, and I know what taking the next painful step forward feels like. Fortunately or unfortunately, I've gotten very good at taking that next step, no matter how painful it is. I know how to move on and take all the good with me.
I hope this will end up being the most painful breakup of my life.
If you read that the wrong way, it sounds a bit masochistic. I assure you it is not. I'm not hoping this breakup will be so painful it will make other breakups seem like an afternoon in the park. No, this breakup is already the most painful one that I've gone through, and my hope is that any (potential) future breakups will be much milder, or that I'll make my way onto a relationship that becomes permanent and doesn't rupture a pair of hearts again this same way.
In the meantime, I'm looking forward. And I'm asking for forgiveness.
I hate that as humans are capable of hurting each other this much.
I hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter
About Austin W. Gunter
Austin lives in San Francisco, practices Tai Chi, has rheumatoid arthritis, listens to a lot of loud music, and hosts a lot of dinner parties. He values connections, culture, and community. Austin is also the author of The Liberal Arts Techie. You can find the original of "The Story of a Breakup" and more of Austin's writing here
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