It’s a lesson you sometimes have to learn more than once: the first time after it ends – even if it’s just a kiss – usually hurts. Sometimes it feels to me like the months after the dissolution of a relationship are just a series of false starts; kissing the wrong people, becoming briefly and powerfully invested in people who don’t really care about you, and who deep down you know are just your own attempts at distraction. I still remember crying on New Year’s Eve seven months after I broke up with my first serious boyfriend, moaning that a year before I had been so in love, and now that version of me was a stranger. I felt unmoored, alone in a way I had never felt before being in – and then no longer in – a couple. It didn’t matter that I had broken up with him, nor that I had slept with and semi-dated two other people since. That night, I was waiting for a boy who only wanted something “casual” to text me, “Happy New Year,” and somewhere out there was the boy I’d once loved, now an island rendered inaccessible as I floated in the endless sea of my own self.
In May, the person I’ve most loved (so far) broke up with me. I keep wondering how long it’s okay to feel hurt, and when I need to pull myself together and decide to just be okay. I wonder too if I haven’t fallen for anyone else because of the pandemic and all the ways that complicates meeting people, or if instead it’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with me, some way that I don’t know how to exist in my own skin that renders me unlovable. I still live in the house where I lived with him. Some mornings, I even attend my zoom lectures from his former bedroom – an emotionally complicated experience where I feel at turns amusement that no one looking at the background of my screen knows I’ve had sex on every visible surface, and at other moments a sense of deep claustrophobia and anxiety that makes my breath catch when I unmute to speak. I feel constantly that I could run into him in the hall or that it will be him who walks in when the door to my bedroom opens. I feel insecure and watched, uncertain how to exist in a space where my sense of self was so wrapped up in another person, in being his.
Towards the end of summer when people were just trickling back into Ithaca and cases were low, I went on a date with a friend I’d slept with a couple times a year earlier. We watched the sunset and ate vegan edibles and then walked home in the dark. The lamppost light was soft and almost sensual, leaves casting lace shadows over the pavement. It felt like any other beginning of the year, any night I could’ve walked home with a person who wasn’t the person but was enough for the moment. I almost forgot about the pandemic and the weight of my broken heart. Again, my life felt full of possibility. We stopped on a bridge and kissed. Her lips were soft, her hand slipping under the strap of my overalls, murmuring “I like this spot” as her fingers found the place my shirt ended. It wasn’t amazing. I felt, as I had felt before with her, not fully relaxed or comfortable. I didn’t plan on a second date. We hugged goodbye at the end of my street.
Seeing my house looming in front of me, my heart began to pound. I walked in and slowly climbed the stairs. I realized then I wasn’t pleasantly high, but deeply, profoundly baked. Upstairs, my friends gathered around me like little moths. I looked at the photos on my walls, all the friend’s I’d had since high school, oblique references to relationships past and felt a mounting sense of dread. Each version of myself and of my life seemed like the wool arms of a sweater – any moment, any love or hurt I chose, I could easily fit myself back into. There was no moving on that could bring with it any sense of permanence. Each object in my room seemed so small, and I was the tiniest of them all, a paper doll to be wettened by rain or blown away in the breeze. I thought of the girl I’d kissed earlier, and water seemed to rush in my ears. I couldn’t believe his were no longer the last lips I’d felt, perhaps never would be again. My skin grew overheated and flushed, so my friends and I went and stood on the porch. Again, the night looked full of possibility, like it could so easily be another year or moment, but this time the feeling came with fear. I knew that no matter how much time had gone by, if he came back, it would be in my heart as if he had never left.
I managed to keep it together until everyone except my roommate went to bed. I let on that I was feeling anxious and sad, and she held me against her in my bed. Lying beside her, I remembered things I’d tried to bury: being in his arms and thinking for the first time, I understood a sliver of what my parents felt holding onto one another, like all the world could keep turning around me, but he and I would remain a still-point. I felt like I had cheated on him, though I knew he too would kiss other people. I felt like I had betrayed my past self, the version of me that couldn’t imagine loving or being with someone after him — though I am a realist in this way, and never really doubted that I would. I felt a dual sense of being estranged from the person I was with him, and like that version of me was breathing against my neck, lurking in the shadows and reminding me I hadn’t moved forward but also couldn’t go back.
I like to write pieces that empower me or feel empowering to others, like to end on a note of strength or ability to move forward. But I’m not sure, this time, how to do that. I still feel like I’m hanging in a forever holding period. Since that night, I’ve kissed one other person and it was definitely better, but everything still feels like a series of brief and false starts, and I don’t know when or how I will meet the next person I love. I wish there was a magic incantation for moving on, for learning to throw myself into being with myself the way I throw myself into being with others. I wish I were better at believing in the possibilities my life still holds. Maybe, though, if nothing else, I can choose to be kinder to this version of myself as I wait for whatever comes next.
e.e. Cummings is a student at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to email@example.com. Sex on Thursday runs every Thursday this semester.