By DJ May
I once dated a man nicknamed “McLovin.” Yes, he bore an unfortunate resemblance to the “Superbad” character with the fake ID. What’s worse? He didn’t make up for the lack of good looks with a shimmering personality. He leaned sinister, wrapping me in wrought words intended to manipulate and coerce.
“He could argue a dog off a meat wagon,” his mother once said.
It was my first long-term relationship, my first attempt to make room for another silhouette beside mine. For more than four years we stayed together. I chalk the longevity up to long distance; he was much easier to miss than to be with.
But things came to their breaking point, as these things do.
It was a late spring day, just past our four-year anniversary. I sat on the floor of a mutual friend’s apartment in Philadelphia, crying silent streaky tears and flipping through my journal. I was ready to end things with McLovin, but I was scared of the confrontation. I’d tried to break up with him a time or two before and it never worked out like I’d planned. He’d always talked me out of it, and I couldn’t remember exactly how or why. It often felt like I was scuba diving blind, unsure if my popping ears meant I was swimming toward the light or even further into the cold depths.
As I recounted why I was so unhappy, I caught myself telling my friend things I didn’t mean, things I didn’t believe. Justifications for why I was wrong. Too sensitive, too emotional, too nit-picky, and too needy.
But my journal held scraps of truth. As I talked, I caught myself questioning my own memory, then scouring the little book for notes about dates gone sour, bitter arguments, complaints quashed ruthlessly by the guy I thought I loved. The entries started in my own voice--I could hear it in the words. By the end, I felt like I was reading someone else’s words entirely. I could pinpoint the lines where my thoughts morphed, as though wrapped in barbed wire, into the arguments McLovin had spouted to keep me there.
The barbed wire I’d twisted around myself by believing them.
But I could finally see the wire. With the help of my friend, I drew up talking points for breaking up with him. A concise list: I needed to be able to recite it without crying, without becoming too emotional. And I needed to be ready to walk away if McLovin started tightening the wire again. I rehearsed my brief speech three or four times with my friend serving as McLovin’s understudy. When I could get through the whole spiel without wavering, I knew I was ready.
I drove to the basement McLovin rented in his dad’s townhouse. I delivered my speech without stumbling, forcing myself to remain calm, even, unemotional. It took every iota of restraint I could summon. My hands shook, my breath was short and shallow, and my heartbeat thumped deep in my gut, like I’d just run three miles on a hundred-degree day. After I finished (wrent of emotion entirely) he looked up at me (placid and unperturbed).
“I was wondering when you were going to figure it out,” he said. “I don’t love you. I just didn’t want to be alone.”
I gathered my things and drove home, exhausted. The next day I looked in my closet and realized all my clothes were black, gray, navy—where was the color? Tried to find songs to listen to while walking the dog and realized all my playlists were sad—where was my pep, my spark, my verve? Over the next few weeks I purged outfits I bought because he thought they “slimmed” me; threw out the trinkets he’d given me that I’d never liked. I started listening to jazz, pop, upbeat bands like Metronomy, PREP, and Alabama Shakes. Perhaps I’d done too well to make room for his silhouette: it had overshadowed mine. How could I find my structure underneath the facade I let someone else install?
Whenever I questioned my memory of the affair, I read through my journal again: the repository of a thousand incidental conversations. Rants about how upset I was, infuriated with his behavior, frustrated with my spinelessness and indecision. And I noticed the lines again where my thoughts were distorted, where I twisted my own feelings to fit the narrative McLovin had crafted. I noticed all the moments where my hand disregarded the truth; it strayed from the pure, whimsical, and open and into something cloaked in camouflage, hiding.
My real thoughts were there the entire time, and I’d hidden them—for what? In reading my journal over again, I realized that I had been writing merely to vent. I wrote to quell anxieties, and compartmentalize fear and frustration so I could stomach the state of my life. The journal served as a kind of emotional dumpster: I moved the trash out, but it didn’t change any of the habits that generated it in the first place. But my exercise in self-reflection on that living room floor in Philadelphia cosmically shifted my perspective.
I did not have to write simply to squash my feelings. I did not have to swallow the lines I had been fed for years. I did not have to confuse meager words unbacked by action with true partnership and commitment anymore.
Instead, I could use my written memory to craft lists, guiding my conversations and steering my visions for the future. In writing down what I wanted from my relationship—and the reasons I needed to end the one I was in—I discovered immense power.
I felt like a geode, cracked to reveal crystals. I could write to unveil, not obfuscate. I could construct instead of tear down. I could use a pen and paper to grow instead of hide.
It was time to answer: how will I sketch the shape of my life?
Will she be curvy, resplendent in robes of satin and unexpected glints of gold, a surprise delighting the eye in every shift of light?
Will she be slender, towering and imperious—peering down the length of her ski-jump nose at the choices laid out before her?
Or will she be clothed in a coat with a hundred hidden pockets, neither short nor tall, curvy nor thin, shapeshifting before my eyes?
The bones are there. My past and present provide the form—the line drawing, the dressmaker’s dummy to hold today’s aspirations and tomorrow’s ambitions. The past is immutable, decided, but the present is changeable and I can shape her in whatever form I like, built on the decisions I make today.
Four years isn’t too long a time to learn to listen to yourself. To watch the patterns, scrape back to the foundation beneath--I know more than I thought I did. I know what is right, underneath all the fluff and lies.
My journal has been the one constant form of writing I’ve kept up. It’s the best place I’ve found to debrief after heartbreak, process conflict, and figure out what it is I really want.
It takes a little time, vulnerability, and willingness to wallow in the details. It’s talking myself down from the ledge sometimes. Other times, it’s the only way I know to connect the disparate bits and bobs that, taken together, make up the bulk of my convictions. Writing is my way of pulling the lines together, completing the sketch of my life from the few scratches on the page.
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