Thanks to Nanette for editing and agreeing to let me publish this and to my friends who gave me feedback.
“It’s almost 2016. Let’s reset our relationship next year. OK?” Nanette asked me two days before Christmas Eve. I couldn’t bring myself to say yes. I felt I would be lying.
I told Nanette we should break up. We spent the next two days crying until our eyes became red and puffy. I had bought bus tickets for the night of Christmas Eve to travel back to my family in Boston. It was cold and pouring that evening, but Nanette still accompanied me to the bus stop. I got on the bus and asked her to go back home. She stood outside in the rain waiting for the driver to pull out while looking at me through the windows. It broke my heart to see her standing on the sidewalk, her tears mixing with the rain.
We kept texting each other while we waited for the bus to leave. Afterwards, she wrote that she was hoping I would get out at the last minute and spend one more night with her. I texted back that she deserved someone who would do that unflinchingly. I didn’t think I could live up to that.
I felt both trapped and estranged near the end. It was a weird sense of closeness and distance. I felt physically boxed in because I moved into her Upper West Side apartment in July of 2015. I didn’t have the space or time to think on my own without also considering her. Yet I felt we were drifting away. We misunderstood and talked around each other more and more. We became less kind and patient toward each other.
I often felt I was going mad for the paradoxical way I treated her. I loved her yet I’d get frustrated when she couldn’t help me in the kitchen. I cared deeply about her yet sometimes criticized her for wasting my time with words harsh enough to make her cry. Her optimism and persistence, traits I cherished mostly, sometimes seemed like naivete and stubbornness.
Nanette had more patience and conviction for the life we had built together than I did. I interpreted the fact that I had doubts two and a half years into our relationship as a sign that although we were compatible in so many ways, we were not compatible enough. It killed me to know I could be her biggest source of pain. Wouldn’t both of us be happier dating people who might be better matches? Nanette needed someone who’s better at listening instead of quickly trying to come up with solutions. Someone who could provide more emotional support while she figures out her career passions and navigates her H1-B visa situation. Someone better at confronting relationship issues and making up afterwards instead of sulking and letting disagreements fester. I guess in the end I decided our problems weren’t worth the effort it’d take to resolve them. I was discouraged by what I saw as a lack of results from our recent efforts. I felt emotionally burnt out.
The constant pressure of time gave me more anxiety. As a certain thought-provoking website called the School of Life states, “There’s no excuse for delay. Don’t imagine that you’re doing someone a favour by dragging out how long they can persist in the benign illusion that you want them. Their real priority is to stop wasting their lives… There’s nothing at all wrong with deciding someone isn’t for you. There is something very wrong with ruining large chunks of someone else’s life while you squeamishly and sentimentally hesitate to get out of the way.”
I asked myself hard questions. How do I know if our relationship is worth the effort? How much should we compromise and expect from each other? Can’t I just be happy with what I have?
It was a big and lonely decision. I couldn’t bring it up with Nanette. I couldn’t talk about it with most friends as I felt my relationship troubles were a personal failure and that I’d be betraying Nanette. Our friends thought we were great together. Some even drew inspiration from us. I couldn’t ask my family as they’d already made up their minds one way or the other and were more keen on convincing me of something rather than helping me with my contorted thoughts. It was my own existential crisis with little consequence for everyone else.
Was I ready to, according to the School of Life, “exchange a familiar kind of unhappiness for a new and more complex variety”? I had already broken Nanette’s heart and trust once before. A month after we returned to New York City after hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, I asked to take a break from seeing each other.
After only a week, I returned and asked her to take me back. Later I realized I was motivated more by fear and guilt than hope and choice.
I tried to change my behavior and outlook. For a couple of months, things seemed to be improving. She secretly planned a birthday dinner for me with my close friends, delighted me with gifts including an expensive Ferragamo card holder to replace the one I lost, and surprised me with tickets to a competitive scavenger hunt/murder mystery event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (just my cup of tea). I got us tickets to an interactive play called “Then She Fell” and the Brooklyn Comedy Festival; I spent time teaching her Python for her General Assembly data science class (I could’ve been more patient though). We toured Napa Valley with her college friends for Thanksgiving break. Our interactions were almost back to normal.
By the end of December, however, we were in a slump again, and my doubts were stronger than ever. One night Nanette, sensing she was losing me, held my face in her hands as we lay in bed. She looked into my eyes while hers swelled with tears. “Come back. Come back,” she said. “I want to, but I don’t know how,” I replied.
My heart had changed. The person who set out for Boston with a heavy heart and silent tears in a Chinatown bus two days before Christmas was not the same person Nanette met in the summer of 2013.
My heart and head were not in the right place so I stopped and focused on myself instead. I swam regularly, practiced my guitar, and took singing lessons. But the break up’s initial relief and freedom gave way to guilt, sadness, and loneliness.
Guilt haunted me after the breakup. The fact that I could hurt Nanette so much frightened me, yet I suffered no divine or worldly punishment. To my bewilderment, life went on. So I had to punish myself.
I lived austerely and pushed myself harder than usual. I moved into an apartment close to Columbus Circle and didn’t bother unpacking or buying furniture. I put my mattress on the ground, woke up at 6:30AM every morning, and swam at least 3,500 yards in the Chelsea Recreation Center’s pool. I stopped going out except for the occasional dinner or drinks with friends.
I checked Nanette’s Facebook profile more than I should have. I saw that her mother had traveled from Jakarta to visit her and that they visited the Bronx botanical garden for an orchid exhibition. Shortly after, Nanette posted a photo of a pink orchid on her wall. “Oh yay — now I have my own orchid thanks to a certain thoughtful friend. Now I just need to keep it alive… Haha.” I felt this was a subtle reference to the fact that a new guy was now in her life. Every couple of weeks or so, she’d post a new photo of her blooming orchid. While it was thriving, I was reminded of how my lack of mindfulness allowed what we once grew to decay.
A few weeks later, when I saw a photo of her with a handsome and gentle-looking man, I knew she had moved on. My guilt lessened because she seemed happy again. I was surprised, however, by the jealousy that took its place. I liked the pain though, because it proved I really loved her. I’d be more worried if I didn’t feel anything at all.
I held onto this pain. I allowed myself to be sad, to let it wash over me. It killed me but made me feel alive. (Now I sound like a One Republic song.) The pain felt like a strange animal from which I could draw strength and inspiration. Hurting also helped me burn into my mind the lessons I learned. They include but aren’t limited to:
- Talk about issues early and resolve them. I was not as good at communicating as I thought I was. I was naive and expected Nanette to read my mind and know my wants and dislikes. She was better than I was at teaching me how to love her than I was at explaining to her about myself.
- Don’t make people feel inadequate. This is a nasty fault of mine. Enough said.
- Give your significant other your undivided attention when you know she needs it most. I can be impatient and sometimes I tried to multitask which would upset her, understandably so.
- Don’t let myself get burned out. This relates to number one above. I sulked.
- Appreciate and acknowledge that different people express love in different ways. Nanette showed she cared through affection and sentimental gifts: a video compilation of my close friends saying happy birthday to me when I turned 26, cards and flowers, a surprise delivery of David’s Tea even when she was thousands of miles away in Nairobi. I gave her more practical gifts: backpacking gear, a green J Crew jacket and brown Uggs for the winter, and even a portable bidet (dual-action nozzle with cold and hot water).
In this introspective and soul-searching period, swimming was both atonement and therapy. My hair grew coarse; my skin became dry; and I smelled like chlorine. Stroke after stroke, I wanted the water to purify me. I swam until I was out of breath, until the lack of oxygen drowned out thoughts of Nanette. Swimming became a new constant that replaced her. On Friday, after swimming throughout the whole week, I’d be a tight wad of nerves and flesh. I’d visit a Chinatown massage parlor where a masseur plied and kneaded me until my muscles opened up.
When I became tired in the pool, my technique deteriorated. I’d fight the water instead of working with it. Great swimmers achieve a huge amount of distance per stroke. They’re efficient because they can find that moment of stillness between each stroke where they just glide.
I sought out stillness in other parts of life as well. I wanted to be single for a while and enjoy the freedom and solitude. For a time, it was weird to think about everything Nanette and I had experienced and to know those moments had passed. We hiked Mt. Rinjani in Indonesia and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We entangled ourselves in each other on the bed and shared our innermost secrets. All of a sudden she was no longer in my life. For a while, whenever I’d see something beautiful or funny, I’d reflexively want to share it with someone as I’d once done with Nanette. After a while, however, I learned and accepted how to be alone again.
I ended our relationship because I had the hope of something better for both of us. Neither of us were afraid to get hurt at the beginning. The chance we took led to two and a half amazing years of unforgettable experiences. I ended it because I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt at the end. I was ready to confront whatever could be on the other side of the breakup even though at the time it seemed like the end of the world. I got back together with Nanette in August for the wrong reasons: guilt and fear instead of hope and choice. But choice, as this wonderful New York Times “Modern Love” essay points out, “terrifying as it can be, is so much better.”
We grow through the people that touch us the most even if their presence is impermanent. I feel nothing but goodwill towards Nanette. I’m eternally grateful for how she shared so much of herself with me and had so much faith even when I was mercurial and prickly. I hope that I helped her grow when we were together as much as she helped me. Now that we’re apart, both of us have the freedom to grow even more.