by Joe Berkowitz and Joanna Neborsky
Planning the end of a relationship is probably the closest many of us will ever get to knowing what it’s like to plot a murder. Will they see it coming?, you wonder. Some of us are careless, impulsive relationship-murderers, and so the breakups happen spontaneously, the time and place as random as Clue cards. Others plan it all out, postponing, buying time until the perfect opportunity, thinking over the most humane method. Maybe you’ll wait for the vernal equinox on account of your partner’s Seasonal Affective Disorder. But then he or she might forever associate the sadness of the breakup with cherry blossoms and freshly graffiti’d “Nurse Jackie” posters, and who wants to do that to another person? The longer you wait, though, the more you have to pretend everything’s fine, which is a fancy way of lying.
Oddly enough, the most honest moment in a relationship usually arrives once it’s over. It’s the “speak now or forever hold your peace” part of the wedding, only inverted. You tell the couple why they’re terrible for each other, and the couple is you. Suddenly, the preceding months or years have an air of unreality — like they never happened at all or turned out to be one long Christmas Ghost hallucination. When my last relationship ended, it didn’t seem possible that, mere days before, I’d have probably dove into traffic to save a person I’d now dive headlong into a mound of summertime garbage just to avoid seeing at a crosswalk. Of course, being newly single sort of feels like diving into a pail of garbage all the time.
The first few days of being alone again hit like OxyContin withdrawal. Or, at the very least, like a juice cleanse. Only instead of toxins leaving my body, about a shallow lagoon of Merlot floods into it. All the many things I took for granted about the relationship appreciate in value as they suddenly become unavailable. So many inside jokes and dumb little rituals lined up in my mind like a continental breakfast buffet, wheeled away by an overly officious concierge just as I arrive, famished.
This absence manifests itself everywhere. I’m keenly aware of a certain G-chat window’s negative space on my computer screen all day. Unfortunate coworker fashion choices go criminally underreported. The pertinent details of which falafel place I did for lunch are lost to the ages. My day’s narrative simply loses its primary audience, as though cancelled due to low ratings and frequent profanity. I could continue the broadcast on Facebook, dispatching glossy post-breakup PR or the romantic distress bat-signal of Sade lyrics, but being heard is not the same as feeling known. Nothing can substitute for the presence of an actual human person who knows most of your secrets and still somehow wants to make out with you.
The interior of your average Love Cocoon is generously swathed in a level of comfort usually extended only to newborn infants and Greek shipping magnates. When this sensual haven falls away, returning back to the larger world is disorienting. You blink your dewy eyes in the light. You can’t quite remember who you are, and nothing makes any sense. It’s like snorting bath salts while suffering from Memento-disease; there’s bound to be collateral damage. Merging with another person until you become each other’s spirit animals subtly changes you in a bunch of ways that quietly annoy everyone else. The metamorphosis chips away at any individual quirks that might abrade the relationship. Gone is the part of you that used to make up silly songs in the shower or found kombucha kind of disgusting. Instead, there’s this new you, smoothed-out and cocooned. You forget what you’re really like, having opted for what one person likes you to be like.
After you leave the Love Cocoon, it’s bewildering to be out there; this new sanded-down you who is not really you. But then, like someone who has defected from Scientology or the Borg, you get your old identity back. Your rough edges return, extra stubbly. Perhaps some habits discarded during the relationship remain that way, but these mostly pertain to hairstyle. All the other decisions you now have to make alone again force you to reconnect with the person you were, the hardwired you, and take control of who you’ll become. Whether it’s any improvement at all is another story.
It’s never too hard to tell who else at the gym has recently gotten out of a relationship. There’s a certain languid collapse in one’s squat-thrust that scans, even viewed across the room, as psychological freefall and not sore trapezii, or lackluster iPod shuffling. The recently single can pick out their fellow sufferers in the armada of manically red exercise faces. Thousand-yard stares burrow through sweat-flecked mirror-walls as lost souls attempt to SoulCycle. We carry heavy burdens on our shoulders while carrying heavy burdens on our shoulders. The pain just feels appropriate. At a moment fraught with so many lingering uncertainties, such as whether my own romantic instincts in fact hate me, the one thing that makes undeniable sense seems to be self-flagellation via Bowflex. The gym serves as a sanctuary that gives time a familiar shape outside of the simmering booze-cauldron that is my apartment, and instills me with purpose. However, I can barely stand to acknowledge what that purpose is, or why I feel like my former girlfriend and I have entered some sort of cosmic swimsuit competition in which I am hell-bent on nabbing the sash and scepter. Instead, I ignore the obvious. I convince myself I’m just blowing off steam, and that if I happen to become more presentable along the way, it’s just icing on the cake I’m probably not eating.
If it weren’t for newly single people, the New York City Marathon would be reduced to a summit of SuperMoms and emotionally centered Kenyans. Almost nobody would sign up for Improv 101 class. Your company’s throughput would decrease by at least 37%. Nobody is more deliriously ambitious than a person slowly stirring out of post-breakup malaise. You survey the landscape of your life and determine which other areas of it are also in shambles. Some patsy has to take the fall for any lapses discovered, so naturally the entire relationship is reframed as a time when some Jezebellian interloper brushed away your potential with a smudge stick. In this alternate history, which reads like self-penned fan fiction, any surplus career drive or side projects were diabolically pre-empted in favor of Sunday afternoon sex-naps and the many street fairs foisted upon you. But now you are unburdened by such pesky intrusions; now you are going to begin a bold new relationship with yourself and you are going to be amazing. You pamper yourself, splurging on jaunts to Reykjavik and rare Air Jordans; generally acting like you’re trying to get in your own pants (and succeeding, wildly). Any residual soul pain leftover from the remembrance of your Machiavellian ex can now be channeled into the thinly veiled novel you’re writing, or at least your efforts to get through Infinite Jest. Without any pesky human distractions, you and your new other half — also you — will continue unimpeded on the path toward world domination, provided the two of you never discover the Internet.
In the fantasy version of new bachelorhood, anyone you’ve ever had a romantic thought about has been vision-boarding your breakup the entire time, in such a way that somehow registers as more flattering than creepy. Every fetching stranger on the subway always wanted to talk to you, but intuited your betrothed status and respected its boundaries, much as it pained them. Then suddenly you’re single again and the truth reveals itself: everything is basically the same and also you’re a major narcissist. Meeting people still requires trying, or officially not-trying while still trying super hard. Either way, friends waste little time in urging you to get back on the horse — a suggestion flattering neither to those who might comprise the horse, to horses themselves, or to you with your equine dating pool. Whether you feel ready or not, a new charge seeps into the air at some point, ushering in the return of semi-meaningful eye contact with passersby. It might take a while before you decide to open up and let rejection back into your world, but at least whomever you do verbally glitter-bomb will have never heard your opinions about the afterlife or emoji, let alone grown tired of them. Unfortunately, the fantasy version of such encounters may end up resembling the more traditional genre of fantasy, where warrior-princesses kick hobbit asses.
The newly single go everywhere accompanied by the flapping of red flags. Not without good reason either. Even the most monogamy-inclined among us might emerge from a break-up acting like Amish teens on Rumspringa. Nobody is above that temptation and everybody knows it. In fact, the most acceptable way to avoid any romantic commitment is probably by saying “My name is Ryan Lochte” or “I just got out of a relationship,” either of which is ironclad. But it’s a weirdly hollow thrill to hit it off with multiple someones in the gloaming of a break-up’s emotional wasteland. It makes the experience of dating feel as mechanical and low-stakes as a videogame; specifically NBA Jam, where scoring multiple times in a row sets your avatar on fire, allowing you to breezily sink 3-pointers with minimal exertion. Whenever I’ve ended up living la vida Lochte post-breakup, it’s never been with anyone I really wanted it to be — whether that was an actual person with a social security number, or some idealized Other who makes sexy balloon animals at parties and is “Breaking Bad” conversant. Instead those people often end up serving as a kind of reverse prison lineup — “No, none of these” — helping you to develop a sort of composite sketch in negative of the thief you hope will snatch your affection.
One day I wake up and I’m no longer newly single; just the standard version, with no helpful qualifiers to imply a McRib-style time constraint. At first, there was a novelty. I was back on the market! Possibly in the hands of a no-nonsense realtor with reasonable rates! A few months later, I feel less like any kind of hot property than I do a rustic fixer-upper opportunity, bursting with potential and euphemisms. The mere ability to ask out alluring strangers again — perhaps via pretend dance floor lasso — is no longer enough motivation to do so. Instead, I wait for very particular signals or circumstances, only to discover I’ve misjudged them horribly. I resume my usual complaints: Meeting people is difficult. Games are stupid but somehow necessary. Dating is a process by which humans determine irreconcilable differences — a verbal Myers-Briggs test administered in the dank corners of dimly lit bars. Spend enough time unattached, though, and it becomes your default setting, rather than a freestyle respite from the well-rehearsed dance of a relationship. Some people are so good at being single that they decide to go career with it, forever freelancers. Others are so eager to be done with the unknowingness of it, they barrel into every date as if playing a version of Are You My Mother?, wherein every prospective person seems like The One. But if planning the end of a relationship feels like plotting a murder, then planning the start of one feels more like donning a suicide vest. There’s an element of giving up, and also of a callous willingness to take out a few innocent bystanders. Then again, the sooner you settle for any old relationship, the sooner you’ll be resurrected newly single. And maybe you won’t squander it this time. Once more into the breach, my friends. Welcome back.
Previously in series: My Superpower Is Being Alone Forever and My Superpower Is Being Alone Forever: Party Of One