The worst break-up I’ve endured was at the hands of my then-boyfriend of nearly two years.
He was an artist and a narcissist. He was so obsessed with himself and his ink pens that by the time we were splitting I was the least important or interesting thing in his life. I was merely a need-fulfillment device to service his ego and sex drive.
When I asked to have my needs met, it became time for me to go.
It wasn’t always like this. Our relationship started like a fairy tale, if fairy tales were full of delicious sex and heady hours-long conversations. Talks in which he confessed that he’d never felt about anyone like he did about me, that I was the only person who truly understood him.
It was swoony and sweet. He made me feel like the only girl in the world, like I’d found my soulmate. It was dizzying.
Then once I was trapped — living with him, our finances co-mingled and alienated from my friends — that fairy tale ended and my life became a horror movie.
Sex was replaced by withheld intimacy. Now the only talks we had were arguments that ended with us sleeping separately. Talks that he would deny had occurred the next morning.
Was I going crazy?
He started telling me about other girls. We were polyamorous, so this shouldn’t have been a problem, except whenever I tried to date someone else, he found a way to sabotage it, leaving me monogamous and increasingly lonely as he tossed women in my face.
But when I tried to talk to him about this or any other problem, he would tell me I was making it all up. The gaslighting was so intense I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.
Then he met a woman while on a trip to Texas and became smitten. At first, I was thrilled for him. She seemed awesome: perfect for him and the sort of lady I’d love to get to know. Finally, I thought, he’s getting the idea of doing poly right.
It wasn’t long before he started using her good qualities against me, poking at my insecurities by casually mentioning how successful, smart and confident she was, with her list of publications and history of performing on stage. I was losing my mind and what little self-confidence I had left.
I knew I was being replaced. What made it the hardest was that it didn’t need to be that way. I’d have loved to meet his new crush and become besties. But it was more important to him to play us against one another while accusing me of not being truly poly and of being jealous and crazy for asking for some of his attention. You know, since we lived together and all.
I turned my sadness into anger and started the conversation I knew would be the end of us.
Thus began the month-long, on-again off-again, argument about whether should I stay or go. With any other partner, I would have looked for a new apartment after the first break-up talk. He wasn’t so easy to shake.
The sex and faux intimacy he had lured me in with was the best I’d had at that point. But the make-up sex he doled out to get me more hopelessly hooked on him was like crack.
Just when I thought we had reached a truce he said, “I’m leaving.”
“For the night?” I asked, my heart pounding so hard I could barely hear his response. I felt sure if he left I would die right then.
“For good. And stop being melodramatic.” He said when my tears flowed. “You know I’ve got a project to work on. I’ve gotta go.”
That’s when I begged him to stay.
I didn’t think I’d ever be the type of girl to beg a man not to leave. To curl up in a ball in my room sobbing, feeling like my heart had been trampled on, pleading, “Don’t go, please, not right now, I don’t feel safe.”
The knowing we were over was a relief. I just couldn’t handle us ending this way, this abruptly. He had built himself up so high in our relationship and broken me down so low I really did think I would die if he left.
He turned his back on me, slammed the front door and walked away. His "art" was more important than making sure I would be OK.
Now I know his leaving had nothing to do with a deadline. He left furious at me for holding him up because he needed to get away to call his other woman for a phone date. My emotional needs were keeping him from getting his flirt on and he’d finally had it.
I didn’t find this out until much later. After the maybe-we-can-be-friends stage. And the him-refusing-to-let-me-out-of-the-lease stage. And the rubbing-the-new-girl-in-my-face-when-she-moved-to-Portland-by-coming-to-every-event-he-would-never-go-to-with-me stage.
I hated them. I hated his cruelty, hated her for having what I no longer did, hated myself for falling for him.
I hated that I didn’t have the courage to warn the poor woman about what she was getting herself into. She would have been so deep in the fairy tale that she probably wouldn’t have been able to listen, but I didn’t even try. I left her to that narcissistic wolf.
They were everywhere for awhile, arm in arm. Portland, especially the literary scene, is microscopic, so they were impossible to avoid. I knew she must have heard by then how "crazy" I was, and I imagined them going home to have that amazing sex and intimacy we’d once had.
Then all of a sudden, she disappeared. He loomed in the background, continuing to show up to my reading events to try and upset me. But I didn’t see her anymore.
I was too focused on my own recovery to worry too hard about her but I had a pang of dread. He’d broken her too, hadn’t he?
Just when I’d almost forgotten about them both, she sent me a message thanking me for an essay I had written about his abuse. It floored me, her bravery to break the silence between us and to voice gratitude for knowing she hadn’t been alone.
He had done it to her too and she was back in Texas recovering, so glad to know that she wasn’t as crazy as he had made her believe. My essay was written evidence of his M.O.
I wrote back a polite message, wishing her well and apologizing for what he’d done, thinking that would be that. We were broken women separated by many miles. It was a shame, but it was over. It wasn’t like we were friends.
Except when she returned to Portland. It was only a matter of time before we ran into one another. We circled the edges of several literary events, not speaking until it became ridiculous.
One night, bold on wine, I walked up and said, “I figured I’d finally say hello.”
I was afraid she would hate me for re-opening our shared wound, but her face settled on a half-smile. “I’m so glad you did. I didn’t want to bother you or know if you wanted to talk.”
“I had the same thoughts about you but decided it was silly.”
Both of us tried not to get teary as we hugged, then hugged again, vowing to have drinks sometime soon and connect. And when we did it was like two war veterans sharing stories of the battlefield.
“He did that to you too? That bastard!”
“He said that about me? I never did that.”
At first all we talked about was him as we made sense of our stories and where we fit in his lies; slowly ironing out the timeline to find the reality.
But as time went on, we cared less about those times and more about making our own stories. Stories of going to book readings and eating tacos and laughing in the erotica section of Powell’s books. He’s the reason we met, but he’s by far the least interesting thing we have in common.
We now we talk about book deals (we both have one!), show up to one another’s readings, and compare notes about crushes. She’s a great lady to have around.
As hard as that man tried to break us both, he instead created a greater bond between the two women he tried to keep apart.
Now I don’t think of it as the worst break-up I went through; I think of it as the craziest way I ever met a good friend.