How do you think he’ll do it? Is he the get-on-one-knee kind of guy? He better not have picked out the ring without at least asking your style! Did you remember to pack your razor? You know how you “forget” to shave your legs in the winter.
My roommates buzzed around me, giddy with anticipation as I packed for my Big Weekend with Atticus*. Clearly he was going to propose to me. All signs pointed to yes: He’d told me had something to tell me. He’d been acting really shifty lately, like he had a big secret. And he’d invited me for the weekend up to his parent’s ranch to meet his whole family. Even his sister with the new baby! What else could that mean but a sparkler lighting up my sparkly eyes in the sparkling snow? I threw a pair of glittery sunglasses into my bag for luck – I had to be totally prepared for my Big Night in preparation for the Biggest! Day! Of! My! Life!
I don’t know. Yeah, probably, he’s kind of a traditionalist. Seriously! I cannot have another marquis-cut stone – the one from my last engagement ring snagged all my sweaters and got caught in my sister’s hair when I hugged her! And yes, I have a razor. Although as long as I don’t have to wear white tights it shouldn’t be an issue.
I was still basking in the glow of my roomies’ adoration as we drove merrily northward. Well at least I was merry. It’s a testament to how sure I was that this was happening that I didn’t even notice that I was the only one talking for the entire 3-hour drive, except for once when he yelled, “Is that a deer?!” and slammed on the brakes. (Dear Bambi lovers: Deer are only cute in movies. People talk about hitting a deer with their car but in reality the deer hits your car – effectively totaling it while bounding off into the ether from whence it came, white tail giving you a cheeky farewell salute. The ones you see on the side of the road? Decoys and deadbeats.) It wasn’t a deer. But I could still understand while his palms were all sweaty and he seemed increasingly nervous.
Finally we pulled up through the ranch gate, with the family name spelled out in wrought iron, just like in the movies. He stopped just short of the house, all lit up for Christmas, complete with a star of Bethlehem on the roof with strings of lights leading down to a neon nativity on the porch.
“So, uh, I was going to wait until later but I can’t. I just have to get this off my chest!”
“Okey dokey artichoke-y!” I chirped.
“Um, uh,” he rubbed his palms on his Wranglers. “Can we take a walk?”
We set off on a dirt road packed with ice and manure.
“Okay, so, this is really hard for me because I, like, really care for you. Like a lot.” His voice was starting to shake. I smiled to myself. Poor boy, so nervous! Did he think I was going to say no? Aw! “So can I ask you a question?” The yes poised on my lips like a bubble. (But not of spit because that would be a really gross analogy. A bath bubble? Gum bubble? Those weird plastic bubbles that don’t pop?) “Do you think this is working? Because, I um, I don’t think it is. Working. You. Me. Us. No.”
Bubble burst. ”Excuse me?”
“I just like you but well, I like someone else, um, more.”
At that moment I realized I was standing on a frozen cow pile. I’d stepped in it. Both literally and figuratively. I was speechless. But not for long because I’m, well, you know me.
“You drove me all the way up here to the middle-of-nowhere WHYoming to break up with me?!” I screeched. He kicked frozen crap with the tip of his boot. “And for someone else? Who?” He hung his head. “Are you serious?” Nod. “Are you at least going to tell me who?” Silence.
And then, “Well, she’s real sweet. You can meet her if you like. She’s here, up at the house.”
My mind exploded into a shower of stabby question marks. “What? You brought me all the way up here to dump me AND introduce me to your new girlfriend?!?”
“You’d like her! Like I said, she’s real sweet!”
If this were a Rom-Com, I’d have followed him back up to the house and after a series of kooky hijinks involving poor plumbing, chickens and that Chanel hula-hoop bag (seriously that thing has to end up in a comedy somewhere), roped my cowboy away from this interloper. But alas it was reality and the reality was I was just a city girl standing in a pile of poo in Old Navy sneakers and wondering why I hadn’t had the sense to pack boots. He did tell me we were going to a farm for pity’s sake.
“Take me home.”
“But I thought you were staying the weekend?”
“Why, I couldn’t possibly! I shan’t impose on your parents’ hospitality a minute longer.” Some people curse when they get angry. I get all Victorian up in your grill.
“But it’s three hours back to the University!”
“Indeed. We’d best make haste now before the storm sets in,” I answered grimly.
The closest I got to ever meeting his parents was seeing two shadowy figures on the porch, backlit by Neon Baby Jesus, receding in the rear-view mirror. As we turned back onto the paved road (doesn’t every good story start with that sentence?) I contemplated three hours alone in the car with nothing but my newly exed boyfriend and my disappointment. I started to cry. Not sobbing – I wasn’t going to be that girl – but tears, yes, and a lot of sniffling into the nylon sleeve of my parka. You know what doesn’t absorb bodily fluids at all? Nylon.
“Aw, please stop! I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings!” Really? I couldn’t fathom what he had meant by this whole charade. Had he really thought I’d actually want to play Uno with the family while he and his new sweetie played Dos behind the barn? The tears and snot dripped faster. All of a sudden I couldn’t take it anymore.
“No you stop!” I yelled. “I mean stop the car!”
“What? Why? It’s freez…”
“Look, a deer!” I blurted. He slammed on the brakes. Good boy.
I jumped out of the car and then stopped, frozen in my tracks by the fact that there wasn’t so much as a streetlight for as far as I could see. Well, that and I was up to my knees in snow. Shivering so hard I made my own seismic field, I watched my breath come out in dragon-like puffs with each suppressed sob. And then the absurdity of the whole situation hit me. What did I care if he saw me fall apart? I deserved to fall apart! Even though I had (have?) many tragedies still in front of me, tragedies that would make this one seem like silk over the box of my memory (a graceful, grateful miss – else how would I have met my dearest?), my young heart was broken. Not only had the man I (thought I) loved just confessed to loving someone else but this was also the first time anyone had dumped me! And it hurt!
I threw back my head and wailed, my entire body convulsing dramatically with my sorrow. And then, like a hand on my heart, I felt the embrace of the cold. Anyone who has ever been in real below-zero snot-freezing cold can tell you that there comes a point where shivering is no longer productive. The only way to cheat the cold is to embrace it. Welcome it in, feel it inhabit every finger and every toe. Relax the shaking out of your muscles. Accept the discomfort as part of you. And breathe**.
As I welcomed the calmness of the cold, my crying ceased. I opened my eyes. What I saw is indescribable. (But thankfully this is the Internet age and there are pictures to save you my attempt at describing it.) My ex-Atticus lived in Star Valley, Wyoming. And it was named that because thanks to the near absence of people (and therefore lights), on a clear night you get to see this:
I kid you not. It is the only time in my life I can say I’ve seen the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon like that. Except it was a million times better than a picture. I was breathing in the cold, the stars, the airless air, the faster-than-light. Trying to fill me up so completely that I would never be able to forget it, because it would be embedded in my very skin.
I felt Atticus next to me without seeing him, unwilling to peel my eyes away from the glorious sky for even a second. He didn’t speak – and honestly he was at his best when he didn’t – but he’d turned off the car headlights so I could get the full effect, unmarred and untouched by human ideas. Gently he draped his heavy shearling coat over my shoulders and I remembered: he is a good man. Even still.
And he was correct. We weren’t working. He’d had the wisdom to see what I was too stubborn to acknowledge: We – the him and the I – weren’t right together. I breathed it in, the calm hand of the cold squeezing my heart.
I relate this story to you because lately I’ve had several friends going through some really difficult things – far more difficult than an ill-planned jilting in a cow pile. I mean the hard, heart-breaking, soul-crushing stuff. At first I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write this post and have it make any sense without telling you their stories but then I realized that you already know them. Because tragedy spares none of us. Death. Divorce. Cancer. Abandonment. Abuse. Hopelessness. Destruction. So much loss. So much water running out their eyes and through their fingers.
But I’m used to speaking my own sorrow – what can I say to comfort those suffering? I can give them my words, if they want them. They certainly have my shoulder to cry on and my ears to listen and my eyes to witness. (Sometimes I try to bring them dinner but with me that’s as much a curse as a blessing.) But then I try to give them the gift of the cold. There are times, when you see it barreling down at you like a runaway train, that you know the pain is inescapable. It won’t be reasoned with or logic-ed away. The payday has come and gone. So all you can do is embrace it. Open your heart to the whole of it and feel it break with the immensity. Let it wash over you until you think you will be pulled under. Burn with the fire of the injustice – or – with the even hotter fire of justice. Welcome the pain and know that as long as you can feel it you’re still alive; it’s the numbness we have to fear. Take it into you until it becomes you – because, after all, these are things that make us.
Then look up.
Your scars are not only a tattoo of your pain but a testament to your growing.
We’ve talked a lot here about how we handle our own pain – so please tell me, how do you help a friend who is hurting? Are you the type to show up with hot chocolate and four hours to hear every painful detail, repeated thrice? Or are you the distraction, hustling them off to movies and making them laugh in spite of themselves? How do you help? (Because I know you do:))
Also – do I win for the most embarrassing break-up story ever?! Top me, please! I’d love to hear it!!
*Name has been changed to protect the, um, innocent. Although I always wished I had a boyfriend named Atticus. All those hard consonants! So morally authoritative! So uncompromising! So pretentiously literary! True story: I lobbied really hard to name son #3 Atticus but my husband vetoed it. “What are we going to call him for short? Atty? Cus?” He might have had a point.
** Obviously this isn’t a good long-term strategy. It will get you from the movie theater to your car or from the snow bank to the hot tub but not three hours home. I did get back in the car eventually. Hypothermia is not our friend.