L’ETRANGER

Graphic by Laura Padilla-Castellanos

“I think we should break up.”

Just as Thom* said this, close to a dozen tourists began to take pictures of us. My soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend and I were sitting in the Silligloo—the type of thing you’d find in a magazine called Garden Smart or Casa Couture or I Care About My House More Than My Husband—which had caught the tour group’s attention.

In the beginning, our relationship felt like winning a stuffed animal at one of those rigged carnival games. He cuffed his jeans, spoke four languages, and he was French. The type of guy that, even though I wasn’t from the midwest, made me feel like I was. I scored the grand prize: my first cool boyfriend. We were both adventurous in the way that twenty year olds are, and so we had our fair share of ménage à trois—exclusively between me, him, and his ego. Looking back, I should have known he wasn’t being honest about our relationship. He always told me that I smelled nice, but a previous ex told me that I always smelled faintly of whatever food I had just eaten.

In college, I was cooler (smoked a cigarette one time), prettier (now knew what “contouring” meant), and smarter (could spell broccoli without using spell check) than I had ever thought possible as a high schooler. There was a je ne sais quoi that I knew I had, but could not pronounce. I was like the diverse background actress in a show about white college students in New England. 

In my head, social capital and a Bachelor’s degree were signs of evolution. Adding a boyfriend to the equation seemed to me a logical extension. What was a relationship if not a reflection of all the best parts of yourself? It was only when hormones and a fear of commitment shattered this visage that I discovered the answer: the worst parts of yourself.

The first moments of a breakup are exactly like the final moments before you die: You relive your greatest hits. My mind jumped to finals week. Sleep deprived and stir crazy, we spent $40 on last-minute concert tickets. Thom spouted out facts about the Haitian Revolution as we moshed with music fans twice our age. Then, after kissing me in the back of the theater, he told me how he thought it racist that his French history class omitted the insurrection completely. If I had been paying attention, I would have learned that Haiti was declared a free republic in 1804. Instead, I learned that kissing a Frenchman was the same as kissing an American except with a lot more tongue and a little bit of self-aggrandizement.

I was frozen in the igloo. Thom didn’t take his eyes off of me. He acted as if he had done this a hundred times before. Like his fifth language was heartbreak. I didn’t have time to prepare a moving rebuttal or a tear jerking monologue. All I could blurt out was, “Oh come on! Are you serious?

 

“Oh no,” I thought. That’s the best I could say? I sounded like a washed up comedian in a network sitcom. The analogy wasn’t far from the truth. The two of us were moderately attractive, tastefully diverse, and had a live studio audience of twenty prospective college students tuning in. The only thing missing was a laugh track.

Thom blinked a few times before exclaiming, incredulous, “Why is THAT your reaction?”

Well, at least I surprised him.

I am a veteran of heartbreak. In middle school, before I was pretty and while I still had cystic acne, I would comfort sobbing preteens in the girls bathroom. They would talk about cheating, fingering, and other experiences that I had only read about in fanfiction. Sometimes, the girls would offer me advice:

  1. Be direct.

  2. Wear leggings.

  3. Awww don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll meet someone once your skin clears up!

These conversations prepared me for love about as well as first-person shooter games prepared fourteen year olds for war. We muddled through the logistics of “why?” and “how could you?” and “–but I bought you a Neti Pot for Valentine’s Day.” Avoiding eye contact, Thom explained that everytime he said “I love you” he felt like he was lying. My solar plexus burned, which either meant that I was about to cry or had just eaten Korean BBQ. Sniffing my hand (I smelled like today’s dining hall quiche) I narrowed it down to the former. No one tells you that heartbreak feels like acid reflux.

“Do you need tissues?” he asked.

I blew my nose into his t-shirt.

“I don’t have tissues! Where do you think you are, the Ritz-Carlton?” I snapped.

In an effort to cheer me up he then added, “At least you’ll have plenty of comedy material after dating me.”

To which I responded, “I’m not going to be able to joke about you for a very long time.”

 

I remembered when Thom, charmingly confused, admitted that I was the “first funny girl” that he had ever dated. At the time, I took that statement to be both a green light and a red flag. Okay, so he didn’t know that women could be funny. That’s alright. Maybe it was a cultural thing. In Europe, women weren’t legally allowed to tell jokes. In his eyes, I was probably brave for being what he called “an absurdist.” 

Either way, it was that memory that did it for me: I started to sob in the igloo.

Several days after the breakup, depressed and incapable of eating, I would go to the Silliman Goodlife Center. A wellness coach (if you wanted a real therapist, you had to cry on the phone with Yale Mental Health and confirm that, yes, you did have private insurance) would tell me, in between sips of matcha ashwagandha tea, that the reason I couldn’t eat was because I was consumed by my own grief. What I needed to do, she explained, was zoom out and see the bigger picture. If I was an outsider looking in, I would see that my pain was temporary. I would also probably see that this wellness coach was not a licensed medical professional.

This therapist yogi said that I needed to learn that heartbreak was not the end of the world. Then three weeks later, with the introduction of murder hornets, travel bans, and a global pandemic— the world seemed to agree.

***

I imagined Thom at forty years old. Not having spoken with me since college, something would jar his memory about his sophomore year girlfriend. Maybe he would remember our first date. The one where he texted me at 11pm, asking if I wanted to sneak into the dining hall. We had never formally met before, but I saw him at parties. Sauntering. Smoking. Not to say that I wasn’t cool. I just prefered to saunter in lower-stakes environments, like the Jewish student life center or my therapist’s waiting room. We sat on opposite ends of a grand oak dining table, silently observed by oil portraits of long-dead headmasters. Unprepared for a booty call that Saturday night, I wore my best acne cream and a novelty pair of panties that read “Taco Tuesday.”

We ended up talking until five in the morning.

That dining hall became sanctified through conversation. Through Cocteau Twins albums, midnight panic attacks, and premarital “study sessions.” These were the quintessential moments of college. The little bits of intimacy you found hidden in between classes, adderall, and your roommate’s dirty socks. But that had been months ago. 

Now, I was trapped inside a life sized snow globe. 

The tour group outside finally departed, leaving me alone with this new stranger. 

***

Relegating Thom to the Island of Misfit Exes seemed wasteful. It was after all, its ending that made this college fling so impactful. He and I would later come to be genuine friends. We send each other stand-up specials. I helped him co-author an article for a campus publication. He shipped me soap from Marseille for my birthday. Thanks to him, I could also now point to Morocco on a map.

In this relationship, I learned my most important lesson of sophomore year: the worst part of a broken heart isn’t the loss of love, it’s having to suddenly render that love irrelevant. I also realized that, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t crack a joke about it.

As elegant and profound as these thoughts were— I did not contemplate them in the igloo.

In the igloo, I mentally hedged my bets on whether or not I’d ever date a European again. 

In the igloo, I withdrew my hand from his, wiped away snot with my bare arm, and asserted with as much pride as I could muster, “C’est la vie.”

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