The following essay is by guest writer and former His Take contributor, my very good friend, Matthew Van Colton.
It might be the worst lie I’ve ever told.
I looked at my boyfriend Scott’s kind, searching face and said, “I don’t see myself in a relationship anymore.” My teary eyes blinked, channeling Les Miz Anne Hathaway. After four complicated years together, it was true, but I left off the end of the sentence: “with you.”
He nodded, but I knew the discussion wasn’t over. It was just after Halloween; he hurriedly moved out days after, and Thanksgiving snuck up on us. Neither of us interested in cooking, knowing we’d be Debbie Downers for our friends, we elected to spend it together silently picking at some Thai food. Sure enough, the question escaped him as he stared at his noodles.
“But why, I mean, what is it?”
I fell silent. “I don’t know,” I finally managed, “I just know it’s not right.”
Anyone who’s dated has heard or said their own version: “I’ve got to figure myself out”; “I don’t know”; “You deserve someone who has their shit together.” They’re all reinventions of the granddaddy of clichés:
“It’s not you. It’s me.”
I recognize most everything is neither black nor white, neither Christina nor Britney, especially human relationships. Indeed, a big part of my break up with Scott was me; I experienced significant shifts in career, family, and friendships during our relationship. Still, there were — always are — at least some reasons, and I can’t help wondering why we avoid sharing what’s wrong, acknowledging what’s real, or saying what’s true, particularly to someone we supposedly care about.
In my case, I withheld the whole truth because it seemed kinder, adult-like … and because I didn’t have the balls to speak the real truth, like: “You have unexamined anxiety issues and I’m unequipped to handle them”; or “We have a diminishing amount of shared interests and activities”; or the one I barely let myself think: “I’m less attracted to you than I once was.”
What would Scott’s response have been if I’d actually said these things? Probably: “You’re depressed too, you judgmental asshole”; or “Who cares if I don’t like college football and Madonna, they’re both confusing and creepy”; or “Fuck off. You have grey chest hairs and you thought you were a top when we met.”
How do we grow, if not from the truth? If I’d shared my true feelings, would we have found a way to laugh, or coolly talk through our deal-breakers? Heck, maybe we would have just dropped to the floor and wrestled it out. Ooh…that would’ve been fun.
We let ourselves believe that “It’s not you…” represents some Zen-like insight and kindness towards our targeted dumpee, when it often demonstrates immaturity and absence of faith in the other’s ability to take bad news.
Maybe we simply weren’t meant to be; I’ll never know. I owed Scott the truth, but all I could muster was my best Oprah: “I want you to be happy.”
The cruelty of “It’s not you…” only dawned on me when I saw it from the other side.
I met Andrew, rather unceremoniously, several years after my breakup with Scott. I was instantly hooked on his quirky, observant nature and youthful eyebrows. He liked my laugh. It was uncomplicated and we happily fell into the relationship quicksand. We never fought, finding simple comfort in one another’s arms and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The reality of our prospects as a longstanding couple came in warnings I mostly ignored. Yes, our age difference was vast; yes, he plainly was less interested in any long-term conversation than I was…but, so what? We both loved pizza!
It got serious, but in the most convenient ways: we spent a romantic New Year’s together; quite casually, I met his brother and parents — an occasion Scott had once treated with the concern of a viral outbreak; I was going to be away for work and he happily met me after my business concluded and we traveled together.
I remember the winter night I fell fully under Andrew’s spell. His apartment was cold and he lent me his high school Rugby sweatshirt. “Here,” he said, casually handing me an item I instantly esteemed. I was a cheerleader putting on the footballer’s jacket. Wow, I thought: why get caught up in the minutia when everything feels this warm?
But as quickly as things ramped up, they unraveled. Spring sprung; I became my reliable self again — focused on the future, driven by expectations, and less enamored of Andrew’s charm and three-ring-circus schedule. What once was his free-spirited nature now seemed flighty, inconsiderate. Fueled by neglect, I drew up a terse mental pro and con list: I never wanted to date someone so much younger, or someone whose career was in the same field, or someone who made too many mouth noises when he ate. I was willing to disregard those things. I couldn’t, however, overlook someone who had no room for me in his life.
The end of the road came suddenly. During our last conversation, we cried for ourselves; we had nobly tried—and failed, and had reached that conclusion together. I swallowed hard and spoke my truth (minus the mouth noise bit). I had loved him; he had liked me a lot. During his final, meandering, monologue, the words rolled from his lips: “I’ve got to put myself first.” Yes, I nodded.
Only later, halfway through a bottle of $7.99 Shiraz, blatantly ignoring the never-drink-alone coda of my 2012 Valentine’s Edict, did the indignant in me lap the sadness. The familiar, painful words dinged in my ears: It’s not you. It’s me.
Who was he to hide behind that bullshit? Sure, he had to take care of himself — we all did — but he knew exactly why he broke up with me, and I deserved to know!
A day later, slightly more levelheaded and certainly more sober, I sent him a sappy Kumbaya email — a thinly-veiled fishing expedition seeking the answers he was unwilling to provide. But Andrew was a wise young Jedi, immune to my blunt tools, and knew better than to respond.
Another two days passed. Unable to resist, I texted him: “I miss you. I know it’s pathetic.” He answered right away: “You’re not pathetic. I owe you an email. I just need time.”
Great! I thought. Time. Yes, of course! Finally I’ll know: Was I too old? Had he met some younger guy with better taste in casual footwear and less baggage? Was he unable to forgive my lukewarm response to Beyoncé’s self-titled endeavor? Did he hate the way I kissed him?
I didn’t care if it hurt, I wanted to know. Maybe I wanted to hurt.
I waited again, sending one last embarrassing message restating how I’d remember the good times. Surely, this would prompt his much-awaited truth-telling.
Finally, days later, it came. A four-sentence email consisting of vague generalities, the bland tenor of which convinced me he’d lifted tips from a how-to-break-up-with-a-crazy-person webinar. And, at the end, one very specific sentence:
“I hate to be that guy, but can I get my sweatshirt back?”
There it was. The one detail he cared about.
I had already wrapped it up, along with his other personal items, days earlier and just hadn’t yet mailed it. Immediately, I marched the package to the post office, shut the mailbox, and listened as it tumbled down the shoot.
Karma had been served; its name was Andrew.
They say the devil is in the details; I say there’s an angel there too. For on the other side of a break-up that I convinced myself I wanted, but didn’t understand, details would have felt like Heaven indeed.
I’ve long since let Andrew off the hook — maybe he pegged me as a guy who would obsess over particulars as much as the lack thereof (guilty). Maybe that was his deal-breaker; I’ll never know.
It all led me back to consider Scott, and only then did I understand how profound it was when I said to him: “You deserve better.”
Indeed, he did. We all do.
Matthew Van Colton is a New York and Chicago-based writer & performer. He loves the smell of pine trees, he’ll never turn down peanut butter with chocolate, and he thinks the idea of having his very own stalker is both romantic and flattering. More at www.matthewvancolton.com.