I've been thinking a lot about that summer, five years ago, when everything fell apart. It was a four-week paradigm shift from a relatively happy girl to one who felt like her bones were made of glass. During those four weeks, my sister was diagnosed with cancer, my best friend eloped and moved away, and my boyfriend broke up with me. Choppy waters.
The dream starts with a variation on the waitress dream: I am alone, in a restaurant that is suddenly filled with people, and there are no clean glasses and the kitchen is a flight of stairs below me. I am feeling hectic and rushed, and the people, while nice, are becoming impatient.
That's when my boss decides to bring in some backup to help out. As they come behind the bar, I spy a once-familiar green hoodie.
It is my ex-boyfriend.
The cancer diagnosis isn't my story to tell - it's my sister's, and I hope one day she will tell it in a way that makes her feel okay. You're not supposed to get cancer when you've just turned 20 and you're in university. You're supposed to get hangovers and food poisoning and STIs: the health problems of the under-30 set are largely self-inflicted. At 20, the choice you make about eating that burrito you left on the counter overnight is supposed to be your hardest health lesson, not the one about needles and drugs and egg storage and chemical burns and wigs.
I imagine that the shame of your body letting you down is enormous. Her disease was wildly unfair. I remember my mom sobbing, "I wonder if this is because I sprayed Raid in our hotel room in Hawaii when she was a baby." I wondered if the smell of cigarettes that clung to my clothes in high school played a part. There is no word to convey the level of fear and worry that descended on our family that summer: the closest we might come would be howling, like a wolf. We cried, and swam through the new reality - the cancer reality - like we were underwater.
So, my wish for her, five years later, is that she can find or invent the language that makes her feel okay about what happened to her. And while I don't want her to dwell on it, it's a part of her story, and talking is good. Not speaking feels so lonely.
I tell my boss I'm going to leave. She laughs a little and say, "No, you're no," and I tell her that, if he's staying, I'm going. It's a classic line.
My best friend moving away is also her story to tell, but basically her visa didn't come through, she panicked, and got married. The wedding was lovely, but very small, and real grown-ups were definitely an underrepresented demographic. They declined to tell their parents. A few weeks later, they tried to move to America; she went, but he was stopped at the border and not allowed entry.
This was, obviously, devastating for them. As a friend, it was tough to watch them try to negotiate the bureaucratic nightmare that is the immigration process. And I was heartbroken, because it felt like a corner of my emotional foundation had up and moved to Maryland. Selfish? Oh yeah. But I was too depressed to give a shit.
She hauls us both outside, which seems to be on the roof of a parking garage. He is jovial, whereas I am furious. "I despise you, I despise you, I despise you," pours out of my mouth. I feel like I have no control, like I am vomiting words. they keep coming, louder, as if by sheer repetition I can get him to understand the scale of my loathing. "You suck, I hate you, I HATE YOU."
And then there is the break-up. I can still remember the gut-punched feeling, the moment of swimming grey vision. It took hours to talk it out, in my home and his and in the park, both of us crying. I gave him back jewellery and he refused; I left it in the grass for some kid to find during a summer playdate.
The reasons were many. We hadn't been getting along - not fighting, but allowing sadness and distance to grow between us until words alone couldn't bridge the gap. We had stopped having sex. He told me, as he dumped me, that I was uninspiring; words that, to this day, still feel like a stab wound. In the days after my sister's diagnosis, I had been a cyclone of terror and tears, and he was taken aback by the intensity of my sadness and anger. And, most importantly, he just didn't want to be my boyfriend any more.
He tries to be funny and conciliatory, but it comes off as invasive: sitting too close, standing in front of me while I'm sitting so that I am eye-level with his crotch. At some point, his jeans transform into ugly shorts - maybe they're swim trunks - but the hoodie remains. He is wearing fur-lined loafers in the dream.
We spend some time together, after the initial break-up. We saw some movies and went for a couple walks. He had told me that he wanted to stay friends, and I had no idea what that meant.
In a moment of desperation, I went to him and offered to just, you know, sleep with him. We didn't have to be friendly, or like each other. We could just have fun! But, in addition to not wanting to be my boyfriend anymore, he was also sleeping with someone else. During that horrible, humiliating conversation, which happened days after our breakup (and that breakup had happened days after cancer verdict), he told me they had had sex on the steps of a church, and that it was the best he ever had.
I went home and vomited in the sink. I cried on the front steps. I didn't eat. I slept by staring at the ceiling. All the love I had for him - still, even weeks after the initial conversation - turned sour in a heartbeat. I could not be around him. I couldn't stand knowing he lived around the corner from me, that he still had a job, that he had the audacity to feel shitty about breaking up with me. I couldn't stand knowing that someone was comforting him, that he had friends, that he had fooled anyone into liking him.
A group of his friends are there, watching. I refuse, still, to work with him. I ignore his entreaties of friendship and recoil when he slings his arm around my shoulder in a friendly, brothers-in-arms gesture. See? We're buddies, he says. I am physically revulsed.
My exboyfriend had a pattern: he meets girls, often while still in a relationship, and begins whirlwind romances with them. We are enchanted: we connect on many levels. We decide that we must be together, and he begins the task of breaking it off with his current partner. There are months, maybe years, of happiness. And then something happens, and he meets someone, and she is enchanted. Wash, rinse, repeat. It's possible he still has this pattern.
He was with someone when I met him. He was with me when he met his next girlfriend. I have no idea how many girls he's daisy-chained along. He is not dating for sport. He feels bad when he breaks their hearts. But he still breaks them. I'm not sure why: maybe he is afraid of deeper commitment, or easily bored. Maybe he enjoys courting women more than the daily grind of actually being their boyfriends. I'm not sure. I don' t really care.
What happened to me has happened to others. With my ex-boyfriend, yes, but also with other men. What we learn, when we are treated with such vigorous and thorough shittiness, is that men aren't to be trusted. That heartbreak is a given. That we have to always wait for the other shoe to drop. It's the kind of lesson you don't learn from mutual, amicable break-ups. It's the kind of lesson you learn from getting turned back at the border, when the doctor comes into the room and says, "I'm afraid we have some bad news."
Other things are said, lost in the haze of dreaming. At one point, I spit on his foot and grin maniacally as he tries to play it off like I meant it in jest. My boss is there still, pleading for us both to come back inside, to wait on tables, to pretend everything is normal. At one point, the exboyfriend, surrounded by his friends and his boss, moves in for a hug. I throw him off and he falls down the flight of concrete stairs. It looks to be about as humiliating as Bill Murray's fall down the stairs at the end of The Life Aquatic. One of his silly loafers comes off. His friends are standing there, ignoring me, discussing the end of his current relationship (Quote, from my dream: "When I went to bed last night they had six mutual friends on Facebook, and now they only have four." "Oh my god...").
My story has a happy ending. My sister is in good health, a robust 25-year-old with a huge laugh. My best friend found a way to move back. She and her husband are still married. And I stumbled into the arms of someone who has suffered his own losses, and who knows better than to drop something so fragile. We have a good love, something strong that stretches into the future. I love being with him, and I feel, finally, like I can start to relax. That the jewellery he gives me won't be left in the grass one summer, when my eyes are already red from crying. I love them all so much, and I'm so grateful that we all found our way to each other.
In the end, I sit on the concrete edge of the parking garage and stare at his back as he limps away. I feel euphoric, elated. Like a triumph. When I wake up, I am laughing.