Illustration by Alice Carroll
It was supposed to be every writer’s dream when a Hollywood film producer bought the option to adapt my memoir for the big screen. The book was a tell-all about how I met my partner – a light-hearted love story with a happy ending.
“I’m thinking Anne Hathaway should play you,” said the producer on a call from Beverly Hills. “She can blend humour and sincerity well. And maybe Owen Wilson for your other half. Who do you want to play you?”
“Ummm…” I stalled, trying to stay cool in the face of the most surreal question I’d ever been asked. This dinner party conversation starter was now an actual question being asked of me in real life – and at the worst possible time.
My mind was spinning. Love with a Chance of Drowning was due to publish in three months time but the love itself was drowning.
“Don’t go breaking up now,” the director said with a nervous laugh, intuiting my discomfort. “We’ll need you both for publicity.”
I pictured the two of us on Letterman, trying to formulate witty comebacks in front of an audience – brows stitched, skin clammy with pretence.
“We won’t,” I squeaked, and I nervous laughed right back at him.
We were the kind of couple you might love to hate on the internet. Young, fit and free of commitments, my blog pictured us in exotic locations with all the standard backdrops of romantic adventure: mountain peaks and blue seas, curved palms and four feet intertwined in the womb of a hammock.
Over the course of nine years together, we’d explored the world in thrilling ways. He was an adventurer with a deep connection to the world. I was a homebody with a deep connection to family, but I embraced his way of life.
He taught me how to feel the fear and do it anyway, how to leap and build wings on the way down, how to YOLO.
We rode an SR400 motorbike through Thailand, hiked up mountains and sailed a boat across the Pacific on a two-year voyage that became the subject for my first book. Though we’d survived actual storms in actual boats, we’d never been faced with any major metaphorical ones.
And then the bad news came.
First, it came in a premonition. We were on a road trip through New Zealand at the time and my feet were up on the dashboard, my hair a tangle of sun-bleached tendrils from the last two months of travelling.
The road was narrow and windy, tracing the mountains of the south island. Our only worry was the number of times we had to stop the car to take photos of gorgeous views.
This is the last time everything will be okay, came a random thought as I slid my feet down off the dash. Everything is about to change.
“Did you hear about dad yet?” read a text message from my sister only days later. My skin prickled. I called her and got a rundown of the doctor’s report.
This is the last time everything will be okay.
Everything changed. We were grounded at home with my family, watching the great battle between cancer and chemotherapy. Cancer was slowly winning. My dad was slowly disappearing. We were all waiting. Waiting for death to arrive.
I’d expected, of course, that having a parent die would be hard, but what I didn’t anticipate was that the stress of it would bring challenges to the relationship far more difficult than kick-starting a cold SR400 engine in a remote Thai village or navigating a sailboat across the world’s largest ocean: depression, helplessness, conflict, confusion, and, worst of all for my itchy-footed life partner, the need to cancel all travels and batten the hatches.
Death is the opposite of adventure. Adventure is expansive and inspiring, while death is bleak and ugly and weird smelling. You can’t put a yellow lens flare behind dying, can’t upload it to Instagram with a cursive inspirational meme overlay.
If YOLO is your life philosophy, the darker aspects of life can feel like wasted time. YOLO is adventure and beauty, not sadness and darkness and waiting.
“I can’t keep waiting,” said Owen Wilson one day. “I need to live my life.”
I drove him to the airport and that was that.
A lot of people have had their hearts broken in the history of forever, so you know the spiel. Picture a montage of open-mouthed crying, tissue mountains, suns rising and setting to the same pair of mismatched pyjamas… you get the gist.
This was just like any other breakup, really, only it happened during the exact period of my life that the cover of my first book was being advertised on enormous back-lit billboards in airport lounges and Cosmopolitan magazine was calling with interview questions like, “So what’s next for you two lovers?”
It was awkward to say the least.
At times of great stress, we flick over into survival mode, and inside that realm we find spectacular traits we never knew we possessed. Like, in my case, bullshit artistry.
“So what’s next for you two lovers?”
Truth: Splitting assets.
Bullshit artistry: “Oh, we’re still deciding!”
“Do you have any idea of what your next adventure might be?”
Truth: Bed. Pyjamas. Six to twelve months spent nurturing rock-bottom grief.
Bullshit artistry: “The world is full of incredible surprises – it can be so difficult to work out what to do!”
It was difficult to work out what to do; there are no guidebooks for surviving such predicaments. Desperate for advice of any kind, I wanted to Google-search Ten Ways to Recover from a Painful Breakup when You’re Awkwardly Connected to your Ex by a Memoir About your Relationship that Will Soon be Adapted into a Movie, Possibly Starring Anne Hathaway and Owen Wilson and, Oh, Your Dad just Died.
Unfortunately, there was nothing.
Even my therapist laughed when I explained my situation to him during our first session. “Wow, ha, ha, that’s… Oh, boy, ha, ha, I’m so sorry, but that’s really… Oh, gee, wow, eh-hem! Excuse me. That must be very hard for you.”
His amused reaction was to be expected: the whole situation was kind of funny. I’d try to laugh about it too sometimes, only whenever I opened my mouth to do so, the noise that came out sounded a lot more like wet, guttural weeping.
The trouble with trying to describe the reasons behind a breakup to anyone is that there’s rarely a clean summary of events. We try to make it clean, though – we craft our elevator pitches and, of course, they always turn out to be biased towards our own martyrdom.
What you end up when love shatters is a crime scene with two victims and no villains, no leads for the detectives to follow to a clean and logical answer.
I wasn’t going to try to make that mess public.
I had my reasons.
He had his.
But he was gone now, scuba diving on a faraway island and uploading sunsets to social media, while I sat alone trying to tackle the uniquely unfortunate situation of incoming fan mail:
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I cried like a baby at the end of your book. I’m a gay man living in New York and you’ve given me hope for my own relationship. You’ve inspired me so much. We’ve decided to go travelling together!
What could I say?
Actually, our love broke apart like the Titanic, splitting in two and sinking into freezing waters while violins played and people screamed and fought over who gets a seat in the life raft.
What cruel person would say this to someone heady with love endorphins? Not me. I wasn’t going to be the bearer of the truth. I’d given people hope and I couldn’t just go taking that away. It would be like offering someone a beautifully wrapped present and inviting him to open it, only to reveal that inside the box is your balled fist poised to sucker punch his stomach.
Surprise! Here’s a gift of gut pain!
As a memoirist, my job was to turn hurt into wisdom, but trying to craft life lessons from these circumstances was like trying to bake a cake out of horseshit.
I started writing a thousand different blog posts to explain the situation to my readers, but they always turned out either excruciatingly self-pitying when I told the truth, or phoney and condescending when I pretended to be okay.
I wasn’t okay. My hair was falling out from stress. I had commitments, though. Book promotion commitments.
And so I put on my best smile and my best outfit, combed hair over the bald spots, and showed up to signings, interviews and library talks, crossing all fingers and toes that nobody would ask me any questions about the relationship.
“Are you two going to get married?” asked a girl in the audience at a library reading.
I eyed the door, contemplating a swift moonwalk towards the exit. The door was so close. So close.
I looked back at the little girl. God, she was so tiny and sincere. What was she? Seven? Eight years old?
Truth: No, the relationship is over.
Bullshit artistry: “Oh, well, weddings are expensive and I guess I’ve always felt I’d rather use that money to explore or invest or learn French or whatever. And anyway, a lot of women don’t get married these days because there is no longer an economic incentive now that we’re financially independent, and genuine love can be enjoyed without a certificate issued by a corrupt institution of questionable religious origins that ostracizes people on the basis of their sexual orientation and…”
Or something along those lines; I can’t remember, because, while my body remained upright for those months of promotion – talking, smiling, gesticulating in all the correct places – my consciousness was plummeting towards the ground like a wingless plane.
I dappled in some truth telling, but it didn’t go down well. Once time I was at the event of another author when a woman in the audience recognized me. “I loved your book!” she gushed. “Are you two still together?”
“No.” I confessed. “Unfortunately we broke up.”
She gasped all the breathing air right out of the room. I swear paper fluttered off tabletops, straight towards her monumental intake of shock. Her eyes shot open and her hands flung up over her mouth as she mumbled, “I’m sorry” at least five times before backing out the door.
I fought the urge to call out, “And my dad is dead too!” because it’s hard to stop the truth once it starts coming out. “And I have writers’ block and no remaining sense of self-worth!”
Lucky for us both, she was quick footed.
My editor suggested it might be cathartic (and great for publicity!) to blog all the juicy details of the breakup while starting work on a tell-all sequel. A friend proposed a fitting title: Hate with a Chance of Screw You, but I felt that story perhaps packed a little too much angry, self-pitying angst in it for an eight-year old or a gay romantic from New York or everyone in the whole world for that matter.
Besides, what would the narrative arc be? There was no plot to extract from a life of lying in bed all day with the curtains drawn, no happy ending in my new vocation of playing Candy Crush Saga on the same level for months while listening to Lolita on audiobook, on repeat, to ensure I would never forget how truly disturbing love can be.
If this were the end of a movie, we would now be in the third and final act, which is the part where the protagonist has an epiphany that makes all the toil of the first two acts worth more than the sum of its trouble.
There would be a panning shot of Anne Hathaway captured with a drone, rising higher and higher above her head until she’s but a spec in a crowded street, putting the smallness of her being into perspective. A cute indie acoustic tune would make our hearts feel snug as the credits began rolling.
But the trouble is, as Jeff Probst says, I got nothin’ for ya.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a tragedy. As life went on, I stopped making wet, guttural weeping sounds when I tried to laugh; I deleted Candy Crush Saga from my phone and moved on from Lolita, got up out of bed, travelled solo for a while…
I grew up a bit. I made some beautiful new friends, and met a gorgeous man – a homebody – who makes me feel so cosy, accepted and loved.
I wrote a new book that is, in part, a belated apology to that gay man in New York and that little girl in the library – a kind of soothing aftercare for all that accidental gut punching. David Letterman’s people never called, because the film didn’t get off the ground before the option expired, to my great relief.
But I still look back on that time in my life and think: Huh?
And also: Ouch.
And sometimes: Ugh, that sucked so badly.
And that’s okay.
Over the last three years, I’ve stopped believing that happy endings are something to strive for. Our culture puts an unhealthy amount of emphasis on optimism and positive thinking, while the negative (but necessary) dimensions of being a human – depression, illness, struggle – get locked away in a cupboard, because you can’t put an inspirational meme overlay on it.
These days I try to be a realist. Realists don’t patronize. They don’t offer platitudes to make you think everything is going to be okay. They don’t have an agenda to manipulate every tale into one with a happy ending. Realists are honest, even when honesty is bleak, ugly and a little bit smelly.
We often mistake realists for pessimists, because their world view isn’t always sunny. But it takes courage to be truthful. It takes courage to stare out at the void and say I dunno and be okay with the deep, perplexing uncertainty of not knowing.
A realist will tell you that sometimes there might not be a silver lining to extract out of painful events. Sometimes you Google Ten Ways to Recover from a Painful Breakup when You’re Awkwardly Connected to your Ex by a Memoir… and get no search results, and that kind of sucks.
Sometimes life can hurt you and all you have to show for it is a weird scar, and you’re confused about what the lesson is, or even if there is a lesson at all – or if, perhaps, we’re just a cluster of ridiculous talking monkeys swirling on a blue ball in empty and meaningless nothingness.
I don’t know about you, but to me that feels like a relief. So long as I’m not working my brain to spin every story into a positive, to make it seem like everything is okay, or predestined, or somehow part of a bigger plot – I can just be with what is so.
And from that place of undecorated truth, I can fall, with the full heft of my physical and emotional energy, into rightnowness.
And I tell you something: rightnowness is rather magnificent.