first person

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Breakup

Photo: Susanne Borges/A.B./Corbis

The night my ex and I broke up, we slept together. It’s not what you think. For eight months, we’d been flying back and forth across the country to see each other, eight months of time-zone-complicated late-night conversations, when I would wake at 2 a.m. Eastern to hear his voice from the West Coast. After all, that’s what you do when deep in the mind-altering heat of a long-distance relationship.

The grand, sweeping power of it all — how we met by chance, how we fell into “instant-love,” and how we’d committed to trying to be together despite the 3,000 miles between our homes — was itself a kind of foreplay to me, a romantic with an overdeveloped imagination. Some of the best parts of a long-distance relationship live in the fantasies built up in the spaces in between visits. Your belief that despite the distance, a cosmic connection exists, transcending all the mundane constraints of daily life, makes you a little bit superhuman, super-beloved. It feels glorious. And, who knows, it might even work out!

But at some point, even that LDR high couldn’t keep up with the actual absence I had begun to feel, almost as though this boyfriend who had never fully been there geographically in the first place was slipping away. That’s when I did the most dangerous thing you can do in a long-distance relationship: I wanted more. I had been telling him I was unhappy over the phone for weeks, the discontent growing stronger within me, and his resentment growing in accord with my own.    

He drove across the country to stay with me, lugging his suitcase into my apartment and taking up residence, no fantasy at all, just reality. I hadn’t intended to incite a breakup conversation, exactly, but suddenly, there it was, right in front of us. At the end of it, he asked, “Do you want me to leave your apartment?”

It made sense, why would he stay? But the idea of him leaving jolted me. If he were here, he should be with me. That was how it had been since we’d met.

“No, um, I mean, you’ve got work to do, and where else would you go?” I said. “And we haven’t eaten dinner. You have to eat dinner.”

That night we got into the same bed and lie there without touching, facing away from each other, the way one might share a hotel mattress with a platonic classmate on a school trip, fully aware of the space between us and making sure not to cross over, because that’s not who we were to each other, now. When he fell asleep, I let tears slide down my face and muffled my crying with my pillow.

The next morning, he drove away, back across the country, where it was no longer my business to try to find him again. For several weeks, I felt euphoric and free, as if he were a problem I’d managed to shake and was all the better for it. Then, oddly, I sunk into a kind of delayed despair. Even though he was gone, no longer in the same Zip Code or even time zone as I was, and certainly no longer calling me too late at night (how I wished he would!), I saw him everywhere: on Twitter, on Gmail. His little green Gchat light taunted me. Facebook and Instagram left a thousand hints and a thousand imaginings. Was he already over me, and dating someone else? Probably. I couldn’t ask, I didn’t want to know, but I wanted to know so badly! E-lurking and even stalking is par for the course with just about any modern ex, near or far, but the geographical divide between us had meant we’d largely relied on these measures to connect, and while I’d ostensibly given him up, I couldn’t stop looking at my phone, willing a text to come in, or one of those beautifully written emails I’d once gotten from him.

Instead, mostly there was simply the absence of him, which felt more raw and enormous each day. Occasionally we would talk, because we were supposed to still “be friends,” because what had brought us together was always mutual respect and admiration and caring, and also because I’d begun to secretly hope that if I didn’t disappear entirely from his life, he’d change his mind. He came to town six months after we broke up, and we wandered around together in Brooklyn, where he helped me pick out a new pair of glasses. It felt like closure, though in retrospect, I was still hanging on, even then.

For a full year, I saw him, or ghosts of him, versions that grew both more frequent and also further from the truth as my memories stretched out and became wobbly with time. I cried when I got home from drinks with other men, thinking about how they’d failed to measure up, and no one ever would. I’d look out my window across the street, where Brooklyn hipster types and their dogs lined up for coffee, and I’d see a tall bearded man in plaid wearing glasses, and a shock would go through me. It couldn’t be him, could it? (It couldn’t.) Since I never ran into him, say, in a bodega, looking hung-over and like no one I should have dated in the first place (see: a range of past exes), I could never quite get ahead of our breakup. He was always doing better, always a success story, always okay, because he wasn’t around to prove otherwise, and he certainly wasn’t calling to tell me anything. As I struggled to come to terms with what had happened, I beat myself up doubly: for giving up on us, and for being so damn bad at this breakup.

Finally, several weeks to the year after that last night we slept in a bed together came a series of drunken Gchats (my fault). That our last conversation, rendered incoherent with however many wines I’d sipped, would occur via the same medium by which we’d conducted much of our courtship was further insult to injury, and yet, it had a necessary effect: I stopped reaching out to him altogether. And, funnily enough, I started to feel better.

A friend who has also endured a long-distance breakup told me she found her ending easier than the demise of a local relationship. “The time we spent together didn’t feel like it belonged to either of our lives, because our relationship didn’t exist anywhere but in between,” she said. “Since our lives were never really integrated, it felt like our time together was like vacation.” But for me, it was the opposite. When we were together, I had seen my relationship as existing everywhere: In my apartment, and in his, which I could still see via social media if I dared to look. In the airplanes that took us back and forth across the country, in the phone lines, in my internet connection, in the food we ate together and places we went, in the conversations we shared and people we met, and most of all in the future I’d imagined for us. Maybe my idea of us had grown so expansive, the reality of us couldn’t keep up. And when we ended, instead of our breakup eradicating his presence — out of sight, out of mind — for me, it caused him to grow into something more looming and idealized than he had ever been in reality. This ghost ex-boyfriend, created of the wisps of a withered long-distance relationship, a fantasy phantasmagoria, was a force to be contended with. Had he been real, he might have been quite the catch. But, of course, he was only in my own mind.

While I was convening with ghosts, he was moving on. It took me a long time, but eventually, I followed suit. The thing is, just as a relationship takes two people, so does a breakup. At some point, I began to realize that, and I stopped imagining.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Breakup