it's complicated

My Ex’s Old Stuff Saved Me After Our Breakup

Photo-Illustration: J.V. Aranda

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After my ex left for the last time, I swear the apartment developed an echo. Sound reverberated off the empty spaces where his things had been before he packed them up and shipped them back across the country. The living room looked, to me, like a movie set — at once familiar and completely counterfeit. Six years together and those blank spaces on the bookshelf felt like teeth pulled right out of my mouth — they hurt just as much, and they left gaps.

It wasn’t until a little later that I discovered the first of many things he’d left behind, either accidentally or because they didn’t matter anymore. It hit me in the gut when I was least expecting it, in the kitchen digging through the cutlery drawer: a bottle opener.

As far as bottle openers go, it’s a bit unusual. The handle is made of a section of bicycle chain that dangles loose until you snap it into function. It is uniquely him. I ran my finger along the metal links, remembering his many cycling-related items that once filled the closet. Then I buried the opener in a drawer under elastic bands and wooden shish-kebab skewers.

At this point, there were still photos of us tacked up on the wall. There was a recipe from his grandma on the fridge with a personal note just for me. So why the sting from a utensil?

It turned out the bottle opener wasn’t unique in the way it made me feel, though. After that first discovery, the remaining objects jumped out and announced themselves, and with each reveal came a fresh wave of memories, a reminder of my loneliness, a review in my head of what went wrong. I never knew snow pants could send me into a tailspin, but there they were, royal blue and taunting me. A book about business habits, a hatchet we bought during a rainy camping trip — it was like some kind of scavenger hunt where the prize was dejection every time you checked an item off your list.

But while objects can have the power to undo us emotionally, they also have the power to carry us through. We learn this as kids with our stuffed animals, our security blankets — certain things can bring enough comfort that they end up empowering us not to need them anymore. To psychologists, these are known as “transitional objects,” and they act as tools in bolstering a child’s move toward independence. A toy can be more than a toy; it can minimize stress and reinforce resilience.

Just as separation anxiety can continue well past early phases of development, comfort items, too, carry over into adulthood. Psychologist Mark Brenner has said that “transitional objects continue through the course of our lives,” which helps to explain why we all have items we just can’t throw away, even in the KonMari era. A photograph, a piece of clothing, and apparently even a bottle opener can be a locus for the nostalgia that centers and connects us.

It also helps explain why the stuff that broke my heart to look at also kept me glued together. My bicycle, which he bought me, at first pained me to see. It reminded me of the many Saturdays — our only mutual day off — that he chose to go for a ride rather than spend time together. There was bitterness there, and hurt. But over time, as the bike shifted from obstacle of my recuperation to aid, it spoke to me in no uncertain terms about the importance of supporting a partner’s hobbies, and reminded me of the skills I learned from him — how I can weave with confidence on a busy city street, and time myself with the lights, rarely needing to come to a stop.

Eventually, I gathered everything in one pile on the floor and turned each item over in my hands, mentally revising history as I ascribed magnitude to things that had never crossed my mind before. Feeling his presence in the space was painful, but it was better than feeling alone. When I was done, I put it all back where I got it, not yet ready to part with anything.

I did that a few more times as the weeks went by. When I picked up each piece out of that motley heap of belongings, it felt like holding the past, and after a while that feeling gave me solace. To be able to touch something that seemed predictable was soothing, and shortly after the things became heart pangs, they became lessons. At the center of these items that looked and sounded and seemed like him, there was a core of truth about who we were together.

Once I found what I needed out of each item, I outgrew it and moved on — one thing, one lesson at a time. Simply gathering and tossing things wasn’t enough; it was a purge closer to ritual. For months, underneath the boots he’d abandoned, a pair of perfectly dried muddy footprints turned to dust on the kitchen tile, preserved like an artifact, until one day I scrubbed them clean on my hands and knees. I’d finally had enough of ghosts. Kids outgrow their transitional objects when they gain a solid sense of self. For me, it was a reclamation.

Some of the items, like the boots, I gave away, left at the back of a church along with clothes that no longer fit me. Some I kept, even though they’d served their purpose — the ones that still make me smile to look at, or the ones I think still have something to teach me. I’ve since moved to a new apartment, where I carted those items and stored them away in my closet; now, these tokens feel like a bridge between my life before and my life now.

The objects, as small as some may be, still bring me comfort, though in a new form. They’re reminders of the life we shared — not a failed relationship, but a human one full of flaws, and warmth, and all the good and bad that happens when you connect your life to someone else’s. Though I don’t drag them around with me like I once did my teddy bear, it makes me feel safe to know they are tucked away, waiting there if I need a reminder. They’ll always evoke him, but they’re just things again. I can open bottles without blinking. I can ride my bike wherever I want to go.

My Ex’s Old Stuff Saved Me After Our Breakup