book excerpt

How to Call the Whole Thing Off

The day after breaking my fiancé’s heart, we attended his best friend’s wedding together. It didn’t go well.

Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

I wasn’t sure if I’d make it across the West Side Highway alive.

Everything about my body and mind was unsteady as I stumbled ahead — and the traffic was coming. I had no shoes on. My eyes were blinded by octagons of tears and particles of cobalt-blue mascara. It was somehow too much to carry my crocodile clutch (fuck clutches), my strappy heels, and the heavy, clunky wedding present in the glittery gift bag, especially because my hands would not stop shaking. So I consolidated the bags, chucked the shoes in the street, and dragged myself to the other side.

That’s when my left ankle gave out. It does that sometimes. There is nothing more undignified than gracelessness. I fell to my knees on the sidewalk. My long, silky blush slip dress ripped, revealing my scraped and bleeding legs. But I got right back up and kept on going.

If I turned back — which I would not — I could still see Chelsea Piers, and the big fancy wedding I was running away from. It was not my wedding that I was running away from. I had called off my wedding — which would have been much more “indie bride” style — the night before. This wedding was for my now-ex-fiancé’s friends, where my now-ex-fiancé was the best man. He was, indeed, the best man: the best man I would ever be in a relationship with, even though I still couldn’t marry him.

I had broken his heart the night before while sitting on our beige Pottery Barn couch in our beige one-bedroom rental, in a beige high-rise building in the Flatiron District. After five happy-ish years together and one large diamond ring (which I picked out myself and definitely did not hate), I told him it was over for no reason other than not loving him enough. That’s all I had, really. I didn’t love him enough or desire him enough or need him enough or want him enough to lock into a lifestyle together forever. I only said the love part, though — why make things more complicated than they had to be?

Whatever words I used or didn’t, the breakup was brutal. He was young and sweet-natured and untarnished, and had yet to develop the coping skills for life’s cruelties and disappointments. (Neither had I, really, but I was built “tough yet tender.” It was my brand from birth.) We both cried all night and I was surprised by how hard it was on my heart, given this was what I wanted. I did love him, and I was going to miss him: his sparkling green eyes, the way he would get ridiculously excited to introduce me to a new restaurant that he hoped I’d think was cool, how he playfully called me “My Loony Lys” whenever I’d start to unravel without explanation. “My Loony Lys” would always make me laugh and temporarily defuse things.

It was savage to hurt the nicest person in my life like this. But it was worse prolonging the pain. I wasn’t coming home at night. Some of his friends had seen me out at clubs and off the rails. My life was full of moral ambiguity, but I couldn’t bear to make a fool out of him.

My new job as a reporter at Us Weekly and my new crowd that liked to party kept me fluttering around the city till the sun came up. The nightlife was all heat and sting and it felt like exactly the place I wanted to be, doing exactly the things I wanted to be doing. It was like: double dates and sake bombs with Cornell frat boys turned starter bankers, or drinking and smoking all night long with celebrities, supermodels, and rock stars? You tell me.

Every other night, I was either messing around with Thomas, a womanizing photographer with whiskey dick, or Trevor, a feral musician with a trust fund. There was Jax, just out of jail, who took me on an erotic date to a car wash in Queens. And Paul, from upstate, who liked to go downstate. I was twenty-five years old and it was safe and consensual sexual experimentation — which I found profoundly pleasurable. But I was engaged. And the fact that I wanted to be with everyone but my very square fiancé was an issue. Honest conversations about ethical nonmonogamy and open relationships were not yet a thing for most mainstream couples, and if they had been, maybe we could have found an arrangement that was right for both of us. Though, he was a traditional guy and I semiconsciously did not want to be a wife, and those parameters were pretty well fixed and very much competing.

The morning after I ended things, with our faces chafed from tears and our eyes stinging from sleep deprivation, my ethics suddenly kicked in and I didn’t think it was appropriate to be a last-minute no-show at this stupid wedding. We had to go together. By the time we arrived, everyone knew we were over. He had told his friends everything the night before so that no one would wonder why we were “being weird.”

At the pre-ceremony cocktail hour (a phrase I hope to never use again), everyone was gossiping about the breakup, which didn’t really bother me, but it was unpleasant for him. The murmurs and whispers were practically echoing off the harpsichord. When I went to the bathroom, I overheard two girls, who I’m sure were elliptical thin with epic memories from Montauk, talking about me. From the stall, I could only see their perfect pedis in ballet slipper pink. One of the girls was detailing how I once discussed pornography with her boyfriend, which she found to be grossly inappropriate, and the other one added that I was “kind of a whore.” It was painful to hear, but I told myself I deserved the social punishment.

Everyone made it abundantly clear that I was the persona non grata, and though it was an intense hour of my life that left some nasty scar tissue, I ultimately respected their loyalty to my ex. These were the people who would get him back on his feet with fantasy baseball leagues and “Rosé All Day” and hookups with cute interns from Merrill and assistant buyers at Bloomingdale’s, and he needed them. I never belonged there anyway.

I assumed, however, that I could get through this “timelessly elegant” wedding with poise. It was miserable and alienating, but … that’s what passed champagne and deviled eggs were for, right? When I sat for the ceremony, the only people who wanted to sit next to me were relatives with names like Rhonda and Mordi — and even they weren’t so sure about me, energetically. “Kind of a whore” clanged in my head, but I tried to shake it off and hold my shoulders back like a lady. But when I saw my ex walk down the aisle so defeated and embarrassed and exhausted, in the classic tuxedo we had purchased for him, hand in hand, with his first-year bonus check from the investment bank, it was impossible to hold back the tears.

The dam burst open. My whimpers turned into weeping and the weeping turned into sobbing, and suddenly I was fighting for air. I felt so overwhelmed by emotions that I was choking on them. My wailing was loud and appalling and I could not stop. As if I hadn’t already caused enough unnecessary noise, my unrelenting shrieks were now ruining the whole ceremony. The more I tried to control them, the more the sobbing and choking were amplified. I was crying myself to death and causing a very unfortunate scene. There was no other option but to remove myself entirely. So, mid-vows, I stood up rudely and inharmoniously, ran toward the emergency exit, and busted out of there. Like a nut. Like a drama queen. Like the dangerous person they’d all warned him I was.

Out on the street, gasping for air, I was stunned by what had just happened. Stunned! But I was free. I had hardly floated away like a pretty little petal, but I was free. And that was goodbye. Loony Lys was out.

Why I took this couple’s shimmering wedding gift with me, though, I have no clue. I’d rather have a pap smear than a wedding present. In fact, it was somewhere near the All-Clad aisle one week earlier where I’d made the final decision to call everything off. My mom had taken me to Macy’s Cellar to register for cookware and dishware and where the hell was I? This could not be my life. My mom saw that I was having trouble functioning in the Cellar, sweating profusely, and not enjoying the experience at all. It was an anxiety attack. She reminded me that I could tell her anything, and forced me to “let it out, already!” So, finally, in front of the stainless-steel pressure cookers, I released all the truth bombs. Everything about getting married felt wrong. I didn’t give a shit about having a wedding or becoming a wife. I was already counting the affairs I would need to have to make me feel alive in the marriage — and I had recently started several of them.

My mom didn’t seem too surprised by any of it, and she certainly didn’t try to turn the bus back around. Hers was the only opinion I ever cared about — then and now. We were always the same kind of complex and unruly woman. She chose a traditional lifestyle with my dad that went against her wild-hearted nature because she’d had a hard childhood and valued stability above any of the whimsical stuff. I had an easy and safe childhood, so I craved trouble, and knew I could get away with it because I had unconditional love and a support system. As such, nothing was more romantic to me than a bad decision.

Without judgment, but also without any room for interpretation, my mother told me that I had to end my duplicitous life and my engagement — and fast. It was monstrous to do this to him, and that’s not who I was or how she’d raised me. Plus, she’s a Virgo, and had months of compulsive planning to undo.

In the countless breakups I would endure following this chapter of my life, this was the only ending where I truly wounded an innocent man. The rest of the breakups would be even uglier and worse — oh yeah, pull up a seat and a deviled egg — but the guys almost always deserved what they got, as did I. This person did not. And that guilt lived inside me for years to come. A lot would go wrong for me, and I would often wonder if it was karma for the way I’d treated him and the damage that I did — not just to this good person but to my own future trajectory.

So, no, I did not cross the West Side Highway into a world of rainbows and unicorns on that tough, transformative day. Not even close.

Alyssa Shelasky edits the Cut’s Sex Diaries column.

From This Might Be Too Personal by Alyssa Shelasky. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

How to Call the Whole Thing Off