You taught me how to break.
You’d sit at the coffee table, an empty ceramic bowl in front of you. I heard your fingers work open the bag of peanuts, the plastic crackling like firewood.
You placed the shell between your index finger and thumb, and you pressed until it cracked open. One after the other, the carcasses piled in the bowl. You liked the amusement on my face when I successfully cracked a shell on my own, the peanut lying naked in my palm until I placed it in my mouth. This, I learned, is what rawness tasted like. I wanted more.
He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not. One by one, I plucked petals from a daisy in my grandmother’s lush garden, thinking about a boy whose name I’d forget.
Smash, shatter, obliterate, split, divorce. It’s all the same. In school I’d snap pencils in half to prove to myself how strong I was, and study the severed wood and lead. I lined up the two halves, fascinated by their point of separation. I knew I could put the pencil halves back together after I broke them, but the cracks still showed.
A habit is harder to break than a peanut shell. An addiction is harder to break than a person.
Here is a list of things you can get addicted to that you can’t snort, shoot, or smoke:
Beards. The dial tone of a voicemail. Iced coffee. Astrology. Twitter. Arrivals. The flames that lick your throat after a shot of tequila. Compliments. Departures. Names. The color of a bruise. A touch, a voice, a feeling.
One day my therapist had me make a list of traits that described my ex-boyfriends. Then she had me make a list that described each of my parents. We cross compared, and the similarities outnumbered the differences. I know she did this on purpose, to teach me a lesson. We subconsciously attract what we grow up observing. We break and unbreak our tolerance, but only when it’s convenient for us.
“Look, you’re damaged, okay? Don’t idolize me just because I was the first one to treat you like a person.” This came from the first-year med student I dated briefly at the beginning of senior year of college. He opened doors for me. He excitedly talked about going on vacations together. He broke up with me in his car on an icy December night after picking me up from work.
The word hit hard and fast, his mouth a smoking gun. Damaged.
Back then I had a habit of spilling over—I didn’t know how to be opened up without overflowing. On the first several dates, I would tiptoe around the ex-partner topic but eventually land there anyway. Brief exchanges of “it didn’t work out” or “that person fucked me up.” But with him, he could absorb anything I told him. When I’d find myself rambling, he’d cut me off and say “Hey, hey. It’s okay. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
He made me feel like a failed anatomy lesson. I never got to ask him if the human heart really is the same size as a fist.
My senior year of high school, my mother pulled up the sleeves of her bathrobe to show me purple rings on her arms. The man who did that to her bought flowers to apologize, every arrangement uglier than the last. He was colorblind.
You used to cover my eyes whenever there was a kiss scene in a movie we were watching. A playful gasp, and then I’d see nothing but the calloused skin of your palm. I’ll never be that young again. Sometimes, I wish I was.
Before I turned twenty-one, I fell for a guy who had a girlfriend. Usually we went separate ways when class ended, but one day in early October I was about to put my headphones in when suddenly he turned around and opened his mouth to speak. We started texting until we fell asleep. When he told me about his relationship, I took that as an invitation to feel stupid. Before I could muster a response, he quickly said “I’m breaking up with her, though.” To his credit, he was a theater major, and I was inclined to be attracted to dramatic types despite knowing better. One day, I wore a skirt with fishnets to class. We sat on a bench afterwards and when he touched my thigh, I thought my body would burst into flames. But October turned into November. My patience, as well as his attention span, was thinning. The texts became less frequent, the formality and flattery dissipated. On my birthday I had a stain on my heart in the shape of his name. I tried to get rid of it with margaritas. The sugar still tasted like salt. I woke up hungover and skipped class.
“I swear, broken girls are so much better in bed.” A group of servers and I were sitting in a booth behind the host stand in the Downtown Cleveland restaurant we worked. Service was stalled. At twenty, my body was still foreign to me, and to the touch of someone else. I laughed nervously and listened to one coworker talk about how he used a girl for drug money, his glassy pupils widening. The high he was chasing would never love him back. Damaged goods were presented to him through unbuttoned blouses and unzipped jeans.
What constitutes brokenness? The DSM-5 would say attachment disorder. Old medicine would cite hysteria, the first known mental disorder attributed to women, with a reputation and lengthy, complex history to match. In Greek mythology, many believed that hysteria was caused by a lack of orgasms or the absence of male companionship in a woman’s life, which was referred to as “uterine melancholy.” Hippocrates and Aristotle shared the opinion that was expressed by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus, that “the uterus is sad and unfortunate when it does not join with the male and does not give rise to a new birth.”
The server would simplify that to daddy issues, which you can’t see in the dark.
I’ve been told that addiction is genetic. I don’t know what I inherited from you, aside from your eyes and hair color, your major in college. Now you can only recite the first line of The Canterbury Tales, because your hippocampus stopped catching up with all the hangovers.
Even now I sometimes think back to the peanut shells, get in touch with the part of me who is capable of destruction. I forget that my body can do more than create. Blood vessels burst under the graze of teeth, forming blown-up commas on the skin. Desperate, lonely mouths are pressed together out of hunger. I’ve toyed with messiness. I’ve drank whole bottles of wine by myself. I’ve maxed out a credit card. I’ve kissed people who would never give a fuck about my mind. I’d opt for the same people until my eyes were sore from crying and my heartbeat felt warped. Over and over. Not only do I get addicted to the euphoric high that comes with getting close to someone, but also to the feeling of having that euphoria ripped out from under me.
In middle school, I thought I was edgy, painting my nails black and listening to Paramore, and on occasion, Joan Jett. We are not ashamed, to say that love is pain, and we’ll do it again. I hadn’t even had my first kiss yet, but at thirteen it was cool to be cynical.
I am a descendant of grand gestures. Your father, my granddaddy, wrote love letters in the 1940s and was married to his wife for seventy years until he died. My mother said that three days after you met her, you gifted her a key to your apartment and a picture of yourself with a poem written on the back.
When a guy would ask me to be his girlfriend, I could already hear a conclusion in his voice, the idea of an exit forming. Then I met someone whose lips didn’t have the burning taste of urgency. Despite how light he made everything feel, I heard a voice in the back of my mind telling me to fuck it all up, to download a dating app and talk to other guys. If he wouldn’t hurt me, I could beat him to it. The urge to ruin something before it even begins has just as much potency as a drug. It’s a roar that can only be reduced to a murmur, never silenced. Not even the poets can cure me of this.
I can’t swallow pills. Instead, I bite down and crush them between my teeth. As a millennial I’m supposed to love instant gratification and the rush that comes with it, but the pleasure doesn’t last long enough to claim it.
Gluttony can never be age-appropriate. I learned that from you. When I was nine I found miniature plastic bags in your sock drawer, and the cut-up plastic straws that you used to take bumps easier. On my twenty-second birthday I went to New York and bought myself a cupcake from Magnolia Bakery, licking the buttercream frosting from my fingers. I felt filthy.
Five hundred milligrams of acetaminophen dissolve in my mouth, and I chase their bitterness with water. When he told me he loved me, I let the words live on the roof of my mouth until I had the courage to swallow them whole. They tasted like the truth.
Rumpus original art by Emily Jean Alexander.