After a bad breakup, travel healed my broken heart
He was exactly what I needed at the time, and I loved him for that. I loved him for his manic energy, the way that he made everyone feel special for a moment, and for his chili pepper tattoo, inked on his hip by his father. In the small town where we both attended a liberal arts university on the river, we rode bikes together, we went to the market, we drank on patios and we danced on the weekends, stumbling home barefoot to his apartment or mine, which were only three houses apart.
I don’t know when I first realized, and promptly dismissed, the fact that I was no longer happy. Maybe when his love of partying stopped being fun, when I stopped being able to keep up with that energy.
I was changing, too—making new friends and wanting different things—and even though perhaps part of me knew this relationship was no longer working, I still felt terrified when I began sensing he was bored with me, like I was no longer enough. He started going out without me more and more, listening less and less when I spoke and spending more time looking at his phone than at me. Feelings of inadequacy crept in as I began to believe I wasn’t as fun, wasn’t as beautiful, wasn’t as spontaneous as the girls I saw him looking at.
When I discovered that he had discreetly rekindled a relationship with an ex, confirming my fears and insecurities, I panicked and confronted him, calling it quits after almost two years. I felt so stupid for being so blind for so long, especially after realizing this wasn’t the first time he had cheated on me, or at least behaved in ways that a guy in a relationship shouldn’t. Once we were over, friends started coming forward with the classic faux reassurances, I never liked him anyways, and with stories of having seen him at clubs dancing with other girls, flirting with friends of friends or drunkenly trying stupid pickup lines with strangers; even his roommate admitted to being relieved that I had called it quits, telling me I deserved better than that. I tried to laugh, to have an I sure dodged a bullet, eh? chuckle with him, but I was stewing with shame on the inside. After the breakup, I took to my bed for several days, too lazy and sad to shovel the snow off the steps leading down from my attic apartment, too exhausted to care about anything.
After the sadness came anger, then determination. I thought, screw this, I can just leave. I felt free for the first time to be someone new, to explore who I was without being by his side. I knew I needed distance, to separate myself from all the places we used to go. So I opened my laptop, did some research about work-abroad opportunities and got in contact with a woman from a tiny Irish town called Dingle through an au pair website.
After the sadness came anger, then determination. I thought, screw this, I can just leave.
I agreed to come stay in the hostel she owned for five months over the spring and summer, being a nanny for her three kids while she ran the business. It felt like a big, bold move. We Skyped, I met the kids and I became obsessed with the idea of my new life. I saw myself riding a bike in the misty morning through green, rolling Irish hills, spending my days exploring with the kids and my evenings drinking at the local pub, listening to folk music and going for chilly strolls by the ocean. I would wear wool sweaters and waterproof hiking boots. I would grow my hair out again, and my cheeks would get rosy from the constant but welcomed wind and rain. I would be a new person. I would leave it all behind and simply disappear into this rainy little sea town.
But then he showed up and shovelled the snow from the steps. He knocked and asked to come in. The cold air that rushed through the door I hadn’t opened in days woke me from my dreamy haze. He apologized deeply for exchanging messages with his ex behind my back, while simultaneously and ever so subtly implying that I was overreacting. He promised that nothing more had happened between them (they were only talking, after all!) and the other little instances I had heard about were swept under the rug as ancient history or stupid rumours from my friends who had “always had it in for him anyways.” I wanted to believe him. I started to question myself, to question everything. After two years together, the thought of being apart terrified me.
I still wonder what would have happened if I had gone to Dingle that summer, and I wish I could say I dropped everything and went. But I didn’t. He didn’t even really ask me not to; I just convinced myself that I couldn’t do it, that the whole thing was too drastic, too… big. I called the trip off, we decided to “work on things,” and then I went through a severe bout of depression. I leaned on him for support, which was ironic, seeing as he was the one who had, at least in part, caused the sadness. I lost my job, and since his roommates had mostly moved on, leaving him renting a room in an otherwise empty house, I moved in with him. I dreaded being alone.
Suddenly I found myself sharing a very lonely space with a man I had fallen in love with two years prior, but felt I hardly knew anymore. I slowly drifted away from those friends who had congratulated me after the breakup, turning more and more to him, not wanting to face the truth, not wanting to leave my safe, ignorant bubble. I couldn’t muster up the energy to picture my life in any other way or the courage to imagine something better. I convinced myself that no relationship is perfect, and reminded myself constantly of the bike rides, the markets, the patio drinks. I wanted so badly to be what he wanted me to be, to be what he needed, not caring that he was neither to me.
I wanted so badly to be what he wanted me to be, to be what he needed, not caring that he was neither to me.
There was hardly any furniture in the house, and my steps echoed when I crossed the living room or climbed the stairs. I had inherited my sister’s two cats while she was in Indonesia for six months, and they were my best company, following me around from room to room. I picked flowers, putting them in a cup and placing them on our table. I pushed the few pieces of furniture we had into one corner of the living room in an attempt to make at least that corner feel cozy, to feel like home.
When he went to work, I would drag a blanket out into the backyard, avoiding the thistles, and lay in the sun, reading books and daydreaming in the heat. He would come home and we would quietly navigate around each other, making dinner and cleaning up, watching a movie or doing nothing at all. He never seemed to notice the cup-flowers.
I don't know when exactly I decided I needed more. Maybe on one of the long lonely nights I spent waiting up on the couch with the two cats, falling asleep, only to hear him stumble in at one, two, three in the morning, smelling like beer or weed and walking straight past me to the bedroom. Somehow, that same I could just go feeling came back. The last time I had decided to cut him loose had felt like a volcano that had finally erupted furiously, and leaving was a knee-jerk reaction. But this time felt more like a dull ache that had slowly intensified over time, to the point where I could no longer bear it, even though I was desperately trying to. I looked around the house, finally realizing nothing was mine. This house wasn’t mine. These things weren’t mine. This life wasn’t mine.
Once again, I opened my laptop. I reactivated my profile on the au pair website, put "anywhere" as my preferred destination, and began sifting through potential host families, spread out all over the world. I tried on different countries, different lives in my mind, seeing myself sipping wine in France, or picking seashells on a beach in Australia. Soon my search led me to an Italian family looking for a live-in English tutor/big sister for their teenage daughter. A vision of myself wandering down Florentine streets, holding a gelato in one hand and a map in the other, started to take shape in my mind. It felt abstract, fuzzy around the edges like a Polaroid not quite set, but it took root nonetheless.
I tried on different countries, different lives in my mind, seeing myself sipping wine in France, or picking seashells on a beach in Australia.
I remember the day my sister came to take me to the airport, we stuffed my huge suitcase into the trunk, packed up the cats and I quickly kissed him goodbye in that empty living room. Everything was uncertain. I had told him I would be back in five months, he had said maybe it would be good for us. I didn’t know exactly what “us” meant, but we promised to keep in touch. In my memory, he didn’t come outside.
When I first stepped off the plane in Florence, I felt nauseous. Partly from the heat, partly from exhaustion and partly from the fear that I had made a huge mistake. I felt as if I was crawling through a thick fog as I made my way to the exit, heard an Italian woman call out my name and I followed her to her car. She chatted to me on the ride back to the apartment, pointing out the beautiful Arno River dividing the city in two, the breathtaking view of the bridges joining the two halves, but I heard nothing. Tears threatened my eyes as I realized I was far, very far, from home.
The first few weeks, I hardly slept. I would stay up half the night sweating in bed in the September heat, or being eaten alive by mosquitos from the screenless window, thrown wide open in the hopes of catching a breeze. I would quietly cry myself to sleep, knowing that I had to be here, that I couldn’t have stayed, that the “home” I pined for no longer existed.
Walking down the street one day, a man handed me a silk flower. I put it in a cup and placed it on my night table, remembering the last few months that were now fading from me fast.
I went through the motions, walking the ever-confusing streets, map in hand, trying not to lose myself and not caring much when I did. I ate gelato and tried to understand why it was different from ice cream. I tried making friends, and even got invited out one night with a small group of au pairs, but I got so rip-roaring drunk that I ended up crying and throwing up in the street.
That was my low. The next morning, something clicked. I sat up in bed, and decided to stop being sad. I started running in the park every morning. I joined a yoga studio. I slowly, but surely, made some really lovely friends who were foreigners, far from home and struggling with a new language and a new culture, like me. They didn’t know about him, or the sadness, and they didn’t need to know. I started writing, I started travelling. I saw Cinque Terre, Rome, Venice, Budapest. The ache was still there, but it stopped being an all-consuming burn, and became just a fading bruise. I could no longer remember how he smelled, what colour that old couch was, or if the flowers were daisies or black-eyed Susans. I started feeling spontaneous, carefree and light. One day while sitting in a café that had become my morning spot, where I religiously met my friends at ten for a cappuccino every day, a man interrupted us to say in broken English, you have such a luminous smile. I had indeed, become another girl.
Slowly, slowly, “leaving” stopped defining me. I was no longer running away from something, I was just here, just being. I hadn’t left somewhere old; I had gone somewhere new.
I could have gone anywhere, but what was important was that I went.
Three years later I am still here, just being. The girl I used to be feels like a husk, or a shell that I shed and left behind. I needed to go to stay. I needed to define myself against a new backdrop, and I did. The city was unknown to me, and I was unknown to it; the unfamiliarity of a new place was what healed me. I could have gone anywhere, but what was important was that I went.
I even opened myself up to love again. I learned to trust, and to define myself not by my proximity to another person, but by my own capabilities, needs and desires. I eventually found a job as an English teacher, found an apartment, made friends that stayed and friends that left and battled with the concept of belonging, which I sometimes still do.
Sometimes we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable rut, and though it may be far from perfect, it’s weirdly reassuring in its familiarity. But, it’s only once we test our limits that we find out how capable we are, without the need for validation from another person. Diving into the unknown played a huge role in helping me get to know myself again, and I think without an ocean’s worth of space, I would have been tempted to fall back into my familiar old rut, as I had before. Once I was away and forced to find my way around a new city, discover new things on my own and make the choice between seeking out friends or remaining alone, I began to thrive once again.
Last summer, I visited Canada and it finally felt like home. I no longer thought of my small town with dread as I had on previous visits, but with a nostalgic longing. Even though I have a new home in Italy now, Canada has stopped being a place I need to run from, but a place I look forward to visiting, a place I talk about with enthusiasm and love.
One day in late July last year, I was riding my bike alone in that small town, and I stopped at a red light. Another cyclist pulled up beside me, just a little bit ahead. I recognized that bike, that shirt, that hat. In that moment, it was as if we were riding bikes together like we used to, me always just slightly behind him, never quite keeping up.
“Hello,” I said.
He turned, took off his sunglasses and with surprise said, “Hello. What are you doing back?”
I smiled when I realized: this doesn’t hurt anymore. There was so much I could have told him. So many adventures, so many new friends, new foods tried, new things learned, but those were my stories. And I decided to keep them for myself.
“Just visiting,” I said.