Hurting, Then Healing: A Tale of Two Valentine’s Days

Breakups are hard. Ending your first queer relationship is even harder.

I remember Valentine’s Day 2018 like a scene in a shitty indie movie, a story I know and watched unfold, but didn’t actually experience. J and I sat in a dimly lit Zagat-rated Italian restaurant we had previously never dined at despite living near it for four years. “It’s out of our price range,” J would say whenever I eyed the tiny spot from the street.

“I’ll pay for it,” I told them. The prospect of wild mushroom ravioli and quality time with my partner was sweet enough to whip out my credit card. “I don’t mind. I never mind. Anything for you.”

Most of the time, the sweet act, genuine as it was, wouldn’t work. Though we both grew up queer in the suburbs of New York City, we had disparate upbringings. They’d grown up in true poverty with homophobic and transphobic relatives. I’d never gone without dinner or basic medical care, and my parents accepted my queerness in stride. I had grown up “rich” in comparison, and the contrast was a constant source of tension. To make matters worse, my attempts to ease that tension with gifts or shared experiences, expensive or otherwise, were usually met with a guilty and judgmental “no.”

But, I insisted, it was Valentine’s Day—our fourth together. So I dipped out of work early, took the bus home, and met them at the restaurant, where we shared a meal that tasted exquisite, and felt like the beginning of the end.

It felt like that because, for all intents and purposes, it was.

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That picture-perfect V-Day dinner was a microcosm of our entire relationship. The deep discontent beneath our surface-level happiness and Insta-worthy #QueerPowerCouple pics finally bubbled up, and we mutually ended things shortly thereafter. There was no earth-shattering blowout, no cheating, no dramatic, final straw. This double Gemini with an undeniable flair for the dramatic ended the relationship with a whimper, not a bang.

I was relieved, finally freed from a three-and-a-half-year relationship that bled me of every ounce of patience and care I had to give. But I was also overwhelmed. As happy as I was to be single and on my own, I’d forgotten how to be alone. For years, J was my everything: my first requited crush, my first lover. They were the perfectly imperfect partner I’d never imagined would want me back, and so I clung to them, even when I was no longer happy, because they were my queer first love, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever find anything or anyone better.

I was still so young, so insecure, so new to fully and unapologetically embracing my queerness, and J—this cool, confident, radically political non-binary person—wanted me. Desired me. I felt like I’d won the gay lottery after being told implicitly and explicitly that my attraction to women and gender non-conforming people was something sick, shameful. Surely this person, this relationship, was the best I could do. Right?

Regardless, J and I were done, so I packed up my stuff, swallowed my pride, and moved back in with my parents. A few months down the line, I thought moving to Brooklyn, leaning into my writing ambitions, and trying to become a gayer, more angsty Carrie Bradshaw type would fix the devastating loneliness I felt. (Spoiler alert, it didn’t.)

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I spent the end of the summer and beginning of the fall trying to subsist on iced coffees, free bagels at work, and one real meal a day, convincing myself that disordered eating and rapid weight loss masquerading as glamorously gritty “New York living” would fix it. (It didn’t.)

In October and November, I got three tattoos in 30 days (a personal speed record). One was a biggie, even for me: a monarch butterfly on my hand, a symbol of change or some shit like that (metamorphosis, baby!) I prayed it would fix me. (It really didn’t, though it’s a pretty sick tat.)

By early December, I’d begun trying to grapple with it all in my writing because I’m a writer, and writers write. I thought that might fix it, fix me. (It didn’t—noticing a pattern here?) Unsurprisingly, earlier iterations of what I’d dubbed “The Breakup Essay” were beautiful and broken, palpably raw in a way that was soothing to write, but not suitable to publish.

“You’re writing around what you’re feeling,” an editor wrote to me, adding that it was likely because I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling, and I wasn’t as healed and “over it” as I professed to be.

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Gently but brutally dismantled via Google Doc, I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was almost the holidays, after all, and I’d have to face my extended family in the flesh over and over again. They’d see once and for all that my Instagram feed was lying, and I wasn’t okay. So I went to the doctor. Got myself back on anti-anxiety medication. Started talking to a counselor. Began really, actively trying to be the version of myself I knew was buried under layers of hurt.

Nearly a year later, with Valentine’s Day 2019 looming ever closer, reminders of J are still everywhere. They pop up in ways I couldn’t have anticipated: The odd email from a newsletter we’d subscribed to as a couple. A random Facebook message from a mutual acquaintance who hadn’t heard that we’d parted ways. Old mementos—photos, ticket stubs, birthday cards—that I can’t bring myself to part with, even though their existence in my new apartment still gives me a periodic twinge of anger. Almost as if J’s lingering presence violates a safe haven I fought hard to create, a home I built from cinder and wood as I extinguished the last embers of their flame.

I’m a goddamn phoenix, risen from the ashes of the volatile, all-consuming fire that is queer first love.

This Valentine’s Day, I’ll make new memories. Buy myself dinner. Treat myself to the luxuries they’d judged me for indulging in. It’s not easy, moving on. I’d be lying if I said I were fully “over it,” even now, all these months later. But now, I know that I deserve more than someone whose needs and wants eclipse my own. I’m being honest with myself and re-learning how to prioritize my own needs. I’m healing on my own timeline.

So, no, I’m not okay—at least, not fully. But that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from all of this: that healing isn’t always linear, and it’s okay to not be okay, even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella