Breakups are never fun. And in spite of how clean I happen to believe mine have been, I'm still learning a few things about them.
Case in point: A (male) friend recently contextualized why another guy broke up with me and then went to the trouble of trying to give me a soft landing, by enumerating how wonderful I was, two breaths after telling me he didn't want to be with me.
I suppose that's better than what one guy did to a girlfriend of mine earlier this year, though. The coward broke up with her via e-mail, after dating her (exclusively) for 10 months. Perhaps it's a good thing that he didn't take the powerpoint approach ...
We're nuts if we think that two people can be coldly rational about something that has nothing to do with reason.
Modern Love: Point 1: We Had Fun. Point 2: It's Over. Point 3: Get Lost.
Last spring I broke up with someone perfect. Perfectly, that is. Last spring I broke up with someone perfectly. I set out exactly which aspects of our relationship were lacking and why, meticulously charted our decline, and pared months of frustration and disillusionment to a succinct set of woes, all without uttering a word.
It was the most orderly way I'd ever ended a relationship and the first time I'd walked away from a breakup feeling richer for it. All told, it was a source of great personal satisfaction and accomplishment, until the moment it dawned on me that I hadn't managed to pull it off.
Like most people, I don't end relationships gracefully. In trying to make the final exchange sound less like a crushing blow and more like, oh, just another glitch in our madcap dating adventure, I end up expressing myself in the most blasé terms, with an overreliance on words like "nice," "fine" and "good." Of course my own head has been on the chopping block often enough, and when it's happening to me, I always think, I would never do this to anyone, not like this.
Yet when it's my turn to do the deed, some of what comes out of my mouth sounds, even to my ears, staggeringly unkind.
So when my last relationship started going bad, I decided I would come better prepared to the breakup by working out my delivery in advance. I began by jotting my relationship-related grievances onto a legal pad. Because this turned into an exercise of procrastination, months flew by until suddenly I had a new problem.
Though I had postponed the inevitable long enough to be certain that I was doing the right thing, I had also drawn it out to the point where human decency (and dating etiquette) called for a sensitively handled breakup. A breakup of a higher standard than the one to which I would have been held had I ended our relationship when I first realized we had no future.
Technically that would have been from the get-go: Nick was engaged to another woman. But after two and a half years of engagement he showed no signs of intending to marry. His prospective in-laws were growing impatient; his fiancée was becoming unnaturally preoccupied with china; and still, every Sunday, I would find him sprawled on my living room floor scanning the real estate ads for the ultimate bachelor pad.
When I would raise the issue, he would agree he wasn't being fair to her, then whistle at the cost of some West Village walk-up. It was unsettling for me to realize that by putting off the inevitable with his fiancée, Nick was doing the exact thing I was with him (but at least I was taking notes).
My notes began as sad, whimsical musings, graduated to heated accusations and then spread from there. Whenever I would home in on a particular problem, a hundred others would sprout up that demanded contextualizing.
I started having to rely on mathematical symbols and contrived a Pantone color chart system that reflected the range of my moods in his company. (To convey the magnitude of the project, lilac and heliotrope were two colors on which I commonly relied.) Soon I had filled my entire legal pad and turned to using scraps of paper I found around the apartment.
Every time Nick would leave the dinner table to answer his cellphone or disengage himself from a conversation to send an e-mail message on his BlackBerry, I would tear a sheet of paper from my appointment book or swoop in on a napkin and write down something new.
Finally, to contain the mess of notes I had scribbled, I stapled them to the sheets of my legal pad until I was left with a fat fan of mismatched papers: a rounded, tattered orb.
At a loss at what to do next, I called my sister, Tamara.
"That's great that you're putting so much thought into it," she said.
"Only I'm having trouble quantifying things," I confessed. "I've got more charts and graphs than I do complete sentences."
"Well, it's still helped you put things in perspective, hasn't it?"
A thought struck me then. "You know, I'm really tempted to just PowerPoint the whole thing."
I was half-joking. But in the silence that followed I thought: Why not? What could possibly show more serious consideration of the matter, more meticulousness, more care? Besides, I remembered distastefully, Nick was such a technophile. And that's when the feelings of resentment that had flowed so freely from my pen crept back into my head, and I sensed myself growing dangerous. After all the time he had decided to spend with his gadgets (not to mention his fiancée) instead of with me, it would be perfect. I wouldn't just be giving him a standard-issue breakup, I'd be upgrading us to the 2006 version.
In converting the contents of my paper orb to PowerPoint, I broke down my message into two parts. In Part 1, I mapped our relationship into four stages - "All Day in Bed," "Oh. You're Engaged?," "Avoiding the Obvious" and "No Substance" - each of which was broken down into substages (e.g., "We Start Sleeping Together," "So What if We Have No Future?," "Is This Another One of Your Things at My Apartment?," "It's Just Taking Too Much Energy" and so on).
An x-y graph conjectured how invested each of us was in our relationship throughout the aforementioned four major stages.
Part 2 meanwhile focused on our ups and downs and speculated as to why we even bothered. This I conveyed through a montage of photographs that blew up to reveal the gradual tightening of our expressions through time; the emergence of new lines; how much, essentially, our misery had aged us.
I designed the presentation to be narrated by subtitles that streamed across the screen at a pace just slow enough for Nick to read before they faded to black (which, incidentally, was another grievance of mine: the man was no speed-reader).
It took me several hours. Not long after I finished, Nick called to remind me we had dinner reservations for that same night. I hadn't forgotten.
We met at the restaurant bar, saddled up and ordered our drinks. After my third scotch and soda I said it: "Let's end things now, tonight, while we're a little buzzed and in good moods."
He paled, straightened, slumped. "Why?"
I reached into my bag and, nodding somberly, pulled out my laptop, resting it on the bar in front of us.
For the next 20 minutes Nick sat lighted by the screen's glow. Because I wasn't responsible for voicing the presentation myself, I started freely on my fourth drink while using my other hand to prompt each slide.
I am so right on about some of this stuff, I thought as the slides advanced. I watched his face for any change of expression, any dawning of understanding, any silent accord, but his features stayed exactly put. Either he was captivated, or, I more strongly suspected, this was again an issue of his reading pace.
When the presentation ended (with a bulleted list enumerating the many good times we had had, to end on an up note), I snapped my laptop shut and turned to face him. "Well?"
He ordered another drink, and we sat in complete silence for as long as it took him to finish it. I slipped my laptop back into my bag, paid the tab and hailed myself a cab.
My ride home was invigorating. Was it really going to be that easy? I replayed the night's events in my head in slo-mo. Then I re-replayed them, this time from Nick's perspective, imagining what he must have been thinking at the sight of that final slide and decided that, ultimately, not only had I done the most gratifying thing but by far the kindest.
Though, granted, my purity of intent and the manner of my delivery were questionable, the message was tame: there was a big difference between what I had angrily put to paper and what I had ended up using in the presentation. Because I had chosen my words more carefully in the latter, I had succeeded - or so I thought - in not just getting the job done but leaving him with a little something to consider.
ON entering my apartment and catching sight of the answering machine, I suddenly felt less sure of myself. The machine, indicating seven new messages by way of a furiously blinking red light, did not divine warm tidings.
I set my laptop down, walked over and hit "play." For a few seconds I heard Nick's breathing. Then, "You're sick." And again, "Sick." I slumped onto the couch and took in the next five messages, which, with varying degrees of tastefulness, communicated the same sentiment.
It hurt him more than I thought it would. I had started out honestly convinced that altruism had motivated me, that I had wanted to end our relationship precisely and painlessly and that this was the best way to do it. Then it got ugly; I got ugly.
Regardless of whether or not I was aware of it, I had a point I wanted to make before saying goodbye to this man. And now, having made it, there was no comfort in knowing I had proven myself to be exactly the type of woman he had always accused me of being and I had always secretly hoped I wasn't: emotionless and inconsiderate. I wondered what Tamara would say if I told her I had actually gone through with it.
In Nick's final message, by which time, thankfully, he seemed to be losing momentum, I thought I could hear the faint sound of his fiancée's voice asking if he had managed to call the florist, and I felt momentarily heartened. Everyone, I decided, has his own sick way of sending a message, and if mine hadn't worked, his certainly hadn't either.