On a park bench in the middle of the afternoon, I overheard the following exchange between two seven-year-olds, a boy and a girl:
"The whole point was to kiss you!" said the little boy.
"Well that's gross! Kissing is gross!" said the girl.
"But he likes you"
"I like him too. As a friend... But kissing is gross."
...and then the little boy got quiet and dejected... until finally he said, "When you're little it's gross, but then, when you're older, it's less gross."
And the girl gave this some thought, and said, "I don't know. Kissing is gross. Once I saw two grown ups kissing in the ocean! They were trying to make it so I couldn't see. But I saw them like this" she makes a face with her tongue out and squirms around until the little boy laughs. "They were kissing in there! In the ocean where I was too! It was so gross."
I laughed listening to this conversation. I sort of remember being in the second grade, when I thought I was as old as I would ever be and felt very knowledgeable about everything. I knew lots of swear words my friends didn't know yet, and I was pretty sure I'd seen sex on TV and in movies because I had an older sister who was cool and who had cool friends. (I hadn't actually seen sex on TV, to clarify. But, when I was 7, two people making out a lot before the screen cut to black was sex, so far as I knew. And I had seen that plenty of times.) I considered I knew all about men and women because I had a dad with no filter and a lot of opinions.
Yes, it's true. I was a seven-year-old woman of the world.
The thing I didn't know anything about was heartbreak. I didn't know about the tiny heartbreak of wanting to kiss someone who thinks kissing is gross. The big heartbreak of the phrase, "but he likes you" when it's met with a disapproving eye roll. At seven I didn't know anything about this. I was just small and often wore a shirt with a panda on the front, and that was my whole life.
Today I heard myself say the phrase, "I don't think heartbreak looks very good on me" as though that made me special. But the truth is, unless you're Sam Smith or Taylor Swift and planning to make a brilliant album out of it, heartbreak doesn't look very good on anyone.
Last summer I met this guy who talked about his ex-girlfriend with a sort of romantic nostalgia I'd never encountered before in real life. He said things like "she has the most beautiful name in the whole world," even though the girl's name was something like Constance or Gertrude or Bertha. And he'd wax on about "the way her body was sort of sagging" but how it "was the most perfect thing [he'd] ever seen." He would lay on our couch and whine about how she'd completely broken his heart, and he couldn't recover. It was July and they'd broken up in February after maybe a month or two together... and still. He was a limp rag of human emotion.
That's how we look when we're heartbroken. We become these horrible sacks of feelings, blind to how stupid we are and how nonsensical everything we're going on about is. We do things no one can explain, then we pretend, unconvincingly, that these things are ordinary. Come to think of it, it can actually look a lot like being in love... except, you know, in slow motion, turned upside down, and plus or minus 15 pounds.
Nowadays I find myself thinking about heartbreak a lot. Partially because I am a naturally dramatic and exhausting human being, partially because I find that I write about it often, and partially because a little part of me believes that the best parts of who we are come from having our hearts broken.
Real heartbreak, by which I mean the really good kind that's messy and full of angst, pulls you all the way apart. Splits you open and has a look around before taking a shit somewhere right in the middle. It makes you feel stupid, and angry, and self-conscious, and arrogant, and fearless, and terrified. It takes everything.
When we fall in love we are at our best. And by love, I mean the really good kind that's messy and full of angst. We get confident, and serene, and arrogant, and stupid. Everything seems like it works easily, and there's this hum in the universe. We fall in love like we fall asleep. Without even noticing, until suddenly everything is a dream.
Heartbreak is waking up. It's losing the dream you can't ever get back to, no matter how many more times you force yourself to sleep again. It is so unbearably cold and lonely. But I think that place is as close to new as we get.
Sometimes I think my life has been about rebuilding after heartbreaks. (See: naturally dramatic and exhausting.) At age 7, I cared very little about boys myself, but I had just watched as my parents went through a divorce for reasons I didn't yet understand. I didn't know the cycle of heartbreak I would face with my father. But I felt the world had changed. It had become a place where sometimes loving someone was not enough for them to stay in your house anymore. It had become a place where things went wrong and people disappeared. And six years later, when the first boy broke my heart, I felt something familiar about all that sadness.
So, for the first time since I was born, I started new. I was fourteen and battling against the angsty desire to just quit everything and be a lump. But I didn't. I don't entirely remember why, or how. But I didn't. Instead, I decided to focus on who I was and what I was doing. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't that deep. Mostly I was still just 14, and dumb, and immature, and naive as shit (much like I still am at 24). But I was paying attention. I started thinking about what kind of girl I wanted to be, what kind of person I wanted to be. For the first time in my life, I listened to my mom when she said "If there are things about your personality that you really want to change, you can go ahead and change them." (Quick shoutout to my mom, for always being crazy wise, and for repeating herself plenty until I actually sit up and take notice.) I started looking closer at things I'd always taken as givens about myself, my short temper, my self-centered world view. I started thinking about being a better friend. I started thinking about making choices.
And I think this is the opportunity heartbreak gives us. To take stock of who we are when we're all alone again. To think about what we really want and how we're going to get it. Amidst all the heartache and loneliness and fear, is something kind of amazing.
The chance to understand yourself again. To become your best again. To fall in love again.
To try kissing again. Even if it's gross.