I’m at the Denver airport, a mile high and recently halved. The man I once believed “completed me” is off in some city whose name I can’t pronounce. Soon I am supposed to tour old Denver buildings with my parents and my eighty-year-old grandmother, who was born and raised but rarely returns here. No one will quite say that we are on this trip to pay tribute to certain ghosts—and maybe, just maybe, bid them adieu—but it’s so.
And because there is the air of melancholy to our purpose, and because I am the kind of person who can describe herself as “recently halved” with a straight face, I listen to Joni Mitchell on the train into the city. I also pull out my ragged copy of Jesus’ Son (for Denis Johnson has just died) as foggy Denver distinguishes its skyline from the rocks flitting by outside the window. I am on a lonely road and traveling, traveling, traveling, sings Joni, in the plaintive wail that simultaneously names and creates the feeling. I murmur aloud the words to “Dirty Wedding,” in response, like some ghoulish incantation. It all feels quite holy.
There’s a line in the movie Frances Ha when Greta Gerwig’s Frances, dear emblem of my generation, sums up that particular serenity that comes when you dress your settings with what you consider to be their suitable cultural props. “Maybe I’ll read Proust in Paris,” she says (or something like it), at a dinner party. “Because sometimes it’s good to do the thing you’re supposed to do at exactly the place you’re supposed to do it.” The way it is profoundly right for Frances to be existentially lost with Proust by the Seine, it feels profoundly right for me to be heartbroken with blue poets, under grey western clouds, with all these ghosts both close and distant.
Cultural props abound for my kind of heartbreak, which the author Mandy Len Catron so wisely called “pedestrian.” In wisting after a man on a train, I enter a whole mise en scène of other, better break-up narratives. And despite what Joan Didion says about being in one’s twenties, when one apparently retains “the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before,” I take comfort in having a template for how a heartbroken person should behave.
In other right-feeling recent moments, I’ve caught myself uttering lines that Diane Lane speaks in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun— a practice which leaves me feeling as vindicated as I am after a drear-saddled train ride with Joni and Denis. I’ve found deep peace singing along with Judy Garland in A Star is Born while drinking James Mason under the table. I’ve curled up with Meg Ryan and her scrunched-up face (“he didn’t want to marry me! ”) while moaning into a friend’s sweater at 3:00 a.m. I’ve held hands with Hugh Grant on shadowy afternoon walks through the old neighborhood, the pair of us glowering to Al Jarreau, missing the lover who left us behind. And there remains the new element of gravity in these props, a holiness that I didn’t grok in these objects when I was whole. I have discovered panels of poignant truth in, for instance, the movie High Fidelity. So rightly Rob Gordon asks, via Nick Hornby, via my ex’s Amazon Prime subscription, via all the gentleman Gen-X loves of my life, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
Somewhere between my couch and Colorado I must wonder, is it a learned behavior, the impetus to wallow? When I linger on heartbreak island, am I indulging a genuine feeling, or merely following a script?
Securely in Denver, my family begins its pilgrimage. First, we drive my grandparents into the mountains and visit the Red Rocks amphitheater, where you can holler your grievances into sound-swallowing stones. My mother says, “It’s easier to breathe here, isn’t it?” referring to the mountain air. “Maybe,” I concede, though I remain sour-faced, intent on my own symptoms. “When are we going to the cemetery?” I crave not clarity but heft, and doom.
“Look,” says my grandmother, pointing. We are at a library in Five Points, touring a pop-up exhibit celebrating the neighborhood’s history. Faces that strike me as both familiar and new peep out of old photographs. People with my mother’s nose, and my grandmother’s facial expressions. The look on my grandmother’s face as she considers these portraits is an unfamiliar stripe of rapt mixed with longing. Which is to say, it doesn’t look like the kind of mourning that television has taught me to recognize, but something else entirely.
Like my grandmother, I was small for a while in Denver. And as a brown girl dreaming in the suburban Southwest, I knew nothing so much as a throbbing urge to be seen, which meant boys. I learned early, like so many girls, how to tailor myself to the audience of the sulky could-be-subjects-of-John-Hughes movies—the ones we knew from sleepovers, the ones who could shine their hundred watt smiles on you, blessing your strangeness, or draw you into the folds of their great adventures, where you could sit shotgun. By the time I reached the age when the movies informed me I should fall in love, I was well past reasonable. I wrote terrible songs on acoustic guitar for all the Jordan Catalano doppelgängers, because the cultural props I’d dressed my set with had taught me to confuse the attention of this certain kind of boy with self-worth.
Once I got to acting school, I learned that if you wanted to be seen as an actress, you had to be able to make convincing play of ruin. Nicole Kidman, collapsing onto a bed in just about anything, was my professor, living proof that a woman wrecked by love was the most watchable of things. The actors I loved best could break your heart in a face—though only after a man broke theirs first: Angela Bassett’s pursed lips, Claire Danes’ wobbly chin, Holly Hunter’s scheduled breakdowns. Women won Oscars for performing halved-ness, while their male counterparts collected similar awards for holding back tears. I figured, if to appear heartbroken meant that one was not just lovable, but talented, well! I would be breakable. So when the time came to break, I would break beautifully.
The capital-R Romance story is one of the oldest human concoctions, but despite the passage of thousands of years, Western culture is only beginning to quibble with its most staid attributes. We (the vague collective) only just begin to second-guess all things straight and cis and monogamous as the de facto trappings of a love that will conquer all.
As a result, the mythology-spun movie tropes which I’ve so thoroughly metabolized are that conservative kind of right; i.e., these tropes are often arbitrary, and unconcerned with real life. Nonetheless, I have bought every ticket to every Nancy Meyers movie. And I still catch myself expecting my love affairs to look like, say, Moonstruck.
I suspect that heartbreak likewise retains a goblin grip on our cultural imagination because it is the inevitable by-product of that thwarted, star-crossed, necessarily grand love. It follows, really, that we glamorize the endings of things as much as their beginnings; quite early on, children get told that it’s “far, far better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.” And we all seem to know, even before the aid of CliffsNotes, that Tennyson wasn’t talking about love for a very good friend, or pet.
Perhaps I begin to sound a little clinical, a little too removed. Let me be clear: Even the most pedestrian experience of loss is physical, and a wretched thing. Cultural props didn’t offer too much balm on the worst days of my heartbreak, when I knew constant stinging behind the eyes, and insomnia. Very briefly there was the urge to turn over furniture, though in hindsight this impulse often came in conjunction with another cultural prop. Like the suggestive with-another-woman Instagram post glimpsed in mixed company, or the old photo of us being happy, found while moving; objects and experiences that TV and other fictions, perhaps slightly more than my own feelings, had taught me to call betrayals.
Post-halving, friends asked me what happened, and I’d tell them the same way I’ve seen every sad woman in a movie tell a friend anything—emphatically, at bars, dropping lazy blame and the cliched terminology even the best fictions haven’t yet managed to transcend: “still friends,” “going in different directions” and, curse of curses, “he couldn’t say what I wanted to hear.”
Isn’t it funny how the language we reach for when describing the real, wretched thing itself smacks of commercial copy? Heartbreak, heartbreak. It’s a pop song. It’s something you buy at Claire’s, or in the candy aisle.
In Colorado, I am sharply reminded that there is a hierarchy to loss. I wilt through Denver like a widow until we finally reach the cemetery, where we go to visit my grandmother’s father and her oldest daughter. As at the museum, we abide the ghosts there in silence. In the kind of silence you’ll find at a cemetery standing beside two living parents and their long-gone daughter, there is no balm in sourcing cultural comparisons. We just wait, achy and tongueless, until the moment is done with us. Only once we turn back toward the car does anyone think to reach for words again, thinking of lunch.
The silence at the cemetery is truly holy; it is profoundly right. For what language is there, it occurs while I watch my grandmother’s face, when that world you did bother to invent has so thoroughly collapsed? Whether your grief has left you temporarily tongue-tied or cut your larynx into bloody, irreparable shreds, whether your heartbreak is pedestrian or profound: Post-halving, maybe there is only ever the crutch of other templates to trod on, or . . . nothing. Sans the beloved, you are allotted borrowed and imprecise words, or the big fat void.
I suspect people keep writing into and out of heartbreak (and calling the actors who render it brilliant, and calling the artists who paint it poignant, and calling girls who chase it bold ) because while heartbreak dances toward that more final halving, it won’t quite kill you. As Gloria Gaynor instructs—in many many pertinent props—when first he leaves you are afraid, but you will survive.
Because I am so good at following cultural instructions, I mend. Like falling in love in the first place, this happens slowly, then all at once. I begin to imagine the day when I’ll see the ex with another woman, put a hand on his cheek, and say, “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell.” I begin to wake up smiling again. From opening credits to soaring pop finale, from sobbing in a couch-ball to dancing on the bed, how my props have both twisted and saved me by contriving a template that is seductive, but dubious, and only ever almost right.
One afternoon, some months after Colorado, I call my grandmother. As often happens when we chat, Gram tells me what kind of man is good to marry, and cautions against his opposite. I seize this opening, giddy: “I have actually met someone new, Gram,” I say—and slightly “too soon,” according to the television shows that prescribe, among so many other things, appropriate heartbreak grieving times.
Incidentally, this “someone new” makes a panel I didn’t know I had behind my stomach fill with fizzy light. He feels both familiar and utterly new to me, not unlike the faces of long-gone Denver relatives, or the Rocky foothills as seen from a train window. In this demi-nauseating, tizzy-smitten place, I reach for illustrative comparisons: Our letters are like You’ve Got Mail , it’s star-crossed like Sleepless in Seattle , it’s like ___, he’s like ___, we’re like ____.
“But is he kind?” my grandmother interrupts.
Then, in her well, that settles that voice, she responds, “Good.” After a soft beat, the moment glides by. As our conversation sails into more and less pedestrian places, I think of how often, at the northernmost tip of the hugest feelings, comparisons—hell, all the words—so rightly fail us.