Why can’t I just get over a breakup the traditional way?
Ice cream and a bitchin’ new hairstyle. Taylor Swift on repeat until the tears dry up. Maybe a Ryan Gosling movie or two where, in between spoonfuls of chocolate-chip cookie dough, I whine, Why can’t every guy be like him?
Oh no, not me. I’m more of a Sex Pistols girl and my hair has been through enough already. Years of drugstore-bought black dye and bangs chopped with orange-handled scissors has earned it a much-needed break. It would be so much easier if I could be angry, Johnny Rotten-style. Just put on a pair of studded, leather boots and kick over some trash cans, cursing the name of the dick who dared wrong me.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t wronged. I was…an attempt at being righted. So no trash can kicking for me.
Here’s how my road to breakup hell started. Senior year of high school. My sister and I said sayonara to our shit-tastic lives in Nashville and made tracks to Chicago. Evan and I were paired up for an assignment in photography class my first week in town. One that involved a lot of face time outside of the classroom. A daunting task to someone like me who, at the time, was about as sociable as a Sylvia Plath. I just wanted to get the assignment over with, exchanging as few words as possible.
Evan didn’t allow it. Looking back, I know why I appealed to him. He saw me as broken. Someone who needed fixing. If I could travel back to that day, I would lay a hand on his lettermen-jacket-clad arm and tell him broken is where I live. I like it here. I’m comfortable.
But Evan had a way of magnetizing people. Not in a creepy serial killer kind of way. No, he glowed from the inside, made you not want to disappoint him when he believed in you so strongly.
Who was I to let this perfect boy fail?
For a short while, I allowed him to breach my barbed-wire, electrified prison fence and swim across shark-infested waters to reach me. He even got me out of my Doc Martens and into a prom dress. A feat that amazes me to this day.
Yet even then, despite the safety and stability Evan provided, I’d heard the countdown clock ticking deep in the back of my head. How long could I act like a normal, functioning human being? How many dinners with Evan’s freakishly perfect parents could I sit through before I impaled myself on a fork?
The answer was two years.
Evan saw something in me, and he tried desperately to nurture it. It was his way. Toward the end, though, I think he stopped loving me and started loving my potential. What I could be if I just stopped being so stubbornly damaged. If I could just ignore the ugliness I store inside of me, ready to jump out and scare me at any moment.
Ugliness never entirely goes away, though. Once certain images and difficult days you’ve lived through have been implanted in your mind, there’s no way to evict them. My ugliness is particularly stubborn. It comes in the form of an addict mother who used our couch to entertain johns. A father whose name I’ve never learned. Eating most of my dinners as a child from tin cans or out of the neighbor’s garbage can. My sister, Ginger, was the only reason the ugliness hadn’t killed me.
It took Evan two years to realize he’d chosen a lemon. It hurt like hell, but I’d also embraced the change. It meant I could stop trying to be girlfriend material. A match for the golden child. I hurt a boy who genuinely loved me, and in the process, I proved to myself that I’m incapable of making another human being happy.
After I ended things with him, I needed to leave Chicago. Reminders of our two years together were everywhere I turned. Our favorite dumpling shop. The flea market he’d chased me through when I cut class to avoid him. His answer to that was to smother me in kindness and understanding, the likes of which I’d only experienced the few times my sister and I let our guards down. And never in such a huge, intoxicating dose.
The worst part of it is that I didn’t just lose Evan. I lost myself. I forgot how to be comfortable in my own skin. I forgot what it meant to be comfortably broken.
I thought I was unfixable before.
Now, I’m plane-crash wreckage.
I manage to look like your average nineteen-year-old girl as I weave through passengers in Dublin Airport. Messenger bag slung over my shoulder, I let the unfamiliar accents roll over me. Looking at signs written in both the vowel-heavy Irish language and English. Ruddy-faced children in soccer jerseys greeting their relatives.
I entered Shutterclick Magazine’s photojournalism contest knowing I’d win first prize—a one-month trip to Ireland. Among all the insecurities swimming around in my brain, the talent I possess for taking pictures is not one of them. I’m good at it. Hiding behind a camera comes naturally to me. Maybe it comes from years of reading my mother’s erratic temper, or learning to fend for myself at a young age. I’ve learned to predict people’s expressions and moods. I can see them coming before they transform the subject’s face. If you sit in one place long enough, especially in a taciturn city like Chicago, something strange is bound to happen. When those occurrences take place, I don’t photograph them. I snap the people watching. That moment of honesty when they drop their veneer and react with shock or pity. I live for those moments. When someone doesn’t have time to think or get their filter in place, there is purity in their reaction. Everything makes sense for that split second.
Now I need everything to make sense for me. It’s not going to be an easy job, ditching this guilt, this whitewash of failure, but I’m determined to do it. I need to sort through the rubble and find Willa again. I’ve lost sight of what she was all about and frankly I’m mad as hell about it.
The contest sent me to Ireland to take photos for a small, upcoming feature. A spread wherein readers catch up with the contest winner post vacation and experience Ireland through my photographs. But I’m really here to get back to the place I was in pre-Evan. When I didn’t give a f**k about everyone’s expectations for me. Yes, I’m difficult. Yes, I’m a god-awful smart ass. Yes, the ugliness never goes away, but I’d at least found a way to stabilize it. I used to love those qualities in myself, and I don’t want to be ashamed of my coping mechanisms anymore. I don’t need anyone to fix me. As Simon and Garfunkel said, “I touch no one and no one touches me… I am a rock. I am an island.”
Coincidentally, I’m also on an island. Far away from the painful memories of Nashville, the bittersweet bullshit of Chicago. I’m just me, here, in this place. I’m here to resuscitate Willa. To drag her lifeless corpse from the Chicago River and rid her lungs of the sludge she swallowed against her will. I’ll bring her back to life. Nothing and no one is going to get in my way. The reasonable part of me knows I’m reeling from the blow of losing my first love.
The reasonable part of me can eat shit.
A musical voice sails out of an unseen intercom, announcing a flight boarding for London. I smile a little at the unfamiliarity that I’m suddenly craving and follow the signs for baggage claim. Ireland is a notoriously hospitable country, and I can already see that truth evident in passersby’s smiles, their easy greetings. They aren’t stilted or awkward in their friendliness. It’s natural.
I allow a glimmer of excitement to trickle through my veins. Not quite enough to melt the cold feeling I’ve had since I broke up with Evan, but enough to allow for the possibility that this trip might be exactly what I need. It helps that nothing is familiar. The name of the inn where I’ll be staying is tucked safely in my bag and as soon as I collect my suitcase, I plan on taking a cab directly there to get settled.