Sam and I had been together a little more than six years, a long-distance relationship that had seen me living with my four children in Toronto and him living with his half-dozen guitars in Montreal. Ours had been a fairly typical relationship, but it was made romantic and exceptional by our physical separation and sensitive personalities. That it blew up wasn’t a surprise. We kept our temperature up the whole of our time together; the pot was bound to boil over.
After Sam’s train departed [the] Tuesday afternoon [after he broke up with me], I retrieved my van and drove home inside a psychic tunnel. When I got there, I hunted for a guitar pick. Sam, whose fingers always leapt along an imaginary fretboard, shed picks like pennies. He was Chris Robinson, hanging together with E strings, leaving scraps of his music everywhere.
I found a pick right away in the lint trap of my dryer—a plastic, pear-shaped reason to believe—and pushed it into my pocket. My fingers loved it, in lieu of him, and when I stroked it, it was like I was touching Sam’s most precious quality. Later, after telling my children—aged 17, 15, 13 and 11—about what happened and watching sorrow swamp their faces, I fell into the imprint he’d left in my bed and put the pick under his pillow. I pressed my palm into its flat green comfort and floated out to sea, inhaling six years of him off the pillowcase.
The next morning and every one after, I plucked the pick up from my bed and drove it deep in my pocket. And the next night and every one after, I took it out of my pocket and placed it back under my pillow. When I went to the gym to outrun myself, I would place the pick in the bottom of my running shoe. When I showered, I rested it on the side of the tub.
One middle of the night after Sam left, I couldn’t find the pick beneath any pillow. I sprang out of bed and turned on the light and yanked off the duvet. It wasn’t there. I crawled around my box spring, compelling my fingers to make contact with this plastic talisman in the carpet, despairing at the symbolism if it was lost.
It was nowhere, and I was ruined. I restored the darkness to my room, this site of his last showing, and collapsed back into bed, now utterly alone. I was a bobbing dinghy on the curving horizon, awaiting the gust of wind that would complete my obliteration. I knew my children might wake and hear their mummy howling through the upstairs winter darkness, stealing all the security from their world. But I was powerless, turning and turning in the widening gyre. From outside my window, the moon looked in on the disaster. And I felt bad for having lost something else.
And then I heaved myself out of bed and turned on the light and flipped the mattress against the wall with the strength people discover in crisis—a mother lifting a car off her child, a passerby rescuing an adventurer from under the ice. And on its edge inside the bed frame’s steel perimeter, I found the guitar pick.
It was a sign, I was certain. That some revelation was at hand. That he’d be back. That there would be another train, this one returning him from Montreal. I replaced my mattress and crawled back where Sam used to be, my fingers clutching the darling plastic piece of him.
The moon, still watching from my window, finally saw me sleep.
When you experience psychological shock, adrenalin floods your bloodstream and your hippocampus flies into fast, thoughtless action. Nature protects you in the aftermath of an explosion, filling your brain with cotton batting even as your lungs are hemorrhaging and your organs emptying into the air. Here is a third option to trauma’s fight-or-flight ultimatum: freeze. That means the black bear may be tearing into your flesh, the rapist may be crushing your bones, but you’re a block of cement. Maybe you’re even smiling, to minimize trauma’s reach down your throat, because humans are strange that way. Splitting is a psychological mechanism that defends the brain against intolerable situations, a mad dash for the safe harbour of self-deception, where endorphin waves so satisfyingly crash.
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My friends and family, watching my grocery shopping and how I got my kids to school, couldn’t have imagined the emotion that roared behind my rote exterior then, how my insides were on fire. My cool outside concealed that I suffered the way Sappho did when she begged Aphrodite “to come to me again and release me from this want past bearing.” But I was split in two.
On the first of February, four days after Sam left, I sent him an email. I had breathed in the interval. I had slept and fed my children. I had dressed and driven. And that was everything. I had never taken my thoughts from him.
“It is quiet now,” I said. “Tonight, this minute, this hour, ever since you left. My life is incredibly quiet.”
It was his birthday, which upped our melodrama. “I wish we could have been together,” I wrote. “I wish we could have spent the day hacking through the jungle we built around ourselves.” I actually thought this would be an attractive idea to him. I wanted to believe a tender part of him would pipe up from the pit with: Whatever it takes, let’s work it out. I was so desperate for relief.
It was different from what I’d said the last time I wasn’t there for his special day. But two years earlier, when he’d turned 42, our separation had been a matter of practicalities—it had been my weekend with the kids—not because the world had cracked down the middle. “Happy birthday, my sweet man,” I’d emailed then, light as a feather. “I am so sorry I can’t be there with you. One day there’ll be no more birthdays apart.”
But now Sam was 44 and had fled and I was telling him I missed him eight times in a tumbling note I didn’t proofread before pressing Send, to exploit its drama before everything returned to what it had been. I didn’t believe it yet, that he was gone. The idea was too big to be true. Another fight was all. A bad one, like in the summer when I’d punched his arm on the highway, where we’d had to drive from the cottage to spare the kids our drama (though I could no longer remember what set it off). But just a fight. He’d be back. I told someone I’d been doing some writing for in Montreal that I would be offline for a bit, but would be available again soon.
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I was confused. Sad but also angry. When I looked back across the last several months of our relationship, I could see him withdrawing grumpily and couldn’t imagine the reason for it. “You pulled further and further away,” I accused. “You were so often mad. You’d pick me up from the train station mad and then be mad at me if I fell asleep in the movies or wanted to stay in for the night. Everything became fraught. There was ammunition all around us.
“Of course I think about you constantly,” I told him, sounding like a Victorian character. “As I know you do me.”
But beneath the bravado was this brewing panic. What if we were done? What about the waitress at La Belle Province who always liked my hair and the chairlift at Mont-Tremblant and the fact that we knew every little thing about each other? What about the worlds we’d created and occupied so completely? What would become of all that? The private jokes and secret triggers and all the memory. Where would that get absorbed?
I decided it had simply changed forms, this thing we cultivated for six years, this ball we kept aloft. I thought about energy, which scientists insist hunkers inside all things. Objects at rest. Trees. Bacteria, the weather, even emptiness, all are energy. Dr. Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, once said that “the energy in a cubic metre of space is enough to boil all the oceans of the world.”
And so love is surely energy too. Love is surely the highest form of energy, vibrating at the highest frequency in its ping-pong passage through virtual quantum particles, which exist only theoretically and so can’t be seen. Love is surely the biggest thing we can’t see, this precious current streaming between two people, their interacting vitalities creating a new vitality, theirs alone. Surely there are more than 100 billion of these unique energies out there, one for every soul who’s ever lived, one for every love affair that’s ever been, even if it is no more. Surely they buzz around outside our ken, lifting the leaves, driving the rain, igniting the fireflies.
The endurance of love’s energy is one of heartbreak’s most tremendous gifts.
Excerpted from Heartbroken by Laura Pratt. Copyright © January 10, 2023 by Laura Pratt. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.