Everyone experiences heartbreak. I can't say mine is worse or less painful than any other, I only know how it affects me. And last year, I experienced the worst heartbreak of my life. To make a long, complicated story as short as possible: I fell in love with a man I had known for two years, a dear friend, who lived and worked in San Francisco. We had talked and written and become so close during that two years that being together felt more like the next step than a risky venture. We met in person, were mad for each other from moment one, and after a few months, we decided I would move to San Francisco. We looked at places to live, made plans for a life together, and were both giddy at the thoughts of it all. And then, in the most cruel way imaginable, I found out he had been living with another woman the entire time we made all these plans, the entire time we had written to each other as friends, the entire time we were seeing each other.
After I found out, he abruptly cut off all communication with me, became someone I instantly did not know, and never, ever showed a flicker of remorse or sorrow. I fell apart in ways I am embarrassed to think of now. I completely lost my footing and my confidence.
A great deal of my sorrow was just over the fact that one person could do such a thing to another. Especially to someone who had shown them only kindness and love. And WHY? Why had he drawn me into his life, made these plans, while LIVING with someone? How could I be so stupid? What signs had I missed? Why would someone treat me this way?
I needed answers, and never got them. I wanted to understand how this could happen, but there was no explanation.
For almost a year now, I have felt like someone had pushed me off of a cliff, and I was continuously falling, falling...dreading the impact at the bottom, but never hitting it. Just staying in this never ending, horrible free fall, waiting for it to be over.
When I came home from that trip, my last trip to see him, I put my suitcase in my extra bedroom and ignored it. I felt that if I opened it, the pain would be too much to bear. Seeing the things I had packed for what I thought would be a wonderful, special trip. The things I bought while I was there, before it all came apart. I couldn't bear it. And day after day, I let the suitcase sit there, haunting me.
I replaced all the toiletries, my curling iron, and an electric toothbrush just so I wouldn't have to open it. Weeks went by and then months, until I was in another season, and didn't miss or need anything inside it.
And then, a few weeks ago, I moved to a new apartment. As I carried random boxes, lamps and other items out of the spare bedroom, the suitcase stood in the corner. I realized it had been almost a year since I left it in that same spot, in that same position. My heart hurt remembering how it felt coming home that night.
I looked at this bag, and thought of just adding it to the trash pile outside. But I remembered a few things inside it that I had loved. The French shoes I had bought in San Francisco that made me feel as though I was walking on cobblestones instead of concrete. The little black and white dress that made me feel beautiful, even sexy? The journal that I had kept for years before meeting him, knowing him. I took the handle in my hand and loaded the suitcase in the back of my car.
A few nights later, I finally screwed up my courage and opened it. The first thing that greeted me was the scent of the perfume I had worn, that I loved, but hadn't worn since then. I was determined not to cry, but it happened before I could think. I wept. For a moment, I thought again of just closing it and trashing everything. But I made myself keep going. I found the French shoes, the little black and white dress, my favorite bathing suit, my journal, jewelry I adore that I had almost forgotten about, clothing I feel my best in, and some writing I had done-some short stories- that are some of my most excellent pieces. I sat there with these things all around me, still in tears.
And slowly, I began to replace the things from the suitcase in my life. I wore the shoes to work, brought the perfume out of hibernation, and washed all the clothes and returned them to my closet. My necklaces, bracelets and rings returned to my mirrored jewelry box, and the writing to my desk with my other work. I performed the suitcase cleaning ritual I used to do after my business trips, vacuuming the whole suitcase, spritzing some Febreeze and returning it to my closet.
I was fine with the contents out, but the suitcase itself bothered me. I couldn't look at it without thinking of the pain of that last trip, the pain that took me a year to open. So, I tossed the suitcase in the back of my car, figuring I would happen upon a dumpster while I was out.
And then, while driving around for work, in a shopping center where I was visiting a potential client, I saw two women behind a table with containers and stacks of odd items surrounding them. A sign read DONATIONS, and listed the name of a women's shelter. I returned to my car and pulled out the suitcase and quietly added it to the stacks of donations. As I walked away, I thought of some woman, starting her life over, exiting from pain, heading somewhere new and safe. I thought of her packing things in this suitcase, beginning anew-- associating this suitcase with happiness. At least that's what I hope. It seemed to clear my head and my heart.
I also know that during the time I was in love with him, before the heartbreak, that I felt more beautiful, more amazing, more everything than I had felt in a long time. And the betrayal took that away from me for awhile. During the last year, and especially in the last six months, I have realized that I was not stupid or blind, and I was not part of the betrayal. All of the things I felt --love, excitement, happiness--were all true and real. So the way I felt because of those things- beautiful, worthy, confident--had to be true, too. The only part of the equation that was false was him. I have finally separated myself out of it all, forgiven myself, stopped punishing myself, although it seemed to take forever to get to this point.
And it's funny, I think in a way that the suitcase in my house, however hidden, was almost like he was still around. Breaking it open, taking the parts that were the best of myself out of it, and then doing something positive with it freed me. Maybe it sounds dramatic, maybe no one can understand, but it makes perfect sense to me. And it's been almost a year since I could say that about anything.
Artwork by Paul Compton, for this and more of his work, click here.