the queer art of breaking up.
radical love letters #61
A note, especially to new subscribers: This is a bit more personal than my usual newsletters. Certainly the whole point of Radical Love Letters is to engage with struggle at the interstices where it matters most, which is to say, at the intimate crevices of our lives. Still, generally there’s more analysis than narrative in these things. Right now, though, I am in it, as they say, and so I’m writing from the depths of the muck. As you’ll read below, I’m going through a major life change, which is partly the reason the newsletter has been on hiatus; but also, one of the most grounding things I can do right now is write. And so I hope to be back to weekly missives in yr inbox -- a mix of essay-letters, links, maybe some shorter check-ins, and variations thereof-- even if it takes a bit to find my footing. Thanks for being here, I hope you’ll stick around. <3
In our kitchen on a gray evening in early October, Logan and I hold each other through a deluge of heaving sobs. We have just said out loud what we have been trying to not say out loud for months: that maybe our relationship, in its current form, needs to shift. The reasons are less important than the conclusion, which is that we love each other -- will always love each other -- but that, at least for now, growth means different things for us. For eight years, we have been a tree trunk, the two of us together, but our branches began to move in different directions and we couldn’t keep avoiding it.
For two weeks we sat with the words in the air, overwhelmed with grief by the possibility of their truth. We spent days in tears, days with our bodies hunched over and depressed. It felt like facing death. We went through (are still going through) all the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, and then suddenly, eventually: acceptance. “I don’t want this,” we kept saying over and over and over; but there was a shift, at some point, from hysterical resistance to tentative surrender. This is happening, we realized one day, this is happening for now.
As I write this we are, against all heteronormative advice, still sharing an apartment together. But we are queer; the kind of queers who know that love doesn’t just disappear, who know that “forever” isn’t necessarily the goal, and who know that queer kinship and care don’t end when a label shifts. (We are, to be sure, the kind of queers who are fodder for all the memes about being friends with your ex.) So we are making up a way of living without a script -- queers have practice at this. We are still sharing dinners and cuddling on the couch, but we are also separating our belongings and discussing how I’ll decorate my new apartment. Normal, lately, has been going from mundane routine to hysterical crying to deep breaths and resigned logistical conversations. We are inventing a liminal space, a queer space, as we go.
On a walk with K, I name it as The Hanged in the tarot -- that in between space, in the middle of The Tower (annihilation) and The Fool (the unknown, the void, the realm of possibility toward which so many of us are inclined to reach). Logan and I don’t know what will come next, what life will look like after this leap away from what we’ve known for eight years, but neither did any of our queer ancestors. We move onward anyway.
There is a line in my book that concludes the description of the end of my last long-term relationship. It says: “I have lived so many lives through love.” It feels like this sometimes; like we exist as part of a unit (even if we are good about maintaining our autonomy) and this unit has a life, and then suddenly the unit is gone and that life is too. The life Logan and I built went something like this: a friendship, a Pride weekend declaration of love, two years of on-and-off-again, pain and growth and learning what support meant for one another; four cross-country moves, three cats, a garden, and our late, beloved Captain the dog; quiet meals, fancy dates, weekend trips all over the East Coast; music and movies and being moved; holidays with families, navigating new dynamics; butch/femme romance, and tattoos too; we saw each other through PhD graduations, new jobs, lost jobs, parents in the hospital, and kept each other very good company during a global pandemic. Yes, this was a whole life together.
The culmination of my last relationship felt like the end of a life; after my ex began another serious relationship, we stopped speaking (his choice). He’s a part of me, forever, but there is no tangible aftermath of that love. That love is a ghost. With Logan, I am holding onto the trust of transformation. I don’t know how to imagine not being his person, and I know the same is true for him. “This is what loving each other looks like right now,” Logan reminds me when he is strong and I am not. “Wanting each other to live our fullest and happiest lives, even if that means not as a couple.”
This is, perhaps, the queer art of breaking up: unlearning the hegemony of romantic partnership for something more expansive, first in the coming together and then in the undoing. A normative “failure” of a relationship is when it ends, but as Jack Halberstam reminds us, “queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life.” We can, as Halberstam suggests, “make good on that promise in a way that makes a detour around the usual markers of accomplishment and satisfaction." We can choose failure as a way into possibilities outside of coerced scripts, we can do as Walter Benjamin suggests and walk the wrong direction on a one-way street. What do we find when we break the rules of wandering? What do we find when we break the rules of love? (We keep walking even when the signs say ‘go back.’ We keep loving even after an ‘end.’)
The Earth, as always, has much to teach us too. I learn from my friend B that many indigenous cultures don’t talk about plants as “dying.” They transition or transform to a different configuration (food for the soil, wind protection for the animals, and so on), but they do not move into some supposedly permanent space of non-existence. Their energy continues on. I think about that wisdom in grief after the loss of human life, but also in this grief too: all this love we built, it doesn’t evaporate -- we take it with us, spread it like pollen when we part, feed the bees with our love.
I am writing this now, as a means of trying to believe it. I am, in many moments, sad and broken and overwhelmed. I am scared of living on my own again, of my financial situation, of aching for my friend and one of our fur babies who will go with him when he leaves. I am also capable of believing everything above. I am devastated and excited, broken and whole, falling apart and also embodying a real sense of what it means to be myself.
When things fall apart (when I fall apart), I turn to Pema Chodron:
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”
Pema says: jump from the crumbling Tower into the Void. Pema says pain is not failure, it is a full life’s promise. Pema says death is not a one-time event, it’s a thing we do “over and over” while we are very much alive. Pema says this is, in fact, what it means to live.
Logan and I are facing the Void head-on. In the darkness, in the rubble of the tarot’s Tower, we are moving forward with compassion and curiosity. Choosing the annihilation of growth as a way of caring for each other. Choosing this separation as a great act of love. Choosing -- like our queer elders so bravely modeled for us -- to fail society’s prescriptive path.
We both loved the play Angels in America before we met, but his near-obsession with it rubbed off on me, and one part of our pair-nurtured language is the infusion of Kushner (the gay, Jewish, socialist playwright) quotes in the middle of conversation. “More life,” we say a lot, echoing the character Louis who is pushing boldly onward through the AIDS crisis and spiritual awakening. I think that’s what we’re offering each other here too: more life. Apart, physically. But queer kin in the reverberating love of our “failed” relationship, forever.
love & solidarity,