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September 11, 2000   CONTINUED e-mail e-mail to a friend in need


Predicament of the Week
In which Breakup Girl addresses the situation that has, this week, brought her the most (a) amusement, (b) relief that it is happening to someone else, and/or (c) proof that she could not possibly be making this stuff up.

Dear Breakup Girl,

A few years ago, I dated a woman I'll call "Beatrice." Often, when I'm in trouble, upset, stressed out, or alone, I say her name out loud. Usually when this happens, I am not consciously thinking of her; as the woman I dated or the married and long distance friend she is now. It's more like a hiccup, an event not entirely under my control.

Some background: scary intense romance, breakup, and parting of ways. Our parting wasn't just emotional, it was physical. She had a better job offer elsewhere and without the relationship to stay for, she moved on. In one of our last conversations before she left, I told her that one of the hardest things for me about parting would be that she would no longer be there for me to lean on when life got rough. She replied that even if I couldn't reach her directly, I could always summon her up in my mind and she would help me. (Swelling music, she gets on the plane with Claude Raines.)

Flash forward a few years: I'm immensely happy in my new life. I'm single, but that's because I would rather wait for somebody worthwhile than to throw myself at someone to avoid being alone (Next Stop Wonderland). So, what gives with my frequent invocations of her?

The most recent time this occurred was a bit scary. I'm a journalist, and had committed a bonehead mistake where I had accidentally compromised an important source, possibly jeopardizing his career. Instead of saying the rosary, I kept saying her name as I paced my office wishing that I smoked (it was fine in the end). Sometimes, her name comes out for no good reason at all; life is fine, and I will say it to myself. Weird, right? The only time it makes sense is when I am feeling lonely and sorry for myself, and I wonder out loud where the next Beatrice is and when she will enter into my life.

Is this healthy? It is sacrilegious; basically a form of idolatry? Is it bad for my romantic life? Am I carrying a torch so big that I turn (to unify metaphors) every potential love shack into a towering inferno? At what level of Hell am I? Am I in the first circle with the Virtuous Pagans, or am I further down with the Lovers? How badly have I managed to really Bosch things up? Just as importantly, how can I avoid doing this?

-- Dante Allegory

Dear Dante,

Dude. Totally do not abandon all hope. You are completely hanging with the Virtuous Pagans, if anyone, and maybe not even that far down. (Romantically speaking, Hell may not be so bad a place anyway; when I was in Paris, I saw two newlyweds taking photos in front of Rodin's Gates of Hell.)

Dante, the people we love leave stuff behind, and I don't just mean vacuum cleaners. Excellent stuff. Or at least, stuff we're ruefully happy to have even if we can't have the one who left it. Skiing skills, new perspectives, sense impressions, wisps of warmth we can't always name. This is a good thing. This is why breakups are not necessarily mess-ups. This is why what doesn't kiss you makes you stronger, if I may force a wordplay. This is why the ones who get away give you: life.

What did Beatrice give you, leave with you? You said the worst part of her splitting, well, her shoulder. That she would no longer be there for you to lean on. Guess what, buddy , <swelling music> she is.

Look, you're "immensely happy;" you sound grounded and good. It's not like you're calling her, writing her, plotting a one-sided reunion, building a shrine with her keys and toothbrush. She has, in a different way, become larger than lovelife to you. "Beatrice," your B-word, is an abstraction, I think. What you're invoking, it seems to me, is not her flesh-and-blood presence, but rather the calming, soothing effect she had on you. Which you can now summon on your own. Even, yes, when things are feeling serene. At those moments, hey, maybe you're just checking in to say, "See?" It's actually pretty cool.

Therapists tell you to do this, by the way. To create some sort of strong, protective symbol or image that you can call upon yourself; it's a way of practicing self-sufficiency so that you don't depend on getting it from someone else. It's almost as if "Beatrice," the word, has become your password (see Jo) to peace of mind. It's your inner Virgil, leading you to what you need. Some people get way lost in Purgatory without that.

So yes. "Beatrice" represents something much bigger -- and better -- to you now than static ex-cling. Just make sure, as you cast your eye around for the "next" one, that she stays that way. Meaning, that B2 isn't a replacement, a clone. If you're carrying a torch at all, let it illuminate rather than cast shadows. Let Beatrice remain a good-ghostly guide to the kind of passion and the comfort that you've learned that you crave. And let me know when you've got two tickets to Paradiso.

Breakup Girl

"Do men and women differ in their recovery process after a painful breakup?"


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