On a particularly lonely day, I am in a coffee shop, grief-stricken over the death of an imagined romance.
This was a place I fantasized bringing my crush to — a perfect date spot — until he dropped several not-too-subtle hints about his “rizz” with another girl. I felt like a fool, being reminded so casually and painfully that he didn’t see me the same way (he once referred to me as “one of the bros”). At long last, I was crushed with the absolute certainty that this was a dead end. While I like to believe that he’s unwittingly broken my heart, in truth, I was the one who did.
In this coffee shop, I decide to occupy my mind with anything other than him. I scroll through Instagram reels, peruse the menu, then return to Instagram. Yet, the thing about heartache is, the more you try to resist it, the harder it is to repress it. My mind lingers on the times we walked to class together. Our silly back-and-forths, our late-night conversations, so spontaneous and free-flowing. How hyper and untethered, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I become in his presence.
Before I know it, I am ruminating not over the past but the imagined future. We’re cooking and eating dinner together over tea light candles and white tablecloths. We talk into the night until time becomes timeless and our futures merge into a straight line.
I cling to these imagined scenarios because I am a hopeless romantic with a reservoir of affection that would gush endlessly if I wasn’t careful. I live in a world of romantic pipe dreams so vivid and incessant that sometimes it feels as though I’m suffering from a pathology.
Here is what I mean by pathology. Before I see him, I would hit the gym and sweat out toxins, shower, put on a face mask and gua sha my face. With him, I would frequently excuse myself to go to the bathroom to check for food debris stuck between my teeth, comb through my hair and reapply my makeup to maintain a clean and sweet appearance.
Once, he asked me to give his essay a quick review, and, without hesitation, I dropped my work and stayed up late into the night writing detailed suggestions for his consideration. Another time, I forced myself to watch his favorite show, even though I hated it, just to give the impression that we shared similar interests.
I could go on and on about the ways I have become so invested in a man’s affirmation of me that I was willing to sacrifice my time, freedom and energy in the slim hope that he might find me attractive.
How fragile I am, how protracted this sense of loneliness becomes when I place value on being noticed by a man and measure my worth based on his feelings (or lack of feelings) for me. I have somehow developed a pathological view of couple-hood as a vehicle of self-worth.
I am too willing to surrender the “I” for the “we.”
I am not proud of these impulses or this confession. Funnily enough, I’ve written publicly about my first kiss experience, but, somehow, writing this piece makes me feel the most vulnerable. The irony is that I went to an all-girls school that prided itself on cultivating strong, independent women. This hypocrisy is not lost on me. I am well aware of this gap between who I am in theory and who I am in reality.
Nonetheless, my desire for love is never on the wane. It flows through my veins with a surge of what-ifs and maybes, of creating something out of nothing. This desire dislodges my self-respect, but I am drawn to it as a moth is to a flame.
Still, the question remains: How do I convincingly be myself when everything about me is saturated by the desire for a man’s validation?
By placing such a priority on finding “love,” I am forgetting that only I am responsible for my contentment. And, while self-awareness doesn’t always lead to self-improvement, it is the precondition for change.
So, in the best and worst way, I am glad I am heartbroken. If it weren’t for my fantasies coming up short, I wouldn’t be observing the world around me, experiencing a stable ease of mundanity. The weather is nice, the ambience friendly. I see a woman reading a novel, a student typing on his laptop, a barista taking an order. Everyone, all absorbed in their universe.
I want to stay here longer. Buy myself another croissant. Flip through the books on the bookshelves. It’s been a while since I’ve carved out time for myself, and there are many things I want to do — alone. These are wants I have never considered when I’m routinely fixated on a man.
I imagine a space of cultivation and nurturing where there is room for only me. I don’t know what it looks like yet, but I’m trying to nourish all my disparate parts so that none of them are influenced unduly by a man’s affirmation but, rather, fully loved by me.
So let’s start here. In this coffee shop, I am alone. I am alone and heartbroken. But I am learning how to assert my worth, so I put my phone on silent, open up a Word document and type.
Charlene Huang is a senior from Medford, MA. studying Writing Seminars and International Studies.