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June 6, 2013

Letting Him Go

When the guy Alysia Abbott had fallen in love with told her that he wanted to try again with his ex, she did what any strong, smitten woman would do: She said okay.

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Photo Credit: PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou

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When I bumped into Jeff at a friend's birthday party, I noticed how he went out of his way to introduce himself, and how, later, his large blue eyes lingered on me as he walked out into the cold New York night. I'd just turned 29 and had spent most of the past decade breaking up and reuniting with Jason, a Bradley Cooper look-alike whose laconic moodiness I confused with depth. Newly single, I asked Jeff out.

We met on a January night at a Ukrainian diner in Manhattan's East Village. Warming ourselves over bowls of steaming borscht, we joked about how first dates are like interviews. "Why do you think you're right for this position?" I asked him. With his open, effusive manner and long gesticulating arms, Jeff reminded me of a Muppet. I wanted to hire him on the spot.

Our romance bloomed into the spring. We started seeing each other exclusively, signing up for swing-dancing classes and taking trips to his friends' country house, where one weekend we revealed our hearts to each other. After Jason, falling for Jeff felt easy. He was articulate and affectionate; I never had to guess at his feelings. We even developed an array of nicknames that created the sense of conspiracy peculiar to new love, calling each other "Petey Swy," a take on "sweetie pie."

Jeff had his own Jason, a girl named Christine who'd broken up with him two years prior; they still talked on the phone every week. (Most of Jeff's friends were women, including many ex-girlfriends.) I had a lot of guy friends, so I didn't worry about their relationship—until that May, when Jeff got Christine a job at the design firm where he worked. They now saw each other every day, his Aeron chair only feet from hers. I felt uneasy, but Jeff assured me that she was "just a friend."

The Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, I went to Jeff's loft. It was my last night in town before a five-day trip to Illinois to celebrate my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary. As soon as I walked through the door, I knew something was off. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"Christine wants to get back together," he answered.

"What?!"

"She wants to try again," he said, staring into the middle distance.

I felt dizzy, as if the room had turned upside down. "So you're breaking up with me?" He nodded. "I knew it!" I yelled, dissolving into sobs. "I'm an idiot."

"It's just a temporary break," Jeff said quickly, trying to soothe me. "Just for two weeks, while I figure it out. Then we'll talk."

I cried for the duration of the flight to Chicago, hiding my puffy eyes behind sunglasses. Hoping not to dampen the festivities, I kept my drama to myself and told my family I had allergies. Only at night, with my bedroom door shut, could I let my guard down. I obsessively checked e-mail, hoping for a message from Jeff. When he didn't write—he'd said he wouldn't—I wept into my pillow.

Feeling rejected and confused, all I could do was hope that Jeff would choose me. Toward this end, I wanted to remind him of what we had, the playful sweetness we shared. So I e-mailed him as though we hadn't broken up. Instead of sharing my hurt, or asking about Christine, which I knew might push him further away, I reported on funny anecdotes from my weekend and reverted to our private language in these missives, signing them Yours, Petey.

Back in New York, I confided in Andy, my gay roommate, who comforted me with green tea and Julie Christie movies. "He's pond scum," Andy said. "Forget him." Andy said I was devaluing myself by waiting for Jeff, but I was too in love to give up. Also, I'd once been in Jeff's position, having to choose between Jason and another; I knew that Jeff needed space.

Even though I thought we could still reunite, I felt inconsolably sad. Ten years before, I'd lost my father and only parent to AIDS, and my separation from Jeff felt like a miniaturized version of that loss. Just as I had no control over my dad's illness, I had no control over Jeff's heart. Any day could bring the end; I just had to wait it out. When I returned to my job, my manager sent me home. "You really don't seem like yourself," she said. I mostly slept until that Thursday, when I finally received a businesslike e-mail from Jeff. We were to meet Saturday afternoon at Tompkins Square Park.

When the day came, I pulled together the cutest outfit I could find: navy striped halter top, jean shorts, and a swipe of red lipstick. Andy grimaced as I readied myself in the bathroom. "I don't know why you're bothering," he said.

When Jeff saw me, his face lit up; I waved casually, resisting the urge to rush over to him. As we walked downtown and across the Brooklyn Bridge, it became clear that we weren't breaking up after all. A few hours later, I returned to my apartment, smiling. Jeff hadn't explicitly said so, but I knew he and Christine were finished. He called that night: "Can I come over?" he asked. But when I opened the door, Jeff's face was drawn and pale. "I did it," he said. "I told her it's over." He looked at the floor, his eyes welling with tears.

I'd never seen him cry before. And in that moment, I realized that what Jeff needed wasn't a girlfriend, but a friend. I knew he'd left Christine for good, and so I could quiet my pride, the part of me that was angry that he was weeping over her, and focus on Jeff, how he just needed love. Helping him mourn felt like the right thing to do, and because I was intimate with loss, it was something I could do. I also knew there was no way back into our relationship without first dealing with the wreckage of this past one.

"Can you play 'Metal Heart'?" Jeff asked. We both loved Cat Power, but that song particularly made him think of Christine: Losing the star without a sky/Losing the reasons why. As we listened in my room, door closed, lights out, Jeff broke into long low sobs, and when the song was over, he asked me to play it again, which I did, over and over, until Jeff cried out his tears and we crawled into bed, exhausted.

Jeff later told me that he'd never loved me as much as he did that night in my dark room. Because I didn't turn him away, he knew he'd made the right decision. A year later, I moved from my walk-up into Jeff's loft. Today we've been married for nine years. We still love Cat Power.


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