Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey
My biggest problem at the moment was the portable toilet. It was just too heavy. It was weighing down the bow of my canoe, which was already loaded with 80 pounds of water and a double-walled cooler filled with fairly ridiculous items like coconut milk, rib-eye steaks, and cage-free liquid whole eggs. Also, I’d brought a fetching beach parasol. But why does something you shit in in the desert have to be made of ammunition-grade 20-millimeter steel? It doesn’t! I just needed some plastic bags. The ill-conceived toilet was just one of many small and giant mistakes that had led me to this moment, cursing alone in the wilderness. There were the mistakes in my marriage, the cosmic mistake (to my mind) of the divorce, the wrong men I’d fallen for in the year since my separation, the friendships I’d overburdened. All of these were, yes, weighing me down. If I thought about the heavy-shit metaphors too long, my head hurt.
Most recently, there was the poor decision, made because I was possibly having a hot flash, to launch this leg of my journey a day early, at 7 p.m., in fading light, just above a small rapid, in a canoe that felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Then again, it was August and it was 97 degrees in Green River, Utah. Even a teenage boy would be having a hot flash. Camping at the shadeless town park was an unbearable option. Running a desert river for a month in the height of summer was probably another bad decision. But here I was. An outfitter named Craig had rented me the 15-foot canoe with a broken thwart, splintering gunwales, and the tanker toilet. The boat was the color of lipstick you wear when you’re trying too hard. It did, however, match the parasol.
“Just remember,” he’d said, “if you don’t know knots, make lots!” He laughed, snapped a picture of me surrounded by my gear, and drove off in his air-conditioned pickup.
To be clear, I do know how to tie knots and I generally know what I’m doing in the wilderness. But my own canoe lay upside down in Washington, DC, where it petulantly awaited better days and where, until recently, I also petulantly lay, often right side down, after my husband decided to leave our 25-year marriage because, among other things, he said he needed to go find his soul mate. Still, nothing in my prior canoeing experience had fully prepared me for the reality that I could barely alter the trajectory of this boat once I got it into the river. Only a few small inches of freeboard lay between the water and the top of my gunwales. I stared at the approaching shoals. I glared at the toilet, glinting like a smug brigadier in the twilight.
The river split into two channels. I chose the one on the right, but the current grew fast, shallow, and bumpy. The canoe scraped over some rocks, then some more, and started to list sideways. I pushed my feet back into my river shoes and hopped out into the shin-deep water, figuring I’d have an easier time keeping the boat upright and off the rocks if I were outside it. My heart was beating fast, and I chastised myself for not tying down my gear better. The boat bumped along, upright, and I jumped back in. I knew I needed to pull over and camp, soon, before it got any darker. I grounded the boat onto the first available scruffy gravel bar. For my first night ever spent alone in the wilderness, I’d be camping within sight and earshot of the interstate.
By this point, I’d already been paddling the Green River for two weeks. With friends and family, I’d run Split Mountain and Desolation Canyon, among other stretches. Everything was so aptly named. The first white men to run these canyons 150 years ago hated most of it. “Country worthless,” scrawled one in his journal. Now it was just me and the sound of air brakes. I spent the night awake, berating myself for existing in the first place, then berating my husband, and then scheming about how to jettison the toilet, because there was no way I was hauling that thing for the next two weeks.
I was here because I needed to jettison so many things. A year’s worth of fear, dismay, and loneliness, some bad habits acquired to stave off those feelings, a peevish and lingering sense of abandonment, my stubborn attachment to a man who was clearly no longer in my boat.
A year and a half earlier, I’d had a life that seemed worth keeping afloat. I was a science journalist with two trusting and kind-hearted teenagers and a husband who ran a venerable and useful nonprofit. We had moved a few years before from Colorado, and I missed our former life out west, but we had a comfortable house near the Potomac River and a goofy mutt to walk the towpath with. I thought our long marriage was fundamentally sound and totally salvageable. We’d seen each other through academic degrees and professional milestones. We’d had decades of fun living in beautiful places, and we’d produced these amazing little people who depended on us for love and hope and stability in a world that seemed to be growing only more confusing and unjust. Our friends’ marriages weren’t perfect either, but they worked things out. As far as I could tell, nobody here was miserable or violent or crazy or impossibly annoying.
HAVING NEVER BEEN heartbroken before, I tended to dismiss portrayals of it in popular culture or literature or even by my friends, I’m sorry to say, as overwrought. But one of the first stages of heartbreak, I soon learned, is feeling stunned, even if you shouldn’t have been. I’d been used to feeling in control. But you can’t game heartbreak. It overtakes you. When my husband decided to live on his own after three decades of togetherness, the clichés of heartbreak felt not like melodrama at all. I felt like I’d been axed in the heart, like I was missing a limb, set adrift in an ocean, loosed in a terrifying wood. I felt imperiled. Our dyad had dissolved into vapor, and I couldn’t grasp what remained. I still plodded through my days, cooking for our son and daughter and walking the dog and making most but not all of my deadlines. I would have moments of collapse, and then I’d get back up feeling vacant and dense at the same time.
We spent another six months still living together and drafting—
painfully drafting—a detailed parenting plan. By the time he took his small blue suitcase and rolled it out the kitchen door forever, I’d already lost 20 pounds I didn’t want to lose. I couldn’t imagine a life without him. Or ever trusting men again, or being able to love or be loved. Having just turned 50, it all seemed even more impossible. I was completely, existentially, freaked.
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