Nonfiction / Cydney Mangubat
:: Since We Broke Up ::
When quarantine began in March of 2020—when the pandemic was just starting to take apart the world we’ve come to know—my relationship with my then partner of 4 years was simultaneously on the brink of shattering. And in 3 months we would end our relationship. What unfolded in between remains fogged in my recollection, a road I can’t trick myself into traversing. My mind instinctively knows that this story doesn’t begin with the messiness of our relationship, of what went wrong and why we ended up where we did. It begins after we broke up, when the cruelty of the pandemic made itself known to us and took control of our lives.
At first, news of the virus felt like a halt. I treated it like a temporary interruption to my usual course, a blip not worthy of worry. Quarantine was just a precaution, it would end in a few months—I believed this. But when it didn’t, some of us (most of us) remained caught in that illusion of a momentary pause, consumed by the ache of a return to the versions of ourselves we had left behind. Like a child in a tantrum, I was reverted to that state of restlessness I felt helpless in, just waiting to be picked up, comforted, relieved of the weight of my longing.
I was clumsily processing a breakup in the midst of navigating a new reality. Those days, closure was a luxury I only rarely tasted. Things, thoughts, often felt unfinished, abandoned. Like a door left slightly open. Or an up strum on a guitar. Or a bottle cap angled the wrong way, it’s closed but not really. As much as I wanted to give myself the space to feel as freely as I could, to ride the unending whirl of emotions that came with a breakup, it was almost impossible to let my mind wander when my body was stuck in quarantine. I longed for the kind aura of a coffee shop, where a table for one was not mistaken for loneliness. Or a trip to the grocery, the quiet thrill of going aisle to aisle searching for that one ingredient. Never did I appreciate the comfort of being around strangers until the virus deemed it unsafe.
In an email, a friend tells me about spending two months in recuperation. She’s been focusing on herself, finding time to do things she’s been putting on hold, and grieving, in quiet ways, for the person she used to be. Grief, I imagine, in its many cruel forms, is something that has taken a hold of everyone one way or another during this pandemic. To be pushed into the well of loss, free falling and bracing for an impact that will end the misery. I, too, am in constant grief for the person I used to be.
There is a line by Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk that has stuck with me since I first read it early in the pandemic: “We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.” I have since recognized that I am further in grief for the person I could’ve been, the experiences I could’ve had, robbed even of a proper post-breakup experience.
If the pandemic didn’t happen, I would’ve gone through the breakup around the comfort and support of friends who would take me out to drink, do anything to distract me. Or who would sit beside me as I stayed in the cycle of sadness and regret. Friends who would empathize with me because they had the chance to know my partner, to witness who I was around her. See, as painful and exhausting as it was to lose a partner I loved, what eventually scarred me was not the relationship ending, but the lonely and helpless experience of being a closeted adult going through a breakup around family who never even knew the relationship existed. Four years, and I was never able to introduce her as my partner. I was grieving not in quiet ways, but in purposely hidden spaces—away from the comfort and stability of a safe space. In locked comfort rooms, where bareness rereferred more to the stripping of a façade than being undressed. On a bed facing a wall that mocked me like a mirror, further compressing an already tight space. I could not risk being seen in tears, being asked why. I feared telling the truth on impulse or vulnerability, a desperate attempt to get it over with. As much as I wanted to turn to my family for support, as much as I craved the relief of their presence, of their voices assuring me with words I needed to hear, I couldn’t. Not without causing myself the even heavier, more agonizing uncertainty of what may come after mouthing the words I dated a girl. To run to my family at that time meant coming out to them.
Many times, I’ve invalidated the urgency and meaning of narrating this in the midst of a pandemic. There are stories more important than mine. Quarantine, I’ve learned, has forced me into a routine of self-negation. I have deemed it selfish to be faced by my desires and not look away. When people are sick and dying, am I allowed to struggle and be burdened by something so personal? To fear rejection more than the virus.
Never have I felt a stronger urge to come out, spending every day close to my parents, sitting beside them, spending each meal together, wanting to just tap them on the shoulder and tell them. The back and forth of stepping over fear and being swallowed by it. Like playing with a light switch, the brightness of courage flickering in front of me on and off, but never left long enough for me to be embraced by it.
In the film Happiest Season, Dan Levy captured the experience of coming out best when his character says:
My dad kicked me out of the house and didn’t talk to me for 13 years after I told him. Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version, and my version, and everything in between. But the one thing that all of those stories have in common is that moment, right before you say those words. When your heart is racing, and you don’t know what’s coming next. That moment’s really terrifying. And once you say those words, you can’t unsay them. A chapter has ended and a new one’s begun. And you have to be ready for that.
The moment right before coming out that Levy described—when you can feel your bounding pulse control your whole body—is a feeling I’ve long been familiar with. There are many instances when I’ve felt close to coming out, to my mom the most. When we’re watching a film with a gay character and she tells me after that she enjoyed the story. When we’re in the car, and the smallness of the space and blurring of the outside invites vulnerability. When I was rushed to the hospital at 3am and she spent the entire night beside me. When she came to my room two weeks after the breakup to give me coffee because she felt that something was wrong. Among everyone in my family, I longed for her presence the most. For her short reassuring replies telling me kaya mo ‘yan ikaw pa. Or the tranquility of a moment when I opened up to her, how the silence would remind me that she was really listening. Or her embrace. I longed for the tenderness of a mother’s embrace during the nights I spent crying over my partner, how the idea of it still embodies the stilling encounter of seeing a mom calm a crying baby to sleep.
“I want him to see that I’m smiling this big for the first time in my life. I’m feeling like I truly am myself, but there is just one thing missing. I just want my dad back, like I just want my dad back. He hasn’t been here.” These are words from Angel Flores, a 22-year-old transwoman athlete and coach introduced in one of the episodes of the makeover reality show Queer Eye. Her father was an influential figure in her life who inspired her towards athletics, but whom she has lost contact with since telling him of her choice to transition. Anyone who has seen the episode will attest to the light Angel carries. It is impossible not to be empowered by her, to smile and laugh when she does, to be overwhelmed with joy in witnessing her fall in love with who she sees in the mirror. But there is a void inside of her, anyone will feel it too. She wants her dad back, I hear myself pleading in return.
Towards the end of the episode, Angel and her dad do reunite. As soon as he walked in the room, they both got lost in tears and fell into each other’s arms. The same void, it turns out, found itself in her father’s life and their longing for each other’s presence grew more powerful than their differences.
But what has stuck with me since is this: right before Angel’s dad entered the room, Karamo Brown, the show’s culture expert, sat with Angel and said, “I don’t subscribe to the word ‘coming out’ because the act is actually letting people in. And when you say coming out, you’re actually giving the other person the power to reject or deny you. And for me, it’s like, ‘you don’t have that power.’”
While I carry the same outlook—as I have most of my high school and college days—I can’t bring myself to hold that conviction at home. I have had people come into my life who have rejected me upon hearing how I identify, and without hesitation I have never, not even once, given them that power over me. I don’t seek their approval and can walk away living my truth without any loss. I am, as Karamo puts it, inviting them in and not waiting for them to open the door so I can safely come out. But with my parents and my sisters, it is not about power. It is about family. I have since understood that my needing to come out to them is a matter of longing, of wanting their assurance that I will be loved regardless, of filling a void in me that already exists even before I’ve told my truth. I need them. I will be pleading to have them back if I lose them.
Reader, there is nothing more terrifying to me than the thought of losing my parents. How does one even prepare for the possibility of it? How do you convince yourself that it is worth taking that risk for the sake of who you are? I want the version of the story where I don’t have to weigh those options.
I briefly dated someone else a year into the pandemic, a guy whom I had been friends with for a while. It was different, the world is kinder to these kinds of relationships. There was no risk involved or fear of being found out. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t give me moments of peace, unburdened by the consequences of being queer. I got to talk to my sisters about him. Over dinner, I told my parents where he was from, how kind he was. For a while, I was certain that the hurt I carried with me as a result of my hiding was dimming itself, and that the urgency I felt to come out during the pandemic had passed. But however freeing it was, it didn’t come without resentment, anger towards a reality that dating a man was safer, a life that was more bearable compared to the other. With my previous partner, I had to whisper on the phone with her whenever I was home. I settled on routines out of paranoia, phone always locked, any trace of our relationship to be kept in my dorm or a shoebox under the bed I was certain no one will find. She once sent me flowers and a photo of us in a frame I could never take home and put up. At dinner, my parents would ask after my sister’s boyfriend, his work, family, when he’d visit. I wanted them to ask me too. I wanted, more than anything during our relationship, to be able to tell my parents about her. All this I still carried throughout my new relationship. There is now a deep hurt in me caused by 4 years in hiding that I’m afraid will only find healing in my family’s acceptance of me.
When we were young, my sisters and I randomly found a board game in a box of toys. It was a simple ‘dice and move’ game across a numbered board; the goal was to get from start to finish first. But the board had its own tricks, every square housed a command: “take 4 steps back,” “7 steps back.” You’d be five steps away from winning and you’d end on a tile with “go back to start.” We laughed at each other’s misfortune, always going back. But it stopped being fun when none of us could reach the end and we had to stop playing. Each square was colored in annoying red, almost mocking you: you’ll never get there. This is what the pandemic is like. Just when you think you’re close to the end—restrictions easing up, children getting vaccinated, schools slowly shifting onsite—you get pulled right back, finding yourself stuck again and again at the beginning. When the January 2022 surge came, almost everyone I checked up on was either sick or had someone in their family in isolation. I had to take a breath for each how are you sent, always anticipating bad news. It was only a matter of time, I thought, until it reached our home.
My older sister was the first to get sick. It didn’t matter how long we prepared in anticipation; the thought of the virus invading your home is disquieting. My younger sister and I experienced symptoms two weeks later.
I remember I was 7 when my family visited a museum once where a house of mirrors was in exhibit. As any child would, I ran in excitement; the video by the entrance made it look inviting. But I would later discover that there was nothing more suffocating to me than being endlessly surrounded by my own image, having no place to look away to. Finding the one way out was impossible; my mother had to guide me out. Being in isolation, physically away from my family, was being back in that maze every day but no longer needing the mirrors. My room had never felt smaller. Every way I looked I was reminded that I could not walk out. Not from my room, not from my hiding, not from myself. Nothing has embodied the months of suffocation of being closeted in a pandemic than being in isolation in your own home, having my family just outside my door but never being able to come out.
I once saw a video online of a girl coming out to her parents with a cake that said “surprise I’m bi.” As I watched those moments right before she walked up to them, I could tell that she was trembling inside from the other side of the screen. Her face was red, she had been crying even before she put the cake down, her voice edged with fear. It took her parents a while to catch up, but they did eventually. They hugged her, assured her it was good news, reminded her they love her no matter what. I remember this video each time I go out to dinner with my parents. On those nights I always consider telling them, until fear seals up my throat, perhaps the same fear that pulsed through the girl in the video right before she came out.
I’ve since learned that there is a name for this fear: it’s called anticipatory anxiety. It describes fear or worry for events or scenarios that haven’t happened yet. This includes spending a lot of time anticipating worst-case scenarios, which can then lead to frustration and hopelessness. I read in an article by the non-profit organization Anxiety Canada that this anticipation to protect oneself is a system that is “critical to our survival when there is actual threat or danger, it’s a big problem when there isn’t.”
This is the part where I turn away and hide (it took me a month before returning to this section again). Reading up on anticipatory anxiety is like answering a crossword puzzle and then realizing that perhaps I’ve been using the wrong letters the entire time. I hesitate to spell this out, but I am beginning to consider that what if all this—me fearing losing my parents, not being able to come out, failing to introduce my previous partner—are all just stories I tell myself, a way of protecting myself from coming out. What if I convince myself I can’t come out, because I’m not ready to confront the harder-to-admit realization that my parents accepting me is probably not as distant and impossible a reality as I have believed it to be. How terrifying a prospect it is for me to even consider that I cling to a traditional view of my family as a defense mechanism. What if, what I am most terrified of is this: that they’ll accept me when I finally tell them, tell me they love me no matter what, and I’ll realize that all this time I was the only one holding myself back. I’ve since realized that it is for this reason that I long even more for the pandemic to end—so I can stay in the closet, escape confronting these haunting possibilities, and return to the version of my story I’ve come to know.
From the writer
:: Account ::
Writing to me is often a way of understanding things, of finding meaning in stories, experiences, relationships. I reckon that few people write with the certainty of knowing exactly what will be written down. When I write, I’m forced to understand as I write, to find structure to events, connect them, reflect. Going through that process is what I have feared most since I started writing my essay “Since We Broke Up.” I have been afraid to confront the parts of my identity I have left suspended alongside the pandemic. There are works that require greater and longer reflection before it can ever be written. This essay was a work I initially started writing in my sophomore year but was never able to complete until my senior year of college because there were still aspects of my identity in relation to my sexuality that I had yet to understand myself. It wasn’t the right time for me to write about it then. I needed the months spent writing and rewriting down reflections, getting things wrong before I could eventually get them right.
Cydney Mangubat lives in the Philippines. She is a BFA Creative Writing graduate from Ateneo de Manila University and a recipient of the Loyola Schools Awards for the Arts for Nonfiction, as well as the Mulry Award for Literary Excellence. Most days, she craves paella or buttered chicken.