Since We Broke Up

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.