The Breakup Files #4: I don't even know what it's like to just be myself right now

The other day I had been drinking (a little too much, honestly) and was pretty drunk. I am usually a pretty reserved, introverted person, but after I've had enough to drink I usually get the urge to talk to someone. The problem with this being that I don't know too many people anymore (but that's just getting older, nothing to be upset about). I guess that's where I started thinking about her. This thought grew until I had written a short text message of "How are you doing?" which I then battled with myself for 10 minutes about whether to send or not. I hastily hit the Send button in an attempt to at least rid me of the anxiety of the decision to even make this small amount of contact. The reply came back not too much later "OK. Walking up to the bar." and it hit me like so many bricks. What was I even doing? What did I hope to get out of this? Something came over me that I can only describe as a profound despair. She tried to make light conversation, probably confused at my random text and subsequent silence, but I kept my answers curt, feeling a certain kind of shame at this ill-thought out drunken text idea.

 

I can't exactly pinpoint where this shame came from, or why I couldn't shake this feeling of existential despair. It is as if I had just tripped on the Void that has been beside me (to some degree or another) since the breakup. The problem is that in tripping on the Void I stared into it, and the longer I stared the less I liked what I saw, but the harder it was to look away. Sometimes the only way to deal with the Void is to just turn away and ignore it, put it out of your mind until it either dissipates or you're at a better place where you can deal with it. But I had found it now, and I had fallen in, now it was time to try and understand it so I could escape.

 

Joaquin Phoenix's character in James Gray's Two Lovers understands the Void. In the first minutes of the film we see him figuratively and literally fall into it, in the form of the harbor that he jumps into. Seemingly unprompted, Phoenix falls into the Void. One second everything is fine, manageable, life is just moving along. The next moment you find the weight of it all so crushing, so dramatic, but so strangely empty that you find yourself reaching for the nearest escape (in this case, a large body of water). It is just as telling that as Phoenix sinks to the bottom he serenely accepts his fate of nothingness, but as the time comes for it to truly envelop him he is fighting his way back to the surface. This is the nature of the Void: it sucks you into its particular feeling of emptiness, a place where you can dwell, sink, and dissolve into the bleak existential gloom, but at some point survival instincts kick-in and you claw your way back to the surface, back to living life as if you haven't just seen some strange equivalent of death.

 

The sad part is that there really is nothing to learn from the Void. It doesn't make you a better person, it just screams at you about the pointlessness of being a human, to the point where all the other thoughts in your head get drowned-out and the only options seem to be either go crazy or go numb. Phoenix has done a little bit of both in Two Lovers. He is an obviously broken person, living with his parents who can do little more than try and help him as he battles his way through a depression they can't understand. He has lost the plot of life, but also tripped along the realization that, perhaps, there isn't one.

 

Two Lovers doesn't dwell on this point, though. They show Phoenix falling into the Void so that he may arise shortly after and we can watch his attempts at putting his shattered life back together. We find out that what broke Phoenix is when his fiancé left him because of fertility problems.  He keeps her picture beside his bed, almost as a totem to where he came from, keeping around what hurt him as if just to remember that he is hurt. Subsequently we meet the two women who will come to represent Phoenix's attempt to stitch his life back together. Vinessa Shaw is the girl who is a family friend, and the girl that Phoenix's parents are trying to push him together with. She is a girl who marginally shares interests with Phoenix, who is nice and congenial, and who is actively pursuing him. The initial scenes between these two display the kind of butterfly-inducing moments when getting to know someone. They are those jittery moments that are so exciting and, strangely, the moments I found myself missing the most when years deep into a long-term relationship. There's something fascinating about these moments, when trying to decipher signals of another person and figure out where you stand with them. Your adrenaline is pumping and what seems horribly embarrassing to you is just making you more enduring to the other person. It's a strange, all-too-human dance, and it makes me a nervous-fucking-wreck. But it's also a unique enough feeling that it leaves me nostalgic for that strange mixture of emotion, fear, and lust that propels the whole business forward.

 

Then Phoenix meets Gwyneth Paltrow's character. She is a neighbor who Phoenix is instantly smitten with. She represents another side of the equation, one where the process of getting to know someone is replaced by an almost blind attraction, where Phoenix dives head first into trying to be with Paltrow. The problem is Paltrow is already in a relationship, with a married, rich guy that pays for her apartment. She also raises a lot of red flags early: taking a lot of drugs to go clubbing, breaking down into a fit of tears in a public place, promising to meet Phoenix outside after she grabs her purse, only to stay inside and forget that he's waiting outside. This is all in the first time they hang out, too. Despite all the problems and demons Paltrow's character seems to be dealing with, Phoenix pursues her with blind abandon. This isn't the dance of personalities with Shaw, this is one ego trying to swallow another whole.

 

 

Phoenix strings Shaw along as he tries to work his way deeper into Paltrow's life. It works, and Phoenix sets it up to where he will be able to run away with Paltrow and live whatever life of love he predicts they will live together, abandoning Shaw without so much as a note. But Phoenix didn't learn his lesson from earlier: Paltrow is flakey and indecisive. When it comes time for them to leave, Paltrow informs Phoenix that she won't be going, that her rich beau has now left his family to exclusively be with Paltrow, and she has to see that through. Phoenix returns, defeated, to Shaw (unbeknownst to her), and the ring that was supposed to be for Paltrow goes to Shaw in a last shot that displays settling as the ultimate human misery. There is tragedy in Phoenix ending up with Shaw, but the tragedy is all Shaw's.

 

Don't worry about all the depressing stuff about the Void earlier, I got over that. But it's still there, always despairingly close to being fallen into. That's just life, though. Sometimes the Void is bigger than others, but we all have to come to terms with our place in the world at some point, just hopefully in a better manner than jumping into the harbor. Sometimes all you can do is move on and dive head-first into the new. Dan Savage says that you get half the length of your relationship to be a mess for. I was in a relationship with my ex for 4 years. 2 years sounds like an excessive amount to be a mess for, especially since I haven't felt like too much of a mess this whole time. It's more in the smaller moments, the ones where I'm alone and realize the true weight of being alone that I start to feel reminiscent, and that leads to sadness, and that leads to ill-thought-out text messages. And the Void persists, roiling along in the corner, always happy to take me back in for a deep look at the nothingness.

 

September 18'th, 2015