Exhibit 1: Clamshell Necklace
It’s a simple necklace: a tiny, brown-striped clamshell tied to a black leather cord. The shell was gathered from a beach in Italy, and attached to the cord by means of two holes drilled into the shell with a dental drill. The person who made the necklace for me was a dental student in Florence at the time. He did it secretly, in one of his classes, while he was supposed to be learning how to make crowns. I wore that necklace every single day, until I didn’t anymore.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is a collection of ordinary objects hung on walls, tucked under glass, backlit on pedestals: a toaster, a child’s pedal car, a modem handmade in 1988. A wooden toilet paper dispenser. A positive pregnancy stick. A positive drug test. An axe. They come from Taipei, from Slovenia, from Colorado, from Manila, all donated by strangers, each accompanied by a story: In the 14 days of her holiday, every day I axed one piece of her furniture.
One of the most popular items in the gift shop is the “Bad Memories Eraser”—an actual eraser sold in several shades—but in truth the museum is something closer to the psychic opposite of an eraser. Every one of its objects insists that something was, rather than trying to make it disappear. Donating an object to the museum permits surrender and permanence at once. You get it out of your home, and you make it immortal. “She was a regional buyer for a grocer and that meant I got to try some great samples,” reads the caption next to a box of maple and sea salt microwave popcorn. “I miss her, her dog, and the samples, and can’t stand to have this fancy microwave popcorn in my house.” The donor couldn’t stand to have it, but he also couldn’t bear to throw it away. He wanted to put it on a pedestal instead.
When it comes to breakups, we are attached to certain dominant narratives of purgation, liberation, and exorcism: the idea that we’re supposed to want to get the memories out of us, free ourselves from their grip. But this museum recognizes that our relationship to the past—its pain and ruptures and betrayals—is often more fraught, more vexed, full of ebb and pull. When I visited its permanent home in Zagreb, Croatia—housed in a baroque aristocratic home perched at the edge of Upper Town—I was on my own, though almost everyone else had come as part of a couple. The lobby was full of men waiting for wives and girlfriends who were spending longer with the exhibits. I imagined all these couples steeped in schadenfreude and fear: This isn’t us. This could be us. In the guest book, I saw one entry that said simply: “I should end my relationship, but I probably won’t,” and fingered my own wedding ring—as proof, for comfort—but couldn’t help imagining the ring as another exhibit, too.
Before flying to Zagreb, I’d put out a call to my friends—What object would you donate to this museum?—and got descriptions I couldn’t have imagined: a mango candle, a penis-shaped gourd, the sheet music from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3, a clamshell drilled by a dental student, an illustration from a children’s book that an ex had loved when he was young—showing a line of gray mice with thought bubbles full of the same colors above their heads, as if they were all dreaming the same dream. The objects my friends described all reached toward these obsolete past tenses: that time we dreamed the same dream. They were relics from those dreams, as the museum exhibits were relics from the dreams of strangers—attempts to insist that they had left some residue behind.
Walking through the museum felt less like voyeurism and more like collaboration: Strangers wanted their lives witnessed, and other strangers wanted to witness them. I felt strangely useful, as if my attention offered proof—to the strangers who had donated these objects—that their thwarted love deserved attention. There was a deeply democratic vibe to the place, which seemed to insist that anyone’s story was worth telling, and worth listening to. The donors weren’t distinct, in any meaningful sense, from the observers. By contributing an item, any observer—anyone with a toaster or a toilet paper dispenser—could easily become an author. The curatorial notes quoted Roland Barthes: “Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator…(there is) no amorous oblation without a final theatre.” The caption beside a small travel bottle of conditioner described a man named Dave: He had been “welcomed” into the open marriage of Mr. and Mrs. W.—Mrs. W., in fact, had left the conditioner behind after a weekend visit to his cabin—but after she and Mr. W were killed in a car crash, Dave was left with “no public forum to grieve.” The caption seemed to be addressing me directly when it said: “You are giving Dave his public forum.”
Exhibit 2: Shopping List
Princeton, New Jersey
I spent the first seven years of my twenties in serious long-term romantic relationships, and then I got my heart broken when I was 27 and never dated again. Ten years into my singleness, having moved four times since my last break-up, gotten a PhD and a job, gained 40 pounds, I was going through a box of old too-small summer clothes and slipped my hand into the back pocket of some abbreviated jean shorts and felt a scrap of paper which turned out to be a shopping list in my heartbreaking ex’s handwriting: “batteries, lg. black trash bags, Tide (small) bleach alt., g. onion.” I suddenly remembered his gratuitous use of periods—oddly, always after he signed his name, every email and every letter ending with a punctuation mark of finality.
This museum of breakups began with a breakup of its own. Back in 2003, after Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić ended their relationship, they found themselves in the midst of a series of difficult conversations about how to divide their possessions. As Olinka put it: “The feeling of loss…represented the only thing left for us to share.” Over the kitchen table one night, they imagined an exhibit composed of all the detritus from breakups like their own, and when they finally created this exhibition, three years later, its first object was one salvaged from their own home: a mechanical wind-up bunny they’d called “honey bunny.”
Just over a decade later, the story of their breakup has become the museum’s origin myth. “It was the strangest thing,” Olinka told me over coffee one morning. “The other day I was getting out of my car, right outside the museum, and I heard a guide telling a group of tourists about the bunny. He said: ‘It all started with a joke’!” Olinka wanted to tell him that it hadn’t been a joke at all, that those early conversations had been deeply painful, but she realized that the story of her own breakup had become a public artifact, subject to the retellings and interpretations of others. People took whatever they needed from it.
Two years after they’d moved out of their shared apartment, Dražen called Olinka with the idea of submitting their breakup installation to a local Zagreb art festival. They were rejected the first year, but accepted the next, given only two weeks to plan the installation, and told they wouldn’t be given space inside the gallery itself. So they got a shipping container delivered from Rijeka, a port city on the Adriatic Sea, and spent the next two weeks collecting objects. At first they were worried they wouldn’t find enough, but everyone who heard about the idea responded. I might have something for you. Olinka met a woman under the clock tower in Ban Jelačić Square who arrived with her husband but brought an old diary filled with the name of her former lover; she met an elderly man in a bar—a wounded vet—who pulled a prosthetic leg out of a shopping bag and told the story of the social worker who’d helped him get it during the early ’90s, when sanctions during the Balkan Wars made prosthetics nearly impossible to obtain. The prosthetic had lasted longer than their relationship, he said: “made of sturdier material.”
When Olinka and Dražen finally found a permanent exhibition space, four years after that first exhibit, the space was in terrible shape: the first floor of an eighteenth-century palace in utter disrepair, perched near the top of a funicular railway. “We were a little bit crazy,” Olinka said. “We had tunnel vision. Like when you fall in love.” Dražen finished the floors and painted the walls, restored the brick arches. He did such a great job that people asked Olinka: “Are you sure you wanted to break up with this guy?”
That’s the pleasing irony of the museum’s premise: that in creating a museum from their breakup, Olinka and Dražen ended up forming an enduring partnership. Sitting in the museum coffee shop, Olinka and I could see the mechanical bunny in its glass case: presiding mascot and patron saint. “People think that the bunny is our object,” Olinka said. “But really the museum is our object. Everything that it’s become.”
Exhibit 3: A copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
R. and I both started reading Walden in the beginning of our relationship. It takes a certain amount of solitude to grow fond of Walden, and our relationship was a vessel where we could put both our isolations while keeping them separate, like water and oil. We were living together, but decided to sleep in different rooms, both reading Walden before falling asleep. It was our proxy: our bodies were separated by the wall in between our rooms, but our minds were converging towards the same ideas. By the time we broke up, neither of us had finished. Nevertheless, we continued reading it.
Every caption at the museum was an education in the limits of my vision. What looked like an Uno game was never just an Uno game. It was the Uno game that an American soldier had planned to give to his long-distance girlfriend—an Australian army widow, herself in the service, raising two small kids—but when they were finally done with their tours, and he came to Australia to meet her flight from Afghanistan, she told him she wasn’t ready for a commitment. Years later, when he stumbled across this museum full of the detritus of lost loves, he decided to donate the Uno game they’d never played. He’d been carrying it with him all that time.
Some of the exhibits conjured grand historical dramas, like the love letter written by a thirteen-year-old boy escaping Sarajevo under fire in 1992: a note he’d written to Elma—who was stuck in the same convoy, in the car next to his—but hadn’t had the courage to give her. He’d just given her his favorite Nirvana tape, since she’d forgotten to bring her own music. But the objects that moved me most were the ordinary ones, the toaster and wooden toilet paper dispenser, because their ordinariness suggested that every love story—even the most familiar, the most predictable, the least dramatic—was worth putting in a museum. The museum’s former manager, Ivana Družetić, called it a descendant of the curiosity cabinet: “Since the discovery of that which is the smallest and the reaching of that which is the furthest, the criteria no longer seem to be craving the extreme, but rather attempting to capture all that which falls in between.”
The museum’s objects understood that a breakup is powerful because it saturates the banality of daily life, just as the relationship itself did: every errand, every annoying alarm-clock chirp, every late-night Netflix rental. Once love is gone, it’s gone everywhere: a ghost suffusing daily life just as powerfully in its absence. A man leaves his shopping lists scattered across your days, cluttered with his personality tics and gratuitous periods, poignant in their specificity: lg. black trash bags summoning that time the trash bags were too small, or g. onion, the type necessary for a particular fish stew prepared on a particular humid summer evening. The exhibits were all vocabulary words drawn from private shared languages that I would never entirely understand—the beaten-up pot, the plastic bin—or relics from civilizations that no longer existed: a wooden toilet paper dispenser conjuring days when a young couple was constantly running out.
Some objects felt less like relics from the past and more like artifacts from unlived futures. A crumbling gingerbread cookie endured as stale eulogy for a one-day flirtation with an engaged man, one giddy afternoon spent at an Oktoberfest in Chicago, before a text arrived the next day: It is hard for me to say this to you as you are a great girl but…please don’t phone or text as I fear it would only cause trouble. It was so seemingly inconsequential—the chance encounter, the dismissive text—something you’d never expect to find immortalized. And yet, there it was. A single Oktoberfest mattered enough to make a woman save a gingerbread cookie until its frosting had gathered into pale broken scabs, and these scabs held the essence of the museum itself—its commitment to the oblique sadness of the “one-day thing,” to attachments that might not seem worthy of commemoration, to the act of mourning what never happened rather than what did. Which is part of any breakup: grieving the enduring relationship that never came to pass, the hypothetical relationship that could have worked, the glimmering potential inside whatever actually happened. One wool sock with a regimental number came from a soldier’s twenty-year affair, with a caption from his lover: “I had two children with him and we never shared a real conversation. I always thought that, one day, it would begin.”
One journal at the museum, kept by a woman during one of her lover’s bipolar episodes, was full of phrases repeated like mantras: I am keeping my heart open and I am living in the now, written over and over again. It was the triteness of those phrases that moved me. They weren’t brilliant. They’d simply been necessary.
Exhibit 4: Envelope with single human hair
Karviná, Czech Republic
In 1993 I graduated college and taught English for a year in a coal mining village on the Polish/Czech border, a depressed, polluted, communist city in which I experienced loneliness like I’d never known before or since. The summer before I left, I met a Scottish boy named Colin at the amusement park in Salisbury Beach where he was running the ferris wheel. After the summer, we wrote letters to each other, and sometimes a letter from him was the only thing that got me through my day. He had auburn curls I adored and once when the familiar airmail-blue envelope arrived in my box I saw he had taped the flap and a single piece of his curly hair got trapped under the tape: A part of his body, his DNA, what would one day be shared with our children. After he dumped me in a pretty cowardly way—just stopped writing—I still checked my box every day and wept, then returned to my sad communist flat and wept, then looked at the envelope that held his single curly hair and wept some more.
“The museum has always been two steps ahead of us,” Olinka told me, explaining that it seemed to have a will of its own from the start, an impulse to exist that lived outside of her and Dražen. It was as if all these stories had just been waiting all around them—like humidity in the air, a sky ready to rain. Immediately after their shipping-crate exhibition, Olinka and Dražen got a call from a Japanese quiz show that wanted to film an episode in their museum. But there was no museum. It was like that: people believing in the thing, wanting the thing, before it existed.
In the decade since that first shipping crate, the museum has taken many shapes: permanent installations in Zagreb and Los Angeles; a virtual museum comprising thousands of photographs and stories; and forty-six temporary installations all over the world—from Buenos Aires to Boise, Singapore to Istanbul, Cape Town to South Korea, from the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam’s red-light district to the European Parliament in Brussels, all locally sourced, like artisanal grocers, stocked with regional heartbreak.
Olinka told me that the Mexico City exhibit was flooded with more than 200 donations in the first twenty-four hours, and that the French donors often narrated their own captions in the third person, while American narratives usually featured strong characters and prominent first person storylines, like little movies playing out in front of you—that all-American I. American curators were also much more likely to use the first-person when they talked about their exhibitions: My collection; the donations I’ve gathered. She and Dražen tried not to. It took a few years before they even explicitly introduced the backstory of their own breakup into the public narrative of their museum. They always believed the project belonged to something much larger than them, something larger than their private pain.
Objects make private histories public, but they also grant the past a certain integrity. Whenever memory conjures the past, it ends up papering over it: replacing the lost partner with memories and reconstructions, myths and justifications. But an object can’t be distorted in these ways. It’s still just a box of popcorn or a toaster, a hoodie that got drenched with sudden rain one night in 1997.
At another Zagreb exhibit I saw that week, this one devoted to the 1991 Serbian-Montenegrin attacks on Dubrovnik, it was the objects that felt most powerful: not the massive photographs showing pale stone forts exploded into plumes of smoke, but the small grenade shaped like a miniature black pineapple, and the crude cross a family had fashioned from pieces of an exploded artillery shell that hit their home. A soldier’s pink flashlight sat beside a piece of shrapnel, a square of gauze stained with his blood, and a photo of him lying in a hospital bed with a bandage over one eye, rosary against his bare chest. His name was Ante Puljiz. Those words meant nothing to me. But that piece of shrapnel—it had been lodged inside his body.
Exhibit 5: Four black dresses
Brooklyn, New York
I would donate to the museum the four black dresses hanging in my closet: a shirtwaist, a sundress, a ribbed turtleneck, and an A-line of raw silk. Two of these dresses were given to me by my ex, and two I bought myself, but they all date from a time in my life when I imagined I could become the person I wanted to be by adopting a uniform. I thought—we both thought—that the problem of my un-femininity, my lack of interest in clothes, my general un-hipness, could be solved by my becoming one of those literary party regulars who dresses in black, makes cutting comments, and writes bestsellers. Two months before we broke up, this man said to me, “I’m just waiting to see if you become famous, because then I think I might fall in love with you.” A horrible thing to say, clumsy in its attempt at honesty—yet I did see how this was what, on some level, I’d been promising him, the fantasy of a public self we’d been co-constructing. I would donate these dresses to the museum—except that I still wear them. All the time. It’s just that I wear other dresses—purple, floral, geometric, pink—as well.
When I was young, before my parents split up, I believed that divorce was a ceremony just like marriage, only inverted: The couple walked down the aisle of a church, holding hands, and then—once they reached the altar—they unclasped their hands and walked away from each other. After a family friend ended her marriage, I asked her: Did you have a nice divorce? It seemed like a polite question. An ending seemed like something important enough to justify a ritual.
When performance artists Marina Abramović and her partner, Ulay, decided to end their twelve-year relationship—as lovers and artistic collaborators—they marked its ending by walking the length of the Great Wall of China. “People put so much effort into starting a relationship and so little effort into ending one,” Abramović explained. On March 30, 1988, Abramović started walking from the eastern end of the Great Wall, the Gulf of Bohai on the Yellow Sea, and Ulay began walking from the western edge, in the Gobi Desert, and they each walked for ninety days, covering roughly 2,500 kilometers, until they met in the middle, where they shook hands to say goodbye. At a retrospective of Abramović’s work in Stockholm, two video screens showed scenes from The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk. One screen showed Abramović walking past camels on hard dirt covered with snow, while the other showed Ulay hiking with a walking stick over green hills. The tapes were running on a continuous loop, and it seemed beautiful to me that on those screens, years after their breakup, these two lovers still walked constantly toward each other.
If every relationship is a collaboration—two people jointly creating the selves they will be with each other—this collaboration can sometimes feel like tyranny, forcing the self into the shape that might coax love, and it can sometimes feel like birth: The self you make possible. Sometimes the comet trail left behind—the dresses you wore, the lipstick you tried, the books you bought but never read, the bands you pretended to like—can feel like broken shackles, but sometimes it’s beautiful anyway: a dress reclaimed from costume, turned into silk skin for a Saturday night.
In truth, I’ve been obsessed with breakups since before I was ever in a relationship. I grew up in a family thick with divorces and overpopulated by remarriages: Both sets of grandparents divorced, my mother’s twice; both my parents married three times; my eldest brother divorced by forty. Divorce never seemed like an aberration so much as an inevitable stage in the life cycle of any love. But in my family the ghosts of prior partners were rarely vengeful or embittered. My mother’s first husband was a lanky hippie with the kindest eyes who once brought me a dream catcher. My beloved aunt’s first husband was an artist who made masks from the driftwood palm fronds he gathered from the beaches. These men enchanted me because they carried with them not only the residue of who my mom and aunt had been before I knew them, but also the spectral possibilities of who they might have become. Seventeen years after their divorce, my own parents had become so close that my mom, an Episcopal deacon, officiated my father’s third marriage.
Which is all to say: I grew up believing that relationships would probably end, but I also grew up with the firm belief that even after a relationship was over, it was still a part of you, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I asked my mother what object she would contribute to the museum, she chose a shirt she had bought in San Francisco, years before I was born, with the woman she had loved before she met my father.
I grew up with the sense that a broken relationship always amounted to more than its breakage—because it might have an aftermath, and also because everything that happened before it ended wasn’t invalidated by the fact of it ending; because those memories, the particular joys and particular frictions and particular incarnations of self it had permitted, hadn’t disappeared, though the world didn’t always make room for them. To speak of an ex too much was seen as the sign of some kind of pathology, and the gospel of serial monogamy could have you believe that every relationship was an imperfect trial run, useful only as preparation for the relationship that finally stuck. In this model, a family full of divorces was a family full of failures. But I grew up seeing them as something else, grew up seeing every self as an accumulation of its loves, like a Russian nesting doll that held all of those relationships inside.
Exhibit 6: Paisley Shirt
San Francisco, California
It was sometime in 1967. We bought our paisley shirts from an outdoor rack in Haight-Ashbury. This was in the early heady days of our relationship; for me all the more intoxicating as it was my first lesbian love affair. Our shirts almost matched, but not quite, mine was psychedelic pink and hers purple. They were definitely first worn at a Jefferson Airplane concert, though the shirt carries memories of places it never went: a year backpacking and picking crops in Europe, leading an olive picker strike in Provence, a camping trip in Death Valley where we watched the sun set on one horizon while the moon rose on the other. It was all so good and right and full of hope, until it wasn’t. I never understood why we ended, although my wanting children probably had something to do with it. The last time I saw her was at Gay Pride Day in Washington D.C. in 1975. That’s a long time ago but the paisley shirt has stayed with me. It reminds me who I once was.
When I was a kid, I loved a book called Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum. In the Whole Wide World Museum, Grover visits “The Things You See in the Sky Room” and the room full of “Long Thin Things You Can Write With,” where a carrot has mistakenly ended up, so he returns it to an elegant marble pedestal in the middle of the otherwise empty “Carrot Room.” As Grover reaches the end of the exhibits, he wonders: “Where did they put everything else?” That’s when he reaches the wooden door marked: “Everything Else.” When he opens it, of course, it’s just the exit.
When I left the Museum of Broken Relationships, everything on the streets of Zagreb seemed like a possible exhibit, an object that had been part of a love affair or that might be someday: a garden gnome grinning in front of lace curtains; purple modeling clay formed into uneven balls on a windowsill; orange plastic ash trays near the top of the funicular railway; every toothpick sticking out of the sausages roasting on an outdoor griddle in Strossmarket; every cigarette butt in the clogged metal street grate on Hebrangova ulica; the scab as large as an apple on an old man’s exposed shin, as he rode a motorbike with an old woman gripping his waist. Perhaps someday she would wish she’d saved that scab as something to remember him by.
The cloudless Zagreb day held possible heartbreak like a distant ticking bomb. Every stranger carried the coiled history of his own great loves, opaque and untold: the old man with a white beard in Ban Jelačić Square, cranking by hand a wooden contraption that spun children in four woven baskets. What heartbreak had he known? Or the three young men walking down Radićeva ulica, eating identical ears of steaming corn—all tall and blond, like fairy-tale brothers, unbreakable. How had they been broken? I paused at the Stone Gate, a tunneled crook in the road with an extravagant gated altar to the Virgin Mary and a set of wooden pews facing its trough of candles, where elderly women sat with closed eyes, or knelt to make the sign of the cross. It smelled like wax and smoke. What were these women praying for? Every silent stranger concealed a thousand secret needs or wounds, invisible and consuming, as she ushered her own private prayers up to God.
When I saw a man and woman sharing a bag of popcorn in Zrinjevac Park, she sitting on his lap with her legs wrapped around his waist, I wondered if someday, once everything was broken, they would remember the accessories of this particular day like soil samples: her sunglasses, his sneakers. I imagined their popcorn on a pedestal, with a spotlight shining on it—Bag of popcorn; Zagreb, Croatia—captioned by the story of another woman, or another man, or simply another year, how it dimmed exuberance into routine.
I could summon my own lost loves as an infinite catalog: a pint of chocolate ice cream eaten on a futon above a falafel shop; a soggy tray of chili fries from the Tommy’s at Lincoln and Pico; a plastic vial of pink-eye medicine; twenty different T-shirt smells; beard hairs scattered like tea leaves across dingy sinks; the three-wheeled dishwasher tucked into the Iowa pantry I shared with the man I thought I would marry. But perhaps the deeper question is not about the objects themselves—what belongs in the catalog—but about why I enjoy cataloging them so much. What is it about the ache that I enjoy, that etched groove of remembering an old love, that vein of nostalgia?
After breaking up with my first boyfriend, when we were both freshmen in college on opposite sides of the country, I developed a curious attachment to the sadness of our breakup. It was easier to miss the happiness of being together when we were no longer together. It was certainly easier than muddling through what our relationship had turned into: something strained by distance, and the gap between the different people we were becoming. Rather than sitting through stilted phone conversations and the hard work of trying to speak to each other, I could smoke my cigarettes outside at night in the bitter Boston cold, alone, and miss Los Angeles, and what it had been like to fall in love there: warm nights by the ocean, kissing on lifeguard stands. I was more comfortable mourning what the relationship had been than I’d been inhabiting the relationship itself. I loved the way sadness felt pure and ascetic: smoking a lot and eating nothing and listening to sad songs on repeat. That sadness felt like a purified bond, as if I was more connected to that man in missing him than I’d ever been while we were together. But it was more than that, too: The sadness itself became a kind of anchor, something I needed more than I’d ever needed him.
Exhibit 7: Steel guitar slide
Fayetteville, West Virginia
The most potent relationship object in my possession is an old steel guitar slide from the 1920s. It’s a bar slide—or tone bar—meaning a simple chunk of chromed steel or brass, its original manufacture stamp worn away by constant fretting. My ex, a person of both exceptional musical ability and unusually destructive behavior, gave it to me (probably in a fit of the latter). I think it might have been his most prized possession, and he didn’t tend to have many possessions. We were together for six years when I was very young, and the whole thing ended with me in a battered women’s shelter. I can’t quite manage to get rid of the tone bar, though, and of course I think about all the blues that have poured through it over time: his, mine by way of his. It still seems more his than mine, though—my fingers don’t even fit its edges—and I’d gladly return it to him if he wanted it back.
Olinka believes that “melancholy has been unjustly banished from the public space,” and told me she mourns the fact that it has been driven into ghettos, replaced by the eerie optimism of Facebook status updates. A guitar slide can hold the blues, his and mine by way of his, or a museum can hold the blues, insisting we need to make room for them. Olinka has always imagined museums as “civic temples where melancholy has the right to exist,” where sadness can be understood as something other than a feeling meant to be replaced. She doesn’t like when people praise her own museum’s “therapeutic value.” It suggests that sadness needs curing, and denies its beauty. Her resistance made me think of a short story by Denis Johnson, the moment when its narrator hears the screaming of a woman whose husband has just died and thinks: “She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
For fifteen years of my life, between my first breakup and my last one, I’d been committed to a belief in sadness as a rarefied state—a kind of affective distillery that could summon the strongest and purest version of me. But walking through Zagreb that week, two-and-a-half years married and two months pregnant, I was not looking for places to smoke quietly and feel lonely, scraping out my insides with the raw tobacco of unfiltered European cigarettes. I was looking for fresh fruit that might satisfy my sudden and overwhelming cravings: a paper bag of cherries from the market, or donut peaches so ripe their juice spilled onto my dress the moment my teeth punctured their skin.
I’d always given up on relationships once they seemed to lose their early states of unfettered love and unbridled passion. I found the aftermath of that early glow muddy and compromised. But getting married had felt like a commitment to another kind of beauty: the striated beauty of continuity, letting a relationship accrete its layers over the years, showing up to love in all of its evolving states, in its difficulty as well as its giddiness, staying inside something long enough to hold its past rough patches like talismans: This has another side.
Back in my hotel room, my phone buzzed with a message from a friend who was waiting at an airport in Colorado to meet the flight of a man she was falling in love with, and then a text from another friend: We just broke up. Are you around? Just don’t want to be alone all weekend. The world is always beginning and ending at once: Icarus falls from the sky while someone else swipes right.
At the museum’s pop-up installation in Boise, one man donated an answering machine that played a message from his ex—cursing him out, calling him an asshole—and then a message from his dad, talking about something as ordinary as the weather, and then another message from his ex, calling him an asshole all over again. This is heartbreak: Rupture is huge in your heart, while the rest of the world is checking on scattered showers. Your ex can’t stand the fact of your existence in the world, and your dad wants to know if you saw the Knicks game last night. We just broke up. Are you around? Just don’t want to be alone all weekend. The appeal of the museum is also about this: wanting company, wanting to turn the experience of becoming solitary into something social instead.
French conceptual artist Sophie Calle explained the premise of her 2007 installation Take Care of Yourself like this:
I received an email telling me it was over.
I didn’t know how to respond
It ended with the words, “Take care of yourself.”
And so I did.
I asked 107 women…to interpret this letter.
To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it.
Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me.
The exhibition was composed of the chorus of their reactions: A “researcher in lexicometry” noted a lack of agency in the breakup email’s grammar. A proofreader highlighted its repetitions. A lawyer deemed the ex guilty of deceit. A criminologist diagnosed him as “proud, narcissistic, and egotistical.”
Witnessing breakups and asking mine to be witnessed have been part of every deep friendship of my life, the act of collaborating as close readers, soothsayers, tea-leaf translators, alternate-narrative-makers: darlin, can i beg you for a read on this? a friend wrote once, forwarding an email from a man she’d just broken up with. i’m struggling to be sure i’m not being a hysterical woman…could just use someone else’s eyes on this exchange, for total sense of closure. crazy grateful for you… The breakup as social experience isn’t kiss-and-tell so much as a desire not to be alone in facing a story that’s now ended: Kicked out as character, you become a reader, parsing the wreckage. It feels so much better not to read alone.
Exhibit 8: Bottle of Crystal Pepsi (Exhibit missing)
Queens, New York
After my big broken love—the ending I knew would be my biggest, the life I realized I wouldn’t live—I met a wonderful man who lived in Queens. He took me to trivia night at his local bar in Astoria. He took me to a Christmas party at his law offices in midtown. He took me to the Blazer Pub, near his childhood home upstate, where we ate burgers and played shuffle bowling. I knew he wasn’t “the one” but also suspected I no longer believed in “the one”—not because I’d never met him, but because I thought I had met him, and now we were done. The lawyer was an experiment in all the things I’d never thought I wanted. He made me laugh. He made me feel comfortable. We ate comfort food. We made pancakes with raspberries and white chocolate chips and watched movies on weekend mornings. He found old re-runs of Legends of the Hidden Temple, the stupid kids’ game show we’d both loved when we were young, and gave me a ten-year-old bottle of Crystal Pepsi he’d found online—my favorite soda back in the nineties, discontinued for years. He was remarkable, but I couldn’t ever quite see him—or see that—because I never really believed in us. The constancy of his devotion started to feel like a kind of claustrophobia. Nothing about us made me feel challenged. It was like he taught me how much I struggled to live inside love—to understand something as love—without difficulty.
I thought of donating my bottle of Crystal Pepsi to the museum, as a memento of my last breakup before marriage, but I never put it in my luggage. I just left it at home, on my bookshelf. Why did I keep it there? It had something to do with wanting to acknowledge the man who’d given it to me: I hadn’t given him enough credit while we were together, and keeping his last gift was a way of granting him credit in the aftermath. I wanted to acknowledge how our relationship had given me giddiness after years of fighting a relationship that wasn’t working; how it had suggested that the things I’d always thought I wanted—charisma, elusiveness—weren’t necessarily the things I needed.
For all the objects donated to the Museum of Broken Relationships—more than 3,000, over the years—I also wonder about the invisible ghost museum lurking in its margins, with vast halls full of all the objects people couldn’t stand to part with. If I’m honest with myself, keeping that bottle of Crystal Pepsi isn’t just about honoring the man who gave it to me or what we shared. It also has to do with enjoying that glimpse of sadness and rupture, with holding on to some reminder of the pure, riveting feeling of being broken.
These days, my life is less about the sublime state of solitary sadness or fractured heartbreak, and more about waking up each day and making sure I show up to my commitments: skyping my husband from Zagreb and emailing a good-morning video to my stepdaughter. These Zagreb days are not about making myself skinny to articulate my inner anguish but about eating when I’m hungry, feeding the fetus inside me: istrian fuži with truffles, noodles in thick cream; seabream with artichokes; something called a domestic pie; something called a vitamins salad. These days are less about the drama of thresholds, and more about continuance, showing up and muddling through; less about the grand drama of ending and more about the daily work of salvage and sustenance.
I keep the Crystal Pepsi because it’s a souvenir from those fifteen years I spent in a cycle of beginnings and endings, each one an opportunity for self-discovery and reinvention and transformative emotion; a way to feel infinite in the variety of possible selves that could come into being. I keep the Crystal Pepsi because I want some reminder of a self that felt volcanic and volatile—bursting into bliss, or into tears—and because I want to keep some proof of all the unlived lives, the ones that could have been.