She was in town to go to The Hamptons, where her father was getting re-married. Daniel Craig would be there.
It felt like nothing was real. If I moved my hand in front of my face, it was as if everything was happening in slow motion. I distinctly remember hugging my mother in distress before a paranoid thought took over: What if she wasn’t trying to help me?
This was how I started the summer after my second year of college: in a panic-induced nightmare. In January, I had secured a supremely awesome summer internship and the months leading up to April were pure bliss—summer was on its way, I was getting great grades, and I had awesome friends and an amazing relationship with the first guy I ever really loved. Then on April Fools’ Day, in what I’d hoped was just a cruel joke, my boyfriend, Alex, broke up with me. I spent the next few months in a haze of anxiety, fear, and a little bit of self-hatred.
And then when Alex wanted to reconcile, I eagerly jumped at the chance to get back together— though my family and friends weren’t so thrilled. Being pulled in so many directions brought back the panic. And as the school term ended and summer arrived, I had a full-blown anxiety attack. My mother helped me pack up my dorm room, drove me back home, and nurtured me during the week leading up to my departure for New York and the internship that I was now dreading.
The night before my flight, I was a mess. So overwhelmed was I with fears of the unknowns— what would happen when school started again—that I thought I was dying. My saintly mother, who has spent her entire life dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, knew exactly what to do, and sent me off to New York with a list of coping techniques. A few weeks later, I was knee deep into my internship and slowly falling in love with it, and my anxiety was beginning to melt away. And then I met Caleb, the marketing intern.
On my first day, Caleb took me to Chelsea Market for lunch and we talked about college, our futures, and our shared interest in screenwriting. I called my sister after eating a pulled pork sandwich to share the details of my first day and almost vomited— seemingly out of nowhere, the anxiety had returned and taken on a totally new form. I was nauseous and gagging on the phone, and for the rest of the day at work I couldn’t shake that feeling. I looked up continuously from my desk to meet Caleb’s eyes and started to forget the sick feeling in my stomach. He was everything I didn’t like in a man: tall and toned from years of playing rugby, blonde and blue-eyed. He strutted with the arrogance of money, name-dropping familial connections to famous comedians and musicians (which became my go-to dinner party fodder for the next three years). I was used to the steely apathy of my boyfriend, a guy who was very strong and emotionless about things that didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Alex was always able to calm me down when I was upset or scared by explaining the importance of anxiety’s role in human life, unlike Caleb who always seemed more interested in his own physicality than metaphysics. Yet somehow, I enjoyed both of their company easily.
“He was everything I didn’t like in a man: tall and toned from years of playing rugby, blonde and blue-eyed.”
As I found my place in the department and Caleb and I found a nice split to our daily activities (we sat across from each other at a tiny shared desk), I found myself liking him. In between trips to the bathroom, in which my eyes crossed and uncrossed staring at the tile floor, which I hallucinated was moving, he would smile warmly and ask, How are you adjusting? Are you feeling comfortable? By this point he had been talking to me about his girlfriend, who lived in Connecticut, and I had confessed my strange relationship with Alex. I dared not tell him of the anxiety I was still experiencing, but it was nice to tell him about the weird turn my life had taken since its picture-perfect start last autumn. Spending time with him was easy; he was always kind and funny, and we had a shared humor that I lacked with Alex, who was typically serious and only silly when I initiated it. But Alex and I shared a special kind of humor, a deep and strange silliness that you can only share after being close with someone for years. Needless to say, I was conflicted at the budding chemistry and flirtation with someone who got my pop culture references and the memory of days spent creating fake baby names for one another and dancing to Yeasayer.
My mother had given me a golden piece of advice before I left for New York, When you get anxious, just remember that it will disappear. It may not disappear today, but every second, minute, and hour you don’t have it is a victory. Eventually it will be hours, a day, and finally, days, and months when you don’t experience it. With Caleb, I would be so engrossed with listening to his stories or so consumed with sharing my own that the seconds, minutes, and hours passed with wild abandon! I’ll never forget the proud phone call I shared, excitedly telling my mom that a full day had passed without the sinking feeling of dread, and that I owed it, in part, to Caleb.
When I went on vacation to Florida with my family for a week, I found myself missing him. I began to ignore the text messages from my Alex which I usually craved and anticipated like an addict. It was actually nice to have some clarity and peace of mind to think about what I wanted from everything that had happened and was bound to happen in the future.
“When you get anxious, just remember that it will disappear. It may not disappear today, but every second, minute, and hour you don’t have it is a victory. Eventually it will be hours, a day, and finally, days, and months when you don’t experience it.”
And so, when I arrived back in New York, I sent Alex a long letter explaining that I needed some time alone, with no contact from him. Caleb had confessed having some problems with his girlfriend, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to explore something that I had hoped would happen for weeks. With my anxiety firmly planted in the back of my mind, I felt I was in a healthy place to start living my life again.
We started getting lunch every day together, laughing in Chelsea Market, walking along the High Line, chatting about work and co-workers and the fascinating environment we had stumbled into. We talked some more about our futures; he was worried about transferring from a Pennsylvania school to one in Upstate New York; I told him that I was scared about what kind of jobs awaited me after graduating in two years. As I started staring at his eyes longer, memorizing his face during animated conversations, flirting during work tasks, I decided to tell him about my anxiety and the fearfulness I felt only once or twice a day at this point. He confessed that he’d experienced the same feeling, although more fleeting than my own battles. I grinned when he described it perfectly, Like too much adrenaline sitting in the pit of your stomach. We started going everywhere together during our 10-6 grind. I knew what was happening because it had happened so many times before, I was falling in love.
When I was in middle and high school, I would fall in love with everyone. Boys from other schools who I caught fleeting glances of during football games. Friends with whom I desperately wanted to become something more. I thought I had exited that stage of my life after for-real falling in love with Alex, but I was wrong.
One day, after bringing burgers back to the office, Caleb asked me to help dress him for a video he was making with the production staff at the company. He was supposed to be a zombie, and had been given a set of Halloween make up that he asked I help him apply. We were seated in a crowded cafeteria, him wearing a ripped white t-shirt. I could feel myself blushing as I applied fake blood to his mouth and chin with my finger and smeared brown and green paints on his abdomen. As I finish applying it, he smiled his toothpaste commercial smile, his blue eyes twinkling, his abs peeking out from his ripped shirt, and said, “I forgot to tell you, my girlfriend is in town and coming to the office later today.”
My heart sank, like it always had when the “love” didn’t work out. As his girlfriend came in at the end of the day, I assessed her big nose and muscled arms. She was in town to go to The Hamptons, where her father was getting re-married. Daniel Craig would be there. I left the office feeling defeated; I didn’t belong in the glitzy world that they both so clearly did, with their celebrity friends and fancy parties. The anxiety creeped in as I boarded a train for a magazine launch party in Brooklyn. With only a casual friend to accompany me, I started to spiral at the thought that I had spent so much time flirting with Caleb for nothing. Nothing was fixed with Alex. My life was still in shambles.
After being talked down by my mother, for the next few weeks I kept my feelings in check. I tried to focus on myself and my work, and if thoughts of Caleb creeped into my brain, I focused on his flaws, visible boogers, zits, the fact that he was always complaining that he needed to lose weight and often only ate salads at lunch time. But just as quickly as these thoughts occupied my mind, he would pull me back into his orbit, flirtatiously throwing ping pong balls at me and updating my Facebook status with things like “I love Caleb.”
“I started to spiral at the thought that I had spent so much time flirting with Caleb for nothing. Nothing was fixed with Alex. My life was still in shambles.”
As our time at the internship came to a close, I began to panic again. I was in love. What was going to happen? Nothing had happened. He and his girlfriend were rock solid. I was never invited over to his apartment and I lived with my family in a house in Queens. We never spent time together outside of work. Despite our private lunches and my desperate attempts at work flirtations (often at the expense of my productivity), I began to come to terms with the fact that as soon as this was over, it was over. I wasn’t going to see him again after the summer. I was in Chicago and he was in New York. As famously cliched as it is, it was over before it began. And there weren’t even signals that it would ever begin. Despite the many times our boss said “Stop that you two!”, and the incessant “Get a room!” from the other interns, and the fact that we were mistaken for a couple by a famous actor while waiting in line at a Chelsea Market restaurant, I had a feeling that he didn’t feel the same way. This same scenario had happened too many times before for the ending to turn out differently just because I really, truly, completely hoped it would this time.
Even though I thought we were meant to be because we got along so well and had so much in common, I learned a few years later that he’s just one of many men and women that I connect with intimately due to a shared sense of humor. And a shared sense of humor does not a relationship make.
And even though the anxiety bubbled beneath the surface about leaving him and being with Alex again, I accepted our fate. We had one last intimate lunch, and then he hugged and thanked everyone at the office and asked that I walk him out to his taxi. We hugged multiple times and he promised he’d write me letters like an old-fashioned war movie. I laughed and held tightly around his abdomen. He rested his head on top of mine. As we pulled apart, he kissed my forehead and then my cheek and I waved goodbye, holding in my tears with everything I had. On the train, the floodgates opened and I cried harder when I received a text from him saying that he missed me already.
For the rest of the summer, we exchanged letters. He sent the first one and closed it with “Love”, which made my heart flutter in spite of itself. I played and replayed “Manhattan” by Sara Bareilles, thinking of him and the city we shared, and eventually, our letters stopped as school started.
I got back together with Alex, and our relationship evolved and has become something deeply real, six years on. We came to a mutual agreement that, at the time of our break up, we weren’t really ready to fully commit to each other— even though I so desperately thought that I was ready. It was immaturity on both our parts that made us think we were invincible. He thought he wanted something amorphous and undefined, not understanding that I couldn’t provide him with that. And I thought I wanted something deeply committed like a marriage, not understanding that neither of us was ready for that either. And to me, that’s what my relationship with Alex is all about, understanding one another deeply and fully. After the break up and getting back together, that’s finally what we were able to share with one another. The anxiety and pain I felt was in part due to my loss and in part to due the fact that I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t yet ready to commit to him either. The break up was a test, one of our most difficult ones to date. It exposed the depth of our feelings for one another; if we really weren’t in love, we would’ve stayed apart. It was a textbook example of whether or not love really conquers all. And in our case, it did. And now we spend our days laughing until we cry, talking about life and the world, silently understanding one another’s needs, and figuring out what we want to do with the next six years of our relationship.
I continued and will continue to fall in love with all the people I meet: bosses, friends, co-workers and strangers. Caleb and I still keep in touch— a Facebook message every six months or so.
Caleb served as a distraction from my heartache and anxiety. I was able to take myself out of my head and focus on the reality in front of me. Caleb was a lifeline, tethering me to the ground in the here and now. Real love or not, I am eternally grateful to him for helping me get through the summer which almost made me lose my mind. I still don’t know if he ever felt the same way.
Even though it was probably all happening in my head, that doesn’t make it less real.