I’ve always loved road trips. I love taking the long way, the scenic route, the back roads. I love the adventure of being off the highway, of watching the unfamiliar pass me by. I love the small towns and their local convenience stores, the fun in navigating the aisles to find the chips I like. It takes a lot to turn a road trip sour for me, but my ex-boyfriend took it upon himself once to try, and he succeeded.
It happened on a four-hour road trip home from a vacation in 2018. Before this, I had always dreaded car rides with him. I felt like a ghost in the passenger seat trying to engage him from the afterlife. With every murmur of, “I like this song,” or, “That’s a pretty river,” I felt my voice extinguish to only a faint murmur. I was desperate to bridge the gap between us, to spark up a conversation, to rid us of the awfully uncomfortable silence. I’ve always loved the comfort of another’s silent company, but I seemed to annoy him with my presence alone. To him, I was less a benevolent ghost sighting and more an infernal haunting phantom.
After days of hiking in the mountains and looking up at the stars that sugared the night sky, it was time to leave. My boyfriend and I had driven up separate from his family, so we packed up our respective cars and left for the drive home.
It started off OK. Things were easy, and I was beginning to think the nice vacation was patching things up between us. But at some point in the conversation, I lightly said, “I love you.” It was utterly remarkable how loud the silence was that followed. I looked into his eyes, and what I saw created a tangible pit in my throat, like I had swallowed the sharp, knobby center of a peach. I knew something was wrong, and I didn’t want to know what. Did he have something to admit? Was there another girl? Was it that girl? Was it me?
In hindsight, I wasn’t “in love” at all, I was actually just obsessed with being worthy enough to receive even a fraction of the care I showed him.
I was sick to my stomach with anxious pain, trying to breathe slowly and deliberately to steady my heart. Somehow, I said, “Do you love me?” in a way that sounded oblivious enough so he couldn’t turn on me for doubting him.
He could have lied. He could have spared me the truth, just for this car ride. But for some reason, he chose now to be honest, despite his history of constant deflection, avoidance, and flat-out fabrications.
“I don’t think so.” He said it as if he was breaking the news to a child that the cake was finished right after hiding it in the fridge — the fake pity, the discomfort with having to sit through a tantrum. His only pain was not wanting to be the bad guy.
“How long?” I ask. “At least… two weeks, that’s when I talked to Jessica about it.” (Phew. Not that girl, but close: his female best friend.)
The truth is, I wasn’t surprised by his answer. Despite trying to deny it, I had been anticipating this for weeks. I knew it from the blankness on his face when I spoke, how he avoided my touch in public so other girls wouldn’t know we were dating, when he told me it was manipulative of me to be sad after he said his ex was better at sex than me because he just had to be honest.
After he broke up with me, I cried the entire ride home, including the most humiliating lunch break with his family where he asked me not to tell them what he did. I shamefully carried my bags straight from his car into mine, said goodbye, and spent the next two weeks blaming myself. Before this point, anyone could have told me we weren’t a good match, but I wouldn’t have heard them because I was so “in love.” In hindsight, I wasn’t “in love” at all, I was actually just obsessed with being worthy enough to receive even a fraction of the care I showed him.
Looking back on this road trip fills me with a deep pity for my past self. Because despite how clearly he told me didn’t love or respect me, I took him back two weeks later. To be a teenage girl who is suffering — life tragedies, drama, you name it — to have a boy choose me, I became dependent on his rare shows of approval to reaffirm my self-worth. Somehow, this 17-year-old boy was the pinnacle of all wisdom, and nothing else mattered but his opinion of me.
Over the course of our two-year relationship, he did some serious damage to me — more than just ignoring me in the car.
After I took him back, he treated me so terribly that I eventually lost all the love and respect I had for him. And when he broke it off for good a year later (over text!), I didn’t cry or blame myself — I read the break-up text and laughed. I felt like a veil had been lifted, and I was seeing clearly for the first time since we met. I never needed him, and I should’ve done it myself way sooner.
Despite this, it wasn’t as easy as tossing my phone away after that text and happily giving up on our relationship. It’s not that I was still pining over him, but it was difficult — being left so broken. Not broken-hearted, but broken-spirited. Over the course of our two-year relationship, he did some serious damage to me — more than just ignoring me in the car. For years, his ill treatment practically destroyed both how I perceived myself and my relationships, to the point where I had no idea who I was or what kind of person I should be with. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and almost five years later, I’m still learning.
He taught me that straining to forgive people and looking for the best in those who endlessly prove they don’t deserve a place in your mind, isn’t worth it. Now, I know that if a relationship fails, it’s probably not because I’m a lousy partner or that I suck in bed. His initial words that cut me have healed, but I’m still working on the ability to fully trust myself and a partner, and to find confidence in myself and in my relationships.
Even though my ex was present for that trip, the memories I have from it remain untouched by him: wandering through nature, gazing up at thousands of stars from a meadow on a mountain, and befriending a herd of deer with an apple. The one thing I haven’t forgotten, though, is to never trust a person who ruins a road trip.