Cataloguing the Detritus of Relationships Past

While all happy couples might not be alike, each unhappy couple is surely unhappy in its own way. And when their relationships end, each leaves its own trail of uniquely meaningful detritus in its wake.

There’s a monument to this phenomenon — the Museum of Broken Relationships, in Zagreb, Croatia, created in 2003 after founders Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić ended their relationship. For the Virginia Quarterly Review, essayist Leslie Jamison visits the museum and considers what stories are told by the objects once shared between former loved ones. She also lauds the idea of memorializing relationships past, and not running away from the melancholy lingering from them.

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.

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.

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