I always knew I was never going to get married. When I was young, it was a wilful ambition – I was watching She-Ra and Punky Brewster and the idea of being an independent rebel was appealing. While my mother had been told she could be a teacher or a nurse, I was told I could be anything. I looked around and saw Sally Ride going to space, Margaret Thatcher being an outright boss and Oprah talking about being sexually abused on her own show. It was legit: we were the luckiest generation that ever lived and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. Then I hit puberty; I was a late bloomer and didn’t get my first period until I was just shy of 17. All of a sudden, hormones kicked in and I was as into boys as Snoop Dogg is apparently into Martha Stewart.
Still, after a sexually eventful few years the status quo returned to regularly scheduled programming and I spent over a decade flying solo. Some of that time deliberately so, sometimes less so. Occasionally I’d be giddy with a new romance, but a lot of the time I could feel myself growing bitter at what felt like the worst game show on Earth – where I was the ubiquitous contestant with only a few wins under her belt. If love is a battlefield, by 29 I was balls-deep in shrapnel. Around 34, after only a handful of relationships, I started coming to terms with what looked to be a life spent largely alone. Then something happened I didn’t entirely expect.
I got cancer. You thought I was going to say I met someone, right? No, just plain old breast cancer, I’m afraid. While at a friend’s wedding I happened upon a lump while rearranging the orbs in my bra and that was it: a week later I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and a week after that I lost my left breast to a mastectomy. As a consolation prize, I started chemo shortly thereafter. This is where the story gets compelling though, because sitting at home one night a few months later – hovering over the toilet in case my chemo-induced nausea made good on its promise – I started crying. For the first time since I’d been diagnosed, as it happens. It was a deep, guttural sob, like I imagine a walrus sounds when it’s upset. I was scared, not of being overcome by my disease – they prepare you for that in chemo class – but of having to do it alone. Of never falling in love again – something I suddenly realised was now a possibility. It was a devastating epiphany.
In a moment of what I would probably describe as sheer desperation, I decided I had to find out if I was still alluring in any way – and now, before the cancer spread and things became as dire as a screening of Gigli. I drew on some eyebrows, donned my actually pretty convincing wig and fired up Tinder in order to find a date. What could one drink hurt? I had to know. Even if the answer was a resounding “Who are you trying to kid?”. To say I was surprised I made it past the first hour is an understatement. But one drink turned into two and then dinner and then a first kiss on the balcony of my tiny apartment (something that almost made me cry again with delight). I’ll spare you the interim details and fast-forward right to date four – the one where I decided it was time to reveal the news that I was half the woman I used to be (if you were a breast man, that is). I expected he already knew, what with 2D eyebrows and chemo track marks, but he hadn’t the faintest of clues. Nor, it seemed, did he care. He was more interested in what we were going to order for dinner. You could have blown me away with an ant’s fart. And so began the most surprising, honest, adult relationship of my life.
That night was almost three years ago now. And last month, he proposed. In Vegas of all places, because he knows how much I love a sequin. And just like that I’m getting married (that thing I never thought I wanted to do). For a time I speculated it was cancer that got me here, to this place where I decided I was OK with being officially attached to another human. A cancer I am now blessedly free from. But while that part made for a unique meet-cute, I think the reason this relationship stuck is because of the men who came before him. To start with, had any one of them decided not to break up with me, I wouldn’t be where I am today, which is with a man who saw me through a second mastectomy, a sprouting buzz cut and chemo-induced menopause before he even knew he loved me. So if I’m superlative enough for someone to stick with through all that, why did my exes leave me?
Writer Emma Markezic with her fiancé
To be honest, they weren’t particularly keen to tell me when I asked. So I came up with the genius idea of an anonymous online survey. After having to convince more than one of them that it was, indeed, anonymous, I got some answers. Of course, what I didn’t tell them
was that there were only three of them being surveyed – meaning I’m rather confident I can tell you who said what. But these were the partings I took the hardest and mourned the longest; in short, these were the ones that taught me to be the partner I am today, and to truly value the man I’m with today. And there’s a lot to unpack in that. So let’s begin …
The Longest Drink
To this day, my longest relationship has been five years. And there was a time I thought maybe I could come around to the idea of hitching my wagon to his ride. Of course, the very idea that a woman needs to hitch her wagon to anything is absurd. A notion I conveniently remembered after he broke up with me. If I had to say why it didn’t work I’d speculate that he fell out of love with me, because there was a time our union was more passionate than a couple of comely rabbits. Towards the end though, I have suspicions he cheated – and he most definitely dragged it out far longer than he should have. He had a slightly different spin on it, of course. “We were just too young,” he said. Since I dated the other two post-30, I knew this was him. “Were you actually just not that into me?” I asked. “I suppose there was that too… I never saw us getting married.” That’s hard to hear even now. “We had an amazing few years, which I will never forget… and when I think of you I still smile.” Oh, a smile? How quaint. I’d far prefer he thought of me and got a raging unrequited erection, but I don’t suppose I get much of a say in the matter.
Still, I learnt a lot in our time together… that date nights are worthwhile, love is a drug, and not having a best friend outside of your relationship is very unhealthy. All the things you naturally learn from that first big love. And as it was the first time anyone had broken up with me, I also gleaned I’m not all that and a bag of chips, which is a worthwhile lesson. It means my current partner gets someone who embraces not only his flaws but my own, which makes for a very authentic relationship.
The Promise Land
This one still sticks under my skin like used chewing gum to the underside of a desk. So much anticipation, so little delivery. We had an ongoing flirtation for years before we even started dating and once we did, my mind would often wander to the ridiculous outfits we’d wear to our wedding. In the end, we only dated for six months but he was definitely the fish that wriggled off his hook; the proverbial one that got away.“Nah, you were cool, I just had a lot going on with work then,” he said. I know, right… it’s an explanation about as original as a Melania Trump convention speech. But here’s the one thing I unequivocally learnt from The Promised Land: if they like you, you’ll know it. If you’re confused, they don’t. Combine that with the mortal awakening you get from a potentially terminal cancer and suddenly you’re cured of your bad-boy fetish. “The sex was great,” he said. “But in the end I didn’t feel the connection. I always had and will have the biggest soft spot for you. But my career just trumped what you, or anyone else, had to offer back then.”
If it wasn’t for him I don’t think I’d have realised there’s a lot to be said for trusting what someone tells you. Because he tried to inform me on copious occasions – that he didn’t know if he was ready. But where I thought he just wanted me to convince him in the sexiest of ways,
he was actually being honest. A lesson that meant when my fiancé told me the cancer and the baldness and the scars really didn’t bother him, I believed him. Something I’d have previously questioned until it drove me, if not him, mad. So to that fish I say: thanks for the ride, buddy… also it might be time to sea kelp (geddit?) for your obvious commitment-phobia.
The Runaway Train
I may have left this little tidbit out earlier, but when I was first diagnosed with the “Big C” I was casually dating someone. And I mean casual in the most modern sense of the word – no labels, no commitments, almost no texts. You know, your average burgeoning 21st-century relationship. When I told him I had cancer, he completely freaked out. Which I understood – it’s a lot to take on, I told him. Then he didn’t stick around long enough to wish me luck for my surgery. I was less understanding after that. “I was still dealing with the fallout from my ex,” he told me. “I thought I was ready for a relationship, but I guess I wasn’t. You wanted something I couldn’t give you.” If by “something” he means a guy who doesn’t immediately walk away from a girl who just got cancer, then I suppose I did. And perhaps it doesn’t take a PhD in Dickology to realise the fear I’d become damaged goods stemmed largely from this incident. It wasn’t his fault exactly, but the confluence of events surrounding our parting was salt in the fresh mastectomy wound.
It was around this time that I really, truly started having to be my own cheerleader – when I learnt that having someone to prop you up is nice, but having an internal leaning post is even better. And for that I’m actually quite thankful. Because when you do a deep dive on “how to handle a cancer diagnosis” on the Google machine, you’ll come across an awful lot of “I don’t know how I would have done it without my partner by my side.” Being sans one of those meant I was forced to rely on myself. It was the final stitch in the sequinned gown that is my self-confidence. And what does that make you? One hell of a partner, lover, daughter and human being.
Without that extra push from the ghosting of he-who-should-be-a-thesis, I don’t think I would have ever found myself at the top of a very large building in Las Vegas screaming, “Really? OK, yes! Can we have a donkey at the wedding?!” So to all the men I’ve lost before, thank you.
Emma Markezic is the author of Curveballs: How To Keep It Together When Life Tries To Tear You A New One (HarperCollins, $32.99).
This article originally appeared in the November issue of marie claire.