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Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

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The Weird, Lingering Life of Post-Breakup Objects

Exiting a relationship leaves you with two kinds of junk: the things you can hold in your hands, and the things you can't

When my boyfriend of eight years left me for his best friend's girlfriend, I was seized with the impulse to drive all night across Canada to the lodge in Lake Louise where we had once spent a night sitting on a polyester bedspread, sharing a sandwich from a vending machine.

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I wanted this tape, see. That night, my ex stood in front of a security camera while I watched on the closed-circuit TV in our hotel room, his face pressed to the lens mouthing I love you, I love you, as alive as he had ever been. I had pressed my hands against the light fizzing of the TV screen and watched him. I love you, I love you. I couldn't make this up. I wanted to hold that tape in my hands. I wanted some physical proof. Instead, I gathered up all the gifts he had ever given me, laid them on my bed, and took inventory.

A partial exhibit of what gets left behind:

Two wine glasses, a broken wristwatch, and a nice silver pen, which I left in a shoebox at the curb. They disappeared that same afternoon.

A silver infinity knot ring that I had to stop wearing because it turned my finger green.

Books, many. (I always keep the books.)

The "Jem & the Holograms" T-shirt I'd been wearing in the first photograph ever taken of us, in our freshman dorm before an '80s-themed party.

A rough clay mug the color of smoke, hand-thrown by his sister.

Exiting a relationship leaves you with two kinds of junk: the things you can hold in your hands, and the things you can't.

Those of us who live in big cities face tiny apartments with closets that can barely hold our winter coats, let alone the winters of all our discontents.

Emotional purging takes time, takes work. But we're living in a cultural moment that asks us to winnow down our physical belongings, too. Those of us who live in big cities face tiny apartments with closets that can barely hold our winter coats, let alone the winters of all our discontents.

During my most recent KonMari spree, I came across a small leather pouch that held some jewelry given to me by the ex who left. I'd already junked most of it. As the years ticked by since our breakup (five in total, now), his gifts had become easier to toss. Still, there were some pieces I actually liked —€” a vintage bracelet set with small glass flowers, for example — that I didn't want to wear but couldn't seem to throw away. Other items had actual value, like the silver-link bracelet and small circle necklace from Tiffany & Co., gifted to me back when I thought I might one day become the kind of woman to wear jewelry from Tiffany.

It's out of dilemmas like mine that the website Never Liked it Anyway, a "place to shed the stories and the stuff," arose. Founder Bella Acton broke up with her boyfriend five days before Christmas. "We were meant to go back to London, and suddenly I had these plane tickets that I no longer wanted," she tells me. "I started thinking about all these other things I had that I didn't want anymore."

Investigating what she calls "the world of breakups," she realized there needed to be a place dedicated to the definitive action of turning your heartbreak into productivity. This is what the site terms a "Bounce Back Plan," a rosy, holy version of self and future, fueled by the cold, hard cash you receive for your wedding kimono or Coach purse.

On the site, Sabina is selling her wedding dress: "Found myself and realized I never loved that man. Should have never settled for someone safe out of fear of being hurt again. Better to take the risk of burning up in flames, but live, than wither away bit by bit every day." She'll use the money for new furniture. Someone else is selling a "But You're Supposed to Be My Best Friend" diamond ring for $399.99. As it turns out, there are great bargains to be made of other people's heartbreak.

As it turns out, there are great bargains to be made of other people's heartbreak.

There are, in fact, an alarming number of engagement rings: Acton says they are the most popular type of item on the site. For someone who has always wanted to be engaged, this makes me nervy. When I ask if she thinks (as I do) that these rings could be cursed, she says, "I think it helps knowing that if you buy that ring, you'll help get the seller to Rome to learn how to cook, or help her buy the motorcycle she's always dreamed of, or the rent she now has to pay for solo."

Briana, 27, was engaged to a man we'll call "Ben," who seemed nice until he wasn't. The night she left him, he squeezed her face until her jaw popped and smashed her car window. Later, much later, she tried to decide what to do with the engagement ring. She thought about donating it and about taking it to a pawn shop, but eventually found Never Liked It Anyway, where she sold both the ring and a necklace Ben had given her. With the funds from the ring, she furnished her first home. "The necklace sold about a week ago, so for Valentine's Day, I took my boyfriend to see Deadpool."

She tells me all of this over email. We've never met. She writes with remarkable candor, and I wonder if this clarity was aided by the shedding she was able to do, the alchemy of turning old, broken things into something new.

I list a gift from my last boyfriend on the site, a Swarovski-crystal gradient necklace he gave me for Valentine's Day that I thought was a joke. It wasn't. I say I'll use the asking price of $40 to pay for a session with my life coach, who frequently asks me if what I'm saying is my heart song, or just my brain playing its usual tricks. So far, no one wants it.

So, you sell these items, or burn the sage, or mark the box "DO NOT OPEN" and shove it to the very back of your closet. You tuck away the green shift dress he said was his favorite, as well as his grotesque state baseball ring, which you used to wear on a long chain. You read about Croatia's Museum of Broken Relationships, a holding pen for the detritus of failed romance. You think it sounds like the saddest place in the world.

You sell these items, or burn the sage, or mark the box "DO NOT OPEN" and shove it to the very back of your closet.

Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić founded the museum after their breakup —€” with each other. As artists, they looked with curiosity rather than horror on their relationship rubble. "We were fascinated by [these objects]," says Grubišić. "They had no other value, but were emotionally such a burden." They imagined a place where others could come and deposit their belongings, a space where they could say goodbye. Surely something like this must exist, they thought.

It didn't. Instead, they found instructions on how to burn everything in a fire. "This was blasphemy," Grubišić says. "Why would you want to forget your emotional history just because something didn't work out?" So Vištica and Grubišić curated a group show in Zagreb, which became a touring exhibit and then a permanent space. Soon they were accepting donations from all over the world: a pair of fuzzy, pink handcuffs, a Slovenian bread bowl. They now have more than 2,500 objects. "Wedding rings. We get many wedding rings. And gowns."

Each object is accompanied by a story, and this, for Grubišić, is what allows the object to transcend its physical state. He sees this in the reactions of museum patrons. Some days he simply sits and observes the visitors. Recently, he watched a staff member hold a girl as she wept. They get many thank you notes. I met someone as soon as I got rid of my stuff, one might say. Another: I'm pregnant, I'm happy, finally.

"We have all of these rituals attached to religion, to death, but you break up with someone after 10 years and there's nothing. We need a ritual for saying goodbye."

Last week, I put most of the items that remained of my relationship in a bag to be donated to an organization that provides free prom dresses and accessories to young girls in Toronto. Then, yesterday, I walked to one of those "cash for gold" places. It was cold but sunny, and I passed a girl wearing a decidedly hopeful wash of lilac eyeshadow.

If you're curious, the going rate for sterling silver is $0.32/ounce.

The shop is a polite, open space, with plants bearing Post-It reminders: "Please do NOT water me!" An older woman is selling her silverware, boisterous mounds of it clinking against the scale. I am here to unload the Tiffany jewelry.

If you're curious, the going rate for sterling silver is $0.32/ounce. My ex gave me the jewelry sometime between 2004 and 2006. I carried it from my college in Vermont to D.C., and then to New York City, where I moved when I realized the city that held my ex could no longer hold me, too. Even cities need exorcising, sometimes.

The jewelry was expensive, considering our college budgets, so he must have spent time picking it out. I try to imagine him lingering, pensive and particular, over the glass cases, but I can't picture his face anymore.

As it turns out, I didn't become that woman who wears silver bracelets from Tiffany, the woman with clear, middle-of-the-road desires. But I like to think the one I became is better, if more unusual, and prone to wearing men's shirts that do nothing for her figure. That's why I kept the stunning and peculiar 1930s crepe silk gown with the sheer-paneled back that my ex's mother gave me one morning over breakfast. It had been her grandmother's, who was once courted by a prince or a sultan. I should have written it all down. The strangest things get lost.

The young girl at the counter scratches the pieces I've brought against a small stone to check that they're authentic, and shows me the blue streak they leave. "It's a pretty blue, isn't it?" She seems apologetic when she writes my total on a form: $11.64. Something burns at the back of my throat, although it's not the price: I kind of like the idea of him getting stiffed on something. I could have sold the pieces whole, maybe, and made a little more cash, but I enjoy the thought of them being melted down for parts. You need the stuff around to remind you that it existed at all, until you don't, and then you need the stuff to be gone, to be dust and bone, to never have been at all. I use the cash to buy a chai latte at a cafe down the street, and wait for my boyfriend to meet me, so I can tell him the story.

Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Toronto.


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