A personal essay about that first time you see an ex after a breakup, by Kathleen French /
When C. came over she hugged me for too long, not that it registered that way. The people you must keep around, always, are the ones that insist on hugging you for too long when the time calls for it. Then she looked me up and down and wordlessly set her things on my desk, queuing up a 1930s bluegrass station through some app on her phone. I hated that damn music, but she wasn’t asking and I wasn’t saying.
“I’m coming over.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Not in a good way to talk tonight. I promise we’ll do something tomorrow.”
“Already in a cab. I’m coming.”
C. emerged from the bathroom. I was still seated on that one corner of the couch. The one I’d not really dared leave for two days. I had been sitting here when she left the apartment for the last time when we were an ‘us.’
“Did you vomit?”
“What? No. I have a phobia of that.”
“Weird colored water in the toilet bowl.”
“I cleaned it with the brush.”
That was one of the first things I did. Not shower or brush my teeth or change clothes. I cleaned the toilet with a scrubbing brush.
“You need to snap out of it,” C. said. “You’ve got a world of hurt waiting for you. This is nothing.”
We agreed to meet for drinks close to my apartment. It had been nearly a year since I had seen her last, the all-too-familiar swirl of her brown hair quickly disappearing in the shrinking gap of a closing door. I hadn’t chased after her. I had already begged too long for her to stay. Perhaps, even then, I knew it was for the best that I remain still.
I approached the meeting with an ambivalence that unnerved me. Am I a sociopath? I messaged F. If you are then so am I, she said.
For two and a half years, I walked into restaurants or events or parties and could spot her immediately. In this tiny, low-lit place, I didn’t recognize her sitting center-view at the end of the bar. I hugged her, sat, fumbled to hang up my coat. I said something about failing to see her.
C. sat on the rug staring at me, that tinny music clanking in the background. I stared at my bare toes on the edge of the couch, knees keeping my head upright, afloat, though it felt heavy as lead.
“This is a good thing.”
“I can’t see it that way.”
“Not now, but you will.”
“What am I supposed to do.”
It wasn’t a question. People want answers to questions. In my mind, she was on her way back because of course—she had to be. These histrionics were temporary. But I’m terribly good at denying realities.
“Well, that’s the hard part. You’re in for it. Losing someone shreds you up and throws what you believed to be true into every corner of your life.”
C. said something about getting older. Something about refusing to dwell. Something about cleaning. You have to start over. Where are your cleaning supplies? We’re cleaning all of this.
“Right fucking now.”
At least I had already scrubbed the toilet.
I will admit I had made plans. She had too. We had talked of futures together that now seem like the low droning hum of a different life. That’s what it was; that’s what those years are to me now. That’s what every excruciating end and every excruciating beginning demand. If cats have nine lives, then we humans aren’t giving ourselves enough credit.
“Are you happy?” I asked her, and I meant it.
“I am. Are you?”
It wasn’t a time to say that’s a difficult question for me to ever answer.
We tried each other’s craft cocktails. She stole some of the toasts from my small plate. I looked at this person I once surely would have laid down my life for with a foreignness suggestive of amnesia, some traumatic brain injury.
Is that all we become to one another? Shells of what we once loved? Shells we treasure like children, the memories bound up in ornate boxes.
Seeing each other again after so long had traces of the uncanny. This was a planned uncanniness, though, it’s the unexpected that we can’t help but eroticize. The couple that parted ways who happen to run into each other years later in a book shop, a coffee shop, always a damn shop. They See each other for Real this time. It’s all a crock of shit, of course, but we invent these possibilities, believe in them viscerally, to go on. That is, until one day we stop.
How much love do we invent for ourselves? That’s what I kept wondering as I walked to meet her, as I walked home at the end of the evening.
“I don’t know how to do this. I’m not OK.”
“But you will be.”
“I don’t think so.”
C. stood and sighed. Said something about the few years she had on me. Something about the people that let the dissolution of love destroy them. Something about how if I was so goddamn miserable why didn’t I just End It now, to which she quickly knelt and locked eyes with me in that way you remember always, like a bee sting or a cold slap.
“But you? I don’t worry about you, kid. You don’t want nothingness.”
I saw an ex of over a year once at a football tailgate, of all places, months after we’d parted ways. I had no idea she would be there. I turned around and this person who I truly didn’t even know was in the godforsaken country greeted me with a wide smile and a stiff hug. It was one of the most abjectly terrifying moments of my life thus far. If there’s any moral to all of this it’s to make plans when it comes to seeing your ghosts.
Time, time, time. That’s what everyone says about breaking up and it’s infuriating because it’s true. And beyond time, they all say you must hide away every remnant of that person, cut them out of sight. Some advise to destroy every relic, but I couldn’t; I never could. Still haven’t. I see little virtue in erasure.
She toiled with the thin black straw in her drink. There was no awkwardness between us, just this mutual understanding, but of what? Not civility, not decorum. This wasn’t forced. A tacit acceptance, perhaps, of the reasons we failed to articulate or understand in the Why of leaving. To see each other be OK; a confirmation that maybe only seeing someone in the flesh can commit to certainty—that all that pain wasn’t for naught.
I squeezed her hand hard before she got in a cab. Said it had been so great to see her, and it was—it truly had been—this different person I still love in the way only an Everest of history can allow for them another chance, because in the end no one wronged anyone else, misery notwithstanding. Neither of us would wish a hurt of that magnitude on the other. It could have just been a glint of light off a street lamp, but her eyes seemed strained with the restraint of disavowing tears; I know because I was doing the same. And I watched her leave this time with a wave, and I probably wiped at my eyes, and I walked inside.
Once, she said to me: “You have to promise if things ever go south between us that we treat each other with kindness.” And I had agreed, dismissively; found even the mere notion of separation laughable and, deep down, utterly gut wrenching, but I didn’t see it as a portent of what was to come. I still don’t. And there’s such great relief in landing on the strength of that promise after you’re forced to rebuild, atom by atom. When all you have or want to offer someone you have loved and hated more than anything in the world is kindness.
The apartment, that night after C. came over, was the cleanest it’s ever been.
Kathleen French is a writer living in New York / photograph by Santa Katkute