Heartbreak is something you taste and breathe. Your life is split into eras: Before and After.
My boyfriend broke up with me. The words are pathetically commonplace, but the pain and rejection others describe is not your particular brand of misery. You have no desire to attack a tub of ice-cream, go walking in the rain, or listen to love ballads. In fact, the songs you once considered soul-stirring have no effect on you now. They sound false and theatrical. You switch off the radio.
You break-up, and you breakdown. Either way, you’re breaking.
Out of the blue, he calls. His number flashes on your phone. You stare at the screen, and force yourself to let it ring again before answering.
‘Hi,’ you mumble.
‘So,’ he says, ‘I need my stuff back.’
Who starts a conversation with ‘so’? What a jerk. But a voice in your mind wails, For a while he was my jerk.
Following his lead, you say, ‘So…?’
‘So, can you drop it off tomorrow? You know, my CD and my belt, the brown one. Oh, and you have my grey shirt.’
‘Do you have anything of mine?’
‘Dunno.’ He considers. ‘Actually, yeah. That bird pin’s in my car.’
That’s right. You took the pin off so it wouldn’t prod him when he held you that night. ‘Oh,’ you say. ‘I didn’t realise I was missing anything.’
There is a pause, and you hear the double implication in your words. Good.
‘Anyway, you good to swap back tomorrow? Say, eleven?’
His voice is rough, and you suddenly feel like you are negotiating a hostage exchange. Be strong. Do not let him dictate the circumstances of your meeting. Besides, eleven is too early for a fresh shot of misery. It’s stronger than tequila.
‘I’m not driving out to yours,’ you tell him. ‘We can meet half-way, it’s only fair. And I’m busy at eleven.’ There is silence before you add, ‘I can meet you at two.’
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘What about Pullman’s Park, then?’
You flinch. Thank goodness he can’t see. ‘Fine,’ you manage, and hang up.
The next day you arrive at ten past two. The wind carries the scent of rain and lilac that you remember from your first date, and the park is bathed in fine, silvery mist even in the afternoon. Away from the barbecue area, a wooden bench offers a view of purpling slopes, and trees like tufts of green fur. It is beautiful. It shouldn’t be.
He is waiting on the bench and slings his backpack off his shoulder as you approach. You give a half-hearted wave that he does not return. Sitting will make it harder to leave, so you merely hand out a cotton bag holding his things.
‘Thanks,’ he says, crushing the small bag inside his backpack. Then he digs a hand into his jeans pocket, and retrieves the phoenix pin.
The red on the bird’s wings glints in the faint light. Stepping in front of him, you take the pin. ‘You’re so cold.’ The mist is cold too, and you hug yourself.
His eyebrows raise in surprise.
You hadn’t planned on talking but now it is difficult to stop. ‘You never even say hi. You pretend I don’t exist. If we’re at the same party, you look through me.’
‘Well, we broke up.’
You nod. ‘And that means we’re worse off than strangers. If we’d never met, and I saw you sitting here, you know what? I’d say hello. But because things didn’t work out, you can’t even pretend to be civil.’
‘What do you want? What’s the point in pretending?’
You press the pin into your palm until it hurts. ‘There’s no point, I guess. But I thought I mattered to you. I guess I hoped that I would keep mattering, in some capacity.’
He brushes a hand against his forehead. ‘Why did we break up?’
This is a cruel joke. ‘You ended it,’ you say.
‘We weren’t happy,’ he says. ‘The last month was like…I don’t know. One long argument.’
You remember the silences; the Cold War that divided you. ‘Whenever we had a problem, you just shut down. It was like talking to a brick. We never had a real argument, one where you did me the courtesy of fighting back.’
His jaw clenches.
‘I knew you were angry; I know you’re angry now. But unless you’re dating yourself, you’re going to disagree with your partner. It’s part of communicating. And arguing shows you care.’ You clip the pin onto your cardigan; it gives you an excuse to look away. When you sneak a glance back at him, he is shaking his head.
‘People break up because they fight.’
‘Or they stay together because they learn how to fight well, and then move on.’
He appraises you as a curiosity. ‘Why are you still standing there?’
Your throat closes. You turn to leave.
‘No,’ he says, ‘I meant…’ He moves over.
Slowly, you sit. He looks at the distance between you; it is wide enough for another person. Turning, he faces the view. ‘I scoped this place out, before that picnic. I wanted you to like it.’
Looking at the violet slopes blanketed in mist, your skin hums with his presence.
‘Hard to see much out there.’ He is quiet for a moment. ‘Look, sorry I…ignored you. I don’t know how to act. It’s still a little awkward…’
‘A little?’ You laugh weakly, and he does too.
‘I don’t know how to fight with someone. I didn’t know you wanted that.’
Sitting in silence, you study the silvery haze. Feeling the space, and closeness once shared. Damp seeps through your shoes from the dewy grass, but the sun slowly warms you. Shafts of light fall across the hills, burning through mist, chasing shadows.