To read part one, click here.
To read part two, click here.
Making love to her that night was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. It was as if there was an electric current pulsating through our bodies. We never lost contact, too afraid of letting the feeling slip away and the shock we’d feel by letting go.
We moved to the bedroom, wrapped up in each other’s arms. Each movement was ecstasy. She grasped my shoulders with her hands. I tried to find her eyes in the darkness of the room to see if her emotions matched mine. I felt it instead. Her teardrops were warm, and as they landed on my bare chest I felt my heart tighten and realized how much I was still in love with her, how much I was still affected by her pain.
“Are you okay?” she said. The tears she was fighting back revealed in her voice.
I was speechless, incapacitated by the force of witnessing someone I love experience pain only I had the power to take away. The irony of realizing that I’ve never been one for words in times of intense passion or pain was not lost on me. But I had to say something. “Yeah, babe. I’m perfect,” I said. And in that moment I was.
We lay there for the next few minutes in silence. Our entire relationship flashed before my eyes. I saw the whole picture. Not just what was, but everything that wasn’t, could have been and never would be. I imagine it’s the same for someone who’s dying. Except I’ve heard they tend to see themselves. All I saw was her.
After a few moments, she said, “Are you going to stay with me in the bed tonight?” I wanted to say yes, but tried to think it through. “I think it’s best if we sleep apart,” I said.
I returned to my surrogate bed, the couch, knowing sleep would not come easy and kicking myself for not saying “yes.” For hours I tossed and turned wrestling with the thoughts of all that had happened that night and wondering what it all had meant: Carrying her into the restaurant; the conversation about our break up; our embrace in the living room; the tears she had shed.
And then it came to me… She’s still in love with you too.
I pushed back the blanket, climbed off the couch and walked toward our room. I could hear her breathing, but couldn’t tell whether she was sleeping or awake. I crept inside. She was on her side of the bed. I took it as a sign that she’d saved my spot for me. I slid under the covers. Her back was facing me. I wrapped my arms around her. My heartbeat increased as I waited for confirmation.
Bum-bum, bum-bum, bum–bum…
She squeezed my wrist and pulled it to her chest. We pretended to sleep.
◊ ◊ ◊
Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship understands how difficult it can be to keep the sex vibrant and exciting. But fear not, I’ve found the solution. If you’re willing to break up every three years, spend a month apart, and then get back together you can have the kind of sex you’ve only imagined in your dreams. It’s as if you’re reliving the excitement of the “getting to know the other person’s body” phase while already knowing every button to push. Sex felt spontaneous again. Not just a routine we engaged in but a performance we eagerly anticipated and enjoyed. I was happy, and no longer relegated to the couch.
I kept reminding myself that this wouldn’t last. That even though things seemed to be good now, we were not back together and we’d both still be leaving at the end of the semester. That no matter how much I still loved her we both needed to grow and experience life on our own.
I reminded myself of that as we held hands and walked around the farmer’s market. I reminded myself of that as she leaned over and passionately kissed me in the middle of a romantic sushi dinner. I reminded myself of that as we drank wine and danced around our apartment. And I reminded myself of that every time she hinted that she’d made a mistake.
Maybe if I hadn’t kept reminding myself of things that could never be I would have enjoyed everything that was. Instead, all the joy I felt left a pit in my stomach. Every day felt like Sunday night, the weekend was almost over and in the morning I’d be back at a job I loathed. Bottling everything up made me feel angry and immature and I found out how easy it is to be hurtful when you’re spending all your energy biting your tongue.
I’d spent those first weeks back with her treating her like the last cookie on the plate at the party. If I indulged, she’d be gone. If I didn’t, we’d go stale. I had no idea what to do. And so I’d have a bite and set it back down, gauge her reaction, rinse my hands, repeat. But there were only crumbs left now and I had to try something new.
“I’m not counting you out,” she said. “I definitely think we could get back together in the future.” It felt really good to hear that. I took a second to let her words sink in, then said, “I don’t think I’d ever get back with you.” A big part of me thought that saying this out loud would make her easier to get over, that my words would act as an extra layer of armor over my already bruised heart. That part was wrong, but I kept up the act anyway.
She began to cry, just as I’d intended. It made me feel powerful and pathetic at the same time.
“You make me feel like I’m a bad person,” she said as she wiped away her tears. “You used to always try to make me feel better. Now it’s like I’m waiting for you to say something nice but it doesn’t come, and it makes me feel like shit.”
My words had worked exactly like I’d intended, and now I felt like shit. Still, I was too proud to admit it, and so I justified the way I felt.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said. “That was my responsibility when I was your boyfriend. It’s not anymore.”
Interactions like these became more and more frequent over the next month. As her boyfriend, I’d completely trusted her. But now that we were no longer dating, I felt consumed by jealousy. It didn’t matter if she was on the phone with someone else or out with friends or even talking about other people. Every time I’d feel venom coursing through my veins and decide to pick a fight. The most enraging thing of all was that I knew I had no right to be upset.
The moments when everything seemed to be fine became fewer and far between.
It was Valentine’s Day, 2011. I had to finish a project for my cinematography class and needed some help. I could have had someone in my class help me. I chose her instead.
The assignment called for recreating a scene from a movie I liked. I chose a scene from The Social Network, a movie about a guy who is fueled to greatness after breaking up with a girl. To get the depth of field right I had to set the camera up far away from her on the other side of the room. Maybe I should have taken those two things as a sign that we were better off without each other. I didn’t.
We had sex again that night. It felt like a routine, and as it came to an end, I knew it would be the last time.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next month was especially tumultuous to get through. She’d visited LA a few times since her Thanksgiving trip, and every time she came back, she looked and acted a little less like the Alice I’d known. She’d talk about energy, smoke cigarettes and fill our iTunes playlist with Radiohead songs. At times it felt like I was living with a high school version of myself. I can only imagine what I must have looked like to her.
We grew apart. I returned to sleeping on the couch. It was maddening. The loneliness I’ve felt when I’m alone is a gift compared to the loneliness I felt being in the same room with the woman I’d loved for so long.
I had to leave. I had two months left in Las Cruces. I had nowhere to go and no idea what to do.
That’s when a friend saved my life.
Kramer and I had played college football together. He was working on his MBA and had a two-bedroom unit in a duplex that he shared with his girlfriend, Keisha. Their relationship was new and I didn’t want to do anything to impose on it. But my other friends had long since left New Mexico and I had no one else to turn to. I debated for days, but desperation set in and I reluctantly called him.
“I was wondering if I could stay at your place for the next two months,” I said. “Living with Alice is too hard. I gotta move out.”
“Let me ask Keesh,” he said. I knew if they said no I was all out of options. There was a short pause while he found her and asked if I could stay. “Yeah, man. She’s cool with it. You need help moving your stuff?”
“I got it,” I said, unable to hide the relief in my voice. “I’ll bring my stuff by when I get back from Oklahoma.”
It was the day before Spring Break. In the morning I’d be flying back to Oklahoma and Alice would be going to Los Angeles. We’d both be back in a week. But by then, I’d be gone.
It was getting late. She walked to our room and opened the door. I was sitting on the couch. I knew this was the last time I’d see her, maybe ever.
“What’d you say?” I said, trying to keep the mood light. “Of course I’ll give you a hug.”
“I didn’t ask for one,” she said sweetly, albeit somewhat confused.
I walked over to her. She turned to me. I hugged her too hard for too long. It was my way of saying goodbye, of saying I love you, of letting her know how influential she’d been in my life and thanking her for it. I like to think she got the message.
I flew back to Las Cruces that next Thursday, ready to pack my things and be out of the house by the time she got back on Saturday. With all that was going on in my head, I forgot to bring my phone with me to the airport. “I’ll overnight it to you,” my mom said as she dropped me off at the terminal.
I went through our entire apartment, packing my stuff up with a fervor that was intermittently broken up by the memories awakened from stumbling across a forgotten relic of our relationship. The “ship in a bottle” her sister had given me, “J & A” scribbled in Sharpie across the side. The ceramic bull she’d brought back from Spain when our relationship was just beginning. Birthday cards, Christmas cards, Valentine’s Day cards and everyday letters, all there as reminders of what we were.
When everything was packed, I sat at our table and wrote her my goodbye letter. I explained my reasons for leaving, told her I loved her and wanted to be friends someday but needed time and space to heal. She’d give me that. I placed my key on top of the letter and walked to the front door.
As I stood in the frame of our door for the last time, I began to cry, completely overcome by emotion. This was the end.
I opened the front door, hesitated a moment, took a deep breath, then closed it behind me. As I turned around I noticed a package at my feet. My phone had arrived. I opened the cardboard box, pulled it out and clicked the home screen.
One missed call: Alice