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When It's Time to Break Up and Go Travel

Narrative Couples
by Emily Hanssen Arent Sep 4, 2012
Sometimes, a relationship has a timestamp. One day you realize it. You’re already moving toward what’s coming next.

YOU’LL WAKE UP ALONE and you’ll know. You’re only twenty years old, but you’ve always slept like a mother of five, jolting awake at the slightest rustle of the sheets or a sleep-talking mumble. No one walks past the foot of your bed without waking you instantly. But this morning, you’ll sleep through his exit from your bed.

You’ll wake up alone and you’ll know that it’s over. Your stomach will sink when you realize you can’t hear even the slightest movement in your apartment. You’ll walk down the hall and around the corner to find him sitting motionless on the couch, staring solemnly at the wall in those tie-dyed pajama pants that you equally love and despise.

When he moved back home after college and you lived four hours apart, he started writing lonely poems. This morning you’ll sit side by side on a tiny couch, but you’ll be separated by the distance of mismatched expectations, far greater than the four hours between you on an average day. As if you’re already sitting in your shoebox apartment in Copenhagen and he’s already in a hostel in Bogota.

The night before, you went to a concert. You cooked, and you kissed, and you went to sleep together. But this morning you woke up impossibly far apart.

You’ve known that it’s coming for months, but it stings to hear him say it. You’ve allowed this impending reality to float above your heads for so long it never felt like a creeping, looming heartbreak. Instead, it crawled between the two of you in bed in the middle of the night, in an instant.

He’ll want you to stay close. To take him to the airport in January a few days before your own flight to Copenhagen. To stay together until the last possible moment. And your rejection of this plan will be a stinging slap he can’t comprehend. That you need a month to disengage yourself from this “togetherness” if you’re going to arrive on the other side of the world without tears in your eyes.

He’ll nod, but he won’t understand you. He’ll nod even though he’s infuriated by the depths of your stubborn self-protection. You’ll hug him in the middle of your living room floor, and stand on your stoop to watch him walk to the Subaru that carried you between Steamboat and Boulder for 7 months.

A nervous knock on the door five minutes later will make the flimsy college-town blinds tinker in the window frame. You’ll be squatting like a frog and crying in the middle of your bedroom floor, like you squatted in the middle of the road that summer night when the alacrity of your insults moved him to tears and you couldn’t take them back as quickly as they flew out of your mouth.

You’ll peek through the space where a plastic blind has snapped off, expecting to see him, but it won’t be him. It’ll be a stranger, a boy standing in jeans and a t-shirt, despite the foot of fresh snow on the ground. He’ll be smoking a cigarette, his hair rumpled and standing on end. You’ll open the door in a t-shirt and your underwear, the chill of November slapping your bare legs like a bucket of ice water.

“Hey, are you ok?” he’ll ask.

You’ll stare at the space between his eyebrows, then the spot over his left shoulder, feeling drunk from the sobbing.

“I just I…I was standing on my balcony across the street. And I was watching you, watching him leave. And you looked so sad. He’ll stomp out his cigarette on the cement and stare at his feet, then back at you.

“Are you ok?” he’ll ask again.

Five years later, you won’t remember what you said to him. Only that he hugged you with his hand on the back of your head, really hugged you. Like he knew you. His random act will squeeze the urge to howl and sob right out of your lungs.

You won’t be sure if it feels tender or completely invasive, this stranger hugging you in your underwear on your stoop. He’ll point to his balcony across the street, tell you to tap on the sliding glass door if you ever want to talk. And then he’ll turn, and walk right back across the unplowed street, lighting another cigarette.

You’ll never see him again.

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