A List of the Reasons He Didn’t Go After Her

1. The day before she left, he walked into the bedroom to see May shoving books and clothes into her big overnight bag. She didn’t look up when Brian came into the room, and he didn’t ask what she was doing. He had a lurching feeling in the tangled mass of his gut that if he said anything about what she was doing, she’d have to tell him why, and her words would unravel him completely.

2. The day before that, Brian had mentioned that someday he wanted to move out of the city. It would be nice to live somewhere quieter, or at least to live somewhere and stay awake at night because of owl calls and crickets instead of sirens and car alarms. May loved the city. He said he wanted to live somewhere with more trees than buildings, and she scoffed. She said, “Yeah, and go to bed at 10 pm every night, and have a handful of kids and a minivan. Yeah, right.” He had shrugged. She started to say something, and then she stopped. Finally she shrugged too, but not in the way that meant she couldn’t be bothered to argue about it. He was well versed in her shrugs, in the flow and jerk of her body in all its expressions. She shrugged in the way that meant it really didn’t matter to her what he did with his future.

3. Three weeks before, she had gotten angry at him. They’d gone to Emily’s party together and sat like a good little couple at the table, commenting on how delicious the food was. He’d had a nice chat with Patricia, who was sitting next to him along because Neil was on a business trip or something like that. Everybody knew that Neil screwed around; he practically bragged about it every time he saw anyone. Brian smiled at her a lot, wishing that she wasn’t dating such an asshole. She was a perfectly nice girl. When they got home, May had rounded on him and accused him of flirting with that pasty-faced simpering little twit all night while she was sitting right there next to him. He had protested, because that really hadn’t been how he thought of it at all. He was just being nice to her. They went back and forth for an hour. She asked him tearfully how he thought it looked to everybody else there. He shouted that he didn’t know what she wanted him to do, just ignore the person sitting next to him for two hours, because he wasn’t about to do that. May walked into the bedroom and slammed the door. He waited seven minutes–he knew this by now, five was too short and ten was too long–and then went in to talk to her. Usually they argued for another few minutes and then they both apologized and had make-up sex. Now he went inside, sat down next to her on the bed, and she turned away from him. He tried to talk to her, and she turned back. “Whatever,” she said. “Let’s go to sleep already.” She seemed tired of the argument, tired of caring, and tired of him.

4. The day she left, May didn’t do anything dramatic. She didn’t write a letter, left on the living room table for him to find later. She just sat down next to him on the couch, where he was reading a magazine. She said, “We have to talk. This isn’t working out, and we both know it. I’m going to go. I hope that eventually we can be friends, you know? I’m really sorry.” Brian had nodded, numb, while she hefted her bag onto her shoulder and walked out of the apartment. In her absence, he melted onto the floor and spread out in wisps, a sprawling puddle. He didn’t know how to pull himself together without her.

5. When she left, she kissed his cheek in a polite sort of way. That’s what undid him the most. Her lips touched his cheek as if they had never been anything other than casual acquaintances. He didn’t know how she could kiss his cheek and walk away from his life as if they weren’t already entwined and impossible to untangle from one another. If he had gotten up and chased her down the stairs, what could he possibly have said? Already he didn’t matter to her. He could tell.

6. He didn’t know that she wanted him to.

The Missing Self

In his eighteenth year, Ben’s self went missing. He didn’t realize for a long time. Perhaps, he realized later, it had been missing for years. One day he woke, stretched from his bed, and realized that it was gone. His shadow on the wall was motionless, crooked across the corner, somehow emptier than he thought it was.

His parents didn’t act like anything was different. They were sitting at the kitchen table. His mother bent over the newspaper sprawling on the table, and his dad was already making Ben a bowl of cereal. They always kept to their morning routine. His dad used to say that it kept them stable. Ben hadn’t understood it for a long time because he thought the word only had something to do with horses. He ate his cornflakes just like he did every day. They crunched in his mouth the same way. The tinny edge of his mother’s hum of interest still bit into his nerves just as they always did. He couldn’t explain why everything was different. It wasn’t even something that he could put into words. It was just that suddenly, with no warning, his self was gone. He barely knew what that meant, but he felt the gape in his chest where his self wasn’t.

School didn’t change. His teachers didn’t care if Ben had his self with him, or if he was conscious. He got through his classes and nodded through lunch just like always. High school was almost over, and nobody really noticed any of the seniors anyway. After school he caught up with Vanessa, his girlfriend. She always waited for him at the next corner. Her face held a worried sort of hope until she saw him. She was relieved he was there, every single day. He still marveled at that.

They held hands and walked down the street, bumping shoulders. Vanessa talked for a little while about her science teacher who was a jerk, and about her best friend, who was also a jerk. She asked him how his day was and then got anxious when he waited to answer. Finally, Ben said, “I don’t know, babe. Something’s weird today. I don’t know. I woke up feeling really funny, like I was all screwed up. I don’t know why though.”

She asked him a lot of questions, and he struggled to answer her. When it started to get dark he kissed her goodbye and went home. His parents talked about the news at dinner, and he thought dimly about how he would sort of miss tuning them out when he left next year. When he brushed his teeth, he stared at himself in the mirror and wondered what was missing. His eyes were the same brown eyes as always, but he didn’t recognize them. It was like he was looking at a photograph of somebody he didn’t know very well instead of his own reflection.

When he woke up in the morning, his self was still gone. The next morning, too. It came to feel like a little numb patch in his chest where the flesh had healed over until you could barely tell that anything was wrong. Ben was quiet normally, but he was silent now. His parents worried that he was having second thoughts about his future. Vanessa worried that she’d done something wrong. Ben worried that he’d never get his self back.

After a month of missing self, Ben’s grandfather slipped and fell. He was okay, but Ben’s mom freaked out. Both his parents left for a night, and Vanessa took the opportunity to come over and sleep in his bed. She stroked his skin and whispered to him, trying to get him to respond, but he didn’t know what she wanted. She clung to him, so he held her. In the morning when he woke next to her, he didn’t feel anything. His self was still gone and the middle of his chest was numb. He put some of his clothes in a duffel bag and wrote an email to his parents that he was going to go camping with his friend Trevor and they shouldn’t worry. He made breakfast for Vanessa.

His girlfriend came downstairs and kissed his neck. He gave her eggs and toast. They sat and ate, and finally Ben said, “I want to talk to you.” She knew enough to be afraid, and she looked at him with fear. He said, “I don’t think we should, I mean, can we? I want to, we should, break up be friends stop seeing each other.”

She started crying at once, and he got up from the table to grab his duffel bag. “Why?” she said. “What did I do?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I need to go find my self.” And he left.

Yellow Moon Future

He couldn’t find himself in the painting. Mason knew he was there. He’d felt the shapes of his head and his shoulders somewhere, and he felt the curve of the light slipping against his skin in the tender smudge of yellow. It could have been anywhere though, anywhere tucked into the details of the trees and the buildings. He’d painted a slow yellow moon precarious on the horizon, fat and round against the deep blue-black of the sky. When he looked at the painting, he tried to look for himself. The moon kept pulling his gaze back, though. It almost shone from the canvas. Sometimes he was amazed at the light that came from the smeared shapes of oil and pigment.

There – maybe he was there, in the corner. What was he doing? Mason squinted, leaned, and smiled. There he was, definitely. Now that he’d found it, it seemed obvious. The light trickling down the side of his neck was a ridge standing out from the painting. It would be bumpy and hard when it dried. He – the him in the painting, the little one – was curled against a tree, fitted into the waves of the trunk. The leaves spread out over him in points of light, like a string of Christmas decorations pinned up on the sky. When he looked, Mason could see his head bent and his arms clenched around his knees. He wondered what he was doing, what he was feeling, when this would happen.

The Moon as seen in Hockessin, Delaware.

As it turned out, it was only the next week. Once the paint dried and he could run his hand across the wrinkly-smooth surface of it, the moon was hanging heavier in the sky. He drove out to see Alan. When he pulled up to the house and got out of the car, the balance of the light on the trees and the shape of the leaves on the sky was suddenly and differently familiar. In his painting he hadn’t noticed that forest there, but when he saw the trees he could see his own strokes curling up the sides and pressing in the shadows. When he got into the house he knew something was wrong.

Alan made him a cup of tea. Mason was fidgeting, at once, his fingers moving to scoop the sugar and turn and pour, as he usually did. His heart tapped a rapid tattoo against his ribs. He watched the steam puff and billow over Alan’s shoulders and thought it might spill down his hunched back, the bony spine that curved toward Mason while the rest of his body reached away. Alan poured, stirred, and turned to bring the cup over to the table. When he sat down, Alan looked into the shimmering surface of the tea and said, “Listen, honey, I want to talk to you about something.”

When it was over and the silence had stretched too long, Mason escaped. He curled and bent like Alan had, like a leaf withering and twisting on the ground in the autumn, like he was trying to fold into himself or wrap around the edge of pain in his throat where he wouldn’t let the tears come. He walked, without thinking, not toward his car. He got to the edge of the trees and listened to the creak of the forest, the chirp of the birds and crickets, the timid crunch of his shoes on the bits of forest carpeting the ground. He nearly walked into a tree. It loomed over him, leaves tipping and straightening in the night breeze like uncertain dancers. Mason knelt and leaned, fit himself against the curve of the tree and nestled into it like a lost lover. He stayed there, huddled against the tree, until he realized that he had painted these moments. A canvas at home was splashed with the colors and the beauty of this heartbreak. He closed his eyes then against the glitter of light on the edges of leaves, the fat yellow moon, the forbidden glow of the windows half-hidden.

Apart

I said goodbye to you without crying. I left what remained on the sidewalk there with you to be run over, stepped on and kicked aside. There wasn’t much left anyway.

Ours was a relationship that crumbled. We held it tight in our sweaty hands, clasped together, but it was seeping slowly through the cracks. We tried to catch it and let it pile again, make a shape, build on our palms. All it did was run over our skin. It was smooth as it dripped and slipped and slid away, it was soft and lovely, and then it was gone.

Perhaps, someday, we will find one again. A relationship, a life, something. We will never find those powdery remnants of love that was. Those are lost. Maybe someday we will find a new place, a new way, and it will be something too strong and solid to ever crack. It will never crumble. We will never have to grasp, frantic and falling, at one another to hold it together.

Darkening

The people in the park around them were dark and blank against the slipping light of the sunset. The skyline jutted in great bricks of black to carve shapes out from the sky, where the colors spread and dripped past the horizon. Charlotte closed her eyes, leaning against the warmth of his chest, and sighed.

Martin’s arms tightened around her, and she turned to him. He wasn’t looking at her, and she tipped her face up. He noticed, after a moment, his eyes flaring. He kissed her, a brief touch, and then let her nestle against him again. He didn’t move to hold her. Before long, of course, he wanted to leave. They walked, hands clasped, down the street and toward her place.

When they got into the apartment, Martin hissed out an exasperated breath. It was a mess. It was always a mess. He had used to think it was cute, the way she forgot about her coffee mugs and dropped discarded clothes over chairs. That had been months and months ago, though. She scurried from one corner to another, catching up dishes and shoving them to clatter together in the sink, flicking the sweater and the scarf into the bedroom. “Sit, babe, I’m just going to get some water.” He sat and she hid in the kitchen for a moment.

In March, when they were still flushed and smiling about one another, she’d said nearly the same thing. The words rang in her head with the memory echoing behind them. He’d stood instead, surprised her at the sink and wrapped his arms around her waist. She’d set the glass down and turned, forgetting to turn off the tap so she could kiss him.

Charlotte watched the water fill the glass. She thought it would be very dramatic to stare and let it overflow until her hand was shiny and slipping, but she didn’t. She could hear the chair creaking from where Martin was shifting his weight in the other room. The glass wobbled in her hand, water leaning closer to the edge, threatening to spill. She carried it out of the kitchen and sat across the table from her boyfriend.

The room was tinged with darkness. She’d forgotten to flip the light switch. Martin’s hand was on the table, the window sending its shadow to stretch long and straight away from the light. She reached for his hand, curling her fingers around his. He didn’t move, and she felt a heaviness settle in her chest. She was used to the feeling. In the shadowy room she watched him hold still, his eyes downcast, away from her. After a long moment he looked up.

“Actually, Charlotte, I should probably get going. I told Mike we could hang out tonight, you know, I should go grab some food before I meet him. Or we could go for dinner, I don’t know. You okay?”

“Yeah,” she smiled at him. The sadness sat and swelled. “Sure.” Martin stood, slipping his hand from hers, and walked to the door.

He half-turned to her, sitting in the darkened room by herself, and spoke over his shoulder as he opened the door. “I’ll text you or something tomorrow. Love you.”

“Okay,” she said, watching him go. “Bye.”

Nine Reasons You Should Break Up With Your Girlfriend

  1. You called your dad to tell him you had a new girlfriend. He sighed and said, “Oh, another one?” You felt a flare of self-righteous defiant falling-in-love, just to spite him. You filled yourself with a determination for the new romance that lasted at least a month.
  2. When you met her, she smiled at you. Across a crowded room, no kidding. She’d made you feel like you were special, and that you mattered to her. She could hold your gaze and you were weightless. When you met a year ago you felt like you were floating when you looked in her eyes. You were mesmerized by the gleam, the shine in the way she looked at you. Now in a crowded room you can’t read her glance, if she’s looking at you at all.
  3. Sometimes she’ll say something. Call you “honey” out of habit, or laugh too loud at a joke you’ve already told. Those times you feel a rush of warmth, a love that suffuses your tired heart and rushes up to flush your face. After a while it goes away again.
  4. It took you months to put any of this unease into words. Now they’re words you’ve hidden away, folded and tucked into a crack between thoughts, because you don’t want to have to look at them.
  5. Your best friend got a sweater when you were at some department store together. It was cashmere or something fancy, warm and soft. You’d loved it, been jealous, because it was your favorite color. A sort of gray-green, a soft pretty color. She bought you a sweater for your birthday. It was red, and when you opened the present the smile you showed her felt familiar.
  6. You spent two hours talking to someone about how you felt. A new friend, maybe, and you felt like you were saying something important even when you were quiet, just looking at her. It was probably just that it was different, would have been forbidden if it had been anything. Even so she’d fallen asleep with her head on your shoulder and her hand on your leg, and you’d lain awake feeling wistful for something that never existed.
  7. Sometimes you have whole conversations with your girlfriend and you get by just guessing when to say “uh huh” and “you’re kidding.” You don’t feel bad. Sometimes you can tell she does the same thing when you talk. Often.
  8. Last week you saw that new friend. When she smiled at you – it might have just been your imagination – she looked wistful too.
  9. Yesterday you and your girlfriend argued. It was about something stupid. It’s always about something stupid. You apologized. She said, “I know. It’s okay. I love you.” You didn’t believe her and you said, “Okay. I love you too.” You don’t think she believed you either.

Faded Light

The setting sun gilded the city before them, from where they saw it tucked into the green hiding spot of the park. Pale golden light fell on everything – high rises, skyscrapers, rows of windows and columns of concrete. Under the rain of dying sun the city was briefly as beautiful as he remembered, the streets lined with light and the people dappled with the brightness of the day’s end.

Charlotte was in the path of the sun. She reflected it, refracted it, sparkled and shone against the horizon until she was brilliant and sparkling with sunlight. She couldn’t keep the grin off of her face, and her cheeks caught a rosy sheen. Her eyes glinted, the white light against their darkness. She was looking at him.

Martin was looking at her, absentminded. She was very lovely, especially now with the light playing against the shadow on all the contours of her face. He thought about her beauty, watching her stand smiling against the sunset. Charlotte didn’t let him think about it for long, though. She reached for him, grabbed him to pull him over to her, wrapped his arm around her.

They stood together, facing the pink-tinged sky. It seemed for almost an instant that they were alone there, though the murmurs and cries of everyone else in the park were all around them. The tourists and their cameras, the children chasing pigeons, the harried parents and the frisky dogs stopped existing.

He glanced around. A couple sat against the tree, apparently overcome by the setting sun and kissing enthusiastically. Their squirming made Martin’s shoulders tense, and he turned away. Charlotte nestled into his shoulder, and then moved. He looked down at her. She was holding her face up to him to be kissed. After a moment, he bent his head and complied. She made a disappointed noise that he’d left so soon, but then she leaned on his shoulder again.

The sun was almost gone now, the brightness dimmed and fading. Martin’s arm was stiff. He wanted to let go, but he thought Charlotte would be disappointed. The sky had flared a bit, showy as the light left. The pink mingled with orange and yellow, a watercolor palette washed over the horizon, staining the sky. He was sure it was very romantic. Charlotte sighed, watching the sunset against him. She loved this sort of thing. He remembered once, last year – well, he thought, that sunset was different. It was a different time. He had reached for her and kissed her, ignoring everything else. Things had changed since then.

He shivered a little, though the evening was still warm. He felt traitorous, thinking this next to her. She hadn’t changed at all. She was still the quiet girl who’d first smiled at him so sweetly, the fuzzy photograph of a person he remembered loving so fiercely then. Not that he didn’t love her now, of course. Of course. He didn’t think he’d changed so much, either. It was only that whatever had been there, the yank at his gut in the first months when she’d raised her face for him to kiss – the desperation, or the passion – was gone. Or faded, perhaps. Maybe it would come back to him.

Charlotte murmured against him now. He didn’t hear what she said, but he answered, “Let’s go, okay?” She looked up at him, and he felt a tired, familiar affection warm him. She nodded, slipping her hand into his, and they left the park together.