Charlie breaks up with you over the phone but later you fly to Seattle and insist he do it in person. The initial conversation had gone something like this: You were exasperated and said, What are we doing? It was meant to be somewhat rhetorical, but then he said, We’re breaking up. He said it as dispassionately as We’re getting Chinese take-out for dinner or We’re going bowling tonight.
You and Charlie have been dating on and off for three years. In September he moved to Seattle to get a Masters in the Philosophy of Language. He did not ask you to come with him. You wouldn’t have said yes, but you fantasized often about the conversation. You imagined saying to your friends I love him so much but I’m not just going to abandon my life here. Which was true, you weren’t. You’d just started working as an immigration attorney at a small non-profit. Your family is all here in New York, specifically your ninety-three-year-old grandmother whom you will not leave. But still, you’d ached for the tug of conflict; to feel at least a little bit torn by the decision.
Charlie left and it was decided that you would stay together through the first semester and then reevaluate over Christmas. Initially, you liked the freedom and space of long distance. The romance of writing long emails and sending packages of paperbacks and some of Charlie’s favorite snacks—hickory smoked almonds and chocolate bars filled with crushed pieces of red pepper—things that he could certainly find in Seattle, but you insisted on mailing anyway. You even bought a vibrator that connected to Wifi so Charlie could control it from his carpeted, two-bedroom apartment near the university. The night of your best friend’s thirty-second birthday party, you got drunk on two and a half glasses of the house white and texted Charlie, asked him to turn it to the fastest setting and make you come. He said he was in the library with Brad from his cohort and it would be too distracting.
One thing you noticed about long distance is how quickly you internalized the time difference between New York and Seattle. You’d wake up at eight o’clock and instantly think: it is 5 A.M., he will be asleep for two-and-a-half more hours. At night you’d watch episodes of the new X-Files and drift off to sleep on the couch, but it was only seven-thirty on the west coast, you couldn’t possibly go to bed that early. You always thought you were too selfish to have children and you marveled at the way your mother so effortlessly called her mother Grandma Esther, and her brother Uncle Len, just for you. But being with Charlie showed you how easily a mind can shift its contents around, making room for the people you love.
When Charlie broke up with you, in the second week of October, six weeks after he’d left, you’d just gotten off the bus and were standing on the corner of Flatbush and Park Place. He said We’re breaking up and you sat down at the closest stoop, one that was splattered with bird shit, like an avian Jackson Pollock. What do you mean? You asked. Are you being serious? A moment later an ambulance went by and you wondered, absurdly, if it was for you. But the siren wailed and kept on going.
That night, in a flurry of indignant panic, you bought a ticket to Seattle that you could not afford. And then you made a list of things about Charlie that had driven you crazy: that he never voted, not even for Obama’s first term, how he said he’d always defer to you about where to go for dinner, as though he were doing you a favor, when really he was just lazy and made you do all the work. And another thing: Charlie applied to six PhD programs and one masters, just in case. You would’ve understood if he had left you for a doctorate, but for a fucking masters? Everyone knew that wasn’t a real thing.
Two days later you’re on the plane, sitting next to a man who is wheezing softly and you feel calm and confident, maybe even happy. You have always allowed Charlie the upper hand on a silver platter; you believe there is a kind of power in being open-hearted. And you are certain that when he sees you he will remember everything. How being together feels so easy it is almost like being alone, but better. The day after his father died and he burrowed into you and wept, and you combed his beard with your fingers, in the direction he taught you—following the patterns of his hair. Together you poured though the slim, yellowed volumes of poetry in his father’s office until you picked one for him to read at the service. The trip to New Mexico when you backpacked through the desert and spent the afternoon in the hot springs; you stared at both of your legs beneath the water, his thighs all taut and muscly, and he held onto your fingers and said, closing his eyes against the sun, does it get any better than this? Your sister once told you that it was impossible to convince someone to love you, but you think she is wrong; if you try hard enough you just might be able to do it.
At the airport he is waiting for you in a car you’ve never seen. Watching him, in a gray Nissan Sentra with his hands draped over the wheel, in a city you’ve never been to before, you feel suddenly like an alien. But then he looks up and you make eye contact and he smiles this big, goofy grin and instantly it is as though nothing has changed, you have not even broken up. He drives north and points out the touristy landmarks: Boeing field, the stadium where the Seahawks play, the Space Needle. Your nails graze the patch of hairs at the base of his neck and you kiss at all the red lights. He tells you that he face-timed with his nephew who just lost his first tooth, and that the tooth fairy is now an insane yuppie who gives out chocolate croissants and hot cocoa, instead of quarters or dollar bills, did you know?
You go visit the house where Kurt Cobain killed himself, the bench beside it where everyone has written love notes and praised his genius. Seattle has more trees than you have ever seen; they are regal and proud, unlike the trees in New York, which always seem a bit unsteady. You could live here, you think. There are public defender agencies everywhere. You would call your grandmother every morning and narrate the drive to work, tell her about the lake beside you that is gleaming and placid, how it reminds you of the summer trips you used to take with her to upstate New York, right below the Catskills. You’ll save money on your cost of living and will be able to fly back often.
Charlie’s apartment is chilly and smells like artificial vanilla. His roommate is sitting at the kitchen table watching a lecture on his laptop. Charlie does not introduce you. You get into bed and touch each other, but don’t kiss. The smell of his body, which is slightly sour, makes you wet because it is so familiar. You climb on top but he squirms and closes his eyes. We can’t, he says. When you ask why not he tells you that he told his friends he wouldn’t. You don’t want to be sexist but you think that is something you should’ve told your friends, not the other way around. This breakup is, in fact, a breakup and you do not understand it.
It’s just over, he says, not unkindly. It’s run its course. I don’t know what else to say.
You point to all the things that happened recently that contradict this statement. Last Monday he sent you a text that said I love you, we’ll be okay. Two nights before he left for Seattle he had dinner with your family at a diner on Lexington Avenue and when he left, he said to your mother, See you at Thanksgiving! Just a few days ago he suggested that the two of you go to Chicago for Christmas to visit his sister and her son.
You just want to understand why. If there is some kind of pointed reason he could cite, you think it would make the grief more palatable. You think about the planes that have disappeared mid-flight over the Atlantic, and the families of the victims; they can’t rest until they know how it happened. Was it a fire in the engine or some kind of mechanical failure?
Charlie says, You deserve someone better, someone who’s going to appreciate you.
He is not the first person to say this to you. You don’t know how to explain the well of rage it evokes.
Fuck you! Don’t tell me what I need or deserve. But obviously I know that, obviously I want to be with someone who actually wants to be with me.
So then why did you come here? He asks. He winces as he says it, like it pains him to ask. Like he has been trying to spare you.
You came here because you were taught not to give up without a fight, to hold on to people dearly. Which maybe makes you an excellent lawyer but not a great girlfriend. You often felt like your relationship with Charlie was a third party, something distinct from either of you, something fundamentally good and precious, that you needed to protect.
Why did you let me? You ask.
I didn’t know how to say no, he says.
Well I’m sorry I came, you tell him. I’m so sorry to disturb your academic circle jerk. Were you masturbating to Derrida all day before I got here? What even IS the philosophy of language and who cares? Sorry I have, like, a real job that actually matters.
See! He explains. You don’t even like me! Why do you even want to be with me?
In the middle of the night you wake up gagging. You wretch but nothing comes up. You turn on the faucet and sit down on the feathery bathmat and finally let yourself cry; broken, heaving sobs. Your whole body tensing and releasing. It’s seven A.M., New York time and you call your sister. Am I making this up? You ask. Did I make up our entire relationship?
Shh, shh, she says. But you don’t know if she is talking to you or telling her husband, beside her in bed, to be quiet.
When Charlie is at class you walk around his bedroom and collect objects you’ve given him over the years: a book of James Baldwin short stories, a postcard of a cactus lit up with Christmas lights, a Magnetic Fields record that he now uses as an oversized coaster. Things you have not given him: two pairs of plaid boxers wrapped in cellophane, a purple thermos, a vaporizer pen with yellow oil floating in its center. There’s also a strip of photographs from your cousin’s wedding. You’re holding feathered boas and elaborate mustaches but you are both too self-conscious to use them and you’re just smiling at each other, your arms weighed down by props. You gather the photograph and the things you have given him and put them in the corner of his room. Like thumbtacks, you hope they will puncture his stoicism.
Later he comes back in and says, Oh look, it’s like the cemetery of our relationship!
You go online and see how much it will cost to take a red-eye home that night. There is a two-hundred-dollar processing fee plus the difference between the fares. Fuck, you say aloud. It’s so expensive to change the flight. You want him to know that you are finished, ready to go home.
Well then, what should we do for the rest of the day? He asks. It is late afternoon. His room faces west and the sun is fiery and pushing against the horizon. Do you want to see the school? We could go over to campus and get dinner around there. Or maybe grab a drink with Brad and his girlfriend?
You do not want to do either of these things. His apartment is already imprinted in your brain and you don’t want more information, any other scenery to envision how his life here will unfold. The humid dive bar that he’ll frequent, where despite his better judgment, he’ll kiss an undergrad while waiting in line outside the bathroom. You don’t want to see the beautiful, leafy campus with nineteenth century stone buildings where he will inevitably linger with a woman after class, pretending he doesn’t mind the cigarette smoke, so he can stay and talk to her (probably about some abstract linguistics theory you cannot understand, even if you cared to try, which you don’t). You imagine him saying of you, she was great, a really good person, but she just didn’t challenge me intellectually, had no interest in sitting around and shooting the shit about semiotics or what not. Or if he didn’t say that, he’d tell her another story, reducing you to a stand-in archetype, an anecdote. Just as his college girlfriend became the one from Cincinnati, whose mother had M.S.
You do know what it means to study the Philosophy of Language. And later, you will reread old emails from Charlie, searching for signs and clarity, ways you may have misinterpreted the meaning of his words and instead sculpted your own narrative.
You take a shower and wash your hair and feel the tiniest bit revitalized. Or maybe numb and resigned. Together, you take a walk around the neighborhood and go to an Italian restaurant nearby, with a mural of bricks painted along the wall.
A waiter hands you two menus and then scribbles the specials down on the paper tablecloths. When your drinks arrive – yours a whiskey and ginger ale, his a gin and tonic – you tilt your glass toward his and smile.
The last supper, you say.
But it is, probably.
I’m sure we will have dinner together at some point, one day.
You split a basket of bread while you wait for the food to arrive. You and Charlie slip into easy conversation; the lunacy of Trump, your father’s impending retirement, the hobbies his mother has incurred since widowhood (rock climbing at an indoor gym and updating Wikipedia pages for female politicians.)
You are thinking about the last time you had Italian food together, four months ago, the night of the surprise party you threw him. His friends were waiting at a bar two blocks away, and his cousin Max texted you for updates, wanting to know when you were paying the bill, when you were leaving the restaurant, when you were rounding the corner. You remember the moment you and Charlie walked through the door, the scattering of applause and happy birthday cheers. The way you squeezed his hand, so gleeful and complicit.
KATE AXELROD’s first novel The Law of Loving Others was published by Penguin in 2015. She lives in Brooklyn and works as an advocate in the criminal justice system. You can find more of her writing at www.kate-axelrod.com