He’s standing in the hallway now, looking into the bedroom we once shared, processing the new decor and the number of boxes I’ve stacked against one wall.
“There’s so many.”
“I did say,” I call back from the kitchen. As I reach into the cupboard for some mugs, he speaks again, quieter this time.
“Thanks, for packing it all for me.”
He glances towards me, all doe eyes and guilt.
"You’re welcome,” I say.
He goes into the bedroom and as I pour water over a tea bag, I’m distracted. I look back at the spot where he stood and remember the night he left, just over a month ago. I stopped him, grabbed him, and we stood holding one another for what felt like far too long and not nearly long enough. I tried, right there on that very spot, to commit the feel of him to my memory; the weight of his arms, the exact pressure they exerted on my body, the concave dip of his chest where my head rested neatly, how my right hip bone pressed against his left, and how my shoulders folded, birdlike, as he pulled me into him. When he took a step back I remained, motionless. He kissed me. Said he loved me. And with that he was gone.
There was a silence then. More than a silence, a vacuum. It felt as though the air around me had been sucked out the door with him and I now stood inside a void so dense that my skull might implode from the pressure. The door seemed to bend impossibly towards me, then away. I reeled, turning towards the kitchen and stepping onto nothing, as though my legs had disappeared. Before I could check if they were still intact, though, a convulsion seized me, I grabbed onto a door frame, leaned over and wretched. Nothing came up. I hadn’t eaten that day. Then I lowered myself to the floor and lay, face down, with my cheek against the wood. Somewhere in the distance I could hear a whistling sound.
I don’t know how long I stayed that way. Hours, maybe. Or it might have just seemed like hours. I can’t remember all my thoughts in that place, but at some point I flashed on the pregnancy test I’d taken that morning; a blue cross forming in a tiny window. I saw it materialise, over and over, then pushed it away. I’ll think about that tomorrow, I thought. And with that, Scarlett O’Hara’s voice was in my head and I was twelve years old again, lying in my mother’s bed watching Gone With The Wind. My mother. I should call my mother. I’d been recovering from a particularly horrendous bout of food poisoning. When she thought I was better she gave me apple juice and I vomited it back up, hot and thick. I haven’t drunk apple juice since. I should eat something. I need to eat. I need to call my mother. What will I tell her? What the hell is that whistling sound?!
It was me. I was sucking air through what felt like a tiny hole in my throat and my long, laboured breaths were producing a sound not unlike nails on a chalkboard. I probably would have passed out had my stomach not growled so loudly that the sound actually startled me. I told myself, out loud, to get off the floor, then I scrambled my way back up the door frame and eventually wobbled my way to the kitchen like a fawn on brand new legs. I ate a piece of dry toast and went to bed, where I lay howling, till I fell asleep. I had never cried like that before. The sounds were guttural and animalistic, and I let them come.
The next morning, I went to a friend’s house to work on a script. We were on a deadline and I had no choice, but I was also thankful for the distraction. Several times that day I excused myself, vomited in his toilet, then got back to work. The day after that I got my hair cut, went to the bank and had a meeting at my publicist’s office. I was in shock and I knew it. But I decided that as long as I was still functioning I should get as much done as possible. I felt like I’d been stabbed and at any moment the knife might be pulled out, sending blood gushing everywhere and forcing me to deal with my injuries. Until then though, I would continue about my business—knife and all.
The third day was the charm. I actually felt myself go. People talk about hearts breaking all the time but I don’t know how many of them have felt their brain break. It’s an interesting sensation.
I packed a bag and got a taxi to the airport, where I marched up to the check-in desk in a headscarf and sunglasses, and asked for a one way ticket on the next flight to Ireland. I’d become a walking, talking, scarf-clad cliche.
By the time I landed in Dublin, I had become a jittery mess and agitated; I knew I couldn’t keep myself going for much longer. So the hour-long wait at passport control was a real fucking treat. When I got through the arrival gates and saw my mother waiting there for me, it took every shred of strength I had left not to collapse into her arms and allow myself to fall apart. As she approached me I held one hand out in front of my and looked her with a face that I hoped said, “I love you dearly, but for the love of God do not attempt to show me affection right now.” She took my case and walked me to her car in complete silence.
I stayed in Dublin for a week, where I spent every day on the sofa, with her next to me in an armchair. We talked endlessly about my failed relationship, and what would happen next. I refused to simply wait, and let things unfold, I insisted on speculating incessantly about every single aspect of it; why he left, whether he’d come back, if he was seeing someone else, if maybe we could be friends. She nodded at me and cried with me and most importantly, she prevented me from calling him.
I couldn’t eat. I was hungry, but the physical act of swallowing food made me gag. She fed me food in tiny portions; segments of sausage on my niece’s plastic Spider-Man plate, sandwiches cut into four triangles—the deal was she’d eat two if I ate two. I was a child again. She even put sugar in my tea, something I gave up years ago. Anything to get calories into me.
Phone calls were made. Family members were notified. Condolences were offered. A break-up is like a death without a funeral.
At night, I took sleeping pills, which had been prescribed to my mother after a surgery last winter to remove one of her kidneys. I remember the night she called me; I was stood in the frozen food aisle of a Tesco Metro with a packet of peas in one hand and my phone in the other. She rambled on at length about hospitals and positive thinking and whether or not she’d be fit to cook Christmas dinner, and all I had actually heard were the words "tumour" and "malignant".
“Are we talking about the C word here?” I asked.
“Cunt!?” she bellowed. She hates that word.
“No,” I said, “The other one.”
“Oh,” she replied, much more quietly, “Yes, love. We are.”
After we hung up I stood a while longer, till I could no longer feel my hand, then I put back the bag of peas, abandoned the basket of food by my feet and had wine for dinner instead.
I came home for the Christmas holidays and nursed her better and in a strange, sick way I was thankful I’d had the chance to do that, to preemptively make up for the care she was giving me now.
I probably shouldn’t have taken those pills, but sleep would not come without them and I was so desperate for it. Every time I closed my eyes I was met with a flurry of memories that seemed to lash against the inside of my head. They came to me, unbidden; the good and the bad ones, the significant, the mundane, and among the debris I saw fragments of a life I might have lived. If I’d just done this. If I’d just said that. I played out every scenario, every what if, a hundred times and more and I never reached a solution. Because there was none. Every morning, somewhere between dreaming and waking, the blurry memory of what had happened slid into focus and I cried anew for what I’d lost.
One night, my pain became palpable. My emotions were manifesting as real, physical pain. I lay in bed, hands on my chest in some sort of weird attempt to grab onto my own heart and hold it together. I was sure that it was literally ripping apart inside me. How else could it possibly hurt this much? My mind, too, felt torn. Pieces of it were coming away and I wondered if I would ever get them back. My body moved about as though independent of me, fists clenching, feet scraping against the sheets, all of me, every inch, incapable of rest.
Somewhere, deep in that night, the pain consumed me. The thought of being happy again was inconceivable. And even though all I wanted was to sleep, the thought of waking up, still feeling this way, was torturous. I thought about the pills then, in my mother’s room; there was a whole bottle of them in her dresser drawer. I thought about going in there, returning to my bed with them and swallowing every last one. I walked through it in my mind again and again. But when I played it through to the grim conclusion—her finding me in the morning—I knew her grief would be infinitely worse than whatever I was feeling now. And so I prayed. Not to God—I don’t believe in God—I prayed to myself. I begged myself to just get me through this night. I told myself that I would be good, I would be strong, and I would be kind to myself, if I could just get through this night.
Sleep found me. And in the morning the fever had broken.
In the days that followed I thought about grief; how nothing and nobody can prepare you for it. People tell you their stories but until you experience it for yourself you can’t possibly understand. There’s no going around it. Or under or over it. You’ve got to go through it. It will hit you in waves so massive you are smacked against the shore. It will permeate the very fabric of your life, so that everything you do is stained by it; every moment, good or bad, is seeped in sadness for a while. Even the nice moments, the achievements and successes, are tinged with the knowledge that someone or something is missing. And the first time that you smile, or laugh, you catch yourself, because happiness feels so unfamiliar.
I thought too, how like an addict I had been, how similar this was to some kind of detox. I wondered how much of the feeling of love is chemicals and cravings and dependency, and how much of the act of love is habit.
Eventually, loving someone becomes muscle memory. You don’t even notice it happening. One day you realise you’ve stopped living together and started existing near to one another. The path you once walked side by side has become two paths, which twist and wind their way around each other, occasionally intersecting long enough for a conversation full of clunky exposition that reveals nothing about the characters. You ask what time the other will be home from work, what they fancy for dinner, if they’ve remembered so and so’s birthday tomorrow. They tell you about their day with no humour or anecdotes, just a list of events in chronological order. You cook for two, buy toilet roll for two, book train tickets, sign cards and RSVP for two. Your autopilot gets set to two.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, in fact, I think there’s something kind of beautiful about it; your mind and body adapting so deftly to the presence of another person that the mingling of two lives, two stories, two sets of thoughts and beliefs, feels effortless. How you behave, how you think, the choices you make, are all subconsciously affected by how they will affect your significant other. It’s possible for someone to occupy a space in your life for so long and in such a specific way, that their absence creates a very real sense that a part of you is missing. It is indeed beautiful. But when that’s all there is, it’s not enough.
I’d like to tell you there was an inciting incident, a reason we ceased to function as a couple, but it was more like a slow, creeping disdain. In the end, habit was all we had left, and I came to realise that what I’d lost, was lost a long time ago. For almost two years our relationship had been the romantic equivalent of a zombie—a walking, talking, undead imitation of us—and it was finally being put to rest.