I knew it was coming before he walked through my door. For one week I’d been waiting. I tried to pretend our fate lay in my hands too, but of course I knew better. Max was my first real boyfriend in ages and I would have done anything to keep him.
During our sanctioned week-long break, which was the longest we’d been apart for five months, I tried to distract myself by eating pasta in Little Italy, visiting the Dali exhibit at the MoMA, and chatting with sassy gay men at a housewarming party. But every night was a struggle. I wanted so badly just to hear Max’s voice. He had wanted this break, but I had been the one to set it in motion, trying desperately to please him.
Finally, after the week was nearly over, Max called to say he would come over the next night so we could “talk.” He said this reassuringly, sounding optimistic. Still, I chewed my friend Hannah’s ear with worries about what Max might say. Her mantra of “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine” almost convinced me to calm down. After she left, I cleaned my apartment, dressed carefully, lit a candle, chose a CD, and still had time to read (or at least stare at a book) before Max arrived. I had decided to wear chunky heels—four years old and inherited from a friend—with slightly flared jeans, since he liked it when I tried to dress up. Sometimes I wore my heels when we fucked against the wall.
Max walked in just like any other evening, except this time he barely looked at me. He pulled off his sweater and motioned for me to sit across from him at my kitchen table. We had fucked on that table too, more than once. We had fucked in every corner of the apartment: floor, shower, wooden chairs, little red couch, and obviously the mattress. Sex was our thing; it’s what we, as a couple, were good at.
Our chemistry was obvious when I first turned toward him in the half-light of a music venue. It was April then, and his sneakers looked very, very white. He wore a fleece jacket, which he let me wear, and too-loose jeans. I, on the other hand, wore a Crow t-shirt, jean skirt, duct-taped belt, and Doc Martens. By my usual standards, Max wasn’t my type: short-haired, tattoo-free, hygienic, edging on mainstream, and look at those sneakers! But after several hours passed, our mutual friend, Melissa, shoved a whiskey sour in my hand and Max and I eased into a kiss. I returned his fleece and made sure he had my number, then floated back to my neighborhood with my oldest friend. We sat in a booth at the Washington Square Diner and I couldn’t stop smiling, giggling, and gushing, even though I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Much to my astonishment, Max asked me to be his girlfriend on our second date, right after we had sex for the first time. Our relationship flowed outward like a summertime dream: riding waves at the shore, walking through summer storms, and lots of sweaty sex. A party on a rooftop; a night at a hookah bar; a shower of fireworks on the Fourth of July; meeting each other’s mothers; and countless rides on the 2 train between 14th Street and Church Ave. I loved kissing him, fucking him, waking up next to him, lounging on his or my couch to smoke pot. I loved the scent of his cigarettes; the way those puffy brown eyes stared into mine when he was “just looking;” the way he introduced me to his friends; the way he ordered for me at restaurants and always made sure his fridge was stocked with veggie burgers. An old-fashioned modern romance.
But now it was September and reality had settled in. Max held my hand across the table like a doctor who knew I had a month left to live. I wanted to believe he still wanted me and would fight to keep me, if not forever than at least until winter, until our birthdays unfolded two weeks apart, until a year had passed and we could celebrate our love by returning to the venue where we first said hello, where we discussed migraines and music and how we both knew Melissa, where we kissed amid sips of whiskey sour.
“We need to break up.”
There they were: the words I feared most. The words Hannah had said wouldn’t come. The words I had wanted to protect myself against from the start. Max’s face looked broken, as if I had been the one to drop those words into the air. My tears came quicker than ever before; they erupted out of me, taking us both by surprise.
I thought back to the first time he’d asked the make-it-or-break-it question: “Are you in love with me?” It was mid-July then and he’d said it softly, serious, as we lay in bed. Even now, I see that moment in black and white. I had thought about it for a few seconds, then answered, “Maybe. I have a hard time defining that, though.” Love was an amorphous creature, indefinable except by comparison. What is or isn’t love to me might not exist for someone else, and to be in love versus to love further complicates the foggy definition. Max looked away and said, “Fair enough.” And then I cried, my subdermal layers of disappointment—the steady ache of failed relationships—pushing to the surface. The fear of a break up had dug in its claws. “Amy, Amy, Amy…I’m right here,” he’d said, his eyelashes kissing my cheeks.
Two weeks later, at the end of July, we lay side by side again when he asked, “Do you love me?” I nodded. Then, “Are you in love with me?” This time I said yes, oh so quietly. He looked at me and said, “I’m not sure where I’m at with that, but I do know that I love you.” I cried like my heart was on fire and I needed to put out the flames. One of those layers of pain began to break, like solidified sand loosening after centuries of holding strong. “I was hoping for a smile,” he’d said, but I explained that this was a good sort of cry. He said “I love you” fifteen more times, whisking it into my heart. I wanted to melt or die or both. I wanted to lock the moment in a snowglobe and live within its falling flakes. We started kissing like we couldn’t contain ourselves, and made love until four in the morning. We were twenty-four and twenty-five, and I began to foresee a future.
About a month later, though, Max set the record straight: “You’re in love with me, and I’m not in love with you.” Another gem came a week or so after: “You can’t keep waiting for me to fall in love with you.” I had to wipe out the haze of what I’d thought was true love and access the stone-cold facts. Max was confused, stubborn, and not always kind. He prioritized being a good “adult” over being a good boyfriend. There was that subway ride where we didn’t speak or acknowledge the other’s presence. There were all those times he’d criticized my clothes, tastes, and habits, my love of cartwheels and Winnie the Pooh underwear. There was the night he went out dancing with Melissa, and the night she slept in his bed. There was the breakfast in his mother’s neighborhood when he first mentioned the idea of a break; I’d choked down terrible pancakes, then locked myself in the bathroom to cry. There was the night he cuffed my hands to his headboard and fucked me like he didn’t care.
Now he moved with me from room to room as I rocked up and down, sobbing. The distance between our bodies seemed to widen the more he consoled me. I gasped for breath: chest tight, breaths ragged, throat clogged, nose dripping. All I could spit out was “I’m so sad right now” in total disbelief. Why is this happening? I wanted to scream. Why can’t you just love me? What do I have to do?
I knew he had been guarded from the start, with walls carefully built and expectations too high. I knew I was better at taking risks, expressing myself, and being ready and willing for love to do its thing. Even if I cried too much and called too often, even if I began to “depend” on him, even if I overthought and over-spoke and fell prey to my deepest fears, even if I was a broken girl who punished herself and took too many pills, a girl with a million ideas spinning restlessly when she tried to sleep…couldn’t he still love me?
He kissed me intermittently during the long and painful breakup. I was humiliated about my hysterics, but every time I began to calm down, they started back up again. “You have to promise me that you’re not going to hurt yourself,” Max said. “Can you call someone to come over?” I felt immediately defensive, but I agreed to call Hannah.
I didn’t want him to leave; I knew that once he did, it would really be over. I wanted to find a way to reel him back, to redo the fragile moments that somehow undid us, to recreate the girl I’d become. This was the boy who floated sheets above my body, who blow-dried my hair and carried me to bed, who placed a cold compress to my aching head, who told me I was beautiful, who protected me during a rowdy show, who brushed the sand off my feet, who rubbed a period stain out of my skirt with a toothbrush, and who bought Converse sneakers because he knew how much I hated those horrible white shoes. This was the boy who broke me.
Max did leave, and I sank to the floor. He’d said it wasn’t me; it wasn’t any one thing I did or didn’t do. He said he was the one who was lost…but how else could I take it? I had to admit that our entire relationship, and our break up too, was conventional and perhaps cliché. We hadn’t connected on anything substantial, other than sex. Our bodies were made for each other, but nothing else was.
Hannah returned to my apartment ten minutes later, a bag of sleeping clothes in tow. She took me in her arms and told me she was sorry. Eventually, my sobs subsided, but every time I used the bathroom, they flowed out anew. Hannah prepared to sleep on my red couch and decided to take me to FAO Schwartz the next day. But first, at one in the morning, we walked to the Washington Square Diner together, where I choked down the pancakes I’d ordered alone.
Amy Dupcak‘s short stories have appeared in Fringe, Slush Pile, Broken Pencil, Cavalier Literary Couture, Storyteller, and on the cover of The Dirty Napkin. She was a regular contributor of short fiction for Runaway Parade, and one of her stories was published in their print anthology. Her creative nonfiction is in the hand-bound issue of Sonora Review and also in Phoebe Journal. She currently teaches creative writing workshops to kids and teens at Writopia Lab.