She looks up from moving the yogurt from her cart to the check-out counter, and in a tone that can only be described as polite surprise begins, “Ben. Hi.”
Those same two words are how it started six years ago. We met at the café at Grover Park for drinks—a blind date arranged by mutual friends. Nancy and Jim, who would later self-anoint themselves “matchmaker extraordinaires,” had shown us pictures of each other so we knew whom to look for at the restaurant. Several minutes early, I was futzing with my phone, reading and re-reading the description of Meghan that Jim provided me. Face buried in my phone, she noticed me before I noticed her.
Those same two words, incidentally, began the last conversation we had as a couple.
“How are you?” I ask as I push my cart in the check-out aisle after her cart. This time, I noticed her before she noticed me—I think, though I cannot discount the possibility that she had seen me and pretended not to notice. Upon pushing my cart into this check-out lane, I briefly considered trying to pull back before Meghan saw but worried that getting caught doing so would result in an even more uncomfortable situation. Now, we’re stuck together between a torso-high shelf of candy on one side and one of gum on the other.
That first date started tepidly—both fighting nerves and jitters, the conversation was uneasy. Like tennis players rallying back-and-forth, we politely and continually asked each other questions, hoping one would lead to a more engaging discussion. Nancy and Jim provided each of us with several talking points, though at the time we didn’t realize the other had them, too. We later admitted to referencing those talking points frequently in our barrage of questioning. That, and asking the other questions was a tactic to keep the other engaged—as long as they are talking, they are probably contented.
Only when we arrived at the topic of how we had met Nancy and Jim did the conversation become more fluid and easy. The “matchmaker extraordinaires” were instrumental in providing fodder for discussion, just not in the ways they imagined.
She fishes the frozen peas from the bottom of her shopping cart and places them on the check-out conveyor belt. “I’m doing well. Keeping busy, but I’m good.”
And it was good. Great actually. From there, we drank and talked late into the night. Only when the bartender announced “last call,” did we realize how late it was. I walked her home under the trees swaying gently in the soft October breeze, leaves dancing and strewing their autumnal flavor. We thanked each other for a great time that evening and, though the moment was heavy with expectation, settled for a hug goodbye.
“And you?” she asks. I notice she is wearing the same red sundress as she did the first time we kissed.
It was our third date, a Sunday afternoon stroll along Fitch Pond. We found a grassy knoll under great oak trees with golden leaves dancing in a brilliant display of color. I sat down first and, although she sat close to me, only nervously crept my arm behind her, proceeding conservatively as I didn’t want to risk an uncomfortably long walk to the car. She leaned in and rested her head on my shoulder. We sat there for minutes watching the water quietly sway over itself, the ripples glimmering in the warm sun. Eventually, when the moment seemed right, I asked, “may I kiss you?”
A big smile came across her face, but that smile quickly turned to a laugh, and soon she was nearly cracking up.
“What’s so funny?” I ask confused and embarrassed.
She shakes her head and cups her hand behind my head and pulls me in for a kiss. Initial surprise yields to gentle submission to the moment. I close my eyes and put my arms around her and pull her closer. Her curves fit nicely against my body. Only later did she confess she was laughing about my nervous approach. That moment marked the beginning of the best three and a half years of my life.
“Oh you know…” I start, unsure if I should try demure or triumphal. I settle for, “just doing errands today.” I nod to my cart as I begin unloading it onto the conveyor belt behind her groceries.
Increasingly frequent dates prompted questions from our friends about whether we were dating, to which we would coyly shrug. And frankly, we weren’t sure and didn’t really care—labels didn’t concern us. We enjoyed each other’s company and that’s all that mattered. Coordinated biweekly dates turned weekly and then we just assumed we’d hang out if and when we were both free.
I watch the check-out lady straighten the folded contours of the barcode of a bag of frozen shrimp in front of the scanner. Meghan must see me watching as she says, “I’m making a shrimp scampi for several friends tonight.”
Shrimp scampi. We officially decided we were in a relationship while making shrimp scampi. We were in her kitchen, diligently preparing our meal for the night, talking but primarily focused on our respective tasks: me peeling shrimp, her mincing garlic. I do not remember what we were discussing—that’s how little attention we devoted to the conversation—but with that same half-focus I accidentally said the word “girlfriend.” As if a DJ had abruptly halted a track, we both freeze, abundantly aware of what had accidentally come from my mouth.
She looks at me, eyes wide. “Did you just say?”
“Uh,” I stammer.
Terror or perhaps surprise on her face transforms into an affable smile. “Well, I guess we are boyfriend and girlfriend, so…”
I laugh and pull her in for a kiss.
For the following three years, we were inseparable.
“Oh that’ll be fun,” I say about the shrimp scampi. Perhaps I’m imagining, but I swear that, just for one moment, I get a hint of her vanilla conditioner, the same I used to breathe in, the same that would intoxicate me as we held each other in bed and I kissed her mane of blond hair.
I have dated since Meghan, but none of the prospects were promising. “Starting over” is, in many ways, disorienting after a longtime relationship rich with triumphs, defeats, vacations, fights, and heartfelt conversations. Small talk conversations on first dates feel trivial and, frankly, boring after knowing every intimate detail about a partner. Rome was not built in a day, and the same can be said about relationships.
Sleeping together were some of my favorite nights—the intercourse was great, yes, but I more so appreciated the intimacy, holding each other and confessing our hopes and dreams and secrets and hurts. I’d show up to work in the morning useless and exhausted. Although my face the next day would be contorted and wrinkled from lack of sleep, internally I’d be smiling widely with fond memories of the night prior and excitement for the next night I could hold her close. That period in our relationship had the feel of us being two starry-eyed lovers, the kind dreamed up by poets and muses.
“Any big trips planned for the summer?” she asks.
Now single, my plans are no longer entwined with a partner’s. At some point in our relationship, all planning involved the other. Weddings and parties naturally, but soon vacation planning and trips to meet the family at the holidays. I suppose it was just expected that we’d do everything together.
This mindset also spilled over into our life planning. First jokingly, then not-so-jokingly, we discussed a future together in the suburbs. I expected we would wed in the forthcoming years. I believe she felt similarly but we never said so aloud to each other.
“Eh, nothing major. We’ll see,” I reply.
The check-out lady, now about halfway through Meghan’s groceries, moves the eggs across the scanner, then the rice. We still have a couple of minutes to go still. It’s not that we are adversarial—but what is there to say in a moment like this? At a grocery check-out line? We promised to be friends when we broke up two and a half years prior. Weekly text check-in messages became monthly became bi-monthly and then discontinued. She wished me a happy birthday on social media the first year, but not this year. I wonder if she forgot. When she didn’t wish me a happy birthday, I didn’t for her.
Moving in together was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end. After two years of dating, we decided to take our relationship “to the next level.” Everything seemed too perfect not to—both our leases were ending, and after a summer of romancing and a trip to Italy, we were beyond smitten. Besides, we slept over at each other’s houses frequently enough that, for all intents and purposes, we already were living together. When we first began dating, she or I would stay over at the other’s house once weekly but, perhaps a year into the relationship, sleeping at separate apartments became the exception rather than the rule.
But to this day, I still cannot identify why our relationship deteriorated so severely. We had many minor issues, sure, but none were manifestly threatening to our relationship. Perhaps the compilation of minor issues proved untenable or moving in together legitimized our relationship in a way that was uncomfortable. I don’t know. I thought about it a lot during the final months of and after our relationship. But as time passed, I thought about it less and less—what was the point.
“So how’s…” I begin, unsure of what to say. I consider asking about Nick, her new boyfriend—I have seen him with his arm around her on social media. She looks happy, flashing the same bright smile that she used to in pictures with me. But asking about Nick would likely seem incendiary or passive-aggressive or poor form. “So how’s work?”
I frequently blamed work for relationship trouble. We both did. But I think if we were completely truthful with ourselves, work was an easy excuse, a culprit for which to blame our frustrations and relationship troubles. But being honest with each other and oneself is difficult—admitting that we had problems was a painful reality. Not acknowledging the problems in our relationship was a means to avoid giving them credibility and/or diminish its existence. So by not admitting our problems or pretending they did not exist, we avoided an unfortunate truth until, perhaps, they would cease to exist.
But the problems did not go away, and work continued to be the culprit for everything that was wrong between us. Our increased irritability, aloofness, and tiredness—all due to work, we’d say, not us.
“Danny left to pursue new opportunities and Karen is on maternity leave, so the rest of us are swamped as they look for a replacement.”
Danny and Karen. Her two friends that I once unloaded on in a drunken stupor. I was with Meghan at a party of her coworkers after a tense week with her. Well, the entirety of our last year together was tense. That party, we projected positivity and conveyed a sense that nothing was wrong with us—we always did in public—but doing so was exhausting. That night, alcohol overcame my better senses as I drank so much that I didn’t realize how inebriated I was becoming, and thus drank more.
“What are you doing?” she snapped in an exasperated whisper, referring to me mixing myself another cocktail.”
“What?” I say mockingly.
“That’s your 7th drink and we’ve been here for less than two hours.”
“8th, but who’s counting.” I joke. I knew she was nervous that I would embarrass her, but a combination of drunkenness and frustration left me indifferent.
We sat on chairs and couches in a circle late into the night. I said little as I sipped on cocktails. When nobody was looking, Meghan would shoot me wide-eyed, menacing looks from across the circle, both about my non-sociability and drunkenness.
As the night grew late, her coworkers one-by-one left—eventually only Danny, Karen, Meghan, and I remained. I felt very drunk at this point—my face was numb and I felt as if I melted into the sofa.
At one point, after barely listening, I tune back into the conversation where Danny and Karen were venting about their work. From there, I unloaded on them. Truthfully, I have only the vaguest memories of what I said. But as it was explained to me, I delivered an expletive-laden tirade lambasting them for the trivialities of their complaints.
My clearest memory of that night is the sudden moment of clarity and regret immediately after my rant. I look around, everyone in the room is staring at me in disbelief. Tears are forming in Meghan’s eyes; Karen has a bewildered, terrified countenance; and Danny bears an aggressive, scornful scowl.
In a moment of painful embarrassment, I take a deep breath. “I’m so sorry. I forget myself sometimes,” I say calmly. “I’m so sorry, I should go.” A crying Meghan escorts me to our ride home.
The next morning, I apologized profusely to a guarded and teary-eyed Meghan. She said she accepted my apology—she knew I felt remorseful and what more could I say. Nonetheless, she was still hurt and not ready to act as if everything was normal.
I also called each of Danny and Karen to apologize. They accepted my apology.
“Yikes, sounds brutal.”
The last two months of our relationship included many difficult conversations, big and small. We discussed every grievance we had in our relationship, seeking resolutions and understanding that would bring us back to the early, happy part of our relationship. Conversations were typically diplomatic and civil, but uncomfortable nonetheless. We would talk and talk and talk, but differences in ideology remained. “Perhaps we just have to agree to disagree,” we’d say. Internally, we both did the calculus, trying to determine what problems we would just have to live with, and which were breaking points.
The check-out lady moves the last of Meghan’s items across the scanner, a gallon of milk.
I remember the evening distinctly. When I got back from work, Meghan was sitting in the kitchen. “Ben. Hi.”
“How are you? I ask.
“Can we talk?” she said. I already knew what that meant.
“Of course.” I sit down across the counter from her.
She exhales deeply.
“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it.”
She pauses and takes a deep breath before starting, “I think we should…” another deep breath. “I think we should break up.”
“I do, too.”
And that was it. Three and a half years. Over.
We both knew this moment was coming–if anything I think there was a tacit understanding that it was a game of chicken to see who would say it first–but that did not prepare us for saying the words aloud. There was not much left to say after this. We discussed logistics—who would move out and when, etc. From there, we said our goodbyes and promised to stay in contact. At the end of the conversation, when there was nothing left to discuss, she walked out the door to stay at a friend’s apartment. “Ben. Bye.”
“Well,” she begins, pausing ever-so-slightly as she pays the check-out lady. I am unsure if it is an invitation to say something, anything. But before I can decide, she finishes, “it was great to see you.”
“Yea, likewise. Take care.”
Meghan places her bags in the cart and walks towards the door. The check-out lady begins moving my items across the scanner. Bread, cheese, vegetables.
An entire relationship reduced to small talk conversation.
Her bright smile.
Laughing together until our stomachs hurt.
The nights when we’d hold each other until the morning light.
Her consoling me when my childhood best friend died.
Waking up in the morning and smiling at each other.
Loving each other.
“Cash or credit?” the check-out lady asks.
“Um,” I begin, but I am looking at the door to where Meghan just left.
“Can you excuse me one second,” I say as I begin to run to the door.
“Excuse me!” the check-out lady calls to me but I pay no heed. I run outside to the parking lot to find Meghan. I don’t know what I’m going to say or do, but I have to say something. Frantically, I run along the length of the parking lot, looking down each row of cars looking for Meghan. I don’t see her so I run back along the length of the lot. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see her sedan turning out of the parking lot and drive down the street.