Last night, I walked towards the street of the home where we used to live. I got as far as the curb across from our stoop, then had to sit down, had to marvel at the sight of it. Not praising what once was, but what stands now. Summer Street had been under construction the entirety of the two years we lived there, but now, it’s done. No more pistons. No trucks. No gravel thrown carelessly across the intersection. No more construction workers shouting directions over whirls of machinery. No beeping machines. What was once a cavernous hole, ten feet deep in the middle of the road, has been filled. All cracks and fissures have been smoothed over with tar, covering any ripple, any past sign of building pressure. No more gnats. Instead, white lines painted thick and steady and sure, divided the road neatly into lanes, so everyone will know exactly who’s coming, who’s going. We never had direction like that. Half the time, we leapt across the street, just hoping for no-collision. When I left, one year and a half ago, I never thought I’d return.
I don’t know if you’ve visited our old driveway, the back-door with the small lot where we’d jump-rope or load in furniture. I don’t know because I don’t ask. I don’t ask because I don’t know what I’d do if the answer was yes or if the answer was no, which is to say: If given the choice, I don’t want to know how much we mattered to you, rather than learn your measuring is more or less than I’ve felt.
After I left that August, all I knew was that I wanted to give you and me the space we needed. I’d have given us each a separate world if I could have. If I had, I believe then, then we’d have healed, been less bad-knee or wobbly stanced. We’d have time to become entirely anew. For five years, we shared all–grad school, homes, friendships, awkward-family-holiday-dinners, the same tables that we sat at when we didn’t want more of it, or when we hungered for more and could tell by the look in each other’s eyes–and I had the nerve to ask for it to end. Initially, we both thought it’d be ok, that we’d still go on adventures as best friends and you’d still invite me to game night; but, as time passed, as the hurt settled in, we fractured. We tried to move past it and just caused more splinters of bone, more unsettling. It didn’t help that I slept on the couch in the living room so you’d have to walk by me each night and day. How could we possibly move on when we shared the same toilet paper, the same coffee grinder?
It had to end even more than it was ended. We needed to move out.
In October, it came time to move our things. We hadn’t even broken the old lease, per se, so, I, the leaver, took the responsibility for unwinding us from it (that may or may not have been ultimately awarded me after a drunken plea on Christmas over the phone to the building owner). I thought it was the right thing to do; but, soon I’d realize that this rightness, this imagined duty would become something different, a state of being that asked me, actually, to not-be, not-react, not-feel, just own all blame.
A note for the reader: I don’t think he ever meant to punish me, but I had never in my life felt more like a defendant. And I had done far, far crueler things to people I’ve also loved.
On the eve of moving out, we did not move boxes together. We did not sit on a bed and laugh about how the bathroom walls were once purple as Barney the dinosaur or sigh at the other lantern-style lamp that we never did manage to find a spot to hang. We did not give each other items to keep for one another or argue about who should really keep what. No, we did not get that because you weren’t there. Instead, that day was a day your friends (who were once also mine) took you to a corn-maze. The day is mostly a blur to me of blasting music as I cried on the bedroom floor I had to later clean alone, but I do remember this one strange sight. When you left, right before, you turned in the doorway and looked at me, and there was this look in your eye, not quite joy, but a kind of tiny vengeance at the thought of not having to touch a roll of paper towels, at letting me deal with the mess that in your mind I had created and thrusted upon you. It was as if somehow that was all you could focus on, could not even think to imagine that I, too, was not also living within the same muck, that, I, too, was losing what I thought once would be my life partner. I was naive enough to think that even within parting, we could have shared the work.
After the first month of living apart, all you wanted was to connect—I received the missed calls, emails about you learning how to bake, comments made drunkenly on my Facebook photos of us that I had to read in the AM and ask Facebook if they could please take them down so I would not have to do that too, laments to and from shared friends—and all I could say was nothing. See, the truth is, I was terrified of speaking to you. What if I said the wrong thing? Implied the wrong thing? How even more selfish it would be to bring hope or anger or desire or my own loneliness to you? I didn’t want to be the hook. I didn’t want you to be a gulping fish. I wanted us both to be unwavering and vast as oceans.
We did not become oceans. We were, after all, quite human. And it turned out, our new starts, our new apartments, would be not just in the same zip code but within city blocks, within stop-signs.
So, I decided, I’d try to split our city in half, into the yours and mines. I didn’t have your input so the rules weren’t quite fair, but I do believe even the act of trying was a justice in itself I gave you.
Each day, I’d walk onto my new street, Willow Avenue, ever so careful and cautious, looking out the corner of my eyes, so if I saw you far away I’d change course, thinking that’d be all it took to avoid you. But, some days I’d be too sleepy and forget this duty, and not see you until there you were right in front of me, all shuffling feet and quick exchanges. Those days were the hardest. Especially when we got to November, and snow had fallen early, and you were on a crutch because you had corrective surgery on your foot or hip, I cannot remember, but I do remember how you hopped and how much more effort it took you to get away from our run-in than I. Again, I had caused you more pain.
Dear reader, you know, in my life I never thought I’d pity ghosts, but, I do now. I mourn for those who are trapped as being no more than a web of stitched together and one-sided memory held by others. They’re not seen as a being, not thought of for what they have or haven’t become or what they did or didn’t do. Do you know that I heard a story about me and him from a friend and I tell you it’s the most I’ve been a ghost. About six months after our split, I heard a friend ran into him on the T at Davis Square and in the talkings of how’ve you been, he said: “Yanno, dumped, but it’s ok. I have a new girlfriend.” Oh, a new one. Oh, I am the old one? Oh, how transactional. Oh, how a thing of the past I’ve become.
If given the chance to leave you again, I’d wish that I made our city-split more official. I’d have asked for help from someone who knew a thing or two about devastation, or at the very least, leaving a human to their own devices, to help me adequately plan for how and where I am no longer able to go. Probably, I’d call Mephistopheles. I looked it up and it seems like he’d be the best kind of guy to get the job done right the first time. He’s also had practice at bargaining for his soul. No more half-trying, run-in’s, excuses and dartings. He’d be my devilish city-planner. He’d have made sure I succeeded. No matter the cost of it, it’d have been done right. I apologize that I did not do more right in my power.
I imagine that this sounds callous to talk about our split with an imaginative entity, but, I’d counter by saying that I’ve yet to resolve anything with you in reality, so, we all find our own comfort.
I’d counter again by saying: Honey, there’s no rule that the one that chooses to end a relationship has to shoulder more pain and guilt than those that are left. There is no bullet-point checklist on the courtesies of leaving someone, on the practicalities of splitting your own life and another’s in half. I know, because I looked for it. I really, really tried to find it. And I couldn’t. And at some point in the trying to find it for you, I really wanted to find myself. I got to this point that day I failed to see you ahead of time again and we chatted, briefly, mid-Spring, no crutch, no snow, a warmer kind of day entirely and I thought hey, this might be ok, and then, you pulled up your phone and asked me to look at your blocked numbers on it, and confirm if my number was listed there. Right then, I gave up on courtesy entirely.
But, enough reality, as we both were there and we both know how it went, right? We both remember how a couple days ago we ended up in the same coffee shop again and we both see but did not see each other as we sat tables away, sipping coffee, typing, as intimate and confiding as strangers.
Mephistopheles would be smart enough to text me his address, without any pretense, no Hi, no exclamation points, no, for the love of God, photos of dogs being dogs with captions with misspellings, just ADDRESS, and I’d go, knowing, that our work was serious business. I wouldn’t even have to charm him first, just mention his name, and then he’d find me. I’d go to his home and he’d be dressed like how I imagine a city-planner to dress, all skinny-tie and trousers, all suit jacket but rolled up sleeves. A coffee mug only ever have half-drank and blueprints so splattered across his office, his touch, that even his fingertips have a faint blue hue to them. Soon as I’d sit down, he’d wink at me, but not in a creepy way, in a shared-joke that only he and I–the soulless–can understand. He’d say he wanted to get real nitty gritty about our zoning conflicts, to define what is yours and what is rightfully mine, and any area in between those, can just yanno, go to him and his domain. It’d be a lot of sacrifice, but it’d be worth it to not have to shoulder any more of this freelance work of figuring out ownerships and claims and clauses.
Of course, I’d agree. I’d been so beaten down by then, that long year, I would have said yes to anything as long as I also had a bottle of wine in hand. (And in fact, in those past months, I did).
“To begin,” he’d say. “I need to know the extent of this break. What is the last time you remember seeing them? What was the reaction like? This is crucial, of course, to know how deeply this division has to go! Do tell me. Spare no details,” he’d say, his pupils lighting up with a hint of red as if it excited him, as if he fed off of these kinds of things.
OK, I’d stammer, then say, OH, and I’d tell him of New Years Eve 2018. I was outside of our local liquor store with a hometown friend of mine that you had also known for years (you remember, the one we once tried to hook up with your best friend so we could all live happily together forever) and we saw you coming out. Our eyes met. My hand lifted and I was midway to saying “Ha” and you ran. Before I could even finish wishing you a Happy New Year, as if, I’m assuming, my wishes are not wishful, not needed, you left.
“Ah,” he’d say. “What way did he run? Like how quickly,” he added, picking up a pencil and furiously jotting down details mid-smirk.
Well, I’d say. Like his life depended on it. I’d force a smile and push some strands of hair behind my ear.
He’d lean over his desk, as if I was about to share a secret than no one else could hear or know, as if he’d be the first planner to crack a code that no other planner of cities has—how to mend what’s torn by hearts—and said, “How strange.”
I wouldn’t argue that point, as yes, it is strange, but the next point would get tricky. See he’d of course bring up the one topic I’ve been avoiding and tend to avoid–the price of it–and we’d have to settle on some kind of payment. I would shuffle my feet and avoid his eyes and say I’d be willing to give up more of my spots and even give them over to him if it helped. “Well,” he’d say, leaning back into his office chair, slinging his feet up onto his desk, “depends on how much you want to give away.”
This is probably the part where the demon-friend thing would get a little less fun on my end, as I’d have to take account of what else I was willing to lose. Hours would go by in that musky office before I even speak, until I finally admit, “I just want some ease. Give it to me. I’ll give you what you want.”
“Ok,” he’d say. “I can work with that.”
He’d clap his hands and suddenly my jaw unhinges and words are spouting out of me, as if they were awaiting his command, as if they’ve been built up in me for days, for months. He writes down each one and I don’t even have time to correct him because I cannot stop speaking them aloud before I caution or think of how it could sound to you, old lover of mine.
“I have returned all his t-shirts I used for PJ’s,” I’m saying at some point. “Just left one he forgot to get on a chair in his kung-fu studio and ran out, I’m sure you could grab that and he won’t even notice.”
He’d stop me there with a flick of his hand and say, “Nope. You can’t give what’s not yours away. Just stick with the shared stuff,” he’d add, eyes gleaming.
“OK,” I’d say, “well, I gave him martial arts? I told him that he could do kung-fu and encouraged him to try and now he’s an assistant instructor but that was always my thing, really. I’ve done martial arts for way over 16 years and there he is now, six or so years in, always giving his opinion on it and that’s not—” The demon’s hand would lift, stopping me. “OK,” I’d say, “not concrete enough. That’s fair.”
“What are some actual spots you’d give up, give to him and me?”
“Well, I would give up my favorite comic book store, Comicazi, where I bought my first trade and where the first woman who asked me what kind of comics I like now works there as a manager but who used to work with me as a host at a bar that I waitressed at, but, it can be his or yours or whatever, because his kung-fu studio is across the street so he’d stop in more often than I,” I’d say.
“Yes,” the demon would say, or Mephi as I call him by this point. “More.”
“Um. Well. There was always Diesel,” I’d sigh, scrunching my toes in my shoes, “that was where we first met. Actually I went there all the time too before and even had a first date there too, but, there was just one night before bartending that I went there to get espresso and he smiled and was cute so I gave him a comic with my number on it, and then, he’d always get my coffee for my shifts, so, take it.”
“Ah,” Mephi would say, sighing like my words are a puff of a much needed cigarette.
“And while we’re at it,” I’d add, not noticing how Mephi would grin deeper, really getting a kick out of this whole thing, “They have these maple-glazed scones he loved so I would always get one to split with him but I never really liked them, because they’re too sweet and would hurt my teeth. Take them! Um, and you know, I guess The Somerville Theatre? . . . where, yes, we went to many movies together, that he called films and not movies which is just annoying because who says films unless they’re employed by Sundance?…but also, for the record, where I worked for that summer before we moved in together, but also the same one that he stayed with me because he couldn’t find a place to live at the time and was between apartments, and it was sort of a trial-run to see how we could live together. I should have seen the ending then with how often we clashed when sharing places. Within a day, he accidentally broke my closet door, and couldn’t fix it so I came home to a door, on my bed, and I had to learn how to screw a door back into hinges, and he complained that he was useless and so there I was trying to fix a door and also fix whatever had broken in him some time a long time ago and he had only ever half repaired himself.”
“Yes,” Mephi would say, urgining me onward, pushing down the guilt from my throat. “What else you got, Cass. I think you’re holding back. Don’t worry, I won’t call you anything but your name.”
“Chinatown, where I lived for a year in the first year I moved to Boston, and befriended the bakery beneath my apartment, can go to you and him or whomever because one time in the end of summer, our last real date, we saw a Jackie Chan movie there on the block. My local bookstore? The place where I met the performer Amanda Palmer and had the gall to ask her to sign a bookmark for him, sure, ok, it can be his, because he always love her and we saw her perform in NYC together with Neil Gaiman and they were so very much in love, and maybe they’d return to the bookstore (though they live in New York now). Do you think they’d ever return there?” I’d ask, afraid of losing that chance too.
“Who ever knows what people are capable of?” Mephi would say. “But it seems like you have quite a few more thoughts left in you and my pen is running out of ink, so maybe, you can be a doll and keep on speaking, ok?” And before I could snap at him for calling me a doll, the words would flow harder, an unobstructed dam, a babbling brook turned furious waterfall, and how I’d be crashing.
“Fine! My legacy games with my character cards that you, I mean, he, plays now without me in our city, and posts about on Instagram, sure, OK! My writing group because I thought it’d be easier to leave it than deal with the blows that would come if I stayed, that it’d make more sense to willingly give up that community and keep it as a safe harbor for him. My PlayStation account that can’t be unmatched from my Gmail so I see literally every game he buys with our old PlayStation 4, which apparently is a lot of Games of Thrones! And I’m guessing, also, with what he used to drink which would be sips of stouts from local breweries with waffle fries, fine. Give me a raw potato anyday! I’m Irish!”
He’d laugh, full-bellied, encouraging me to divulge further. “Oh, please, don’t stop!”
“Christopher’s on Mass Ave.,” I’d say, somehow sweating at this point. “Ugh, fucking Christopher’s, the place my Taekwondo team would go after practice, or for end of the year parties, but he took to, as a place of quietness that he could open up a book and drink a pint, and said the word “a pint” as if his one semester in Ireland suddenly makes him European, so now I’ll give up there and buffalo cauliflower and the word pint! Fun fact, it was also that same place where when he told me I needed to make more time for friends, I went, with friends, and there, with friends, he’d repeatedly text me, as if he felt left out. ANYWAYS, I found a new spot with FRIED GREEN TOMATOES WHICH ARE WAY BETTER. I almost forgot!” I’d scream.
“Old time mysteries with that Hitchcock drawl, that ya’see, here? That aw-huh, yeah, doll. Oh, but let’s go deeper. I will give up my gall. My guts. My right to anger. My assumptions and worries that were spun up in me for years as I had to stomach and bargain with myself each and every time we went out to brunch with your friends. Oh, how I never felt like I truly fit in with them—the software designer, the Venture Capitalist, the coder—could navigate the world in a way that I, the bartender turned non-profit worker could not and how I, unlike you, did not want to pretend I did.”
Please continue, he’d say. He’d be so enraptured with me, too enraptured, and I’d know, I’d know then, that this was the plan all along for me, to get me to my own unraveling, and to satiate his joy at witnessing my struggle, my pain. But, I would not show that knowing.
It’d feel so good to unleash, unplan, unlearn all politeness I’ve imposed upon myself, all shoulds and can’t say’s, and I’d give into it. I’d unburden myself for the first time for myself without guilt.
“Oh, I can give you so much more sacrifice,” I’d say, “Alden & Harlow.”
“But Cass, isn’t that your favorite place to eat?” He’d ask, using his thumbnail to pick out spinach from his teeth.
“Yeah, it was. It was my favorite place to eat in Cambridge, and now it can be his. I know it was mine, but I can see it being debated, because, sure, we brunched there with his friends, but also, there was that one time I hosted a birthday dinner for his ex. We fought a lot about her, particularly after she moved to this city, our city, and took him out to dinner and asked him to dump me so they could date again. He had the courtesy to say no, but he still maintained friendship. And so, I had the courtesy too to extend it, even if it caused me pain, even if there was that time where I confided in her that if I had made enough money I’d get Simon a proper sword. And then, the next holiday, around his dinner table, all of us sat, unwrapping gifts, and there, there she was smiling, and there, there he was exclaiming, as he opened a box that contained a sword I’d never have been able to buy him myself. And I, I was foolish enough to have made her a hand-made gift. I was foolish enough to eat at her table, to buy her books she’d never read, to have her read my tarot cards and as I leave her house turn around quickly and see her face as I left, a moment before she could reconfigure it, and how her eyes smoldered at me. I was foolish once to tell her how I knew she tried to break us up in a rush of breath and we were at Diesel and she looked at the ground unable to keep my eye contact.
“I was foolish once and many times to text her for advice on how to deal with Simon when we fought. I was foolish once to call her friend. I was foolish once to cook for her. I was foolish twice to trust her. I was drunk once on a rooftop and listened to her spite as a friend had to pull me away from her as she could see how much she wanted to destroy me, not for me, but to have him, which, it’s always been about for her. It doesn’t even matter who I was to her as she’d have acted the exact same. And he, he never would have said goodbye to her as he believed she needed him and he, he so desperately needed to be needed that even if it made me uncomfortable, I did not have a choice otherwise and my want of one, well, it made me selfish or jealous. Even after years, when I still felt my hair raise at the back of my neck when seeing her, I was still told by him that I was being silly, that they were just friends. Do you know, Mephi, that they date now? That it only took a matter of months for them after our split to begin again? Do you know how many years I stood on my tip-toes, I bit my tongue, that I had to unravel the knots in my own stomach just to be able to stand beside him? Do you want those too? My tongue? My knots of intestines? My lips? My tip-toes, calloused and bruised, but still, willing?”
At this point, somehow, I’d be on my back. The room would be spinning or have spun, and the up would now be definitely down. Mephi would be standing above me and my words would still be flowing out in whisps, in big gulps of air that Mephi would then suck into his lungs, like that scene in Hocus Pocus where all the witches are feeding on youth, but he, he would be feeding on my pain.
“My patience,” I’d still be speaking, almost done of all words, but giving in to the sweet relief of releasing, draining myself of the pressure I had been under for so, so long, “Can we just give you all of that? My love that you can rename whatever you think fits it now. That thing we’d do when either one of us were stressed. When either of us would enter the apartment frazzled and instead of talking about our day, we’d go straight to the bed, and ask the other to lie on top of us. It’d soothe us, as if we demanded to be crushed by the weight of us before ever finding the right words to speak. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even if I watched it when it originally aired on the WB because we watched so many together, because we had so many analogies of our experiences from it, because you so deeply wanted to be Angel and I, I did not understand it. How I, as fatherless as Buffy, wanted to fight for something larger, that united people, that put aside scorn or judgement and let people have second chances, and you never understood that. I give to you any memory you have of my father. He won’t remember you now. His memory is a lot worse than you remember. He doesn’t even ask about you anymore. So, please, take that too, that image of being a good son-in-law to the man who won’t remember you, in the last ages he could build memory, in the last years he could have walked me down the aisle. We both knew, we, us, we weren’t built for aisles.”
Mephi would still be sucking this all in, getting all that he could from me. I thought he’d be wanting to draw up a plan for the city, but really, his plan was much larger than mine ever could be.
He never intended to draw lines of where I could or couldn’t go. No, he did not have that oversight, or power, or patience. What he could do, however, would be much more sinister. He’d keep asking and asking of each and every memory of you. He’d keep taking and taking until I gave up all I could remember of you. He’d tell me this would be the only way to get at what I wanted, to get at the relief that I so desperately dreamed of feeling. And in that world, I would have said yes. I would have kept saying yes and yes and yes until at the thought of your name, Simon, I’d feel nothing at all.
But, we both know, I don’t have Mephi. And even if he did exist, he’d surely find someone with much larger pains to unburden, to feed him. And even if he did find me, a part of me knows, as much as I like to say otherwise, I’d reject him and his offer, I’d not part with any vision I’ve ever had of you.
This reality, I know, is not easy for either of us.
I know, at times, how joyous it feels to pretend otherwise. I know we both have other partners now and how in a new-love we want to say we have somehow started anew, that we have gotten to a different place where we don’t need to do any more work with or of the old. I am of your old and you are of mine and I will tell you that that means this is still plenty of work I have to do, to heal, to remember, to not make the same mistakes that I do, to not forget the patience I had learned with you, to also not forget what angered me about us, so I do not accept less than I deserve again. I know, also, as much as I feel pain with who you have chosen to be with, that you also had some tall tales to tell of that person which gives me a kind of a thing shaped like hope. I know that it took years for you and her to get back to good. I remember that we were on one of our first hikes, possibly our first, and as we took gulps of air and stared up into the canopies of trees overlooking the cityscape of Boston miles away, you confessed to me that you worried that perhaps you told your friends too much. You worried that when she returned to town that no one would like her because of what you said about her. You were right. And in time, for a time, she proved back her friendship to you. Maybe our time will work that same way? Truth is, we don’t know. We don’t have any idea or limit or plan or power to adjust it to be other than how it inevitably will be.
I like to think we will find a new kind of place for each other. I like to think that we get there fully on accident. That years go by and events in our individual lives happen and one or another move away and then, all so suddenly, we are looking for a ripe fruit to by, and our hands touch in the same bunches of grapefruit. And we’d be startled, but not scared. We’d be surprised but not shocked. We’d be brave enough to wonder. We’d even say hello. I imagine your hair would gray as you always dreamed it would and I’d have a couple children trailing behind me, causing more trouble than I can even begin to fantasize, and we’d smile. I would give up everything I have offered to have that promise. I know it cannot be promised to me. I know that we cannot know. But I also know that we have shared and lost too much for us not to have some kind of promise awaiting us, uncharted, waiting to claim us when we didn’t even know that was exactly where the sum of us always belonged—apart, but so happily united—in time.
Cassandra A. Clarke‘s work has been previously published in Electric Literature, Pithead Chapel, Gone Lawn, Bitch Flicks, Comic Book Resources, & other homes that celebrate the personal, the geeky, & the weird. By day, she works in project management for restaurants, & by night she works as an assistant instructor at her Taekwon-do dojang prepping the next generation of lil’ warriors to save the world. She has an MFA from Emerson College in Creative Writing & you can follow her misadventures @cass__clarke.