Tu és Aquilo. Eu sou Isto.
After about a month and two weeks of us not being a couple, I decide I can pull off a phone call with him. I won’t get into the unnecessary details of what efforts were involved in arriving at that stage of knowing I could face an ex-lover without imploding. I suspect it’s the same for everybody: you are allowed to talk about your pain in a self-indulgent way for about two weeks, after which you stick to making lightly deprecating jokes about the whole thing. Just to show you’re getting on. You don’t need him and all that. Why bring up the relationship in the first place?, some might wonder. Possibly, these are people who have often been subjected to the awkwardness of hearing the twinge of pain in an acquaintance’s voice when they casually talk about an ex, which they feel obliged to politely ignore.
There is a simple scientific explanation for why it is necessary to drop the ex into conversation. Heartbroken people walk about with their bodies wired differently. Post a break up, all number of ordinary things in their day to day life fill them with a hot, uncomfortable ball of emotion that threatens to overwhelm in embarrassing ways (through the eyeballs, for instance) at the most inconvenient moments. The preferred choice is to release this ball in small portions of kinetic energy.
I text him that I recently had a look at his Facebook profile and missed him – was he able to do a phone conversation? To which he replied that he was. I brace myself for the rush of new information. Filling in details from where we left off. Might be looking at adoption catalogues with his boyfriend now, I tell myself. I find that a useful trick to mitigating pain is to anticipate the worst. The problem, although, would then be that this technique doesn’t nullify the effect of hearing about the other’s ordinary, domestic happiness. Trips planned, the way they manage their finances and infidelities as a couple, that sort of thing.
When I pick up his WhatsApp call, he comments on the time I took to answer. Eight rings. He has always been a counter. A quirky penchant for collecting trivial algebraic data that I used to find charming. Maybe I still do. This is already a bad idea. Especially when he jokes that the sound of the first five rings might have, on second thoughts, been his heartbeats. This, in response to my remark that perhaps the first five rings were the sound the call made as it bounced across the oceans between us.
We chat for a bit, I tell him about the two times I saw his dog. He tells me stories from some brief stint he undertook on an organic farm, some place with lots of Germans. Then he talks for what I perceive to be too long a time, about his forays into vegetarianism— the ethics of meat eating, his ever-present desire to grow edible plants. I listen to this and experience an odd dissonance. That this sort of easy chatter could be possible with him without the other intimacies, pricks me. “So I’ve crossed over to the other side,” I tell him. “This is what it feels like to be your ex.” When we were dating, it would surprise and slightly unnerve me that he was so familiar with some of his exes. We talk about what a relief it is that we are carrying on a normal conversation “because anything else would be performative”.
I wonder if it would be performative to ask him if he ever missed me. But I don’t want to make this conversation difficult, so I don’t. Instead, I search for an answer to an earlier question he’d asked, “How was it like, being there, after I left?” I struggle for the right words. This ‘it’ he speaks of encompasses whole weeks. Weeks where almost every place I would visit was marked by his absence because my last memory of it was with him. Or where entire conversations in my head felt one-sided because he wasn’t around to be my Listener. Finally, I stammer the words “bland” or “empty”, but he cuts in: “you mean, they were lonely?” His voice uttering the word lonely sounds flat. Knowing, but detached. I clear my throat and tell him I have a hard time admitting that I miss him because it feels unfeminist to pine for someone who isn’t coming back.
He says, “Yes it occurred to me that in this regard, the way we parted was rather unequal, which is unfortunate. I mean, I always had someone to go back to. But you knew that. That I was leaving. Though you know, I don’t regret anything.” With this last sentence, he is referring to our relationship. I want to snap at this point, but I’ve been doing well thus far. How dare you reduce our breakup to something purely mathematical, I want to hiss. We loved each other and you abandoned that and now you call that abandonment ‘unfortunate’ for reasons that belong more to a primary school lesson on fractions than to a conversation between adults. And then there is his declaration, of his ‘not regretting anything’. That’s the best he can allow himself to say about us at this point. His lack of regret for our relationship. A part of me feels sorry for him. Being attached to people in this co-dependent manner does this to you, I think smugly, makes you change the way you would speak to another, to alter your narratives for their benefit. To tuck them away, pretend they never existed. At least in this regard, I am superior.
What I hear myself saying is, “Yeah, but I chose to put myself in this sticky situation, so I see my pain as the necessary price for being foolish.” I am not being stoic because I think he’ll buy my stoicism. It’s just that time does funny things to the way we allow ourselves to represent ourselves in language. Sometimes you get one chance to do so, and it’s better to come off as high-minded rather than pathetic. The last thing I want is for him to feel sorry for me.
We talk about blindness. How I dreamed about it, and how he wrote a poem about it—a haiku. We revisited an old conversation about how it is possible that the Portuguese enjoy representing blindness in their art. We talk about language: Portuguese. I tell him about a new word I learned that delights me. He understands why before I can finish my sentence. We were introduced to each other because we had an interest in linguistics in common. He says maybe next time we talk, his boyfriend can be a part of the conversation, and we can all speak in Portuguese (both the boyfriend and I are in the process of learning; he is already quasi-fluent).
I say, “Sure. That way, we can keep the conversation short and appropriately superficial.”
He laughs. Agrees.
“Well, it was nice to hear you again,” I say. I hang up. I haven’t fully noticed it yet, but my face is flushed and my heart is throbbing too fast.
It will be at least another hour until this feeling goes away.
Words: Francesca Cotta
Edit: Amal Shiyas