The First Three Days.
We were down in Raglan together, a trip I’d made on your behest, driving down after I’d finished my summer intensive for my Master’s programme. We were supposed to be driving on to your dad’s house after — or maybe back up to Auckland — but on the last day, you took me to the beach, and you dumped me. And then you left me to drive home. Alone.
I guess that was what was most convenient to you. No warning, no consideration, just whatever was easiest for you.
I drove two hours in blazing, coarse sunshine, nearly blinded by tears. My mum on the phone, “Fliss, pull over if you get too distraught.” But I just wanted to get home. I was remembering only 12 hours earlier, when we were stealing kisses at a friend’s BBQ; when you were tenderly holding me as we sat with our legs touching. All of the intimate moments between then and now, but you already knew you were going to do this to me. You let me buy us coffee and breakfast. You pretended we were just “going for a walk”.
Your cruelty is staggering, perplexing to me, in this moment.
Successions of friends call me and are called, on the road, through the handsfree. Our mutual friend helps me find the most clarity. Not all of them have the context of how deep your betrayal goes, but she does.
I arrive in Auckland to the realisation that I left my laptop bag in Raglan. “Fuck,” and I stare at the dashboard. I’m not doing that drive again, as long as I live, I tell myself. I’m never going back to the place, dark as it is now. The thought alone makes me feel sick. The last image I have of you is on that black, abominable sand with your black, callous words. Panic fills me — but I need that bag back. It has my life in it — both my computers, my notebook. Filled with work I placed so carefully to the side so that I could fill my time with you, just for a moment, before it became too urgent. I need it back. There is no urgency quite like a vacuum of yawning devastation.
The house is empty, but I release the lock on the back door to welcome in our wailing puppy, his whole body trembling to see me. He doesn’t know. He licks my salty face and stills for a moment. He does know? But then he bounds off into the depths of the house.
I begin to plan how to get my bag back without disturbing you, my stomach rising to my throat at the idea of your voice. After a few dead ends, I have no choice but to reach out, heart pounding. Fuck.
You do answer. We talk, and it’s civil.
You never want to talk to me again, you say.
Have a nice life, as though it’s as simple for me as it is, clearly, for you.
“I love you,” I say. “I’ll respect your decision, but it is your decision.”
I have no choice but to respect it. I can try to reason with you — reason with the admission we share of how rare our connection was, reason with the fact that I was willing to stand by your side and support you through your healing, reason with the fact that I love you. Reason with the fact that the last week was one of the most stressful of the last two years for me, and yet we still never argued or fought, we had no major disagreements. Reason with the idea that — you said yourself — you were pleasantly terrified by the potential of our relationship.
But — what use is reason, now, when you have abandoned it and so I must abandon it, too. So, I make sure the last words I say to you are with love, and then we hang up, and it’s done.
My cousin is sitting, quietly, in the lounge. She’s been to the supermarket. An array of our favourite foods is laid out on the table. Truffled cheese, biscuits, Belgian chocolate, danishes, ice cream, and even some liquorice allsorts. I hug her, but I don’t tell her that I don’t think I could eat again. I don’t cry. We carry the bounty upstairs to my room, and I slip a bottle of chilled wine under my arm on the way.
She helps me change the sheets — they stink of you.
We talk a little, but mainly she lets us just decompress, lying side-by-side on the bed and watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on her computer. I know the episodes almost off by heart. I respond to texts from concerned friends, and reach out to others. My bag will be relayed back to Auckland tomorrow. I’ve been invited to a team meeting with the people we met in Raglan. It feels weird that our new relationships transcend across this divide, the before and the after.
I drink a glass of wine. Then, another. The world goes dark to the sound of Jake Peralta’s voice, now emanating from my phone, lying on the fresh sheet void beside me in the twilight.
The first day, I wake up to a cold, clear sky. The air is so clean I can hear the motorway in the distance. Birds are singing, the smell of the world is fresh, and it’s all empty of you. My body remembers your arms more readily than it accepts my blankets. I pull them closer, however hollow they may be, and shrink away from the window. Why is it summer? Why isn’t it dark, and cold, and miserable? The early morning cicadas are laughing at me.
The banana walnut loaf I bought for breakfast the day before — the breakfast before you dumped me, on the beach — is sitting stale, untouched, on my bedside table. The glob of butter the waiter added with a generous smile, congealed across its surface, obscene. I glare at it before throwing it away. I hate food waste, as you know, but the gnarled hunk of carbohydrates reminds me of that black sand and the way you held me while we sat waiting for our coffees, kissed the side of my head, as though you weren’t about to lead me to slaughter.
I haven’t unpacked the car. I slept in my clothes, with just my phone by my side. I push myself out of bed, a wind-up toy, and attend to the task. Your Allbirds are in the back seat.
Briefly, I consider burning them.
The team meeting is at 10:30am, but I’m already dressed. I just never changed my clothing. My hair is cooperating, for once. I brush my teeth, and change my underwear and t-shirt. My jeans are still coated in that malicious sand. It grips them in shapes of when I knelt in the chasm and tried to sweep up the pieces of my shattered heart to gather them to me, but they were so tiny, they were indistinguishable from the innumerable fragmets around them. Those infinite teeth-pieces, rock dust knawing at my ankles while I sunk into their ravenous mouths.
Maybe those shattered pieces are the debris that still fills my shoes. Maybe the grit I can taste under my tongue is just the detritus of heartbreak.
Another friend of mine, who met us last weekend at the festival, calls me. She, too, taps into the lucidity in me, with solid words of compassion and understanding. She, too, listens. More pieces begin to unravel and tie together in an orderly way in my brain. I thank her and get back into my car. I notice the odometer is 2000km up since the beginning of this summer. 2000km I spent driving around after you, seeking you out when you invited me along, and realise I wasted an entire summer on your whims. My ambitions became your playthings. My heart, my body, was just another accessory to your needs.
I arrive at the team meeting 10 minutes late, which is not like me, at all. Punctuality was your constant failing, not mine. I guess, in this unshowered morning of the post-breakup world, time has become slippery and jumbled — I’ve never been reticent to turn up for my life before, but you taught me that, with your resistance to courage and change. Still, I muster a wide smile and an open-hearted hello, as I meet my new family.
“We liked you better anyway,” they say, and while I know they might just be saying that to make me feel better, I’m grateful to have people validating me and reassuring me that your rejection was an exception; not the rule.
The day is filled with visionary planning and strategy tasks. I get to ask questions, learn from them, and share of the work I do. I receive beautiful e-mails from my students. For a few hours, I forget you and what you’ve done. I allow myself to be surrounded by the hope of the work we are doing, and not the despair of your learned existential crises. Lunch is set out in the kitchen, a karakia of generosity. For the first time in 40 hours, I feel hungry. I remember sitting up in my intensive care bed in Charing Cross, finally being allowed food after being on nil-by-mouth for 3 days. The avocado and cheese sandwich almost tastes as miraculous as that bowl of soggy cornflakes at midnight. I sit with the group and listen to their conversations. My body grows stronger with sustenance.
In the afternoon, my mind wanders. I don’t let it go very far. Between writing up meeting minutes, contributing to group tasks, and searching for confirmations of future plans — my own — I manage a level of productivity and distraction that keeps my emotional equilibrium in check. There has been a magnet installed between my lungs, where my heart used to be. The iron sand, clinging to the grains of my heart, is crawling back to its place. Small chunks are emerging.
They bring with them the capacity for new oxygen and new love. I observe them gathering with each inward breath, and outward sigh, clearing the way for more. I marvel at the mechanics of life, continuing.
After the meeting ends, I visit my 95-year-old grandmother, maintaining our year-long tradition of Friday afternoon tea sessions. I can tell she doesn’t know what to say. Men of her era went to war, faced their fears without question. Love was not something to fear, but a weapon to wield in the face of the infinite capacity for fear to destroy. Long-distance wasn’t a barrier but an opportunity to maintain a connection.
We sit in silence for a while.
I move from there to a BBQ held by one of the team members from the meeting. Keep moving; keep busy my body intones. In the drive, the awful yawning vacuum of the space you left beckons, and my brain reaches back into the abyss, trying to fish for answers. There is no boolean trajectory that could make sense of what you did. I know it isn’t simple, but that doesn’t stop my mind trying to simplify it. It climbs the staircase of reason, each step a layer of new understanding until it reaches the top and when it tries to climb one more — the one more that might make you, make sense — I feel the sickening lurch of a stair that isn’t there. I free-fall, stumble. My heart plunges into my diaphragm, and my lungs contract. I am a fish, gasping on the shore of your indifference.
A new friend pours me a glass of white wine. We laugh and chat, and I learn about these new people who have walked into my life. Perhaps I’d never have met them if you’d stayed with me. Perhaps, though the rest of our time together may have been meaningless to you, this was its purpose. We all climb in the spa. The water begins to dissolve the barrier I’d managed to prepare between myself and the idea of you in the immediate aftermath. I remember how we spoke of the work we were doing to build the foundation of our relationship, solid, with every conversation, every gesture of affection, every shared experience, every hard discussion, every triumph — another brick. Left incomplete, that ‘us-house’ is a ruin in the red zone.
I climb out of the spa, and our host shows me to the bathroom. I open the shower faucet to the hottest temperature I can bear, because at least I’m not thinking about anything but how hot it is, and how good it feels.
I realise it is the first shower I’ve taken since we were together. I look down my body at my skin, blotchy from the heat, and wonder how long it will take for it to forget your fingerprint TouchID.
That morning, when you jumped out of bed and in the depth of my being, I felt something was deeply wrong. When I tried to express that, and you belittled me for wanting to be close to you. “You used to love waking up next to me,” I remember saying, quietly. You snapped, “I just don’t want to lie around.”
I think I knew, then, but the knowing crept in so painfully slowly, too slow to notice.
Three of the BBQ guests are going to bed early because, in the morning, they’re going to Crosbies Hut. That was where we spent the first three days of the year together. In that last phone call, you told me you chose to only remember the difficult times from that hike — the aftermath of your admission to me that your ex-wife was a voice in your head, judging me for who I am, what I do, how I look and act in everything we did together and apart.
But my brain chooses to hold onto the good memories. The times you made me laugh from the core of my belly. The mature, loving conversations we had about how we needed each other to communicate and what we needed to move past your issues and build this relationship in a beautiful and robust way, rare as it was. How I held you close when you sobbed with grief, and how I gave you space when you needed it, and how we both decided to make the Raro at the same time, and how I didn’t judge you for drinking it with the bottle of Moët that I brought up to open for the new decade. How we welcomed those two German hikers in with the rest of our wine, taught them how to play Farkle by candlelight.
It tortures me with those memories, because I know now that they meant nothing to you. You said so, yourself.
On the second day, I wake with a hangover in the early hours, but the dread of waking knowing you’re not somehow connected to me — even from a distance, as that’s been part of our relationship, too — isn’t fresh. It has settled onto my heart like the gravel dust settled onto Floyd, my car. I lie in bed for a moment and wallow, until a text from our mutual friend has me look to my phone in surprise. At the beginning of our relationship, I was the first person you texted when you woke. I waited until you texted, because I never wanted to wake you, knowing I was always the first up because of my job. You sent me GIFs of otters, and after the first time, I made a joke about saying “Otter mārie”. I try not to think about that now — how quickly you started taking me for granted. How quickly your texts became perfunctory updates on your life, and your accomplishments, and your plans — should you deign to include me in them.
We end up chatting for an hour. Her kind, wise voice, so steady on the end of the phone, bringing out the magic of my own internal wisdom. I discuss your behaviours in the last three weeks, and how I’d rationalised the way you treated me. I speak about you with love and compassion, but also acknowledging the unfairness, and she does, too. The crushing weight on my heart lifts, for a moment. When she asks me ‘where we are on communication’, and I remind her that you told me you never wanted to speak to me again. “But are you respecting that?” she asks. She knows what we do, us, she who wishes to be heard.
I suddenly feel a swoop of pride, realising that you are completely shut out of my mind. The idea of contacting you, now that you’ve told me you never want to speak to me again, is anathema to my being. I remember an ex who I called, frantically, repeatedly, hoping he might pick up the phone. No. That’s not who I am anymore. If you don’t want me in your life, why would I want to be there, unwelcome? Why would I want you in mine?
I tell her I made sure my last words to you were, “I love you”, because they were true. But that the decision is entirely yours, and as it was in our relationship, so it will be now. Who was I fooling to think my feelings made any difference to you; before, during, or after.
Of course, there are moments in our phonecall where my voice cracks a little. I miss you, and that’s hard. But somehow, I don’t miss you in a wanting way, anymore. So soon? How can this be true? Maybe the way you rejected me was just so entirely clear, maybe this is what a clean break looks and feels like. I don’t know. This must be denial. My body still thinks we’re connected, it isn’t searching for you yet.
I go for brunch with my cousin at our favourite spot in Sandringham. I’ve been going there for nearly a decade — it’s one of the few institutions that has not been moved or changed by gentrification. We talk about our research foci for the year, and I update her on the new ventures I’ll be involved in, and for the first time in two days, I feel like myself again. I feel like I am part of the body that is part of the body of work that I am building. Methodically, in the background, my brain is filing away the remnants of you into a shredder pile. It is no longer crouched over the cabinet, but stands full height, whistling as it does its work, discussing the next move with the rest of my body. “Do you think we could do that? Yes, that sounds like a plan.” My insides are working together again.
There is new music in the cafe, which I SoundHound into a new playlist I’m creating, one we won’t have listened to together. Tectonic moments of shifting possibilities — inch by inch, I’m gathering the topography of my old and new geographies, pulling the relief of this new frontier close to my (rebuilding) heart.
It’s in its new form, there — one ventricle, then two. I can feel you in there, wolverine heart, fiercely opening and closing your valves in protest, tenaciously holding on to your right to continue loving.
I use a fuel card voucher to buy a mega wash, and my cousin and I sit in the car wash as the bristles thrum against Floyd’s windscreen. We are hypnotised by it for a moment. The soap and water are scrubbing away the salt air and dust from my time away with you, and I feel a bit better that I’m not carting that dirt around the city anymore. Sarah reaches over to hold my hand at one point. I finally ask her questions about her whakapapa that I’ve always wanted to know, and it’s never been the right time to know, but now is that time. We look at each other, and I’m suddenly glad that you never got to meet her. That she is still, entirely, of a world that she and I created — one you never got to see and exploit.
I receive a message from one of my Master’s coordinators, letting me know she adjusted my away practicum request, no fuss. She adds some words of kindness and support and assures me that while my end of year grades aren’t available yet, that I should rest assured I did very well. The compassion of the message isn’t lost, even though Slack is a poor medium for it. While I’m reading, another text, from another friend, comes through.
“Ice cream tomorrow?”
Always; love, love, love.
My iPhone becomes a net for butterflies, beautiful fluttering gestures, an outpouring monarch migration of generosity towards me. Slowly, I pry your cruel fingers away from the clutch they have on my suffocated heart, one-by-one. That you crushed it into sand is a gift, is a sift, those molecules cascading away from your ruthless grip. I breathe in, out, and notice the sun is shining and I do not loathe that. I buy my cousin a birthday card and bask in her, and my life.
Perhaps I will cry again for you and what you threw away so callously, tomorrow.
But not today.