I have a memory from my teenage years in which I am standing under the old gum tree at the end of our streets, getting mercilessly drenched by a summer storm, while he is ending it all. The ‘it’ being ‘us’. It was the first time heard the phrase “It’s not you. It’s me.” And, naively, I believed him. Back then I didn’t know it to be the dirge of the dumper. The tears rolling down my face, faster than the rain could wash them away, were not just because my heart was breaking with every clap of thunder, but because I was sad for him. Upset that between yesterday and today he had discovered something about himself that was so unworthy he felt unable to continue our relationship. I wanted to hold him and tell him that it would all be ok. I wanted to take him home, dry him off and feed him a warm bowl of milk. Like a stray cat. I wanted to rescue him – but not, I admit, our relationship.
I stopped believing it wasn’t me the second time I heard that refrain, and had long scattered the ashes of my ego to the ocean by the time it reached double digits.
Over time I became fluent in reading the signs and mastered the art of slipping away before the words could be uttered. I preferred to go radio silent than to hear we had reached the end. I didn’t want to listen to the dirge signalling the funeral procession had begun, nor watch the coffin containing the remnants of our relationship pass by. How was it that such a small box contained the full complexity of us?
From that day under the tree I learned that all things come to an end. Universal truth.
Sometimes the end comes in a worn out note, carried along on a tide of sweaty hands, passed between the barricades of small timber desks laden with pens and dog-eared textbooks until it reaches the un-expecting heart. Or in graffitied moments… only who he loved, once carved with fervour into the same timber panelling, is now gouged out with the sharp end of a drawing compass. Tools of a high-school break-up.
Sometimes the end comes when you are in a hotel in a foreign country and you open the door and find it staring back at you. A look that passes in a micro-second, which your hormones would prefer you pretended not to have seen, but that your heart refuses to forget. The friction of the moment putting pressure on its previous restorations, causing old cracks to splinter off in new directions. It’s over, even if he is not yet ready to sing the lament, and is hoping instead to make love and forget that between when he saw you last and now, something in him has changed. Best to close the door, not let him in, because truth will inevitably breach the tangled sheets of the morning after.
Once, knowing he was coming around, I filled the bathtub in the middle of the afternoon, climbed in and pretended not to hear the knock on the back door. I drowned out the sounds of my name being called from outside the bathroom, where steam was seeping out the window. Smoke signals sending my message of retreat. Hours later, I took his crumpled ‘Dear John’ letter, shoved angrily under the door, filed it in my diary, and turned the page.
I came to realise that relationships were like navigating a minefield. There is merit in retracting the steps you took in, on the way back out. Placing each foot carefully back into the impressions you left behind, made the first time he spoke about marriage and kids, but didn’t finish his sentence… ‘one day’… rather swallowed his real self in another chug of beer. A side step now will leave everyone hurting, without any real need.
Because before all the break-ups, before all the endings, there was also magic – the castle in the sky we were both seeking. There were small pebbles thrown at my window, moonlight serenades at the beach, bouquets of flowers, poetry and fresh sheets. There were tingles and sweaty hands, there were blushes, stolen looks and breathe catching moments that spoke of the proximity of fairytales.
From that day under the tree I learned that all things have a beginning – universal truth – and that breaking up is hard to do.