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He was 29 and I was 21. We were coworkers. We worked the same shifts and became friends — the sort of friends who casually flirt as a way to battle boredom. As we flirted, our go-to method for killing time kindled a convenient chemistry between us that rapidly morphed into something else.
Our relationship coincided with the tail end of him calling it quits with his girlfriend of more than three years. Soon after, we each switched our relationship status on Facebook from "single" to "it's complicated.” Things escalated quickly, and before I knew it, we were spending more days together than we did apart.
With him, things were easy. We never fought. We just had fun. I liked that he was older than me. The age difference made him seem more mature than guys who were my age. For me, this made him easier to trust. He had a degree from a fancy art school, so he was "creative." He had a worn copy of The Stranger that he carried in his backpack, so he was "well-read." He seemed so grown up in all the ways that I felt I was not.
We spent hours in conversation. We talked about everything, and no matter what the topic, it felt like we were on the same page. When he spoke, I listened with anticipation, hanging on his every word, even the ones that felt cliché.
He was everything I thought I wanted, until time passed and things stopped being fun.
The shift in our relationship was sudden. It happened on a Saturday. I texted him, letting him know that my editor was able to get me on the guest list to see one of our favorite bands play a show later that night. I asked him if he’d be my plus-one. He texted back "Yes." I replied by asking him when he’d like to meet up. Hours passed with no response.
I waited before I texting him a second time. Then I decided to call. No answer. It went straight to voicemail. I left a quick message about the show before slamming my phone onto the table with frustration. I walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer. I flicked on the TV and laid on the couch where I stared at the ceiling waiting for a text, for a call, for something. It felt like Limbo, like waiting for something to drop.
More hours passed. Eventually he responded. His words were jumbled and full of typos. I could tell he was drunk. Something about "needing to be single" about "needing space." I replied with multiple question marks. He replied with an invitation to come to the bar. I reread his texts multiple times. My heart sunk. He had dumped me via text message.
I needed answers, so I decided to hail a cab and head to the bar. Once I got there, I walked in with heavy footsteps, searching for his face and finding it quickly. He was leaning against a pinball machine spilling his drink. Surrounded by friends, he told jokes with slurred speech while smiling the smile that made me first fall so quickly for him. I stood there, frozen, assessing my options.
Before I could decide what to do, he spotted me. He walked over, slipped his arm around my waist and kissed me on the cheek. Gently pushing him away, I asked him about his texts. He looked confused, he didn't remember. I reminded him by reading each text to him one by one. He took a long swig of his whiskey sour, and then laughed.
"What we had was fun, and now it's over." He touched my face and told me, "Deal with it."
In the weeks and months that followed, I dealt with our break up by deleting his number and un-friending him on Facebook. I burned Polaroids of us together and threw the LPs he lent me in the trash. I avoided all of our old haunts. I was angry and my heart hurt, but these actions slowly made me feel better. I began to miss him less and less. I even started falling for someone else.
As the final weeks of January slipped into February, I reminded myself of my New Year's resolution: to let go of grudges, to learn to forgive. So when my ex texted me, asking to hang out, I agreed to. We decided to meet up on February 13.
I met him at the dive bar we used to frequent before we broke up. The bartender still remembered our names. We talked about our holidays and our families. He asked me about school. I asked him about work. We drank beer after beer after beer, and then paired each additional beer with shots. Fueled by booze, my ex confessed that he was sorry for the way things ended. He told me that he missed me, that he wanted us to be friends. He smiled and so I smiled too. Hours passed. We kept drinking.
By 9 o'clock, I felt restless, so we closed our tab. My ex asked me where I wanted to go dancing. I suggested a DJ night my roommate had mentioned earlier that week. I dug into the gut of my backpack for the flier and handed it to him. It listed bands like The Smiths and Joy Division beneath the word “Unlovable” in bolded black font. He handed the filer back to me, grabbed my hand and said, "Sure, let's go."
The bar was decorated with pink and red balloons. Iconic footage of a young Morrissey danced on the walls. The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” blasted through tall speakers, and my ex and I sang along. He asked if I wanted another drink. I told him “No thanks” as I watched him buy another beer and down another shot.
Everything that happened after that, I’ve spent years trying to forget.
The DJs’ set continued while my ex downed pounders of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I sipped a glass of water and compulsively checked the time. Seated on a stool at the bar, I listened to him ramble about all of the girls he’d met and slept with since we broke up. He asked me if I had met anyone.
“Sort of,” I told him, “but I have a date tomorrow night.”
“That’s great,” he said while signaling for the bartender to close his tab.
Walking outside, I watched as my ex fumbled for his car keys. Like a stock character in a PSA against drunk driving, he couldn’t walk straight. I asked him if he was okay to drive. He quickly insisted he was. Since I was significantly more sober than he was, I figured that I could ride along. His apartment wasn’t far, and if I went with him, I could keep an eye on his driving. I told myself that if worst came to worst, I could drive the rest of the way. Luckily, the streets were empty.
He slipped his key into the ignition. I buckled my seatbelt.
As he started driving, it began to snow. The snow made him drive slower, which made me feel less anxious about his occasional swerving between lanes. As we crept down the empty streets, he asked me about my plans for Valentine’s Day. I reminded him of my date.
The car jolted to a stop. He asked, “With who?”
I told him it didn’t matter, that it was someone he didn’t know. The car idled as snow accumulated on the windshield. He asked me again and I didn’t reply.
At this point, he was yelling questions like, “Did you fuck him?” His eyes had grown darker, so I avoided looking into them. I asked him to stop yelling and he did. We sat there in his car, in the snow, in the street, in total silence.
That’s when I felt his fist crash against the left side of my face. I never anticipated that moment. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there staring at him, my eyes hot with rage and fear. I felt the blood rushing in my ears. I blinked hard as my ex told me that he was sorry, that I could hit him back if I wanted to.
“Stop looking at me like that. It's not a big deal. Hit me,” he said.
I heard his words, but just sat there. Then I felt the crash of his fist again. The rest that night I remember in fragments. Getting out of his car. Slamming the passenger door shut. Shaking. Walking away. I remember hailing a cab. I remember walking into my apartment feeling numb. I remember crying myself to sleep.
The next day, I woke up late. I took a shower and avoided the mirror, hesitant to see the bruise that throbbed on my face. My phone buzzed. Missed calls from an unfamiliar number, a voicemail, and a few texts.
The voicemail was from my ex. It was an explanation, a brief apology. He said that he couldn’t remember what happened the night before, but that he was sorry. He explained how he got pulled over by the cops on his way home. He would be in custody until someone could come pick him up.
After listening to my ex’s voicemail, I deleted it. I deleted his number and then looked in the mirror. I stood there, memorizing the shade of the bruise on my face before covering it with primer and globs of concealer. I did my hair and got dressed before returning to my phone.
I expected the texts in my inbox to be unread texts from the night before, to be texts from my ex. They weren’t. They were from my Valentine’s Day date. I sighed in relief.
In his first text, my date asked me which records I’d like to listen to later that night. In his second, he asked if we could watch Annie Hall. In his third text, he wished me a “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I smiled, the bruise on my cheek throbbing as I responded with, “See you soon.”