A few days ago, I ran into a girl I'd gone on some dates with.
I'd just finished grocery shopping, so I was kind of sleepy-eyed and dreamy, and she was on her way to go have lunch with a friend in the East Bay. We looked up, made eye contact, and grinned, awkwardly, because we didn't actually know each other all that well apart from what kind of whiskey we liked with our respective gingers and what the insides of our bedrooms looked like.
We couldn't pretend we hadn't seen each other, so I walked across the street to chat for a few minutes. After a second, we hugged, deliberately keeping our faces away from each other. She told me about a date she'd been on the week before, and I nodded, smiling, as if to say, "See? We can be friends; this is friendly."
We hadn't stopped seeing each other on bad terms -- we'd just kind of drifted apart, a combination of conflicting schedules and incompatible hobbies. She's a perfectly nice human, but it just didn't work out, and I think we're both as well off without the other in our lives.
Still, as I waved goodbye and headed for home, I couldn't help feeling a little wistful. It's not like I'm carrying some torch for her that will leave me smoldering sadly in the corner of a queer party as she grinds on someone else like some sort of tragic side-shave Mr. Darcy.
But I kept thinking, "What if?" She was pretty and funny and smart; I liked her big brown eyes and her freckles. "What if I'd gotten my shit together enough to keep her around? What if she could have been it?"
I mean, in reality, I know that no, she wasn't "it," if "it" is even a thing. I'm not even looking for "it," for the working "it" definition of "somebody to fight and spoon and deal with, bad and good, every day for the rest of our lives."
Every time I break up with someone, though, I still feel weirdly hollow about it, like I didn't live up to the possibility of the alternate universe where she and I fought the odds and spent the next few decades poking our toes into the other's shin under the duvet.
There's a Popsugar listicle going around about "Signs you're still not over your ex," that includes things like "You show up at his office to bring him lunch" and "Your Facebook status is his last name, because OOPS, that wasn't the search bar," and I like it but I don't really get it. Not because I don't totally believe that's how a lot of people go through the breakup grieving process, but because it's so far removed from the quiet, sick, disappointed feeling that gnaws in my belly whenever I stop seeing someone, no matter how serious it was or wasn't.
I wish getting "over" someone were as straightforward for me as quieting the urge to stalk them on social media or forbearing from choke-crying when "Gotta Have You" comes on Spotify. Instead, my relationship-related sadness feels more like losing a tooth and poking at the hole with my tongue -- I can deliberately decide not to think about it for weeks, but the minute I let my guard down, I have to see if it still hurts to imagine holding their hand or hooking my chin over their shoulder. And it always does.
I can't think of a single person I've broken up with that I'm legitimately "over" in the sense that I can still think about them without feeling a bit gut-punched. It doesn't matter who did the breaking up with whom; after a while, it's not even particularly about missing the person as an individual. It's more that I'm in mourning that the best I and my date could do for each other still wasn't enough.
That's the reason why I tend to be the person that clings onto relationships beyond the point when a friendly breakup is even possible. By that point, I'm usually cranky and unhappy, too. I've usually started talking to my friends about how "This week, I'm totally gonna break things off" to try to hold myself accountable for that decision.
But I can never do it. I grind it out, letting things get worse and worse, waiting for them to cheat on me or for us to have a big fight -- anything tangible that I can point to later as the reason we didn't work out. I've waited months for dates to move across the country rather than gutting up to be the person to point out that try as we might, we just weren't right for each other.
This makes it seem like I'm constantly gunning for a Forever Love Romance, which honestly isn't true. Like I've said before, I'm perfectly happy right now with sleeping around, having one or two awesome date-people, and keeping myself busy learning to cross-stitch or trying to get back into running. It's more that I'm a perfectionist and a people-pleaser, and I hate the fact that I wasn't good enough to prevent negative feelings from blooming between me and anyone else.
The thing is, even when breakups are clean and friendly, they've never felt to me like the natural resolution to the arc of a relationship. I mean, I've never even started sleeping with someone regularly with the end of our hookups in mind in a realistic way.
I just started seeing someone who's going back to his home country in a month, and I am literally incapable of envisioning that inevitable ending in a way that doesn't somehow involve a manly handshake and a congenial promise to email. I hate rough edges and uncertainties, and breakups always have them, and so they'll always rub me just a little bit raw.
A few years ago, I happened to see my ex-girlfriend from high school walking around the business district of our hometown. We hadn't had a great relationship. In the end, it became the sort of thing where my friends were printing out "10 Signs of Emotional Abuse" and leaving them in my locker for me to crumple up and throw away without reading. After we broke up, there was a rumor floating around that she'd told everyone in our class I'd "turned her gay."
I hadn't seen her since we'd graduated, and I'd spent a lot of time in the years since imagining how if I ran into her, I'd grin, cat-eyed and content, proving that these days, she never even crossed my mind.
Not so much, as it turns out. I saw her across the street, she half-turned, I panicked, and half-dove, half-fell behind a parked police car, scraping my palms and probably severely perplexing any witnesses.
Crouched down there in my First Office Job heels and business-casual Forever 21 skirt, I winced, hoping she hadn't seen me, remembering how the twist of her mouth used to be cruel when she looked at me. Luckily, she was nowhere to be seen when I peeped up around the car hood, and I straightened my blazer and hurried on my way, sweating in the Sacramento heat.
Later, I dug up the old letters she wrote me in high school, notes she used to palm me in English class or pissy half-scrawls about our Student Body President. Dumb stuff. Yeah, that relationship was terrible, I knew it, but if she had come around the side of the car and yanked me up by the collar and kissed me, I'd've done it.
I'd do it with anyone I dated as an adult, even the people whom I made cry, even the ones who I don't even like as friends, let alone as anything more.
I wouldn't ever make the first move in that direction, but I'd kiss them if they asked me to. I'd do it because it would feel like one last-ditch chance to smooth things over, to make it so we could both look back on the relationship and think, "It ended, but I don't have any regrets." Or even, "It ended, but now we can start up again."
That's probably not a great sign. I'm pretty sure that means I'm not really "over" a single one of them.
Kate is hardly ever this mopey on Twitter: @katchatters.