If the exchange had been charmingly awkward or deliciously tense, it could have come out of a Hollywood rom-com — a movie genre that Annie, an aspiring writer-director always looking for the next serious project, had nevertheless loved.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and I was running in the park. Actually, as it turned out, we were running in the park. She took the clockwise route, while I looped counter. I saw her from a distance, my Annie. Small and slim in the loose gray sweats she’d always preferred to my skintight, wicking layers, wearing horn-rimmed glasses that were fogged up in the cold.
Back when we were dating, our mutual affection occasionally spurred a shared jog on a Sunday afternoon. But we were never really compatible runners. She was a three-miles-a-day-every-day creature of habit, and I was a live-fast-die-young newbie with a fickle taste for 200m sprints or double-digit mileage. I was now barely shuffling through a handful of miles a week and Annie had not spoken to me in nearly a year, but there we were, unwittingly running back toward one another.
There was a time when I thought it was a mark of good character that I remained friends with most of my exes. It always seemed to me to be the practical choice. More than that: It was the moral choice.
Some friends challenged me on this position. Why was I so insistent on bucking the natural process of saying goodbye? How did I deal with the blurred boundaries? Well, I replied, many of my lovers had started off as friends, coworkers, or some other brand of platonic relationship. And there had been some jumping-off point where we'd both consented to evolve into something else. Sure, there's always risk, but most people go for it, and some of the best and most lasting love stories arise from risk-taking beginnings.
Fewer people, though, appear willing to make another leap if the romance just doesn’t work out, despite the potential for that person bringing so much more good into your life. We're living in an era of dwindling resources: To cut ties after a breakup is not only shortsighted, it's wasteful. I argued these points to my friends with the cheery pedantry of a TA’s 101 lecture or a raw vegan's blog.
I loved Annie. We did not end up being suited for each other romantically, but we were kindred spirits, and I felt more attached to her than anyone I'd ever dated. One night, a few weeks before I left Brooklyn, she called to say that she didn't want to be my girlfriend anymore, but wanted — needed — to be friends. So for a while we were, yes, miserably, confusedly "friends."
We were "friends" as she and my brother-in-law packed up the contents of my slummy apartment in the back of a van and as she watched us drive off; we were "friends" as we talked on the phone every night for a month, when the shock of separation from my life in New York combined with clinical depression had weighed my body down into bed day and night; we were "friends" arguing about whether the reason we were breaking up was because maybe we had only been "friends" all along.
We were "friends" until I made a weekend visit and, heartsick, pleaded my case to get back together. With an uncharacteristic, crystallized force that seemed to surprise even herself, she said "No." She repeated it then — No — shaking her head rapidly side to side as if to knock out any distracting thoughts.
We agreed it was best to draw boundaries, take some space. While we already had very real distance across state lines, we began disconnecting in the other ways modern love has us intertwined — through our shared social-media channels. That, perhaps absurdly, felt like the most real part of the process. As I clicked the button to unfriend, Facebook tested me: "Are you sure you want to remove Annie, Soulmate, Only Person Who Has Ever Truly Loved You and Whom You Will Ever Truly Love as your friend?" With a grim tap of the finger, I confirmed my intent: "Remove from Friends."
I wanted nothing more than to hold on to Annie. I made these moves to disconnect, but I did so with the kind of sweating, hapless energy of an idiot trying to deactivate a bomb. These were emergency measures; it was important to make cuts, but carefully, in order to avoid complete obliteration.
When, after a few months, I began trying to reestablish contact — with congratulations after her short film was accepted in a festival, with excitement when my sister announced her pregnancy, with grief after a mutual friend died in a sudden and tragic way — her unwavering silence just amplified her original rejection. Within the vacuum I felt it: the long, vibrating string of no, no, no.
In the moments after I spotted Annie on the running path and before we reached one another, I saw her eyes and mouth seize and then alight from recognition. For one horrifying moment, as I began to slow down to greet her, I thought she might just keep on running. But she stopped, and we spoke a few words to one another. It was a very cold day, and as we flipped through clipped question and answers, the frozen air rose from our mouths between us like privacy screens.
Like a nervous tic, she kept repeating, "I wasn't prepared to see you." As if to compensate, a calm and collected me smiled and told her she should call if she ever wanted to have coffee and catch up. She nodded in a way that said she wouldn't, and then we ran away from one another.
If the scene had been one of Annie's scripts and she'd asked me for feedback, I would have said that the moment had all the honest and complicated emotion we'd come to expect from the characters, but there was something missing. This was the denouement, a perfect opportunity for resolution.
But I didn't have control over Annie or the terms of our relationship. I had not been able to temper my feelings of abandonment, guilt, longing, or regret by keeping her within arm's length, and the result was that I had to fully and fiercely mourn our loss. It wasn't a short process; it was, in turns, devastating and enlightening.
When I told people I'm friends with most of my exes, I was telling the truth. But I was saying a lot of other things, including I'm loving and I'm loved. It was not having any proof that Annie still loved me, along with the overwhelming proof that she no longer needed expressions of my love, that led me painstakingly along to a new truth: that I didn't need to hold on to everyone whom I'd ever loved to continue to hold on to the love itself.