It was September, that saddest month, and his favorite time of year, and it was a Sunday, and we had the best breakup ever that wasn’t filmed. Get out the popcorn and kleenex and picture it now: We stand outside his small white house next to my green Ford two-door, parked in the driveway (which in itself says something, because to be parked in the driveway rather than on the street means he wouldn’t be getting his car out of the tiny, tilted garage; it meant that I had come, but not to stay). We have wrapped up loose ends, finished all the practical parts and now just have the final scene. We begin walking from the house to my car and I hear him beginning to break down behind me, hiccupping and heaving and trying not to. I can feel his collapse in my chest like I am the ocean and a nuclear bomb just went off underwater, and I pull away from myself and see the whole thing—the whole three year relationship—unfold and replay and I think: This is a movie about a breakup. This is a movie about two people who love each other but cannot be together. And I have seen that movie so many times before that I am amazed I did not see the ending coming.
It was a beautiful whore of a Sunday in September when we broke up and we are standing by my car and he is leaning against my door, blocking it, not quite ready to let me open it. He is six-foot-two, broad shouldered and slim hipped like a hero, and I am tall and our bodies look like they fit together like puzzle pieces, perfectly cut. He wears a polo shirt I bought him in a dark teal color. (It was my favorite color on him. It’s my favorite color period.) Tears are running down his face and I am crying too, but now I feel myself going into comforting mode, like I have to get him okay with this even though he’s the one who finally said it, five nights ago, that something wasn’t there, that it just wasn’t.
September is a month that eats itself. You can smell it burning. You think it smells good until you see what’s in the flames. September is the perfect month for breakups and that Sunday was one last day of sunny blue skies, upper seventies, the last desperate gasps of green things. “You have the most beautiful hands,” he says as we stand next to my car on the very first Sunday in September, cradling them in his own and staring. “I always thought that.” And I wonder why he never told me before.
Two hours earlier I pulled up into that driveway with his red plaid shirt folded up on my front seat, the brown leather belt I stole coiled atop it. Beneath the shirt and belt was a framed picture of both our names in lights on the U.S. Cellular Field billboard, being welcomed to the game. (We rested our beers atop the Sox dugout and I watched the back of Ozzie Guillen’s hat, amazed to see a game from so close up. The field looked so green.)
Inside his house it was dark and quiet. The living room blinds were drawn shut, as they usually were, the windows shut tight to keep out the false summer sounds and colors, and he had a small cardboard box on the couch with my toiletries inside: deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush, body lotion, shampoo. Keys to my apartment lay on the glass of the coffee table and I began to pull his off my key ring to exchange them.
“Keep the shirt. And the belt.” He said when I held them out, waving his hands and avoiding touching them, avoiding my eyes. I kept the shirt because I wanted to be able to smell him, still. I kept the belt because it’s a good belt. He looked shocked when I pulled out the framed picture. “You can’t give me that picture. You have to keep it.” He is a Sox fan. I could not reject the Sox. It would hurt too much on top of everything.
We slept so well together. It may seem silly to say, but in my experience, it is a rare thing. In the movie of our breakup, I feel certain a smart cinematographer would rig a camera looking down upon the mustard-colored bed sheets, catching us curled magnificently together into a human yin-yang shape as we sleep. He was a left-side, me a right. His arm never fell asleep from the weight of my head. (He claimed this, and if you knew him, you’d know it was true). If one of us turned in our sleep, the other turned too and we reformed. Sleeping together felt like truth, like justice, like superpowers. One morning in bed we narrated an Olympic spooning event, both doing our best Howard Cosell impressions, commenting on the nuances of each turn. “Look at their form! Magnificent! A cornucopia of choreographed cuddling! They are a credit to the sport!” We were World Champion Spooners. No one could beat us. We would dominate for all time. (I still cannot stand the cold of the left side of the bed. I turn the second pillow the long way to fill the space he left.)
The sex. It had started strong, then went downhill. We tried porn, massages, a Bed and Breakfast, alcohol. We discussed aging and stress, and allergies. Then we just started pretending it was okay not to be having it.
Inside the house, we found ourselves in a sideways embrace on the black leather couch, and I smelled the loamy dampness of his house and it’s leaky basement, and the warm salty scent of him, and after a while he said, “Will you help me move the grill off the deck before you go? I wanted to varnish it next week.” And I said sure, because in the best tragic breakup movies, that’s the kind of shit that makes everyone say how real the movie was. And I said sure because he is a man who does not have a lot of friends. He is a man who works and goes home, and works again. He is not unfriendly with neighbors, but he also is not friends with them. He is a man who has been alone so much of his life he does not know the difference between alone and lonely, and he is a man who took me to Home Depot to help him pick out a big grill which needs two people to lift it.
Five nights ago was a Tuesday still safely ensconced in August, and after a stupid fight on the phone I drove to his house on the south side at 2 in the morning, thinking our argument was nothing but a hiccup, a skip. “I’ve tried,” he said. He stood backed against a white wall across the living room from me, hiding useless hands behind his back. I was on the leather couch and I couldn’t feel my legs or arms. He said, I’ve tried, but something’s just not there and it’s just too hard. I heard him say it and I knew I felt it too, that missing thing, that blank spot we both kept ignoring.
We slept together for the last time, clothed. In the morning we held each other like drowning people, mainly speaking with our eyes. “I’m afraid,” I said aloud, finally. “Me too,” he said. Then he said, “It will be okay.” And I knew he would keep trying if I wanted him to.
On Thursday, on the phone during a break from work, he asked if I’d gotten the tickets for the concert on Saturday. “Honey,” I said. “We’re not going to a concert. You broke up with me on Tuesday.” After a bit, he agreed I could come over Saturday to sort out our things.
I could not reach him on Saturday. I left messages. He finally called me back late in the afternoon. He said he’d started crying in the grocery store. He could not do this today. Tomorrow, he said, or maybe next week. Tomorrow, I said. It has to happen tomorrow.
In his dim house on that beautiful September Sunday, we sat on his couch and I held onto him for just long enough. Any longer and I would never have left. I wanted to open the blinds, open the windows and let in the air, but instead I went to the kitchen, got a slip of lined paper from his grocery list pad and made him a list of things to do, after.
-Go on a real vacation and use your passport.
-Eat more green vegetables.
-See the kiddies (his niece and nephew) more.
-Sell the house.
-Find love again.
It was very quiet in his neighborhood. Small residential houses, large yards, wide streets that no one uses because of garages. Lots of trees and birds chirping. I’d imagined it as my home more than once. Down the block was a Dairy Queen, with probably one of the last lines of the year before they put up the shutters. Indian Summer, they call it. Warm and sunny, and still something is not quite right.
But we are saying goodbye while we still have the light. (I would have been a great filmmaker. I can make up any story I want just from the way things look from the outside. This is it, the final scene, together by the car, hands held for dear life.) “You have to promise me,” I say. “You have to promise to do the things on your list.” My cheeks are cool with wetness. He is still holding my hands and looking down at them, and he nods. A tear—his tear—drips onto the back of my right hand, near the corner where the thumb meets the forefinger. I feel it slip into the crevice and want to keep it somehow. (And now, looking back I wonder would a camera pick up such a detail? What horrific music could possibly make the audience feel the wetness of his tear like I did? I do not want to believe there is such a song.) He nods again, hunched back shaking with tears.
I am crying too, but not violently. You see, I know how to cry. I practice all the time, during movies, listening to music, feeling too much of the world. I don’t have to hold back, because I am a girl, and it’s one of the things that’s expected of us. I am crying with the smooth precision of a practiced professional.
He is crying like his body doesn’t know how, and it is painful to watch. I want to protect him and make it better, but I can’t. We are breaking, and he is breaking. Somehow, watching him break down makes it easier for me. I am the heroine, doing the right thing. Someone has to be strong. Letting him go. Making him let go.
By the car we embraced each other for the last time. Before we said goodbye I thought how anyone passing by would just think we looked like a couple in love. Anyone passing might mistake this for another type of movie. It was still early afternoon when I left, and as it was September, and it was so beautiful, and everything was orange and green, it was hard to tell if it was the end of something or the beginning of something. Another movie would have made sure there was music, and a sunset, but it was too early for sunset, so it was not the sunset I drove off into. I was still the heroine, and I had that, but I did not want a fucking sunset.
About the author…
Marcia Brenner has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago, where she currently teaches in the Fiction Department, and where she is a two-time nominee for the Teaching Excellence Award. For seven years she has taught the Gallery 37 Summer Arts Creative Writing Program for Chicago teens. She has had fiction stories, novel excerpts and non-fiction writing published in places such as The Chicago Journal, Hair Trigger, The Chicago Reader, Fictionary, and No Touching Magazine, and has won awards from the Columbia Scholastic Press and the Better Business Bureau. She is also a Pilates instructor, and is currently at work on a book about Pilates. She brings her interest in health and writing together on her website GreatBalancingAct.com. She is a beer snob and will not drink a Miller Lite even if you put a gun to her head.