When you break up with somebody, do you have to break up with the things they left behind, too?
The other day, my cat — who is an asshole, but not in any malicious way — broke one of my glasses.
(This is becoming a recurring thing. If he isn’t fed exactly when he wants in the morning, I wake up to the sound of something on the living room coffee table — a book, my keys, a pen, the remote — sliding ever-so-slowly towards the edge. It’s the ever-so-slowly that gets me. It’s almost like he’s doing it deliberately, to let me know it’s all part of a plan. You know how this ends, he’s saying. Ignore it or don’t.)
I was hungover; I ignored it. I rarely sleep in, but this was one of those mornings where I felt it was in my best interests to defer to the hangover, if you know what I mean, so I burrowed under a pillow and rolled back over. Then instead of the thud of a book or the jangle of keys, I heard the crash of glass shattering on my wooden floor.
Well, fuck, but — the perils of cat ownership, right? I rationalized it, easily: I have too many glasses anyway. Que sera sera. (This is ostrich-head-in-the-sand bullshit, but whatever, it bought me a few more minutes of sleep.) It was only when I finally hauled my ass out of bed that I figured out which glass it was.
You hold onto stuff from your exes, right? Serious exes, I mean. Girlfriends, boyfriends, relationships. But not serious stuff, necessarily. Not Valentine’s Day and Christmas and birthday presents. Those are the things you sort of have to keep. It’s in the social contract, I think.
I’m talking about the little things. I keep the little things. Movie stubs, silly notes, tchotchkes. Post-it doodles. Quarter toys in their gumball machine eggs. They mean something different — they aren’t attached to any holiday, or any obligation. They’re just, Hey, I was thinking about you.
This glass wasn’t an expensive anniversary present. It wasn’t something we ritualistically drank from on our anniversary. It was just a Pabst Blue Ribbon pint glass. Not one of a kind, not even rare; they have them at half the bars here in Portland.
Thing is, though — this glass came from one of those bars here in Portland. My ex-girlfriend — my first serious girlfriend after college, the first girl I lived with, the first girl I co-rented a U-Haul with — had stolen it for me. We had only been dating for a little while, and we were out at some dive. Here I was, falling in love with the second girl I’d ever fallen in love with, and I drunkenly mentioned that my dorm room in college was no stranger to a stolen pint glass. She was keenly aware of my affection for the first beer I’d fallen in love with, Pabst Blue Ribbon, because of my habit of drinking it rapturously. We tumbled into the back seat of our friend’s car and she opened her purse to show me the pint glass. A gift, stolen for me, the new boyfriend.
That was four, maybe five years ago. I had the glass in my apartment, we had it in our apartment, and then I had it in my apartment again. I’d moved on from this girl, had my heart broken since this girl, but I held on to that glass. I’d even forgotten the story, until I saw it in pieces on my living room floor.
Why do we hold on to these things? I mean, okay, a glass is functional. I can drink out of it divorced from — or maybe because of? — failed relationships. But what about the other stuff? The movie stubs and notes and gumball-machine figurines? Why do I hold on to that stuff instead of tossing it out? Why did this glass take me back five years?
I guess it’s too simple to say there are two approaches to the past: dwell in it, or forget it and move on. There’s a middle way where you remember the past and move beyond it, where you accept what happened and don’t dwell on it.
This has always been a problem for me. Every girl I fall for is the love of my life; every break-up feels like I’ve just gone bungee jumping with no idea whether the cord’s connected or not. Oh, but be glad that it happened instead of sad that it’s over, and all that bullshit. Just ignore feelings and emotions and time! No problem! Nope, not for me. No dice.
When this girl and I broke up, I took it hard. We dated for three years. And neither of us cheated, we didn’t start having screaming fights, we didn’t despise each other… things just sort of fizzled out. We weren’t in love anymore. A relationship wasn’t the right relationship for us to have. It stopped working.
Who ever said that it has to work out, just because we wanted it to? Right?
To be honest, I probably would have stuck around indefinitely. I couldn’t see the difference between a relationship that just ended and a relationship that failed — it always seemed like a failure to me. Which meant that the whole “getting over it” thing was a little rough. I watched her move on, find somebody new, get back on that proverbial horse that I’ve heard so much about. And then I realized that watching was painful, so I went to radio silence — no texting, no social networks, avoid those old bars where we hung out together, nothing.
Because that’s the only way to really get over things, at least for me. Removal. A step back. A clean break between “us, the couple” and “us, the former couple.” Between “her” and “me.” It’s like: When I try and remember back to the fights that seemed so important in high school, or every embarrassing moment in the dorms, they’ve all kind of faded away. Or, at least, had their volume turned down. Time and space heal all wounds — not just one, and not just the other.
So why hold onto the stuff, then?
It feels like it might be literally the exact opposite of letting go — the dirtiest of clean breaks. But when I was sweeping those pieces of glass off the floor, I didn’t feel what I thought I might feel. I didn’t feel regret about the break-up, I didn’t feel some deep just-thawed longing for my ex-girlfriend, I didn’t fall back into those post-break-up hysterics that took up so much of my energy right after it happened.
I remembered the moment when she showed me the glass in her purse. I remembered when we moved in together. I remembered how good it feels to be in a relationship with somebody who’ll do something sweet for you, just because.
I think these little things are the intersection between remembering the past and moving on. There was probably a time, right after the breakup, when every little thing she left in the apartment was like a mine I had to avoid stepping on, for fear of bringing back an explosion of memories. But given time, and space, I had to ask myself: Am I glad I held onto this, or do I wish I’d thrown it away?
And the answer, every time, is that I’m glad I held on. There are a lot of ways to get over a relationship, and there are just as many ways to remember it. For a long time, I didn’t want to remember any of the feelings that we had for each other, but in the long run, I think it’s better to remember that we did have them.
As painful as remembering those feelings can be, it’s more painful to forget that we ever had them at all.