“Am I a mean person?” I ask, in the minutes after he tells me he isn’t sure he ever plans to marry. But what I mean is: did our relationship break something vital inside you? Are you ambling through this hereafter, ever aware that a cog is rattling, that a filament has burst leaving all in the corner of yourself I once occupied hollow and dark? Am I supposed to be doing something more about this? I will put forth a truncated version of these queries just before we end our call. He will not know how to answer.
Now, he stops short but recovers quickly. “No.”
“I was trying to find the right word for what you are.”
So am I.
We are two-dimensional to each other now, a collection of sounds and footage, electronic data across thousands of miles. The realest artifact left of those years we spent in love can be heard squealing with glee in the background of our calls or else parroting the few eavesdropped words she can clearly pronounce.
She is the only memento I’ve kept.
It’s all this shifting. Our transitions have been swift and our space so limited. Each encampment is heavier to fold into itself and transport; at every pass, more must be sloughed.
It has always been difficult for me to determine what is worth salvaging.
The word he settles on is eccentric. “You’re very particular. You get upset when people behave in ways that you wouldn’t.”
“That’s fair,” is what I say, though I’m not sure how ‘eccentric’ his example makes me. I think he means ‘idiosyncratic.’ The strangest things cause me internal combustion: being followed by a student to the lectern as I’m entering a room, before I’ve set down my briefcase or taken off my coat; wet footprints on rugs in a bathroom; someone else opening or polishing off food that I’ve purchased; being told what I should and shouldn’t share online; the expectation that I should forget a rejection, when its din and ache still ripple through me like an echoing chime.
I have been mean to him. We both know it; this is not why I asked.
He tells me that he’s comfortable now, that he considers his role as a father to be an honor and a sacrifice, and it is all so familiar, this rhetoric. It’s similar enough to the phrase he’s turned so often before, an idea that, perhaps, every single father must utter a few times aloud, in order to fortify himself for the work that lay ahead: regardless of what happens with us, I’m going to be there for our child.
I wonder how fully he understands the way this falls on my ears, how clearly the truer sentiment presents itself in the hearing: caring for our child is a point of pride in a way that caring for you was not.
In all its iterations, I believe it. But it never gets easier to hear, not even now, after we’ve heard and said so much worse.
“Everything is harder, ” he muses more to himself than to me. Then we talk about changing careers, earning certifications, making ourselves more financially solvent. The naivety is seeping out of our dreams, and we hear too little of ourselves in the other’s aspirations.
It occurs to me that this has become an exit interview of sorts, the last and loosest of our ends being tied. All of what I’ve hoped and feared is converging. The years-long work at repairing the rattling cog has finally been exhausted.
My lips part. There are other things I want to say: as co-parents, what we get isn’t so much closure as cauterization — we sear our pain shut to survive our shared duty; there is more than one way for a family to be “intact;” if given a mutually exclusive choice, children will opt for their parents to be happy rather than together; and I am ready — so far beyond ready– to be happier than this. I know you are, too, and this is what we both deserve. Then I’d whisper the confession that always cripples me: no matter how anemic the possibility, I would’ve held on as long as you did.
Next time, things will be sweeter. I will not be coy. I will not secret parts of myself away. I will not offer a man decades when days will do.
This is all I can predict of the next time. But I feel a great sense of relief knowing there will be one. This is not a grace we would’ve been so easily afforded, had we married. This, I suppose, is part of why we never did.