When you break someone’s heart, it doesn’t automatically dry up the deep reserve of love juice they have stored for you. They might hate you, but only because you basically asked them to, and even then they probably don’t, not really. The power dynamic is all out of whack. It’s not fair, but it’s true. Breakups take practice, and we were making beginner’s mistakes. I recognized the advantages of that arrangement: Because she still wanted us to be together, I got to control when and how much we hung out, and how much like dating our friendship would be at any given time. But I ignored the festering ugliness that this arrangement was creating: Over time, she lost self-esteem and (rightly) started to resent me, while I was becoming a power-hungry master manipulator.
I’m sorry for turning off my emotions when they started to make me uncomfortable. I’m sorry for acting like everything was fine in front of people when it so wasn’t. I’m sorry I kept your hopes up by being more open in private than in front of our friends. I’m sorry I couldn’t control my carelessness. I’m sorry I dated two of our mutual friends. I’m sorry I totally shut down when M. died. I’m sorry I let that tragedy make me even more callous. I’m sorry I kept saying I was sorry just to make you feel better. I’m sorry I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry you accepted my apologies. I’m sorry I let you accept my apologies. I’m sorry.
We were in such a cycle of needing and wanting and denying each other but then ultimately giving in that our growth and independence were stunted. So much of our lives became consumed with performing for the other person: trying to make the other person angry or jealous, acting out in fits of rage or jealousy, crying, fighting, soothing, and starting over again. It was pretty standard breakup stuff, but that doesn’t mean it was healthy, especially since it lasted for so many (five) years. We’d stop hanging out for a while and then agree to see each other in groups, only to end up wallowing in one-on-one time again. If we got too close, and I felt like she was getting the wrong idea, I’d push her away again. She was trusting and I was cruel. Neither of us knew what we wanted.
A few weeks after the breakup, I started spending serious time with a girl I’d known before I’d met S. I was needy and confused, used to having a constant companion, and C. was both new and familiar, an old friend but a fresh love interest.
It was the wrong thing to do: By high school, C., S., and I were all friends, and we shared the same classes. We were part of a small group of relatively innocent kids who studied and saw movies together, but didn’t dare try drinking or smoking. There weren’t that many of us, so we all knew one another’s business, probably because we didn’t have much business to begin with. Compounding the wrongheadedness, and the hurt, because my breakup was so fresh and we knew it was insensitive, C. and I decided to keep our rushed relationship a secret. We got ice cream after doing homework, watched football on Sundays, and sometimes squeezed each other’s hands in the hallway when no one was looking.
Around everyone else, though, we acted the same as we always had. Or we tried to. But S. wasn’t stupid. One day she asked me and C. to go out for food after school, and we agreed, because that’s what friends did and we were all pretending, in our own ways, to be friends.
Maybe we were asking to get caught. When C. went to the bathroom, she left her cellphone on the table. S. picked it up casually, flipped it open (cell phones flipped open back then), and all her fears were confirmed—probably by a flirty text from me. Her face dropped and she stormed out, leaving her artichoke dip untouched on the table. In yet another in a series of massive mistakes, I followed her.
We spent the next few hours in the parking lot of a TGI Friday’s, sobbing in her backseat. “How could you do this to me?” she asked. “Didn’t I mean anything to you? I thought you loved me.” I thought I did, too. I apologized over and over again, drowning in guilt, but with no good answers. It wasn’t our last such argument, but it should have been. Somehow it took a thousand more sorrys for us to move on.
Looking back , I realize the best thing for both of us would have been for me to cut things off completely, since she couldn’t. I probably knew it at the time, too, but I rationalized our on-again, off-again intimacy by telling myself she was dictating the terms—like, if she didn’t want me around, wouldn’t she just tell me that? I certainly gave her the chance to tell me to eff off and die. Instead, we’d start the “let’s be friends” cycle over again. When I would half-heartedly suggest we stop because it always ended in one or both of us crying, she would insist we avoid talking about “us” and stay lighthearted. But when someone tells you they can’t imagine life without you—that they’d rather have some contact, anything you’re willing to offer—it’s a sign things are no longer equal, and that they’re therefore not equally free to choose. If one person picks independence over commitment, they should give up the right to interfere in the other’s new life. In our constant bargaining, the deal always came out lopsided. Still, on vacations from school, it was too easy to return to the comfort of old, familiar patterns.
We had some good times during our five years of attempted (and often successful!) post-romance friendship: summer afternoons at the lake with old friends were always a favorite throwback—but we’d been there before, and retreading the past wasn’t worth the prolonged pain. It’s even possible for exes to restart as friends (or even try again for more) later in life, but only if the original wounds have had a chance to become scars of tough tissue instead of constantly re-torn scabs. The cuts were hers more than mine, and my mere presence picked at them.
Put back into situations from their past, people will usually revert to the roles they’re used to playing. In the case of my first big breakup, we were never quite able to get beyond being the heartbreaker and the heartbroken, our immature cycle of pout, “What’s wrong?,” fight, make up never ending because we never gave one another the time or space to forget how things used to be. On that visit in Texas, on the eve of becoming real adults, we were still acting like the kids we once were when we’d promised to never stop being there for each other. But sometimes the best way to show someone you’ll always care is to just leave them alone.
I couldn’t stand the idea of being the bad guy. I let your constant forgiveness cover up my guilt. How bad could I be if you still wanted me around? Now I know for sure I was wrong. Maybe the only right thing I did was to never send you these letters.