‘I have two questions,’ I say, and press my tongue against the back of my front teeth.
‘Shoot,’ he says, quite light-heartedly. Annoyingly light-heartedly. How dare he be so light of heart! Mine couldn’t be heavier.
‘Okay.’ I breathe in as far as I can, but I can’t touch the back wall. The breath gets stuck somewhere in between. It’s trapped in my ribcage. ‘One. Was it planned?’
‘Nope,’ he replies, instantly.
I give him a moment to expand. I’m glad when he doesn’t. We continue walking, silently, down the road I used to live on. Uphill through the dark passage, where I cut through so many times during lockdown, not wanting to be seen on my secret weekly walks. Past the cul-de-sac with the private garden and treehouse where families of foxes nest; the old townhouses I used to dream of living in. Downhill again, past the park. It’s only February, so it’ll be a few months before they put that little wooden construction in the lake, a shelter for the birds that paddle in the murky water and leap across the lily pads in the warm sun.
‘Two,’ I say, eventually. My chest is so tight. ‘Would you have told me, if I hadn’t worked it out?’
And there’s a pause.
A very long pause. Too long a pause. I don’t think to count the seconds because I’m concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other in the darkness, as my cold hands turn into fists in the pockets of my fluffy coat.
We’re at the bottom of the park when he finally says – ‘I think so.’
That was it. Right there. That moment. That was when I knew. When I finally asked the question that had been lurking in the darkest corner of my mind for three days. Since I had my suspicions – not even suspicions, certainties, if that’s even a word – confirmed, via text, when I was out for dinner with the only friend I would have felt totally comfortable crying on if I’d needed to.
– I didn’t, though. I held it in. I even went to the bistro loo, and sat in the tiny room staring at all the retro posters all over the walls and trinkets on shelves, trying to work out how I felt and why wasn’t I crying? Why wasn’t I heaving and hurling up my dinner? Because, it seemed, I needed to finish my lovely Valentine’s celebration with this wonderful pal, and drive her all the way home, before I could truly absorb what had happened and react properly. I waved goodbye from the front seat, turned the car around, said to myself, ‘well, that’s it then’, and I instinctively put my favourite song of the moment on – ‘Almost’, by Bowling for Soup. That was when I started screaming, through tears. That’s when I lost it. I fully indulged the pop punk teen inside me as I yelled along to every line. I almost had you/I almost wish you would have loved me, too. It was a low point. So were the next two days, when I would stick my head in the cupboards on the shop floor as I struggled to breathe; when my supervisor (also a good friend, who’d also been through a break-up very recently) would look over at me, and see exactly what was about to happen, and ask me to grab some bits from the stock room quickly, so I could run upstairs and cry into a box of bath bombs. I took photos of myself in those moments, though I couldn’t say why. Maybe to remind myself never to go back. I’d already gone back, and known it wouldn’t end well. So why did I? Was the sex really that good? Or did I just want to postpone the pain of the actual ending? I think, sadly, it was the latter.
So now here I was, with the key questions bullet-pointed in my brain, the points I wanted to cover in this conversation, everything prepped. I was determined not to cry. Not to give it away. But when that moment came, when he said those words, I think so… something changed. I can only describe it as a dawning, of sorts. In a particularly excellent self-worth non-fic I have since read, the author phrased it perfectly; a weird kind of calm and peace came over me, a bright light, a gentle breath of pure unpolluted air.
This isn’t worth it. None of this is worth it.
Oh sure, we went round and round with further discussion after this moment passed, but I had a new burst of energy, suddenly. A new perspective, one I’d needed for so, so long. Had I actually been happy, for the past few months? Fuck, the past year? Not really. And everyone has said since, even those who had no idea what had happened; I’ve been different since this. I’ve got better. I’m the old me again. The happy me. I’ve shaken off a shadow I didn’t even realise had been hanging from my shoulders. A responsibility. A promise. A burden. More than one friend on more than one occasion had actually likened him to a Dementor, sapping me of all my good energy and leaving me empty.
The new perspective, that nothing was going to salvage this, that it was over, that I never wanted to be in close contact with this person again, at least not for a good while, gave me the strength to argue. To point a finger. To shout. I saw him shrink a little as I did it, murmuring that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that technically though, and his friends all backed him up, etc. etc. I laughed, at one point. I shrieked with laughter. I cackled. Because I was free. I didn’t need to waste any more breath explaining my side of things, telling him why it was a shitty thing he’d done – I didn’t need to tell him more than once that he’d thrown away three whole years with someone who rooted for him probably harder than anyone else had, and forgave probably more than anyone should, all for some rando who appeared as the bell for last orders rang. Eventually I stopped arguing, because I was done. Done, in the biggest and broadest and most brilliant sense of the word.
Oh, sure, the memory of it still hurts sometimes. I still wonder who it was, but I still don’t want to actually know. I still think how much better it could have been, if we’d seen the signs sooner and not been so afraid or perhaps even stubborn to make the admission. I have yet to talk about it properly in therapy, but I will someday soon.
Then I remember the moment I knew. I cast my mind back to that cold, dark evening walk along the seafront, I put my mind into that past version of me who felt so baffled, broken and betrayed, and then delightfully angry. I knew it then, and I know it now. I deserve better than that. I am better than that.