"You're doing what?"
I heard that a lot in the spring of 2007, whenever I explained to friends that I had broken up with my Nathan, boyfriend of four years, yet we were still living together in the apartment we'd shared for the last two. It was a temporary matter, I'd say, a situation that would last about a month or two, until we found our own places.
It turned out to be about six. And they were strange times. Even now, more than a year later, I'm in awe that we didn't manage to kill each other. Even stranger: by the time we parted ways and even to this day, we've managed to stay friends.
A "friendly breakup" sounds good in theory. The term is an oxymoron, something I always regarded with skepticism whenever friends would lay claim to it. After a breakup, the instinct is to get as far away from that person as possible. Maybe with enough distance, you'll remember what attracted you to each other in the first place, maybe even a lesson that validates the relationship. In time, perhaps you'll even start to like them again. But let's all agree: there's nothing friendly about breakups.
Indeed, during the first few days our interactions were definitively awkward; it became apparent that the breakup was for real. On the first night, coming home to Nathan on the sofa watching TV, I made a beeline for the bathroom and sat in the claw-foot tub. When it came time to go to sleep, I recall Nathan and I briefly negotiating who should sleep where. "I'm not the one who wanted to break up," he smiled, implying that technically, the couch was the bed I had made for myself when I ended the relationship.
Still, I didn't hate him enough to necessitate sleeping in another room, and sleeping on the couch seemed sadder than the breakup itself. Friends offered their own couches, but I politely refused. Having aged beyond my hardy twenties, I knew a stiff neck and cranky mood would weary me into conciliation. "I don't know how you do it, man," Nathan's friend, Ben, told him. "I'd be a baby about the whole thing. A baby!"
It was hard not to be. The apartment, once a haven, became a purgatory of sorts—a circle in hell assigned to decision makers without a plan B, where air hangs heavy and faults are magnified. You become exponentially sensitive to minuscule matters and so are prone to reading too much into things. Picayune matters—who rightly owned the Aerobed or the copy of Gravity's Rainbow—were argued with a stubbornness never before exhibited during our time together. Domestic misdemeanors—leaving jackets on the sofa or putting off doing the dishes—suddenly represented Everything That Was Wrong With the Relationship. Once best friends, Nathan and I regarded each other with a newfound wariness. Light banter, always easy to come by to fill the empty moments, felt inappropriate and forced. Evasion became de rigueur. We worked a little later than usual or took up offers to hang out with friends. Valentine's Day came and went. We both steered clear of the apartment.
When we were in the apartment together, it was all about careful avoidances of bodily contact, eyes not knowing where to look and one-word communications. Despite having a huge sectional sofa in our living room, we continued to sleep in the same bed. Ironically, this was easy compared to being awake. The bed was Switzerland—a conflict-free zone—where anything beyond sleeping was never initiated. We had been sharing a bed without having sex for so long before the breakup that keeping the status quo after it was easy.
Give it enough time and every breakup has its breakthrough. For Nathan and I, it happened on the couch. We had both just gotten home from work and were too exhausted to feel awkward or nervous or confused—and we just started talking. Pretty soon, we were on a virtual tour of our time together.
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