Breaking Up Without Breaking A Lease: How Two Ex-Lovers Shared An Apartment

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man and woman in bed

"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 Nathan, my 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.

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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 me 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 the 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 avoidance 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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There was our initial flirtation in Chicago, during a trip we took for fun with coworkers.

In Cape Cod, I had slain him at quarters and he'd rambled on about the ocean.

We even laughed about our first real fight, when — in complete exasperation  —I'd thrown the remote control against the wall. His reaction caught me off guard. "What is wrong with you?" he'd asked, his eyes laughing. His candor could always defuse me. (The remote control would survive, with help from duct tape.)

During the weeks following the breakthrough, relations improved considerably, making it easy to drag our feet on the apartment hunt.

We fell into our old habits: taking turns making dinner, talking about our days, going off for random walks in the park. Suddenly, we were friends again but not quite back together. Socially, we hung out separately, only to meet each other at a corner bar later in the night before heading home.

Our newfound easiness made me rationalize staying together.

We had it pretty good, after all: an affordable apartment, years of cultivating inside jokes. Nathan was completely devoted to me, pulled his own weight financially, and had bottomless patience. Our living together for six months after the breakup made me remember the man I was giving up. Here was the friend I first fell for years ago. Maybe we were worth a second shot.

Fate thought otherwise.

By April, we still hadn't told our landlord about our intention to move out, and we talked about sticking it out until September when our lease would end. But a visit from the landlord preempted our plans to procrastinate. He told us he'd gotten a new job in San Francisco and would be moving his family there by midsummer. The brownstone was for sale.

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I'd let myself forget why we'd broken up in the first place. After the landlord's news, I remembered that I'd broken up with Nathan and did so in a way that passed the point of no return.

As much as I loved Nathan, I knew one thing for certain: We had grown apart.

Our living together had revealed discrepancies we constantly struggled with.

For instance, the state of the apartment—he was clean and I was messy. We also had very different, deep-rooted ideas about life. An early illness imbued him with a live-for-the-day attitude. Meanwhile, I was always thinking and preparing for the future.

I had asked Nathan once what he saw when he imagined himself 20 years out. "I see myself healthy, happy, and still having fun," he'd said without missing a beat. That pretty much answered any questions I had about a future with him.

With the brownstone on the market, our apartment searches began in earnest.

By mid-June, we had both signed leases on our own new homes, mine a studio back in Manhattan and his in Brooklyn. When I think of that time, it elicits a near-Pavlovian response—a distinct buzz no doubt generated from stress.

Surviving the six months had its upside, though. The rough road not only paved a path back to friendship for me and Nathan but also cemented in my mind the reasons why leaving was the right thing to do.

Nathan and I did talk about possibly staying together, but when it came to making an actual decision, neither of us was willing to go out on a limb. "This is what you wanted, wasn't it?" he'd say. I had no answer. Which only underscored the big gamble ahead of me.

While rummaging through the silverware set Nathan's mom gave us shortly after we moved in together, the stakes announced themselves.

The only thing in the cutlery drawer that belonged to me was a pair of mahogany chopsticks, an impulse purchase from an upscale boutique in Boston. I didn't even have a fork to eat with.

Alex Alexander is a pseudonym.