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THE GOODBYE.

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HOW WE SEPARATE WITHOUT BREAKING APART
[posted 08.02.2004]

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I FEEL LIKE I should be waiting for the electric guy, but he was here before I arrived. So was the gas guy. New, forwarded mail is already arriving. The apartment is empty, which is strange considering how overstuffed the car was. Somehow you never pack the car with what you’ll immediately need; you only end up with what you forgot to send with the movers.

But as I sit here amid boxes filled with what I somehow forgot to throw out (cheese grater, wrong-size coffee filters, tube socks), I know the most important thing is going back to Chicago rather than staying here in Los Angeles.

It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. B. and I had only been together since last December and the job LA was dangling before me was disturbingly close to perfect. So they flew me out. And then we flew out. Apartment hunting soon followed.

B. was totally supportive, letting me make the decision on my own — no guilt or preservatives added.

In the past, opportunities to move to the land of asphalt and tofu — chances to indulge the Annie Hall-ness of it all — had been shelved for previous long-term significant others who either insisted on marriage as a pre-condition to moving out or assumed I’d just been joking — this, despite the job interviews, apartment searches and whatnot.

Perhaps I’d been afflicted with pathological patience, sometimes less charitably called inertia, but I’d rather recall the words of a banker friend: “Opportunities are easier to make up than lost money.” Substitute “love” for “money” and — voila! — that logic extends to relationships: There would always be another chance, another job, another time. In the end, though, when bad relationships go retrograde, time still marches forward, steady and unforgiving.

Still, that’s only half of the issue. There’s also the big question — “Should I stay or should I go?” — and its compromise answer (“You stay, I go”), which never much appealed to me either. I spent most of college in a long-distance relationship, and that experience — granted it was almost 10 years ago — made me realize I would never be a gold medallist in the event. It’s not necessarily because I can go for days without talking — which asks unrealistic things of the phone, much less the person on the other line. Nor is it the travel; business trips had already made me fluent in such Byzantine codes as ORD, LGA, IAD, V-fare, Y-fare and EQM.

No, it’s more than that. For one, I take cold comfort in the daily rituals of relationships. I’m of the firm belief that daily life stuff sucks donkey balls. Laundry? I’d just keep buying new clothes if I could afford it. Grocery shopping? I once sent my Webvan guy a card for his daughter’s birthday. Car wash? So many people had written WASH ME on my old Jeep that I finally wrote back WASH YOUR FUCKING FINGER. Previous relationships had either helped dilute this delicious misery or provided someone to spin these events into fantastic adventures. But those moments are hard to share across time zones.

The bigger problem is my tendency, when unsupervised, to collapse into myself. In my last year of college, buried under the workload to graduate on time and finish a thesis after switching majors at the last minute, I pulled a Howard Hughes and disappeared. Friends who had initially embraced the dysfunction and found joy in slipping flat foods under my door eventually faded into the desert. My dad called every other day for 10 seconds just to make sure I hadn’t truly lost my shit. I didn’t see sun for weeks, I smelled dimly of cigarettes even though I didn’t smoke, I was constantly being mistaken for a grad student.

In short, left to my own devices, I can quickly lose all regard for the day after tomorrow. Having someone X-thousand miles away tends to help only marginally — I’ve found I need an on-site manager.

And none of this is to wrap this neatly into a lame-ass cliché, to sing B.‘s praises as a muse or 12-step goddess. This isn’t Leaving Las Vegas, for Christ’s sake — if I were interested in polishing brass on the Titanic, I’d sure as hell go whole hog and not stop at just liquor.

No, this is about how I felt three weeks earlier.

We flew out to apartment-hunt on the Fourth of July. Between Harper’s quizzes and American Way crosswords, we watched the endless grids of the prairie yield to frosted peaks, land punctuated with snaking rail lines and disappearing rivers. Occasionally, another jetliner would shoot by, wispy trails tapering off its winglets. Finally, we arrived to what seemed like a regal welcome — fireworks tickled the sky as the captain told us it was 70F and mild.

I looked over at B. then, silently wishing this was how we would arrive here for real — together, with neither of us rehearsing our goodbyes.

But this trip reeked of relocation rather than discovery. We had only four days to drive out — I had a conference in Utah the day after our trip, and she had a mountain of work to whittle away at. So we felt guilty for getting sidetracked in Zion National Park; our time in Vegas barely strained a watch’s second hand.

I suppose we kept ourselves harried to avoid long spells of silence and sadness.

The day B. left for Chicago, we dug in on the 10 during rush hour, determined to grab sushi in Little Tokyo before her flight. Then, with just a couple hours left, we sped down the freeway until the signs for LAX came to a stop.

She had an hour to navigate the airport’s Babylonian maze, so she hopped out quickly with her bag. The kiss was short, the embrace almost crushing. Her face was tucked in my shoulder; she wasn’t letting go. Then she did. And I saw something I never had before — her tears.

They weren’t there when I was laid off — we used the severance to go surfing in Costa Rica. They didn’t appear on the night she spent in jail — instead, she bounced from cot to cot to see how far she could jump across the cell. They’d been absent when we returned from a trip and found her car flooded out — a second time.

But they were here now, just as I was fighting off mine. She smiled, told me to take care of myself. An odd request, I thought, until I realized she had been so good at keeping me together when I’m so good at coming apart.

And with that, she disappeared into Terminal 3.

I hate driving in silence, but as I left LAX and merged onto the 405, I turned off the radio, relying on the two-note symphony of pavement and expansion strips to keep my feelings at bay.

When I hit the local streets, I tuned in NPR for company. The sun had glided in and its warmth burned off the fog in my head. I opened the sunroof and noticed the faint scent of eucalyptus just as Karl Kassel’s voice crisply cut out with the end of his segment. Just then, I made a right onto Sunset and turned the radio back off, and cried. And then silence.

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ben kim lives and works in los angeles.