We broke up in the parking lot of an Uno Pizzeria in Boston.
He wanted to settle down. He wanted kids and a good job and a yard for a dog to run in. I wanted New York. And London. And maybe Thailand for a year or two. I wanted to write and to live in a shitty apartment and to be in love in a tumultuous way. I was barely 21; I didn’t want it to be easy yet.
We ordered two individual deep-dish pizzas to go and sat in his car eating them in silence. We told ourselves it would be nice not to tip, or to listen to the bad ’90s songs they played inside the restaurant, but maybe it was just nice to not talk for a while.
“Something isn’t right,” I said.
“Did they give you the wrong sauce?” He looked at me with a face of genuine concern that reminded me why I loved him.
“No. Not the pizza. Us,” I said.
A spot of red sauce crept down his chin. Without permission, I wiped it away with my thumb.
Through tears, we sat in the car making promises we couldn’t keep, our cold pizza unattended at our feet.
Maybe in a couple years, we promised each other.
I held onto that longer than I should have.
It was my justification three months later as clicked through his Facebook profile late at night. I just want to see how he is, I told myself. I wonder if he’s found that job yet, I reasoned. I wonder if his parents are still in good health.
I always had a good reason for going back.
Their first photograph together was taken at a party.
At least I can assume it was a party from the red Solo cup she held and his tipsy half-smile — the same one I used to tease him about. His fingers were wrapped around her waist and as I stared at my computer screen I tried not to think about how I used to feel when he put his hands the same place on me.
Maybe they’re just friends. Did he know her while we were dating? I wonder if they spent the night together.
I’m not allowed to care, I reminded myself. But I did. I slammed my laptop shut. I was done torturing myself for one night. But when I fell asleep, I dreamed of him.
It was winter. Dirty snow lined the parking lot of the 7-Eleven where we bought papers to roll joints. As we leaned against the car I could feel the cold spreading through my body from the soles of my feet.
He exhaled purposefully onto me, his cloud of hot breath drifting toward me.
Like any dreamscape, it wasn’t quite right. The plotline didn’t make sense. Why were we standing outside rather than walking in? Why were we driving my mother’s car instead of his? Why wasn’t he wearing a jacket?
Why were we still together?
I took my hands out of my gloves and put them under his shirt, finding my way to his chest. He winced and then smiled at me.
“I’m just here to warm your extremities, aren’t I?” he said.
“Maybe,” I said, grinning.
I woke up cold, searching for him in my bed.
That brief moment after waking was always the worst. That moment when I felt like the dream was reality — like maybe we never broke up at all. That moment when I willed myself back to sleep, wishing nothing more than to return to my hand on his chest. That moment where I remembered so easily what it felt like to love and to be loved that it seemed impossible it wasn’t true anymore.
I grabbed my phone from my nightstand and started scrolling through his Twitter. I needed to be with him, in whatever capacity I could. As I read the words on my screen I could hear his voice so clearly. I imagined him laughing at his own joke before posting it and smiled at the thought. I could hear his voice so easily that for a moment my bed didn’t feel quite so empty.
Six months after we broke up, there was another photo: him and the girl with the red Solo cup at a baseball game. My stomach twisted as I realized she was destined to become a recurring character in his life. I scrolled through the photos of them together, each holding a drink. I wondered if she liked sports, or if she was more interested in the overpriced beers and hot dogs like I was. I wondered if she enjoyed remarking on the tightness of the player’s pants, or discussing the blood alcohol content of the people around her. I wondered if they were having fun.
Seeing them together, with their easy smiles and full cups, it still didn’t register that he had moved on.
Maybe in a couple of years — that promise came back to me too easily. I didn’t want him now, but I didn’t think that meant I couldn’t have him ever.
I couldn’t digest that he could fall in love with someone else while I still loved him. At that point, I didn’t understand love could be one-sided like that. I couldn’t imagine he told her the things he told me, or looked at her the same way.
In my deluded state, I actually felt sorry for her. This poor girl’s boyfriend is in love with his ex, I thought. It’s funny how easy it is to believe the unbelievable when it hurts less.
I pictured him lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing the girl lying next to him was me. It was easier to imagine he was sleeplessly staring at walls, searching for me in his bed, than to believe the truth: He wasn’t thinking of me at all.
The internet told me a lot about her. It told me she was beautiful and smart. It told me she was social and her smile made her seem kind. I wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t.
She took pictures with children and smiled wholeheartedly in photos. She laughed in a way that seemed authentic. She looked like the kind of girl who didn’t take long to get ready.
I looked at her profile and then went back to my own, attempting to step outside of myself and act as an unbiased judge between the two of us. I looked at our profiles and saw all the things we had in common, and all the things we did not. My face was more angular and sharper than hers, my hair a little less blonde. My smile didn’t come as easily, except in the photos in which I was with him. She volunteered more than I did, but I seemed to get outdoors more. She looked like she came from money, and I looked like I was living on hand-me-downs and budgeted grocery lists. We had our differences but we also had our overarching similarities: We both loved our family, our friends, and the same guy.
Months passed and I watched them tag each other in photos and their relationship status change. I cringed as they exchanged banter on Twitter and speculated what their jokes were about. I noticed when she became friends with his sisters and took a photo with his mother. I saw him wearing the watch I bought him as he stood next to her on a vacation they took together. I saw them driving in the car we kissed in — the car we broke up in.
I saw their relationship go the places ours had gone and to places it had not.
I wondered if they fought. I wondered if the things he did that annoyed me bothered her in the same way. I wondered if she wanted the big yard and the good job, too.
I could have stopped looking at any time, but it was addicting. I wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to see if it worked out. Or maybe I wanted to see if it didn’t.
Despite my self-inflicted torture, I didn’t reach out to him.
I still wanted New York. And London. And maybe Thailand for a year or two. Nothing had changed. But I liked seeing photos of that toothy grin. I liked when he made a goofy face or wasn’t ready for a picture. He reminded me what it felt like to love someone, and I liked that part of myself.
We were both spiraling off in vastly different directions, but I still felt an inexplicable pull toward him. It was nice having him be so accessible, even if he wasn’t.
I didn’t fancy myself a stalker, though maybe that’s what I was — leering through the virtual windowpane of someone else’s happy life. I guess I just thought if I could see him on that 13-inch computer screen, then maybe he was still with me in a way, maybe I wasn’t alone, maybe I was loved. Maybe he was looking, too.
As time passed, I visited him less often. And when I did concede, the twist of the knife was not as sharp. Instead, it felt like the prodding of a dull familiar wound, one that leaves its mark, but the pain is felt more from memory than from anything else.
Eventually, I went an hour without thinking of him, then a few hours, then a day, then a week, then a month.
I am glad for the girl with the red Solo cup for finding such a good man.
Maybe he’s different now. Maybe he doesn’t snort when he laughs, or fold his pizza into a sandwich before eating it. Maybe I don’t know him at all. But still, visiting him reminds me that I am capable of love, and that I am worthy of love. It reminds me that when you truly care for another person, it never really goes away.
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