If you ask me why I couldn’t tell you. It was not one thing, it was many. Perhaps, in the end, it was the question of what I loved about him, and I couldn’t say anymore. We’d been together long enough for me to have forgotten. So, I told him one day, after we’d fought more bitterly than usual, that I couldn’t do it anymore. We were too different. We wanted different things. We should find other people who loved us for who we were and did not try to make us change… the usual breakup trite. He didn’t protest. He let me go. That was how he was.
Then he messaged. Six months later. It was short. What’s up? I considered ignoring him. My friends had warned against this. “You’d think it doesn’t matter… What’s one little message? But it does… leads to more confusion and pain.” They were right, of course. But they’d also told me not to date him. “Cynical, jaded, pothead,” they’d said. Yet, I did. One more wrong, what did it matter?
We met on a Friday night, in a dark, dank pub. Music beat down our heads and sweaty elbows nudged as we bobbed onto tall stools. In the nebulous, suspended drape of shadows and lights, I saw his happy face… and then there was mine. We spoke in a rush, in a hurry to expel the past six months. A tornado of words. A movie whose reels moved too fast. Then when we paused to take a breath, I leaned forward and said, “ Nice to see you again.”
He nodded. Matter-of-fact. A blank face. Nothing else. The reasons for leaving him were coming back. Damn. What am I doing here?
Then Tyler Durden spoke in my head. “You’ve lost everything, right? You’re free to do anything now.”
Fight Club was our favorite movie. Tyler Durden our hero. We’d watched it in his place, snuggled on his couch. We were still in love then, wanting to please the other. And we loved the movie together, despite the need to pretend. After we were done, when he asked me what I wanted to eat, I said, “Let’s order in.”
“What?” he asked. “Anything,” I said. It didn’t matter then. Being with him was enough… until it wasn’t.
“Ratatouille Ravioli,” I said now.
“Fish and chips,” he said.
We were obviously not going to share anymore.
“But some whiskey first,” I said.
“Jim Beam,” he added, a twinkle in his eye.
Some, we could still share.
After a drink, I felt somewhat benevolent. This was not going too badly. So, I tried to explain to him. Placing my palms flat on the table, facing down, a few inches apart from each other, I said, “This is us… very similar. But you see that. That chasm of air…” I pointed my chin at the space between my palms.
He raised his eyebrows. Was he curious or disapproving? With him, I never knew. I gave him an encouraging smile. Pointed again. He returned a slight nod. He was listening.
“We are very alike,” I said, “but on different levels… on parallel planes. Like parallel lines.”
I raised a palm to make my point. “Parallel lines,” I said. “What do we know about them?”
“What?” he asked.
A second’s dramatic pause later: “The ‘twain never meet.”
His eyes narrowed at that.
“We’re the same,” I tried to explain, thinking him still confused, “but there are things in me you don’t understand and things in you I don’t.” I paused. “Many, many things.”
I glanced up at him. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.
“What?” I asked.
He shook his head. Looked away.
I felt my heart sink an inch. Was he going to leave now? I needed to get him a few pegs down, then the smile would slip out like the sun on a misty day. Whoever said alcohol was a nuisance hadn’t met the modern romance. “Why do we drink so much?” he’d asked me once. “We drink so we can feel…” I’d told him, “…so we can love.” It’d sounded strange to my ears when I’d said it. We were both old, apparently too jaded to love, too worldly-wise to feel love anymore in the way poets write about. But when we were drunk, we felt it: the excitement, the throb in our hearts, the need to submit, the urge to confess. It was easy to be one, it was easy to let go. No tussle of egos, no guesswork. But the shitty bit about drinking? The aftermath. The hangover. Waking up the next morning, trying to recall what you did, what you said, does he love me still, was I too vulnerable, that he hates me now. I think he knew why we drank too. We were trying to make the impossible happen. Love and whiskey can bridge chasms only so much.
And now we called for another round. If he was thinking he could get me to bed after, he was sorely wrong. That was something I was not going to do. My friends had warned me. This advice I was going to heed. We looked at each other through hooded eyes.
“You don’t know me at all,” I said.
“No?” he murmured.
“Do you even know what I like?” I said and felt the anger rise, as it always did when I tried to make him feel. “You can’t make me feel the same as you,” he’d said once. “It’s not the same. You can’t make me.”
What must it be like… to be like that? To not be giddy or breathless… to not love like the world was ending. To have the pulse race at the thought, touch, or possibility of meeting a lover? “Calming,” he’d said. “Unwavering.” A rock in a storm. A rock that never rose or sank. But I was the soil it crushed underneath. The feather on its surface. I flitted around, but never caused more than a dent. Yet, I was all open, all vulnerable, ready for his taking. I knew no other way. But then… neither did he. One a feather, one a rock. Maybe we were not the lines I thought we were.
“You are full of analogies today,” he said.
“But not the right ones.”
There. Like he knew everything. So frustrating.
We’d met at a café. I was a regular, it was his first time. But then he came a few more times, and we got talking. It wasn’t a fire-in-your-veins, an-explosion-waiting-to-happen kind of a love story, but we grew into it. We were both single and looking. We’d had a similar upbringing, shared a common set of friends, and had almost analogous plans for the future. Coupledom is really nothing more than a ticking of desirable attributes. It’s like we have an unconscious, invisible scanner inside us that filters potential mates as they walk in and out of our lives. I wish it were more reliable.
“I do know,” he said.
“Know what?” I replied, spitting out the words. “What I like?”
It came then. The hard glint in his eyes. The cruel, mocking jibe. He was angry. But what was he angry about? That I was being sarcastic? Or that I had left him? Or that I was making it his fault? Or… my reason wasn’t good enough? We were very different, so why did we stick around for so long? Because in theory, everything was perfect. Not just our life stories, but what we were, at our core. Both outliers, rebels, thinkers, and dissenters, and we saw in each other a kindred spirit. Together, against the world. But, together alone? We were not all that good. A rock and a feather. I had to toughen up to keep him from crushing me. Or he had to soften to meld in with me. Neither wanted to be the other.
Another round of whiskeys.
“You like to read,” he said.
“Everyone knows that,” I said.
He didn’t read. It hadn’t mattered until he stopped listening to my stories.
“It’s because you don’t read,” I’d told him once to win an argument. “That you don’t know.”
“How has that helped you?” he snapped.
“What do you mean?” I asked him, puzzled.
“Are you more sensible, for example, because of it?” he said.
Everything is adorable until it stops being that, and then there’s no going back. Love is such a muddling, hazy glass. Wipe the hormones away, and there you are — a staid, boring landscape.
“Let’s talk of other things,” I murmured. “I want to this to be happy. Civil. A standalone night in a sea of plaintive ones. An escape.”
He nodded. We moved on to more cheerful topics, the kinds that made me wonder, now and again, like a jack-in-the-box question popping in my head, why we split in the first place. Then, sooner than I feared, it was time to leave. Swaying, we got to our feet. Dropped our credits cards on the table. I pushed away one hopeful thought after another.
“Was this productive for you?” he asked.
What had I hoped to achieve? I wanted to see him. Just that. The consequences were to come tomorrow.
I didn’t answer him. We stood awkwardly waiting for the waiter to show up. People milled about and around. Flighty banter, sweaty armpits, sixties music, singing along. I heard the voice in my head again. Why had I loved him at all? Why couldn’t I get him out of my head?
I was going to ask him, but he moved first. Pulled me to himself. Put his arms around. A crushing bear hug.
“What the…” I struggled to speak. Hoped he’d never let me go.
Then in my ears, he whispered and I listened, with the usual maybe-this-has-a-future kind of hope in my heart.
“Square pegs, not parallel lines,” he said.
“We are square pegs.” I laughed into his chest. Because I knew what he meant.
We were square pegs in a world full of round holes. And we understood each other.
This story was earlier published in litro.co.uk and www.indianreview.in