Michael Hobbes | Longreads | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)
“Wait, so your ex called your boss and tried to get you fired?”
This is me.
This is Andy. We are on a break from German class, 15 minutes between the future tense and the subjunctive. He’s from Baton Rouge and I’m from Seattle, but we’re speaking German, for practice. We are not very good.
“Er ist ein … Fucker,” Andy says. “He told my boss I was reading ebooks at my desk instead of working—which I totally was.”
“So, did you get fired?” I ask.
“No, my boss already knew I was a super shitty employee. But then I called up my ex’s boss and got him fired.” Andy’s former boyfriend is in Amsterdam; he’s a mechanic. A few months ago he told a customer that her car was totaled, bought it off her for a few hundred euros, then sold it the next week for two thousand.
“Es ist nicht so gut,” I say, my German failing, as always, to reach the correct level of emphasis. We are both going through breakups. It’s been a week since mine and six since his. This is what we talk about every day, 15 minutes at a time.
Two weeks ago, Andy’s ex visited him here in Berlin. They had dinner, then sex, then Andy asked him to leave, told him he shouldn’t sleep over now that they’re not boyfriends anymore. Three days later, the cops called. His ex is filing charges for attempted murder. He says putting him out on the street in middle of the night in February is an act of violence. Andy has to be in court next week.
“Es ist…” I say.
“Nicht so gut,” Andy says. “Ja.”
* * *
This is Noah. This is the conversation where we break up. I am doing most of the talking.
I always did. Noah is the strong silent type, and I am neither, and this is why, I am telling him, we should not date each other anymore. We are sitting on his couch and we are tied around each other and his silence makes me go quieter and now I’m whispering, my face right up against his.
We are too different, I whisper. We should break up before we fill the distance between us with something malignant, irreparable. He doesn’t say anything and then a minute goes by, and then another minute, and he is tracing his finger up and down my leg like it’s the last time he will ever do it and he starts to cry and I am still whispering. I’m so sorry.
* * *
“If he’s in Berlin, then I can’t be.”
This is Charles. He’s going through a breakup too. The relationship lasted six years, mostly long distance, him in Berlin, Ben in Albequerque. “We were together every waking moment two months a year, then never for the other ten,” he says.
Charles started cheating on Ben about two years ago—guys in nightclubs, online, at the gym. He spent 18 months trying to convince Ben to have an open relationship. “If he starts sleeping with other people,” he told me at the time, “then I won’t feel as bad for doing that already.”
“This is going to end badly,” is what I think I told him back then, but maybe only because it did. Charles told Ben about one of the guys he’d been sleeping with, a Pole in Berlin with his own boyfriend. The four of them had had dinners together, Ben had even suggested a threesome.
After that trickle of disclosure, Ben got into Charles’s gmail and unleashed the flood: Two years of flirting, dates, sexual logistics, nudes sent to random guys in Schöneberg—interspersed with miss yous and see you soons to himself.
Ben slammed the laptop shut and embarked on a six-month-long vendetta. He closed their joint bank account, ended Charles’s lease, canceled his credit cards, texted their mutual friends, including me, asking if we knew about Charles’s “tower of lies.”
Taking heavy fire, Charles quit his job and retreated to his parents’ place in Bristol. Now he’s back in Berlin, staying in my living room while he looks for a job. Ben is visiting Berlin this weekend to go partying. He texted Charles his arrival and departure dates and asked him to leave town, or at least its nighttimes, in between. Charles is considering Gran Canaria.
* * *
“If someone is nuts, truly nuts, it’s always either a chemical imbalance or a bad breakup.”
This is Oliver, my ex-boyfriend, my other ex-boyfriend. We dated for precisely five days, right after I moved to London in 2003. I told him, on a park bench, looking up at the gray, down at the green, anywhere but him, that I didn’t want to get into a relationship so soon after arriving. Let’s just be friends.
Then, for almost a week, we were. On Tuesday we saw 2 Fast 2 Furious. On Thursday we went to see the greyhound races in Walthamstow. On Saturday we rented a movie and went to his place in Mile End, opposite ends of the couch, sweating aluminum takeaway boxes on our knees. Then I slept over. On Sunday I slept over again, kept sleeping over, four or five nights a week, for the next year. We weren’t dating, we told our friends, ourselves, but we went on vacation together, tested out recipes, had a joint birthday party. When my under-the-table internship finally started paying me, they made the checks out to him.
Now it is 10 years later and it has been nine since I moved away and we are friends, the actual kind. He’s married to a lovely Australian, and we talk about movies and politics and books and work, but never about our relationship to each other, which is all we ever used to talk about. We are sitting on a park bench, again, and it is a month since me and Noah broke up.
“The only people I ever used to see at the hospital who went from normal to crazy and back again, it was always a breakup.” Oliver is a doctor, one of his rotations a few years ago was in a mental hospital.
“People would have these totally normal lives,” Oliver says, “then they meet a girl or a boy and it triggers these obsessions. All of a sudden they’re stalkers, violent, making threats. Then that person is out of their life and they’re normal and it never happens again.”
Noah is on vacation; in Thailand with his parents. Some days I’m like I should just show up at the airport when he comes back. Others it’s why don’t we just get married and start again. Some I fume, convinced the friend he just added on Facebook is his new boyfriend. How dare he.
This is what Oliver means. These are the madness crystals starting to form.
“Did you ever have a bad breakup?” I ask.
“Only you,” he says. “When we stopped—”
“Whatever that was,” I interrupt before he gets to the verb, and it’s far away enough for us to laugh.
* * *
“The hardest part”—this is Charles again—”is that he is going to get over this way faster than you.”
This is Charles’s way of consoling me, splashing cold water in my face. He sees my lip trembling.
“… but I’m sure you’ll stay in touch?” he says.
“That’s just it,” I say. “We probably will. And in a year, I’ll be attending his wedding to some fucking startup billionaire.”
“He is suspiciously easy to get along with,” Charles says.
“This is not helping,” I say.
But neither is anything else. I’ve spent the last six weeks achieving a pantomime of a normal life. I busy myself, stupid things, memorizing German idioms, biking to the end of all of Berlin’s S-bahn lines. I try listening to podcasts and audiobooks on my bike rides, but I can’t concentrate so I play the same songs over and over again. Classical music, low-rent remixes, the longer the song the faster the time goes by.
Movies work, then they don’t. I watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and all of a sudden it is wise. I watch High Fidelity and wonder how I ever found humor in it. I watch Anchorman and I post something on Facebook about the melancholy at its core and my friends, the ones I have told, tell me to go out more.
I become insatiably curious about other people’s breakups. Jake, his worst was 13 years ago: The aspiring actress who disappeared on him, resurfaced pregnant, asked for 300 bucks for an abortion, disappeared again, then called a year later to tell him she kept the baby. He spent the next 10 years in family court, fighting to get his son away from her.
Peter’s worst was the one where he broke up with his boyfriend, then found his escort profile online a week later.
“Did you do this when we were dating?” he asked.
“Was I not supposed to?” his ex replied.
Todd’s last girlfriend used to call him crying for months after he broke up with her, threatening to slit her wrists.
Geoff just broke up with an Australian and has lost, he tells me, “any desire to visit that fucking country.”
My dad broke up with Helen, his only serious girlfriend before my mom, two days before their wedding. “I knew she wasn’t right the day I met her,” he tells me, crackling, on Skype, “but it wasn’t ’til my father asked, ‘Do you really want to marry this girl?’ that I realized I didn’t have to.”
Right after my dad left her she got rich—millions—adapting a dental adhesive into a commercial nail polish.
The money tilted her downward. She spent it all in a few years, then became convinced that she was married to Ron Howard. She moved to Southern California to enroll her son in the same school as his kids. A restraining order was filed. Somewhere along the line she legally changed her name, her full name, to “Dallas.”
Helen is family lore; I’ve been hearing this story since I was a kid. “If we didn’t break up,” my dad used to say, “I would have been Mr. Dallas.”
But now, as he tells it again, I hear it from her perspective and all I can think about is that call when he told her that she and he would now become acquaintances and now I’m breathing hard again and I say goodbye and I clap my laptop shut and think keep it together, Mike.
These stories remind me of me, but they do not remind me of Noah. All I can remember now is how he was always on time, how he was never in a bad mood, how I never had to apologize for him, how he looked at me whenever something made him laugh, to share it with me.
So why, I keep asking myself, did I feel alone when we were together?
We agreed, in whispers, not to contact each other for six weeks. This is the only way. In the ruins of our relationship, as in the midst of it, he is a consummate adult. No drunk dials, no snatching or poisoning our mutual friends, no attention-grabs on social media.
If he is dating other people, if he has moved on, if he is miserable or ecstatic or angry, if he is walking around like I am, forgetting, then taking shallow breaths as he remembers, he doesn’t display it. He doesn’t inflict it on me.
* * *
“My friend Johannes is going to meet us there.”
This is Noah. It is three months since we broke up and we are hanging out again, and still learning how.
The first time we saw each other after the breakup was awkward. Of course it was. It didn’t help that I suggested the shisha place near my house and that at the tables next to us were teenagers playing tinny German hip-hop at each other on cellphone speakers. He noticed that I had combed my hair. “You never used to do that,” he said, as if it were years ago. He reached out to touch it then he stopped, put both hands in his hoodie, sat back like he was waiting at a bus stop.
We have gotten better since then. He sent me a photo a week later, a new haircut, what do you think? I sent him one of mine a week after that. I still ask for his advice on which clothes to buy, and still ignore it. We show up at a barbecue together and Jake pulls me aside to ask if we are together again. We are comfortable, he notes, we stand closer together than we do with other people.
Afterward, Noah tells me he saw me flirting with the host. “If that was your A-game,” he says, “you are going to need the rest of the alphabet.”
Tonight we’re seeing a concert, some pop star I’ve never heard of, tickets Noah bought before we broke up. “Who’s your friend Johannes?” I ask.
“Just a guy I’ve been seeing,” Noah says, and my tongue drops to my stomach. “He’s Bavarian.”
“Your German was always better than mine,” I manage to say.
“It still is,” he says, and the silence between us is so long his smile fades, and then I change the subject. By the time we get to the concert the dread in my stomach has become a ringing in my ears and I tell Noah I’m leaving.
“He might not even come, Mike,” he says.
“It’s not that,” I say, and I know it sounds like a lie, and that it is. I bike home and I’m asleep by 9:30.
* * *
The last breakup story I hear is Stephan’s. He was 22, studying in Dresden. His boyfriend, Stefan with an f, was 36 and unemployed. It was never going to last. Stephan dumped Stefan the night before finals week.
The next morning, Stephan noticed a poster on the streetlight where he parked his bike.
“My heart,” it read. “Come back to me. Love, your bunny.”
He saw the same poster on the next streetlight, on all the streetlights along his bike ride to school. There was one wrapped around the tree above the bike rack where he parked, and another taped to the door of his first class. Before he opened it, he leaned in and saw that above “My heart” was written PH and under “your bunny,” F.
When Stephan got home, there was a giftwrapped box outside his apartment door. He threw it away without opening it, and never spoke to Stefan again.
I tell Noah this a month after the concert.
“Why did Stephan with a ph throw away the box?” he asks. This is who he hears the story as.
“It just would have just been more breakup stuff,” I say. He crinkles up his eyebrows and I tell him the other stories—Helen and Andy and Charles—and I see in his face that he does not understand them, that he can’t, that the darkness driving them is foreign to him. And I realize, for the first time, that this was the distance between us.
“Should we hang out again next week?” I say.
“I’ll text you tomorrow anyway,” he says. “I’m getting a haircut.”
* * *
Editor: Mike Dang