Sam Irving didn’t know how to break a heart. Sam and his current girlfriend, Rebecca, had been dating harmoniously with no interruptions since college, and his scattered flings and relationships before that had mostly been ended by the girl. He’d never broken up with a woman who cared that he broke up with her. In matters of the heart, Sam was pure and inoffensive. He didn’t cheat and only lied when it was healthy to lie.
Sam wished he knew how. Sam and Rebecca were nearing thirty, and after nearly a decade together it was clear (at least partially clear, to Sam) that it was not with Rebecca that Sam wanted to proceed. He’d realized this some months before, on a gray morning that could’ve been any other gray morning, when, upon awakening, as if remembering a dream, it struck him that the woman still sleeping on the far side of the mattress was not the woman he wanted to wake up with for the rest of his life. It was the first time he’d ever thought this way. He’d long assumed, and assumed Rebecca had long assumed too, that they would someday legalize their relationship. But that morning, a morning about which Sam could remember no other detail than his first thought, the idea that he and her might one day become he, and her, was enough to still him, enough to induce beads on his forehead, to electrocute his sleepy spine with panic, as if suddenly remembering he’d left his wallet on the bus or his car in neutral on a sloped street. The feeling didn’t linger past the snooze. Sam rolled over, as if to turn his back on it, and the feeling quickly faded, leaving only a patch of residual guilt. After a reconciliatory snuggle and a shower even the guilt subsided, and the day began to unfold, and Sam kissed Rebecca on the cheek as he left the house.
It was tumorous, however, the idea that he should end it. It reappeared sometime later that week (had it ever really gone away?) and crescendoed behind his forehead, running its uninvited overtones up his flagpole, blasting signals until the signals could no longer be ignored. Eventually it sunk in, as sure as the his and her indentions on their shared old mattress, that he would have to do it. He’d have to pull two chairs from under the kitchen table, sit her down in one and he in the other, knees to knees, and lean forward a little, and take her hand, and she’d ask why he trembled, and she’d ask why his voice was catching, and he’d bring his thumbs to her cheekbones and draw them outward, stretching her eyes briefly Asian as he wiped away the first tears.
The house that Sam and Rebecca shared in Highland Park showed no symptoms of anything imminent or amiss. Life still flowed forward, he with one oar, she with the other, alternating steady domestic strokes. The pillow on his side of the queen looked light and fluffed, gave no indication of the weight of the contents of the head that rested upon it nightly. But Sam was thinking, plotting, ripping up couch cushions and raiding spare pockets in search of the necessary courage, and at the same time hoping he’d never find it.
As a freshman, she’d lived on the girls’ third floor. He’d lived on the boys’ fourth. Their hall counselors arranged a nighttime mixer. The boys ventured down a flight to read to the girls a bedtime story. Sam was assigned Richardson 308, and had, upon knocking lightly, drifted to the bed on the left, where Rebecca lay half under the covers, looking far too pretty and painted to be ready for sleep, but that was the point. Sam at eighteen had regrettable hair. He still had another inch and a half to grow. He’d never had sex. The book was Thomas the Train Engine. They giggled through the story, laughing at every page like it was comedy. When they weren’t laughing, Rebecca stared softly at him, following his lips as he read. When it was over Sam set the book on her desk. He smiled and stood up. He asked if he could come back another time, just to talk.
Over the years Sam and Rebecca grew to know each other wordlessly, without instruction. They knew each other’s shitting habits, cousins’ birthdays and spice preferences. They learned and harbored like surrogates each other’s fears and insecurities, hopes and joys. They knew each other to such a degree that it was impossible Rebecca hadn’t by now somehow intuited the idea in Sam’s head, and if she was aware but hadn’t called him out on it, she was either hoping he’d go ahead and do it or was working up the courage to do it herself. Sam knew she wouldn’t do it, even if she wanted to — she was even more historically averse to inflicting conflict than he was, and anyway, she still loved him enormously — which left it up to him.
But breaking up with Rebecca would require breaking her heart, and Sam didn’t know how. He didn’t know if he could willingly foist massive emotional damage on someone he still loved. Plus life with Rebecca was all he’d ever known since he turned eighteen. Breaking up would be like removing from the alphabet the letters A, E, I, O, and U. Twenty one consonants remained, but spelling was now like molding concrete. She’d been your vowels. He’d miss the parts of him she’d made fluent.
But even when considering the width of their familiarity, the depth of his love, that the feeling would pass, that the issue was not her but him, Sam knew he had to do it. End it. Draw a lightning bolt down their shared red organ. Despite their decade together, despite still sharing political lean and dietary bent and televisionary preferences, they were just plain different. Eighteen to twenty-eight had seen in both Sam and Rebecca repeated re-orientations of selves — who they were, who they wanted to become — had seen them switch lanes and jump fences, from phase to phase, career to career, dress size to tie knot. The cocoons they cracked over the years took on increasingly contrasting tones from the other’s tints, Sam and Rebecca finding themselves because and in spite of the other. They’d maxed out. They couldn’t squeeze any more out of the tube. Even mostly successful relationships, like Sam and Rebecca’s, had term limits. Being the same so long had made them too different. They’d outgrown each other. Now, even sharing the same bed, he had to shout across the rooftops to reach her, to reach her, the part of her most essential to the most essential part of him, the part that required compatibility in order to make a relationship function as a relationship should, namely, without the constant temptation to leave.
The score was on its last page, the final measures approaching final rest. Sam’s arms were sweeping outward, palms up and rising, ready to loop his fists inward and cut it all off. But he still had to follow through. He still had to send ten years of shared memories and expectations into the gutter trickling towards the sea of was. The whole of their existence would need revamping. Personal narratives would need to be reorganized in the past tense, wall ornaments recast, drawers re-organized, leases and deeds reconfigured, canine custody thrashed out. Breaking up was an idea, but it collapsed a thousand more.
For as long as he could remember, Sam had been unable to initiate conflict, to have the uncomfortable conversation, even when it was necessary and overdue. Sam looked away whenever Rebecca flirted harmlessly around him, even though it wrung out his guts to see it and even though he knew she would stop if he asked. It bothered Sam when Rebecca brought her phone to bed, tap-tap-tapping until they turned the lights off, but instead of discussing it he elected to spend more time on his phone too, to make it okay, to assume half the blame himself.
It was one of the reasons they’d stayed together so long, his ability to swallow his temper whenever it thrust up his throat. When anger flushed him red, he knew to distance himself, to find an empty room and for twenty minutes lay down and let simmer. There was a time at Thanksgiving, when, toweling off after showering, he’d heard through the bathroom vent a discussion one floor below, Rebecca’s mother sounding off on Sam’s apparent lack of ambition.
‘Watching movies doesn’t make you money,’ she’d said to Rebecca.
Rebecca had not disagreed, had not defended him. Sam wanted to get down on his knees and shout down through the vents, to testify on his own behalf because nobody else seemed to be willing. Film. He studied film, not movies, and he had plans to one day start an important cinema blog. At the very least, Sam thought, as he fought the urge to rush down the steps half-naked, he would confront Rebecca in private for not sticking up for him, but, when the heat kicked on again, the rush of warm air jamming inter-floor reconnaissance, he drew his ear away from the grate and stood up and forced himself to forget. He neatly hung up his towel, adjustmenting it on the hook as if he were centering a painting. After taking an exorbitantly long time pulling on his dress slacks and buttoning his shirt, he ventured downstairs and poked at the h’orderves and asked for a little wine.
That was Sam’s contribution to the relationship. He’d sucked it up when he’d had to. It was why they’d stayed together so long, but his inability to hurl the occasional stone at the wall also had something to do with why he now wanted to break up. The aggregate anger, the repressed retorts, it was all still inside him, hardening in his underbelly. Had he throughout the years twisted the right valves and let out enough steam, he might not now be so bottled up, so dense, so desperate to be alone.
When he imagined it, being alone, it frightened him. It was like entering the womb again, the world outside so bright and uncertain. Growing up he’d had siblings. In college roommates and then Rebecca. He’d never lived alone, and had not since seventeen even had his own room. To end it with Rebecca meant becoming someone he’d never been, a whole new version of Sam Irving, someone independent. To become independent, he’d have to first become someone cruel, someone capable of crumbling another person’s life into little bits, and be willing to walk away, as if trampling over confetti following a parade.
There was an added urgency to Sam’s deliberations that had everything to do with time. It was not long before the pool of eligible marriage candidates would consist only of recycled young divorces and ex-fiances, those who’d rashly rushed into Officialdom but been spat back out, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, just as fast. There’d be young widows and widowers, struck with misfortune at too young an age, but who, however shaken and sad, were willing to recenter themselves in a quieter outer lane and take another lap around the track. There’d be people like Sam and Rebecca, people who’d never signed any papers but who nonetheless lived like it. Not that there was anything wrong with divorce or death, but everyone, if it could be helped, wanted someone else’s first at-bat. Now. Sam had to do it now, when showing up single to reunions and homecomings was still uncommented upon, unpitied, if anything, hip. Rebecca would make excellent time in Sam’s wake, quickly find someone wonderful, would accept the proposal and show up to the next reunion with a heavier left hand. And hand in hand with her new man she’d trek by Richardson Dormitory, and she’d imagine that first night together, just the two of them and Thomas the Train Engine, but that’s all it would be, a passing glance and a reminiscing tingle and maybe a brief twitch of the lips.
Sam could feel himself inching closer, but the closer he got, the more resistance he felt. There were bad times to break up with someone and there were worse times. There was never a good time. Sam was worried he’d overthink it, that he’d botch it, that his intentions would stumble out at the most inopportune time, embarrassing them both and casting an unnecessary shadow over their entire relationship.
He practiced the exchange at stoplights — Look, Becca, we need to talk, and this won’t be easy to hear. He practiced in check-out lines, addressing the hirsute veil of the unaware audience in front of him. I think we’ve both known this was coming. He practiced even with Rebecca in the room, across the dinner table when it got silent, during commercial breaks as they watched the shows that helped them forget they were no longer so pristine in each other’s company. With Rebecca ignorant of his rehearsals (or perhaps engaged in her own), he mentally supplied her retorts, rendering her at turns sad – Even if I recover, Sam, my heart will never be the same; other times angry – And don’t ever come back!, and, perhaps most curious of all, happy and relieved – Whew, I guess it’s about time. I was kind of hoping you’d do it.
But their relationship was far too sincere, far too established, far too mutually coronary and cardiac, to end happily or with relief. Which is why he couldn’t do it, couldn’t set them free, couldn’t demote them to memory, couldn’t find those first words, could not break her heart nor his. But it had to be done, it was imperative it be done, which is why Sam Irving found himself one evening in late fall, Pittsburgh on the cusp of cold weather, sitting cross-armed in the tiny gymnasium of a local elementary school, a first-time attendee of Heartbreakers Anonymous. He was not a heartbreaker, but there might still be time.