The Break-Up Chronicles
Episode 3 — Heather
Episode 3 — Heather
So, you’ll remember from Episode 2 that Heather was the waitress I had dated. She had just graduated college and spent the summer (+/- six weeks) backpacking through Europe.
After Lori’s therapist suggested that she and I break up, I fell into a bit of a funk. One is because break-ups are always shitty …even those done at the suggestion of a trained psychologist. And two, I had quit the job I had, and three, I realized that the woman I was really in love with was bopping around Europe.
In the spirit of the hopeless romantic and having way too much time on my hands, I decided to write Heather …every day. I didn’t have a whole lot going on at the time anyway. Well, I had things going on; they were going on in my head and heart. The majority of those letters were a lot about the feelings I had for her, interwoven with a review of whatever documentary I had seen that day.
I guess I should explain in a little more detail how deep these feelings were.
About eighteen months before all of this, and before Lori, I had asked Heather to marry me. Heather is the only woman I have ever asked to marry me.
She had said yes, and the next day we picked out some nice simple sterling rings to wear. We both made the public proclamation and alerted the families (we both had strange family dynamics, so it wasn’t a HUGE proclamation.)
I began making the plan for us to get married in Las Vegas — by an Elvis impersonator. I made the flight arrangements and got it all queued up …for about five days until I started thinking about things.
While religion has never been a big part of my life, it’s always circled my life. I didn’t feel hiring an Elvis impersonator to perform the marriage and doing it in Las Vegas was sacrilegious; it just seemed like we were making a mockery of the institution of marriage. And by not taking it too seriously, what did that say about what we felt for each other? That was the intellectual argument I had with myself.
The emotional argument was infinitely more straightforward; I got cold feet. I couldn’t do it. I loved Heather; I just wasn’t sure I wanted to marry her. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be married at all.
One afternoon shortly after I had reached that conclusion, Heather and I went for a hike with my dog. We met in our usual spot after she had finished her lunch shift.
We walked in silence for a little while until I dove in: “Listen, this all doesn’t feel right.”
“What?” she asked.
“Going to Las Vegas to get married.”
“Do you want to do it here?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t think I want to do it.”
We walked a little more as Heather let that sink in. Finally, she asked: “Why?”
“I just don’t think I’m ready.”
“Then why did you ask me?”
“It felt right.”
“And now it doesn’t feel right?”
“You feel right; it’s just the marriage thing.”
She was very calm for a woman being told that the man she loves no longer wants to marry her.
I asked: “Maybe we can live together first?”
“No, I don’t think I want to do that.”
“Yes, with you. Not now.”
“Will you think about it?”
She grabbed my hand but continued looking straight ahead: “Yes, I’ll think about it.”
There is a part of me that believes she was relieved. Maybe that explains why she wasn’t more upset, or maybe she just hadn’t had enough time for it to sink in. But that hike was the last time we ever spoke of marriage…and we stayed together and continued to wear our rings.
There you have it; Heather was the only woman I ever asked to marry me.
So while Heather traversed the great museums across Europe, I channeled my inner hopeless romantic and wrote her every day. I said things in those letters that I would probably never say in real life and wasn’t sure what I would do with them. Mailing them wasn’t an option. And email wasn’t then what it is now. So I saved them on my computer.
For my birthday, I went to see my parents. Sometime in the afternoon, the phone rang. My mother came outside to get me and said I had a call. Only two people had the number, Lori and Heather.
And it certainly wasn’t Lori.
My heart was beating a mile a minute as I picked up the phone: “Hello?”
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” Heather yelled into the phone. The connection was shit, so we chatted very briefly. We spoke only long enough for her to tell me when she would be home.
For all the things going wrong at that time, Heather’s phone call gave me one of the best birthday feelings. It would be another 20 plus years before I had something that bested that feeling.
When her arrival date came, I tapped back into that inner hopeless romantic. I loaded up the car with gas, tossed in all of the letters, and drove to the airport to surprise her.
I relied on Hollywood’s rules of romance more than rationality.
As it turns out, you need more than an estimated time and airline to track someone down in the international arrival area of JFK. Suffice it to say; I did not surprise her.
The next day I phoned her at her grandmother’s house and asked her if she wanted to have lunch with me. I drove the 45 minutes to meet her but decided to leave the letters at home.
As I pulled down the driveway to her grandmother’s place, Heather emerged in a white and yellow-flowered dress from the side door. She ran towards me as I parked my car. I got out just in time to catch her and spin her around as we kissed passionately.
Nah, I’m just fucking around. It wasn’t like that at all.
She came out in a white tank top, jean shorts, and flip-flops, carrying a wrapped box. She got into my car, and we gave a little side kiss to each other.
“Hey yourself. You look good.”
“Oh, thanks. This” Heather tapped the box “is your birthday present. But you can’t open it yet.”
Heather smiled: “You can open it at lunch.”
As we drove to a little cafe in her town, she gave me the Readers Digest version of her trip. And continued to do so as we sat down. When she finally took a breath, I told her how much I had missed her …and a bunch of other sappy shit I will spare you from. It was nice to hear that she had been feeling the same way.
Just after we ordered, she said: “Open your present now.”
I pulled it in front of me and began unwrapping it, revealing a beautifully etched wooden box.
Heather said: “I got that in Berlin.”
“It’s great,” and it was, “Thank you!”
Heather smiled: “Shake it.”
I shook it.
I opened the box, revealing a beautiful set of wooden chess pieces. My dog had chewed up my set some months before.
“I go those in Barcelona.”
“This is great,” and it was. “Thank you!”
I stood up, walked over, and kissed Heather with a hunger and desire that I didn’t know I had in me …and wouldn’t feel again for another 20 plus years.
As we drove back to her grandmother’s, Heather mentioned she didn’t have any place to live now and wasn’t sure how long she wanted to stay at her grandmother’s. I casually asked her if she wanted to move in with me.
“Are you serious?”
“Yea, why not?”
“I dunno seems like a big step.” Her smile overshadowed her seeming apprehension.
“Yea, I guess, but I wanted to do it a while back, remember?”
We rode in silence for a couple of minutes, and she said: “Yea. I remember.”
“You didn’t want to.”
“I know. I remember. Well, now I do. Let’s do it.”
Over the next few days, we moved her things and her cat into my studio apartment. Soon it was two adults, an 85lb dog, and one cat. As cramped as it was, it became our home.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
About eight months later, we moved into something bigger.
Around the same time, we had both found ourselves working at the same restaurant again. It was a sister restaurant to the one that we met in. Things were going well; we got along, had fun, and were very ….normal.
But then a new waitress started working at the restaurant, Jessica. She and I had an immediate and visible connection. She, too, was living with her significant other, and beyond flirting, nothing went on. Heather picked up on that chemistry and hated Jessica as a result. She didn’t hide her contempt very well. It was so bad the manager went to lengths not to schedule them together.
Well, hold on. It’s not entirely true that nothing went on. One night Jessica and I were talking out in the parking lot when we had one of “those moments” — those moments where you know, if either of you leaned in for a kiss, it would be met favorably. I leaned in.
We made out a couple of times, but it never progressed beyond that. Without saying it, we both realized whatever chemistry we had wasn’t worth pursuing, and we just stopped.
About one week after that, I woke up to Heather standing at the foot of the bed: “Are you fucking her?”
Attempting to shake the cobwebs out: “What? Who?”
“That fucking waitress. Jessica. Are you fucking her?”
“I don’t like her. At all.”
“Yea, I picked up on that, Heather. Everyone has.”
Her tone softened somewhat: “Do you want to be with her?”
I looked at the pain in her eyes. There is almost nothing more heartbreaking than seeing the pain in your partner’s eyes when they think you don’t want to be with them: “No. I don’t. I want to be with you.”
“Then please stop coming home so late after work.”
And with that, she turned and walked out of the bedroom.
I don’t think we give partners enough credit about knowing when something is going on.
Fast forward a few months, and Heather and I began drifting apart. I had left the restaurant business, and so had she. We were working typical jobs but kept drifting apart.
One night we were lying in the dark. We both knew the other was awake.
I asked: “Are you happy?”
“No, with us. With this.”
I heard her sigh: “No, not really.”
Leaning over, I turned on a light: “Yea, me either. What do you wanna do?”
“I don’t know.”
I asked her: “Do you still want to be with me?”
“Yes. Do you want to be with me?”
Nodding: “Yea, I do.”
For the first time in what felt like weeks, we smiled at each other.
“Maybe we could see somebody?” I asked.
“How are we going to pay for that? We don’t have insurance.”
“I don’t know. We’ll find a way.”
And we did.
But couples therapy is fucking tricky because a lot of the shit you need to do feels super hokey. Couples therapy was a bust for us, but I am not sure we tried very hard in fairness. It didn’t seem to get us anywhere, but we soldiered on with our relationship. Why? Because we loved each other.
It was with Heather that I realized that loving someone is the easiest part of a relationship.
One of my closest friends lived around San Francisco back then, and he said I should move out there. Dot com’s were sprouting up like weeds, and loads of people were making good money. We didn’t have much keeping us where we were, and Heather had never lived anywhere else, so we made plans to do it.
I would go out first and get a job and get a place to live. Then I would fly back, and we would load the animals up and drive out.
The best-laid plans of mice and men.
While I did get a job at a dot com, I was not making great money. One day there was an all hands on deck meeting. During that meeting, the CEO said they had run out of money. They had somehow burned through like 120 million dollars in ten months. But she said they were maintaining a bare-bones operation to sustain operations until they could find a partner or buyer.
We were all given envelopes and told to go into separate rooms. I found out that I was one of the ones who would be staying. My role had changed, but I still had a paycheck. A few days later, they did find a buyer and the company offered us a retention bonus to stay on.
This retention bonus was predicated on staying until the very last day. I say this only because this meant there was no way I could take time off to fly back east and drive across the country, and I had already put a deposit down on renting a house.
Back east, Heather had already started boxing things up and begun putting stuff into storage. When I broke the news to her, she wasn’t angry necessarily; Heather never really got angry. She was disappointed and most nervous about driving across the country herself.
When the day came, Heather loaded up her car with two cats (we had acquired another one) and a dog, attached a U-haul, and drove across the country by herself. Let that marinate.
It sounds like the beginning pitch to a horror movie.
To her credit, she made it. I remain, to this day, in awe of what she did.
The happiness we shared after reuniting and the fun of setting up a house allowed us to neglect all the holes in our relationship. And then she found a job, and we fell into the same routine on the west coast that we had on the east coast, which will surprise no one who has found themselves in a rut in a relationship. Ignoring the problems in a relationship, or trying to shock the relationship into change by moving across the country, won’t make the problems disappear.
You’ll recall I said that Heather never really got angry. And that’s true; however, what she did do was let things fester and stew inside her. And the truth is, although she never expressed it, I think she was pissed I didn’t drive across the country with her. I don’t think Heather ever forgave me for that.
If you’ve had a relationship that dies, then you know that the first thing to go is sex. Well, at least that has been my experience. And with Heather, it was no different. We just kept drifting and drifting apart, and the tension would build. There was nothing wrong; I think we realized that it just wasn’t ever going to work, no matter where we were. And for both of us, the last thing we wanted was to be intimate with someone we weren’t in synch with.
This relationship stasis lasted for about four months until we sat in silence in the kitchen one Saturday. It was silent until I said: “I can’t do this anymore. This isn’t working.”
“No, it’s not.”
“This has turned into the very thing I never wanted it to become.”
So I asked: “Should we just throw in the towel?”
There were no tears, no yelling, no drama, just one big sigh: “Yea, I think so.”
Since we still had four months on our lease, we decided to stay in the house. I would set up the office and sleep in there, and we’d just be roommates for a few months. That was the plan …and it was in place for all of six days.
Heather returned from work the following Friday and told me that she had found a place and left that weekend. I don’t recall being angry, annoyed, yes, but I do remember being impressed that she had made a definitive decision so quickly. That wasn’t her forte. She took the cats, and by Sunday, it was just the dog and me.
A couple of weeks later, she came up to visit the dog, and presumably me. I was reeling because all break-ups are shitty, and feeling lonely and sorry for myself. As we walked the dog, I asked her: “Do you miss me?”
Heather just turned to me and flatly said: “Don’t do this. Please. Let’s just enjoy the day.”
And I suppose we did. We walked the dog, had lunch, and then she left again.
The night I thought more about what it was that I missed about Heather. The brutal truth was that I didn’t miss her. I missed her presence.
A few months later, I had moved into the city when I called her to let her know I was leaving San Francisco and moving to Los Angeles. She told me she was moving back east and had some stuff of mine to drop off. I don’t remember what she dropped off, but I remember that she didn’t turn off her car, and I met her outside.
We briefly talked about the shared storage facility we had. Heather said she would clear it out to take the stuff to her new place in Boston, which was fine. I was happy not to have the expense.
“I’ll just keep your stuff there, and you can get it whenever.”
We hugged and said goodbye.
Whenever came about a year later when she emailed me saying she was moving and I had to come to get my stuff. I was now living in Florida, so it wasn’t an easy thing to coordinate.
“When are you moving?”
“The first of the month.”
That was about two weeks away.
I couldn’t voice too much annoyance because she had stored my shit: “OK. Well, that’s gonna be tough. Let me see what I can do to get up there by then.”
“Let me know soon because if you can’t, we’ll have to figure something else out.”
Luckily, I moved some things around and made it up there to get the stuff. We went out to lunch with her roommate, who I knew, and it was all fine.
It wasn’t even sad.
It was nothing.
About four months later, I called her the day I had to put my dog to sleep. Heather had been part of his life until she left, so I thought she might want to know. I was, of course, all broken up because I loved that dog. The degree of indifference I felt flow from the other end of the phone seemed out of character. But then, people change. And maybe she just didn’t want to hear from me again.
After that call, she never would.