There is always a little time after a breakup where you allow yourself to imagine that it isn’t real. Sure, you had a big fight. Yes, you needed some space apart from one another. And you were willing to endure a few difficult weeks where you stayed in your respective corners and reflected on all the mistakes you made. All of this, you knew how to wrap your mind around. You could live it because there was a voice in the back of your head — one you intentionally fostered — which said that this was all some grave mistake. At some point in the near future, you thought, the two of you were going to come running back into one another’s arms, admitting how wrong you were to ever go, and explaining how you perfectly mirror the other’s feelings. Everything was supposed to work out.
And as long as that is a possibility, as long as you are able to tell yourself, “This is going to work out at some point,” it’s okay. At least until you’re proven wrong, the breakup isn’t quite real. Sure, it’s not like it was before, but it’s as if you’re standing outside a home for which you still have the key. You’re cold now, but you’ll go back inside. And even without a vague sign of reciprocation for your lingering feelings, you’ll stay in the limbo for as long as they’ll let you. It’s better, of course, than finding out that they’re over it. Anything is preferable to that.
One day, though, it’s going to happen. You’re going to hear through mutual friends that they’re seeing someone else. You’re going to hear rumors which become too detailed, too realistic, to ignore any longer. You’re going to simultaneously want to see proof so badly that you’ll go out of your way to run into the couple, and want to pretend as though they do not and have never existed. Their presence in your life puts and end to both your former relationship, and the increasingly tenuous hope that you would be able to pick up where you left off. Suddenly, there is no gray space to inhabit where things would likely one day work themselves out. There is a feeling of your ex somehow crossing an invisible line. Before, everything was forgivable. Before, the breakup was simply a mutual mistake. Now, they have slept with someone else. They have held hands with someone else. They may have even told someone else they loved them. What were once easy steps to retrace are now intensely complicated, peppered with hurt feelings and your recurring thoughts of what they must look like in bed together.
You wish you could ignore it, but it’s all you can think of. As your mutual friends all turn their eyes to you — waiting for you to lose it, waiting for you to go into “crazy ex” mode and start implicating them in your messiness — you can’t help but turn your eyes to the new couple. You have never felt a stronger desire to know every detail and yet be so wounded by every thought. You want to know, but you don’t. You hate them, but you love them. And all the while, the pressure to remain mature, to remain the person who accepts a love lost with a stoic generosity, becomes more than you can bear. It feels as though everyone gets to continue living their life and enjoying themselves except you. You are the one who has to be humiliated, who has to learn from everyone else’s mistakes.
There are moments where you consider calling. You get drunk enough to dial a number that you might hang up on, or drive past their house ten times without ever parking the car. You torture yourself with the prospect of standing up for yourself, of making your presence known, even if it inconveniences everyone. And then you realize it — what may be the most damaging of all your unfortunate epiphanies. The truth is, they don’t owe you anything. You are no longer together, and they no longer want you. As much as you want to paint this new couple as a personal slight against everything you had together, the “you” as you understood it no longer exists. And every overture you make to get them to apologize for a wrong they didn’t actually commit only proves that you are the one who has lost. And so you stare at their name in your contacts, you realize that you aren’t going to call them — that you couldn’t even if you really had the courage to — and you wonder how you start to forget a number you’ve known by heart for so long.