In tenth grade psychology, I started to cry while learning about Harry Harlow’s experiments on infant rhesus monkeys. Given the choice between a mock monkey constructed out of wire that provided food and another made of cloth with no sustenance, the babies slowly starved themselves, clinging to the comfort of a carpeted mother.
Nick is a PhD student who experiments on rats. He records them swimming before administering lethal injections and dissecting their brains. This is supposed cure Parkinsons. On the couch (mine), in front of the TV (his), he watches grainy black and white videos of the rats on his laptop and types a series of letters. “cstcstcstcst.” Climb. Swim. Tread. I’m trying. I’m trying.
I am living with the wire mother, except he happens to be my ex-boyfriend.
This was not how it was supposed to work. I never set out to be half of that couple you hear about. The ones that because of high rents or long leases or the great dysfunction are forced to live with each other long after their relationship has expired. Yet here I am. Freshly twenty-seven and living with my ex-boyfriend. When we first broke the news to people they were shocked. Well-meaning friends said it wouldn’t last more than a few weeks. Those who had been there before rolled their eyes, but at some point I taught myself that if something comes easy it must not be good enough. So here we are.
Nick came into my life as I was settling down after a horrendous break up. Stable, strong, Minnesotan. The precise opposite of the abusive, mentally ill lumberjacks of my early twenties. We fell in love quickly and moved in together unexpectedly, spending the first year of our relationship in a quiet pre-war across from the zoo. Then we got greedy and wanted more space. An office. Something like a house. A yard, maybe.
By the time we moved into our new place both of us had grasped the possibility that it could be over. Some people have a baby to glue a relationship back together. Nick and I used real estate. Last year was spent making excuses as a pair. We can’t break up because the neighbor’s dog/my mothers/your cousin/the Internet needs us. We can’t break up because we have a dining room. We can’t break up because we are quite possibly the two most stubborn people alive.
A year ago I wrote “welcome back” on the kitchen chalkboard instead of “it’s difficult living with someone who doesn’t love you as much as you want them to.” We stayed together for three months after that.
Here is a joke that might explain my relationship with Nick:
Me: So I told her, they don’t make a condom for your heart.
Him: Well, actually they do. It’s called your pericardial sack.
Most nights we sit in our bedrooms separated by a short hallway, each of us typing on our respective computers, our iPhones emitting different tones at odd intervals. Ship bells, sonar, marimba.
He stands in my doorway and rocks back and forth between the frame. We talk about the people we know. Work. School. The rats. He brings me glass containers of cranberry juice from the store. We each have our own ways of apologizing to each other. Mine just happen to involve whispering “I’m sorry” late at night on the way to the bathroom. Barefoot in front of his door.
My living arrangement is entirely complicated by the fact that I’m dating someone new. Although, after several years of working together and months of seeing each other, he’s hardly new. I’d like to know how people adequately conducted affairs before the advent of cell phones and the Internet. How did people secretly date their coworkers before GChat?
The night I fell in love with Jacob he grabbed my face in a crowded bar and said, “Drew, I need to tell you about Tupac.”
Now, when we return to his apartment on a Friday night, there is a toothbrush waiting for me. Face wash. Lotion. Stray hair ties. We kiss in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. I sit on the kitchen counter while he mixes me a drink. We have a rhythm.
I’ve cultivated an entire narrative outside of my house.
And this is how it’s been for so long that I have to remind myself that things used to be different. Sitting across from Nick in the breakfast nook, I look at the golden hairs standing up on his arm. “You used to have sex with this person,” I tell myself, “this person used to touch you.”
Jacob pulls up outside and I yell goodbye at Nick, promising I’ll text when I’m on my way home, just in case he has someone over. We leave the living room lamp (his) on for each other. I’ve gone through the past year feeling consistently displaced, biding my time.
I’m now ready to be the one who leaves.
About once a year, a stranger puts their hand square on top of my head to balance themselves on the bus. Despite all of my natural instincts, this is actually comforting. This happened recently on a flight from JFK to Seattle, after I had spent the duration of the trip composing a long, emotional letter to Nick entirely on my phone while episodes of Rachel Ray played in the background. I do not recommend this behavior to anyone. It is one of the more depressing things I’ve done since breaking up with him.
After one of my high school friends dropped out of college she started working at Bath & Body Works back home. We slowly grew apart. One of the last times we spoke I asked her how she could stand the smell of the store. She said, “after awhile, we all just get used to it.”
If you live with someone long enough your scents mix together. You use the same detergent. Sleep in the same sheets. When Nick and I first broke up I used to stand at the bathroom sink and uncap his deodorant, missing what it smelled like to crawl in bed with him every night.
I’m ready for a new smell.