I always hoped I would be the one to move on first.
I pictured it. A delicate, well-lit scene from an indie film, in which I introduce you to the new love of my life, the replacement, the Better-Than-You. I’m wearing a floral dress with a full, twirly skirt, and I float gingerly through the crowded bar, my rugged new man in tow. You look up from your phone as we approach, and I see it in those ice blue eyes. Surprise.
Your lips curl into a slight smirk. But as I introduce the person who has taken your place, your face remains sturdy, unfazed, focused. You shake his hand, crack a few jokes, but those same bright eyes tell me you know things won’t be the same anymore because now I have someone else to stroke my hair when I drink too much wine and start crying, or drive me to the mechanic when my car is ready to be picked up. Seeing this new man’s face in front of you is too much, but you have to keep a straight face for your own sake, and maybe for mine. But we carry on through a choreographed routine of pleasantries and jokes, little spurts of laughter breaking up the forced conversation like tiny commercial breaks in an otherwise mundane broadcast. At the end of the night, your eyes are dull and tired, and even though I have someone else to go home with, I still miss the blueness of them a little bit. Because I’m allowed to. I moved on first.
But that’s not what happened. There was no whimsical scene of my victory, shot with a handheld camera and scored by Bon Iver. Instead, I sat next to you in the bar, pouring pumpkin beer down my throat, fidgeting with the mustard yellow tights I wore that barely matched my dress, and listening as you brought up the girl who was more than me.
We were in the front corner of the room, and my bar stool was crooked. Do they ever make bar stools that don’t rock back and forth? Maybe it’s part of the intended aesthetic now, I don’t know. I took another sip of my beer as you said there was a girl, and I looked down into my glass because it was the only thing keeping me from looking at you and letting you see just how much I didn’t want to hear the rest of what you had to say. The foam swirled and broke as I twisted the glass back and forth. I tried to find shapes in the froth, like I was suddenly eight again and making the clouds into animals after a dizzying afternoon of somersaulting through my backyard. First the foam was a rabbit, then a Mickey Mouse head, then finally an inquisitive, wide mouthed face. It stared back at me as I kept my head down. It seemed to say, “Look back up. What are you afraid is going to happen?”
And suddenly you were saying her name. A familiar one that I had heard so many times before, but this time it was different because of the way you were saying it. Each syllable rolled off your tongue with grace, instead of the way they usually got caught in your throat. She was yours now, and so was her name, and you knew that, so you said it with purpose. You’ve never said my name that way.
I finally turned my head to look over at you, and your mouth was curved into a small, delicate smile as you sipped your own beer, filling in the blanks with more information. I kept my face soft, gentle, understanding, because if I didn’t, you would see through my eyes to the way my stomach was shaking and my heart was pounding. I remained calm, I adjusted the drape of my skirt across my knees, I took another look at the shapes in my beer. I listened intently as you described her, the way she made you feel, the routines you’ve made for the two of you. I wondered if you had ever talked about me in terms of all of those things, describing our intimate relationship to someone else over pints in a dark bar.
I stayed calm until I could slip away to the bathroom for a moment, and then I stared at my freckled face in the mirror, trying to push the tears back in. Even in the darkness of the dingy bar bathroom, heartbreak plastered itself across my face. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I was supposed to move on first. Or at least, when you moved on, I was supposed to be safely across the country. She was supposed to be anonymous, a name attached to a face I’d only seen in pictures. I was supposed to hate her and whine to my friends about the way she says the word “bag” or the fact that her eyeliner always looks perfect, while shoveling heaping spoonfuls of Ben & Jerry’s into my mouth at two o’clock in the morning. I was supposed to hate her without knowing her, because the fact that she exists in your life is proof that I was never good enough to make you change your mind about relationships.
Instead, she is there. All the time. A living, breathing reminder of the girl I should have been, the person you wanted that I couldn’t be. She is the one whose hair you play with at the coffeeshop, whose knee you touch under the table, whose eyes you get lost in. She is the one you exchange knowing glances with and lie next to at night, telling stories about your childhood. She is the one you binge-watch TV shows with, the one whose inside jokes make you laugh that one way where your voice gets all squeaky. She is the one you text while you sit at the bar with me, talking about nothing at all.
So you win. You moved on first. You got to tell me about her, while I nodded along and pretended to be happy for you.
At the end of the night, you drove me home and I sat frozen in the passenger seat, empty but breathing.
“You okay?” you asked, after a million moments of silence. Your hand reached out to tickle my shoulder, the way you always used to do before you brushed my hair out of my eyes.
“Yeah,” I said.
It wasn’t true, but it would be eventually.