Meet them and maneuver the awkward hello. Look them over carefully, checking unconsciously for some external change. They look basically the same, unsurprisingly, more worn out maybe but what else did you expect. It hasn’t been that long. Realize you’re examining them without actually trying to see them at all. Realize this is just another meaningless collision of bodies in space and wonder what you’re doing. Feel trapped and ridiculous and get the urge to run but stay rooted.
Sit at opposite ends of something. A table, a couch, a subway car, anything. Sit anywhere but next to them. Make a point of the physical distance. Sit far away enough so that you can watch their hands move, watch their jerky adjustments. Watch their hands tear a hangnail, flick a lighter, twist a napkin. It’s suddenly unbearable to watch their hands. Look down at your own.
And start. Choose your words carefully from the list of things you planned to say; concise, carefully metered, explained. Have points to get through that you practiced beforehand on the walk over. Carefully extract the emotion from your voice. You told yourself you’d stay sober so you don’t end up saying the wrong thing, but…
They try to interrupt but don’t let them, keep going. Tell them exactly how you feel, though you’re not sure at this point if it’s how you feel or if it’s just lyrics that make sense. Barrel through your list of obligatory statements: you’re in a different place now, and this won’t work, and the past is the past, and the future is unknown so maybe something will happen later. On and on through the endless vague assertions. Keep talking until you’re going in circles. Keep talking until your throat gets dry.
They have an indeterminable expression — something unsettling and endearing that you can’t fully read. Something that makes your heart splinter. They’re going to tell you how they feel and you don’t want to know. You don’t want to know because you already know and it’s too sad. The muscles in your chest tighten threateningly and you feel betrayed by your own biology.
Your first impulse is to take their hand and reassure them, tell them it’ll be okay; hold them, rock them, make it all better. You realize how stupid that is but you can’t help feeling it, it’s what you’re used to doing. But you can’t tell them it’ll be okay, you can’t because the only thing that could make it okay is you and you can’t give them that. So you just sit there and keep your mouth shut.
Then you discuss the meaningless things, the splitting of things — finale logistics, what day works to pick your stuff up — and you feel the inevitable twinge of doubt. People make all kinds of things work, don’t they? People who don’t even speak the same language get married to each other. People stay together throughout infidelity, throughout illness, throughout death even. So why? What’s broken?
Something is. And the more you try to pin it down, the less clear it becomes.
The person across from you is a stranger.
You’ve run out of words and it’s time for goodbye. Good luck with everything. I’m here if you need me. We say that, why do we say that? It’s the last place we ever want to be.
A hug. A kiss. A handshake. Or nothing. You turn away before they can open their mouth to say something else and leave them standing there on the sidewalk, leave them lighting a cigarette or walking in front of a bus or just standing indefinitely. Think of Orpheus exiting the Underworld and smile grimly as you remember that was a totally different thing.
Try not to look back either way.