This Is How We Talk About Ending Things

We decided to go to 7-11 to restock our caffeine supplies. He wanted his favorite brand of iced coffee; I wanted some of those Yerba Mate energy drinks. These caffeine treks had become a new sort of love language for us, my growing feelings manifesting through the memorization of his coffee order.

He parked the car, turned on Radiohead’s “Last Flowers,” and said he’s been thinking a lot about us. I unbuckled my seatbelt to go inside — but he didn’t. Were we going inside?

He said he was thinking about how he’s not ready for a relationship, how he doesn’t want to change the way he spends time with me, how the way we spend time together feels like a relationship, how he exhausted himself emotionally with some girl a few months earlier who I don’t know and can’t do anything about, and how this has nothing to do with me.

I was thinking about how this Radiohead song was a bit of a cliché choice for this conversation.

He asked me questions: Where is my head at? Do we carry on as we have been? Do we decide to be just friends? He thinks I should be part of this decision. Do I need time? Did I want to come inside with him, or wait in the car?

“I’ll wait in the car.”

He went inside.

Huh, I thought. So this is how we talk about ending things.

Here’s another version of this conversation, but it’s from a few months earlier and with a different boy. We were naked together in his fraternity bedroom; he had a flight to catch, so I was lying there while he packed. We had skipped whatever football game was going on that evening to spend those last few hours together, which I thought was maybe romantic in the same college way I considered his string lights and vinyl collection to be artsy and intellectual.

The fraternity ambience of “Mr. Brightside” in the hall was too muted to drown out his stomach-dropping announcement: “I’ve been thinking, and I just want to say that I don’t see this being more than what’s going on now. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but that’s how I feel.”

I was blindsided and intoxicated and I don’t remember my exact response, but it must have been something along the lines of: “OK.”

This reminds me of yet another boy from the summer before whose version of this conversation happened not in a fraternity house but in our mutual friend’s childhood bedroom as we lay on the covers wrapped in each other’s arms and talked about what it would be like to finally go back to school post-Covid.

The gut punch of him telling me that he’s “not really looking for anything right now, by the way,” was beginning to feel familiar by then, as were the reasons he gave — because everyone says the same things.

They’ve just gotten out of a long and toxic relationship. They’re stressed by school. They’re not sleeping enough. They’re using buzzwords like “emotionally unavailable.” And they seem, at least, decently sincere.

In the back of my head, I had started to think that maybe they just didn’t want to be with me. Or maybe being a young adult is hard and confusing. Or maybe this is just how we talk about ending things.

The frat boy left for his flight, and I found myself alone in his room, still naked on the bottom bunk of his bed, unsure about whether we had ended things or agreed to continue doing whatever we already had been doing — the casual drunk nakedness after parties or football games — and pretend we were both equally OK with never dating. This confusing gray area would continue for a few weeks and then die out, and we would not talk about it again.

Yeah, Mr. “artsy and intellectual” slept on a bunk bed.

Another version of this conversation: During a frantic and stressful study session for my introduction to statistics class in our school library, my first-ever and only actual real-life boyfriend told me that after four months he had discovered that he did not want that title anymore, and suddenly I was trying to figure out how to talk about the end of my first relationship in a building where you’re not supposed to talk at all.

I failed at this, and instead I focused on trying to cry quietly. I also failed that statistics problem set. Evidently, heartbreak is not conducive to top-notch computations.

He eventually left the library, and that night we slept in the same bed in the same way we had slept in the same bed when we were a couple and the same way we would continue to sleep in the same bed long after we were not.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I found myself talking on the phone with him for hours every day and traveling across the country to visit him. He learned to move on and want other people, and I learned what it feels like to lose the respect of all my friends. He got to have a girlfriend in all the nice ways and in none of the meaningful ones, and I got to pretend that we never talked about ending things. Eventually, this strange extension of our old relationship ended too, this delayed finale 10 times more painful than the original library fiasco had been.

I don’t feel good when I talk about this relationship now because I am ashamed of how I acted at the end, how I had convinced myself that being truly alone is worse than accepting that something has ended. And perhaps I worry that I still think that. I hope not.

I’m not sure.

In another car, on another day, many years before the 7-11 parking lot, my high-school crush and I sat in front of a coffee shop, and I asked him if he wanted us to be dating. He said yes, and I was happy because he was attractive and we had been having a terrific time going to movies and exploring coffee shops and holding hands in parks and kissing in the corners of parties and doing all the things I thought a relationship was supposed to look like.

And then 45 minutes later, still in the coffee-shop parking lot, he changed his mind. We were going to college soon, and he didn’t want to start dating anyone, but more important, he just wasn’t that interested in me.

He and I spent the rest of the summer going to movies and exploring coffee shops and holding hands in parks and kissing in the corners of parties and doing all the things I thought a relationship was supposed to look like without ever again talking about that conversation.

I didn’t yet know how many times I would have that conversation with other men in other cars or libraries or dorm rooms, how repetitive it is, how humiliating rejection feels at first but how that feeling always fades, how predictable relationships become when you start to guess when and where these conversations will happen.

But here is the original version of this conversation.

I was 12 and in my favorite barbecue restaurant, Moe’s BBQ, eating my favorite meal — my mouth full of shredded chicken and Moe’s famous baked beans — when my mother told me that she and my father were separating.

I couldn’t speak or swallow and ended up spitting the contents of my mouth into a napkin as the humiliation of not having parents who love each other was compounded by the humiliation of beginning to sob in the middle of Moe’s BBQ. I don’t remember what I said to her, but it must have been bratty and mean, because soon she was also crying. I never went back to Moe’s BBQ, and we never talked or cried about it again.

I didn’t tell my friends that my parents had divorced for four more years, and this was easy to do because my parents moved next door to each other, and we continued to have Thanksgiving and Christmas together and go on family vacations together and not talk about how things ended.

We pretended that nothing ended, nothing changed.

Now, in the 7-11 parking lot, as I waited alone in the car, I marveled at how that gut-punch feeling did not come this time. He emerged with his arms full of Yerba Mate drinks but no iced coffee, and the ignition of the engine returned us to Radiohead.

Oh god, he’d cued the whole album.

I answered his questions. No, we should not keep doing what we are doing. Yes, we should be friends. Yes, I will need time. Something has to change.

We talked about ending things, and then we drove home in silence.

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