I read once, in one of those trashy magazines they keep by the register at HEB, that it takes thirteen-point-five weeks to get over someone you love. Barely a week after Chris left, I thought I was over him--completely and totally over him.
But he forgot his shampoo: the American Crew kind that smells of rosemary and thyme. When I ripped open the curtain to take my first shower in the four days since he had left, I found the bottle living in the little alcove against the wall, almost as if it had been waiting for me. I threw it away immediately. I hadn’t reached thirteen weeks of recovery time yet, but I was fine. I was fine. I tossed the bottle in the garbage and tried to forget, but the thing is that it never smelled like rosemary and thyme to me; it just smelled like him.
A few days later, his razor turned up in the bathroom cabinet. A week after that, his aviators fell from the car visor and quite literally into my lap--and then pieces of him kept popping up everywhere I looked. I couldn’t escape him. I swear he did it on purpose just to haunt me. If he had asked for his s*** back or to be mailed it to his new address, I would have said no in a pathetic, desperate attempt see him one last time. Closure and all that. Instead he left just a hint of himself behind, only enough that I only noticed right when I thought I was getting over him. He left all that baggage for me to carry, and God knows how weak my arms are. What was I supposed to do? Box it all up, keep it in my closet for years, pull it out and cry into his sweaters when I was feeling lonely?
That’s why I adopted those infernal cats. They were supposed to be little angels of comfort, to greet me when I come home from work, the way that he used to. But even his replacements backfired on me. They shredded the leather couch, pissed in my shoes, and shed their winter coats on every available surface--all within the first week. Maybe the little devils and I got off on the wrong foot, because we’ve learned to love each other, at least a little, now.
No one can say that I didn’t try to move on at first. I took a few days off from work purely so I could spend uninterrupted time purging him from my life. I bought new furniture, including the aforementioned leather couch, and one of those fancy memory-foam mattresses. On my way home from Ikea, actually, is when I saw the sign for free kittens. I quit my job the next day, the one he had pushed me so hard to apply for, and took a new position playing PR for a startup that got lucky and is now a full-fledged company. I got lucky too, because that little public relations gig blew up and I kind of run the entire communications and marketing department now.
I made a point to eradicate most things that Chris played a huge role in, and I guess that after that first week of absolving memories, my heart tricked my brain into thinking that all was A-OK and I could stop trying so hard, that the rest of the forgetting would happen naturally.
It’s been nine months. Nine months and I’m still finding his socks trapped in the dryer with lint and cat hair. Nine months and I still get his junk mail, still have to answer questions about how the engagement is going--“Well he left me, so it’s not that great, Angela.” I still answer the phone when his aunt, the one with dementia, calls to give new insight on her famous brownie recipe because I don’t see the point in telling her the truth now, and I’m pretty sure at least one of my credit cards is still in his name. He’s probably still my emergency contact. Sometimes I wonder if he would come if they called him, if I was dying in a hospital bed. (I probably injured myself doing something stupid, like football frisby or chasing one of the cats when they’re eating plastic wrappers.) But if I was dying and the doctors called him, would he rush to the ER as fast as humanly possible and sit by my side and hold my hand? It’s been nine months; I’m sure he’s over me. Love doesn’t seem to mean as much as it used to. Maybe what the magazine meant to say was men move on by the thirteenth week.
Thirty weeks later, and I accidentally slept in his t-shirt the other night. Or maybe it’s our t-shirt. We went to that Macklemore concert together, once upon a time, so maybe the shirt is half mine. The point is that I’m getting bad again. Life is supposed to go on after a break up, and maybe life does go on, for him anyway. I’m still stuck here trying to scrape together everything that he ripped apart. The real question is, do I even want to be knit back together? What’s the point? If I can’t pull myself together after nine months, maybe I never will.
It is five thirty AM and I never went to bed. The nights are haunted with memories, but dreaming is worse. Dreams are little fantasy worlds that tease me with images that are so real, so close I could reach out and touch him, but the second I do, he disappears in a cloud of smoke.
I forgot. Those are called nightmares.
What they don’t tell you is that sometimes the ghosts that haunt us aren’t of people who have died. Sometimes they are very much alive, and that’s the problem. I see him sitting on the floor, squished between the couch and the coffee table, beating me at Mario Kart by running my car into the lava. I see the stacks of save-the-dates in pale lavender envelopes ready to be mailed, and the framed photo of the proposal on the bedside table. The images flicker in and out like an old black and white VHS, but I remember everything clearly.
At least I have some control over reality. I can sit with a laptop for hours, until the radiation is deep in my organs, and work until I want to scoop my eyeballs out with a melon baller. That’s how I spend most nights, with one cat on either side of my hip. Last night was no different. The night melted into the morning suddenly, and I shift from working in bed to bustling around the office. Keeping busy is key to steering ghosts away.
“Here’s a coffee, Harper,” one of the interns says sympathetically, molding my hands around a hot cup. “You look like you need it. I totally understand--I only get about five hours of sleep a night.”
I would kill for those five hours, I want to say. Literally kill. But instead I smile and thank her and then shut up and drink the coffee. It works like magic: almost immediately I feel calmer and less murder-y.
“Have you met our communications wizard yet?” I hear my assistant, Jonathan, say. Communications wizard--that’s me. “Harper, do you have a second? There’s someone I want to introduce to you.”
I set the coffee down. “Sure thing.” Before I turn around, I put on my classy business expression, the one that looks professional in red lipstick and not like a cheap Tinder date, but the second I see him, I can feel my entire face melt to the floor. This is my nightmare.
Classy Business. I pull the mask back on. “Jonathan,” I greet cheerfully. “How are you this morning?”
“I thought you’d like to meet our new techie on the second floor, Christian.”
Chris is staring at me like he’s afraid to breathe.
Classy. Business. “Nice to meet you,” I muster, and while normally I would go in for a handshake about now, frankly, I don’t think my skin could bear it.
“Harper has been our PR and communications lead for… almost a year now, I believe, but to be honest, she basically runs the place,” Jonathan says, God bless him.
“You flatter me.”
“You know, I still don’t understand how an art major ended up managing public relations at this place. Isn’t that interesting, Christian?”
“Very,” he says, and suddenly I’m feeling pretty murder-y again.
“Well,” Jonathan says, “I have an order to send out in ten minutes so I’ll leave you in Harper’s very capable hands.”
Oh God. Chris takes a deep breath, says, “You know, I think I can find my way back to the second floor.”
“There’s still some paperwork you need to fill out, but she can help you with that. Enjoy your first day.”
“Wait, no--!” This can’t be happening. “Jonathan,” I hiss but he’s already on the phone, patching orders and fixing mistakes, and then there’s Chris and his stupid face that I could just-- “Paperwork,” I murmur. “Let’s get the paperwork.”
“Harper, you don’t have to--”
“Shut up now please. Thank you, and follow me.” I walk so fast he has to jog a little to keep up. “You won’t ever need to be on this floor. Ever. But that’s the lounge and the restroom is down that hallway to the left. This is where we keep the copy machine and whatnot, so let me print out that paperwork for you real fast.”
“Nope.” I shake my head. “Don’t.”
He rests his arm on top of the printer. “It’s only my first day. I haven’t even filled out the paperwork--I can just leave if it makes you uncomfortable.”
I’m torn. I want him to leave, but I don’t want him to know that I want him to leave, but if I tell him to stay, he might think that I want him here, which I don’t, and my mind is whirring so fast I could either throw up or scream at any given second.
“No,” I say finally. “You’re a second floor techie. There’s no reason for you to be up here, near me. Just… stay on your floor.” The printer is taking too long. I keep my eyes focused on the paper pushing back and forth, the ink running across pages achingly slow.
Chris curses softly, looking at me sideways. “I really hurt you.”
I almost roll my eyes. “Yes.”
“Are you still mad at me?”
I take a deep breath, sure that I’m about to erupt, but as abruptly as the emotions had appeared, suddenly they seem to melt away. My head clears a little. “No,” I say, and I’m shocked that it’s true. I’m not mad. I’m not mad at all. “No, the anger only lasted about a week.”
“And after that?” he asks.
“I cried. A lot. Lost a few pounds, then gained a few extra back. I adopted a cat, on a whim, because I was lonely, and then I was afraid the cat would be lonely at home by itself so I adopted another one to keep it company... ”
He chuckles humorlessly. “Of course you would buy cats during your stages of grief.”
“Oh, I didn’t grieve for you,” I laugh, albeit bitterly.
“Oh no. Grieving is when you’re mourning someone’s death. Being broken hearted--you want to die. And you want the person who hurt you to grieve for you just so they understand how badly heartache hurts, how it screws with your head and makes you feel like a loser for being the one who is alone. But then, you didn’t feel any of that, did you?”
“How can you think that? Just because I’m the one who left doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel the same things.”
“Doesn’t it though? You left me. I was the one who got dumped, I was the one who had to tell everyone the wedding was off, I was the one who had to explain that even I didn’t know why you left, I’m the one who still talks to your aunt because I don’t have the heart to tell her what happened.” I’m breathing hard, in short gasps. The printer beeps. I align the stack of paper, staple it together twice, and hand it to him. “You don’t understand heartbreak, Chris.”
“I understand exactly--”
“Did you leave that stuff behind on purpose?” I interrupt. “The shampoo, your sunglasses, those t-shirts? Did you leave them behind just to hurt me?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You never asked for any of it back. I know you packed in a hurry, because you were gone when I got home after work, but you left the XBox. When a normal person leaves things behind, they ask for them back but you never did so I’m asking you. Did you leave anything behind on purpose?”
“That’s ridiculous. Of course not.”
They say that caraphernelia is the broken heart disease. When someone leaves their belongings behind, each object serves as a torture device to the broken hearted, bringing back floods of memories and making them miss that person more and more each day. Chris left little pieces of himself behind to haunt me and prevent me from getting over him. I’ve wasted the past nine months of my life pining after this loser because he wanted me to remember.
I rip the paper out of his hands, tear it into pieces, and let them flutter around our feet. “What the hell, Harper?”
I shrug, grin. “I changed my mind. On your way out, tell Jonathan that I had to go home for a while. I have work to do.”
First I’m going to erase his name from all files--my credit cards and insurance, the emergency contact list--and then I’m going to find every single piece of him that still lives in my apartment, pile it in a cardboard box, light it up and watch the spirits and ghosts and demons fly out in the rosemary-and-thyme-scented smoke.