It is 3 p.m. on a Saturday. My hands are full of shopping bags as I power walk through the Glendale Galleria food court. My Uber is three minutes away, and if I don’t get home immediately, I won’t have time to do my hair and makeup before my reading. The exit is within eyesight when a man steps out of the family bathroom pushing a stroller. He looks at me and instantly a mischievous smile begins to curl at the corners of his lips.
I stop walking.
“Oh my god! What are you doing all the way over here?” I ask, but it sounds more like an accusation.
I was pretty sure I got the mall in our separation; he kept my favorite breakfast spot and everything east of La Cienega. I look into the stroller and there, giving me a toothless grin is his beautiful baby girl. “She’s perfect,” I say. He chuckles and after an awkward silence, asks, “How you been?” And I want to drop my bags and kiss him then and there. I want to confess how hard it was to forget him and move on even if it had been years, that I sometimes check his social media, that I know about his new house and I’m up to date with his lovely family. Most of all, I wanted to explain that I don’t love him anymore, but I don’t “not love” him either. My phone vibrates. It is my Uber. “It was so good to see you, but my ride is here!” I don’t add, “thank God.”
Afterward, for weeks, I am a walking bag of questions. What happens after a breakup? Does the love you and your ex-partner shared disappear the minute you unfriend each other on Instagram? Do you even have to unfriend each other? Can you still hang out? Casually hook up? Could I call him and laugh like we used to? What are the rules?
We all have a few breakups under our belts, and yet, each time is difficult. We meet folks, we fall in love, fuse our lives, bring them home to our families and friends. And then, it’s over. Someone somewhere waves a magic wand and turns you both into strangers again. The memories don’t vanish, even if we wish they did. In one of my favorite Beyoncé songs, she sings, “I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me.”
It makes me think of all the times I thought I’d forever be someone’s ghost rattling around his memories or worse, I would be the one that never forgets.
I am not good at breaking up. I don’t ever really end things; I drag them along as far as I can. In my family, it does not happen. I have tías that moved to entirely different countries to leave the men they continue to call their husbands. One of my favorite family stories is the prima who had an affair with a married man that lasted for years. Eventually, she had enough and decided to break into his house while he and his wife were out. The couple came home to find her patiently sitting in their living room; she announced their affair and demanded her lover choose – his wife or her. He chose my prima, proposed and planned a wedding with her – a wedding she did not attend. After a few months (and dating a whole other person), she returned to her lover, and they finally married. Now, he leaves me comments on Facebook that read, “I love you cousin,” although we have never spoken or met. How am I supposed to believe in breakups after that? I come from a long lineage of women who love stubbornly and forever. We do not leave, even when it is to our detriment.
The man I ran into at the mall was my first love, my high school sweetheart. I loved him for so long, though everyone forgot we dated – everyone except us. He had been in a very committed relationship, and I continued to let him into my bed. I found out he was going to be a father through Facebook. I didn’t care. I had been with him first and knew I’d be whom he would end up marrying. He had made many promises that I foolishly held on to. When my friends would tell me it was time to leave, my answer was “es mejor mal conocido que por conocer.” I hung on for 10 years until his first daughter was born, and I couldn’t deny what I already knew: He was never going to choose me, but he would stay as long as I let him stay. I had to be the one to close all the doors and bolt every window. It wasn’t easy. He came knocking many times with the same question: “Don’t you miss me?”
I don’t know how I finally fell out of love – maybe it was time or another lover – but eventually, I didn’t feel the urge to go running back.
So why did I feel this way when I saw him? Why did every memory hit me like a wall of water? Does love never truly die? Am I destined be a Toni Braxton breakup song looped on repeat? Will I ever be able to listen to Maná without wanting to dial some ex-boyfriends’ phone number?
Days like this are when I remember something Mami once told me while gardening and tending to her favorite flowers, roses: “You have to clip the bloom but not the stem. You leave those just how they are. Next year, it’ll give you a bud, and you’ll get to see it open into a rose again.” We both didn’t know that at that moment Mami was saving my heart much grief. I had clipped the flower. I left a relationship that no longer served me. I was a stem and eventually, a new rose grew, and then that one was clipped and so on and so on.
I don’t think love ever dies; we stop choosing to haunt that specific love. There isn’t a flash of light or little pill to wipe all memory of a relationship. Sad songs are always sad songs. Some days, Mami talks about the boyfriends she had before Papi. One morning, I was playing Juan Gabriel on high volume, and we both sang along from different parts of the house. As I walked by, she said that the song we were listening to was one she kept on repeat when she first migrated here. She had left a boyfriend back home and andaba sufriendo por el. Juan Gabriel gave that sufrimiento a voice. I was confused; I thought JuanGa was something special between Papi and Mami, not Mami and some other man back in El Salvador. Mami chuckled and said, “Both things can be true.” She is right; I could no longer love a man, and yet, still miss the intimacy we once shared. I could want to drop my bags and kiss him in front of Hot Dog On A Stick, occasionally scroll through his family pictures on Instagram or even consider calling him to catch up. I am still a stem that has made room for a new rose to bloom.
Both can be true.