We walk through Georgetown after deciding that a little retail therapy was our only course of action, overpriced coffees in our hands, heads thrown back in loud, uproarious laughter, a slight sway in our step that most single women have. We march store to store, rack to rack, trying on things, matching things, laughing, talking, cursing, little 5 foot whirlwinds in designer jeans and expensive shoes. After one particularly credit card damaging store, we decide we’ll breathe long enough to eat. We walk out of the store, arms linked, laughing and talking, snickering at strangers. Suddenly her laughter stops, her eyes rooted to a spot about 10 feet up from us on the sidewalk. There, hand in hand, was the man she’d spent 2 years of her life with and the woman he left her for. He’d traded up when he got a better job; better apt, better car, better fiance. I try to grab her hand and yank her the opposite direction from the happy yuppie couple. She won’t move. “No,” she says her voice barely above a whisper. “I need to see this. Just hold my hand.” So I do.
We stand there in silence and watch them. Watch them laugh and talk, the easy way they are with each other. We watch her fix the collar on the coat my friend bought for him on his first day at the new job he’s gotten that makes him feel so important. We watch them hug and kiss and cuddle their way down the street, pausing at windows every few feet, their laughter ringing high over our heads. I watch my friend as she watches her. Long shiny hair, perfect skin and makeup so deftly applied it looks like a painting. Perfect straight white teeth, gravity defying breasts suspended from a tiny waist. Expensive. A perfect trophy. I feel my friend sizing her up, comparing and contrasting their qualities and from her grip on my hand I know she doesn’t think she stacks up. We watch them until they disappear from sight. I look at her, her face tight and impassive, barely seeming to register whether or not she’s breathing. I feel a dull pain in my hand from where she grips it tightly, her hand warm and slippery, but there is no way I am letting go. Her face flushes pink, then red and as I look into her eyes I think I literally see her heart breaking. “Okay,” she says, never even bothering to catch my gaze. “Okay.”
We walk in silence. I want to tell her that he did her a favor. That he was an egocentric, emotionally unavailable asshole that was more devoted to his career than her, who couldn’t be more concerned with who she was as a woman, who deserved that Barbie looking bitch with no soul. I want to tell her she deserves more than being just some trophy to a man. I try to tell her all this and she stops me.
“If I’m the one who’s better off then why am I the one in so much damn pain?”
That shuts me up. We walk until we reach Dupont Circle, her silently treading the recesses of her mind, me wondering what she’s thinking, if I could somehow traverse the terrain of her thoughts without stepping on the land mines I knew she was setting in her mind. We sit on the fountain, her head on my chest, her body curled into the crook of my arm, my head resting on top of hers, her tears slightly muffled by the down of my jacket.
“When Almost Fiance broke up with you,” she starts, “how did it feel?”
“Cold. Heavy. Hollow. Like someone had carved me out from the inside. I felt numb. Mostly sad, and sometimes really angry. But mostly, just sad.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t understand it then, what you were going through. I didn’t know really how to be there for you because I didn’t know how it felt. Now I do.”
Somehow it doesn’t feel better, knowing that I’m not alone, knowing that someone knows how I felt. For some reason it is no solace at all. I know what it’s like to see the man you used to love with someone else, see all the tiny idiosyncrasies of your life together played out with someone else. I don’t know if it ever starts to hurt less or if you just get used to the pain. I don’t want to tell her that. I don’t want to tell her that her heart will never stop beating momentarily at the mere possibility of the sight of him, that to see him with someone else will never claw at your gut any less even if your feelings for him have long since died. I tell her a story about a time I saw my first love and his new girlfriend at the restaurant we loved and how- even long after we were over and I didn’t want to be with him anymore and was happy with someone else- it tore me up inside. I admit to her that I spent 30 minutes on the floor in the bathroom crying my eyes out.
“I know how much this hurts. I know. The questioning, the who is she? What does she look like? How are they together? Does he do with her the things that were special to us? What is she that I’m not? I know the feeling. It’s like being perpetually cold. For a very long time. But eventually it starts to dissipate. You start to thaw.”
“Thank you,” she says.
“For not brushing off my pain with some bullshit, you’re-better-off-I-am-woman-hear-me-roar speech.”
We sit and we talk. Tired, uneasy talk from two women who are skittish about trusting people. She reaches into her pocket.
“I always carry this around with me.”
She opens her palm and it’s her engagement ring. 3 brilliant, flawless carats that I fawned over then that resemble a shackle to me now.
She says, “I used to think that he would show up somewhere one day, admit that he was wrong, beg me to come back. I always wanted to have the ring with me just in case I needed to slip it back on one day. Pathetic right?”
“No,” I reply, and in my heart I just can’t find it in me to judge her because I know what that wishing is like. Hoping that one day you’ll wake up and realize that it was all some bad dream or that he’d magically realize his mistake and come home. I tell her I think we all remember those times, that she’s not pathetic. She’s human.
“Does it get better? Do you learn how to let yourself go again?”
I want to answer her. I want to tell her yes. But I’m not sure.
“Well, I know the second time I fell in love, I wasn’t looking for it. I was so cut off from it. I just knew it wasn’t gonna happen for me. When I thought I was building a wall around myself, that was when I was most vulnerable. He got to me. And I fell for him.”
“But it’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not. And it never will be. But it’s right. And the right thing isn’t always the easy thing, but it’s always best.”
We’re silent after that and I realize I’ve said many things I never thought I’d have the clarity to say. What is it about others pain that brings out the best in us?
Her head suddenly jerks out of the crook in my arm. “I mean who IS she anyway?!?”
I hug her again and kiss her forehead, draw he back into the curve of my arm. I realize that it doesn’t really matter who she is, or anything about her. All that matters is that she is not you. And there is nothing you can do to change that.
After awhile she gets up and says she gonna walk back to her apartment.
“How do you feel?” I ask her.
“Cold. Hollow. But looking forward to being a lot less heavy.”
She turns around and move towards home.