Changing of the Guard

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You instructed me to put the key inside an envelope and drop it in the mail slot, but I put it in the lock and opened your front door instead. Your text regarding this was very laid-back, very matter-of-fact. “Hey, could you drop off the key to my apartment tmrw? Just put it in an envelope and stick it in with the mail.” Maybe it was for this reason that I felt no compunction about walking in one last time. I knew you’d be in class, and I had the morning off. Some time to kill, as they say. I guess I wanted to figure out what had changed, if anything. If you still use your floor as a clothes hamper, if you still leave the Xbox on with an NBA 2K match paused because you’re too sleepy to finish. If you still use the same aftershave. Stuff like that. After all, we haven’t spoken in a week, and needless to say, I haven’t come over. I’m not sure I know you anymore.

Your apartment seemed so heavily silent when I walked in, in a way I’ve never experienced, because usually when I came in you would be there, or I was just coming by to grab something, preoccupied. It was weird. I didn’t get the heebie-jeebies or anything but it was weird. There wasn’t any leftover takeout on the coffee table like the last time I was there– has it been about a month now?– and the blanket was still thrown across the sofa, but there were books there I didn’t recognize. Also a pair of shoes; I guess those are hers, too. A pair of beat-up green Chucks by the bookshelf that look like they’re probably too small for me. Most women have feet that are smaller than mine. I’ll always be grateful you said that was okay.

I hope you don’t mind that I opened your fridge. Your freezer, actually. There were a lot of Hot Pockets, and I helped myself to one of the Pepperoni Pizza ones. I didn’t have breakfast, and I know you won’t miss it. I opened up the cabinet to look for Pop Tarts but there weren’t any. I know you said you liked them, but you always bought them for me. I wonder what snacks she likes. The only strange thing I saw in there was some trail mix, the hippie kind with dried fruit, but that may not mean anything. I have no idea where or why you got it.

The lucky cat figurine I got you from Japan is still on the windowsill, as is the miniature wooden elephant we got at that art fair I dragged you to. I remember being so surprised when you pointed him out, and said, “He’s cute.” You rarely described anything with that qualifier. I bought him because it was almost your birthday, and you thanked me and helped me pick out a glass beaded necklace, which you got for me, and on the bus ride home I put my head on your shoulder and you stroked my hair in that way that makes me feel sleepy. So far I haven’t been melodramatic but I think that was one of the worst things (at least at first), the individual memories which would float back and cause me to realize that you would never touch me again in certain ways. Not even sexy ways, although that hurt, too. Just ways that would happen and I would think, “No one else could ever do this. No one else could make me feel this happy, or this giggly, or this warm.” Et cetera.

Once I rubbed your back until you fell asleep, and I thought those feelings were reciprocated.

Someone still needs to dust the kitchen blinds.

***

When we broke up, people had lots of different advice. Of course then, immediately after the fact, I had not discounted the possibility that we might get back together, so the only advice I was willing to follow was my own. After all, you said you barely wanted our relationship to change. I thought you were just confused. So we went on lots of coffee dates, and I let you come over to my place when your TV was broken and you needed somewhere to watch the Bulls.

My mother said she smelled a rat.

It didn’t make any sense to Elissa and Carly, how you said you didn’t know the difference between “love” and “in love.” Sometimes, I told them, I don’t know it either. It can seem an artificial construct, like gender. Of course, there is that pesky sexual component– I don’t want to sleep with my best girl friend, or even my guy friend Kevin, but fundamentally, all very close relationships are the same. Like how you told me that your relationship with me was fundamentally the same as your relationship with Bryan, your best bro.

It didn’t occur to me to be offended.

Other people, though, thought it was kind of absurd. And while they were telling me to cut you out of my life, to tell you that we couldn’t be friends right now, I was thinking about how it all made sense when I was talking to you, when you were holding my hands and looking into my eyes. How it made complete sense that you weren’t fulfilled by sex, even though you initiated it every time, and that you could no longer find gratification in a romantic relationship, even though we had chosen names for our children. I was just so sorry for you, that you were so conflicted, that this was happening. I was lying on your floor and I cried, facedown. You tried and tried to roll me over, telling me that there was nothing to cry about, that we would still see each other all the time. “We can be best friends, just like we are now.” You kissed my shoulder.

Our coffee dates were hard, but I kept it together. We started paying separately, but I still kicked you under the table when you made that one ridiculous face, and sometimes there were silences when we stared at each other and I knew you felt the same. On the second one (I guess I said lots when I meant two), you hauled out your laptop as soon as we sat down. “Did you bring work, too?” you asked. “God, I’m tired.”

You were always very busy. I pretended not to be disappointed as I got out my biology notes. I figured it would be like when we studied together, like always. Just like you said. Except at that point I hadn’t seen you for three days, and I was used to knowing everything about you. I knew what kind of deodorant you used, what color underwear you were wearing, if something was stuck in your teeth. What kind of mood you were in, whether you felt cheerful or sad. It was like the power going out, when my knowledge of you faded to black.

***

I used your bathroom, too, while I was there. This is one area that you seem to have spruced up; the toothbrushes are in a cup instead of laying on the sink, and it looks like someone cleaned the mirror. Also the rugs have been washed and the trash emptied recently.

The other toothbrush is not mine: duly noted. But I applaud your (her?) efforts at maintaining a presentable lavatory. And yes, I checked to see if you use the same aftershave. You do. I never liked it. Sorry.

I found it interesting that our pictures are still hanging in the hallway. I can understand why you would keep the ones we took of monuments in DC or of Mount Rushmore, but there’s that one of us in Trafalgar Square, and of us hamming it up by the Bean. I wonder why you haven’t taken them down: is it because you can’t bear to, or because they’ve been there so long that you no longer notice them? Maybe she’s not comfortable enough around you to say something; maybe she can’t make demands about how you keep your apartment, not yet. I guess that means it’s you who cleaned the bathroom. When you moved in, we had already gotten pretty cozy, and you didn’t have to put on a show for me, but I would have appreciated it. I really would have.

***

Elissa saw you coming out of the movie theatre with her the following Saturday. I admit I freaked out. I stayed over at Elissa’s apartment, but I didn’t sleep the whole night. I drank tea and sat with my arms wrapped around my legs, rehearsing in my head what I was going to say to you the next day. You played it so cool when I confronted you. Of course it wasn’t real; it couldn’t be real. You had gone together to watch a documentary for your PoliSci class. You laughed a lot, and said “Unbelievable,” like you always do. Besides, you said, you would tell me if something else came up, romantically speaking. I was twitchy and exhausted as a spent racehorse. How ridiculous, I thought, for me to jump to that conclusion.

We stopped hanging out because I quit inviting you places. I wanted to see if you would ask me– eventually it was embarrassing to text you because I never got invitations in return. We would run into each other on the way to class, and on those occasions, you did say hi. You didn’t seem unpleasant, which was encouraging, but you didn’t try to make plans, either. You ended those conversations with high fives, and I cringed every time my hand would slap against yours. I was still inclined to hug you. I didn’t know if I ever would again.

Elissa said: “He feels awkward around you, and he has some growing up to do before he can reconsider a relationship. I told you it would be difficult to be friends.”

And Carly: “Me and Ross tried to work it out and it was awful. Trust me, it’s better this way.”

I was still willing to try.

So I texted you, as you know, and asked pretty plainly why we had grown apart. After all, I consider a best friend to be someone whom one sees fairly often, and we hadn’t spent time together for more than a week. You replied with something about midterms, and about feeling weird around me, like Elissa said. I thought to myself, fair enough.

I went about my business. I even slept with someone else, and I dutifully informed you. You admitted you were shocked, but who knew? You told me when we broke up that you didn’t care what I did, as long as I was happy. Sleeping with someone else did not make me happy, and I told you so. I didn’t do it again.

The sightings continued to roll in, mainly at school-related events. I tried to convince myself they were benign. I didn’t know what to say when people asked; they were as incredulous as I was. You and her were tagged in a lot of the same Facebook photos. Okay, I thought. You did have some mutual friends. To forget, I partied til the sun came up. My roommates got mad when I would waltz in at 5 am, making a terrible racket. But it was no matter. I had never been closer to the friends that I had. And with every party, I gained an acquaintance or three.

***

I stood in the hallway, looking at the pictures and debating whether I should intrude on the one place left for me to visit– your bedroom. It became clear to me, the longer I stood there, that I would not be able to leave until I had seen it. The door was ajar. I walked down the hall with those creaky floorboards and pushed it all the way open.

“What a lark! What a plunge!” as Virginia Woolf would say. You had your blinds drawn and your windows thrown open as far as they would go. Glorious light and air streamed in, illuminating dust motes which meandered above the bed. The bed itself was mussed but the sheets looked fresh– the entire thing was inviting as hell, I could easily have napped in the glow of that sunlight. What made you decide to open your windows? Sometimes you’d pop them a crack when it got stuffy, in my experience, but never enough to allow such overwhelming circulation.

I can’t help but suspect her influence.

Was I heartened, then, perhaps a little, to see that your clothes were still on the floor? Your bureau drawers were open, the place still looked ransacked, as usual, but at least it was getting more air. I checked your pile of DVDs to see if there was anything new. Nope– it looks like she hasn’t contributed yet. On the way out I noticed some Miyazaki films on the bookshelf in the living room, and I can’t imagine you going for those. But I totally support widening your horizons. I tried. I’ll never be sure how far I got.

The photo of us that was on your nightstand, however, was gone. I guess because of its proximity to the place where you have sex, it had to be removed. I tried to imagine you getting it on with her, my face staring out at you from two feet away– I couldn’t. I mean, I didn’t really get past the part where you were getting it on with her. I didn’t want to imagine that.

When we used to have sex I would stay on top of you after you finished, leaning over you while you breathed softly, sometimes with my hand on your forehead or your chest. I would stay like that until you said okay, and then I would climb off and we would get ready to go to sleep. I fell asleep with my head on your chest as well. I don’t think there was any sound more comforting to me than your heartbeat. The first few nights after we broke up, I took antihistamines to get drowsy.

I don’t mean to wallow in self-pity, or wax embarrassingly nostalgic, but I remember the first time we slept in the same bed. We still lived in the dormitories, and you were in my room for the night. When we settled in, we were lying face to face, and your arms encircled me completely. I had a strange feeling, strange because it was familiar, yet I had not felt it for a very long time. Finally it struck me– I hadn’t felt that way since the last time my parents held me, when I was very small. Since the last time I had fallen asleep in the car, and my mom or dad had carried me inside. Complete security was what I felt, and I told you so. “I will always protect you,” you told me, and I listened to your heartbeat for the first time. I never slept right by myself, after that.

***

I waited for you to approach me with news of your impending romantic attachment, but you remained aloof. It began to drive me crazy, only learning things secondhand, not having seen you or talked to you, not having received a single text. Facebook was my only recourse, and the outlook seemed grim: I had discovered a smoking gun of sorts. I was bombarded with a picture of you holding her piggyback style, her arms around your neck, engagement-photo-esque. Immediately I received a volley of chats from Elissa and Carly and even Kevin, who doesn’t usually involve himself in my personal affairs. He just wanted to know what was going on. I confess, so did I. And being thoroughly confused about what to say, I finally felt I had an excuse to call you and get the inside story. I did.

You came over while both my roommates were out, thank goodness. I wouldn’t have wanted them to witness the scene that followed. I got nasty. The nauseous, pins-and-needles feeling that had become a feature of my existence distilled into acrimony. “How could you.” “You’re treating me like shit.” What you wanted me to know was that the timing was really bad. That you hadn’t labeled it or anything but that there was an “interest.” I listened to you skeptically, and told you what my mother said: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

You were understandably exasperated.

I proceeded to detail to you the exact dimensions of my emotional distress, from the sleepless night I spent at Elissa’s to the nerve-wracking present moment. I described how every day I was reminded of my ultimate disposability to you, and could come to no other conclusion than that somewhere along the way you had lied. It was at this point that you started getting upset.

The most important thing, you said, was for me to know that it hadn’t begun before we were over. That during our relationship, there had been no one else in the world but me. You had reached over and taken my hands. I saw the scars on the back of yours and their familiarity nearly struck me blind.

“I still love you,” you said, “and I never wanted to hurt you.”

Yeah, well, you did.

But I didn’t say that.

Instead, I comforted you. I sat beside the arm of your chair, on the floor, and rubbed your leg while you tried to collect yourself. I kept asking if you were okay and for a while the response was “No.” I said there was no way you could have avoided hurting me, no matter what had happened, because all I had wanted was you, and that the last thing I wanted now was to stand in the way of your happiness.

“But I want you to be happy,” you said, “and if this is going to hurt you, I don’t want to do it.”

I took a while to admit that yes, it would be painful for me. It would be far from pleasant for me to see you in a relationship with anyone else. But I don’t think either of us managed a commitment on that front, and when you left we just hugged for a long time by the door. I focused on the feeling of your body against mine, memorizing it, this last time I’d ever press my face against your neck. We exchanged “I love you”s, and after you were gone, I think I loved you more than I did before.

***

After my foray into the bedroom I had seen all I needed to see, and I was ready to leave. I made sure to pull the door around to exactly where it had been, and I finally did put the key in an envelope and stuck it in your basket of mail. I walked out, across the street, and over to the café where I was meeting Carly for lunch.

            “How was your morning?” she asked. I told her what I had done.

“The bastard,” she said. “I’m sure he needs the key back to give to that tramp.”

“Probably,” I said. “It doesn’t make much sense for me to have it anymore.”

She proceeded to abuse you in various other ways, and I laughed along, as I usually do. You should know by now that your relationship status is clear. I’ve seen all the pictures, I know you’ve met her parents. I saw you, granted, from far away, on the quad holding hands. I’m not sure what was established the last time we talked, but in any case, I realize you’ve steamrolled ahead.

“Don’t you know you can do so much better?” Carly asked me. She’s been so earnestly offended, as if the blow had been dealt to her instead of me. I couldn’t do anything but smile. I know my friends are doing the best they can, to help me move on, to help me make the best of a patently difficult situation. There’s no way for them to comprehend what you said when we last met; there’s no way for them to know that it’s your word against theirs, that for me, it’s a perpetual balancing act in which I weigh all the goodness I know you to possess against your recent insensitive actions. It’s a bad dream. I hear their laughter and I can’t help but be reminded of the time we stood together at Buckingham Palace, watching the changing of the guard. It was a ridiculous spectacle, and the crowd pointed and jeered, but it is an august institution, time-honored and proceeding like clockwork. The Old Guard marched to meet the New Guard, and at the climax, two soldiers strode out and shook hands; they met in peace, and then one company replaced the other. You turned to me and said,

“Why do you think they do this, with all this pomp and circumstance?”

I said, “Maybe it’s so that people know the palace is in good hands, that everything is going to be okay.”

You kissed me on the nose, and we watched the rest of the ceremony, then went back to our hotel and took a nap. I don’t remember where we went to dinner that night, but I remember the sense of well-being I felt, that day and for the rest of the trip, when I thought things would be that way forever, before I learned a person’s feelings could change.

 

 

Photo By: Gabriel Villena




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About Author

Emily Holland is a senior at the University of Chicago, though Maryland is her original home. This is her first publication.

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