We’re at the market when she’s telling me all of this. Almost like she’s reciting the lines. My ex is going on about her more recent, better ex. She’s been asked about it enough times she has found a good narrative for the thing and stuck to it, refining it with each go.
Elia had been with her partner for a year and a bit before they split up. They met, fell in love, moved in together and bought furniture, fell out of love, and moved out. He was an alcoholic and that sort of played into the why. But that wasn’t the whole of it. Things were off. Or maybe things weren’t off but they still weren’t the people they wanted to do life with. They split and did the painful and complicated thing of dis- and re-assembling a life.
We’d split in similar circumstances but tried to stay friends because we’re better friends anyway. No clean split, just an end to certain relationship activities—picnics, sex, and for some reason a lot of strawberries—which obviously comes with a lot of complications and advice against this from friends, but we knew and still know better.
The sun is out, the wind is low—a Saturday that has the market full. She has to shout over the crowd. I nod even when I don’t hear everything. From her tone and inflections I know when to shake my head or sigh.
—Did he cheat on you?
—Did you cheat on him?
She’s the only person that calls me by my full name. She starts and ends sentences with it, always bringing attention back to it. Jonathan. Jonathan.
Relationships end because you feel too much of a bad thing or you feel nothing at all. I can’t fit Elia’s split neatly into either. I’m not sure if this makes me judgmental. Or close-minded. Maybe I’m one of the So-Whats.
When we broke up, I couldn’t fit our break up into one of the categories either. All I know is what she said then: sometimes things end suddenly.
Now she says things hadn’t been okay between them for a while. The break up wasn’t as sudden as it seems. It always seems that way after.
—That’s alright. Okay. I see.
I do—as much as a person not part of it can.
We walk past the market vendors. Elia looks for a new couch. She lost most of the furniture to her ex in the post-break-up skirmish for shared items. She says she’s okay with this. She’s got a bed, the one she had in her parents’ garage. I had helped her move into her new apartment. Now she needs a desk, a chair for the desk, a TV stand, a bookcase.
The first thing they’d bought together was a couch. Finding a couch that looked nothing like theirs is important to her. She says it’s not about what it looks like but what it represents.
That makes sense.
There is a part in healing where you have to choose. A part where you tally up the broken bits and put them together like some sick jigsaw puzzle that could look something like your life. The pieces won’t all fit, not right away. If you shave away at some, chip away at the corners, you can find a place for the hurt.
Elia says this is her choosing: she would be choosing from now on. I say that makes sense and avoid saying anything about our break-up and what I did with the hurt.
I had suspected my role here was to be more practically than emotionally supportive, to help her with lifting and loading things into my dad’s borrowed bakkie. I’m not sure why she’s telling me all of this. Maybe she just knew I’d listen.
So far all she’s found is a desk which she’d need to fix up—she was so excited about it and told the seller to reserve it for her. The rest of the time we’re walking she doesn’t even look at furniture. She’s using the time to talk things out, maybe say something new that she’s rehearsed that she feels she can believe herself. I listen and walk and look at the stalls. We buy coffees from a food truck and sit down on a bench half shared with other people. People get coffee to talk. So that’s what we do. She tells me she left some things in the flat she’ll never get back. There were some jerseys and a pair of shoes, and all her printed photos she’d stuck to the inside of their shared cupboard door, next to his. Now that that was gone she didn’t know who she was anymore.
We finish the coffee and the conversation ends. The market is busier now. There are more people watching than shopping but Elia still hasn’t found enough to furnish her flat. We walk up and down the lines of second-hand items.
Elia sees a couch. She buys it. It’s ugly as shit but at least it doesn’t remind her of anything.
When it’s loaded on the bakkie it barely fits. We tie it down with old ropes. We forget the desk and drive slowly.
The couch is a bitch to get inside. The building fights us at every door; every corner angle is an ambush.
—It’s all a mess.
Her flat or her life? I don’t know. I tell her it isn’t too bad. I remember our relationship and how it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t good and that’s the difference. We’re better friends.
—You know, I knew it long before I said anything? Before I broke up with him? I should’ve done it sooner.
We’re drinking instant coffee with sugar.
—What do you mean?
—He was such an asshole.
—Yeah. He was. Fucker.
I stress the —ck harder than I should and get self-conscious about it. She’d always laughed at how I swear, like a school kid swearing for the first time and figuring out how the words work.
—I can’t pinpoint why I did it. It’s not so clear. But it’s good I did.
—What happened, at the end?
There was one time, right at the end, when he got really drunk with a friend and called Elia. She had to pick him up. He had lost his car keys. He couldn’t even find his car. There was sick on his shirt when he got into the car. He was so gone he had forgotten her name but not her face.
I can tell from her tone—I think I can tell—that it’s not what he did. It’s that he was the type of person that would do that. That might continue to do that. That’s what had bothered her.
And I guess that’s what bothered her about me too.
I really am one of the So-Whats.
It took longer to pick a spot for the couch than it did to bring it into the flat. It was big—too big for any wall—and was an L-shape. Elia settled on putting it in the middle of the lounge-type area— it barely counted as one given the size of the flat.
—It’ll be good for when I have guests.
She has no TV.
My coffee is cold but only half drunk. Hers is too, but she keeps on sipping it. I’m not sure if she’s drinking it or just lifting the mug to her lips and lowering it again.
—I’m gonna quit my job.
—Don’t do that.
—Really. I can’t go back yet. I need a change.
—Take some time off then but don’t be dumb and quit.
—Don’t call me dumb.
This is the type of conversation we’d always had. Accusations, misunderstandings, miscommunications.
—You never listen.
That’s what she’d say. What she really meant was: you’re not hearing me.
—Sometimes one change requires more change.
I try to understand this.
—It’s like something is missing and I need to replace it. I could use it as an opportunity to revamp everything. My apartment. My job. My life. All, brand new.
And I think I do.
She says this is her choosing.
—Choosing to put the things that hurt aside, put them in the past, put them wherever, and be new.
—You’re right. That makes sense.
It’s late now and we’ve been speaking in circles, the same thing said in different ways, hoping to find a different meaning to it all. It’s important, sometimes, to repeat. We’ve gone from coffee to whiskey. It’s dark and we’re drunk.
—You can’t drive home like this. You can have the couch.
She lies with me on the couch, moves up next to me, like she used to.
I’m not sure if she asks or instructs me. But I do it, I’m happy to.
—I don’t want to speak anymore. About it.
Our bodies tighten then slacken. Our noses let out air.
—When we were together it wasn’t unpleasant.
I’m not just listening now. I’m hearing all she has to say.
Jason de Klerk is a lawyer living in Cape Town, South Africa. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Cape Town. He works in commercial and corporate law.
Image: Scott Webb on Unsplash