It feels like I should be talking to him right now. It feels like I should be talking to him about the breakup. Something like: hey, you holding up okay? I’m resorting to chocolate as a coping mechanism, LOL what’s new. Maybe we shouldn’t have rushed our farewell; I have like an hour until I actually board. You know what else sucks? I thought I was having a real budding relationship with your mom. Do you miss me yet?
He would reply, not too good but I’ll be okay at some point. Yeah, it’s almost like you’re really into chocolate or something. Cést la vie—maybe we were just supposed to say bye and move on. I’ve been having long talks with my mom. She’s really helping me sort through this. And yes, I miss you already. (Throw in a couple ‘dude’s and ‘bruh’s into that, and it would be perfect.)
Instead, I am numb. I am not crying. I am typing. And eating chocolate. How did I end up here?
Five days ago as I flew into San Francisco International Airport, breaking up was the last thing on my agenda. I was thinking of all the hugs I’d missed, all the embraces I’d forgone, and how best to spend my time so all that would have been worth it. My boyfriend and I had been together for almost ten months, mostly long-distance. (I guess I should say ex-boyfriend now? That feels weird and cruel. Can I just keep calling him my boyfriend? It’s only been about an hour, after all. Can I get a 24-hour expiry pass or something?)
I had imagined our reunion a thousand times, and it completely threw me off at first to see him. Not just a face on the screen—a voice that actually propagated sound waves that reached my ears, a hand I could reach out and touch. It all felt foreign. I was almost nervous holding his hand, as if we were doing so for the first time.
Spending the first couple of days together, I had the thought that perhaps I didn’t feel the same way for him as I did before. This wasn’t true, or at least not in the sense that I thought at the time, and was probably borne out of how long it had been since I had last actually been with him. Of course I didn’t feel exactly the same; last summer, I was still in the you-give-me-butterflies stage. Of course it was a different kind of love at this point.
But that thought, discussed out loud with my friends, did spark the notion that perhaps I should be thinking about when to break the relationship off. To begin with, I wasn’t confident in my ability to sustain this long-distance thing once I entered college. There was a whole new world for me to adjust to. More importantly, he was off to Canada, our semester dates didn’t exactly line up so we’d be in California at the same time, and I just had no idea when I would be seeing him again. If it was going to be another stretch of time taking up the better part of the year, I wasn’t sure if I could do it.
Still, I wasn’t thinking of ending things during my trip. I wanted the trip to be magical, unsullied and all-around perfect (sure, roll your eyes at my idealism). I thought I’d just let the relationship run its course and Future Me could figure it out. But talking to my friends, I realized that probably meant I (or he) would be dropping that bomb over video chat, and that prospect was indeed shitty. If I ended it at the conclusion of my trip, at least there would be some face-to-face closure, and something organic about the timing, not just an uncomfortable, weary fizzling out.
My last night in Palo Alto, I brought my things back from campus to stay at his house. My impending departure loomed over us as we began watching a movie, left it unfinished, and just ended up talking, half-asleep but keeping up the banter. I was intimate with him in ways I’d never imagined being with anyone and he loved me in a way I’d never hoped for from anyone. It was a dream—some parallel world half-based in reality—and it was not until the sun rose and I blinked my eyes open that I even realized I’d fallen asleep.
He was going to take me to San Francisco that day and show me around. I had told him numerous times over call that I loved being shown around someone else’s space. Someone’s hometown, old school, or a city they used to work in. I loved the idea that a whole world of time and memories lay dormant in the concrete streets or the flickering lights of a grocery store. I dreamed of being taken by the hand and guided here and there, staring out into a foreign world as someone pointed out, this is this, that is that. He knew this, and made it come true.
We took the Caltrain to the city in the morning and there, in the perfect suburban sunlight as a bunch of nothings passed by the window, the world was blank and unimportant save his seat and mine. I knew I would break up with him by the end of the day, but I silenced the thought.
The day unfolded like a dreamy pastel montage from a rom-com, the part after boy meets girl when the theme song plays in the background and it’s as if things will be blissful for all eternity. He told stories of his visits to the city, we got excited rediscovering a farmer’s market he used to visit as a child, and ate lunch on a bench, looking out to the sea. We shared a warm dulce de leche empanadita. We walked around the piers and laughed at how windy it was, struggled with the poor public transportation system (I complained and compared everything to Seoul) and eventually took a taxi to Golden Gate Park. There, everything was beautiful and idyllic. An abundance of grass to sit on forever, and plenty of passing dogs to adore. We sat and talked for a while but the wind was getting too cold; he later said he was sorry things weren’t as nice as they could’ve been, but I called it “perfectly imperfect”.
And the train back was a different story. The sun’s glow is different in the late afternoon—set apart from the vivid whiteness of the morning, somewhat slower and wearier, casting a mild grin. I leaned against his shoulder and he fell asleep, but I couldn’t. I had promised myself I would carry out the breakup after dinner, and I still didn’t have the right words. There, for a long second, I considered changing my plans. All in that one second, I considered going home to Korea like everything was fine and texting him goodbye and love you on the plane. Why should I break up with him when neither of us wanted to? But the rational part of my brain dictated it was simply the right thing.
Who knew something so perfect could be so sad? Tears ran silently; he slept unknowingly. I sat up, looked out the window, and refused to look his way for a long time. Actually, I don’t know exactly when, but he woke up at one point and noticed. He didn’t say much for a long time, either. I’m not sure what was going through his mind.
We ate at some Indian restaurant. I’m sure I’ll end up returning there, given that Palo Alto will be my second home for four years, and I can only imagine what it’ll feel like to go there again. We ordered separately and got basically the same thing. Great—our commonalities go right down to our curry preferences. I don’t remember a single thing we talked about as we ate. I was mostly thinking about what was to come.
I asked to sit down somewhere in the little time we had before catching the train back. We walked a little and came to this spot with benches in front of City Hall, where the trees were painted cobalt blue. We laughed about it. (I later googled it, so Charlie, if you’re reading this, it was apparently a project to drive conversations about deforestation. They used environmentally-safe pigments, so our concerns were unnecessary.) We sat in a comfortable silence, then I broke the topic of “what we don’t want to talk about”, and I paused for so long he probably wondered if I was ever going to say anything. I had never found it so difficult to push words out of my mouth.
I rambled awhile about how tiring it’d been to be so far away, and said something (did I? I hope I did) about how shitty it would be to break up over call.
“So maybe, when I get on the plane tonight, maybe that’s just it.” Yes, after years of creative writing and public speaking, that was the peak of my rhetoric: maybe that’s just it. His face crumpled and so did my heart. I’ll never forget it: sitting there, him crying, me watching, the silence ungodly, the air a little chilly.
“I kind of suspected it on the train,” was the first thing he said afterwards. He seemed to collect himself and understand my comment that this was probably the least upsetting path for us. I’m not sure how many minutes passed then and there, semi-silence with sporadic tears from both parties. It could have been anywhere from five to twenty minutes, but then we had to go catch the train back.
“So what happens from now until you leave?” he asked as he got up from his seat. I pulled him into a tight hug and said, “just like this.” I’m not sure exactly what I meant—it makes little grammatical sense—but we both did then. I remember walking back to the station and feeling strange because we had walked the entire day holding hands, and now my right arm was dangling awkwardly by my side. That was not how I wanted things to finish between us, so I swallowed the uncertainty and took his hand. I looked up, made brief eye contact with him, and gave a sad half-smile.
Approaching the station, we were standing around waiting for a light to change when he looked across to the other side of the station. In a culmination of the comedic timing involved in this movie of our breakup, we watched as a train pulled into the station and he realized that was the one we had to catch. A split second of indecision, and we ran for it. We ran freely and with abandon. Sprinting downstairs through the underground passage and up again, we made the train with time to spare. I laughed and laughed and laughed because—I don’t know, it was just so funny. It was so funny things should unfold that way. And in that moment, the tension had broken. I knew we were the same two people we had always been.
So walking to his house from the station, we held hands, like we always have. We joked around the entire time, like we always have. We even joked about breaking up and how we didn’t know anyone that ended on such good terms. It was as if nothing had happened. Like I hadn’t just announced the full stop to our relationship.
Fast forward to his house—he lay on the couch, I packed swiftly, then we spent our last few minutes together, mostly in silence. I do remember one thing he said: “it feels unfair that we should break up.” Unfair is the word he used. I asked why, and he replied, “because we have something so nice.” Which was true. And hadn’t growing up largely been a process of realizing just how unfair the universe is? Hadn’t I thought I learned how to let go of circumstances that were out of my control? Unfair. Cést la vie.
I almost cried hugging his mother goodbye, because she was such a lovely woman that I had learned so much from despite only having met in person a few days ago, and I knew it was unlikely I would ever see her again. The car ride to the airport was too short. Before I knew it, I was rolling into SFO with him, where I had arrived that Wednesday with a pounding heart, bursting at the thought of our reunion.
Our goodbye spot was right before I had to go through security. We had a good long hug—or two—or three—and exchanged some words, the order of which is unclear in my memory, but mid-hug, he whispered:
“Thank you for everything.” The exact words I was going to say, but he beat me to it. I wanted to make a joke about it, but unfortunately, there was no more time for jokes.
“Thank you so much.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.” And I don’t think I had ever been so sure what I meant by that. I meant I really care about you. I meant you really matter to me. I meant I have been changed for the better, you have shown me a different world, allowed me to love myself more. I meant I will miss you.
And just like that, with one last kiss and a wave of my hand, I walked into security and out of his sight. The previous night, I had whispered to him a few of my favorite Korean words, beautiful in sound or meaning. One in particular rang in my ears as I went through security with a blank face and a numb mind—미련, a word so delicate on the tongue and exquisite in its tragedy. A lingering regret, a stubborn lack of closure that never quite loosens its grip.
What happens to our dreams? That I would finish a quarter at Stanford and leave for break, not to Korea but to his house? That his mother would teach me her recipes? That someday, he would make it to Seoul and I would be the one showing him around that time, that he would finally try the food I’d sent a hundred pictures of, and that he, too, would become a part of my physical world, that pulsing metropolis my energy is made of?
What happens to our inside jokes? Of my mocking sarcasm and his ironically grandiose vocabulary? Of my occasional mispronunciation of words and, when walking, my comical lack of awareness of my surroundings? His laziness and perpetual tardiness? Our shared inability to estimate time? Our tendency for sleep deprivation when we spend time together? The extra space he likes to place before punctuation marks—what happens to that? What happens to all the Studio Ghibli jokes?
Do they sink into silence? The dry, sullen underground of our hearts where they lay buried, a once-sunny corner that slowly becomes a void, where dreams and jokes are fossilized for a while and then begin dematerializing, one by one, into the mess of our unconsciousness where they will never emerge above the surface again? Or perhaps they linger longer than they should, like little children who refuse to sleep, who kick and scream their way to their beds then raise another tantrum when they are finally laid on their backs? Or does it all condense into one humanoid being that sits at a balcony in the highest chamber of my head, peering down at all my mental processes, silent and thoughtful until it feels the need to cast a leering smile and whisper, you’ve made a mistake, you’ve let him go, and it’s entirely your fault?
Probably all those things at once. Some of it does go silent. Some of it does throw a tantrum. And some of it does criticize me—I do regret it sometimes, and wonder about all the what-ifs I strangled with my own hands.
But I believe that life is not about avoiding pain. I think we started dating knowing things were bound to end somewhat like this, but I couldn’t be happier we did.
When I arrived home, tear-stained from the plane ride, the first thing I did was run out to the Han river. I ran until I couldn’t breathe (which wasn’t very long, given my current dismal cardiovascular endurance) and climbed down the stone steps until my legs were dangling right above the water. The river was breathtaking at 5AM. I had always been a silent crier, but here, the calm, barely shifting surface of the water outstretched its arms and simply invited the loud sobs. I was finally home, I was exhausted, and it was there to comfort me.
When I was done, I turned my back to the pastel backdrop and headed home. It had been maybe five minutes when I glanced over my shoulder. I stopped short. In that time, the sky had changed already; the sun was closer to breaking the horizon and everything was pinker, somehow even more captivating. It reminded me of the California sunset I had admired with him just a day ago, joking why it should be pink when neither the sun nor the sky was any shade of pink. But it was. Then it wasn’t. Skies change that fast. There, walking back to my house, I knew I was going to be fine.
Don’t get me wrong, it still feels like I should be talking to him right now. It feels like I should be talking to him about the breakup, because he’s the only one that understands what this is like, so it feels natural that we should cope with this together. But by definition, we can’t. We need to re-learn how not to. And despite all that, it still feels like I should be the one consoling him about my absence, cracking all the right jokes at the right times, and eventually running my hand over his back and weaving my fingers through his, whispering you’ll be alright, she wasn’t good enough for you anyway.