Two days ago
She was breaking his heart and not even using complete sentences.
“… not going… what direction …”
Jake Whitman had been dating Mariah for six months, but if he was honest with himself (and he rarely felt obligated to be so), he would admit that they had been drifting apart for several weeks, driftwood aimlessly floating downstream at different speeds.
“… need something else…”
As Mariah went on, jumbling words together haphazardly, Jake looked forward to when this would be over, but noticed now imperfections that he had not noticed before, either from ignorance or indifference: her hair, thinning at the top with roots darker than the blonde she swept to the side of her face; her ears too small for her head, unable or unwilling to hear, stubbornly sticking out, selectively deaf. Looking at her nose, it was hard not to think of a ski slope, one from a particularly difficult Olympic jump. Are ski slopes different angles? It seems like they should be harder in the Olympics, but Jake guessed swimming pools are 50 meters everywhere. What makes a person want to ski jump? What sort of a person looks at a mountain and says, “I want to jump off of that?” More importantly, how long is this going to take? Is there a mountain close by Jake could jump off?
And then one final imperfection, one Jake could never forgive, an imperfection so ghastly, so abhorrent as to overshadow six months of near-happiness or almost-pleasantness or whatever feeling of warmth there may have been, but which now seemed so distant:
“… supposbably this great…”
Jake could put up with a lot — he had been voted Most Likely to Smile During a Colonoscopy in high school — but it would be a cold day when he’d sit silently while someone wraps their fingers around the English language and slowly strangles the life out of it until it’s a whimpering remnant of Shakespeare’s tongue.
Jake stood up and took one last look around her apartment. He would miss the sofa, where they had first kissed after Mariah invited him in for coffee. Jake remembered nervously folding up a disheveled blanket, tossed without thought halfway between the sofa and the carpet, when she softly grabbed his arm and pressed her lips to his. It was messy, but he hadn’t minded. The kiss, that is. Her apartment was an assault on Marie Kondo and surely would have caused a vein in her neck to pop unless Mariah distracted her the way she had Jake.
Jake would not miss the mess. And he would not miss the grammar. Words, like blankets, have a place, but neither had a proper one in this apartment.
“You can stop,” he said to Mariah, who was still stammering through the overdue breakup. “I get it. I’m not going to argue or cry or make this harder.”
“I really am sorry, Jake,” she said, a genuine look of concern on her face. “Let’s stay in touch.”
“It’s a date.”
Jake picked up his blazer, which had been folded over twice and hung over the back of the recliner, and walked through the door for the last time, confident he would never talk to her again.
Now what? The problem with getting dumped — well, one of the problems — is that whatever you may have planned suddenly evaporates. When you’re the one ending it, you can make plans ahead of time. 7:00: Break up with her. 8:00 Meet friends for dinner. 10:00: Laser tag. (Jake would not suffer your judgment; he’s won this hypothetical relationship and therefore the right to chase teenagers with a fake gun.) But when you’re the one dumped? Well, that’s going to throw a wrench into your evening. Instead of an evening in with Mariah, Jake had… both nothing to do and literally everything open before him.
It was a cool Monday night in Jefferson, NC, and Jake would have to be at work in 12 hours. He wasn’t sad, not really, but endings always made him feel like he was missing something, and in the end, if it’s not the end, what is it?
Jake would often look back at this moment and wonder what would have happened if he had decided to go home. It’s not that he regretted the way things worked out; he wouldn’t want to change much and (spoiler alert) this will have a happy ending. He didn’t believe in fate or a higher power moving pieces around a chess board, so what were the chances that this exact series of events would occur? How many things could have been slightly different and still had him end up where he does in Chapter 34? (No peeking!) He would never know.
What he did know was he needed to talk to Albert.
“Hi, Albert. It’s Jake. Mariah and I just broke up.”
“Oh man, that sucks. Who broke who?”
“Give me a break. I just got dumped.”
“Them’s the breaks.”
“Wanna get a drink?”
“Sure. Give me 20 minutes. Jefferson Brewing?”
“Sounds good. See you there.”
Jefferson Brewery was in the revitalized part of downtown, where hipsters with unironic mustaches and clever t-shirts were taking over and driving out the lower income families who could no longer afford the real estate. Although Jake was one of those thoughtless yuppies, he did think about it, which made him slightly better than them, at least in his mind. He was also unable to grow facial hair anywhere but his neck, so a mustache — ironic or otherwise — remained an unattainable dream.
The brewery was always crowded, and as more businesses opened without considering the supporting infrastructure, finding a place to legally park always made for an interesting challenge, much like squeezing into that old pair of jeans from college is a “challenge” and “absolutely worth it.”
Jake walked in and slowly made his way to the bar, where he ordered two of their latest creations, Of Kolsch You (In a) Can, disappointed in the creativity of the name but not the brew. Jake found an empty table near the back and drowned not exactly sorrows and certainly not his soul.
“Hey, Gary, how many calories are in a can of beer?”
“I wouldn't recommend eating a beer can, Jake,” his watch responded with what Jake almost thought was a smile. Gary never answered questions satisfactorily, but Jake kept both asking and getting frustrated. That made Jake at least somewhat complicit, though he rarely thought about it.
Albert showed up about two wallows (one third of a beer) in.
“The kids asleep?” Jake asked Albert as he plopped into the booth.
“They’re in bed, so I did my part,” Albert said with a crooked smile, a trucker hat sitting high on top of his head. Jake always admired the way Albert’s hat could sit almost 90 degrees and still be cool. “So what happened? Why did you break up?”
“Oh, well, you know how it is,” Jake said, twirling his pint glass thoughtlessly. “We were just too different, I guess. It’s okay, though. I actually kind of feel relieved, to be honest. It saves me from having to do it at some point.”
That was true enough. Jake had wanted to drink after the breakup because that’s the cliché, and when you get dumped, sometimes it’s easier to simply embrace the stereotype. Drinking alone would have been more stereotypical, but he hadn’t been prepared to go full cliché for Mariah.
“You’re too picky, Jake. You’re almost 30. What are you looking for? What’s going to make you happy?”
“I’m not picky,” Jake said slowly, surprised at feeling defensive. “I like things my way. I have high standards, but why not? I’m worth it. We only get to live once, and I’m not going to settle.”
“I’m not suggesting you settle, and I certainly did not.” Now Albert sounded a little defensive. His lips pursed as he considered his words carefully. “I just worry about you. You haven’t had a long relationship since -”
“I know, I know,” Jake cut in, thankfully. This conversation was veering dangerously close to emotional territory. This is a comedy after all. Nostalgia is the enemy of progress.
“Look, I’m not saying you should get married next week,” Albert said. “It takes time to find what Nora and I have. I was about your age when we got married -”
“I know, Al. I was there.”
“I just want you to be happy,” Albert continued. “If that’s starting a family, then so be it. Selfishly, I’d been hoping your kid could marry one of mine, but now that we have a nine-year head start, that thought is increasingly gross.”
“Your words, not mine.”
“Or if you’d rather sow your wild oats, I’ll get some yarn.”
“I think we’d actually need a shovel,” Jake corrected him. “Or a scythe. That would make me popular. I could really cut folks down to size.”
“I guess my point,” Albert continued, unfazed, “is you should get out of your comfort zone. Try something new. You’re too young to be a slave to routine.”
“I like things the way I like them,” Jake said. He knew he could not argue; everything in his life was ordered, and he felt anxious any time he felt that order — that control — slipping from his fingers. “Also, I don’t think we’re supposed to say ‘slave’ anymore.”
“Is it too soon?” Albert asked.
“Give it another few weeks,” Jake said. “What about you?” Jake asked, hoping that Albert would follow to another subject. “How’s work?”
Albert put his left hand on his chest, covering the Hugh Deere logo on his t-shirt. “It’s going really well, actually. I’m doing three classes a day now. I still think you should consider coming.”
“I don’t have the patience for yoga, Albert,” Jake said, nearing the end of his beer. “I can’t sit still that long. At least not without a beer.”
“There’s an idea. Beer yoga.”
“Now there’s a sign of someone with a problem.”
After one more round, Albert and Jake left the bar, having talked through local sports, national politics, and the latest Netflix sci-fi series. Only a little after 10:00, Jake decided to make his way home so he’d be in bed at the normal time before waking up and heading into the office. Breakups are exhausting and made Jake sleepier with the prospect of another boring, soul-draining day at Toughware Software Inc TM Co and various other legal suffixes. Jake had worked there for four years, in the same role and for the same manager, with two percent raises each year plus the promise that when the startup went public, his stock options would be immeasurably valuable. His manager always got a bit more prickly at the end of a fiscal quarter, and even though Jake was in Marketing and not Sales, every three months, he felt the whole office fill with a nervous energy somewhere between frenzied-speed-dating and emergency-room-after-a-bridge-collapse.
In other words, Jake could hardly wait to sit down at his desk with a cup of coffee and punch the clock for another day.
Jake said good-bye to Albert, whose car was close to his, and climbed into his Hyundai Santa Fe, started the engine and turned around to start backing up. That’s when he saw a short, hairy, white, living thing laying in the back seat bundled under his overcoat.