Do not retweet this. That was her first thought. After the shock and the pain and the sadness. Just because they’d technically met on Twitter didn’t mean he could break up with her that way. They’d been together offline too long—eleven months next week. It was a direct message, but he was only using that to hide. Nothing’s really private anymore. Why shouldn’t the whole world know what had happened to her? Liz Cherry wanted her justification. A little retribution, even.
First, she wanted an explanation. You can only fit so many breakup tropes in one tweet. By the time you write, “It’s not you, it’s me. There’s no one else. I’m not in a place where I can make the commitment. But I hope we can stay friends,” you’ve already got 129 characters right there and what does that even mean?
What did she do wrong? Had he met someone else? No relationship is perfect, and theirs had been even less perfect since that disastrously failed roleplaying attempt last month (The Great Midnight Milkshake Fiasco, as it had become known), but they had gotten through it. She had thought she might be in love with him. She had already said she was.
Going public now would ruin any chance. She had to see him in person. He didn’t want to meet, she thought, because they might end up sleeping together one last time, and then who knows what would happen? But she deserved the courtesy, didn’t she?
She texted him.
Im coming over.
Teddy lived by himself in an apartment in Dilworth. She still lived a few minutes away in Elizabeth. Thank God she hadn’t moved in with him yet. Or maybe Teddy had been right; maybe it wouldn’t have gotten to this point if they lived together. His apartment was always too hot, though, so the cigar smell never quite dissipated, and the neighbors had an annoying dog, and it was further from her work with all the extra traffic. She wanted to be closer in their relationship—she did!—but she wasn’t ready for it yet. She was still her own woman.
His car was in the lot, but he didn’t answer the door. Where else could he be on Sunday morning? Liz knocked a little harder. He was probably just sleeping. They couldn’t hang out the night before because he was working on a paper for grad school, he had said. No answer. Maybe he had a date with someone else last night. Maybe they got drunk and she’s the one who sent that tweet. Maybe she was still in there with him right now. She still had a spare key to his apartment. She should go in there and tell him a thing or two.
Her keys were still jingling in the lock when she heard his voice behind her. “Hey, Liz,” Teddy said. He looked smaller, standing in that hallway, than she had ever seen him. He was a big guy—that’s what surprised her most when they finally met in person; one can only tell so much from an avatar and a couple of selfies—and getting bigger by the chicken biscuit. He could throw her over his shoulder with one hand, and she could easily hang from one of his biceps with her legs around his waist. Those shoulders drooped now, his face a little too, pained, but not like with a hangover. Big guys were always sensitive types. She loved that about him. Teddy would be fishing for laughs, and usually catching some, in a crowd one moment, then snuggling up on the couch and crying over Downton Abbey the next. The sorry sight of him transformed her anger and panic into sorrow and sheepishness.
“Hey,” she said.
“It’s open,” he said. “Come on. I guess we need to talk.”
“You do,” she said. He led her into the apartment and sat down on the formerly tan sofa. Pages, bound and unbound, were strewn about the coffee table. She sat down beside him so their knees were just touching.
“I’m sorry about the message, Liz,” he said, not looking at her but apparently staring at some minute detail of a mounted fish displayed above the mantle. “I just didn’t know what to say, and I may have had a few drinks, and I just had to say something, but I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”
“But you meant it?” she said.
“Yeah, I guess so. I’ve been thinking lately. I don’t know what I’ll do next or where I’m going to be after I graduate. I don’t want to…I don’t know. You are great, and we had a lot of fun, right? But I…I don’t love you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Liz lied. “I don’t really love you, either.”
“How is that ‘okay’?” he said. “We’re too old for this, Liz. It’s time to move on. I’m sorry.”
She left. What else could she say? She’d told a half dozen guys she loved them, but no one had ever said they didn’t. That wasn’t how it was supposed to work. She drove around the corner, parked in front of another building, and cried.
Nothing of hers was left at his place, and he kept nothing of his at hers. There was no box to toss out the window or photos to burn. She couldn’t find a single thing of his to break except one basketball in the little shed at the end of their driveway. He was the only one who ever shot hoops on the rusty old goal. She tried to pop it with a kitchen knife, but it was tougher than it looked. She kicked it into the neighbor’s backyard.
“Give him a week,” Gabriella and Heather, her roommates, said. “He’ll realize he misses you and come begging for you back.” She did; he didn’t. Another week and she’d given him enough. She set about uncoupling all the nodes that once connected them.
Over a bottle of wine one night, she swiped backward through a year of photos on her phone, deleting those of Teddy as she went. Each one, as she traversed the many stages of their relationship—from a real couple meeting each other’s parents to lovers vacationing in Napa to friends dancing wildly at concerts to twitter followers chatting online to a single woman allowing too many drinks to be bought for her at the bar—was a small mountain to climb, some steeper than others. It was a painful exercise, and the wine did not dull it enough. She reached the end of the bottle long before they all were gone. Then she deleted the backup from her computer and the online backup too.
She went on a date with a guy from her office who’d been staring at her for six months in a sort of flattering way. They both worked for the big bank downtown, analyzing financial spreadsheets for municipal loans, where Liz found herself putting in more hours, just to fill up the day. They had a nice dinner, and he was a nice fellow, but even after more than enough drinks they had done nothing worth posting. She gave him a consolation kiss. He got the picture and politely left her alone after that.
Teddy lingered on the edge of her existence. They had too many friends and followers in common to avoid each other completely. Liz would inevitably see some of his comments retweeted or pictures of him, looking the same as ever, posted by her friends. She blocked the ones she didn’t care about, but some of them had been her friends first. They probably liked her more than him. She shouldn’t have to give them up.
The more she saw of him, the more she became aware that he might be seeing her as well.
Last time I had salad for lunch @justinbieber was still cool. Feeling GREAT! #newleaf http://tinyurl.com/lz4b583
-@CherryTop88 (Liz Cherry) on May 5, 2014
In the confusion of the moment, a great many things went unsaid that had since occurred to her to say.
I’ve never been anywhere cold as you/ You put up walls and paint them all a shade of gray. Rockin my gurl @taylorswift13 today
-@CherryTop88 (Liz Cherry) on May 7, 2014
Every time she saw his name she thought of something else and had the urge to call and tell him.
I could use a good friend right now. #whatslovegottodowithit
-@CherryTop88 (Liz Cherry) on May 9, 2014
She downloaded the EXorcisor, an app that makes you complete a maze with your finger before you are able to call or text or tweet your ex. If she couldn’t finish it or ran into the walls too many times, it would alert her best friend instead. It was meant to stop drunken texting, but she could barely pass the test sober.
The one place which did not remind Liz of Teddy was the gym, so that’s where she went on Saturday morning when they would normally be getting bagels. The older woman on the elliptical next to her talked about how she had run three indoor marathons on the elliptical (though not that day), while Liz responded in gasps and alternated between watching a guy with a small, fit build doing sit-ups with a medicine ball and checking out her own ass, squeezed into a pair of black yoga pants but not quite as tightly as before, in the mirror behind her. He left without looking in her direction, and she five minutes later her motivation dried up.
She went home and showered, then sat down with her phone to check out what was going on. An old college friend she hadn’t talked to in years wanted people to go bowling. No thanks. One of Teddy’s college roommates was having a birthday party, but that was not an option. Heather was in Raleigh visiting her boyfriend and Gabriella had to work. Looked like it was going to be another wine and Twilight sort of weekend.
Whos down for a #ladiesnight tonight? Movie anyone?
-@CherryTop88 (Liz Cherry) on May 10, 2014
Also, she had a Facebook post from Teddy’s mom. She loved Mrs. Westerlund, who was cursed with three sons and Liz the only serious girlfriend. She was so cute. When Teddy t Liz home to Kansas last Christmas, Rosa took her shopping and to the spa and kept saying how much she always wanted to have a daughter. Nice to have an ally on the inside, not that it did much good. She discovered Facebook about that time, and they stayed in touch that way. Liz didn’t want her sympathy now, though. She clicked on the message anyway because, well, she couldn’t avoid it forever.
On the screen in front of her appeared a video. She watched the entire thing, a full minute and twenty-eight seconds. A cat dressed in a shark costume was riding on a robotic vacuum cleaner chasing a live baby duck. A short message in the whitespace below the clip:
1 hour – Topeka, KS
Saw this and thought of you.
In an instant, the weeks of weight she had suspended collapsed on her, and she was crushed. She missed him, missed his big hugs and being told she was sexy, missed knowing she always had a place to go, missed thinking she was going to be daughter for a second time and someday a mother for the first. Where did she go wrong? What was he thinking? What was his mom thinking? What did that message mean? Was she supposed to be the shark-cat or the duck? Or did Rosa not know? Could he not tell her? Could he not tell himself? Had he changed his mind? Had she?
The maze was unusually difficult.
Her body was clenched, waiting for that little ellipsis on her screen to materialize into his words, ready to pounce on him and pound him into submission or oblivion, whichever came first.
Hey, Liz. How have you been?
The reason for her message suddenly flew from her mind, out the living room window, and into the wild. There were so many things she wanted to say to him.
I saw your pic from the game. You looked good.
Hornets are killing our lottery chances, though.
Look. U said were too old so let’s talk like adults.
Is this over or not?
He started typing, then stopped for a time, then started again. So he was thinking about it. Liz wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not.
I like you, Liz. We had fun, but that’s all it was.
I thought it could be more, I wanted it to be more, but it just isn’t.
So yeah, I guess it’s over.
But what’s wrong with having fun?
Liz felt the coolness collecting in the corners of her eyes. Teddy was her first serious boyfriend after college and a few years older than she. They’d met when his friend retweeted a picture of her with Muggsy Bogues. He saw it, started following her, chatting regularly, and eventually asked her out.
Can’t build a whole relationship on it, though.
Inform ur dear mother then
For several seconds there was nothing.
I’ll deal with it.
Liz wasn’t sure what was worse: being dumped by a guy she really liked or being jerked around and rejected again when she had almost recovered just for the hell of it. She cried for a time, but beyond that there was only something like annoyance or embarrassment or anger or she-didn’t-know-what.
Is there a #BOGO special on breakups this month? #stillsingle
-@CherryTop88 (Liz Cherry) on May 10, 2014
She poured a glass of wine and watched the thread wind, spinning out almost the whole story, satisfied in the commiseration of friends she hadn’t seen in years.
The experience renewed her vigor for severing the vestigial links of her past. Anyone who retweeted @PapaBear177 or mentioned his name got immediately unfollowed. She created a new private Instagram profile and invited only her most loyal, creative, and funniest friends and acquaintances. She changed the web address of her personal blog and cancelled every game of Words with Friends, even the ones she was winning. On Facebook, half of her friend list was swept away. Only those people she couldn’t live without remained. No exceptions, even if she had to sacrifice a party invitation or free Hornets tickets every once in a while on principle. Mrs. Westerlund alone was spared. Teddy needed to handle it. Liz didn’t want to be the one to break the woman’s heart.
Another day brought another message with another dopey cat video circa 2010 of an overgrown tabby playing the piano. Liz could only sigh. She clicked LIKE just to say she saw it, put her phone down, and went back to working on her spreadsheets. The world was much quieter with most of her friends gone. Only three people had liked her photo of the incredibly hip retro multi-colored Tetris block socks she wore to work that day under her pantsuit, and no one had commented. She tried to fill in the gaps by talking with her coworkers more. Bankers, in general, weren’t great conversationalists. Not her cluster of cubicles in particular. She knew some girls in Currency Exchange who weren’t afraid of a Saturday night, but they were twelve stories straight up. She emailed them about getting lunch. They would appreciate her socks.
On the way back to the office from lunch with them, she checked her messages. Nothing for work, but Linda from their coed softball team—another casualty of the struggle but less painful than the weekend bagel runs—had tweeted something.
One extra ticket to @bandofhorses tonight if anyone wants it. LMK. @PapaBear177?
-@lstroud3543 (Linda Stroud) on May 16, 2014
That might be fun, Liz thought. But why was Teddy’s handle at the end of it? Was she…? That bitch. Always thought she was better than everyone just because she played softball in High School, but Teddy didn’t like girls with bangs, especially not ugly ones like Linda’s. Liz ducked into the bathroom when she got off the elevator. She typed out a nasty reply but had not sent it when she thought to look at Teddy’s profile for a response.
@lstroud3543 Sorry, going to Costa Rica after finals. Need time alone to think…and surf
-@Papabear177 (Teddy Westerlund) on May 16, 2014
Her burst of anger sputtered and stalled. Liz fell and fell, down into her hands, propped on her knees, in the third stall on the 14th floor.
When she had fixed her makeup, she returned to her desk, unfollowed Linda, and closed Twitter for the day. Gabriella was online.
me: i need a hug Gabby: *hug* me: thank u me: im losing it me: actually, already lost it Gabby: sry :( Gabby: what’s wrong? me: teddy Gabby: ive been telling you that for a year Gabby: let him go me: its his mom Gabby: let her go too Me: she keeps messaging me Gabby: lol just tell her already me: but i love her Gabby: do u love him?
Liz had to think about it. A few weeks ago she wouldn’t have been sure. Now she had no freaking idea. Something about him still moved her, but she didn’t have a word for the dense mass that had lodged itself inside her and stuck in painful places. Fear-pride-anger-horniness- nostalgia-doubt-loneliness-hope? Love? Maybe.
me: irrelevant me: its about him me: if he wont tell his mom maybe that means he isnt sure me: maybe he regrets it me: maybe he loves me me: isnt it worth knowing at least finding out me: i cant live forever not knowing one way or the other me: is that so crazy? me: tell me im crazy
She stared at the screen, waiting for a response that didn’t come. She knew it. She was crazy. Even her own roommate, her best friend, thought so. The pain in her stomach crumpled her over her desk, and she laid her head down beside the keyboard. Still nothing from Gabby.
me: say something dammit im dying inside over here Gabby: sry i went to the bathroom Gabby: lol u will be fine Gabby: stay off facebook Gabby: happy hour at sundries b4 my shift? me: yeah Gabby: c u there
At 5:37pm she copied last formula of her Monroe Water Treatment Plant bond package analysis, then left for happy hour at Providence Sundries. Gabriella was wearing navy blue scrubs, drinking black coffee, and talking to round-faced man with short black hair in rainbows, jeans, and a sport coat. Gabby introduced him, mentioned several times he was a doctor, and kept giving Liz suggestive glances whenever he pretended to check his pager. Liz bought herself a light beer and contemplated her inevitable match.com profile. Was twenty-four too old to still use college photos?
Outlasting both the doctor and Gabriella, she watched the front wall of the restaurant slide up like a garage door, exposing the outside patio, where a guy in a suit was playing a guy with a neck beard in cornhole. She couldn’t decide whom to root for from her seat at the bar. Neckbeard looked like he was winning. Several more challengers came and went—Neckbeard appeared to be some sort of local cornhole legend—over the course of her second beer.
She swiped through Tinder in the downtime, wondering if she possibly needed to move.
Left. Left. Left. Right…nope. Left.
Occasionally her phone would chirp and she would instinctively reach for it, striking up some abandoned conversation, before putting it back on the bar. Liz was broadcasting her availability, both online and, she thought, in person. But no one came, and no one called.
She updated her status and left.
Halfway through her third Friends rerun, she received another message from Teddy’s mom. She was determined to ignore it. She had access to millions of cat videos without any emotional baggage whenever she wanted. No need to look at this one. Unless Teddy had finally told her the truth and Rosa was only wanting to tell her how sad she was and how terrible Teddy had treated her and how she was sending Liz that pair of flat-heeled light tan leather boots with the buckle at the top she saw at Athropologie last week to make up for it. Even so, she wouldn’t look, she decided.
But that little red circle on the corner of her Facebook app was persistent. It sat there, looking at her, boring a tiny hole in her head and making her brain itch. She put the phone face down on the coffee table and went to the bathroom. When she came back, it was still there. She clicked it.
No video, no cats, no boots, no apology, no sympathy, just a short phrase under a smiling headshot.
23 mins – Topeka, KS
Hope you’re having fun in Costa Rica! I’m jealous!
Liz read it again and again. Understanding lit slowly in her like a long fuse. Tears jerked up from her chest, and they were hot. A wildfire, ignited in the uncleared wilderness of her soul, scattering her thoughts before the blaze. Whatever feelings he thought he had, it couldn’t be love. Whatever love she thought she felt became kindling for the flame. Dear Rosa, whose only fault was too great an affection, was the first to be undone. Liz could bear no more for her. Her thumbs punched out a terse reply.
Please do not message me anymore
She sent it, but it did not satisfy her.
She wrote again:
Rosa, I am not in the Bahamas. Your son dumped me last month for some reason. I told him to tell you earlier, but he hasn’t and I thought you should know. You might also want to know that he smoked pot in the attic in High School and stole money from your wallet in the 6th grade. Did he ever tell you that?
Liz had a nice bottle of Merlot in her sock drawer that she was saving for an emergency. All the wine glasses were dirty, so she poured some into a beer mug and took a swig. She lit two candles on the coffee table for the ambiance and set to work in the smoldering light, the pint of red at her side and the remainder close at hand.
She texted Gabby her list of grievances and epithets instead with instructions to recite them to Teddy, and then she called his best friend, Trent, and gave the same business to his voicemail.
To make it part of the everlasting public record, for the first time she set her Facebook relationship status—in high school it was too emotional, in college too complicated, and forever after just irrelevant, until now—to SINGLE. That seemed significant to her, like she had reached the top of a mountain, planted her flag, stared across a great distance of the wilderness behind her, and was headed home. But the wildness did not cease.
The heat grew higher as the cup grew lighter. She wondered, in her fuzzy, fleeing mind, whether there was anything she could say to bring her heart to rest. Whatever she said, Teddy would eventually come back and say something and who knows what would happen. Messages could be misunderstood or ignored or forgotten or forgiven or rewritten. Wasn’t it the whole system, not the messages but the messenger, that persistent bastard, who would never let them go? She was caught in that vast net, strung up by many stakes. The only way out was the burn them all.
Liz squeezed her phone. She pulled up Teddy’s contact and deleted it, then deleted Trent’s, then Gabby’s, then Marsha’s, then everyone’s, starting at the bottom, until it was a blank screen. She deleted her Facebook account, all her Instagrams, her blog, her old MySpace page, her online resumes, her Tinder profile, and every app she had. But over the icon of that little white bird she paused. What she wanted was to finally retweet the message that brought her to this point, to take her tiny piece of revenge. But that too would be futile. The only unanswerable message would be her absence.
She wiped it all away.
On the table was the mug, half empty with the final ounces of Merlot. It was late. The first number on the clock was either a two or a three. Still she could not close her eyes. Something was missing. She picked up the phone again, empty now of all its character but full as ever of potential. She considered it for a moment, and with the last embers of her rage, dropped it in the mug, quenching the flame.
The phone began to vibrate at a now-unknown number, half submerged within the drink, and sang as it clinked against the glass like songbirds in the spring or wind chimes in a summer breeze.