What I remember most about breaking up with my first love is the tendinitis and the ducks.
I’m not going to get into why it didn’t work out. Frankly, three years later, I still kick myself for not getting out sooner. But it was my first love and you do stupid things when you’re in love (or when you think you are). Anyway, that’s not the funny part of this story.
The funny part was actually the breakup.
The summer was a blur of research, improvised cooking, and the hand-jive. I was working in a research program on campus, teaching myself to cook, and rehearsing for an oddly intense production of Grease.
The research students were slotted into trailer units on the edge of campus. My friends were doing work involving rats, insects, enzymes, etcétera, so by comparison, my project was fairly unique. It was on Scorsese and his use of music in his films. No bugs or vermin involved, just a lot of film theory and Googling specific versions of semi-popular music. To even out the hours of sitting still in front of a book or computer, I started running.
The running ended up being a kind of “give a mouse a cookie” situation in terms of consequences. If you run a lot, you discover you pronate your feet. When you pronate your feet you get tendinitis. Normally that kind of detail wouldn’t matter but in this case it does. Save it for later, like a snack not delicious enough to eat immediately. Something you don’t look forward to, but eat out of hungry necessity (like raw, unsalted almonds).
All throughout this summer I started to realize I needed to break up with my boyfriend of six months for my own good. It was the right decision even though it was (at the time) a hard one. I skyped with my older sisters about it, cried a lot, wrote out my thoughts and feelings; I took all the steps the magazines suggest. By the time we made plans for our next date, I made sure they were flexible – he would meet me somewhere in his car, I’d walk over, and then we’d drive somewhere to lunch from there (only, I had a feeling we likely wouldn’t go to lunch after all was said and done).
It was a hot, eighty-degree, no clouds day, and I had an enormous, dark brown suede jacket draped over my shoulder. When we began dating in winter, he lent this to me and I kept it proudly for months (I mentioned this was my first love, right?). It was a heavy, dark brown thing that was so big on me it could have been mistaken for an ugly poncho with a zipper. It made no sense for me to have it with me on that day unless I was returning it. But it couldn’t be helped.
He was waiting in his car, parked in a parking lot just outside of campus, past the research students’ trailer park. I don’t remember what kind of car it was. That might give you a sense of how long this ordeal took.
I got in, he saw the coat and he knew. I started to explain. I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t working. I loved him, he meant a lot to me, but it can’t-
He cut me off.
That bugs me even now. I’m pouring out my heart and he stuck a stopper in there and cut the conversation short. He said something along the lines of “This happened to me last time.” He took the coat out of my hands and the car door opened, “We’re done here.”
Anger started to bubble up in me, but I couldn’t give voice to it. I had really loved this person. He was the first person I let myself give all of myself to. He got me to love him during the first few happy months of early infatuation, and now he was letting it end as easily as changing the channel on a TV. *Click* Rather than hear me out and hold onto it (please, hold onto me), he cut it short. *Click*
With his humiliating dismissal - “We’re done here.” - my heart started to cave in, and I realized in slow motion that, in six months, he had never heard me. Not only that, but despite what he might have said, he had never loved me; not in the same deep, everything way I loved him. He had used me up like a napkin from a themed party, the kind with cute Disney images. That was me -- I was a napkin with a cute dog or something on it and now I was a runny, crinkled (and limping) mess and the only thing to do with that is to throw it away. Into the rain.
I hadn’t realized it had started to rain until I stumbled out of the car. I turned back, but he had already started driving away from his crying (ex)girlfriend. In the rain.
Standing there and crying in that busy parking lot, getting soaked, made me realize that even though I hurt all over, I definitely made the right decision. Kids were dragging their moms to take them from the Panera Bread to the fro-yo place in the shopping complex. I limped by them with shaking shoulders, hoping the cheap dye in my socks wouldn’t bleed into my sneakers.
Note the limping? Yes. My tendinitis was that bad, and the situation was that pitiful. I limped in the rain, sobbing with my first real broken heart, through a parking lot, over a bridge, and towards the research trailer park kingdom part of campus. The uneven rhythm of my soggy, limping footsteps - *THUNK. Thah THUNK. Thah THUNK* - matched what felt like the uneven beats of my whole inside. “Heartache” is not the right word for this. This was everything-ache. I felt like I was going to throw up and hyperventilate at the same time; I felt faint and preternaturally aware all at the same time. And all the while, crying and limping my sad trudge of misery. *THUNK. Thah THUNK. Thah THUNK*
On the bridge I had to pause because my foot hurt too much. I looked out at the creek, swelling with rainwater, and saw the happiest ducks I’d ever seen. They were quacking more perfectly than 2D ducks in picture books. You could almost see the word “Quack!” spelled out with bubbly letters hanging in the air above them as they shouted it out, over and over, like little, imaginary alphabet umbrellas. They were flapping and play diving; if it was Happy Feet, they’d have harmonized their heart songs better than that Pixar penguin voiced by Brittany Murphy.
Standing there on the bridge in soggy sneakers and crying a deep, heaving cry, I saw these loud, chipper ducks having the time of their damn lives ten feet away from me and I hated them. I would have thrown my shoe at them if my foot hadn’t hurt so much. Instead I imagined them being struck by lightning. The electricity would cook them. And then maybe I’d make sandwiches out of them. Revenge a la crispy duck. Serves those feathery bastards right.
I started to think about the heartbroken characters in the books and movies, the ones who embodied the cliche I was now living, sobbing and unlucky in love in the rain. Standing on that bridge, I knew they’d have hated those ducks too and I bet they’d have had better quality shoes to throw at them.
But the bubbles of anger from before went from simmer to boil all of a sudden. It’s true I hated these joyous water birds, but then I started to hate that I hated them. Under normal circumstances, throbbing foot or not, I love rain and I love ducks and I’d have laughed at those cackling feather balls instead. I’d have drizzled crumbly granola bars from my pocket into the creek for them. I’d have attempted to quack along. I’d have stood there and spent time picking perfect names for each individual aviator (which, after giving it some thought later, were: Edna, Steve, Candice, Irving, Cordelia, and Ralph). But instead of loving them, on that day I was hating them, and the person responsible had cut me short and driven away like I was a drive-in not worth ordering anything at. Heartbreak, side of tendinitis, hold the pickle. Screw you.
Eventually I was able to limp my way back to my trailer. For the next few years, the mix of anger and sadness yo-yo’d through me for longer than I’d like to admit. But, despite the hurt, I did get better. Just like my foot got better.
Later that same day, icing my ankle and still crying, I resolved never to be with someone again who made me resent ducks in any way. It’s a sign of misery that no one should ignore.