When “Our Song” Became Just Mine: Feeling the Break-Up Song

In my favorite movie, L. A. Story, Steve Martin’s character stares out the window at the rain, Enya swelling in the background, as his lover sits staring out her window on a plane, about to leave him. “Why is it we don’t always know the moment when love begins,” he says, overhead, “but we always know when it ends?”

I love that movie. But I have no idea what he means.

Frequent readers might notice there’s been a considerable gap between my last essay and this one, and it’s for the saddest, most ironic reason: the last post was about falling in love and finding our song, and this one, the one I’ve been avoiding writing, is about the end of that—both the finding and the falling. The turn away from love, for him, was so sharp, so sudden, yet the break-up itself took weeks, limping through silences and empty promises to come over and talk and the dark spaces in nights when I’d wake up at 4:00 a.m., expecting him to come to me after work, to come home, and crying when he never came. The turmoil of his waters created a corresponding movement in my own, not of falling away but falling into an anxiety so foreign, so crippling, I couldn’t even wonder what had happened. I only knew something was injured, and I couldn’t reach him.

We’d been to a wedding—a fun one, a beautiful one. I’d met his friends. I liked them. They liked me. They liked us together. At one point in the evening, we found one of them gazing thoughtfully at us. “You guys have a really intense relationship, don’t you?” she said. It was a statement more than a question. We looked at each other, somewhat startled, but in agreement. Yes. We do.

We did. How then, could what followed be any less intense?

Certainly, he was hung over and tired. Perhaps a wedding, when we’d been talking about our own as if it were a certainty, made me extra-sensitive to needing to feel close to him. I woke up in the hotel, and he was already gone, out to smoke. And somehow, I felt lonely for the first time in our relationship. I had so looked forward to this weekend, to having this time with him, particularly because his night job made going to sleep at the same time an impossibility, and waking up together a rarity. Turning my body to emptiness, I opened my eyes and missed him as if he’d left the continent, instead of just the room.

The morning was fine, and we were mostly quiet on the drive back. And in the two or three hours we had at home, before he went to work, the seeds of the break-up were sown. I said I’d felt vulnerable that day: “Love me up a little extra?” And the face I loved, to which I felt nearly addicted, with all its emotional mobility and sweetness, the face that usually lit up when it looked on mine, this face went cold as an empty bed. “That just seems really insecure.”

I wonder if my own face, then, registered how stunned, surprised, I was, so sure that he would understand, if not why I was reaching out, then maybe what a gift it is to ask a lover for their hand when we are in the water—not because we can’t pull ourselves out but because it means so much to have someone to ask. I tried to explain what I thought was the difference between vulnerability and insecurity: vulnerability is having the courage to express a need, however irrational it might be; insecurity lurks and is insatiable in its neediness. He saw no difference. Worse, he compared me to the most insecure person he knew, who knew he didn’t love her but would ask to be told that he did, which seemed less insecure to me than sadly insightful, a sideways glance at a truth she wanted not to know. He said, “Why can’t I just tell you I love you when I feel like it?” We looked at each other, something like fear welling up in each of us. It was time for him to go to work. I drove him. “I love you,” I said. “We’ll talk.” And he still said, “I love you, too,” with eyes I still understood. We did talk.

But then, the next night, at an Of Montreal show, I had too many drinks, and the show was visually chaotic, and as we walked home and I brought up the insecure comment again, saying how much that hurt me, he said that was proof I was insecure, and I said, “Fuck you.”

And it was that moment, he told me later, “That moment was the moment I fell out of love with you.” He told me two weeks later, two weeks of those nights in the dark, uncertain as to what had happened to warrant his departure from my life, since I remembered only that we had been upset but not what I had said That moment had been the end of love in his eyes. “That was the moment I fell out of love with you.”

Is any single sentence more devastating?

Of course, there were other, more significant reasons we broke up, some of which I knew were problems as I rolled over in an empty bed to find him already gone, the need for a cigarette greater than the need to see my face upon waking, than holding me close in the long morning of our first weekend away together. But knowing he had a moment in which he knew his love for me had ended . . . what else could I do for weeks but stare out my window, eyes fixed on that moment which, unfortunately, swam hazily back up from the recesses into which it had been drunkenly tucked, the bad seed into the dark earth of memory, bursting suddenly from husk to the fully-grown vine that would choke out all the beauty of that love, kill all the goodness like an unexpected frost?

The hardest part about having a break-up song for Jason is that unlike him and Steve Martin, I have no moment when love ended for me. If I needed to have a moment, perhaps it could be the moment when his lovely face went cold. His face is a serious face and defaults to a frown; maybe it could be the moment when that frown was directed at me. But I don’t have a moment, and as I try to recover, it is no surprise to me that the song to which I feel most drawn, the one that seems right, is not a break-up song at all. It is Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” and it is not a song of endings but a song about the desire to love and the difficulties of doing so, an expression of need that is vulnerable, not insecure, because it asks for the partner to be with her on a journey to be their better selves:

All I really, really want our love
to do
is to bring out the best in me
and in you, too

Joni Mitchell asks for recognition of her vulnerability, as I did, even as she takes ownership for her own role in the pain: “Do you see / do you see / do you see how you hurt me, baby? / So I hurt you, too, and we both get / so blue.” But the pain is not the point of the song; the point is that she wants to do so many loving things for this man, “to knit [him] a sweater / write [him] a love letter / wanna make [him] feel better.” She wants to “make you feel free.” And that is what makes it my best stab at a break-up song for Jason, who once wrote me, in his own love letter, that “when something so great becomes so necessary, so quickly, it is NOT unreasonable to ask if it can be forever.” Jason’s forever ended in a moment, and he stepped off of our path, while I am

on a lonely road, and I am traveling
traveling traveling traveling
looking for something—
What can it be?
Oh, I hate you some
I hate you some I love you some
Oh, I love you
when I forget about Me.

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