Just an old habit.

He smelled unwashed and stale, an ashtray with pin-up shoulders, and my heart broke open like an egg.

I have always been so successful at worming my way out of commitments that breakups rarely come into the picture. Instead, those conventional tragedies have been historically replaced by an ugly conglomerate of crying jags, ill-timed proclamations of love, and straight swigs from the nearest bottle of time-travel juice. The sins are equally divided between myself and my victims. Minor crimes that resonate like felonies.

My last breakup, being the end of an _actual_ relationship, surprised me by being even more tortuous and dramatic than those unlabeled exiles of old. No would-be boyfriend could wring me out like this.

Devastated by the impending end of "us," my ex locked himself in the bathroom and assaulted my cache of pharmaceuticals. He emerged tear-streaked and launched into a moaning soliloquy about the merits of a painless suicide, his thick Polish hands full of comically-small pill bottles. I, sniffling, pointed out that he was holding my anti-depressants. Painless, I noted, was not the death that those would result in. Seizures, I said, were more likely.

Abashed, he dropped his bounty on the carpet and slumped on the floor. I scooped up bottles up like orange piñata entrails. At least one of us needed to be sane.

When I finally moved, it was to an overpriced Nob Hill studio a mere block away. My bedroom windows peered out at his broad, wooden deck-- a once-favorite spot for cigarette breaks and afternoon sandwiches. We both laughed at the realization when it assaulted us: a hollow post break-up laugh that happily echoed the visceral horror of the situation. If only I had been apartment-hunting during the day, I joked, I might have realized my mistake. We were lease-locked into mutual voyeurism. We said nothing more about it.

I cut off my long hair and cinched the blinds closed. He shaved up a mohawk and took his ash trays indoors. When I pulled my clothing out of its cardboard boxes a month after the move, I could still smell singed tobacco on each washer-worn thread. I had quit nearly a year ago. The smell was his. I invested in heady lavender detergents and visited my bank, lining my pockets with quarters. Where there was space, I tucked dryer sheets between their metal edges.

I saw him again months later: less haunted, more healthy, terribly magnetic.
I wrapped him in my arms like a choice flank steak. Pure habit. He smelled unwashed and stale, an ashtray with pin-up shoulders, and my heart broke open like an egg. I could barely let go.

More months, and his balcony became infrequently occupied by transient women. All of a type. Their tattoos striped their flesh in lazy swaths, and they perched cigarettes on heavy lower lips, trying to look older than they were. Each specimen lean and beautiful. Each laugh petitioning him. My windows, still closed, shuttered out the sound of men who visited my studio. My breasts were heavy as mouths in their hands, and I prayed for the mingled scents of their emissions to blot out memories of that other, too-familiar pheromone. I encouraged them to smoke indoors. No American Spirits. No memory-smells. They, too, were infrequent. They wanted too much.

More months again, and he's working down the street from me, handsome as he is incompatible. We agree to lunch at eleven.

We talk over sandwiches-- him in a black apron and his thick Polish hands, my nipples pert in the tight morning breeze. Older than they look.

Hugging him good-bye, I have to pull against the magnet of his throat, which still calls my mouth to his skin. I crush my breasts to his apron and let the ache of his long absence fill me. It is what it is, I think. And it's over.

I savor the distance that rides, unbidden, in this altered closeness.
And watching him light his cigarette, I want to give him my soul.

Just not, I think, in this dimension.


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