In the afternoon my ex-girlfriend Anna and I hike up the hill behind the art museum to the North of campus. At the top you can see the whole valley, which on this day in March looks muddy and gray.
“I have something to tell you,” she says. “I imagine it might be important to say. We broke up in September.”
We dated for two and a half years, and so I remember our break-up very clearly. We were outside the coffee shop. As she explained why the relationship was unsalvageable I had the familiar and troubling feeling that I was a few feet above myself watching it all unfold. All I could say was “Okay.” Then I went home and drew the curtains and lay down.
“Okay,” I say. “Yes. We broke up in September. I know.”
“I know you know,” she says, “I wasn’t done. I wanted to say that we broke up in September and now I’m seeing someone new. Eric. From our poetry class. You remember Eric?”
I remember Eric. His poetry was dark and beautiful. He always seemed very sad.
“Yes,” I say. “I remember Eric. He always seemed very sad.”
“Yes,” Anna says. “He did. And he is. He’s very sad. And I’m seeing him.”
I don’t really know what to say to this. I don’t say anything.
“Are you okay?” she says. “I never know with you.”
“Yes, I’m okay,” I say, because I guess I am. It is hard to know. I make a concerted effort to feel upset but all I can manage is a muted contempt for Eric’s poetry. I say, “He seems nice.”
She says, “Yes, maybe.” She does not look sure.
We stand there quietly. I think of whether or not to put my hands in my pockets. I think of the time we went to see the monochromes at the modern art museum and she said, what do you think, and I said, it’s a lot to take in – how bothered I was that I could only think of that to say.
“There was a hill like this at Middlebury,” Anna says after a minute. “At the program this summer we went up there after dinner all the time. Except it was closer to campus.”
“Yes, this was a bit of a hike,” I say. “But look at the view.”
“The view was better at Middlebury,” she says in an almost sudden way. Then after a pause, she adds, “Everything was better at Middlebury.”
I’ve never been to Middlebury. I didn’t even visit it. “Everything was better at Middlebury,” I repeat. I look at her blankly.
She looks back at me and says, “I mean, everything is better at Middlebury.”
“Everything is better,” I say. Am I agreeing, I wonder. Why can’t I know.
She says, “The food is better.”
I say, “The food.”
She says, “Yes, the food is better. And the dining halls are less crowded. And also the weather is better.”
“It’s farther North than here, though, isn’t it?” I try. “Isn’t it just as cold?”
She says, “Yes, but the cold is crisper. It is a more perfect cold.” She is pleased with this, I can tell. “At Middlebury,” she continues, “Everything is a more perfect version of what it is here.”
I say, “What about the people?” Maybe I am trying to joke.
“Ha, that’s funny,” she says, not smiling. “I like that. Like if Eric went to Middlebury he would not be so sad. Or if you went to Middlebury you would be more open.”
We are still looking at each other levelly. “I would be more open?” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Your Middlebury self would be able to better communicate his emotions, I mean. That’s what I mean by open.”
This is where I turn away and look out over the valley again. “Okay,” I say.
I can feel her staring at me still. I can feel her about to say something terrible. “Ha,” she says again, which is a sure sign she is only pretending to be joking. “See? Your Middlebury self would have had some answers. Maybe if I could have dated him we would still be together.”
“Okay!” I say loudly. I realize I snapped. “Okay. Yes.” I say, and then without warning I am yelling again: “How can you say that? I worked, I really worked! I tried to be honest! I tried to share myself!”
“Right,” she says. “What you would share was, ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘It’s hard to say.’”
“I didn’t know!” I say. “It was hard to say! I was confused and that was me being honest!” I realize how feeble this sounds. I find myself upset that I am even getting angry about this – about her.
She looks right at me. “If that’s true,” she says, “that’s even worse.”
And then she leaves. She just walks down the hill by herself, and I’m left standing there.
Without meaning to – hating myself for it – I suddenly find myself thinking about what my Middlebury self would do in this situation. What exacting thing he might call to her as she’s walking away from him; the way he might feel, precisely upset, precisely devastated. He would experience his emotions so presently, I’m sure of it. Instead I’m left wondering why my anger can only flare up now. Even now, watching her walk away, I feel it fading into the usual confused resignation. I imagine my Middlebury self might be able to cry about this. Instead I sit on a rock and say out loud as if to try to do so some regulation, “Okay.”