We’ve all had a relationship that should have been over long before it actually was — the kind that had been running on fumes or suddenly became fueled by anger rather than love. That describes the last months of my last serious relationship before I met my husband. Despite the fact that there had been great attraction and affection for the four-plus years that we were together, my then-boyfriend and I eventually both knew it should end, but neither knew how to pull the plug.
So the plug pulled itself.
On our last night together, we attended the wedding of a mutual friend at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. It was a fancy affair, with endless champagne and other mind-altering substances flowing freely. I suspect we were both trying to push our unhappy reality out of our heads as we partied for hours and then stumbled upstairs to the room we’d booked. It was a long, long night. He felt awful and I felt worse.
The next morning, I literally crawled to the bathroom, my head pounding, my stomach sloshing (despite its violent emptying). My boyfriend ordered me a glass of milk from room service, which I drank as I sat naked on the floor, too enervated to put on my clothes. We looked at each other with a mixture of shame and sadness and then — I’m not sure who giggled first — we started to laugh.
We laughed at the ridiculousness of where we found ourselves at that moment and how sorry we must’ve looked. I think we laughed subconsciously at the improbability of once again finding, if only for a few minutes (and probably for the last time), that unnamable thing that initially drew us together. It was the same thing I’d felt the first night I met him when I was just 15 years old. And in that moment, I was reminded of the thousands of miles we’d traveled together to Key West and San Francisco and Chicago and Montauk. I thought of the countless meals we’d shared with one another’s fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles, and how we’d helped each other cope with the loss of both of our mothers.
The cloud of anger that had been hanging over us for quite some time lifted that morning, and we were tender as we helped each other dress and gather our things. We leaned quietly against one another on the elevator ride to the lobby.
My brother had come to fetch us in his car and I climbed into the back and stretched out in an attempt to finish sleeping off the most brutal hangover of my life. My boyfriend shut the car door, and in the process accidentally bashed my already aching head, which was apparently sticking out just a little too far.
I moaned loudly and then, despite the throbbing, I started to laugh. Again. We all did. The three of us shook with laughter for a good long time and when I was done, I lay sprawled across the seat with my eyes closed, knowing my relationship was over. It seemed an inexorable conclusion, sans the drama, recrimination and doubt that had been part of previous break-ups. Peering up at the back of his head in the front seat, I imagined he felt the same.
I don’t remember either of us making any declarations confirming our split; we just stopped being a couple from that day on. In fact, after we dropped off my boyfriend at his house, I didn’t see him again for years. But I never forgot the mixture of sorrow and laughter that marked our final hours. When we ran into each other years later, we were genuinely happy to see each other and catch up on our respective families and briefly reminisce.
A couple of decades later, he called me as he was passing through New York. He stopped by my apartment and met my sons. We went for lunch at a neighborhood pub, armed with photo albums and memories, which we shared with the same old mix of affection and laughter, minus the sorrow and pain. And that story about knocking me in the head on the final day? It cracked us up all over again.