In the end, it happened at Ikea, right between the children’s department and the cafeteria. We hadn’t even made it to the Swedish meatballs yet.
It was busier than usual that day, something I would grow to resent in the coming months. There was so much foot traffic that it made walking difficult, and to make matters worse, one of the greeters informed us that the A/C had been on the fritz all summer. I should have taken that as an omen.
I had my shopping list in hand and was preoccupied with looking at light fixtures for a home office I didn’t yet have. In three weeks I was moving to Connecticut to work at ESPN as a junior project coordinator. Aimee had agreed to come with me to gather the last few things for my new apartment.
We were walking through Home Office when it started. Or maybe it had started weeks ago, I don’t really know anymore.
“What about this one?” I asked. When she didn’t answer me for a while, I looked up from the lamp. She was staring off into space with this dazed look on her face. Several strands of her blonde hair had gone rogue from her ponytail and were sticking to the nape of her neck. Christ, it was fucking hot.
“Ames?” I urged.
“Wha--?” She snapped out of her reverie. “Oh. Uhm. Yeah that’s great. You should definitely get that one.”
“Do you think it will match the desk I picked?”
“Sure,” was all she replied.
“Hm, what about like, the feel of the room? Do you think this one will go with the feel of everything else I have so far?” I rambled.
She let out a sigh.
“Okay, cool! So that takes care of the lamp,” I said, more to myself, crossing it out from my list as I said the word, so it sounded like “laaammmp.”
We carried on through the store. She looked progressively more miserable as we snaked our way through. At the time I thought it was because there was no AC and she was sweating. Either way, I barely noticed. Or I was ignoring her; it was most likely the latter.
When we got to the children’s section, that’s when things started to go south.
“Oh man how cool is this?” I stopped walking to admire one of the model rooms. It had a bunk bed with twin-sized mattresses surrounded by a circus-themed curtain hanging from the ceiling.
“This is the kind of stuff I wish I had had as a kid. My brothers and I would have loved this shit. We used to beg my dad to let us make forts and camp out in the backyard, but we always had soccer games on the weekends so he never let us.”
I made my way around the room, fingering the circus curtain and running my hand over a toy box in the corner. I sat in a trapeze swing chair hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the room. My thoughts turned, as they often did, to the future. I pictured backyard barbeques by the pool and Fourth of July sparklers; trips to the Grand Canyon and throwing a football with my kids, mini versions of myself, if I’m being truthful. I pictured Aimee.
I was so stupid. And delusional. I was completely oblivious to what was really happening in my life. Or anyone else’s life, for that matter.
“Hey here’s a crazy thought,” I started, trying to sound nonchalant, “what do you think about buying this? I mean, just the curtain, obviously.”
“Why would you buy a circus bed curtain?” She asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe I could use it one day,” I stood up from the trapeze chair and walked to where she was standing, her arms crossed. “Or...maybe we could use it. You know, eventually. In the future.”
The smallest flicker of panic flashed across her face. It happened so fast that I wasn’t actually sure if I saw it. I pretended I didn’t.
“Wouldn’t you have loved a circus-themed room as a kid?” I implored.
She didn’t budge an inch. “Sure, I probably would have. But I’m not a kid anymore. So I don’t really know why we’re having this discussion.”
We stared at each other in awkward silence, a Mexican standoff in the middle of a Swedish furniture store. A small voice said “excuse me” and, in a brilliant moment of irony, a little girl with black hair scurried between us to play in the circus room in question. She plopped down in the trapeze chair I had just vacated and was beaming from ear to ear as she swung back and forth.
“I think we’re having this discussion because it’s important,” I said. “I just want to be on the same page, that’s all.”
“I’m fairly certain we are not on the same page,” Aimee said dryly.
I sighed. “Well maybe not now. But that could change, you never know. It happens all the time, especially to couples that live together.”
“Ben,” she said slowly, “we don’t live together.”
“Not yet, but--”
She cut me off.
“But what, Ben? What are you getting at with all this? Because I think I have an idea, but I’m telling myself that I’m just being paranoid. So tell me. Tell me that I’m just being paranoid and that you want to buy the fucking circus curtain for your new place in Bristol.”
She was getting worked up. And loud. A few parents turned to look in our direction to scoff at Aimee’s colorful use of the word “fucking” in the children’s department. I knew where the conversation was going and decided to cut through all the bullshit.
“You don’t want kids, Aimee?”
I expected her to fire back with the same vigor as before, but she just began stammering and fumbling for words.
“I, uhm, I…It’s just that...I don’t want you to think like...” Jesus, I thought. Spit it out.
“No,” she finally managed, “I don’t.”
My thoughts snapped back to my picture-perfect future. Only now, all the images in my head were disappearing into a cloud of smoke. The backyard barbeques: Poof. The fireworks: Poof. The Grand Canyon, the football, the kids: Poof, poof, poof.
What I liked about Aimee most was her bones. They seemed to be thinner than most people’s. More fragile, if that makes any sense.
She had wrists like a child. I bought her a watch once from the Saturday morning flea market downtown, and when I presented it to her, she flipped out and kept thanking me and telling me how much she loved it. I mentally gave myself a pat on the back. She kissed me, put it on, and stood up to go look at it in the mirror. It slipped off immediately, crashing to its death on my wood floors. That was the end of the watch.
Still, I loved those wrists, and everything else in her small frame. We’d lay in bed all day and I’d run my fingers over her skin, stopping to feel her bare collarbones and spine. Aimee was beautiful. There was no denying that.
She knew exactly who she was and who she wasn’t. Me, I hadn’t a clue. I was unfocused and unorganized, unconcerned. I didn’t know anything. I thought I did, but I was just going through the motions, doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing. Pretending to feel things even as I remained numb and apathetic. Aimee was the only one who made me feel something. It was different with her. I loved her a lot, until I didn’t.
“What do you mean you don’t?” I asked her, genuinely confused. “You’re a math substitute. At an elementary school, no less.”
She looked so nervous I thought she might throw up.
“Can we just talk about this later?”
It must have been the look on her face, but somehow I knew it was going to get worse. And I wasn’t willing to wait any longer to find out if I was right or not.
“No,” I replied, “I want to talk about it now. Tell me, Aimee. How does someone who teaches children and volunteers their weekends to tutor them, free of charge might I add, not want kids?”
“Ben,” she started.
“No, Aimee. Answer the question.”
She fell silent and just gazed up at me with her big puppy-dog eyes. She didn’t look so much sad as she did apologetic. I realized that she felt sorry for me.
“Answer the question, Aimee,” I repeated. I already knew what she was going to say, but I needed to hear the words. I needed them to come from her.
She looked down at her feet and took a deep breath. I braced myself.
“I do want kids,” she said in a small voice.
She looked up and stared right at me.
“But not with you.”
The first time I saw Aimee she was in the dorm kitchen. It was a Wednesday. I had just turned 19 and was living on the fifth floor of Morris, one of the shittier dorms on campus, but also one of the few that were co-ed, so I tried my best to not complain to my parents too much. My roommate, Jeff, and I would often go up to the sixth floor and use the girls’ kitchen instead of using the one below us designated for the guys. It was a great way to meet girls as a freshman.
I skipped my European History class that day and spent the afternoon taking bong hits and playing Borderlands with Jeff. It wasn’t long before we got hungry and decided to take a break. I grabbed a Hot Pocket out of our mini fridge and headed downstairs.
When I got to the sixth floor I took an immediate right and walked into the kitchen. She was already there, standing with her back towards me in a short sundress and canvas high-tops watching her food in the microwave. I cleared my throat to let her know someone was behind her, and she turned around and noticed the Hot Pocket in my hand.
“Sorry, I’ll be done in like 30 seconds,” she said.
“Oh, no rush,” I replied as I sat at the table. She turned her back to me once again, peering into the microwave, and I silently thanked God for this moment.
“Hi, by the way,” I said, “I’m Ben.”
I felt myself nodding, just bobbing my head up and down as she stood in front of me saying sorry and please don’t hate her.
“You know what this means for us, right?” she asked.
More nodding. Her mouth was moving but I didn’t hear a word she said, all I could think about was how hot it was. It was the Ikea trip from hell.
“Ben? Are you listening? Can you please say something?”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I turned to look at the little girl with black hair; she was still there, swinging and smiling.
“You don’t want children with me.”
It was more of a statement than a question. The words sounded funny as they came out of my mouth, like it wasn’t me who was speaking them. I knew it was over, and I knew it was real, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe any of it. It felt like I was in the Twilight zone.
To my surprise, I didn’t feel sad. I felt betrayed, like she had deceived me in some way. Where was this was coming from? Did I not make her happy? Was there someone else? How long had she been feeling like this? I had so many questions, but when I finally found my voice, I asked the only one that mattered.
“Why?” I was scared to hear her answer, but I needed to know.
Aimee just looked at me.
“Do you remember my 19th birthday?” She asked.
I hesitated. “Why?”
She didn’t answer. For a split second I thought about lying and saying no, I didn’t remember. I knew it’d hurt her, or at the very least piss her off, and I decided against it.
“Of course I do,” I replied.
It was November. We had only been dating a few months at the time, so we were still in that whirlwind stage, where the novelty of sleeping with someone new hadn’t yet worn off and everything we did together was an adventure.
I picked her up from her dorm, and she kissed me as she slid into the passenger seat. We drove in silence with the windows rolled down, enjoying the sparse highway traffic and the evening sky, the cool fall air whipping through my decrepit Honda Civic.
I turned onto a back road about 20 minutes outside of campus and followed it for a few miles. Eventually, we ended up in a spot where the road intersected like a T with the highway and I stopped the car. We were facing the airport, which was just across from the highway.
“Come on,” I said as I switched off my headlights. Aimee and I got out of the car and sat on the hood of the Civic. We split a bottle of wine and and a spliff and watched the sun dip below the horizon as the temperature dropped.
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She had on her black Joy Division jacket zipped all the way up and the hood on; she practically lived in that jacket when we first met.
I held out my styrofoam cup, “To your birthday,” I said. “Cheers.”
She smiled and tapped the lip of her cup against mine, and we downed what was left of the cheap Merlot I had bought with my fake ID.
We laid with our backs on the windshield and tried to make out stars and constellations. Mostly we huddled together trying to stay warm, watching all of the planes fly in from behind us. It was quiet for the most part, and then all of a sudden we’d hear a faint high-pitched humming sound. It would get louder and louder until eventually it was deafening, and we’d find ourselves staring up at the belly of another plane. It was endless. Delta, Spirit, Emirates, JetBlue, Qatar, the planes never stopped coming.
We stayed out there for about three or four hours just talking about nothing and everything, cracking up and eating peanut M&Ms, getting sloshy off of Keystone Light.
It was around midnight when we finally left. We found an iHop nearby and ordered breakfast for dinner, and Aimee asked for a children’s menu to doodle on while we waited.
When the waitress came back with our food, I told Aimee to close her eyes. I pulled a single candle out of my jacket pocket, lit it, and put it in one of her pancakes.
“Okay, you can open them now,” I said, “happy birthday, Ames.”
I reached into my pocket again for her gift and slid it to her from across the table. It was a fake I.D. I had gone through a lot of trouble to get her one and ended up paying someone 80 bucks for it. Pretty steep for some silly I.D., but we were only 19, and now we would both have one.
Her face lit up when she saw the candle and then the gift. She couldn’t stop smiling.
“This has been the best birthday, thank you for all of this,” said Aimee. And then, effortlessly and without hesitation, added, “I love you.”
It was the first time either of us said it.
I was still swimming in the memory when Aimee grabbed my hand. She brought me back to reality, as she always did. She spoke first.
“That’s still one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had,” she said. A pause. “But when was the last time you felt like that?” She asked. “With me?”
Once again we stared at each other. I searched and searched my brain for an honest answer, one that would save the whole situation and we could finally leave the sweltering Ikea and go home. But Aimee was right, I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt that way with her as I had that night. I was alive. Happy. And even though Aimee said it before me, I loved her, too.
“Look, this isn’t about children. You know that. You know you don’t want kids with me, Ben.” she said. “And I don’t want them with you.” Her voice softened. “I think we both know that the truth is that we don’t even want to be with each other anymore.”
There it was. I knew she was right, and in a twisted way I felt sort of relieved, like we were finally addressing some big elephant in the room. I would always love her, in a way, and I still cared about her, but it wasn’t the same. It hadn’t been for a long time. I wondered silently when it was that things started changing and if there was something I could have done to stop it.
“It’s no one’s fault,” Aimee said, as if reading my mind. “It’s just...we just…” she struggled.
“We just don’t work anymore,” I finished for her.
I didn’t want to be with her, but I wanted to want to. I naively thought that planning to have kids and a real future with her might stoke that same fire in me that I used to feel. I hadn’t known that that was what I was doing, not until I was standing in the middle of an Ikea on a Sunday afternoon, having the conversation with the girl I’d managed to fall out of love with.
Aimee knew, though. She had been distancing herself from me for a while, and even though subconsciously I noticed, I realized that I actually didn’t care. I watched as she withdrew from our relationship, and I did nothing to stop her. Eventually, what was left of us was unsalvageable. We didn’t talk about it. We just spent more time apart and less time talking. I threw myself into trying to get my dream job working for ESPN and making myself pretend to be someone who would get married and have children and live happily ever after with Aimee.
We were complete strangers.
It was nice having someone looking out for me. To be honest, it was nice having someone just looking at me. It had been a long time since someone had done that. And that’s really what girls want, to be looked at. To be admired, touched. To know someone is enamored with you. That’s all we want, even though we won’t ever admit it.
That was the way Ben looked at me. At least at first.
I don’t remember when it began, not that it matters. All I know is that at a certain point I realized we had surpassed our expiration date. We had told each other all our stories. We knew everything there was to know about each other. Our relationship had peaked, and we were bored. And stale.
At first I ignored it. I just chalked it up to us maturing as a couple, whatever the fuck that meant, but deep down I knew that wasn’t true. I tried not to act hurt that we didn’t laugh as much or wrestle like little kids. But it did bother me. A lot.
On more than one occasion we’d spend our Friday night having long, arduous, discussions about the future if he got the job in Connecticut. It was a future I both did not see nor want with him, and I was careful about never bringing up the topic of children.
The smart thing to do would have been to just talk to each other, but neither of us wanted to let go. We didn’t want the truth to be true. And the longer the relationship went on, the harder it was to try and walk away. I didn’t budge. He didn’t budge. We kept digging the grave, even after all the love was gone.
After a while, the only thing Ben was only in love with was the idea of me. The idea of us and a future we. I think he thought that if he could be perfect and our relationship could be perfect that it would somehow all turn out okay. We’d fall madly back in love and wake up 19 and tangled in each other living out freshman year again in Morris.
Sometimes he’d fuck me and have this catatonic look on his face the whole time, probably thinking about apothecary tables and French press coffee makers. All the things he could buy to help him be the person he thought he was. I would lay there and question why I even initiated the sex in the first place before I’d count to 100 and then fake an orgasm just for the whole charade to be over.
I couldn’t believe I was once so in love with someone who I barely recognized anymore. Someone who barely recognized me. It blew my mind, but the weird part was that I saw us for what we were, or rather, what we weren’t any longer, and I didn’t really care. I knew Ben didn’t, either. That was what hurt more than anything, the fact that neither of us gave a shit.
Everyone always talks about beginnings, how they met and how they started dating. They talk about first dates and first kisses and butterflies and amazing sex and the first time they realized they really cared about the other person. They give you the highlight reel.
People talk about endings, too. They give long, sordid, tales filled with all the juicy details of the demise of their relationship. Tumultuous times and vicious fights are recanted. They fought and cried and threw things. Names were called and people’s feelings were hurt. Someone is always a cheater. Or a liar. Or both. People give the highlight reel here as well. If it bleeds it leads.
No one ever talks about the nothing, though, about the love that just fades slowly and quietly into the background. About being with someone that used to excite you, turn you on, make you want to be better, and waking up one day and realizing that somewhere, somehow, they stopped making you feel like that. No one ever talks about the monotony of the nothing and how confusing it can be to want to leave and be with someone at the same time. No one talks about the unspectacular finale, the one where no one cheats, no one is crying, no one is throwing cans of peas or calling the cops. The one where two people finally just talk about the unspoken and inevitable reality that yes, this is the end.
The tragedy of it all is that there is no tragedy. It would almost be easier if there was one. If there was some drama or reason to hate each other so that breaking up could feel more logical. But there’s not. There’s only the severed ends of the story you thought would stretch into forever as you both walk away.