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Breaking Up: The Only Person I Couldn't Tell It Was Over

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My first question when my parents separated (I was 11) was, "Can we just not tell anyone?" There was something about the dismantling that felt too public. To split seemed shameful.

So I consider it a matter of some pride that in my own breakups, I haven't had the impulse to conceal the end, including the most recent.

We'd been together three years, albeit rocky ones. We thought that when it came to what mattered, we wanted similar things: a wedding, babies, eventually a home and careers outside New York, to be near our parents and care for them as they got older. For all of the bad times, there were so many good. We surprised each other. We danced spontaneously in our living room. It's a cliché, but I tell you, each of us could, with a certain glance, leave the other breathless.

And then it crumbled. She wasn't sure she wanted this anymore; she needed to figure out who she was without me; she thought there might be something, someone better for her.

I told pretty much everyone, immediately. I was no longer that shame-riddled 11-year-old. More importantly, I needed support. I needed to know that I was not inherently unloveable. I needed people to agree that she was a colossal idiot.

There's only one person I couldn't tell, someone I know very little and who knows me very little. Mo, the proprietor of my exceptional neighborhood deli, knows how to do a yuppy bodega right: artisanal jam, organic meat, speck and prosciutto and several different brands of brie. A wide selection of organic soap and paraben-free sunscreen.

I get dinner from Mo's counter several times a week, and stop in other times for overpriced fruit or a copy of the Economist. It's not surprising, then, that Mo knows things about me. He knows, for instance, what brand of tampons I buy and that I'm slowly killing myself with diet hot chocolate. His eyes are always scanning the surveillance screens fed from cameras around the store, and sometimes when I'm in the back aisles picking out coffee or standing in front of the freezer section wondering if I should go gluten-free for a week, it occurs to me that he may be witness to my all my neuroses. Instead of feeling creeped out by this, I find it oddly comforting. In a world we all enter and leave alone, I've got Mo watching over me.

He knew things about Us, too. She liked pickles and jerky and licorice. I bought caffeine and yogurt in quantities that suggested preparation for the apocalypse. He knew that we sometimes -- okay, often -- wore each other's clothes, and what we were like when we'd been ever so slightly over-served at a bar earlier in the evening. He recognized that she had an easier time with people. When we traipsed in after a night out, the two of them flirted -- Mo has a black belt in the art of banter with customers, especially women. "How's it going?" I'd ask, the way you do in civil society. "Better now," he'd say, looking to her. "Oh, you missed me," she'd say. "I'm not missing anything now," he'd answer. Each time, I'd smile and shake my head at their antics, the faux-intimacy putting me a little on edge, and let her play for both of us.

He probably saw, too, the many ways I looked at her, and maybe even could guess what each of those looks said.

We are digging into that chocolate mint froyo as soon as we get home.
I cannot believe you didn't get them a gift.
Why do you never have cash?
I am so lucky.
Stop talking and hand. over. the coffee.
If we're going to have sex later, you'd better wrap this up.
How are you so unafraid of the world?


In the first few weeks after the breakup, I couldn't even go to the deli. And when I finally could stay away no longer -- a woman has to eat -- he asked the question I'd dreaded as soon as I approached the counter. "Where's my friend?"

I couldn't answer him honestly -- not that time or any time after, and he asked every time. "At home," I'd answer, or, "She's been really busy."

Weeks passed, then months. Still, I couldn't do it.

"Where's your other half?" (Thank you, Mo, for not saying "better.")

"Out on the town." (Lame.)
"Out of town."
"Working hard."
"Exhausted -- she's been playing lots of basketball."

Whenever I went in, I bought two of what I was purchasing: beer, diet coke, apples, you name it. In an especially cowardly and manipulative moment, I threw in a pack of jerky. Once I locked myself out of the apartment we'd shared, which I now occupy alone, minus several big pieces of furniture. Afterwards, I put a copy of the keys in an envelope marked with my name (but not my address) and took them to the deli for safe-keeping. I made sure to go in the daytime, when Mo doesn't work, handed them over to the daytime guy, watched him put them in a drawer under the counter ... and hoped that Mo never opened it.

I realize these elaborate forms of subterfuge, all to keep my open secret from Mo, are insane. Why do you care if Mo knows? I ask myself. How has apprising him of my singleness come to represent the final reality of our breakup? Why is it so important, in his presence, to pretend that soon, We are going to stop in for our coffees, one of which I will inhale and the other she will take two sips of before throwing it away?

A few times I came close to telling him. Once, in a punchy mood, I nearly responded, "What, I'm not your friend?" but when I realized that could lead to an in-depth discussion of the whereabouts of his real friend, I couldn't handle it. Another time, when I was feeling especially bitter, I could feel my face start to give it away, and his face start to register awareness. Then I smiled and assured him that she was fine, just busy or tired or out of town.

Mo is a shrewd guy. I reason with myself every time I head for the deli that he has to be wise to my charade. But when I go in, he asks after her again. It has occurred to me that he has seen the envelope in the drawer and drawn the rational conclusion, or that she has been back to the deli to visit -- they did love each other -- and told him. What if he's onto me, and the questions are in fact his way of punishing me for not telling him? Maybe I've hurt his feelings by not confiding in him, by making him the last to know.

When I finally bring someone new into the deli with me, he'll get the picture without me having to say it. Maybe that is the way it will go down. But I wish I could present myself at the counter, in front of God and the LUNA bars and kale chips and weirdly frosted rice crispy treats, and come clean. There's no reason I shouldn't. She and I are seeing other people now. I have new furniture and clothes. In every other aspect of my life, I'm over it. And yet I still can't bring myself to walk a block and say the words.

Mo, she left.
A while back.
I'm sorry I couldn't make her stay.
Thank you for asking, and for holding the keys.