I went to a party last Saturday. My friend Olivia and her husband bought a house in Tolbon. Tolbon is the city I used to live in. The city I abandoned. In another life. Several years have passed since then, and I’ve only been back a handful of times. Returning tends to be bittersweet. It’s nostalgic and nice to be back. It’s a small town, and I know the area well. But I hated it so much back when it was my home.
The problem with Tolbon was twofold. On the one hand, Tolbon simply wasn’t a good fit for my life. I was an aspiring new English as a Second Language teacher, right out of college when I moved there. Well, people don’t need to learn English in a small town outside of the city. I was lucky enough to land a great teaching job, but it was in the Leafton metropolis, about an hour away without traffic. And there was always traffic. And snow.
At first I thought I could handle the commute. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. I had a car. I had a good thing going in Tolbon. It would be foolish not to stay. But the traffic was incessant. The snow continuous. Sometimes my drive would be three hours each way. I was only teaching 6 hours of classes. It began to be too much. I would pull into the driveway a wild, ravaged woman and burst into tears. Then I’d walk into the house reluctantly, fling my bag across the foyer dramatically and eat dinner angrily. Then it was wash, rinse, repeat. Enough was enough the day I crashed my car.
On a much less literal hand, Tolbon grew to represent a life that I was not yet ready to settle into. A life I wasn’t even sure I had chosen for myself. I had just finished six years of post-secondary education. I was new to working a day job. My boyfriend Paul had been doing it for years by then. It was Paul’s house I moved into, in Paul’s choice of neighborhood, near Paul’s brother. It was Paul’s money that financed our lives. For me, Tolbon grew to represent an utter lack of free will. Like I was living out someone else’s fantasy, not my own.
Eventually the Tolbon issues just weighed down on me until I snapped. I started on a quest for freedom in the most destructive way I knew how. I wanted freedom from Tolbon. Freedom from Paul. I was so terrified that I was missing out on the fun, carefree version of adulthood. That I was settling down too fast. All I could think to do was break up with Paul and move back to my parents’ house.
It was an amicable breakup. For the most part, Paul understood my reasons. Or so he said. The truth is, maybe neither of us really understood my reasons back then. It just happened. I left some of my most prized belongings back in Paul’s Tolbon house: my books, my Christmas town, and all of the things we’d acquired together: the cat, the couch, the plates. I didn’t think twice about leaving them there because I would still go back and see Paul every single weekend. We were still best friends.
What I foolishly neglected to consider was that my quest for freedom also gave Paul total freedom. In many ways, I was okay with that too. Because I secretly believed Paul only wanted to be my boyfriend because I was the only girl Paul knew. So I believed we needed time apart. I welcomed it. Mandated it. I just narcissisticly believed he would always choose me in the end. Despite the fact that I had so obviously only chosen myself too.
Needless to say, the whole situation inevitably blew up in my face. Life is not a love story that comes full circle in the end. Of course, Paul did not choose me. Not even the idea of me. Because neither of us knew if choosing me would be an option in the end. Paul is neither a saint nor a fool. He wanted to move on. He was not my personal property. I was just so focused on finding myself that I lost him in the process. And it took me by complete surprise.
Exactly one year and one day after our so-called amicable breakup, Paul entered into a new relationship. At first I was happy for him. Because I was still testing the waters of my own life. Meeting new people as well. Having new experiences. I naively believed we could go through the process together. But life is not a sitcom where everyone is cool with everyone dating everyone else. It shocked me when I realized he was not willing to justify having his ex as a friend to some new chick he was dating. Because I would have. But I guess the expectation that our friendship could transcend social normalities was simply unrealistic.
Slowly, my shock turned to anger. The whole process was so dramatic. He blocked me across social media platforms. He dropped my best friends by association. He kept all of my possessions hostage. I had to force my way in there one evening to get some of my stuff. And that was the last time I went to Tolbon. The last time I saw Zart. It was just so outrageous that he could treat someone he called a friend so horribly, when I really didn’t do anything.
But I did do something. I broke up with him. But that had happened a year prior. If we had had a normal break up, where he’d requested I take all my things and stopped talking to me back then, then I would have probably taken it better. This just left so many open wounds. It felt personal. It absolutely was personal.
I saw Paul again for the first time at Olivia’s wedding last year. They stayed friends. By then, I was not shocked nor enraged any longer. By then I had hope. I hoped seeing him at the wedding would help. I hoped that maybe the time that had passed had strengthened Paul’s relationship, and the fact that I was no longer single, might reopen the doors to some camaraderie again. I wanted some of the hostility to thaw. Because I can’t handle living in a world where Paul hates me. Why would he?
I’m always wrong about things.
Of course they still hated me at the wedding. Time does not always make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes time allows contempt to fester even deeper yet. Paul was nice enough at the wedding. Because apart from that time he dumped my tires on my parents front yard, Paul has always been a perfectly respectable human being. But that was it. It was a fake nice. It wasn’t a “we-helped-each-other-through-the-toughest-points-in-our-lives-and-I-have-a-great-deal-of-respect-for-you” nice. It was a “I’m-only-being-civil” nice. It actually left me feeling even worse than before. Hope turned to sadness after that. Weeks of heartache. Confusion. But plenty of distance allowed for the sadness to be subdued. Pushed away. Far back.
Driving back to the Tolbon housewarming just reminded me of all that again. All those thoughts came flooding back to the surface. So by the time Paul got up from the kitchen and came to greet us in the living room, I was already a wreck. I can’t help it.
“Hi guys,” he said smiling, his sincere smile.
“Hi Paul,” I responded automatically smiling back. We really did mean it. We meant hi. We wanted to greet each other. But that was the most we could do. I remembered we weren’t supposed to be friends. And I attempted to stop my idiotic smiling. I contorted my face into a much more somber, morose greeting. But it was too late. Paul knew I was being weird and frowned accordingly. He cocked an eyebrow and wondered what was wrong with me without speaking a word. I’m such a fucking weirdo.
I spent the rest of the evening avoiding him and his girlfriend. Wanting to catch up. Wanting to ask questions. Wanting to make jokes. But knowing my very existence was a problem in his life. So instead I avoided eye contact. Suppressed tears. Got through it.
As much as we try to fight it, life does go on.