After she leaves, you still drive the same route to work. You cut through the same alleyway behind the same convenience store, take the second exit out of the same roundabout, and stop at the same stoplight outside the coffee shop where you first met.
The table where you sat is still there, pushed up to the window, flanked by quirky, mismatched chairs. It was sunny that day. The light from the window made you squint when she sat down across from you and asked you what you were reading. All you could see was sun, reflecting off her teeth when she smiled, caught up in the strands of her hair. You sometimes think if you glance over fast enough you might still see her sitting there, cradling a mug, radiating sunlight. But you don’t look. You keep your eyes on the road and count down the seconds until the light turns green. Eventually, it always does.
You drive home the same way, come back to your one-bedroom apartment. You try not to use the phrase “what’s left of,” but it’s hard to walk into the ringing emptiness of bare shelves and bare walls and not think of aftermath.
She took her record collection with her when she left, which you tell yourself is okay. “They’re so fussy,” you used to say when she warned you about scratches. “I don’t like needles at the doctor’s office. Why would I want them near my music?” You prefer talk radio now, anyway. Better to listen to stories of faraway tragedies processed into a smooth, monotone NPR fog than try to find a song that doesn’t sound like her.
Among the other now-missing objects are her candles, her washcloths, the set of encyclopedias you bought at a yard sale in Texas, her drawerful of comfortably threadbare sweatshirts, and approximately half the kitchen. The only object you fought her over was the garlic press. It was a housewarming gift to both of you, technically, but since it came from your parents you argued that you should get to keep it. She reminded you that you don’t like to cook, that you are happier to open a can of Prego than to make tomato sauce from scratch. And she was right, of course, but you fought her anyway. You wanted to keep something that mattered to her. You wanted to soothe the ragged wound of loss with a balm of taking. Now, the press sits in a mostly-empty drawer, as far to the back as possible. You hear it thump when you close the drawer too hard. You can no longer stomach the taste of garlic.
You eat simple meals at an empty table. She didn’t take the other chair. What would a person do with a single dining room chair? You think about getting a cat. Or, if not a cat, a plant. Or a hobby, maybe. Something tactile, like knitting, that will give you something to do with your hands. Something other than picking at the fraying edges of your bedspread when you watch the clock tick past midnight and something dark and lonely and malicious sinks its teeth so deep into your chest, you’re afraid your heart will stop. Something that will banish the phantom fingers that trace a line down your back, the icy toes that press up against your thighs, the memories of kisses planted against your neck that once blossomed into a warmth that felt like sun like life like home but now feel like madness, like the nightmares you might have if you could ever get to sleep.
But you don’t get a cat, or a plant, or a hobby. You get up in the morning and you drive to work. You cut through the alleyway behind the convenience store, take the second exit out of the roundabout, and stop at the stoplight outside the coffee shop where you first met her. The shop is closed now, the “for sale” sign partially hidden beneath a bank of plowed snow. The windows are dark. Beyond them, a ringing emptiness.
Eventually, the light turns green.