I needed to leave Chinatown. I was on the phone with my mentor and friend J.T. He told me to let go. How the hell was I supposed to do that? I had spent the last fourteen months building a life with my boyfriend. After our first fight, he disappeared. We had just selected a bed together at Macy’s that same week. It was going to be our first big purchase.
I picked up my gait, turned onto Canal Street. It's fucked up. J.T., whom I thought of as an enlightened monk, spoke calmly, and now his words replayed in my head like death metal. The whole thing is fucked up. I felt myself falling into a dark abyss, fearful of what lay ahead. A motorbike roared by. My heart sped up. Let go. The rancid odor of fish and trash lingered in the hot July air, permeating my lungs, sticking to my skin. It’s pretty fucked up.
My brain was a pinball machine, thoughts rapidly shooting back and forth. I want out. I wanted answers. Someone rushed by, knocking the bag of Chinese takeout I was holding. Drops of moo shu chicken dribbled down my sundress. Jesus, really? It was in this moment I decided to face my boyfriend head on, putting an end to his stonewall silence. You think you can fucking ghost me? You think you can leave without saying goodbye? Fuck you, motherfucker.
In the final moments of the film Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson’s character, Bobby, abandons his girlfriend, Rayette, played by Karen Black, at a desolate gas station. While sitting in his car, she makes a playful sexual advance and he gets angry. It seems to be a common push-and-pull dance they do. She goes in for a coffee. He gives her his wallet. He hitches a ride on a truck headed north. With no warning, he leaves her, drifting into the unknown.
The film was a favorite of my boyfriend Adrian’s. The end in particular was a “test,” he’d said. If a new friend understood the film’s emotional depth, then they were intelligent and worth knowing. Entering our romance with fresh eyes, despite many past failures, I adored him wholly and aimed to prove my affection with the enthusiasm of a child and the passion of a worn-out soul who’d been given another chance at love. Though I understood the impact of the film’s ending, it took me several months after our breakup to awaken to a deeper sense: Bobby is and always will be a loner because he can’t take in love. And Rayette is filled with so much self-hatred, she’ll endlessly blame herself for his departure.
Loving Adrian was easy. He reciprocated my feelings completely. Many nights I’d wake up to find my nose resting against his cheek, his forehead touching mine, our limbs entangled like sleeping chimpanzees.
Looking back, I can visualize each scene frame by frame. Unlike the Nicholson film, every act of our story seemed perfect. We spent Christmas in upstate New York in a ghostly mansion from the 1800s. Being the only guests, we wandered the three-story estate freely, imagining ourselves as rich folk with fancy lives. Passing an antique glass cabinet, Adrian took out a porcelain tea cup. It trembled in its saucer.
“Would Madam care for a cup of tea?” he asked.
“Why yes, my lord, thank you.”
It was on this trip that I told Adrian I hoped our future child would have his blue eyes. He smiled and wished they be blessed with my cleft chin.
I broke out my Christmas songbook and we unabashedly sang holiday anthems in full glee. Adrian plunked away at my Yamaha keyboard as I strummed on guitar.
Despite being an accomplished musician, I’ve always been shy about jamming with others. Adrian had a jazz background in trombone and was a talented bassist. His sensitivity to my self-doubt meant a great deal to me and, though he was only an average piano player, he graciously bumbled along.
One day, when I was having a challenging week, I asked Adrian to buy me flowers.
“Of course, baby, what kind do you like?” he asked over the phone.
“Lilies,” I told him.
I waited. A week went by, no lilies. I said nothing. Two weeks went by, and I tried to forget about it. Then, after dinner one night, while passing a bodega with buckets of flowers out front, I casually brought it up.
“What flowers?” he asked.
“The lilies?” I asked, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. It was as if our dialogue had evaporated from his memory.
I began to wonder if I had concocted the phone call from a dream. And then I started to wonder what else I was imagining in our relationship. And if he could so easily forget my wishes, could he so easily forget me, too?
“Well, next time I’ll record your words,” I said half-jokingly, as I kicked a stone on the pavement.
A week before the split, Adrian told me he had bought dinner for a female singer he’d started working with again. He showed me her music videos once. I knew he admired her.
“I felt bad for her. No one in the band pitched in for the studio fee,” he said.
I became inflamed with jealousy.
We went dutch for everything. Adrian made three times more my salary, yet we always stayed at my place. I felt more invested in our relationship than he but was nervous to bring it up. What if he leaves? Days later, after yet another split dinner bill, I found the courage.
“It’s not that I mind you buying her dinner, it’s just that I’d like to be on that list too,” I said, anxiously tearing my tea bag into small bits as I spoke. “The list of people you spontaneously buy dinner for.”
Adrian looked down, defeated.
“I’m sorry, baby. You know, this has been a common complaint in my past relationships.” He touched my arm. “I’ll work on it.”
Although sincere in his apology, I had a strange feeling the issue of his withholding was deeper than either of us could comprehend in that moment.
The ending of Five Easy Pieces has always haunted me. I could relate to Rayette’s feelings of emptiness.
“I just don’t understand why he didn’t tell her,” I said, my eyes filling with tears as the credits rolled on my laptop screen, the soundtrack of a bleak highway echoing between us.
“Tell her what?” Adrian asked.
“That he was leaving.”
Adrian looked down, sighed and gently took my hand.
“He just can’t be with anyone, he’s a drifter, you know?”
I nodded, collapsing into his arms.
It’s mysterious to me how this scene set the stage for what would unfold with us months later. Did Adrian relate to Bobby’s isolation the way I related to Rayette’s loneliness? I wonder now. Either way, he seemed to love me even more for understanding his beloved film. I was simply happy that I had passed his test.
Seconds before I canceled my birthday plans to go upstate with Adrian, two separate voices were battling it out in my head, one to myself and one to Adrian: Starina, don’t do this, you’ll regret it, and Fuck you, I’m always going the extra mile for you.
I was tired. I wanted sleep. I had been up till 2 a.m. the night before working on a job application. I was walking to Adrian’s studio in the blistering heat, in wedges, under-caffeinated, and pre-menstruating. I wanted him to pick me up. I wanted him to take me back home to bed. I wanted him to simply ask, “What do you want?” Instead, I said yes to last-minute plans to go upstate.
“I changed my mind. I'm headed back home. I’m angry,” I texted him.
The next day — my birthday — when I didn't hear from him, I knew we were in trouble.
“I overreacted yesterday. Can we reboot?” I texted.
I was hoping he would’ve cast off my sudden behavior and meet me halfway. I waited. No response. I tried calling. Then emailing. I began to panic. By late afternoon, when I still hadn’t heard from him, I tried reasoning. What if he was attacked again like he was a few months ago in Bushwick? I decided to reach out to his bandmates.
“You know how Adrian is with the phone,” the drummer Facebook-messaged, referring to Adrian’s habit of not returning calls.
“He’s probably just working,” the lead guitarist emailed.
It took the lead guitarist’s girlfriend to finally get through.
“Tell him to call her! She hasn’t heard from him in 24 hours!” she told her boyfriend, sending me the screenshot of their text exchange.
Soon after, Adrian texted me.
“I’m sorry to worry you. I’m sorry your birthday turned out this way. I had plans and was crushed by what happened. I need a few days to process the confusion in my head.”
A hollow feeling stretched across my chest. I reread his text. Took a breath. Then reread it again. I knew I'd never hear from him again. Still, for days, I secretly wished I would come home to find lilies at my door.
Weeks later, after getting a massage in Chinatown, waiting for takeout, I dialed J.T.
“It's fucked up; the whole thing is fucked up. ”
The first week Adrian was gone, I slept with his photo on the pillow beside me every night, hoping in the morning his image would magically morph into the real him. ZzzQuil granted me sleep. Marlboro Lights (which I had picked up again) helped me focus. I lost twelve pounds in two weeks and was unable to make it through a day without crying at least a few times.
Before the breakup, I’d started taking prenatal vitamins and we’d begun trying to conceive. It took a few calls before my doctor found a brand my Medicaid insurance covered. Once I picked them up, I began taking them immediately. Now, at 46, I was facing the dismal reality that I might never be a mother. I saw Adrian, who was 42, as my last chance at having a baby.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. J.T.
“There’s nothing you can do, except let go.”
I stepped onto the 6 train at Canal Street with war on my mind.
“I'm going to my boyfriend’s studio to confront him,” I texted a friend.
“Don't,” my friend responded immediately.
The train stalled.
“Pray for him.”
Pray? I wanted to spew venom in his face.
“I pray for my exes all the time. It really helps,” my friend texted.
The word ex froze me. It hadn’t occurred to me Adrian could now be my ex. It felt like only days ago he had been my baby.
The train was overcrowded, but I found a spot to sit. I placed my takeout on my lap, careful not to spill more sauce on my dress.
“I can’t call him my ex.” My hands trembled as I texted.
The train began moving again.
“Then call him Adrian.”
Seeing his name spelled out on my phone shifted me. Since our separation, I often found myself walking around the city, fixated on the health-inspection grade in the window of each restaurant I passed by. A is for Adrian. I closed my eyes and whispered his name. Tears ran down my cheeks in slow streams. I imagined placing him in a bubble and letting go, watching him float up to the sky. More tears fell. I struggled to breathe. I stared straight ahead, exhaling deep breaths to keep myself from hyperventilating.
A fidgety little girl across from me caught my attention. Seated beside her was an older woman, her mother, perhaps. I could sense her watching me, but I kept my gaze straight ahead. My nose started running. I wiped my face with the back of my hand. Suddenly, I saw the mother's arm outstretched, a wad of crumpled Dunkin’ Donuts napkins in her palm. I stopped crying and looked at her. Her eyes were soft and gentle, as if to say, “I’m here. I see you. I know your pain.”
Adrian, like Bobby in Five Easy Pieces, drifted away. But unlike Rayette, I was not alone.
I took the napkins from the mother’s palm and whispered, “Thank you.”
Starina Catchatoorian is a Brooklyn-based creative nonfiction writer and singer-songwriter. Her work has appeared in Narratively, the Vinyl District, and NPR’s All Songs Considered. Harold and Maude is her all-time favorite film.