Impartial Record of the Break-up
by Michael LaPointe
Just as no one in 19th-century Sarajevo would have believed that an unassuming little Ottoman bridge could one day provide the setting for something so significant as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so neither Janet nor James can believe it’s all coming to a head here in a parking lot outside Taco del Mar. But then such a comparison would strike Janet and James as absurd, even offensive, for what is the total upheaval of world history in comparison to the demise of their two-and-a-half-year relationship? They’ve ended up in the lot to get their fight out of earshot, instinctively preserving their images in a society they’ll soon have to move through as single people. Alas, Janet and James have never been able to fight together productively. Their fights proceed as if between parrots taught two different tongues. For the thousandth time, each wishes for the impossible: the existence of an omniscient, impartial record of events which, when consulted, might allow them to destroy each other with reason and precision.
Now they’re back at the apartment, and certain words have been spoken. Now it really is ending. As the conversation proceeds, Janet feels as though she’s the one ending it; but later she will realise that James, being such a coward, and yet so desperate to be rid of her, is the one actually ending it, by allowing her to run on and on until there’s no going back. Enduring such abuse achieves two practical aims for James: one, it allows him to retain possession of the apartment; and two, it casts him in the role of victim, giving him a moral advantage over Janet for the rest of his life. When Janet later realises she’s been manipulated once again by James, she doesn’t regret anything she said; she only wishes she could have seen it at the time, and thrown it, too, in James’ weeping face.
Several weeks later, Janet and James encounter each other at the café, and they would like to have sex. Like a product launched with much shareholder optimism that the market swiftly rejects, Janet and James haven’t become the desirable singles they’d envisioned, so today they make excuses to have a drink back at the apartment. They’re unusually civil to each other, so as not to jeopardize the prospect of sex. The first thing to have been born between them, attraction will also be the last to die—in fact, it never will die entirely, so much as it will become too compromised, like the work of an artist who has disgraced himself in politics. There is some talk about whether to use a condom, a coded exploration of each other’s recent sex lives. Janet has slept with someone else, but says she hasn’t; James hasn’t slept with anyone, but dodges the questions. Both are secretly concerned that having sex will bring tenderness back into their relations. Thus it is to their relief that hatred, and not love, is plainly the source of erotic intensity today, and afterwards they roll away from each other like two completely independent people.
As the season changes, Janet misses the apartment. The windows of her new apartment don’t shut properly, and the courtyard outside her bedroom echoes with the voices of neighbours. She misses the warmth and silence of her old apartment, and rather as one might covet a tour of the African savannah without the threat of being eaten alive, she imagines the old apartment without James. In this fantasy, Janet is younger and more energized, for she’s not merely dreaming about what it would be like to live in the apartment alone. As winter approaches, she’s dreaming of what all those years might have been like, had James not inhabited them.
If only James were aware of at least the bit about the apartment, he gladly would have given it to Janet. The rooms compel him to face the various catastrophes that so contrast with his parents’ solid and enduring marriage. James doesn’t like what he’s become, alone in the rooms of the apartment. Having always defined himself in terms of whom he’s dating, James is appalled by the cynicism with which he’s conducting his private life. It isn’t that he sees women as objects; it’s that he sees them as subjects he will nevertheless put to an instrumental use. But James soon suffers an unexpected pay cut, and is thankfully unable to afford living without a roommate any longer.
They pass over anniversaries, but on their respective birthdays, Janet and James exchange texts, which develop into perfunctory chats about how they’re doing. Each appears to the other to be doing well. Remarkably, none of the loathing that characterized much of the relationship remains. Instead, like two retired heavyweights who relentlessly concussed each other, Janet and James share mutual respect for their strength and resilience and capacity for violence. But then in truth, they do not think of each other often. Soon they do not think of each other at all, for their relationship now seems like just another place they happened to have been in life, such as the first grade, or the Frankfurt airport, or a public lavatory. Where is their desire for truth, where their urge to understand what happened? Even were some impartial record of events suddenly to exist, neither Janet nor James would see the sense in consulting such a document.
Michael LaPointe is a writer and critic in Vancouver, British Columbia. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement, and his work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.