Can’t Light a Fire With a Damp Match: A Texas Breakup Story

Saturday, December 10, 2016, 5:00PM

In the Gainesville, Texas Wal-Mart, I take two tubs of butter out of the dairy case, place them on a shelf. I snap a photo, text it to Hazel.

The one on the right or left?

I wait 30 seconds.

The right one. You’re hilarious.

Hazel is at her house, sick with food poisoning or nerves or something that keeps her tired and close to a toilet.

Hazel is also my girlfriend. At least she will be for the next 14 hours.

Last night, Hazel told me she couldn’t do this. That she was really sorry. That the pulsing fever of emotion and desire that my face and body can’t hide have no counterpart within her, despite her best efforts to feel anything beyond fondness.

Those weren’t her words. That is how I heard her words.

So we broke up on the third of my four nights in Texas. But what constitutes a breakup? The moment you agree, sitting on a bed, that there’s no point in trying any more? Or is it the moment that comes just a little later, when you hug her goodbye for the last time?

I’m going with the latter. And since I’m leaving Sunday morning,that means Saturday is for holding on to the tattered remnants of what barely was.

Holding on to the tattered remnants means moving from butter to soup. I text her again.

Campbell’s or Progresso?

Progresso. She adds a smiley face. Not the big smile emoji, the small, wan smiley. Good enough.

After Wal-Mart, I gas up her car and put air in the troublesome left rear tire. This is what a boyfriend does, even if — especially if — that title expires in 13 hours and 41 minutes.

Saturday, December 10, 2:30PM

In the morning, Hazel and I go to buy presents for my children. My daughter, who knows I’m here visiting my girlfriend, insisted that Hazel pick out a present for me to bring back for her and her brother. Hazel chooses a gold bracelet for Heloise, and a University of North Texas ball cap for David. The kids will be thrilled.

We eat hummus and pita for lunch. Hazel’s stomach is unhappy, and we retreat to her little home in a far-flung subdivision in north Gainesville. She is tired, sick and remote. She curls up on the couch in sweats, with a book.

I take a walk. I need to move. I need to be alone to say aloud to the southern plains what I cannot or should not say to this woman who is leaving me.

My phone tells me the air temperature is 34, just above freezing. That doesn’t count a harsh, biting wind. I don’t care. Anguish is a motor and hurt is a heater and I walk two brisk miles without even realizing how far I’ve come.

Fifty yards off the road, I see a tiny old red barn, leaning badly to one side. The lean is so improbable I’m eager for a better view, so I walk through an open gate and into a pasture to get a good look.

For a moment or two, I forget all I’m losing. Sentimentality about dilapidated old barns serves as a temporary anesthetic. I take a few photos — and the anesthesia wears off.

The pain comes back so fast I gasp. I start talking, then shouting into the stiff wind roaring in from the northeast. I am talking to Hazel, and I start with “God damnit, why don’t you love me?” and I get more animated. For the first time, there is rage, not at her, but at…. The incomprehensible injustice of all of it. “Please,” I cry. “Please.”

A voice behind me.

I jump. A young acne-scarred cowboy, hat, jeans, flannel shirt, sheepskin vest, stands a few feet away. He gives a thin smile. “I said, you all right, hoss?”

I wipe my face, tell him I’m sorry, that I just wanted to look at the barn more closely, and that I’ll scoot off his land right quick. The cowboy looks at me, tells me it’s no problem, and that lots of folks want to come see the barn that his daddy built. We banter for a minute, and as I turn to go, he adds: “The wind’ll keep your secrets, but you still probably shouldn’t shout.”

Friday, December 9 8:30PM

“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Hazel is on her bed, and five minutes ago, told me softly that she just wasn’t feeling… anything like what I’m feeling.

I’m in love. She’s not. This isn’t solvable; many things can be built with time and trust but chemistry is not one of them. You can’t kindle a fire with damp matches.

What other men can light with her, I cannot. All the poetry and care at my disposal can’t change a simple biochemical fact, one that Hazel and I have both tried to ignore for too long. I slid into her Twitter DMs in March, we’d fallen in love online by summer, built a life together on Facetime and texts, until at last in late October, she stepped off a plane at LAX and into my arms. The second I held her, I knew in my core she could never love me.

I knew and she knew, and we buried what we knew, and so we tried. And tried. Until now.

Maybe Hazel and I are the wrong percentage of acid and alkaline, maybe the wrong ratio of one pheromone to another. Maybe it’s the wrong ratio of hope to common sense. Maybe it’s the nearly 23-year age gap. (I am older than her mother.) I could go on with stories about why, but stories won’t change the immutable.

Hazel grimaces. I hear her stomach gurgle. Even so, I ache for her. I see her, and I am lit. Her match works.

“Don’t be sorry,” I tell her, and I start to cry. It’s not quite an ugly cry, but the tears splash. My nose runs. Hazel gently walks to the bathroom, returns with a roll of toilet paper, and hands it to me.

There are rivers of words for love and longing. I bottle my river because it’s pointless to let it flow.

There are a lot fewer words for the absence of love, and so Hazel is silent.

She tells me I can sleep wherever I like. I nod.

From midnight to four, I lie on the living room couch, staring at the ceiling as if it were a screen on which the odd and tender story of this relationship could play out. I whisper, mostly to repeat, “you fool, you fool, you complete fool.”

I fall asleep for an hour, and dream that she comes to the couch, pulls down my sweats, climbs on top of me, and slides me inside her. She is slick, I am hard, we both start to moan. When I reach up, to pull her down to kiss me, Hazel shakes her head and jumps off. “No touching,” she says.

I wake up, stare at the ceiling some more.

Saturday, December 10 9:15PM

It is my last night in Gainesville. Hazel’s tummy is still upset; the soup I brought home from Wal-Mart has not done the trick.

In sweatpants and t-shirts, we’re in the same bed. Hazel’s roommate, Heather is snuggled with her boyfriend on the living room couch watching a movie. It is 22 degrees outside. Unless one of us wants to spend the evening standing in the kitchen, Hazel and I are going to spend our second post-breakup night polite, painful inches from each other.

Her laptop lies between us. It’s time for Netflix and a less pleasant kind of chill.

The movie is Mona Lisa Smile. “Julia Roberts is so flawless,” Hazel says softly at one point. I agree, but add, “She can’t hold a candle to Maggie Gylenhaal in this one.” My not-quite-yet-ex shakes her head: “You are so wrong.” We share a moment or two of playful disagreement. Her enormous eyes dance, her wit is sharp.

I get a vision of the love I’m losing, and far off in the distance, I see the certainty of a friendship. A wide chasm still lies between here and there.

In the end, we’re too tired to finish the movie. A last night in the same bed.

I try to sleep towards the edge, but at one point I wake up to feel our hips touching.

Sunday, December 11, 7:00AM

It is still dark when we leave her house. It is a 25-minute drive to the train station in downtown Gainesville. We don’t speak. I cry softly, grateful that I remembered to stuff a few sheets of toilet paper into my jacket pocket.

Hazel and I are still boyfriend and girlfriend until we say goodbye at the train station. We haven’t agreed to that, and I guess — though I can’t know — that she’d say our relationship ended on Friday night with my heartbroken concession that she was right and there was no way forward.

For me, these 35 hours from breakup to goodbye aren’t just awkward, weepy no-man’s-land. These hours from Friday night to Sunday morning have been a chance to exit with as much grace as humanly possible, though it’s questionable how much grace there is in a 49 year-old man breaking down again and again.

In the car, Hazel sings along with the country radio station:

Don’t you wanna stay here a little while
Don’t you wanna hold each other tight
Don’t you wanna fall asleep with me tonight
Don’t you wanna stay here a little while
We can make forever feel this way
Don’t you wanna stay.

For a split second, I go white hot with rage. I feel taunted; the lyrics ask questions and my answer is yes, fuck yes, forever, with you and you’re singing them out into the cold morning and to some random man who you really can want, not me, and Christ in 20 minutes you’ll be alone in the car can’t you fucking wait to sing like that until then. Don’t sing them to the man next to you whose body throbs from where you left that goddamn mark.

I soothe myself. The words mean nothing. Or maybe they do, but she’s not trying to hurt me. Hazel’s just tired and sick. She just wants to go back to bed.

In the Amtrak parking lot, the goodbye. For my sake, I don’t want to pull away, for hers, I try to make it quick. “I’m sorry,” she says one last time as we step into each other’s arms. Her voice is kind, low, husky. I kiss her cheek. “Don’t be,” I say, “I love you.” She smiles and doesn’t reply.

7:27AM, gentlemen; mark the time. It is over. We are each single. Lucky us. Lucky others.

I heft my bag and walk into the station. For once –for last — I want to be the one to turn away first. I have no idea how long, if at all, she watches me go.

The waiting room is cramped and hot. I go out to the platform. The train that will take me to DFW hisses and purrs. A bearded young station manager smiles at me. “We’re not boarding for 15 minutes, but you’re welcome up here.”

I walk to the north end of the platform. The dawn is gray and cold, and at the edge of the platform the wind is biting. The tears freeze on my cheeks. I close my eyes.

I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Hey!”

I turn, and Hazel’s standing there, panting slightly from running up the stairs to the platform. Her face is flushed, her eyes moist. She bites her lip. We look at each other.

Hazel wraps her hand in my scarf — the scarf she gave me — and tugs. “You’re gonna need to change your flight,” she says. She looks down. “I know this is crazy,” she continues, “but I think we can fix this. You need to stay one more day.” The woman who stopped being my girlfriend ten minutes ago steps forward, puts her lips on mine.

She tastes like chai. I kiss her, bringing one hand up to cup her face. “I can stay,” I tell her.

“Hey, sir?” I open my eyes. It’s the station manager in front of me, apologetic smile on his face.

“You’re too close to the edge, sir. Can you come on back down this way?”

I nod. He looks at my stricken face. “It’s not a full train this morning. You can have a couple seats to yourself.”

For a second, the station manager looks like the cowboy in the field from yesterday, and I decide he is just another magical Texan telling me where best to stand, to sit, to grieve.

Moments later, when I climb aboard the Heartland Flyer, I see that it’s indeed empty. I can travel facing forward or back, and my first instinct is to face south, towards Dallas.

If I face backwards, I align my gaze with my heart still remains. I’m a PhD in history, after all. I know better than to live in the past, but I also know that too quick a forgetting is just as foolish.

For over an hour, as we ride south, I look back north towards her, whispering her name when I’m not staring mutely out the window.

Twenty minutes outside Fort Worth I get up, look around, find an empty forward-facing seat, settle in. The tears still come, but I’m not saying her name anymore.

Instead: “Proud of you, kid,” I say to myself. “It was worth the shot.”