Three days after Emma’s breakup I decided to check in on her over the phone. She missed my call but rang back ten minutes later, saying she had just been putting a loaf of banana bread into the oven. I thought this sounded positive, that she was up and creating things rather than crying in bed.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m okay,” she said, voice bright. “Really, I’m fine. I’m surprisingly fine. Like, yes, these things take time and I am healing, but this is the best I’ve ever felt after a breakup. Thank you for checking in.”
I was sceptical, but the more she spoke and laughed at herself for being so anxious in the weeks leading up to the breakup, I became happy for her. Emma’s relationship wasn’t necessarily toxic, but she was obviously unhappy and insecure for a long time. I hung up the phone feeling pleased, and went outside to pick the ripe fruit from my lemon tree.
The next day Emma called me in tears while I was driving to my afternoon swimming lesson. Apparently she wasn’t as okay as she’d thought, coming to that realisation as Bruce Springsteen played over the speakers at Coles. I wondered how that would have looked for other customers, passing Emma in the pasta aisle when all of a sudden she bursts into tears as the opening chords to ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ play. I felt kind of bad for needing to suppress a laugh at the image.
“Do you want me to come over after my swimming lesson?” I asked.
“Please,” she sobbed on the other end of the phone.
I cooked the pasta in Emma’s kitchen. She sat at the table with a glass of wine and watched me boil the water. Her eyes were red and puffy from hours of crying.
“I just don’t get it, you know? We had so many plans. We were in love. I thought we were going to get married and travel the world together and share a house with three dogs.”
I nodded and turned back to the stove.
“That sucks.” It was all I could think to say. Maybe I wasn’t being a very supportive friend, but at least I was here, cooking pasta.
Emma got up to grab another bottle of wine from the fridge. She topped my glass up and sat back down, filling hers to the brim. She drained the glass in silence and I concentrated on dinner, leaving Emma to her thoughts. I let the Bolognese sauce simmer and began opening cupboards in search of plates, not wanting to interrupt Emma’s quiet reflection to ask such a tedious question like where do you keep everything in your kitchen?
As I set the table I thought about Bruce Springsteen and heartbreak. I glanced at Emma, who was looking miserably at her phone, as I dished up the fettucine. I wanted to say something comforting, like how heartbreak was a universal experience and I bet Bruce Springsteen has cried in a supermarket, too.
“Do you want any parmesan?” I asked, bringing the block of cheese and a grater over to Emma’s plate.
She didn’t look at me. “Do you think I should text him?”
“Oh, no, absolutely not. Parmesan?”
She didn’t answer. I grated some cheese onto her pasta anyway, because I couldn’t imagine anyone saying no to cheese. Unless they were vegan or lactose intolerant, which I knew Emma was not. She was only sad.
That night I read articles online about how to get over a breakup and texted Emma some ideas I thought might help.
block him on social media
learn a new skill
keep a journal
don’t be ashamed to cry
I had only experienced one breakup before, when I was twenty-one. Since then I’d avoided dating and had been fine so far. Being single never bothered me, but my family were becoming more concerned as I approached my thirties.
One thing I recall is crying to my sister five months after the breakup, and feeling embarrassed that I’d relapsed after making such good progress in forgetting my ex. She made me a cup of tea and let me cry into her shirt, telling me that growth isn’t linear and healing takes its own pace. I texted this to Emma as well.
She reached out to me again a week later to ask if I’d go to Coles with her. Of course I said yes, and drove over to pick her up after my swimming lesson. She looked at my damp hair and smiled.
“Does it help? Are your lungs getting better?”
I glanced at her when we stopped at a red light. I always felt rude talking to people when I was driving, not being able to give them my full attention. But I figured it would be ruder to get them into a car accident, so I kept my eyes on the road.
“I think so. At least, I find that I don’t have to use my Ventolin as much, which is good.”
She agreed that it was good and said she might come with me to a lesson one time, then started chatting about a book she was in the middle of reading until we arrived at Coles. I walked beside her in the aisles, Emma tentatively pushing the trolley and eyeing the items on the shelves.
“Do you have a list?” I asked. We had been in the harshly lit store for about fifteen minutes, and Emma only had caster sugar and a box of Special K in her trolley.
She shook her head. “No, not really. I just need … milk.”
I frowned. “Okay, well that’s at the back of the store.” I tried to guide her in the direction but she seemed hesitant. I stood back to let other customers pass us and then turned to Emma.
“What’s up? Do you really need milk or are we here for something else?”
She looked at the ground. “I wanted to come here without bursting into tears.”
“Oh,” I said. I took a moment to try and understand her motive, but I couldn’t, I thought that she had already succeeded. “Well, let’s go now before you start crying.”
Emma still wouldn’t move or look at me. I realised that she was waiting for something, and would keep wandering the supermarket aisles aimlessly until it happened.
“Oh my god, are you waiting for Bruce Springsteen to start playing?”
She pushed the trolley away from me.
“I don’t care if you are but, like, we are going to be here for ages if that’s the case. Can I just go to the service desk and ask them to play something so then we can go?”
She glared at me and snatched a bottle of Fanta off the shelf. “If you want to leave, then fine, that’s fine. I’ll catch the train home. I’m sorry I asked you to come.”
“I’m not going to leave without you. I just think this is –”
I was interrupted by the opening chords of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ We both froze and stared at each other. It didn’t seem possible. All I could think of was Emma telling me that she and her ex used to make out in her car while listening to this album, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out why. It wasn’t romantic at all.
Emma snatched my hands and held them tightly. Her eyes were squeezed shut. “I need to make new memories to associate with this song. This is going to be my new memory. I’m going to think of this moment whenever I hear this song, and I’m not going to think of his stupid face.”
I wondered if she meant Bruce Springsteen’s face or her ex’s. She probably meant her ex. Although, maybe she meant both.
Without thinking of the family at the other end of the aisle, and only thinking of Emma solidifying this memory, I started moving our hands. She opened her eyes and saw me swaying, awkwardly from side to side, trying to match a beat that wasn’t really made for dancing.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
I shrugged and raised our arms high above my head, spinning underneath. When I turned back to face Emma she was smiling. She had tears in her eyes but she was smiling, and she, a better dancer than I, pressed closer to me and guided my haphazard movements. Neither of us were conscious of the people who moved around us, staring and moving our trolley out of the way. Neither of us were conscious of anything – I wasn’t embarrassed and she wasn’t broken-hearted, for a minute, at least – and we left Coles afterward without buying anything.
Danielle Scrimshaw is a writer, history graduate, and retail assistant from southeast Melbourne. Her work has been published in Voiceworks, Overland, Archer and Scum. She listens to Billy Joel too much and has been known to cry in supermarkets