Sitting across from me at the Thai restaurant we frequented nearly every Sunday as a couple was the first man I fell in love with, and devastatingly the first man I fell out of love with. At twenty-three, when I broke things off, I didn’t understand yet how that initial breathlessness eventually eases or how the warmth of a chest sometimes swells into a smothering weight, which no amount of preciousness can lessen. Popular romantic narratives and films had only prepared me for heartswells and heartbreaks, not slow and unsettling deflation. And those terrifying discoveries eventually led me to the irrevocable realization that, more often than not, everyone experiences a similar hollowness at some point; it’s just a matter of deciding whether or not to run from the hollowness.
So I ran, wracked with guilt, blind to direction and fresh out of college. Newly situated in Atlanta, I set about making an independent, grown-up life for myself in a roach-happy, shoebox apartment. Meanwhile, my ex stayed put in Athens and moved into a grand new house, an epic rental boasting a wraparound porch, vintage French doors, and a hot tub.
When I asked him for details about the souped up Victorian at that Thai dinner, one of our first face-to-face, post-breakup interactions, I figured I was sticking to a safe subject, per the unwritten rules of Getting Along With Your Ex Who Really Doesn’t Owe You the Courtesy Since You Were the One to Pull the Plug, Twice.
“It’s great,” he said, spearing a spice-soaked red pepper and staring off at the aquarium stocked with a rainbow of tropical fish. “But I’ve gotta tell you, moving out of the old place was really hard.”
“Why’s that? Your new place is such an upgrade,” I responded, attempting to maintain a rapport of platonic pluckiness.
“Oh, I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that actually physically moving out of that bedroom in the old place was like reliving the end of us. We spent so much time in there together, you know?”
I looked up from the noodles I had been haplessly corralling with my chopsticks.
“When I moved the bed,” he continued, “the floor underneath was covered in old bobby pins of yours. There must’ve been like fifty or something.”
“It made me fucking cry.”
Dodging his gaze, I diverted my attention to the plate of pad thai in front of me as the tangible remains of three years together bored in my brain: a queen-sized-mattress rectangle of hardwood floor littered with worthless hair accessories. No forgotten birthday or anniversary mementos, no ticket stubs from summertime matinees or even crumpled condom wrappers. Just my cast-off bobby pins, which had slipped from my hair during so many sleepovers, afternoon naps, and hours spent reading side by side, propped up on memory foam and goose feathers. Trinkets so inconsequentially cheap I didn’t even miss losing dozens of them at a time.
Even years after that meal, as I looked around and around for someone else to fall asleep beside, I would continue digesting the horrible truth: I had left my love behind with little else to do but sweep up the mess and move on.
Once aware of the trail of bobby pins, I couldn’t stop noticing it as I haplessly attempted Adult Dating as a Twenty-some Woman, tossing bits and pieces of myself around like salt over the shoulder in hopes that at some point the empty gestures might attract long-term luck. Here and there, I would start seeing someone, in an easy-to-follow trajectory from a drunken makeout or hookup to another drunken makeout or hookup, only pre-planned, to then the eating of brunch and, finally, the cooking of dinner at his apartment, dishes wallowing in the sink afterward while we curled up in front of Netflix, after which point I might gradually begin to let my guard down and leave behind a pin or two, or, after enough nightcaps, a whole bun’s-worth.
This would inevitably become a cute topic of conversation, something along the lines of, “Something kept poking at my foot under the sheets last night, and you know what it was?”
“What?” I would ask, cocking my head, letting a cigarette dangle from my limp left hand.
“One of your bobby pins.”
Tickled by the quaintness of the artifact, we would laugh and look sweetly at each other for a moment in recognition of how our lives were, in the tiniest of ways, making contact. Soon after we began sleeping together, one fellow even graciously put out a porcelain saucer on his bedside table to house my bobby pins whenever I stayed over.
But with him, as with all the rest, that same old hollowness paid a visit eventually, and I’d know that the shoe didn’t fit and had started to pinch. Then that image of the bobby pins, like a monochromatic game of Pick-Up-Stix, would materialize in my mind, and I’d be gone again. As my early twenties gave way to my late twenties, it became easier, quicker, and cleaner in a way, to never fully arrive and thereby risk leaving something behind. At least that’s the story I repeated in order to shelter myself from the disappointment of failed relationships and the nagging terror that maybe I didn’t really deserve anything good after the pain I had blindly inflicted. And as long as I could pin the blame on my suitors’ shortcomings instead, I could avoid acknowledging my own misgivings—that is, until I fell in love for the second time, despite putting up an earnest resistance before capitulating to its ineffable force.
“All of your relationship stories end the same way,” he told me from the other side of his laundry-littered bed. “They always end up with some asshole not meeting your expectations and you running out the door and slamming it on the way out. It’s so fucking predictable.”
We lay splayed out in the dark on top of crumpled sheets having approached an exhausted lull in what was our first and only fight, a weekend-long lancing that left us nervous around each other and picking up after ourselves as though apologizing for occupying some precious space.
“And when you leave,” he continued, “you fucking disappear like you were never there to begin with.”
Staring out of his eighth-story window at the half-lit skyscrapers closing in on us, I sat up, unresponsive, and began taking down my hair for sleep. More than once while we were dating, he expressed his preference for my hair swept up, otherwise my long curls that snaked down to my shoulder blades only distracted from my face, or so he said. And eager to please, I would frantically fix and refix my hair into topknots, twists, and impressive up-dos until perfected for his gaze. That night, as I plucked out bobby pin after bobby pin, the bun painstakingly perched on the crown of my head descended, and I gathered up the mass of brown metal scattered on my lap and placed it neatly in a pile on the window sill.
When we broke up soon after, it would go exactly as he predicted. I made my exit and left nothing behind, save that collection of bobby pins his orange cat had, in the meantime, pawed and tossed all around his apartment—a simple clean-up job nonetheless.
Only weeks later, in the middle of the night, I crawled out from underneath a heavy comforter, causing the sleeping man still curled beneath it to groggily pull the newly liberated duvet tightly to his chest. I leaned over and kissed his cheek then padded to the bathroom, blinking at the suddenly bright counter sparsely populated with bar soap, and deodorant, and flecked with stubble hair from a recent shave. Squatting over the toilet, I detected cold metal and lifted my foot to retrieve the bobby pin from the dusty floor. Minutes later as I shook the dripping faucet water off my hands, I looked down at the pin I had replaced beside the sink and considered it briefly before turning out the light and heading back to the bedroom.
Cristen Conger is an Atlanta-based writer, a podcast co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, and the internet's unofficial Curator of Lady Knowledge. Her work specializes in all things women, gender, sex, and getting laughs. Not always in that order.