College. Early evening. Winter. Afterward, I showed up at Tom's door to relate the events as they had transpired. He said, That is shocking, and sat me on his extra-long twin bed, and produced blue Kleenex after blue Kleenex until I had somewhat calmed down. I said, Maybe if the scones had not been heart-shaped? I would not feel so, I don't know.
It had happened, no less, on Valentine's Day.
A few days later, Charlotte came across a red, heart-shaped cookie cutter, while scrounging for an instant cocoa packet in the kitchen of the dingy student house where she and I were roommates. Squinting at me through its empty center, homework spread out at our elbows on the dining room table, she said, with a blurted, wry laugh: Margaret do you know what this would be great for making? Shh, I said, because he lived there too.
If you decide to end things with someone on the grounds that you are too busy to see her, materializing to say so with a plateful of heart-shaped scones you've spent the entirety of an afternoon preparing may fail to convey the fullness of your schedule.
It is such a stupid story of course, but it is one of those that stays with you, at least if it happens to you. Forgive me, people affect me.
That semester I was in a writing class. It was how I'd met Tom, who was a poet. He said, Let us begin a collaboration of mournful lyric essays, compiled from incidents like this one of yours, and each one will conclude that is shocking! He added, I wasn't going to say so in case it all worked out, but honestly, at the age of nineteen, this guy is definitively beginning to bald. So let's not proceed as if he were a loss.
I thought this was unkind and very funny.
But I said how it was not about loss, rather about humiliation, about being so disposable, about human kindness, and also how it isn't fair to tell someone you're "breaking up" in those words precisely when you have not, in fact, really been dating, you have only done things like make out in the back stairwell of the dingy literary co-op—the stairwell where we kept the communal vacuum cleaner, a stairwell, he said, No one ever uses, which did not even turn out to be true. Natalie from the third floor appeared, descending, on her way to make oatmeal cookies in the kitchen. I was unable to get my feet untangled from the hose of the vacuum.
Frenetic, intent, I was known for being tightly wound. Calm down, people would always say to me. There is still, at this college I went to, a hole in the wall in an obscure corner of the English department, kicked there by me. That's unrelated, but illustrative.
What got me about the heart scones is how I was unable to stop it.
Whereas most people seemed able to end their romantic things so tidily.
Take Charlotte. At one point, she'd been sort of seeing this friend of ours, Jamie, and though they were no longer together, they were still friends, and he still came around. No problem. Just a little earlier on Valentine's Day, I had actually seen them in our kitchen, making pasta, heating marinara on the stovetop, and it had seemed impressively normal and fine.
The worst part, I said, stretched next to Tom on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, was how after the text that said Happy Valentine's, can I come over, I have a present for you and my text back Oh thanks sure, see you soon, I spent a good half hour feeling guilty, not having any Valentine to give in return. The sun was going down outside my window. I contemplated running to the college bookstore, in falling darkness, for a chocolate bar.
After we cleaned up my wrinkled clumps of tissue, Tom and I crossed the quad to the dining hall in the cold. Here, under the high ceiling and bright lights, we ran into Charlotte, making a quesadilla in the Tastes of the World line. She said, What's wrong why do you look so sad? I said, I'm not, these were tears of indignation and rage, not tears of sadness. I am, sad-wise, unaffected.
The next time I ran into him I said, I have your plate, but he said, with a smile, Oh I just took it from the dining hall once. The plate is not so important to me, you can have it. I said, I am not going to keep your plate. You are absolutely taking it home. So he obliged, and came down the hall, and waited in my open doorway for me to give it back.
Tom didn't approve of my living there. I write poems, he said. I don't need to be in some club that confirms it. He was sitting cross-legged on top of the washing machine, open notebook in his lap, and I was on the floor, trying to feed quarters to a jammed dryer. He started to compose some lines, saying: I'm writing an ode to a beautiful old house, where everyone living inside it is weird. Don't worry, he said. You're exempt.
Charlotte was rapidly stirring her cocoa. Listen, I was saying. Using the term "break-up" when you are explicitly not dating is like saying you're definitively abandoning your career in the ballet when you've been to class maybe two to four times ever in your life, and all those times you just talked about how you really weren't sure about ballet. Charlotte said, You said this to me yesterday. I said, I did?
Reactions to the scones tended to divide, in the aftermath. Some people would say the scones were tainted by betrayal. Others would say, But perfectly good scones! And you didn't even eat them? On the night with the cookie cutter, our friend Jamie was there again, working on his translation thesis at the far end of the table. He said, one elbow planted in the spread-open spine of his book, pen slid behind his ear, But how were the scones? Charlotte slung the cookie cutter across the tabletop at him. She said, Margaret threw the scones in the garbage, of course. She threw them all away.
Jamie, contemplative, said, I don't know. Perfectly good scones? I might have eaten them.
I was admittedly not so offended by this, compared to Charlotte. But then I had always had sort of a thing for Jamie. So maybe I was forgiving. He had cut his hair and shaved his beard during a trip home over Presidents Day. At the far end of the table, he frowned his new, clean-shaven frown over the Russian-English dictionary. I lifted the heart-shape and looked at him through it.
Sometimes in retrospect I can't make sense of myself. Like how in the moment it was happening, one lamp lit on my desk and the sun setting red outside my window, behind the lined-up dark, bare, veiny trees on the far side of the parking lot, I kept picking up the plate of scones while he was talking and trying to give them back, then thinking this was petulant and setting them back down. I was at one end of the bed and he sat at the other, closer to the door. He still wore his coat. He had one hand easily gripping the bedpost, and the whole room was lit very beautifully. Outside the dusky sky shaded soft, electric blue, and I was like a puppet with this plate, just lifting it off the dresser and returning it to the dresser, again and again and again and again.
I remember him once saying with merry concern, taking his hands out of my hair: I'm not looking to be with someone, like in a dating sense. We were just inside the doorway to the abandoned common room. Late January, 3am. My cardigan flung, heaped and shadowy, on the floor. In one corner, the fake Christmas tree still stood, plugged in and blinking.
Another detail Tom wanted to include in the collected That Is Shocking was my story about Danny from the second floor, who once took me on a much-anticipated date and then talked mostly of an ex-girlfriend, still in high school. That's icky, I remember saying, pushing salmon roll around the dregs of my soy sauce. He said, It isn't, you don't even know her. He said, You don't know.
At one point, again putting down the scones, I said, You're too busy to keep seeing me? He said, Yes. I was cognizant of being a little fixated on his fingers, washed in yellow lamplight where they held the bedpost. That semester he was chairman of Waffle Sundays at our literary house and a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team. I said, You're aware I'm busy too? He said, in his friendly way, so benevolent, thoughtful: No, that's how busy I've been. Too busy to notice that you're busy.
Fuck that, said Tom, writing joyfully, as the dryer, finally, started to rumble. He said, I'm actually allotting a whole stanza for this guy.
I kept having to see him, because we both lived in that house. One morning, for example, I encountered him in the kitchen. It had snowed all night and now it was sunny—a blinding, sparkly day. Light streaked in across the littered countertops. None of us washed our dishes here. He said, Oh hey I've been wanting to give you something. I did not say, Whatever it is, it had better be shaped like a heart. He knelt and rooted in his backpack, and I watched the noon winter sun catch the bald part of his scalp, glow rosy in the soft rounds of his earlobes. Finally, he turned back and offered up to me in his cupped hands an ugly tangle of bobby pins. Taken one by one from my hair the night he'd stayed. Tenderly? They looked like bugs, jumbled together this way. Ungracefully, I clawed them from his palms.
The bobby pins had been the unexpected source of an actual nice moment. How many of these do you wear? he'd said, incredulous. Kissed my neck hungrily, affectionately, in the exquisite darkness of my room.
The fact is that within a few years, Jamie and I would be living together in New York. By then Charlotte and I were no longer in touch.
In the midst of that breakup, I threw a glass across the kitchen into our sink, where it broke into pieces. Jamie looked embarrassed as he picked the larger shards from the drain. I said, Tom and I swore years ago we'd write a book about terrible endings. I want you to know when I put you in it, I will be unforgiving. Jamie had this big piece of glass pinched between his thumb and forefinger, his shirtsleeve rolled up. He said, Tom? I said, Unforgiveable.
Tom had gone on to do sort of well, writing-wise. I would go see him do readings at bars. He won an obscure award for a chapbook he did, and a prize for a late revision of the old-house-weird-people poem. Drunk at a reading on the Lower East Side, not long after Jamie moved out, I pressed my hand to Tom's forearm and said, Remember our collaboration? He said he remembered the title being important, but that it escaped him now. I put my empty beer glass down on the bar and said, That is shocking.
Holy shit, he said. That's amazing. He said, I really forgot.
We determined we would actually write it. We started meeting at my half-empty apartment on weekends. We would lie in my bed drinking coffee, and he would write, and I would write, and we would compare our notes. Once, after I read a bit aloud to him about it being shocking I'd started dating my best friend's boyfriend in the first place, he said, face pressed to one of my pillows, Whatever happened to her? Are you still friends? I said, You don't remember?
I felt humiliated and betrayed, is what I used to say about the scones.
Internet photos implied Charlotte had also moved to New York. I had invested significant mental energy, pre-breakup, inventing a succession of surprising and horrible ways Jamie and I might bump into her—as, for example, we once encountered Danny from the second floor on a Brooklyn-bound L. Pleasantries having been exchanged about everyone's jobs, Danny had detailed his revived relationship with the girl from high school, now 22.
Jamie had taken our duvet cover, the big plant, the most light-giving lamp. The blue ceramic French press that was actually mine. Most of what had been hanging on our walls, though not the picture hooks, of course, which stayed behind—eyeing everything unkindly from their multiple floating vantage points. Above the sofa, over the toilet, next to my nightstand. Dead-center on the expanse of wall dividing living room from bedroom. Four of them, vertically, on the narrow strip between kitchen door and bathroom door. One Sunday, Tom picked through all the bracelets and necklaces I kept in a bowl where the nightstand had been, and then went around the apartment, draping his favorites from the hooks. I'm trying to fill up all these weird gaps, he told me. He moved some of my books into the spot where the plant had been.
We needed more coffee. Tom was brewing it in the inferior drip coffeemaker, and I was on the kitchen counter, kicking my heels, one-two one-two, against the lower cabinets. I said, I should have known about Jamie the moment the words "perfectly good scones" passed his lips. I said, My litmus test going forward will be, anyone I'm inviting into my life in any way gets told the story, and only people who would not ever eat the scones are permitted anywhere near me. Friends, lovers, colleagues, I mean it.
Holy shit, I forgot about scone guy, said Tom, washing out a mug for himself. I totally forgot.
He said, Do you ever feel weird this still bothers you?
He said, Where even is he these days?
I said, Let's pretend I'm the sort of person who wouldn't keep track of him. It is possible, by then, I was crying. I took out my phone to text Jamie the French press was mine and I wanted it back. I wrote, I can't wait until tomorrow. Bring it here now. He said, I've been drinking too much coffee anyway, Margaret, the French press is not so important to me. He texted me, It's fine. He said, You can have it. But I'm not going to come over there now, he said. Just calm down, okay? He said, Take it easy.