to do list (after the breakup) by Dereka Thomas
I spend three afternoons a week in a dance class where I learn some sort of Hip-Hop Bollywood fusion. It has Afrobeat elements. Lots of people in New York do it, or so I’ve heard. Sometimes after class I grab lunch with two of the other women. One is recently divorced, the other is in the process. We joke about how we never danced when we were married. I don’t bother telling them that I never actually got married. If I count backwards, it’s been three months. Just under twelve weeks, or over. Ninety days give or take. I spend a lot of time counting backwards. It helps, I think. Makes it seem like everything is farther away, like you are farther away. If I count backwards I can see that I’ve moved, even if it’s only by an hour, that I’ve lived on my own for that much longer. Every so often, Clara— who is two months into her “freedom journey” and just a bit older than me— will ask everyone if they also had doubts along the way, if they sometimes thought it would be better to stay married. And I tell them that I still do. I’m more honest now. I would still like to be married to you. Whenever I say something like that, Myra— who is happily, so very happily, divorced— sighs and pets my arm. She’s older than I am and maybe that’s why she’s so good at this. She changes her hair a lot and dresses like her life is going well. She says sweet things, looks directly in my eyes, nods. She understands. She keeps telling us she understands. And she does. I’ve seen her cry so I know she does. But it’s so difficult to imagine myself in her place. She seems farther away from me than you do, and perhaps that’s the problem. The problem is that Myra seems like she is happy when she wakes up in the morning. Myra seems happy to see people, to talk to people. And I only want to talk to you. “Hey, can I tell you something?” Myra asked, her eyes pooling into mine, pushing against them, making me see her. I nodded. “You have to breathe. You don’t have to be happy. You don’t have to be social. You don’t have to do anything, but breathe.” And when she said it, I realized it was true. 15.
When we met, I finally felt whole. I recognize the fault in that now, the danger, the blaring red flag that I was holding. And that’s who was holding it, me. You were hollow, but I was too. I burrowed into you when it was easy, and it was always easy. It was exciting to be consumed by you, to watch myself disappear piece by piece. Myra says that part is normal. Before a divorce, that sort of thing is normal. She says that she used to hold her husband on a pedestal. That she thought of him first when she woke up in the morning, that she’s not sure she thought about herself at all during her marriage. “I wasn’t allowed to,” she shrugged, “No one told me the rules, I just learned them. You just disappear, you know? You wake up one day and you can’t feel your own body, your own emotions.” And when Myra said it, it sounded like a bad thing. “Well, my ex, she was really nice. So it didn’t feel like a bad thing.” “Oh, honey,” Myra’s whole body seemed to be pitying me, head tilted and shoulders gone completely slack, “it never hurts. No one wants to feel all the time. It doesn’t hurt until it’s over.” “I wish it would’ve hurt,” Clara laughed. It was one of the days where she was sure she wanted to be divorced. She looked happy. At times like this I like to assess our little cafe. Check it for the subtle changes they say you have to look out for. For the past two months— and that’s five removed from you— it has looked slightly different every time I visited. They shift the tables every Wednesday for the Open Mic. And the Open Mic always runs late so everyone is too tired to put them back. But by Friday morning they have naturally shifted to their base positions. And then they are moved again for Karaoke. For brunch. In spite of that, the cafe manages to be beautiful, to be comforting. The part that Myra, Clara, and I sit in looks like something out of a rom-com. The dark-colored button-tufted chairs shouldn’t pair well with the low tables, but they do. The tables see so little use that they double as benches during the cafe’s fuller moments. It’s not the sort of place where you can get work done. We like it for that reason, the ability to just sit “and be single.” Myra likes to say that it’s the sort of place where you can be single.
In the first three days after our breakup— our divorce— I was fairly certain that I would never stop crying. I soaked two hoodie sleeves an hour, I think. Looking back it was ridiculous. You’d made a point of looking emotionally unaffected and I should have done the same. Clara says that she cries every time she sees her ex because he can’t stand it. She says she wants him to feel pain. But you never felt any pain when I cried. Maybe because I did it so often? I’m not sure. “It’s better to just let it out. I know that deep down. But I’d rather not,” Myra laughed. “Oh, I feel that,” Clara laughed with her. And it was that day that I realized I hadn’t laughed in about five months. And so I did, with Myra and Clara. The three of us sat there, cackling really, until the waitress scurried over and whispered that they couldn’t serve us more mimosas. “Girl, that ain’t no problem,” Myra laughed. “Right. I got some wine in the fridge. Let’s go to my place!” Clara chuckled, already grabbing her purse. I remember looking back and forth between them. Realizing that the last person whose place I had seen was with you now, that I had lost most of my friends to you, most of my twenties. I laughed again. “Sounds good to me,” I smiled when I said it. And it felt so true, so natural. I was happy to be around people again.
When we broke up the first time, I spent two weeks trying to convince you that you’d made a mistake. And I was successful. It is one of the few regrets I have had so far in my life. We stayed together for almost a year after that. But it wasn’t the same, was it? “Incoming,” I said, cueing everyone into the severity of my next statement, “I once—” another pause for emphasis, “begged my ex not to leave me.” Myra and Clara’s eyes almost fell out of their skulls. “At four in the morning.” Myra started to fake wail, rolling on her living room floor. “In the rain.” “Stop! Stop! She’s already dead,” Clara screamed, “Myra, stay with us! Oh my gosh, Myra!” “Can I make it worse?” I asked, not surprised by the screams I got in response. “I got really sick afterwards from being in the rain.” “Dude,” Myra shook her head, “you cannot just say that sort of thing.” “But I said ‘incoming’ first.” “You needed to say ‘I am pressing the button’ or ‘nuke headed your way’ or ‘heartbreaking tidbit I failed to mention in the last year of knowing you’ you can’t just—” “Has it been a year?” Clara interrupted, “I think it’s been more than that.” “It’s been less. Why can’t either of you count? What is this?” “That’s rich coming from you! Miss. ‘Wait guys, I have to do math, stop talking’ 2020.” “My calculator was broken!” “It was simple addition!” “None of us need to know how to count,” Myra stopped the mock argument in its tracks, “the real issue here is the misuse of ‘incoming!’ It is not to be used for extreme violations such as that. Under no circumstances can you beg an ex ever again.” Clara nodded, “Unless you’re drunk.” “No!” “I think Clara is right,” I mumbled it but still caught a glare from Myra. Clara grinned, “Honestly it depends on the ex.” We high-fived. “What am I gonna do with the two of you?” Myra shook her head. “Divorce us?” Myra looked shocked that I’d said it, but she still laughed, “There she is. I knew it was only a matter of time.” Clara nodded again, she always thought she was agreeing with people when she was drunk, “Do you guys wanna go hair shopping with me tomorrow?” In her mind she was reaffirming us, and she wasn’t far off. I’d had the same braids for four months at that point. I smiled, “It’s time for locs. Maybe even a new wig, I don’t know y’all.” It was met with a few whoops, a few cheers. “Yes, honey, that post-breakup glow. The world ain’t ready!” Clara was always so supportive. “You gotta do blonde,” Myra sounded completely serious when she said it, and it sounded true. Blonde it was. Myra and Clara helped me with putting them in. Myra said she was a hairdresser in a past life, Clara said it was the easiest way to save money. They did a good job. I felt good with my blonde locs. 12.
About eight months after our breakup I got some really good news. A new job or something like that— it’s not important. What’s important is that I almost called you. That the phone might have rang once or twice before I realized what I was doing. That for five seconds I was almost inconsolable, and then I texted Myra and Clara. The world went slightly normal after that, the room came back into focus. I realized that I hadn’t done much decorating. I used to have so many plants. You kept those too and I can’t help but think that they’re all dead now. You don’t know how to take care of things, or you didn’t used to. It hurt to imagine my succulents, drier than they should’ve been, waiting for you to notice that they were wilting away. I bought new plants that day, brought Clara and Myra with me. Let them pick some out. “You have to name this one after me, Amira,” Clara said, holding a small plant labelled “coffee plant.” It was cute. “I like coffee; this plant, it has some relationship to coffee. I think,” she continued reading the label. I glanced over at Myra, our eyes met. “You need a painting,” she announced, nodding, “something big to go behind your couch. It should have a vag in it. Just a big vag.” “Why—” “Trust me on this,” she made sure to make eye contact with Clara too, “you need a vag painting.” “Of my own?” Clara was genuinely confused. It was sweet. “Girl. No. It’s not a real vag; it’s a metaphorical one. It’s there but it’s not. We’re going for O’Keefe here. But on a budget.” “The budget is zero dollars and zero cents. I don’t want one.” “I want a realistic one. Is that against the rules?” Myra and I both looked at Clara. She widened her eyes, held our gaze. “I’m glad y’all have opinions,” Myra laughed, “usually.”
Exactly one year after we broke up, I decided to write a book of poetry. This is exceptional for two reasons: 1) I had not written poetry since about a year into our relationship and 2) Myra and Clara absolutely lost their minds. They said that they learned something new about me too often. That one day I might show up looking completely different and tell them that I’d been wearing a mask all along, that I thought that was a normal thing to do. Writing that book was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I wanted to call it something interesting. I wanted it to be about something other than you, other than us. But I realized I didn’t know much else. So I wrote it about you, about us, about Myra and Clara— my new us. It felt like healing. Like healing. Like sunlight through an open window and a breeze dancing through my fingers. I called it Delayed Honesty. Myra and Clara were impressed. They said that my writing was good, really good. That I’d written a very important thing and I needed to share it. “Okay,” Clara got our attention, “I did a thing. I did a big thing.” Myra and I looked her over, searching for a haircut, a piercing, a tattoo. We found nothing. “Is it— is it under your clothes?” Myra looked both scared and intrigued. “No, but good idea. It has to do with a certain poet we both know and love.” They both turned to look at me. “Is it under my clothes?” “Yes. Pull up your shirt,” Clara couldn’t get through the sentence without laughing. Myra and I joined in. “But seriously. I did something. And don’t be mad.” “Okay?” “What are you doing next Wednesday?” “I— ” “Wrong! You’re doing a short and intimate reading at our favorite cafe!” Clara screamed. Myra joined in. “Clara.” “Short and intimate. And your two favorite people will be in the audience. Yes I overstepped, but, you said you need to be pushed. This is the push.” She smiled. It was genuine in a way that only her smiles were, it slowly crept over her face, puffing her cheeks, closing her eyes. Myra joined in, her own smile less extreme, but just as real. It didn’t shift her face, but her eyes still looked different, brighter. Clara was right. I did say that, and I did mean it at the time. I like that I can be honest with people now. That’s the best thing that’s come out of all of this, I think. When I say something now, it’s true.
My first time going home after our divorce required four group video calls on the first day, five in the remaining week. The town was smaller than the one I’d grown used to over the past few months. My parents’ two-story brick-front felt suffocating. You felt incredibly present even though you weren’t there. Myra said I had to remember how terrible you were, but not let it consume me. Clara said I shouldn’t get within a mile of you, that our bodies would still be drawn to each other. I doubted it. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was how used to us everyone was— old us. They asked where I’d been. Where you’d been. And it wasn’t until that moment that I realized you might have run off too, found somewhere else to be miserable for a while. Maybe we ended up in the same place. It would have been easy enough to miss you. We’re different people now, I’m not just your shadow now. I write, again. When I get upset I can call someone that isn’t you, again. Our hometown looks better when I can see it through my own eyes, but I don’t really miss it. Its quietness is almost eerie now, I’m so used to people and sounds and pretty places. And happiness. I’m still not happy there. It’s funny how that happens. How you took so many places around the globe, made them ours. How you kept those in the divorce. How it sometimes feels like you kept my own family in the divorce. “Well, don’t you miss her?” “Not really, mom. There’s not too much to miss.” “Don’t say that. You were with her for five years. She was here every holiday. How can you say that?” “Mom— ” “Can’t you guys work it out?” My dad joins in, “I miss seeing her around. She was always so sweet.” “You didn’t live with her.” “Damn near did. She was here often enough!” “That’s the problem with young people now. Just give up. Five years and I would’ve been married after one.” And deep down I agreed with my mom. I wanted to be married after one too.
Myra and Clara told me that we were going on a cruise. That heartbreak didn’t exist on the open seas, or in the Caribbean. It felt true when they said it. We set off to Florida. We had wine in the airport, on the flight, in the bar at the hotel. We laughed so much. We booked one room for the cruise. We decided that we should all sleep in the same bed, that we’d fit. Someone could have taken the couch, but that didn’t seem fair. Leaving one of us out never feels fair. We loaded our days with activities, things like “take advantage of the bottomless drinks” and “be cute on the deck for a few hours.” At night we talked, and we listened. One night, or early morning, Clara leaned in really close, stared into my eyes. We were all in bed, with Myra more asleep than the rest of us. “When are you going to start dating? No push.” “I don’t know. I just haven’t started yet.” “How come? No one’s sexy?” I laughed, “I haven’t even looked.” “I’ve been looking,” she laughed too, “no one’s sexy enough, I need like— ” I waited. “Like sexy! You know? If nothing else my ex-husband at least had that.” I waited. “You have to say your ex is sexy too so I don’t feel weird.” There it is. I laughed, “Clara. My ex was sexy too.” “Thank you, Amira,” she smiled her smile, “thank you for being a good friend these last five years. I can’t thank you enough.” “Five?” It’d been less than one, still. “You’re right. Ten.” “Twenty?” I decided to play along. “Our whole lives. We’re twins, Amira.” Myra sat up, “Hey!” “Our step-sister woke up. Oh no!” “I was in the womb too!” “Okay,” Clara laughed, “we’re triplets.” “Should we be dating?” Myra was quieter than usual. “Probably,” Clara whispered it. “But no one’s sexy.” I added. “Right.” “We’ll wait until someone is.”
The second time I went home after our breakup, it was to pack my childhood bedroom. My parents were downsizing someplace warmer. They called, told me they didn’t want to throw out anything I wanted to keep. So I went home. So many of your things were in my room. I hadn’t noticed before. But they were there. In the closet, mostly, but in two of the drawers too. Anything that I couldn’t remember buying was probably yours. And there were so many unfamiliar things. Myra told me to burn them. Clara said I should post a picture wearing some of your clothes with just one eyebrow raised. She said it would do the trick. What trick? She didn’t answer.
When I got back to my apartment, I decided to redecorate. It was time, or I needed the distraction. I moved every piece of furniture in my little studio around five times each. I donated half of my wardrobe. I considered wallpaper. “Wallpaper is so hard,” Clara shook her head, “You’ll have to pay someone.” “It’s the only way to avoid those bubbles,” Myra shuddered at the thought. I nodded. They were right. They both walked around the apartment, assessing the changes. “It looks brighter in here,” Myra smiled. “It looks like a happy person lives here.” We spent the day in my apartment. Myra told us she had a surprise. “Incoming,” she grinned, “I’m going on a date tomorrow.” “Clara and I cheered. “We need details!” Clara bounced a bit with her excitement. I nodded. “Y’all are not gonna believe this. But I met him at our cafe.” Clara and I looked at each other, and then at Myra. “You went there without us?” “Hello infidelity my old friend,” Clara sang. “Oh, don’t do that! I needed some coffee.” Clara and I looked at each other. “That’s what they’re calling it now,” I said, “getting some coffee.” Clara nodded, “They used to call it ‘working late’ or ‘running an errand’” Clara and I nodded to ourselves. Myra looked at both of us, mouth slightly ajar. “Anyway!” Myra interrupted, “I walked in and there was this man. And he was staring at the menu. And he told me to go ahead and order because he wasn’t sure what to get. And I told him you can never go wrong with a bagel, and he agreed. So we’re gonna grab lunch next week.” “Is it that easy?” Clara asked, “Or were you all destined to meet?” “Or have potential dates always been waiting for one of us to enter the cafe alone?” I added. “We’ve just barely tapped into the cafe’s power. The meaning of life is probably hidden in the walls.” Clara made a motion around her head as if it was exploding. Myra laughed. “Was he cute?” Clara was asking the real questions. “Very.” Myra said, quirking a brow and thrusting her phone at us, “Behold. His instagram.” “You guys traded instas?” “No.” “Myra!” Clara and I screamed it almost in unison. “You didn’t follow him, did you?” I scrolled back to the top of the page. “Oh, Myra,” Clara shook her head, “sweet, sweet Myra.” “It’s not weird.” “Okay.” “It’s not!”
After Myra started successfully dating— which involved several meet-cutes and a few dating apps— the pressure was on. Clara told me that we should start dating too. She started planning outings for us where the main goal was to meet someone. We went to art museums, donut shops, crafting events, street festivals, farmer’s markets. She even dragged me to a few rallies for local progressive politicians. “We’ll never stoop to speed dating, but this is fine.” “Is it?” “We’re increasing our circle of potential dates while staying on top of politics. This is next level.” She handed me a sign that said “Planet Over Profit.” At least I believed the sign. The worst part about Clara’s plan— about all of Clara’s plans— is that it worked. We both met a few people over the course of a month. None of them “stuck,” as Clara would say, but it was a start. “We are slowly but surely uncovering the sexy minority in this city.” Clara stared into the distance, “It’s only a matter of time.” Eventually Myra joined us on our little journeys. She’d just broken up with a guy Clara and I never got around to meeting. “He talked entirely too much. Not even about himself, just in general,” she shivered, disgusted by the memory. “So no one chatty?” Clara was taking mental notes. “There’s no use in going to any exhibits then,” I added. “Oh, God,” Myra shook her head, “he could talk about any movie for at least an hour. Any freaking movie. How? How did he do that?” “I just had an idea!” Clara stood up as she said it. Myra and I stared up at her from our positions on the floor, waiting. “Ice cream!” “What about it?” I was genuinely curious and excited for some reason. “We can meet someone at an ice cream parlor.” Myra let out a breath, “Can’t we just get ice cream?”
Long after the point where I felt sufficiently over our divorce, sufficiently free, I took the time to archive all of our old pictures. Every so often my cloud would remind me of something painful. Three years ago today we baked a cake. Five years ago we went on a hike on a trail two hours away from home. We were engaged, once. You proposed in your backyard, my favorite song was playing. We did so many things when we were engaged. I spent so much time awkwardly working my left hand into photos with you. We looked happy until you didn’t want to be engaged anymore. When did you realize that you didn’t want to be engaged anymore? From the looks of it, about two years before the break-up. It was for the best that I waited to touch the photos, that I turned off my push notifications instead and just waited. The urge to delete them was there for a while, but in the end, I didn’t really see the point. You happened. We happened. That was fine enough with me. 4.
About two years after we broke up, you decided to reach out. You said it was weird that there was someone out there who used to know everything about you. That we shouldn’t be strangers. That it wasn’t healthy for us to pretend we didn’t know each other. That you missed me. For a moment I believed you. That’s the sad part. I forgot that you never knew me that well. That what you did know didn’t make a difference in the end. The sad part is that you were the same person two years after something that changed my entire life. Myra and Clara said that I should just block you. But deep down I knew that wouldn’t fix it. You were out in the world being the same person you’d always been and after two years I couldn’t decide if I needed to be someone else or the person I was before I met you. Myra made sure to check on me every day for a week after that happened. Sometimes she’d show up and Clara would already be there. “This doesn’t mean you’re not over her.” Clara nodded, “She’s definitely not over you though.” “Which isn’t surprising,” Myra added. “Right! My best friend is cute!” “And funny!” “And kind!” “And smart as all hell!” “And a poet!” “And an amazing friend.” Myra smiled. I smiled back. “Five lifetimes and I’m still not sick of either of you. This is amazing.” Clara smiled too. 3.
Clara, Myra, and I had a bad habit of becoming obsessed with songs from our dance class. Most of them were mixes we couldn’t find anywhere else, but our instructor was usually willing to send us copies. We used to listen to them and dance around Myra’s living room. It was the only space big enough for all three of us. In the beginning we did it to keep up with the rest of the class, and as an excuse to hang out. After a few months it became a more casual part of our friendship. We danced together, and laughed together, and drank together. “It’s better if we listen to fast songs,” Clara laughed, “If I can’t dance to something then I don’t want to hear it.” “Slow dancing?” I offered. “With who?” She stared dramatically into the distance. “Good point.” “Not a good point! Solo slow dancing should be a thing.” Myra laughed when she said it. Clara and I joined in. “I’m serious though! We should slow dance. Imagine having to wait for someone else to do it.” “You have a point.” I’d been waiting to be in a relationship to do a lot of things. “I have all the points.” “That’s very true. Myra, maker of points” Clara smiled. Myra and I smiled too.
A few years after our divorce I was reminded of the importance of crying things out. As ridiculous as I felt after crying for that week, it was the healthiest way around it. I should have cried when you texted me.
Clara, Myra, and I have sleepovers more often than most women in our late twenties. We sleep on the floor, or in one of our beds. When we’re at Clara’s we have to be quiet. Her neighbors swear they can hear every syllable of our laughter. At Myra’s we can be as loud as we want. She has a house, and we find ourselves running up and down the stairs, being loud in ways that other places don’t allow. If we’re at my place, we have to be close. My studio resists guests, and we have to cuddle on the couch, my bed. We squeeze past each other in the kitchen. We fall asleep on a queen instead of a king. “Incoming,” I wait for them to turn towards me. It’s my night to sleep in the middle. It was a day that used to be my anniversary. “I’m really grateful for you both. I don’t know if I would’ve been okay without the two of you.” It was met with a few awws. “That’s very sweet,” Myra laughed, “but if it happens again you’re getting trapped under the blanket with a fart.” We all laughed. “I’m so glad our atoms found each other again after the big bang,” Clara gave us both a hug. “Clara,” I laughed, “I’m glad too.” And I am. I am so glad. [in response to Rupi Kaur’s “to do list (after the breakup)”]
Dereka Thomas is a young writer from Fairburn, Georgia. She is currently earning both her MFA in Creative Fiction Writing and her MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University at Bloomington. Prior to this, she completed her Bachelor of Arts in English: Creative Writing at Colorado College. Dereka has previously been published in Nectar Poetry and You Might Need To Hear This.