Seemingly Serendipitous

November 18, 2017 Southeast Asia

The author explores what it means to move on from a relationship she thought was meant to be.
Illustration by Suzan Hijink

God certainly has a sense of humour: the boy I helped through a breakup later taught me most of what I know about breakups.

Let’s call him Boy, for short.

You know how love can make anything look like serendipity? Boy and I met in what I would call serendipitous – and what others might call just plain awkward – circumstances. On the day we were first formally introduced, I bumped into him at dinner with three mutual friends. We found ourselves sitting together (of course), but we had barely broken into our food when a strange hush fell over the table. Whispered explanations informed me that the girl Boy had just broken up with had dropped in and had unwittingly taken a seat near us.

Her arrival deadened all conversation. Cue an awkward dinner, in which I frantically tried to distract him from the other side of the table, notwithstanding the fact that I knew nothing about him or what would distract him. After dinner, I texted him a vague message of support: “I’m here if you need anything!” I’m sure God decided then and there that we would make a good couple.

Or not. Maybe God just looked at my distraction attempts and realised I had a lot to learn about breakups.

There was no proper transition from caring for him, as a friend, to caring-caring for him. All I knew was that we were spending more and more time together; once, an overseas friend who had been hearing Boy’s name a bit too often said, “You know he likes you, right? You aren’t honestly in doubt about that?”

As a matter of fact, I was honestly still in doubt about that, but when he asked me to ‘talk’ one Thursday night, we both knew what was going to happen. It had only been a few weeks after that first awkward dinner conversation. We agreed it was too soon after his breakup for a relationship, but we proceeded to recklessly disregard our agreement anyway (of course). Over the next week, we spent hours sitting together jabbering about everything. Boy was gentle, kind, intelligent, and funny. We traded stories about our families, our studies, and our dreams for the future. Sometimes, these conversations would go late into the night; and yet I woke up early each morning full of energy. I revelled in how everything I had ever dreamed about love seemed to be coming true, right down to the guitar in his room he was learning to play. Once, he strummed “our song” – the notes were terribly played but still echoed in my heartstrings. That week, I was the happiest girl on earth. This was the waltz scene at the end of Sleeping Beauty; this was Joseph Gordon-Levitt dancing down the street to the tune of “You Make My Dreams.”

But then, Boy asked me to ‘talk’ again, a little over a week after that Thursday night. This time, he said he needed more time. We were moving too fast.  

I could do that. I remember laying out causes and catalysts, timeframes and projections. I discussed the separation calmly, in an even tone, legs crossed. I projected confidence in the face of his caution. Time apart, after all, meant a countdown to getting back together. And so he became my patient once more – I would understand his feelings; I would nurse him back to health. I became overly conscientious about his well-being. When I heard he was feeling under the weather, I wrote out a list of songs I thought would cheer him up in calligraphy font, to be slid under his door as a surprise.

Denial: not an asset for aspiring healers. It blindsided me when, about two months later, Boy wrote me a letter to say ‘us’ wasn’t for him.

Rationality continued to flirt with superstition as the months dragged on. A bus arriving in under five minutes meant he was going to come back. A bus any later than that meant he wouldn’t. (Actually, a bus any later than that meant the superstition was so Romantic-era Giselle and totally unbefitting a modern woman.) Once, I was walking home and thought I caught a whiff of him in the air. I took a moment to steel myself and prepare what to say. I whipped around. Nothing.

Still the seasons dragged on as I threw myself into various projects, half-hoping to keep my attention off him, half-hoping to keep his attention on me. It worked – a little – as I found more of myself in these projects, found myself being proud of something I had created, that hadn’t just strolled into my life with a half-smile and outreached hand. But still first on my list of Things That Happened That Year would be the breakup. Not any achievement of my own, but the fact that a boy had written me a letter.  

It took me a long time to see self-sacrifice not as a get-well card slipped under a door, but as walking away. For months, I rationalised the breakup as a truly loving decision; that I had accepted his choice out of love and concern for him. Eventually, though, I realised that I thought of the breakup as the prelude to getting back together – and that in doing so, I was undermining his choice. In truth, the breakup did not happen to our relationship. The breakup was the action of a boy who was looking for comfort, who grasped at the chance to have the first good thing he saw, and who let it go when he realised what he was doing. His conscious choice. And every time I imagined our movie-worthy reunion, I was denying the truth of his decision.

Although I was beginning to see the breakup more rationally, it was still difficult for me to control my emotions. Some days I thought I was fine – and then I would see an old, loving couple at the supermarket and just burst into tears on the way home. Realising the truth helped, but did not totally eradicate the days when I could not listen to “our song” or see someone who looked like him without being sad for the whole day. Yet, these days were interspersed with days of spiritual sunshine; with days when I saw an old, loving couple at the supermarket and thought, I’ll love like that someday.

More painful and yet more liberating was realising that I had never loved him back. Not the way someone wants to be loved. Not the way someone deserves to be loved. I wanted so badly to play the role of the understanding, selfless girl that I jumped to give a good impression of it, but nothing more. Maybe we were both play-acting at the great romance our hearts had dreamed of; but because neither of us were giving the real thing, neither of us received it.  It takes you longer to realise it when both of you are good, golden-hearted people, but it happens just the same. My rational mind had spun away from me, lost in serendipity.

Boy and I are still friends, but I no longer see the friendship the same way. It isn’t an amicable breakup if one half is still hanging on with unspoken expectations. It isn’t a friendship if you’re in it for unfulfilled dreams. The transition from caring-caring for him to caring for him as a person is a continuing struggle of reframing mental narratives and renouncing romantic fantasies.

The more time passes, the more I am acutely aware of how much I don’t know about him. Did I never bother to find out, hellbent as I was on picturing him as my Prince Charming? Or have I simply forgotten? I think back to the day when we first met, and I realise I still don’t know the best way to distract him from the presence of an ex-girlfriend. Maybe a fire alarm, frantic waving of the arms… and maybe my absence.


Emma* is a student in her early 20s, who spends too much time writing things in her head that never get put to paper. She makes up stories for everyone she meets: fellow passengers on a public bus, fruit juice sellers, random expatriates, and occasionally, ex-boyfriends.


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