The Punctuation of Past Relationships
Photo Source: MaxPixel
I was not looking forward to turning twenty-seven. In fact, anything after twenty-five was just a bitter reminder that I was one year closer to thirty, which meant one more year of avoiding the increasing pressure from my mother that it was time to think about having kids. She was slowly losing subtlety. Last year’s gift bag included a collection of pastel baby bonnets. So, at first, I’m happy to be spending twenty-seven sitting in an airport eight-hundred miles away from another lecture about my reproductive responsibilities. That is until I receive an unexpected birthday message from my ex-whatever while sitting at my terminal gate.
Seeing his name appear on my cell phone screen has enough force to paralyze me for a few seconds of flurried emotions. I’m shocked, I’m angry, and then I’m just downright annoyed. However, these reactions are nothing new. In the four years we were friends, including the last nine months when we were something more, I experienced a complete range of feelings from relentless hope to pitiless heartbreak. The final stage of our relationship was the one I felt the most, though: the silence.
It was his idea to stop talking. In the beginning I tried to make excuses for him. He must have been busy playing video games and being unemployed. But after a few weeks, I couldn’t ignore my new reality. The only way I knew we were over was because I couldn’t get ahold of him. He let the distance speak for itself and I was left to fill in the blanks. I was hurt. No, more than hurt. More than crushed. I felt betrayed. Not just because of the silence, but because he made the decision without me. He decided to end our relationship without asking.
I remember the last time we exchanged superficial pleasantries, even if I didn’t have Facebook to remind me. The date on our last message is just over a year ago. He congratulated me on a playwriting festival. And attempting to be a mature adult for once in my life, instead of immediately instigating an exchange of angry words, I said thank you. No punctuation. Not even a period. I let it linger because I thought there might be more to say, that he would accept this invitation as an opportunity to apologize for completely shutting me out of his life. But he didn’t. And waiting for him to take the bait was becoming a dreadfully familiar feeling.
I couldn’t ignore that our entire relationship was lacking a punctuated ending, a period or exclamation point so I could move on with my life. I couldn’t believe that one mark could matter so much. We like to pretend we don’t think about them, that they’re merely after thoughts or book ends, but punctuation is the real story. Anyone who’s received an ambiguous text message in the middle of the night knows that a comma or question mark can mean the difference between a smiley face or the silent treatment.
As I stare at what I’m sure was intended as an innocent if not obligated birthday message from my ex-boyfriend, I have my own weighted decision to make. This time my gratitude needs a sense of finality, but what sense will that be? Well, I pretty much have four possibilities to choose from.
The first option is an exclamation point! But that would indicate that I’m excited to hear from him. An exclamation point would convey eagerness or joy, which are long absent emotions from our repertoire. An exclamation point would mean I forgive him for the summer I spent crying myself to sleep. Back then I was all about the exclamation point. Do you want go for a drive? Sure! Are you free? Yes! Can I come over? Absolutely! But in those days, the exclamation point was more than enthusiastic. It was desperate. I can’t go back there again.
What about the question mark? This little symbol can suggest more than confusion or concern. It can be sarcastic. It can be blatantly rhetorical. It didn’t always come off that way, though. I used plenty of genuine question marks in the past. Can we talk? Are you okay? Is this over? Back then I wanted an answer. And sometimes I think I still do.
Maybe I can use an ellipses… It would still suggest uncertainty without instigating an attack. While a more understated approach to address the randomness of this birthday message, the ellipses unveils an emotional need for a response. Our previous conversations were plagued with ellipses. I know you like her…I understand…I’ll be okay… The ellipses says come back to me. I’m not done here. I need more. I wanted that a year ago, but now I’m not so sure.
And then there’s the period. It’s simple. Finite. The period means there is nothing more to say. The conversation is over. And even though I still have a long list of grievances, I think it finally is. It’s probably the punctuation I’ve used the least with him. It takes strength and commitment to put a period, and I’ve rarely had the courage. Because when the sentence is over, you have to move on to the next one. Even if you’re not sure what it’s going to say or where it’s going to go, a period is the next step towards the future. And it’s taken me a really long time to get there.
So, while waiting for my flight to start boarding, staring at my cell phone and avoiding eye contact with strangers, I go with option number four. Just because he finds the need to reappear in my news feed doesn’t mean I have to let him. I can put an end to this. I still have plenty of questions and unspoken accusations, but now is obviously not the time. I shouldn’t spend my birthday digging up the remnants of our relationship, no matter how much I’m tempted to. I just want to eat my overcooked cheeseburger, get on the plane, and go home to my husband. More than anything, he’s the reason why I’m ready for this period at the end of my “thank you.” Because who needs an ellipses when you’re married to an exclamation point?
Kimberly currently teaches English composition courses at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. Her previous non-fiction work has been published online with The Furious Gazelleand Sweatpants & Coffee. Kimberly recently became a first-time mom, so she spends nap time catching up on grading and working on various creative projects.