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Melissa Toft


Love and Life in Seven Stagesreading


October 2012 - The Beginning - Our Home                                                
I told you no. You had to do it to my face when you returned for the Holidays. I continued to walk through life even aslittle pieces of us begin to trail behind me.We knew this was coming. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to know it. But somewhere in my gut, my heart, my soul - I did. And so did you.

For me, it all began when I traveled to Thailand to visit you. We were not amazing but the beauty of Koh Samui covered all that up at first. We had been living for so long in the status quo. We had been dating since that sweet evening kiss the summer before our senior year. We had made it through college together. We had started dreaming about what it would be like to be us forever. Everyone saw us following that path that leads into your late 20s. We even bought the house on the parkway, across from the lilacs that bloomed every spring. Except for one thing, you hadn’t gotten down on one knee, yet.

When I left Thailand, I remember the look you gave me. You were standing on one side of the car and I was on the other. It was so early in the morning that it was still dark. You gave me that smile that I loved, the one that filled me every time I saw it. But, when I turned away and wheeled my suitcase into the airport I felt the tiniest shard of my heart fall beneath me.Something happened in my gut. I just didn’t want to admit it.

I can’t remember where I was when the phone rang and you told me you wanted a separation. Was I at home? Was I at work? Was I driving? I remember my heart falling down my chest, my stomach, my legs. I think I physically collapsed with it. I remember feeling like I was choking. I remember feeling that I had to keep moving, but every step felt like I was wading through thick mud. I remember tears. A lot of tears. My best friend at work stared at me. My mom and dad stared at me. Anna took me out for a burger and beers and I cried all over them, at the table for two, at The Low Brow. I just didn’t want to admit it.

December 2012 - Two Months Later - Our Home
When you got home for the Holiday break, we went through the motions like everything was ok. We slept together under the same gray duvet. We went to family dinners and laughed at the same stories your dad always told.  Only a few friends and family members knew how fast our seams were bursting. I was dreading the inevitable. I could see the words forming behind your every move and yet it felt like forever for you to say them to my face.

I sat at our dining room table alone one morning, a few days before New Years. And I started crying. All of a sudden, I felt like all the organs inside me were trying to leap out of my throat and yet, I couldn’t find anything to say. Everything in life, including my own body, felt like too much. I was so overwhelmed and yet, nothing was happening. You walked down our staircase and you saw me. You didn’t touch me. You didn’t talk to me. You just looked at me as you walked past me into our kitchen.

Instead of a gesture of comfort, you drove me to pick up my car at Jeff and Satya’s house, where we had left it, after the annual Holiday party the night before. I stepped out of the Camry, the sun was glistening off the snow and you still couldn't look at me as you pulled off. I got in my car and I watched as a piece of myself sped off down the road with you. I had to pull over my own car on my way back home. My chest was pounding again and my eyes started blurring all over. I thought I was going to throw up my heart. I lived like this, in fits and starts, for what felt like an eternity.

It was really just a few days. When the words came, they were in pieces. But they finally came. We were sitting on the tan couches in the living room, the ones with the little squares. I stared at them a lot as the words spilled out. You talked about how important it was for you to maintain your independence. You only wanted to care of yourself for a while. You said you always felt different with our white friends. You said you didn’t understand why until you got to a place where people looked and acted more like you. I wasn’t enough and I was too much all at the same time.

I realized then, that you had stopped allowing me inside your mind and heart. I was never given a chance to catch up. We didn’t fully understand it, but the fragments of those feelings would be enough to end us forever. I didn’t believe that you had already met someone else.

May 2013 - Five Months Later - Our Home
The words we had shared that Christmas had ended with an agreement to take a break. We didn’t want to admit what was in front of us. We took the kind of break where we could see other people. So, when you returned to Thailand, after New Years, I spent my spring of autonomy feeling like I was finding as many ways as possible to wrap protective gauze around my heart. I wanted to hold the pieces together for us. But, I couldn't see beyond what was right in front of me and so I just worked hard to keep breathing.

I was finishing my first year of teaching at a high poverty school where the principal had turned on me. I was completing my Masters in Teaching with a cohort in a subject I didn’t love. We had been on a break since January. I made out with some other men and had a bit of fun exploring the dating life. But, in so many ways, I just wanted to be done. When you returned from your year of work in Thailand, the distance between us had only expanded. We were together in space, but alone in heart.

One morning, around 3am, I found myself staring down at piles of dirt covering our entryway. Shards of wood were sticking out from a step in the middle of the stairway. I stood on the landing. My heart was beating fast. Was I wearing clothes? I felt like a warrior. I felt like an animal. I had shattered our staircase. The blue and white ceramic pot that I had thrown just rolled quietly back and forth at the bottom of the stairs. Bits of soil and silt were everywhere. And that wasn’t even all of it.

I had stopped feeling a while ago and that night I acted as if I was indestructible. Earlier that evening, I had driven from our quiet home to a friend’s party. A thunderstorm had been brewing. As I drove down the parkway, Lake Nokomis had already begun to flood its surrounding streets. I had to drive up on the curve, through the mud, to avoid flooding the underbelly of my car.

The thunderstorm raged on that night. Branches fell. Power disappeared. When I drove back home in the wee hours of the morning, I blindly drove around the yellow police tape warning me of the disaster building in the fully flooded street in front of me. I gunned my little car, back up over the curb into the same deep muddy mess that I had made it through earlier that eve. This time, however, my tires spewed and spattered bits of muck. When I stepped out of the driver’s side door, my feet sank as if I was in quicksand. I walked away from it all. I screamed as I looked up into the pouring rain. I felt like I was leaving my life behind. The rain baptized me into my new existence.

You were still gone when I got home. I showered and started packing a bag. That’s when I threw the plant pot down the stairs. I didn’t know how to handle even myself in that moment. I was afraid of my own existence that night. I was raw and out of control. I wanted to shred up our worlds. I had a Wisconsin wedding to drive to in a mere 6 hours.

June 2013 - One Month Later - Our Home
We were going through our lasts. When you had finally made it home, that stormy mud crossed morning, I had collapsed into your arms. It was the last time. You held me and called the tow truck. You told me to stay in your car and watch while you and the Bobby and Steve's guy hooked up the chains and dragged my car out of the mud and back out from under the warning tapes. You took care of me for the last time. After getting my car out of the sludge, we drove to Home Depot. It was 5am and you wanted to beat the inevitable rush on chainsaws that was to be that day. Pieces of trees, leaves and branches had sprinkled the world around us that night. I paid $200 for the chainsaw. That’s the last time I would contribute to our house. We drove home. I cleaned up the dirt on the floor from the pot. I took my suitcase and left for that Wisconsin wedding. You stayed home alone to fix the stair that had broken into pieces.

I guess we were done enough by then. I was sleeping in the guest room and I had moved my clothes from our custom closet to the little one with the bathroom plumbing access. I made a cocoon for myself in our guest room. We were living together, in separation. It was not clear if we were still on a break, back together, or something else.

Even though we were sleeping like roommates, I insisted that you say goodbye to me before you left for work each morning. I could always hear you get up before me. If you stopped making the morning sounds, I would get scared that you had left without saying goodbye. Despite this repeated anxiety, you never left without checking in. When you opened the door to my room you would kiss my cheek and we would wish each other general pleasantries. I guess it was out of an old love and respect. Maybe it was just the last bit of routine that we were afraid to let go of. But each time, the saliva left behind the kiss would melt another piece from my heart.

One day, out of nowhere, an old coworker got in touch with me about some furniture she and her partner were getting rid of. We drove the Camry, with the trailer hitched on the back, to the biggest house on Lake of the Isles, to pick it all up. We walked through their grand and spacious rooms that were filled with things and art and life. We watched these women as they talked to each other about the memories of the pieces they were giving up. We saw their passion and the love that they had built with each other. We drove home mostly in silence. In shock. In awe. That was what we were supposed to look like and sound like. I told you then, that even if we didn’t end up using the couches, tables and bed frames for ourselves, we could always sell it. They were from Room and Board after all. And all we could do was pretend like everything was normal, for now.

July 2013 - One Month Later - My New Apartment
When my ex had returned that spring, I had wanted to try to work things out. We lived in a strange balance for our last two months. He was home, we were in our own rooms, we were together and apart. Teetering on reality. Finally, he asked me to move out. Maybe he had given up long before me or maybe he just didn’t know what to feel or how to talk about what was happening to us anymore. I didn’t have a choice. And I didn’t have any fight left. So I left our house and our life together.

I paid movers to haul the Room and Board pieces up the endless amount of stairs into my new apartment, on top of a hill, on Nicollet Ave. Two girlfriends and my mom spent the day directing the movers, painting my new walls, cleaning every bit of grime off every corner and setting up my new world. We celebrated with more friends, Pizza Lucé and Coronas that evening. When they left, my new life was in front of me. Even my underwear had made it into its proper drawer. I was blessed, I was thankful, I cried. I was surrounded with my things but I was far away from the reality that I had known. I had four walls, a ceiling and a floor to hold in the wreckage. For the rest of the summer, I lived but mostly escaped. I drank, I did some drugs, I made myself cheese platters filled with Brie and sliced baguettes. And I cried as I searched for myself.

I also spent a lot of time researching and replacing all of the camping equipment that I had left behind. A new tent, a new set of pans, plates and mugs fit for backpacking. I bought waterproof matches. I bought a new bag to hold the new silverware and Campsuds. It was red, the same color as the one my ex and I had shared. I bought a new shovel to dig the hole that holds the shit you leave behind while hiking in the backcountry. It was black; I couldn’t find the orange one. I bought a Gerber knife like the one my ex always pulled out to cut the block of cheddar for lunches on the mountaintops. I worked hard to reconstruct the things that I thought that I needed to bring me back a life I recognized. I mostly felt disconnected. But, I was living. Sometimes, I even smiled. Laughter was still far away.

My ex and I texted here and there. In the fall, I was at the Mall of America, outside the Sephora on the second floor, when I got the text that read: should I wait for you? Did we do the right thing? Did he want to work something out? Did he think I could return to him so easily after everything? Did I want him again? Was he ultimately seeking my permission to marry his Thai girlfriend? I don’t know. For the first time, I was the one who couldn't form words into any explanations or reasons. But, somewhere inside, I knew that it was too late. I knew that I wanted to start to rebuild myself, instead of recreate what I had lost.
The Upward Turn

July 2014 - One Year Later - The Guest Room of My Friends House
I started paying a therapist. She helped me see that I was getting through a divorce. My ex and I didn’t have any cake frozen in the freezer, we had never signed legal documents or stood in front of a minister to proclaim our love and dedication. But, thirteen years had been a long time together. I was now the first divorcée of my peers.

During that year, my landlord had sold my hilltop apartment and I had moved in with another girlfriend and her fiancé. I also started to become attached to a somewhat fat cat. I hate and am allergic to cats. This one slept all day and terrorized the neighborhood bunnies and hung out at the hooker hot spot, just off Lake Street, by night. I resisted his come ons for a while, but this one was different. He knew when I needed him. He made figure eights around my feet when my heart started to beat fast. When I started to lose control of my emotions, he would wait by me and rest his head against me. He allowed me to be me and feel all the feels, as my therapist had said was necessary. Vince, the cat, belonged to a boy. A boy who did the same. He waited for me. He had the same name as my ex, the same car and sure enough, they both worked an exit away from each other off of 35 south in Bloomington. But, this one showed me a new way to communicate, to approach life and to friendship. And, I fell in love with his pudgy cat.

I went to my therapist every week. I learned about the false way that we can define ourselves and how, over time, we try to contain an image of ourselves in a neat little box. We assemble pieces of who we are and whom we meet and what we dream and find ways to squeeze them into the mold that society projects on us. For a long time, my pieces had fit neatly. But as I had worked so hard to be like everyone else - graduation, home, marriage, kids, life, I had lost something. And now, the pieces of that perfect box were strewn out before me. The life I had thought that I had was shattered. It felt as if everyone else was moving forward. I felt like I was slipping backwards into the quicksand and I couldn’t sort out the parts that were me and the ones that were debris from my past life. My therapist said: There is no backwards and no forwards, you just keep moving. But, I didn’t know who I was anymore and I didn’t know what I wanted for my future.

I kept working. I went to school everyday and taught kids with way more physical and emotional needs then I will ever face. They gave me strength. They showed me what it looked like to be resilient.

I started to let go of the idea that my life needed to fit in any sort of box at all. I slowly began to open up my heart to new friends who showed me that I could still laugh. They made space for me to explore who I wanted to be. Was I still a dancer? Was I still a meditator? Did I still shy away from any sport with a ball involved? Did I still love to cook and eat? Did I still hate folding laundry and the sound the dishes make as you take them out of the dishwasher? With time and help, I began to find myself amidst the rubble. I took a lot of allergy pills. I was no longer alone.

December 2014 - Six Months Later - Akumal, Mexico
There were twelve of us, we flew at different times and from different places but had all landed on the beach. Every morning, we woke up to the waves, splashing, soaking up the shoreline. It was hot enough that your muscles would never dream of tensing up about anything. We laughed, shared, tanned, drank tequila and ate lobster and tacos. I smiled from the inside out. I felt freedom watching those waves. I recognized what they have known all along. Life is not permanent. Like a grain of sand, we can’t control the strength of what hits us. We can make up a story to define ourselves and put it into a box, but we don’t get to decide if we stay on the beach or fall back into the ocean. We only have control of ourselves in each moment.

On New Year’s Eve, my friends and I circled up in the kitchen of one of the condos we had rented. We drank from a tall, squiggly, blue bottle of Mezcal. Someone popped champagne and it was decided we should share our New Year’s resolutions around the circle. We trusted each other, so it was personal. I felt the butterflies start to swarm in my stomach as I always do before speaking out in a room full of adults. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I stood sandwiched between my boyfriend (the one with the cat) and some of my best friends. The waves kept crashing down in their endless life cycle.

When it was my turn, I almost went for workout and eat more vegetables. But then, words started to come out of my mouth that I hadn’t planned on. The waves were pulling together all of those millions of pieces of sand behind me. These last few years have been hard, I said. My heart was broken. I was broken. I could taste wet salt on my lips. This year, I want to open up my heart. I want to let people in, again. I want to let you in. I want to love again. Someone held my hand. My boyfriend stared at me and cried. It was silent for a fleeting moment as my friends and my potential to love again, stood by me.

Later that night, as we welcomed in 2015, I rocked myself on the beach. I let the remaining bits and pieces of the box and my old life float away. I felt the sand disappearing underneath my feet with each wave that let out, like quicksand all over again. I let myself sink into those tiny pieces of rock that had been beat over the years into simple little grains. And this time, I felt safe. I can’t say that I knew exactly what I wanted. I was feeling again. I was ready to be vulnerable again. But mostly, I felt hope for who I was going to become.