Before You Laugh

Author: Damien Muldoon

A young couple have a very public break up.

My girlfriend and I were breaking up. And it was happening in the middle of a city street with crowds pushing past and car horns blowing. The mid August day was overcast and sultry. Thunder threatened. But I had my own storm to worry about. Eighteen months we had been together. Yes, I was only twenty-two and K—-, a mere six months my senior. She was my first. All my young life I had yearned for someone like her, a friend, who saw me differently to how she saw other people. That’s how love starts, isn’t it? I certainly loved her. For a while, she probably did love me. As we walked through the city on that crushing August day, I searched for that love frantically. It was already gone though.
“I just want to move on in my life. I feel restless,” K—- said.
“Can’t we move on together?” pleaded I. And I craned my neck to look in her face, which she kept turned from me.
“Part of moving on, for me, is ending our relationship. Of course it’s a big decision but I just have to do it.” On that last sentence she turned her face a little more towards me. Putting my hands on her shoulders, I twisted her to look directly at me.
“K—-, I love you deeply. Can’t we discuss this properly?”
“I thought that’s what we were doing”
“No, no. Not here in the middle of the street with the whole damned world listening and looking.” The whole damned world wasn’t listening or looking. In fact it was physically shoving past us with uncanny indifference.
“What’s the point? I’m not going to feel any differently because I’m sitting in a cosy pub or front room. Anyway, I haven’t time for discussion. I’m supposed to be�somewhere.” I dived into that pause between “be” and “somewhere”.
“Is it someone else? Have you met a guy?”
“Peter!” She said my name with a long sigh. “It’s out of a relationship I want to be. Not into a new one. Please, I just want my independence. I need you to let me go.”
“How can I just let you go?” I cried, and my voice cracked. Tears were stinging my eyes too and I had to ball up my hands to stop from blubbering right there in front of her. K— showed no such emotion. If she had felt any sadness at our break up, then she had dealt with it long before this scene. Suddenly I noticed her looking past my shoulder to something above both of us. My expression must have asked her what the distraction was.
“I’m sorry Peter but I have to keep my eye on that clock on the building behind you. The appointment I have is a work thing. I really can’t be late.
“Is that why we had lunch so early? So you could have a bit more time to�to�ease the blow? Cram our break up into your hectic day.” The sudden drop of her eyes told me all I needed to know on that score. “Why are you being so cruel?”
“I’m not cruel,” she said softly, and I heard the hint of emotion in her voice. “But I’m not happy in this relationship any more. I’ve been unhappy for a good while now. I just didn’t know how to say it to you. Because I do still care about you.”
“If you cared about me then you would have talked all this over with me months ago. When I still might have been able to change your mind.”
“Okay, if it makes things any easier, I don’t care about you.” The frustration in her tone made me wonder if this sentiment was wholly rhetorical.
“If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be here now” I challenged, more to convince myself than dispute with her.
“So would you prefer if I’d broke up with you over the phone. Or in a letter.” Now she was glaring right at me. Confronting me with her consideration.
That’s when I looked in her eyes and saw that there was nothing there for me at all. I was young though, and arrogant. Rather than let her drift into the crowd, I clasped her shoulders tightly and rooted through my mind for another argument to make this agony last. K—- wriggled from my hands and was about to say goodbye, when a body stepped between us.
Like Excalibur, dividing Camelot’s fabled lovers, he stood. A tramp. Not a junkie or a panhandling foreigner. This was a native tramp. A classical tramp, you might say. About six feet tall and wearing a woollen green hat, which strands of matted grey hair poked out from under. His body was wrapped in a huge tattered overcoat, filthy, and tied in the middle with twine. Slowly, I lifted my eyes to his face and saw that he was no more than about sixty. Though he looked as old as Father Time himself. The grotesque beard covering most of that face was gone past grey. It was turning the same shade of yellow as very old photographs go when no one remembers the people in them any more. Behind the beard, a countenance of red leather housed two blue eyes that reflected a thousand heartaches. Here was a man who had long since lost a war of attrition with dignity. In that instant when he stared at me, I wondered if he had ever loved a woman. Clearing his throat, he prepared to speak. For a stupid second, I thought he was going to utter something profound that would make K—- think again and stay with me.
“Now before you laugh,” he began, in an incongruously polite baritone. But then he just rambled on with some nonsense about wanting to get to Australia. Unsurprisingly, his speech ended with “�so if you can spare a quid, or even fifty pence.”
“Sorry”, mumbled I. “No change”. The tramp just smiled then and plodded off. K—-“s eyes were blazing at me when I looked at her again. She was angry. To me, the tramp’s interruption had been no more of a distraction than K—-“s constant glances at the clock. It seemed to madden her though. I had never seen such disgust on her face.
“Why didn’t you just tell him to FUCK OFF!” she spat viciously.
“There was no need to be nasty. He wasn’t doing any harm.”
“He was just a tramp. A dirty repulsive tramp.”
“Yeh, but, he is still a human being. You can’t just tell people to f�”
“You want to know why I’m really breaking up with you. That’s why! Because you’re too�too�placid. I can’t bear it anymore. You think you’re better than no one and that everyone should be treated equally. And�and�you expect me to feel the same. Well I don’t feel the same. I never have and I never will. In life, there are respectable people and there are bums. You’re respectable, I’m respectable and tramps are bums. You shouldn’t talk to them, you shouldn’t encourage them and you most certainly never, ever apologise to them. He ought to be apologising for harassing us. It’s illegal. But you have to be nice to him. “‘I’m sorry Mister degenerate deadbeat but I don’t have any change to subsidise your foul excuse for an existence'”. Oh God! You’re as weak as he is sickening.” Suddenly I hated K—- more than I could ever hate any anonymous tramp. Her mockery and snobbery stunned me. She may as well have been a stranger. Now it dawned on me, the only thing I knew about her with any certainty, was that I’d never really known her. For all that, she was still beautiful. Had she said to me, at that moment: “kill all tramps and I will love you forever.” I might well have done it, for her. She said not another word though. K—- just scurried into the throng of people and dissolved out of my life. Leaving me to ponder upon the paradox of being dumped because of my humanity.