Breaking up is like pulling teeth

"The Ex-Executive Assistant" is a comedic story about a young man who loses both his job and his girlfriend on the same day.

Recap: In the last chapter, Shep came home from work to find Lyle watching daytime television and drinking all of Shep’s beer. Because he hasn’t been able to find any sort of job — let alone one related to his journalism major — depression and self-loathing have gotten the best of Lyle. When Shep points out that Lyle tends to drink more when he’s depressed, Lyle nods and says, “I tend to lose my spark when I’m adrift with no future.” 

The next day, Friday, Shep got home a half-hour earlier than usual.

“Get dressed,” he told Lyle.

“I am dressed,” Lyle said. “Today was one of my better days. I actually took a shower and put on clothes.”

“I mean get dressed in something nice. We’re going out.”

“Out?”

“Yep. I decided earlier. It’s been forever since we’ve done anything fun, and you’ve been stuck in the apartment for weeks. I don’t know how you stand it.”

“I admit, my high-octane, thrill-a-minute lifestyle isn’t for everyone.”

“I don’t need a thrill every minute, but once in a blue moon would be nice. Besides, it’s Friday night, and we’re two handsome, unattached young guys looking for love. Instead of languishing in here, we should be cornering the singles market.”

“I should probably corner the job market, first. It’s hard to buy a woman a drink when all you can afford is water.”

“A night out will do you good. You need a break from your problems.”

“I need more than a break — I need a divorce. Jobs and girlfriends come and go, but problems are a constant in my life.”

“And you’re constantly griping about them, which is why you need a break. I could tell you’d reached a tipping point yesterday.”

“How?” Lyle asked.

“Because you were drunk when I came home. I know you drink when you’re depressed, so I assume you were worrying about the future.”

“I was actually lamenting the past, but both lead to depression and drunkenness.”

“Well, you need to climb out of it, which is why we’re going out. I’ll treat us to dinner, and then we can hit the casinos.”

“What are we going to do there?”

“Drink.”

“Oh,” Lyle said.


Shep drove them to a small Mexican restaurant near their apartment. They sat in a booth near the back and ordered margaritas.

“Ah,” Shep said, taking a small sip. “That hits the spot. It’s been a long week.”

“I really shouldn’t drink this,” Lyle said, twirling his glass.

“Why? You still hung over from yesterday?”

“Actually, that’s an argument in favor. I was thinking more about the cost.”

“No worries. I’m buying.”

“You sure? Because I can do dishes.”

“You don’t do dishes at home, so why would you do dishes here?”

“I use paper plates.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. They’re bad for the environment.”

“Actually, they’re great for the environment. Think of all the water I’m saving not washing dishes.”

“You don’t use dishes because all you cook is processed foods. We need to start eating better. It’s not healthy when all of your meals come out of a box.”

“Yeah, but boxed food is convenient. They have the recipe printed right on the side. Plus, most of the ingredients are in the box.”

“If you’re looking for recipes, I have a couple of cookbooks.”

“But then you have to buy the ingredients separately. It’s not as convenient.”

“This is one of the reasons I miss Cassie. Unlike you, she actually knew how to cook.”

“I imagine the sex was better, too.”

“I’m serious,” Shep said, glaring. “Besides, I haven’t been eating right since Cassie left. She was a helluva good cook. Her chicken casserole was unbelievable, man — unbelievable. She put cornflakes on top and sprinkled parmesan cheese. It was those little touches that made her meals amazing. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her cooking.”

Lyle nodded. “Nothing says ‘love’ like parmesan cheese.”

Shep sighed, staring at his glass. “Actually, not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I can’t believe we got in that stupid fight. It was all over nothing. There’s days I’ll pick up the phone, but then I don’t call. I don’t know why. It’s like I don’t know what to say. I feel like I should apologize, but we left things so finished — so final. It’s like nothing I could say would matter, because what’s done is done. I don’t understand why, but I feel in my heart like — like we can’t go back. You know? Like it’s a chapter closed, and there’s no point of rehashing the past.”

“Huh.” Lyle looked at the table.

“When I think more about it,” Shep said, “I realize we always had problems. Even when we were together, I wasn’t sure she was right for me. I remember several times thinking, ’You know, I’m not sure I’d want to marry this woman. She’s fun to be around, but do I see myself with her twenty, thirty years down the road?’ Because I couldn’t see us together that long. I tried to look ahead, but it was like there was nothing there. The future was black. It was like a void with no sounds, no images. I didn’t see us together when we were older. I didn’t see us with children. I didn’t see us sharing our lives the way people do — like when you buy a house, or make plans, or forge a future. I didn’t see us like that at all.

“So,” Shep continued, “sometimes I wonder if we did the right thing by letting each other go. And I wonder when I’m missing her if maybe I’m clinging to an ideal that never really existed — like the way you only remember the good parts of high school.”

“High school had good parts?” Lyle asked.

“You know what I mean. We always remember the good times and forget the bad. Maybe I’m doing that with Cassie. Maybe I really do need to close the chapter on her and move on with my life. I don’t know. It’s frustrating. One day I’ll feel one way, and one day I’ll feel another. It’s never consistent; it’s always up or down. Sometimes I’m hopeful for the future, and other times I can’t let go of the past.”

“Maybe you’re not ready to close the chapter on her just yet.”

“What do you mean? You think I should call her?”

“No — I mean, you might need closure. Things ended so abruptly, you didn’t have time to let go. Maybe it’s better if she slip from your life slowly, so you can savor the memories. It helps give them meaning.”

“Yeah,” Shep said, “but then again, maybe quicker is better. Like pulling a tooth. If you yank the sucker out, the pain’s only brief. But if you draw it out slowly, it’s more agonizing. You see what I’m saying?”

Lyle shrugged. “It might be more painful to draw the tooth out slowly, but then you’d remember it more. Right?”

“Who wants to remember a tooth extraction?”

“I don’t mean the extraction process. I mean the tooth itself.”

“What’s the point in remembering a tooth? A tooth’s a tooth.”

“But we’re not talking about a tooth — we’re talking about a breakup.”

“Then where does the tooth come in?”

“It doesn’t come in! It was a symbol!”

“The tooth’s a symbol?”

“It’s your symbol! You’re the one who brought it up.”

“I brought up the tooth?”

“Yes, you brought up the tooth. You said that breaking up is like yanking a tooth. And I’m saying that even though breaking up is painful, the pain is what gives your relationship significance. The impact it made will stay with you.”

“Is it worth all the pain?”

Lyle shrugged. “It depends on the tooth.”

“It depends on the tooth? We’re back on the tooth now?”

“Forget the tooth. What I’m saying is, if the relationship meant something to you, then the breakup’s going to hurt. It’s like withdrawing from a drug. It’s not pleasant to endure, but in the long run you’ll be better off.”

“Then why didn’t you just say that? For a straight-to-the-point journalist, you sure talk in riddles. You’re worse than a woman.”

“You know,” Lyle said, “I’m beginning to see why Cassie left you.”