This is part two of our series called “Inspired By Sound,” where writers use a song as the muse for their story. This piece by Victoria Alfred-Levow takes influence from “Somebody That I Used to Know,” by Gotye.
Most people think that heartbreak is messy. They’re right. But that roiling concoction of regret, nostalgia, disgust and despair? It can clear your eyes. You realize this as you throw your ex’s sweaters into a dumpster. And the set of keys they lent you, and the shirt they said matched your eyes perfectly. And that little plastic turtle they were so happy to scoop up at the dollar store – the one you held some nights when you missed them, deep in the dark hours? Into the trash, tossed on top of the stupid sweaters.
You’re not crying. You swear you’re not. Really. Your eyes are just stinging and your nose is starting to feel stuffy. Like normal, these days. You flip a final photograph from your backpack into the dumpster, dust off your hands (too theatrically, like someone in a movie) and slam the lid with a ferocious sense of satisfaction.
The sunlight hurts. It thrusts into your eyes, which haven’t seen much sun for the past week. You turn around and say, “What are you looking at?” to the parking lot. No one is looking at you. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, a day for parents pushing shopping carts with little kids perched on the seats, a day for road trips (like the ones you used to go on with them) (fuck) (not thinking about that) and a day for lying on the lawn with a big book that you know you’re not going to read. But no one is looking at you.
You trudge toward the hardware store, and your empty backpack feels impossibly heavy. The cold air envelops you as you head straight for the paint section. They used to love the paint chips, all the subtle gradations of blue and orange and pink. They’d run their hands over the paper rainbows and grin. Like an idiot. And you’d grin back. Like an idiot.
It’s a different mission today, though, and there’s no time for rainbows. You stride past the chips, yanking your gaze from the colors and toward the buckets of house paint. You had considered spray paint or paintballs, but they seemed a little too dramatic just to “decorate” a front door. Also, you’re tired of being the cliched ex. You want to be the creative ex.
From the rows of cans, you pick out white and cornflower blue, colors that any suburban neighborhood association would approve of, and you lug them up to the counter. “Just these,” you say innocently. The cashier prods the register and drops your purchases into a basic, brown paper bag. You sail out of the store, calculating your next move.
The sunlight is still bright and impersonal as shoppers stroll by. You jab at the top of the blue can with your keys, idly looking up at the cloudless sky, and almost knock over a mother.
“Hey! Watch where you’re going,” she says wearily. Her toddler is yelling.
“I seriously do not have time for this,” you mutter, shouldering ahead with your head down. And you slam right into them.
The bag swings into their knee and rips open. In glittering slow motion, the paint cans tumble out and land directly on their foot. Then the cans slam to the asphalt. Paint spurts, splatters, gushes. And their legs turn the same color as the sky.
This wasn’t exactly what you planned.
You thought they were on vacation.
You just threw their turtle away, and now they’re standing here swearing in pain and swearing at you.
“I’m sorry –" you say, rushing to pick up the cans. You don’t look at them, dripping. You just run, clutching with white knuckles until you’re sure your fingers have merged with the metal and you will always and forever feel the dull sting of it embedded into your skin –
And a hand clamps onto your shoulder. You spin around, knowing who it is already.
“What the hell, Alex?” they hiss. “You can’t just dump paint on me and run away. That’s pathetic.” They still have a hold on you. They slide their leg over yours once, roughly, so you’re painted too. Their eyes are crazed.
“Hey! Quit it!” Your voice is trembling.
“No, you quit it. Tell me why you stopped talking to me.”
“Come on!” Their nails are digging into your shoulder. You wrench away from them, shaking. You wish, in one brief and humiliating moment, that your mom was here. You twist around to go.
But they ask, “Why did you break up with me?” They ask that, and you have to stop and turn back. Because all of a sudden, they sound as fragile and raw as they did the first time you hooked up, and it hurts the part of your chest where you keep those things. And you wish they didn’t sound that way, because you want to be furious.
You think of the little turtle, buried deep within the stinking dumpster. And you answer them.
“I saw you with Jess.” Five stupid words that don’t come anywhere close to really explaining. But they’re the first words that aren’t apologetic or denying, and as the paint slithers down your leg to your shoe, you see them understand, and you’re satisfied.
“We – I didn’t – that wasn’t –” They’ve lost all the blinding power they had before. They take a step back.
“Yeah, it was. I talked to Jess’s friend later. He said you’d been making out since February,” you sneer. “And you started on our anniversary. So, yeah, that’s why I broke up with you.”
The paint is starting to dry. Whenever your legs shift, you feel the smear cracking. You wish it felt like armor, but it really feels like a snakeskin that’s too tight.
“Anyway, I threw away your keys, so you might want to change your locks in case some bum tries to get in. Or in case Jess decides to come over. Hey, same difference, right? Right?” You are screaming.
They jab a finger in your face, volleying right back at you. “You know what, fuck you! I’m glad we broke up. My life’s been twenty times better without you. And Jess isn’t a bum.”
“Sure. Whatever. I hope you both have a horrible life. I’m leaving.”
And for good measure, you drag the paint can out of its broken bag, rip off more of the top and dump it over their head.
As the white drops are settling over their face, in those few seconds, you’re not sure whether to feel ashamed or deliriously glad. So you decide to feel nothing, and you decide to run before their eyes can clear.
Back at home, you block them from every social media account you used to be friends on and you rub off the dried paint with a towel. And you decide to be glad. You decide that although you never got to graffiti their house, you got your damn closure anyway, and you try to forget the sweaters you will never wear again. You try to erase from your mind the searing image of them with Jess, how their bodies fit together. Now they’re just somebody that you used to know.
(But you’ll never be able to pass that dumpster again.)