In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
I went to college because high school ended, and that was what people like me did. At 18, I moved out of my parents' house in the country and into a dilapidated three-story Boston duplex shared by an opera singer from San Francisco, a classical guitarist from Florida, art students, writers, and a colony of mice. Our perpetually unlocked door meant the house’s population was regularly supplemented by a straggler passed out on a wine-soaked couch, or—late on New Year’s Eve in our communal kitchen—an androgynous punk rocker named Duke.
Duke smiled at me that night. I grinned back. We shuffled through the snow-lined streets, sat cross-legged on his old Superman sheets, and smoked pot out his window until he worked up the nerve to kiss me.
From there, we were always together. Duke was not like me: He was a reclusive Boston native who didn’t read, wasn’t political, and didn’t even own a computer. I grew up overseas, devoured newspapers, and felt happiest surrounded by lots of my friends, debating into the night. But our connection ran deep and easy. We spent each prematurely dark night of that New England winter at my house exploring the places our young lives overlapped—laughter, food, pot, sex.
Every morning, I would buzz out of bed, searching for clothes that didn’t smell like booze or cigarettes. Duke would pour hot tomato soup into a thermos and send me on my long commute to class. Sitting on the train, I’d sip Duke’s soup and slip into my books, mouthing the words of Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich alone to myself.
I’d gone to college because I was supposed to, but I soon found myself intently motivated by the heightened intellectual atmosphere. And when I came home at night, I wanted to keep talking—about literature, history, art, culture, the world outside of our little windows. I craved someone to help me parse new ideas, encourage me to think differently, question my views. Duke and I were rooming with another English major at my school, and the two of us would stage nightly kitchen table conversations about Whitman and Vonnegut, Shakespeare and Keats. Duke always drew quietly in his notebook or stepped out the door on his skateboard.
An undiagnosed learning disability rendered Duke a lost cause to his teachers, and he dropped out at 16. Two years later, he still associated education with authority. He had minimal desire to lock down a GED, let alone sit through four more years of lectures, even if it would help him locate a career path for his own artistic outlet. Duke had never had a job, and he wasn’t particularly interested in getting one—his mother kept him supplied with enough food and cash to squeeze by. Money for little luxuries was left to me.
The further I advanced in school, the more I worried about Duke. I loved the broke bohemian lifestyle we shared, but the reality of my post-grad life loomed. Earnest, young, and in love, I imagined we’d be together forever—me working to send my ideas out into the world, him still at home, drawing in his notebook. If he just gave school a try, I thought, he might be as inspired as I had been. He reluctantly enrolled at my college part-time.
I peeked over his shoulder as he struggled to complete his first essay on my borrowed computer. He wouldn’t let me help, and didn’t want to talk. I was left to draw conclusions from the frustration that contorted his face in front of the screen. I suspected he just stopped going to class, but he never said it out loud.
I felt guilty and embarrassed for pushing him into a path that satisfied my interests, not his. School became I topic I learned to avoid at home—both his failed experiment, and my own developing intellectual life. As my vocabulary expanded among my academic peers, the shared language of our relationship narrowed: What time will you be home? I love you. Pick up a pizza? Touch me. Don’t leave.
One day, Duke brought another straggler into our home, a little black kitten. One of our housemates was allergic, so our small bedroom took on a growing cat and a litter box, too. For the first time in our relationship, we fought—about the stale smell that lingered in our room, but really about his impulsiveness, and money, and the fact I could not share the biggest part of my life with him. I wanted an intellectual match. Duke wanted a cat. When I broke it off, sitting side by side on our bed, he didn't argue.