Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Breaking up is hard to do

On Saturday night—for a lot of reasons and for no reason, because these things happen, and because some days were still great, but others weren’t, and, three months in, I felt like it was time to get out—Théo and I broke up.

There’s a lot that’s different about dating someone in Senegal. In a lot of ways, it’s far more straightforward. Which you would have to expect from a culture in which it is completely normal to tell complete strangers you love them—and mean it.

It makes the beginning of relationships a whole lot easier. You can forget about the entire, “we’ve gone out twice and I think he likes me, but I’m not going to call him for three days, because I don’t want to scare him off” thing. If you’ve gone out twice, you’re a couple. If you’ve gone out once, you’re a couple. If you’ve smiled politely, and said, “maybe, we’ll see” when he asked you out, you’re a couple.

But I didn’t expect it to be easy to tell him it was over. “It’s not you, it’s me” doesn’t translate culturally. Besides, he was in this for the long-haul, and so even when he was willing to concede that things weren’t perfect, he thought we could just talk it over and work it out.

Nevertheless, I’d made up my mind, and even if, in the face of his best moves, persuasive charm, and puppy dog eyes, I couldn’t quite remember why exactly I’d been so sure I needed to end things, there was a voice, buried deep in my brain, that, despite all attempts at muffling, was screaming at top volume, “don’t cave. You have your reasons. THIS. IS. THE. RIGHT. DECISION.”

So I dropped the axe on Saturday night. It wasn’t a fun or easy conversation, and it wasn’t any better when he forced me to tell his good friend and his cousin (in the next room) that I was leaving him. “Take a good look,” he told them, “because you won’t be seeing her around anymore.” Nor was it not awkward when they responded to this news by saying, “I’m really sorry to hear it, and I hope you work things out. But you’re our friend now, part of the family. Just because you’re breaking up with Théo doesn’t mean you don’t want to see us anymore, does it?”

Sunday morning, Théo called and asked to come over to talk about it more. He was even more convincing, charming, adorable, and sweet, but the tiny, insistent voice wouldn’t be silenced, and I sent him on his way.

The next morning, his aunt called.

“Naomi, what’s going on? What’s happened with my little Théo?”

Er…. Uh… Well…

“Come over tonight. Let’s talk about this. Come over for dinner. There are things I need to explain to you. You’re part of the family, things shouldn’t turn out this way. “

“Well… Sure. Of course. What time should I come over.”

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, dating in Senegal means dating the whole family. This was actually one of the things I loved about being with Théo. Our relationship gave me access to a whole social and family network, in this city far away from my own family and friends. And it made me feel very connected to Senegal. It was one of the things I regretted about ending things—that in losing him, I might be cutting myself off from a huge part of my Senegal world.

But do not assume that any of that sweetened the prospect of breaking up with Théo for the third time in as many days. Besides which, Théo’s aunt is awesome, caustic, and hilarious—but I was not looking forward to being on the wrong side of her wrath.

The conversation was actually less awkward than I expected. We went in circles for a bit, until she ended with, “If you haven’t found someone else, and you can’t tell me what Théo had done to hurt you, then there's clearly no problem. You should march into the other room to make up and put things back to where they were before. EXACTLY as they were before. None of this talk of friendship. JUST LIKE THEY WERE BEFORE.” And then, that settled, (no need to hear my response) she turned back to the Colombian soap opera on TV.

So I turned back to the soap opera as well. Théo came in a few minutes later (he’d been showering and changing out of his work clothes) and caught my eye to see if his aunt had convinced me, and then he sat down and watched the soap opera with us.

When the show was over, the aunt got up to make dinner, I got up to help, and Théo came in and put away the dry dishes. The phrase, “anywhere but here” may have flitted through my thoughts, but the potatoes needed peeling, and I’d been invited for dinner, so… there I stayed.

It’s over now. I think. Or at least, I’m pretty sure. Unless his mother comes to town and wants to give me a piece of her mind.