at first, it was quite conciliatory. "By the way," I said to Oliver after we'd had our breakup conversation, "I'd like my shirt back. I think that's the only thing of mine at your house." The image of my cute little silk top hanging in the closet next to his starched dress shirts came flooding back to me, and my eyes filled with tears.
After three trying months, it had become clear that the relationship wasn't working. We'd been the closest of friends, so similar to one another it was a little frightening at times. It seemed inevitable that we'd have to try it in boyfriend-girlfriend mode. Just try it out, like an item of clothing, like my shirt now hanging by its lonely self. But relationships are not outfits, and it was going to take me a while before I could segue back to being friends. If I could at all.
Even the breakup had been mutual -- at first, that is. "You treat me so differently now," I finally said one night, trying to keep the whining tone out of it. "You used to be so open, so available to me, so generous when we were just friends. What happened?"
"Well, you treat me differently too. It never used to bother you when I had to cancel at the last minute. Now you get really angry at me."
"But we were friends then. It was different."
"Yes. You were happier when we were friends. Now all I seem to do is make you unhappy."
I paused, and decided to take the plunge. "Yes. You're unhappy too, I think."
"Maybe we should go back to being friends, then."
"That's fine." I felt a coldness creep into me.
Oliver was quiet, looking at his plate. "You know, it's what we've been talking about. I love you, but I'm not in love with you. Maybe it's the same for you."
I held up my hand. "Spare me this speech. You're right. This is not working."
Later that night I called him. "OK, so I know this is mutual," I said uncertainly, feeling that somehow the power had already, almost imperceptibly, started to shift. "But I can't move right back to being your buddy. Good old Courtney. The Labrador retriever. And I would like that shirt back. Maybe you could mail it."
Oliver sighed sadly. "Could we just put the give-me-back-my-stuff conversation on hold for a few days?"
"Certainly," I said, "but I want my shirt back. Fed Ex?"
So a few days passed. Then a week. For the first time, I felt us drifting, both of us unable to gauge what was going through the other's mind. Oliver and I had never communicated very well; we didn't need to. Now I could feel us getting in our respective corners, and moving into the territory I dreaded most: Dumper vs. Dumpee.
I fell silent, brooding. I thought about my shirt constantly. Voice mail messages were left by him, falsely cheerful: "Hi! How are you? My God, I've been reading the greatest magazine article ..." "Hello! It's me, remember? OK, well I guess you're busy. So, I saw 'Vertigo' the other day. What a sick creep Hitchcock was ..." And on and on, blah blah blah. Occasionally, he'd say, "I know I have your shirt. I'm going to get it to you. I haven't forgotten." After each message, I'd grimly press 3 -- erase -- holding the button until the tone sang into the air.
Days passed, then a week. Then two weeks. And still no shirt.
"Why don't you just call him and tell him you want the damn shirt back?" Harriet asked, reasonably.
"He knows I want it back," I said shortly. "I have nothing to say to him. I don't want to talk to him. Maybe never again. But I want that shirt back."
More time passed -- days, another week, and another. By now it was clear that our dissolution, however mutual, had entered the dangerous stage. He continued to call, once a week now. I continued to not return his calls. I was smarting. I was bitter. But I wanted that shirt. Like most material possessions caught in the breakup cross-fire, it had taken on talismanic properties.
"Could he be wearing it?" I asked my friend Peter. "Is that why he hasn't sent it back?" I thought of its stretchy silk fabric, the way it exposed my collarbone, its beautiful russet color, like ripe plums. It seemed a little feminine for Oliver.
"Jesus, the shirt, the shirt!" Peter groaned. "Just forget about it! Is that so impossible?"
"Maybe he has a new girlfriend and she's wearing it," I mused. "I want my shirt back. It is my little Calvin Klein shirt and I paid a lot of money for it and I want it back. Why is he holding it hostage?"
But I knew why, and so did Oliver. He and I didn't have any mutual friends, apart from Penny, my old high school friend I'd fixed him up with, so there was no chance of getting information about the other through that channel. And we didn't work near each other, nor live in the same neighborhood. Both of us knew the shirt was the last link. Once it was back in my hands, that was ... well, it.
Harriet was sympathetic. "I had a pair of gray socks once," she told me. "When Tom, my cross-country boyfriend, broke up with me, I demanded that he send them back. They were just ordinary, old cotton socks, nothing special. But he did mail them, right away."
"And then there's Mary," I said, feeling more depressed. "The night Chris announced he wanted to break up, he offered to drive her and all her stuff home. Right then and there. That night."
"Oooh, that's harsh," Harriet said, and we both fell into a one-minute tribute of silence. Finally, Harriet said, slowly, "I know you want your shirt back. But maybe you don't. If you really did, don't you think you'd call him and demand it?"
I didn't answer. "I want my shirt back, I want my shirt back, I want my shirt back," I hummed, a song that was starting to soothe me. It occurred to me that maybe this was how the descent into madness began, when material objects took on lives of their own.