Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler


So why did we break up? When I think of it now, think of it really, I think of how tired I was Halloween Saturday, from getting up early to sneak off to Tip Top Goods myself to buy these, which I never gave you. Yawning outside later, spray-painting an old thrift-store cap I used to wear freshman year, squinting at the gray to see if it matched my dad’s coat, Hawk Davies floating out my bedroom window to bask all over me, that cool part of “Take Another Train” when he polishes off a solo and you hear someone’s faint cry of appreciation, Yeah Hawk yeah while I grinned in the clear air. It wasn’t going to rain out. You and I were going to the Bash and the Ball and it would be OK—extraordinary, even. I had no feeling of otherwise. I can see my happiness, I can see it and I can say that we were happy too then, not just me. I guess I can cling to anything.

“It’s good to see you happy,” my mom said, coming out with steaming tea. I’d been coiled up thinking she was telling me the jazz was too loud, think of the neighbors.

“Thanks,” I said for the Earl Grey.

“Even if it is in your father’s coat,” she said, this year’s thing of deciding it was OK to talk crap about Dad.

“Just for you, Mom, I’ll try to ruin it tonight.”

She laughed a little. “How?”

“Um, I’ll spill drugs on it and roll around in the mud.”

“When am I going to meet this boy?”


“I just want to meet him.”

“You want to approve him.”

“I love you,” she tried like always. “You’re my only daughter, Min.”

“What do you want to know?” I said. “He’s tall, he’s skinny, he’s polite. Isn’t he polite on the phone?”


“And he’s captain of the basketball team.”


“That means there’s another captain too.”

“I know what it means, Min. It’s just—what do you have in common?”

I took a sip of tea instead of clawing her eyes out. “Thematic Halloween costumes,” I said.

“Yes, you told me. The whole team is prisoners and you’re playing along.”

“It’s not playing along.”

“I know he’s popular, Min. Jordan’s mother tells me this. I just don’t want you led around, like, like somebody’s goat.”

Goat? “I’m the one being the warden,” I said. “I’m going to lead them around.” Not true, of course, but fuck her.

“OK, OK,” my mom said. “Well, the costume’s coming along. And what are those?”

“Keys,” I said. “You know, a warden has keys.” For some moron reason I thought I’d include her for a sec. “I thought I’d wear them on my belt, you know? And then at the end of the night I’d give them to Ed.”

My mom’s eyes widened.


“You’re going to give Ed those keys?”

“What? It’s my money.”

“But Min, honey,” she said, and put her hand on me. My wrists trembled to spray-paint her in the face and make her gray, although, I noticed suddenly but without surprise, she already was. “Isn’t that a little, you know?”




“I mean—”

Ew. Like, a dirty joke? Key in the keyhole?”

“Well, people will think—”

“Nobody thinks like that. Mom, you’re disgusting. Seriously.”

“Min,” she said quietly, her eyes searchlighting all over me. “Are you sleeping with this boy?”

This boy. Goat. You’re my daughter. It was like bad food I was force-fed and couldn’t keep down. Her fingers were still on me, skittering on my shoulder like a little pair of school scissors, blunt, ineffective, useless, and not the real thing. “It is none,” I said, “none, none of your business!”

“You’re my daughter,” she said. “I love you.”

I walked three steps down the driveway to look at her, hands on her hips. On newspapers on the ground the hat I was going to wear. Do you know, Ed, how much it fucking punches me in the stomach that my own mother was proved right? I must have shouted something and she must have shouted something back and stomped, she must have, into the house. But all I remember is the music fading, vengefully turned down so it no longer sound-tracked the day. Fuck her, I thought. Yeah Hawk yeah. I was done anyway.

Though I didn’t, did I, give you the keys. The day cooled to dusk while I did a little homework, dozed, missed Al, thought about calling Al, didn’t call Al, got dressed, and headed out with a dagger-glare at my mother pouring little candy bars into a bowl she’d sit and eat while waiting for youngsters. The boy I used to babysit was out on the corner throwing eggs at cars while the sun set. He flipped me off. The world was getting worse I guess, like this Japanese remake of Rip Van Winklecalled The Gates of Sleep that Al and I left early from, each time the hero awoke it was more depressing, wife dead, sons drunks, city more polluted, emperors more corrupt, the war dragging on and more and more bloody. Al said that one should have been called Are You in a Good Mood? We’ll Fix That: The Movie.

I should have known when an old guy on the bus, totally not kidding, thanked me for my service, that my costume was going to be another disaster, but not until I walked under the archway of orange and black balloons looking for you did it really hit me clear, from Jillian Beach of all people. “Oh my God,” she said, already tipsy in red-and-white-striped shorts and a bra of blue bandanas. She was porcupined with goose bumps from the evening cool, Annette was right, I didn’t have to be afraid of her.


“You really are out there, Min. A Jewish girl dressing as Hitler?”

“I’m not Hitler.”

“They’re going to expel you. You’re gonna get expelled.”

“I’m a warden, Jillian. What are you?”

“Barbara Ross.”


“She invented the flag.”

Betsy, Jillian. I’ll see ya, OK?”

“Ed’s not here,” she said back to me.

“That’s OK,” I said, but I didn’t even try to be convincing, a Nazi too early for an outdoor party. A nest of freshmen walked around me chattering in mouse ears. A bunch of Draculas preened in a corner. They were already playing that song I hate. The coaches were sipping coffee and sweating in their capes. It was Trevor, who would ever think, who rescued me, limping over with his foot in a cast.

“Hey, Min. Or should I say Officer Green?”

Better a cop than Hitler. “Hey, Trevor. What are you?”

“A guy who broke his foot yesterday and so can’t be in the chain gang.”

“You’ll do anything to get out of dancing onstage.”

He laughed loud and pulled a beer out of somewhere. “You are funny,” he said, as if someone had said otherwise, and took a swig before handing it to me. I could tell he did this with any girl, any person, and that never until me had it been handed back unsipped.

“I’m good.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “You don’t like beer.”

“Ed told you.”

“Yeah, why, am I not supposed to know?”

“No, it’s fine,” I said, looking for you.

“Because, you know, he’s always going to tell me.”

“Yeah?” I said, and then gave up and looked him in the eye. He was drunk too, as usual, or maybe he was never drunk, I realized I didn’t know him well enough to know the difference.

“Yeah,” he said. “Slaterton girlfriends need to learn that and scoot if they can’t handle it.”


“Scoot,” he said with a wobbly nod. Even drunk, if he was drunk, he was tough-enough-looking to say words like scoot. “We talk, Ed and me.”

“So what does he say?”

“That he loves you,” Trevor said instantly, without embarrassment. “That you passed the test with his sister. That you put up with his math thing. That you’re planning a weird movie-star party and that I have to get the fucking champagne or he’ll kick my ass. And you don’t let him say gay anymore, which is—can I say gay?”

“Sure,” I said. “You’re not my boyfriend.”

“Thank God,” he said, and then, that’s where you got it I guess, “no offense.”

“None taken,” I said.

“I just mean, I don’t think we’d get along like that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

“We’re just, I mean, I like a fun girl who doesn’t change me around with movies or stores that open first thing in the goddamn morning, you know?”

“Yes,” I said. “And I wouldn’t take you there.”

“I’m just, you know, trying to stay fun. Happy on the weekends, you know, sweating hard at practice.”

“I get it.”

He threw an arm around me like a companionable uncle. “I like you, I don’t care what anybody says,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said, stiff. “I like you too, Trevor.”

“Naw,” he said, “but you’re a good sport about it. I hope you hang around a long time, really I do, and if you don’t I hope it’s not all drama and shit.”

“Um, thanks.”

“Now don’t get all puckered,” he said, finishing a beer and starting another. “I just mean, you guys are like those two planets that crash together in a movie I saw on TV when I was a kid once, the blue people and these weird red guys.”

When Planets Collide,” I said. “It’s a Frank Cranio film. At the end they’re all purple.”

Yeah!” he said loud, his eyes toggly with wonder and joy. “Nobody I ever knew ever knew that.”

“The Carnelian’s showing some Cranio in December,” I said. “We could double-date, you know, with Ed and whoever girl you’re—”

“Not in a million years,” he said agreeably. “That theater’s gay.

“You say that,” I said, “when you’re part of a group of guys chained together dancing.”

“Not me!” he said, raising his broken foot, and we laughed hard, loud, wild, and I even leaned into him, just as you arrived with your chain gang, everyone in striped pajamas and black plastic loops around their ankles. Underneath your flimsy hat your face was flushed and suspicious. “What the hell, Trev,” you said, too loudly, and pulled me away.

“Whoa, whoa,” Trevor said, shielding his beer. “We’re just goofing, Ed. She’s waiting for you.”

“And what are you doing, asshole?” you asked him. “Keeping her warm for me?”

“Hey, Ed, happy Halloween, good to see you,” I said pointedly like a person. I’d never seen this version, this shouting boy jerk, with your eyes frazzled wrong and your hand a claw on my shoulder. It was nothing I’d seen, but I hadn’t, I was thinking, known you that long.

“Dude,” Trevor said to you, smirking like the punch line was coming. “Don’t accuse like that. You know everything but’s not good enough for me.”

The whole chain gang oohed. The tears came to me so quick it was like I’d been saving them up for just this thing. I wished I were Hitler, I would have killed the whole set of them. “Min!” you called to me, your anger chased away in panic, and even took a few steps toward me. But your gang was chained to you, and they wouldn’t let you follow me and make it right. Not that you could. Though you did.

“He’s sorry!” one of the stupid boys called, and laughed. “We all did Viper shots to practice our dance, it always makes Slaterton an asshole.”

“No way!” Trevor said in jealous delight. “You’re doing Viper? Where is it where is it where is it?”

You looked helpless at me, and then the party surged around us like the panic in Last Train Leaving, the coaches starting off the festivities with their fat, dumpy dance to “I’m the Biggest Man.” Go to hell, I thought to everybody, and we were there, everyplace a nightmare of terrible people, screaming, flashing lights, more screaming, worse than a bonfire because there was nothing gorgeous to look at, just the gleamy makeup on people’s faces, the rubber masks like roadkill on boys’ heads, the slutty costume skin on the girls shiny with sweat, the thum-thum thunder from whoever carried in drums, screaming whistles around people’s necks like neon nooses, and then the rhythmic chantings, spread out across the crowd as each school started in, different words cropping up for each team, Eagles! Beavers! Tigers! Marauders!, a clashing of syllables like the mascots were fighting to the death in the sky, and then the captains hoisted up onto drunken shoulders, each school shouting its competing hero, McGinn! Thomas! Flinty! and winning out, Slaterton! Slaterton! Slaterton! as the chain gang clumped up to the stage and began their fake-sissy moves to “Love Locked Up” by Andronika, who sounded in the speakers like she also hated this shit, the hoots of the crowd, realizing you were famous even at other schools, your whole linked gang reaching down your pants to your crotches in gross unison and pulling out bottles of Parker’s when the lyrics said “Drink every drop,” and even with the coaches pretending disapproval the place devastated itself with screaming volume, toppling the cardboard Applause-O-Meter that Natalie Duffin and Jillian were game show gyrating around, and youwon, triumphant in gift certificates, blowing kisses, bowing awkwardly with your legs tangled up, and then Annette crashing the stage in chains and silver boots and a big stagy ax, kissing the whole gang, mwah mwah mwah, just a little longer on you, before raising her weapon and chopping through the chains and setting you free to leap thrilled and drunk, deep into the roaring crowd and vanish for thirty-eight minutes before finding me finally, handsome, beaming, gorgeous, sexy, a winner through and through forever.

I hated you so much.

My face must have blazed with it like Amanda Truewell in Dance to Forget when Oliver Shepard walks into the nightclub with his unexpected innocent wife. Fuming and furious hurt, I was bustled away by the surging crowd and was soon trapped at the goalpost with a guy I half knew from homeroom telling me a story about his dad’s new wife’s white wine problem. I was so angry I knew it would boomerang someplace sometime soon. It growled in me something awful as I just stood frozen and lost. The Bash kept at it, boiling and twisting in costume, until you finally reappeared during the even-worse song, the crowd crying Hey! Hey! Get down I say! frantic with your stripes half-unbuttoned and sweaty hair. “I want to tell you something,” you said, before I could decide which scathing line I’d been polishing to use first. You held both hands in front of you, spread out, a filthy streak on one palm, like I was about to roll a boulder on you. I stepped back and you stayed there, you stood your ground in the blaring battlefield, and you began to count on your fingers, counting the number of times you were saying what you were saying, both hands twice and then almost again. It was the only thing you could say, the perfect thing, is what you said.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

“Twenty-six,” you said, before I could ask you. Everyone was gathered around, or anyway they were around us, swirling like loud, bad surf. The crowd was low in the mix, a few yelps, a few catcalls. “Twenty-six,” you said again, to the crowd, and took a step toward me.

“Don’t,” I said, though I couldn’t decide.

“Twenty-six,” you said. “One for each day we’ve been together, Min.” Somebody oohed. Somebody shushed them.

“And I hope that someday I’ll do another something stupid and I’ll have to say it a million times because that’s how long it’ll be, together with you, Min. With you.”

I allowed you another step. The homeroom guy realized he was still there gaping, and stopped and vanished. There was a tremble in my shoulder, behind my knee. I shook my head, shoveling my anger into a shallow grave waiting to be dug up in some plot twist. But, also, your beautiful self, the way you could move and talk to me. I could not look away.

Anything,” you said, a vast answer to nothing I’d said. “Anything, Min. Anything, anything. If Willows was open, the flowers would be gone, I’d buy every scrap.”

“I’m mad at you,” I said finally. How many are there, movies where the man, or the actress, apologizes in public? I can’t watch them.

“I know,” you said.

“I’m still mad.”

But you’d reached me. Your hands moved to my face and held it. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d kissed me but Ed, you knew better. You just held me like that, warm on my teary cheeks. “I know. That’s fair.”

“Really mad. It’s bad what you did.”

“OK.” The crowd was still there but losing interest.

“No, not OK,” I said, the only fish to fry. “Yes. It was bad.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t say it twenty-six times again. Once was enough.”

“Was it?”

“I don’t know.”

Anything, Min. Anything, but tell me what.”

“I don’t want to tell you anything.”

“OK, but Min, please.”

“This isn’t OK.”

“OK, but what can—how can we start?”

“I don’t know if I want to.”

You blinked fast fast fast. Your hand shivered on my face, and I thought suddenly that now my face was dirty. And, also, that I didn’t care. It wasn’t OK, Ed, but maybe—

“How, Min? Anything. What can I do, what can I—how can I make you want to start?”

I couldn’t. No, I thought, do not cry while you’re saying it. But then, fuck it, you’re crying anyway, and he made you cry. Min, I thought, it’s love is what it is. “Coffee,” I said, crying. “Coffee, extra cream, three sugars,” and you took us away, fast with your arms on me across the field, not a single good-bye to anyone at the Bash, cold through the night to the huddle on the bus, holding my face again, the sweet things you said so soft over the motor, and then marching into In the Cups, pushing the double doors wide slamming open, to proclaim that in penance for mistreating your true love, Min Green, you would like to buy a large coffee, extra cream, three sugars for each and every patron of this fine establishment, which was one bewildered old man with the newspaper who already had a coffee. Insisting that the man be a witness to your solemn promise that never would a drop of Viper touch your lips again. And returning from the bathroom with this tag—saying, look at this cool tag for a show we have to go to tomorrow, because look it’s Carl Haig who used to play drums with Hawk Davies who’s that guy you and Joanie like, just hanging on the bulletin board like thumbtacked destiny near the bathroom where you’d neatened your hair and buttoned back up decent and sobered, please go with you because you loved me.


“Oh Min, please don’t say maybe like that.”

“OK, yes,” I said, as the coffee rolled down inside me. I felt embarrassed, boarding the 6, to still say I was angry about something two buses ago. Trick-or-treaters sat across from us, young with the dad madly scrolling through something on his phone. Total strangers, is what I thought. If I was still mad I was alone, Saturday night, Halloween, on the bus. “Yes, OK? But I’m still mad.”

“That’s fair,” you said, but I didn’t want you smiling.


“You told me, Min. And I’m still sorry and this is us.”

“I know.”

“No, our stop, I mean. Time to get off.”

And we did, to the cemetery, hushed and welcome in the chilly dark, knowing the Ball was still coming, this stupid bad night. Our feet crackled and trampled on the shadowy grass. “Are you sure you want to go?”

Yes,” I said. “My friends—look, I went to your thing.”


“So you have to suffer through mine. Anything, you said.”

“Yes, OK.”

“And I mean suffer. Because I’m still—”

“I know, Min.”

I gave you my hand. It was a little less terrible then, just to walk in the quiet. Something rustled, off to one side, but I was safe there, in the dark light on the graves, the crosses of stone, and the dead leaves, almost OK.

“You know,” you said, your breath mist, “I thought of this place for the party.”


“Lottie Carson.”

It was the first time you remembered her name. “It’s nice,” I said.

“But then I realized,” you said, “probably insulting, a bad place for an eighty-ninth birthday.”

“True,” I said. Headlights veered from the street through the trees, the headstones stock-still in the glare, like deer. I could see the numbers of the dates, the life spans long and not long enough. “Maybe she’ll be buried here,” I said. “We’ll have to visit, bring flowers, make sure there aren’t any condoms on her grave.”

You held my hand tighter, we walked on. You must, Ed, have been thinking about your mom and where, when, she’ll end up. You must then, I hope, have meant some of these things you said.

“Maybe we’ll be buried here,” you said, “and our kids will visit with flowers.”

“Together,” I said, couldn’t help whispering. “Together right here.”

It was that lovely thing, that time so beautiful there, that led me back to your corner, Ed. We stayed there a minute and then kept walking. The grass was thick, we stopped holding hands, but we were together heading to the rest of the bad night.

The Scandinavian Hall looked like shit, the same old shit with halfhearted streamers fluttering on it. The same gargoyle cooing the same green-lit steam was there at the door like a drunk uncle. We walked in together but nobody noticed because somebody was already fighting, or maybe just a table knocked over, and then with an embarrassed smile you jolted away, desperate for a bathroom. Someone’s coat was ruined on a table. I walked blinking, turned aside, past Al, sad in his Pure Evil outft of a blood-splattered clown, sitting silent with Maria and Jordan, who were dressed as Republicans with oil stains and flag pins. I never told you what happened in the cloakroom. But now I’ll tell you because it was nothing. In the cloakroom was the fruit punch in a bowl marked hope, but if no chaperones were looking, the boy ladling it out would turn the lazy Susan around, and an identical bowl would come through the curtain with the spiked stuff. And the boy with the ladle was Joe.

“Hey, Min.”

“Oh, hi.”

“What are you? I know it can’t be Hitler, but it looks like it.”

I sighed. “A prison warden. I lost my hat. You?”

“My mom. Lost my wig.”


“Yeah, oh. Punch? The real stuff ?”

“Yes,” I said. My insides were wild with coffee and the roller-coaster night. I sat down while he poured it.

“Having a good Halloween?” he asked me.


“I’ll drink to that.”

We clinked plastic cups, unsatisfyingly.

“So how’re things?”


“Ed Slaterton, I guess I mean.”

“Yeah, I thought you meant that,” I said.

“Well, everyone’s talking.”

“Give me some more punch,” I said.

Joe obliged me. That had been the problem. “That well, huh?” he said.


“Driving you to drink.”

“I guess,” I said, drinking and gesturing dramatically. “I’m a basketball widow.”

“Is it that bad?”

“No, no. But sometimes. You know, it’s a different thing.”

“Well, I guess you don’t give up at the first sign of trouble,” he said, but he wouldn’t look at me while I blinked at him.

“Sure I do,” I said to him, the closest to sorry I ever got. “What about you? I heard Gretchen Synnit.”

“Nope,” Joe said. “That was just a cast party. I’m dating Mrs Grasso now.”

“Oh, nice. Though I think gym teachers are usually lesbians.”


“Well,” I said, “I’ve slept with them all.”

“That’s why I’m dating Grasso,” Joe said. “To get closer to you.”

“Shut up. You’re not missing me.”

“Not really,” he said. “Though we did say we’d stay friends.”

“We’re friends,” I said. “Look, we’re having an awkward conversation. If that’s not friendship—”

“How about a dance?” he said, and his body teetered to a stand. Very drunk, I realized, but why not? Maybe a dance was what, somewhere for the fury to go. Why not, why the fuck? Why not rise from the grave and terrorize a little instead of staying buried and dead in the cemetery? It was Halloween, and it was “Culture the Vulture” that was booming through the Scandinavian Hall when Joe led me out onto the floor already twirling, the song Joe just loves, the long version we used to listen to on his bedroom floor with shared headphones, my hand resting under his shirt on his smooth belly, driving him crazy, I knew. My unguarded vengeance, unbuttoning my costume for the first time, showing the lining of my dad’s forgotten coat and also what I was wearing beneath it. Which had been for you, Ed, just my best bra. Spinning and defiant in my head, flush with punch. And the unbuttoned coat. And Joe’s breath against me, sweat I could feel down my neck, the pulse of the second verse. And you, of course, you waiting out the song, self-conscious and stricken, Al too, pretending not to stare, staring, while I danced and pretended not to know. Joe dipping me so low my bra threatened fleshy disaster, I felt my heartbeat beating, brave and fierce, my legs liberated and my arms up in the glorious air, the lights glitter in my eyes, my lips open with the lyrics, and all my thinking erased from my skull while the song roared loud and free. Make it gone, is what I felt. Blow it to hell, kick its ass viciously in high heels, ravish it and rip it up, Ball and Bash both, this cavalcade of battering whatnot, fuck it and let it go. Do it different like they tell you you are. I danced and then I was through, done with every scrap of it, across the floor without looking back, not at Joe now alone, nor Al, nor Lauren, Maria, Jordan, anyone, nobody, everyone else. Just you, the thing worth keeping. The night late, the song over, the singer’s last “Madness!” echoingness-ness-ness, and I got to you and met your eyes staring at me in hungry wonder. I knew who you were, Ed Slaterton. I opened my mouth and kissed you then, the first time all night, attacked you and surrendered completely, and let’s get out of here. I’m ready, I’m finished, let’s not break up, no, no. Take me home, my boyfriend, my love.


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