What Was It That Broke You?

By Kate Devine

Illustration by Sarah Hombach


It’s a lamp on a bookshelf in a bathroom. It’s a broken light switch on the wall.

It’s in another house’s backyard. It’s a white cottage built one hundred years ago. It’s a lofted bedroom with steep and narrow stairs. It’s a thin blue carpet. It’s imitation hardwood floors. It’s my boyfriend and I moving in. It’s my boyfriend and I trying to have fun.

It’s him on the patio holding a six pack of beer. It’s cramps in my face. It’s from smiling.

It’s a brown leather couch. It’s mismatched wooden coffee tables. It’s vines of green, leafy plants. It’s filling the refrigerator with ketchup and spinach. It’s my boyfriend and his boxes, his many boxes. It’s me putting tampons in the blender when he isn’t looking. It’s him putting a seltzer bottle in my underwear drawer when I’m not looking. It’s us stressed out in a department store, unable to look at each other, with a shower curtain and frying pans in our cart. It’s borrowing a vacuum from the neighbor. It’s getting away with something small in the self-checkout line. It’s chapstick tucked into an egg carton. It’s the look we exchange in the parking lot.

It’s the ocean a few blocks away. It’s all that matters. It’s waking up those first few mornings to the sound of church bells. It’s me at twenty-five and him and twenty-seven, and our relationship at eight months old.

It’s the first time my mother and father visit. It’s my mother sighing at the dips in the ceiling, the holes in the screen of the storm door. It’s my father asking about the Pitbull and Rottweiler who live next door. It’s weeds growing through paver stones. It’s the contractor’s van in the driveway. It’s the bathroom, where the light switch doesn’t work. It’s when she uses the word “dump,” to describe the place. It’s when she reminds me that her first apartment was over a garage, with my father, just a few blocks away.

It’s the beginning of May. It’s my father not speaking. It’s my father drinking to treat sadness. It’s my father eating pills to treat sadness.

It’s my mother knocking on my door, to bring her sadness to my house. It’s her forehead in her cupped hand. It’s that I don’t know what she’s sad about. It’s her seeking shelter here and her distaste of it. It’s me forgiving her before she apologizes. It’s a daughter who has difficulty believing her mother is ever wrong. It’s a daughter who sides with her mother instead of her father. It’s a daughter who sides with her mother instead of herself.

It’s propping a surfboard against the door frame to keep the dog from running away. It’s the surfboard falling in the wind and the dog running away. It’s another day and the dog running away a second time. It’s picking him up from the Humane Society again. It’s the woman with an electronic cigarette with the paperwork who remembers my name, and Dexter’s name. It’s our landlady’s son building a gate on a sweltering Tuesday.

It’s small problems. It’s the practical solutions falling short. It’s my mother’s words echoing in my ear. It’s the way she sat near the edge of the couch cushion. It’s the way she couldn’t wait to leave.

It’s me, sitting under the window, in our bed, reading about balance. It’s me noticing the way the light glows on these old, cracked walls. It’s me at the hardware store, buying more plants. It’s trying to remember what I’m doing here. It's waiting for my boyfriend to come home.

It’s my boyfriend teaching me how to ride a surfboard. It’s him teaching me how to read the waves. It’s us in the ocean, while the sun sets. It’s me reading him books while he dozes off. It's us in our bed beneath the window, while the sun sets.

It’s my father on a bender. It’s phone calls and concern every time my mother’s face lights up my phone screen. It’s thanking God I’m not living home. It’s worry and panic. It’s sudden when it happens. It’s forced. It’s my father going to treatment.

It’s waking up to the electric colors of early summer. It’s the church bells that chime every hour. It’s trying to count them, to tell the time. It’s the church my father used to take me to. It’s the church a block away from the backhouse where we live in sin.

It’s surprise weeping. It’s feeling guilty like a woman to whom nothing bad has ever happened. It’s weeping because my dad is in Minnesota all by himself, and he’s never been anywhere all by himself. It’s heaving sobs into the cotton of my boyfriend’s blue T-shirt. It’s his hands strong on my shoulder blades. It’s feeling pathetic because my dad is an alcoholic. It’s that his dad is an alcoholic too. It’s that everyone’s dad is an alcoholic too.

It’s the five of us at dinner, eating rubens at the Irish tavern. It’s nobody having a drink. It’s water. It’s water. It’s water for me too. It’s him drinking water in Minnesota. It’s calling his wife to say he’s sorry he’s not there on Father’s Day.

It’s dancing on a Sunday in July. It’s my first time at the dimly lit club on the beach. It’s my boyfriend saying he’s a lifeguard to get us in for free. It’s that he’s not a lifeguard, but looks like one. It’s drinking tequila and dancing to loud music that I’m surprised I enjoy. It’s my boyfriend’s hands on my ass in denim shorts. It’s being the only locals in a club for North Jersey muscle heads who can’t keep their hands to themselves. It’s dancing until my legs are sore. It’s laughing until I can’t see or steer my bicycle down the ocean road back home.

It’s a stolen weekend away in the Catskills. It’s French toast in Woodstock. It’s a vintage shop in Phoenicia. It’s picking ripe strawberries from the hot, dry earth. It’s him singing Strawberry Fields Forever, the entire time. It’s hiking to a fire tower. It’s scraping our names into metal, alongside all the others. It’s drinking a warm beer from a backpack while the sun goes down. It’s driving home to New Jersey when the landlord calls. It’s the landlord asking if we can stay in New York a bit longer. It’s the roof of our house that caved in.

It’s sleeping in my parents’ basement while they put our house back together. It’s my father newly sober. It's his rehab wisdom infiltrating the conversations. It's him assimilating back home. It’s a new home. It’s my mother’s words, “everything is different now.” It’s that I don’t completely believe her.

It’s his best friend’s wedding. It’s Vermont in September. It’s a big covered porch next to Lake Champlain. It’s listening to their vows. It’s the rain pitter pattering. It’s my boyfriend’s eyes tearing up while he watches. It’s me watching him, watching them. It’s wanting his eyes to look at me like that. It’s dinner, a few nights later, when his friend says how great his wife is. It’s that she’s calm, happy, so easy. It’s our little secret shared at the other side of the table. It’s that we have been anything but easy lately.

It’s autumn. It’s the first time I take a pill to treat sadness. It’s my mother taking me for the prescription. It’s my father saying “you’re too young to start taking that shit.”

It’s walks in the woods. It’s walks along the ocean. It’s trying to walk off sadness. It’s walking on the boardwalk with my dad one morning. It’s him standing on a bench to see the ocean. It’s dolphins jumping, it’s their quick flash of gray putty skin. It’s my dad pointing at them, saying “now that’s the good stuff.”

It’s an invasion. It’s mice. It’s eleven mice in one week. It’s my boyfriend with his purple rubber gloves first thing in the morning, emptying the traps. It’s not mentioning the mice when my friend spends the night sleeping on our couch.

It’s two Thanksgivings. It’s my family, early and sober. It’s my dad saying “Every house has a mouse.” It’s later with his family, in a basement in Northern New Jersey. It’s cocktails and red wine and electronic cigarettes passed between mothers and daughters. It’s me squeezing his leg under the table at midnight. It’s me, exhausted and full and drunk and ready to go home.

It’s the last day of the year. It’s an accident. It’s six weeks later and the accident is not there anymore. It’s a clarity that blinded us, that sliced us open, that cleaved the beating heart of the thing. It’s the blur wiped clean from the fog of our vision.

It’s crumbling, crumbling, crumbling. It’s the roof all over again, metaphorically this time. It’s me moving out on a Tuesday in March, after a February that broke us, after a January I slept through. It’s the dried tulip petals on the floor from the last flowers. It’s the garbage can in the corner, in the way of the stove. It’s that we could never get the garbage can placement right. It’s my father carrying my old wooden desk out the door. It’s my father helping me move out, just like he helped us move in. It’s my father’s words in my head, from nearly a year ago, “If it doesn’t work out, you can always come home.” It’s that I did not expect to have to lean on home anymore.

It’s temporary. It’s sharing a room with my sweet sister, like we are little again. It’s time and space and radio silence between the man who used to be my boyfriend and I It’s wondering how it could have been different, how it could have been saved. It’s realizing one day in yoga class, that we didn’t listen to enough Grateful Dead. It’s that I wanted too much. It’s that he didn’t have it to give.

It isn’t any of those things.

It’s the bathroom. It’s the light switch that did nothing. It’s the roof that fell through. It’s a lamp on a bookshelf where it does not belong.

Kate Devine grew up on the shores of New Jersey. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently living, hiking, and writing near open windows in the Hudson Valley. You can keep up with her and her writing on Instagram.