So he's gone away, not for ever (I keep reminding myself) but for long enough, and I'm going round to his house to pick up the eggs that he left in his fridge because he didn't want to admit he was going away for long enough to have to clear out the perishable food.
"I am going round to pick up the eggs," I say, a little too loudly, as I scrabble around in the pot by the door for my house-keys, his house-keys, my car-keys. "And perhaps my Sandman novels, because I want to re-read them," I say, throwing on socks and shoes and coats in haphazard heaps of mismatched warmth, and the mismatch does not matter (and the warmth does) because he will not be there.
I am not going round to his house to inhale great gasping lungfuls of the scent of him, I am not going there to pick at the still-raw wound of his absence. Books and eggs. That's all. Don't let them become too significant: don't let the books become stories we've shared; don't let the eggs become breakfasts we didn't share, or -- god help us -- symbols of something else.
I start the car, its engine coughing in the misty darkness. Autumn surprised us; it stole him and the summer away with one clammy breath. The radio blares into life, playing something offensively inoffensive; I want him to be there to laugh out loud as I rant at the radio. If I leave the music playing, perhaps the noise will fill the empty spaces; or perhaps it will only serve to remind me that I can't perform to an absent audience -- without him, I can't think of anything with which to berate the bland boy-band. I leave the music playing.
God, but I drive badly. I drive with one hand on the top of the wheel and the other hand on the gear-stick, like a boy racer, and if I did that when he was there he'd laugh and probably act the part of the boy racer's girlfriend for a moment and then I'd flip into some other role and he'd pick up another role and we'd play at being real people just like kids playing make-believe or like adults who know that life is just playing make-believe for higher stakes. But he's not here, so there's nobody to make me stop driving like an idiot, and I stop anyway because it's stupid, but I feel let-down, as if I've been acting up to get my parents' attention and they've completely failed to notice. Yes dear. Without him I'm just a child showing off to an empty room. Really dear? That's nice. Now go show your dad.
I've driven this route so many times, in so many states of mind, that I can practically scrape the emotions off the road along with all the other things that have been knocked sideways by the speed of things they don't understand. Here's the frustration and the first-night nerves; there's the marks on the road where love ran out in front of us and we were going so fast we couldn't stop. I've seen the windscreen blurred with tears, traffic lights sparkling and leaking red into the road. I could drive this route with my eyes shut. But I try to go into these things with my eyes open.
My heart leaps at the light in his window, before my head remembers: he leaves his house in half-light (or half-darkness?) all the time, as if not quite wanting to trust the sunlight, not quite willing to acknowledge the darkness outside. There are streetlamps, and lighted windows, and there are leaves that the wet wind scatters around my feet, swirling orange and brown in the sodium light, and he isn't here to understand why I want to kick up the leaves and scuff my feet against the pavement, and he isn't here to understand why I don't do it after all. So I don't half-say something about not splashing through the same puddle twice, and he doesn't grin and hug me fiercely and tell me he loves me, because he's gone away (but not for ever).
I let myself into the empty house. I want to be able to say that his absence hits me like a blast of cold air, or something dramatic like that, but it's not true; it creeps up on me like the slow grey emptiness of dawn. The house is tidier than usual, because he knows he has to be ready to move out; but anybody can tell that the house doesn't want to be moved out of. It looks like he hastily tried to pack his life into a suitcase but had to jump on the suitcase to get all his presence and personality in, and though he's just about got it closed there are colourful shiny things sticking out at all the edges, and the case looks set to burst any minute, just like I'm set to burst into tears.
So I go to the fridge and I get the eggs, which are only a day or two off their sell-by date, but he'll be gone for longer than a day or two (but not for ever). There's a cheesecake, too, that we bought and didn't eat; it still looks okay, though not quite as appetising as when we threw it in the trolley in some late-night supermarket. I throw out some bacon with mould growing on it, and it doesn't make me remember the breakfast he cooked for us on the day he went away, because I didn't have any bacon then, so that's all right. I put the cheesecake and the eggs on the kitchen unit, and suddenly all the times I've moved house come flooding in like the cold refrigerator light illuminating all those hopeless left-over meals, and thankfully it's only moving house that it makes me think of because by the time we came to clear out my great-grandmother's house the food had already been thrown away and my mum and I were left with just the letters and books and photographs and the cracked pots and pans; but moving house is bad enough, all those cardboard boxes and goodbyes, and I'm leaning over the sink crying for him because he's gone away.
I run up to his bedroom and I throw myself down on his bed, and I would say his name but it sounds so pathetic talking out loud to myself in an empty room, so I just cry a little more, but not much because I've pretty much run out of tears, and after all he hasn't gone away for ever. I wish there was something I could tidy in the bedroom to justify my being there, but there isn't; he's already thrown out the flowers that I put there in a Coke glass. Well, they were mostly dead. I pick up my Sandman novels from the bedside table where they've lain for weeks, and I've stuffed them into my bag before I can think about all the times I've idly re-read bits of them while curled up waiting for him to come back upstairs with huge mugs of coffee and maybe cream cakes for breakfast.
There's a pile of clothes on the table, and on top of the pile of clothes is one of his favourite jumpers, and just looking at it I can feel his arms around me. I bury my face in the rough grey-green wool and it smells so much of him that I feel I could reach out and hold him. I want to take the jumper with me, something to hold now that he's gone away (but not for ever), but I worry that he'd think it was creepy for me to be going through his clothes and smelling them when he's not there. And when I think about it, it is a bit weird, though (I tell myself) no more so than Renaissance lovers carrying snippets of their beloved's hair around in lockets and bracelets; but anyway, I put the jumper down and walk out of the bedroom. I manage to go about three paces before something makes me turn round, go back in, pick up the jumper and then run out of the room and down the rattling stairs.
I'm clutching his jumper and my bag with my house-keys and his house-keys and my car-keys, and suddenly I just need to get out of his house before it suffocates me with hopeless longing, and I don't seem to have enough hands to gather up all my stuff and lock the door but somehow I bundle myself into the car and start the engine and drive, drive away, trying not to look back like I usually do to see if he's watching me leave, though he never is, but I always look anyway.
Somewhere on the journey back home, the journey which I could drive in my sleep, I realise what it is that I'm feeling: it's not some kind of nameless emotional ache, it's more like hunger, gnawing away inside me. It's a concrete physical need, and I know what I need to fill it. I'm not going to cry again, not while I'm driving, but I drive angrily as if trying to brush the tears away before anybody notices, and my mind is elsewhere all the way home, until I'm fumbling my keys into the lock with my head all blurry and my eyes all prickly and when my housemate shouts through from the living room where he's watching TV "Did you get the eggs?" it seems to take me an age (but not for ever) to work out what on earth he's talking about, and when I realise that the eggs are still sitting there forlorn on the kitchen unit in an empty house I don't know whether to laugh or just to put my head in my hands and cry until I can't cry any more.