Historic St. Anthony Main always smells like rotting fish. Being near the Mississippi would be bad enough on its own, but all of the canals and rivulets they created in order load Pillsbury flour onto barges only amplifies the problem. If you walk down the trails below Father Hennepin Park, you can sometimes get a glimpse of a gull tearing apart a catfish behind the obscuring mantilla of a man-made estuary, the carcass fermenting and baking in the summer sun. Minnesota’s own katsuobushi.
That’s about the only complaint I could make about St. Anthony Main. The brick boulevard – or are they cobblestone? – gives it an idyllic quality, one that’s only enhanced by the view of the Stone Arch Bridge and the distant lights of downtown Minneapolis, a view that gets sweeter as the evening turns into night. And there’s always something to watch: dedicated joggers with fluorescent shoes and awkward running motions; dog walkers, sticking out for their attempts to be inconspicuous, as they bag up their civic duty; and couples, some stalked by photographers, others trailed by posers, all in search of the perfect façade.
She’d wanted to meet down at Aster Café, so that’s where I waited for her arrival, watching couple after couple gaze wistfully at each other with the Guthrie in blatant view behind them. She was running late. “My phone has been dead all day so I’m gonna let it get a bit of juice and then I’ll be heading out real soon.”
“Okay,” I replied. “You’ll narrowly miss happy hour, but that’s okay.”
“Poop. Did they have apps on happy hour? No, don’t tell me. It will be better if I don’t know.”
I checked my watch: fifteen minutes til last call. So I motioned that waitress over and ordered two cheese plates and a flatbread. I asked her to wait as long as possible before putting in the order. She ignored the last request, and the food came out within minutes.
My phone buzzed again. “Perhaps I’ll get some sweet potato fries….”
“If they have them….”
“Which they probably don’t.”
They did not.
I thought I’d be feeling nervous or excited, but I wasn’t. I felt nothing, just an emptiness where I anticipated a feeling. Confusion found itself sucked into that vacuum. History was screaming at me to feel something, anything at all. Seeing her was never without jitters of some kind: even if it wasn’t always excitement, there would at least be a sense of anticipation. But now, as I waited for (…my friend? It felt like an abuse of the term. My ex? I could never get comfortable with that expression, either…) this woman I hadn’t seen in months, ambivalence was all I could summon to feel.
One Sunday this last January, before all the college kids came back to school, I decided to sleep in on Sunday morning expecting to be able to hit up the evening service at church. It was one of those blistering winter days where the temperature dipped to 20 below before the sun went down. I took the 16 to the Metrodome station and walked the half mile to the Hope East building, but when I got there all the lights were out: I’d forgotten they don’t have a third service over winter break. Expecting the warmth of both the building and people who cared for me, I found instead an empty building, cold and dark. So I trudged back to the Metrodome and waited under heat lamps for the next 16 to take me home.
None of that is to say our dinner was bad. It wasn’t. It was all pleasant, and sometimes exceptional. We laughed together in a way we hadn’t in months, maybe years. But my stomach didn’t rise into my throat when she finally walked up to the table. My hair didn’t stand on end when she brushed up against me on our saunter over the bridge. My heart didn’t flutter when she hugged me goodbye. The only emotion I felt was a vague sadness that this person, once so special, so primary to me, was now just another person.
There’s a scene in the movie Swingers, arguably its climax, where two friends are talking about how to move on from a relationship. Rob, played by Ron Livingston, tries to point Jon Favreau’s Mike to the future. “You gotta get on with your life. You gotta let go of the past. And Mikey, when you do, I’m telling you: the future is beautiful, all right? Look out the window. It’s sunny every day here. It’s like manifest destiny. And everything that is past is prologue to this.”
Mike, though, is preoccupied with the hurdle instead of the finish line. “How did you get over it? I mean, how long did it take?”
“Sometimes it still hurts,” he admits. “You know how it is, man. It’s like, you wake up every day and it hurts a little bit less, and then you wake up one day and it doesn’t hurt at all. And the funny thing is… this is kinda weird, but it’s like, it’s like you almost miss that pain.”
“You miss the pain?”
“Yeah, for the same reason you that you miss her. Because you lived with it for so long.”
Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, said, “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.” That’s in every way beautiful and optimistic. And yet it’s still so confusing to expect to feel and feel nothing, to long for an ache of nostalgia that’s nowhere to be found. Maybe emptiness is another word for the readiness to be filled.