When some still-unidentified Englishman broke up with Adele Adkins, she turned her heartbreak into art, into the 11 songs that would become the album 21. When a blue-eyed attorney broke up with me, I turned my heartbreak into a human-shaped sofa dent and watched six seasons of “Hoarders.” This is probably why Adele is a single-named superstar with 10 Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar while no one knows my name except the pizza delivery guy, and even he’s stopped making eye contact.
Last December, I bought tickets for one of Adele’s immediately sold-out concerts in Nashville and, after 11 straight months of listening to songs from her most recent record, 25, and thinking about my breakups, I flew to Tennessee last weekend to, um, listen to songs from 25 and think about my breakups.
Everyone knows what they’re getting at an Adele concert, which even she described from the stage as being “basically 20 songs about my ex-boyfriend.” In between songs, she talked about the events that inspired her to write the kind of lyrics that can make your memories twist open a bottle of Ibuprofen. And that’s part of her appeal: She doesn’t pretend that these are just songs, she doesn’t act like she’s over it (unless she really is) and — unlike, say, Taylor Swift — she doesn’t act like a carefully curated version of herself. She also swears like a character from a Quentin Tarantino film, which is endearing.
“Have any of you ever been in a relationship that was about to end?” she asked about halfway through the show. “Of course you have. Why else would you be here?”
The majority of the crowd applauded that line, but I didn’t know whether to clap. When my last long-term relationship ended, I didn’t see it coming. He and I had been together more than four years, and it ended with a Dylan Thomas-worthy whimper, without shouts or accusations or expletives yelled in all capital letters.
It ended because, at that moment, we realized we didn’t enjoy each other anymore.
It ended on an otherwise uneventful Sunday morning, sound-tracked by the scraping of breakfast dishes and a CBS “Sunday Morning” interview with Michael Bolton. He and his forehead veins were talking about his stupid, constipated love songs while my ex-boyfriend — he’d just at that moment become my ex-boyfriend — stood on the other side of the kitchen.
He stretched a dishtowel between his hands and I stared at the floor. I looked for the seams on either side of the wallpaper panels, trying to figure out where they would start to come apart. I couldn’t find them, and that seemed symbolic somehow.
In our next conversation several days later, we promised that we’d still be friends, but being friends after a breakup feels so awkward. It’s like wearing a shirt from a factory outlet: It doesn’t take long for you to find the parts that don’t fit together like they should. For the next few months, I listened to Adele and I slept on my own sofa and I watched a team of men in respirators pull a dozen dead cats out of a broken refrigerator.
We small-talked our way through a couple of post-breakup meals and a few phone calls, the kind where the sentences are punctuated with the same unwritten subtext: without me. Have a good week (without me). Hope the party goes well (without me). Hope your psoriasis is healing (without me).
Eventually those calls grew less frequent. I peeled myself off the couch and slept in my own bed. And I stopped using heartbreak like a base camp where I had to start and end every single day. At the concert, I thought about him while Adele belted out “Someone Like You” — of course I did — not because we broke up, but because I realized I was sitting beside what would’ve happened if we hadn’t.
The two of them were in their fifties. They had serious Louisiana accents and left enough room for you to stretch your legs between the syllables of every word — not that they spoke to each other at all. Before the show started, she called her friends, she took pictures of the stage and posted Facebook updates. He sat silently daydreaming about being somewhere more pleasant, like one of those rivers where poisonous fish invade your urethra.
There are worse things than breaking up, and sometimes that’s staying together. Adele and I both understand that now, although it took us several years to get there. She’s moved on, recently celebrating her fifth anniversary with her boyfriend Simon Konecki, and I’m in a committed relationship with my ragweed allergy.
After two hours, Adele disappeared from the stage as thousands of pieces of white confetti fluttered to the floor of the arena. None of it made it to my balcony seat, but I picked up a piece on the sidewalk outside.
“We could’ve had it all,” it said. Maybe we did. And I’ll have it again, someday.
Jelisa Castrodale is a freelance writer who lives in Winston-Salem. She enjoys pizza, obscure power-pop records and will probably die alone. Follow her on Twitter: @gordonshumway.