The parting shot landed, with precision. A knockout blow. Bloody and brutal - exactly as intended.
Enjoy your four walls," he boomed. "Who're you gonna fight with now?" As it turned out, I had a very worthy opponent - for a few wretched bouts at least. I was locked up, in a cage fight, with myself.
Break-ups are never easy. They are often messy tangles of rage, relief, sadness and longing. But when the rupture happens just as the world as we know it seems to be crumbling all around us - in a global pandemic - a break-up feels catastrophic. The stakes feel so high. Yet, when a friend wondered, "Would you not have rode it out for the lockdown? At least you'd have company..." it struck me how very different we are.
I'll admit that right then my world, within and without, felt like it had shattered into smithereens. I'd asked my only cellmate to leave - with no inkling of the length of my sentence. It was slap-bang in the middle of the lockdown with no visitors' book to leaf through or weekend release to hang my hat on. Here I was, suddenly alone, in an alien, demolished landscape, surveying the wreckage with nothing but time - oh-so-much time - in which to do it.
I know I'm one of the lucky ones. I wasn't in a violent or a coercive relationship. I wasn't trapped with a bully, with children to worry about. My heart goes out to the men and women for whom this pandemic has been a daily living nightmare. I count my blessings. The Covid-19 phrase doing the rounds of us all being in this storm together, but all in very different boats, resonates because it's so true.
But I kicked myself for being so bloody stupid. How did I imagine we could last this epic voyage? It had been a whirlwind romance. We'd moved in together quickly, back in December. Even then, there was a crack that needed attention but we had papered it over, and on calm, sunny days, we bobbed along quite blissfully. But we'd never been through a storm.
As a features writer used to hitting the road for stories at the drop of a hat, work was falling off a cliff. I was ticking over but, like most people, I found the forced hibernation's new rhythm deeply claustrophobic and frustrating. Not to mention every day being anchored by the morning news bulletins' menacing medley of panic, anxiety and doom.
But as it hit home to all of us that Covid-19 was a very real enemy, stalking and ravaging our most vulnerable, nothing mattered except keeping ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbours safe. We had no choice but to batten down the hatches and ride it out. We made peace with that.
Admittedly, my own nest felt pretty feathered, especially when compared with friends trying to juggle full-time work and childcare. I had my dog, Sonny Jim, to mind - but he doesn't do tantrums. Being honest, in the early days, I felt myself and Mr Magic had this lockdown malarkey cracked. We decided to make the most of this strange time, this "new normal". We sat up late, put the world to rights, listened to music, watched films. He played guitar - I tried. One sunny afternoon, a balcony music session lured the neighbours out with their instruments, flash-mob style. Most nights he'd cook restaurant-level fare while I poured the drinks. A lot of drinks.
Sure, there were blazing rows, walk-outs even, but we were settling into the voyage. Or were we? Maybe that's just the old rose-tinted-glasses trick. Life in lockdown is akin to sliding every element of your life under a microscope. Nothing escapes its forensic scrutiny. So whether you're alone, coupled up or living with a gaggle of kids, your ship better be in good shape - the big, important parts at least - to last the voyage.
It turned out the crack we'd papered over was slap-bang in the middle of the hull. It wasn't going to mend itself; and we hadn't packed the right tools. Inevitably, we started to take on water, lots of water, and, as the hurricane raged, our ship started to sink. It wasn't pretty.
The kindness between us exited via the open back doors, and the next day the block caretaker knocked in to ask if everything was okay, that there had been a report about some noise. I told him I'd broken up with my boyfriend and he didn't live here anymore. It was enough to melt even his habitually cranky features into something resembling sympathy. He nodded, like someone giving condolences at a funeral. What had I let myself in for?
I'd only been chatting to a friend a few days before the split about how hard it must be to lock down alone. We'd both had our stints of being happily single and loving our own space but we both agreed, on this occasion at least, company was best. They say the grass is always greener and, for better or worse, I was about to find out. I felt cheated. Just as everyone I knew seemed to be coming to terms with the rhythm of their "new normal", I had fallen down a chute, Snakes & Ladders-style, and found myself right back at the start. But it wasn't being alone that bothered me.
Years ago I took a crazy notion to go on an 11-day silent (no talking, no eye contact) Vipassana meditation retreat. After the initial shock to the system, I found I loved this solo deep dive, and kept meaning to do another. What made this imposed isolation so disorientating was the inner battle with myself, the self-questioning that's part and parcel of any relationship breakdown, but here it was being played out against the unforgiving backdrop of an outer world that offered nothing by way of distraction, solace or even optimism.
The usual safety valves were closed off. There were no cocktails in the sunshine with friends to help blow off the heartbreak, no weekends away or holidays on the horizon. My friends were on speed-dial but boozy Zoom nights just didn't cut it - although my brother's 40th-birthday bash, hosted from his Barcelona apartment, with locked-down family and friends tuning in from far-flung places, was a special night.
The immediate aftermath was a bit of a hazy fug. It felt like how I imagine coming off drugs feels like. He hung in the air. Even the music I love - we loved - was a constant reminder. So I fired back up my defunct Spotify, set up new playlists and played them very loud. It was tough not to overthink with all this time on my hands. I did some work and tried to do some personal scribbling. I did a 30-day yoga course on YouTube, plinked on the guitar a bit, and busied myself with lockdown chores everyone else had done weeks before, like decluttering drawers, bagging up clothes for the charity shop and rearranging my bedroom.
Sonny Jim - as anyone locking down with a pet knows - was a godsend. Cuddles aside, he doubled as my personal trainer, making sure I got lots of walks and fresh air. One sunny afternoon he even managed to sniff out some cocktails after making friends with a cocker spaniel called Ben whose dog momma was also going through a break-up and had a friend who worked in my favourite cocktail bar. Frozen margaritas in the park could be arranged. Good boy, Sonny Jim.
There were impromptu, socially distanced wine nights with neighbours in the communal garden. A chink of light shot through the darkness. Restrictions started lifting. Friends were finally within reach, although hugs weren't yet allowed. For now, at least, we were slowly coming out of this.
I wouldn't recommend breaking up in lockdown but, for me, it was the right decision. If ever there was a time to clear away the rubble, to start again, to build anew upon solid ground, it's now. A strange thing happened during my time in solitary confinement. One morning, in that foggy space between dreaming and the dawn, I found myself remembering the first time I had ever felt truly lonely. I was 13. My mother and brothers had gone away to visit her best friend, Myra, and her two boys in Roscommon for the weekend. I was allowed to stay home alone with my friend, whose mother kept a keen eye on us. I counted down the days leading up to their departure. Freedom. But by Sunday I was watching the clock, pining for their return. Of course, the next day, I realised brothers and mothers are highly annoying and I wished them gone again.
A few days after this trip down memory lane - a memory my 13-year-old self had filed away until now - my brother in Barcelona sent me a flurry of WhatsApp messages. One was a photograph of my mother with Myra's dog Sparky, taken on that same visit when I was home alone. Another was a copy of the handwritten letter my mother sent to Myra asking if it suited for to visit that weekend. Out of the hundreds of letters my mother and her best friend had exchanged since they were teenagers, for some reason Myra plucked out this one to send to my brother, as she did her own lockdown trawls through her memory boxes.
A few weeks after that trip to Roscommon, my late mother was diagnosed with cancer. I'm not sure what it means, but it felt like a letter from heaven. A letter that seemed to say, count your blessings. You're healthy, you're strong - and it's time to build again.