Living in a relatively small city, you’re going to run into people you’ve dated or hooked up with, and it will probably happen often. You might see them at bars or shows, and occasionally you’ll have to awkwardly climb over their legs in order to get to your seat at an artist talk (for a purely random example). Sometimes it’s all cool and friendly so you catch up for a little bit, but it can also be horribly uncomfortable, in which case you just pretend you didn’t notice each other. While thumbing through Julia Arredondo’s illustrated zine “Baltimore Breakups: A Pop-Up Memoir” and reading the brief recollections of her relationships that ended here, I found myself slipping into a reverie of my own experiences and the impressions they’ve left on me.
Arredondo, who went to MICA but now lives in St. Louis, offers snippets of four of her most vividly remembered breakups from the time she spent in Baltimore, devoting just a couple of pages each to Ron, Justin, Dan B., and Dan P. In a few short paragraphs in each section, she describes the guys and the music they were into, while dropping in a line or two about how they were shitty to her (and vice versa), or how things just fizzled out, and ties them all up with lessons she learned from them. Hand-assembled and hand-drawn pop-up scenes illustrate each story, highlighting some of her vulnerable moments—crying outside of Justin’s house while he sits at a desk upstairs in his apartment, or having a tense conversation in a kitchen with Dan B. The pop-ups are fun and inventive, adding meat and humor to the stories.
The narratives are peppered with choppy, romantic (but relatable) hyperbole, giving each story kind of a noir-ish sensibility, along with the black-and-white brick pattern that pervades each scene and the characters’ ’50s-ish retro style. This dark romanticism comes out strongly in the one about Justin; though he seems like a pretty nice dude from her Texas hometown who makes her feel less homesick, she gets caught talking shit about him and they break up. “And I was too caught up in cool, you see, and I got a kick out of badmouthing the men I loved at the time. So when Justin read my journal and saw all the cruel things I had written about him, he sent me away for good.” This, of course, raises the question, “Why was the motherfucker reading her journal?” and makes me think about the power dynamic in this relationship. But she paints herself here as a disempowered woman, which is frustrating but understandable. It’s ingrained in our minds as women that we should accept the blame for every bad thing that happens to us, and while we aren’t given the whole story here, this situation indirectly reminds us of that as the pop-up depicts her standing on the street at night with her diary, wiping tears from her eyes, while hand-cut windows into the rowhomes behind her let us peer into Justin’s mostly empty apartment.
Each recollection feels tempered by distance and the passing of time, which enable a slower read of situations, allowing for a more objective take on what exactly happened. What at first seems unforgivable, or inanely hopeful, later becomes more neutral, more matter-of-fact. In the first story, we see our protagonist talking to Ron, who is stone-faced and behind bars; she has her fingers crossed behind her back. Though Arredondo says that when she talks about Ron, “people get pissed off for me,” her relationship with him taught her how to be more self-sufficient, because once he got arrested (for a crime she doesn’t disclose) and sent back to Texas, she had to figure out living in a new place and paying bills on her own.
Adding a bit of nostalgia, Arredondo references music she used to share with her boyfriends, such as New Order and Chelo Silva. When you’re getting involved with someone, you learn a lot about each other’s tastes—because you like each other and want to know each other better, you share things that you like. Dan B. introduced her to experimental and indigenous music, “breaking down [her] traditional mindset,” but pulls the rug out from under her when he breaks up with her for “someone else who was already up to his speed.” Though she touches on the poor communication she had with Dan P., with whom she had “a tumultuous union,” so that breaking up was “like a sigh of relief,” it seems like the bigger takeaway was how much fun he was, and how he reintroduced her to the punk scene. Near the end, she says, they sent each other songs to communicate with each other, including ‘I Want to Break Free’ by Queen, which appears on a computer screen in Dan P.’s (who sports an excellent/terrible dreaded mullet) apartment as she walks toward the door.
And at the end of the day, after months or years, it’s nice to be able to gloss over what once sucked about a breakup, as Arredondo does here—accepting those parts, but not dwelling in them—and to remember some of the sweet things about the people you once loved: trips you took, songs you liked, conversations you had. We’ll always remember some exes as total jerks, and that’s fine, because chances are good that someone somewhere will think about us in the same way. But not all of them, and thinking about those former lovers can be refreshing, reminding you of important and difficult lessons you learned.