It’s Not Over Until You Leave
His Animal Crossing Island
by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣
It’s a deceptively sunny day. The light brightens the colors of the changing leaves across the street from my apartment, making the world seem awash in warmth, but the temperature has dropped into the forties. A gentle patter of rain washes over the island, watering my plants and making them sparkle. It’s past time for me to leave.
I didn’t mean to stay for this long. I might have left the island like my ex did, by omission, if there hadn’t been an update. Stepping foot on the island once more, I found it overgrown with weeds and my house overrun with roaches. As it turned out, much of the update didn’t affect me since I was not the resident representative: the first player to arrive on the island. Still, islanders could now invite me into their house and even enter mine. I could stretch with them in the town square with light, although surprisingly involved, calisthenics. I could still see smoke rising from the chimney of my ex’s house, although I knew if I went inside, it would be empty.
My first day on the island was on my second date with T___, who would become my fifth ex. He had bought Animal Crossing: New Horizons when it was released, and within two months, he had abandoned his island, the Dojo.
Until then, my experience of Animal Crossing was through the Wii game City Folk and the phone app Pocket Camp. My introduction to City Folk was in my early teens, although I played during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college when I wasn’t sure what was worse: returning to campus or staying in my parents’ home. The latter was about half a year after graduation, in the winter of 2020, when a friend downloaded the Pocket Camp app and convinced me to join them.
When the pandemic began to spread in the U.S. and I was laid off the first time, Pocket Camp became my way of marking time. Every three hours, tasks and items would reset. Every three hours, I would make the rounds — talking to campsite visitors and fulfilling their tasks, collecting the bugs from Sunburst Island, the fish at Lost Lure Creek, the fruit at Breezy Hollow. The tasks filled ten, maybe fifteen minutes at a time, but they were a reassurance that time was continuing despite the vacuum of structure left by sudden unemployment. Between Pocket Camp check-ins, I would cook food, text former coworkers for any sliver of sense about what had happened and what would come next, text friends to share worries and little life updates. My apartment walls became the barely permeable boundaries of my life, and everything within them felt suddenly larger, more significant and granular.
I met T___ on Tinder one day after being laid off, and we had our first virtual date the next day. We joked about the absurdity of an April Fool’s Day anniversary, but the silliness felt sweet and refreshing. For the first month and a half, we video called and texted and read Pachinko together. My coworkers and I were rehired, although speculation about stability continued. I met T___ in person in May, first at the park and then at his apartment, where he set up an account for me on his Switch and introduced me to his New Horizons island.
When I arrived on the Dojo, half of the island was inaccessible, hidden behind steep, unscalable cliffs. Instead of pre-placed stone bridges, I had to pole vault across the river. With few tools, a twenty-item inventory, and sizable house debt to tanuki landlord Tom Nook, I began fishing and excavating fossils. When my small inventory was full, I ran to Blathers at the museum. This iteration of Blathers was gentler than I remembered, his feathers textured almost like felt. Tom Nook was similarly soft, his fur more like a plush toy than the smooth, rounded rendering from City Folk, and he sat behind a desk in a tent rather than pacing his wood cabin shop.
My time on the Dojo began in earnest after I was laid off the second time. I had moved in with T____, although that implies too much intention. Perhaps this: I was lonely in my apartment, and he seemed to like having me in his.
I received the call on my way to the bathroom in early June. The PPP loan my coworkers and I had been brought back on had run out. They were planning on calling everyone separately, so could I please not talk to anyone else about what happened yet. T____ told me he was sorry, then returned to his work. I don’t remember how the rest of the afternoon went, but I remember sitting on the patch of carpet that stuck out from the couch, staring towards my laptop screen without seeing anything on it.
My days flattened. Preparing and eating lunch during T____’s lunch hour. Fishing and catching bugs on the Dojo and bringing them to Blathers to donate if they were the first catch of the species and to Tom Nook to sell if they weren’t. Scrolling through dozens of job listings. Planting, watering, and cross-pollinating flowers until black roses, purple and green mums, orange and purple hyacinths began to spawn. Applying to the few jobs that didn’t seem like scams. Earning and saving up Nook Miles to visit other islands, bringing back non-native flowers and fruit when they appeared, and delighting when I stumbled across a bamboo island. Preparing dinner after T____ logged off work. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, he taught at the real dojo his family owned, and we ate dinner once he returned. It was almost always stir-fry those days. Other days it was steak or bulgogi his father gave us or frozen fare heated in the oven — a vestige of who he was before he met me, which is to say someone who had no interest in learning to cook. When I think of eating with T____, I think of how my eyes burned from stir-fry onions until I cried.
After little discussion, T____ and I agreed I would break my lease for the studio apartment I signed just before the pandemic began in the U.S. and officially move in with him. I wanted things to work between us, and he still liked having me in his apartment, although that may imply too much passion. Perhaps this: he was used to having me in his apartment, and I didn’t have a sufficient, stable source of income to afford rent at the studio.
T____ told me he didn’t really care about how the apartment was laid out, so I could do what I wished to make myself at home. At the time, the headboard of his bed was pushed against an obtrusion in his bedroom wall — the chimney of a closed-off fireplace. The obtrusion in turn made the bed jut further into the room, creating little space between the foot of the bed and the desk, the left side of the bed and clothing shelves, the right side of the bed and drawers for more clothes. I suggested we better organize the shelves, move them to the other side of the room, and push the bed into the far corner so it would not protrude into the floor space as much. That was too much trouble, so the bed stayed where it was.
I moved my things into T____’s apartment over the course of June and July. First my clothes, then books, and finally, in several hours with a U-Haul truck, my bed, bookcases, keyboard, and guitar. My bookcases, which once stood side by side on the wall opposite my bed, were shoved into the far corners of his living room and dining room. To reach them, I had to skirt around either the bulky blue reclining chair or the folding table T____ used as a work desk in the dining room. The guitar and piano joined the dining room bookcase and gathered dust for nearly a year. T____ never wanted to hear me play, and playing in his apartment without invitation felt like trespassing.
My bed, however, became the bed we slept on, although we still used his mattress. I was glad to be rid of his bed. The minimalist metallic frame cut into the soles of my feet when I rested them off the side. And in the middle of the night, I believe in July, I got up to go to the bathroom, and, after I rose from his bed and opened the bedroom door, T____ rushed at me, pinning me against the wall and choking me as I screamed for him to recognize me. Afterward, he insisted it would not happen again, that I had frightened him, that it was merely a fight-or-flight reaction. I insisted he needed to address his willingness to hurt me, that his actions lasted far longer than any fight-or-flight instinct should. He told me, impatience creeping in, that it would not happen again. I had trouble sleeping in his bed afterward.
Since we were already changing the bed, I asked again if we could move it into the far corner. Sure, he told me, since we were moving the bed anyway. I don’t remember, when T____ stood discomfited in the doorway and admitted he had lied about his continued nicotine use, if I was sitting on his bed or mine. I only remember sitting there for an hour afterward, unable to discern anything but the bedsheets under me as I tried to understand why he blamed me for his decision to lie.
On the Dojo, however, I had paid off most of my own home debts and had earned the construction of three rooms jutting off the main living room. I decided the back room would be the bedroom, the westwardly room a bathroom, and the easterly room a kitchen, and I set out purchasing and building the furniture necessary to make the rooms into themselves. I pushed a blue imperial bed against the far wall of the bedroom — the room was decorative, since Animal Crossing player characters do not need sleep, so floor accessibility mattered less — and lined the side walls with an antique wardrobe and vanity. The bathroom and kitchen were slower to materialize as I bided my time for a shower and bathtub, a refrigerator, and a brick oven to appear among the ever-changing inventory at Tom Nook’s shop. While I waited, I perused game guides for cross-pollinating flowers. Cosmos were the native flower of the island, and to fill out the roster of possible colors, I purchased what seeds were available from Tom Nook and bided my time for Leif, the traveling gardener, to make his appearance in the town square and sell a rotation of rarer non-native seeds. Starter hyacinths continued to elude me, but cross-pollinating flowers required daily watering, giving me purpose as I traversed the island. As an additional treat, I ran into islanders’ homes, watering can disappearing from my hand upon entry, in the hopes they were at their crafting stations and would gift me a recipe for a kitchenette or ironwood table and chairs. The latter reminded me of the SKOGSTA IKEA table I found when browsing for what could replace the folding table in the dining room, although that might imply teamwork and consensus beyond what T____ and I achieved. Perhaps this: I still hoped T____ would entertain a conversation about the dining room beyond a shrug and “whatever you think would work.”
T____ did end up replacing the dining room table, eventually. Excavating the exact date of anything from that relationship is difficult, but here is what I know. September 12, T____ and I received what would become my cat, and in the earliest photos of Toaster, the folding table is present. The next photos, dated September 13, show Toaster’s head peeking over the top of the dining room table T____’s father dropped off. It was a family friend’s — or his parents’ — but regardless, it was no longer wanted. T____ had promised we could get a new dining room table with the signing bonus from his new job — one where we could both work so I no longer had to sit on the floor at the living room coffee table or be exiled to the second-floor desk in the bedroom.
By that time, I had cleaned up the boxes and deconstructed shelving T____ left piled in the dining room, swept the floor, pulled the folding table out into the middle of the room, and placed the wooden coffee table I’d brought from my old apartment against the wall. I decorated the table with a wood print I bought while in Shanghai, red lacquer wood figurines of a dragon and dragon turtle my roommate brought back for me from San Francisco’s Chinatown, a painted glass bottle my American father told me was from China, and a small dish from Wing On Wo & Co filled with water. I didn’t have any photos of my Chinese family, but it was the closest I could get to making a shrine for them. I was looking for tables that would complement the design of the coffee table, and I sent him several we could consider together. But when his family friend — or parents — told him about this table, he agreed to take it. He told me about this table the same way he always told me his brother would be coming by to pick something up: after he had already decided it worked for him. When his father arrived, I saw the table was too small for both of us to work there together. Because of its lack of space, T____ began to pile his papers onto the coffee table shrine.
I don’t remember if, by that time, I had unlocked the upstairs and basement in my house on the Dojo or if I was still working towards them. I believe I must have unlocked them — transforming the upstairs into a study and chore station and the basement into a secondary living room and craft station — since I had turned my attention to the external achievement of improving the island rating. I invited more characters onto the island, planted more trees and flowers — even the elusive hyacinths — and began saving up for bridges and inclines to reach the higher half of the island. As I checked guides to improve one’s island rating, I constructed and laid out fencing to create an imperial fence tea garden complete with white roses and a stone table and chairs, as well as a zen fence rock garden filled with stone benches, ample bamboo trees, a cypress bathtub, and an outdoor bath. Walking around the Dojo felt like an accomplishment, like how I imagined people who pruned bonsai trees felt upon looking at their tiny, sculpted collaborations.
In his apartment, the TV was the next thing T____ changed. I was working at the desk upstairs when I heard a heavy thud in the living room. Toaster had stood on his hind legs and pushed the TV over, popping the screen out of one corner. Popping it back in left a black semi-circle that clung to the top edge of the screen like a water droplet that would never fall. T____ looked into what kind of TV he wanted, and soon afterward, it appeared, along with a stand from his parents’ house that was unwieldy for the tiny living room. Unlike anything else in the apartment, it was shiny and black with rounded corners. The mounting stand raised the TV just high enough that it couldn’t fit under the fireplace mantle, forcing the base to cut into the walking space between the coffee table and the TV Instagram tells me Toaster broke the TV the week of October 25, but I no longer remember when the new TV appeared. The corner of the old TV sits barely in-frame in a photograph taken November 18, and by December 6, the new TV appears in the background of another. I imagine he bought it during a Black Friday sale. With the overconfidence of hindsight, I know I should have ended things then.
It’s difficult to sort through the arguments, to compartmentalize and order them neatly into a definitive timeline. If I took all of them and placed them in a sifter, and shook, then tapped the sides to separate the smallest sources of pain from the largest, I don’t know what would fall and what would remain. The collective lies, first about the nicotine use, then about the COVID safety precautions he claimed were taken at the dojo. The nighttime attack, after which he became annoyed that I was still nervous to sleep beside him, to go to the bathroom at night, to be in his apartment. The disregard for safety precautions for the holidays and the condescension towards any attempt to compromise. Those I could make sense of when I tried. Those were about actions, mine and his, that frayed or intruded upon each other. I did not understand when he revealed his insistence that trans women were not women, his condescension towards nonbinary people, his unwillingness to believe that gender could exist outside a binary. I had told him from the start I was nonbinary. And though he still wanted sex, he insisted I was no longer attractive to him if I was foolish enough to believe I was what he considered a made-up identity.
When I begged him to be kinder about people’s identities, about my own identity, he told me, Ask anyone I know, and they’ll tell you I’m a kind person.
– That doesn’t make you a kind person. (This was a mistake because I became unkind for the mere suggestion.)
– It’s not kind to be transphobic. (This was a mistake because he would deny being transphobic. When I pointed out how, definitionally, he was, he would simply grin and say, Fine, then I’m transphobic. Kindness was no longer in question.)
– Do they know how you treat me?
Once I’d cried enough to weigh on his conscience, he would relent and promise to be kinder. I clung to his promises, gathered them up and laid them out as the new foundation of our relationship. With every argument, I laid them out again in the hope they would be strong enough to stand on. With the clarity of hindsight it’s difficult to justify, to myself and to others, why I stayed.
When he broke up with me, it was over my suggestion we begin discussing safety precautions for Christmas.
I can’t do this anymore, he told me.
I would be happier with someone else, he told me.
When I went up to the bedroom, my friend called me after receiving my text about the breakup. This doesn’t even matter, I told A____ as snot dripped down my upper lip, but I’m going to miss the Animal Crossing island.
Steal his Switch! A____ told me. It’s one of two times I remember laughing that month.
Most love, for me, dulls in hindsight. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism, since, to explain this hurt, I would have to convince myself all over again that I loved him and risk feeling it all again with proximity, with keenness. What I can say is this: The pain, reverberating out from my chest, was enough to bring me to the floor. I wish I could explain my love for him outside the context of the pain I felt when it fell apart. Back then, I wished it could get better, that I had not made yet another mistake in who I trusted enough to love.
He left that evening, taking a duffel bag, his work computer, a few changes of clothes. He didn’t say how long he’d be staying at his parents’ house. I don’t remember if he took his Xbox, but he left his Switch.
His apartment became a hollowed-out husk of our relationship, littered with reminders and vestigial habits. I still sat on my side of the couch, closer to the dining room. I still slept on my side of the bed, farthest from the door. I could not bring myself to work at the dining room table. I left his toothbrush in the mug on the bathroom sink counter. He would come to visit, sometimes, but it was not sustainable. I took his visits for chances to address what had happened, to repair and heal. He took our breakup as the reason he did not have to.
On the Dojo, a blanket of snow covered the desaturated grass. The flowers, though, still swayed in gentle breezes that came from everywhere and nowhere, starker in color against the glistening snow. By then, I had achieved a three-star island, unlocking the ability to terraform and craft the island square by square, forming cliffsides and waterfalls, stretching and bending rivers without the Herculean effort. Over the course of weeks, I had rearranged four islanders’ houses, moving them one by one so I could push back a cliff wall and extend the river up two cliffs to create a cascading waterfall. Because only the resident representative could move buildings, I had to leave bags of 99,000 bells outside of T____’s house before logging in as him and paying Tom Nook for the changes. When I did, I walked out into a garden of recipe cards and items I had hoped T____ would enjoy. We had played with both our characters on the island once, when the grass was still bright green. Back then, when I still thought there would be a second time, I thought it would be more fun if he had more things he could build and place around the island so it might feel like his home too.
After T____ left his apartment, I no longer moved residents’ houses, in part because I could not bring myself to do so, but also because the island was as I imagined it. A wooden suspension made it possible to stand in the center of the cascading waterfalls. A rectangular lily garden with every possible cross-pollinated color hugged the path towards the zen garden. Rows of cosmos led either to a stone patio with a pool and hot tub — plus vending machines for snacks and drinks — or to a fake version of Beauty Looking Back by Hishikawa Moronobu and Venus de Milo. Wind turbines and solar panels sat atop the highest corners of the Dojo. Islanders lived in small community clusters of four houses or three, with pathways of clovers and daisies connecting them. A single purple tulip finally appeared near the swinging bench in the tulip garden.
With time, continued job hunting, and generous letters of recommendation from my previous coworkers, I began a new job that pulled my time and energy away from the Dojo. When I visited, islanders would comment on my absence, distressed that it had been two weeks, one month, three months since they’d last seen me. Every visit necessitated a circuit around the island to pluck weeds, during which time I refamiliarized myself with the island and any seasonal changes that had occurred — springtime cherry blossoms traipsing on the breeze, summertime blue shells scattered on the shores. When I logged on to explore the November 5 update, autumnal mushrooms nestled near the roots of trees.
The knowledge I would have to reset the game was not new. Until then, though, I pushed it away, telling myself it wasn’t worth the time and effort to start anew, that I could make my peace with one lingering reminder of my relationship with T____. It was pragmatic convenience, I told myself, rather than procrastinated mourning.
A dear friend from high school often warns me of the sunk-cost fallacy. He knows I have a habit of becoming mired in sentimentality. Perhaps it is silly to mourn sunken time, especially time sunken into an Animal Crossing island. Silly to delay grieving because to move on means accepting the relationship was as bad as it was.
Sometimes I tell myself it’s not so silly a thing to mourn the failure of my last relationship displayed in stark relief in every corner of the island — for every tea and flower garden, every terraformed waterway and customized bridge or walkway on the Dojo, I think of my books and instruments gathering dust in the corners of T____’s apartment, of the mismatched furniture T____ brought in without consideration, of his impatience with the pain I expressed. Other times I tell myself silly things are not so bad.
Now, every turn around the island is another opportunity to memorize the layout, with half a mind towards how I might eventually recreate it. The other half savors the finitude of all I’ve crafted, purchased, and placed in the island’s forty-two acres.
A____ has agreed to temporarily store some items from the Dojo on her island, but when I walk around the Dojo, I struggle to isolate what I want to bring with me. Each is less than the sum of its parts, the sum of sentimentality imbued into the whole. Paintings can be purchased again if I wait long enough for them to spawn at Redd’s illegal merchant ship. Furniture and decorations can either be purchased with enough patience from Tom Nook’s shop or crafted anew with the right recipe and materials. I cannot take knowledge of recipes with me, so I consider bringing the outdoor bath and crafting sets of zen and imperial fencing so I don’t have to wait for an islander to teach me or to stumble upon the recipe hidden in a bottle washed up on the beach. I hesitate, though, to bring with me too many plans for how my next island will become. I fear that the more items I bring, the more immutable those plans might feel, and I no longer want to build in conversation with a source of pain long passed.
As I walk the length of the island again, I pause near the field of tulips overlooking the community of houses near the cascading waterfalls. Of all things on the island, the flowers took the most patience and care. Some days I would log on simply to water the flower patches. Each flower has a different part of the island dedicated to its growth and cross-pollination, set up in checkerboard patterns to encourage the production of offspring. Lilies and cosmos were the quickest flowers to cross-pollinate every possible color. Hyacinths and mums required patience for their seed packets to appear in Tom Nook’s shop or at Leif’s kiosk. Purple pansies and windflowers continue to elude me, each requiring hybrid flowers that are indistinguishable from non-hybrid flowers. Roses, too, require hybrids that keep blue roses out of reach.
Though they required no hybrids to reach their cross-pollinated colors and were sold often at Tom Nook’s shop, the tulips took time. The orange tulips necessary to produce purple flowers seemed determined to only yield more orange, with only one purple tulip appearing after more than half a year.
I’d like to be more diligent about flower-keeping on my next island. Perhaps, like Noah, I’ll take two of each color I’ve grown so far so I can start anew, start with growth.
As rain showers the island, a second purple tulip begins to bud.
Image credit: Lucas Santos