Heartbreak and word choice: The Last Five Years

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

My day job requires me to be a massive grammar nerd. My days are filled with constant internal debates — that or which? alternate or alternative? palate or palette (or pailette??), which might seem like the seventh circle of hell to some but to me affords endless opportunities to contemplate just how nuanced and byzantine and gloriously, wonderfully confusing this language we call English is. And that’s just what I was thinking about recently when reconsidering a movie I watched a couple months ago, The Last Five Years. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s based on a Broadway show of the same name by Jason Robert Brown, and follows Cathy and Jamie (Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in the movie) through their meeting, marriage, and breakup. The twist: Cathy’s story starts at the end of their relationship and moves backward, while Jamie’s does the opposite; they intersect once, in the middle as they marry.

As you might have gleaned from the premise, it is a downer of a movie (though with some fun songs); you probably don’t want to watch this if you’re having one of those “I’ll be alone forever” evenings. Anyway, it wasn’t until a while after I watched the movie that I really considered its title: the last five years. See, my first real boss taught me the subtle but important difference between “last” and “past”: Most people would use them interchangeably, but she explained to me that last really means final, as in the end-all, be-all — my last days on Earth, the last unicorn, etc. Yes, the movie takes place over the course of Cathy and Jamie’s five-year relationship, so it is technically their last five years together (as well as their first) — but if Brown just wanted to convey the passage of time he could have called the show The Past Five Years. I don’t think most people even after a breakup would consider their entire relationship a slow and inexorable slide toward its bitter conclusion, so if the title were meant to convey the end of the relationship maybe it should have been called The Last Two Years, or The Last Seven Months Except That One Weekend We Went to Montauk, Because That Was Pretty Fun Still.

But when you take The Last Five Years with the full weight of that word — last — it underscores just how tragic and earth-shattering this story is for these two people. They have had their last kiss, their last lazy batch of shared Sunday bagels, their last fight that ends in tears followed by apology sex. They are divorced; their relationship is over. There’s a sense of finality that can’t be erased; something has been broken that will never be mended. It’s the kind of pain that’s as physical as it is emotional, that makes you feel like you literally might die from it, and even once enough time has passed that you start to feel better, you’ll never be the same again. “Cathy and Jamie” have died, the title says; now there’s only Cathy and Jamie, alone once again.

What a lot of heartbreak in just one letter’s difference.

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