this game called “when we catch fire”

I’ve heard people say that it’s awful watching an ex be happy with someone else, especially when you’re miserable yourself. But I wonder if it’s worse when the opposite is true.

What’s worse: Watching someone you love be happy with someone else, while you’re miserable? Or watching them be miserable with someone else, while you’re happy?
I don’t have an answer for that. I guess it depends on how much you loved them. Or rather, what kind of love you felt for them. Whether you subscribe to “true love comes once in a lifetime,” or if you’re more into “if you love something, set it free.”

I set you free. You ended things, and I made it simple for you to walk away. I didn’t fight you, I didn’t stop you, I didn’t cry and guilt-trip and complain. It hurt like hell, but I made damn sure you’d closed the front door behind you before I let any tears fall. Because I knew you believed it was what you wanted — and I probably knew, even then, that we weren’t right for each other. Not in the ways that mattered, not enough for forever. Love, ultimately, wasn’t going to be enough to save us in the end — whenever the end came for us. Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same, after all.

Fast-forward four years. It took me a long time to get past it, past you. Arguably, in some ways, I’m still not entirely over it — I admit a strong case can be made, given the fact that I’m writing this to you now. But now — four years after you walked out, after I went through hell and high water, through the literal hardest decision of my life — I can say I am, at the very least, at peace when it comes to you.

And here’s the crazy thing: I’m happy. Happier than I ever was with you, happier than I’ve ever been with anyone else. He challenges me, and makes me laugh, and pushes me to do better. It’s the first time I haven’t wanted to run. The first time it hasn’t terrified me to talk about the future. The first time I believe I have one.

But I still watch you,
(I loved you so much then that if you had asked, I’d have married you. It would have been a mistake, and it probably wouldn’t have lasted very long (that’s if we even made it to the altar, which I doubt more and more as I get older), but I would have said yes. I said yes to you even when I had doubts piling up around me like storm clouds, because I loved you too much to let them scare me away. Because I had fought too hard for you to let you go so easily)
and I don’t think you’re happy.

You left me, and six months later, you were engaged. Just like that. Ready to spend forever with someone else, after years with me. Years of “us.”

It broke me. I won’t lie to you because after everything you and I shared, you deserve better than lies. (You may deserve a few big ones just for the sake of balance, but I’ll resist the temptation). You broke my heart. I’ve never felt actual pain in my chest, never understood why they call it heartbreak, until you. Hearing you were getting married so fast hurt even worse than when you left. Of all the ways we’ve hurt each other over the years, that was the worst of it. That casual sentence, that flippant comment about your fiance when I didn’t even know you’d started dating again, broke me — in a lot of ways, for a long time. You’ll never understand how much. I’d never admit the extent of it.

But several months passed, and when I decided to remove you from my life for good, the farewell letter I wrote told you that I hoped you’d be happy. I wished you the best. And as much as I’ve gone back and forth about that sentiment since then — as many days as I spent full of hurt and anger, where I wanted to be vindictive and take that back — I can honestly say that I meant it. If you weren’t happy with me, I loved you enough to actually hope that you’d be happy with someone else. With this other woman, whoever she was.

So I still watch you.
Because I loved you once. Because your life and your happiness still matter to me, even if I’m not a part of either one anymore.
I check in on your life, now and again. I don’t contact you, I don’t intrude, I don’t even ask other people about you. I just check around, see what I can find, make a mental note of any major updates.
(Partially so that if I ever run into you, and you tell me these things, it won’t be the first I’m hearing of it and you won’t have to watch the emotion brewing in my eyes.)

Your engagement photos were the first place I saw it: you were uncomfortable.
In all those photos where you should have been huggy and kissy and all a-twitter with love, you looked…stuck. Like someone had asked you to pose in a photo with someone you barely knew. Like you didn’t know how to stand, or where to look, or what to do with your hands. When to hold her, how to look at her, where to touch her.
Some of that was just you; you always hated photos. But it got me wondering. It’s the first time I questioned that maybe you chose the wrong woman….again.

I wasn’t right for you either, I know that now. But we talked about getting married often enough that I knew what you wanted. We agreed on an old beautiful barn, with exposed beams and hardwood floors. You wanted bare lightbulbs hung in strands across the beams. Acoustic guitar and shoes kicked off, warm soft colors and everyone singing along to our first dance. Just the two of us, in a theatre of our own making — where, for one day, we’d been cast as the leads.

I saw your wedding photos. That was the second place I saw it, or rather, didn’t see it: I didn’t see your touch on anything. I saw stark white walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, crisp white tablecloths, shiny silver chairs — this buttoned-up, banquet-hall, country-club wedding. It looked flashy and expensive and cold, and you were nowhere. I didn’t see your warm lights, your soft comfortable colors, your hardwood floors. Your personality was strapped into an immaculate three-piece suit that someone chose for you, and I looked straight past you in all the photos because you weren’t even present. Someone took a cookie cutter to you and kept cutting pieces away until you fit. Until you were just the groom, irrelevant; just stand on your mark and pose. Your personality, your laughter, your warmth and charm, were invisible in that clean white spotlight.

Those pictures made me sad, but not for me. This time, I hurt for you. I wondered whether you were happy with your choice, or if you just wanted to be married so badly that the bride and the wedding and the photos didn’t even matter. Where was my laughing carpenter, full of bravado, who always smelled like sawdust, and smiled at me across rooms and winked? Where was the mischief and quirkiness that I used to know so well?
It was supposed to be the happiest day of your life — where was all your joy and anticipation?
I didn’t see you in any of your wedding photos, and it made me impossibly sad. I had hoped to see your smile again, the genuine one that started from your eyes.

When you bought your house, you were so excited to show me around. We walked through the back gate and around the yard and through the bedrooms. You kissed me in the kitchen and we watched Pulp Fiction on a mattress on the basement floor. We watched Blues Brothers curled up on the couch in the living room, and laid in your bed reading books late at night. We watched fireworks from your front steps and ate ice cream sitting by your garden in the backyard. You were building your man-cave in the basement, planting herbs in the garden out back, and getting a dog now that you had a fenced-in yard. You were so in love with it, every part of it. You said you wanted to spend forever in that house.

A month ago, you sold it.
I checked in on your life, expecting things to be the same, and saw it for a third time: the loss of you. Your house, I learned, isn’t yours. That house that you loved so much was just…..left empty.
I am that house. Loved, cherished, altered; then abandoned for something new. Part of you, loved by you….and then, all at once, not yours anymore. I felt the loss of that piece of you.
And I knew, the way you know from “hello” that a friend is upset, that it wasn’t your idea. I knew with every fiber of my being that someone else made that call. Maybe they even convinced you it was your idea. But I am absolutely certain that, isolated from outside influence, you wouldn’t have let it go.
I don’t know how many pieces of yourself you’d be willing to give up, for the sake of “happiness.”

I often wonder about your life, wonder if you’re okay. I hope you’re happy, even though that would hurt me too. But I would rather know you’re smiling somewhere, that everything you and I went through counted for something, that we both arrived at happiness somehow. If you’re miserable, I can’t — shouldn’t want to — save you. I can’t contact you, because I swore I wouldn’t. If you’re unhappy, it is of your own making, and there is nothing I could or should do to change that.

But the fact that I loved you for so long makes it hard to watch you be unhappy.

he promised.

It’s midnight.
I check the locks.
I turn off the lights.
I climb into bed.

I start the feel it, the loss of control.
I go to war the the anxiety; I use logic.
Everything is fine, you’re safe.
But he’s coming; he promised.

It’s 1 am.
I wake in a panic, a small noise somewhere.
That sound isn’t him, he doesn’t know how to find me anymore.
I get up and check the locks again.

I start to cry, can’t stop.
I whisper out loud to myself.
It was years ago; wipe your tears.
But he’s coming; he promised.

It’s 2 am.
I stare at the curtains, watch for every shifting shadow.
I jump at all the noises and lights.
I get up and check the locks again.

I give up and get out of bed.
I sit on the couch in the dark.
I listen for a knock, but there’s no sound.
But he’s coming; he promised.

It’s 3 am.
He’s still there in my head.
He is coming; he will find me. He promised.
I get up and check the locks again.

“You think you can ever escape? When you’re finally happy, when you think you’re free, I will hunt you down. I’ll find you wherever you are. I will destroy you. I promise you that.”

He promised.

recovery

You used to tell me you were addicted to me.
What a truth. What a lie.

You used “addicted” instead of “in love,” and maybe that should have been a warning sign, but you know what?
You weren’t addicted.
Not the way I was.

I never said it, maybe. I didn’t use those words because I didn’t want to seem like I cared too much.
Doesn’t that tell you everything?
I refused to be seduced by the idea of sinking into you and letting our lives intertwine, because you were never quite present.
She laid between us in bed at night and she was there in the pit of my stomach when you said “addicted.”

I was addicted. I left you over and over again. But I came back. I couldn’t stay away from you.
I felt my heartbeat trying to shatter my rib-cage every time you kissed me, and I figured that meant love.
It helped with the guilt sometimes.

But the guilt also meant that I tried to let you go. Over, and over, and over. I kept walking away, kept quitting you.
But I never did it right, because I always returned. I always thought “this is the last time,” and ended up with you in my life for another few months.
I kept giving myself back to you, and not understanding why you let me.

Until the last day, when I promised myself I wouldn’t go near you, wouldn’t speak to you, wouldn’t answer when you called again.
When I finally figured out that you didn’t love me. A flashing neon sign would have been less subtle.
Finally, I gave you up like the bad habit you were. And I’ve stuck to it. Almost four years have passed since I’ve touched you or heard your voice.
But I didn’t quit you the way I meant to.

You’re everywhere. Sawdust and green eyes and ripped jeans. Museums and tattoos and light bulbs. Trucks and curly hair and paint.
You were in so much of my life, for so long, that you’ve left your fingerprints on everything I touch.
I can hear you laugh at my jokes and see your eyes when I close mine at night.

I crave you. A conversation.
Just to hear you laugh or say my name again.
I crave the caress I felt on my skin when you smiled just for me.

I wish I could stop.
Stop seeing you in everything. Stop wondering how much I would tell you. Stop feeling this pull to know what you’re doing.
Stop wondering what you’d say if I broke the silence. Stop hoping I’ll run into you somewhere. Stop looking for you every time there’s a knock on my door.

I don’t love you.
I did. I think.
But I don’t.

I’m addicted to you.

April 19, 2011

I don’t know what to say when people ask me about him.
Please ask me – please never ask me – please only ask sometimes – please only ask in a specific way.

Part of me wants to talk about it, to have that conversation, to let some air into those locked-up places I’ve left untouched for so long. The rest of me freezes up when it’s mentioned. I worry that if I speak his name, it will breathe power back into him, give life to the memories that I hope are dead and buried.
So I don’t. I never use his name and I avoid discussing that time in my life, and I get anxious when people ask me to.

When other people mention him, it makes me want to crawl out of my skin.

Casual references to him being somewhere, or saying something, or even just still existing — when the last thing in the world I’d want is a reminder that he’s still in it. They mean well. I think they’re hoping they can desensitize me. They either don’t know, or simply don’t understand. It’s impossible to comprehend, even for me, so I don’t ever expect someone else to get it. I can’t imagine anyone understanding what it was like, what he was like.

He’s impossible to describe to anyone.
I’ve tried, and my tongue suddenly feels out of place in my mouth and I get restless and start finding all the exits in a room.

He was smart, with his quick responses and calculating eyes. He was angry and jealous and strong. He was funny, with all his dark sarcasms. He was dismissive and cold and distant. He was beautiful, with his scarred hands. He was bitter and rageful and cruel. I used to think of him as a phoenix – all that power and fire and fury and destruction, somehow harnessed into his icy eyes and bloody fingers. I’d know those hands anywhere. His branded knuckles, and the way they always smelled like charcoal, and how they tasted in my mouth.

There’s no way for me to say it.

They were never wounds, they were an artist’s brushstrokes – he just favored a blade over a brush. It takes a certain kind of artist and a certain kind of subject to be a part of his furious style. The canvas was my skin and the only colors he ever chose were red and blue and black. After a while, he ran out of canvas, that’s all. Strangely, he never ran short on paint, or brushes. There is always more paint. There is always another brush.

There’s one more thing he ran out of: time.

April is a hard month. I remember the angry, unhinged, rambling phone calls. Early in the morning, late at night, in the middle of the afternoon. I had to turn off the ringer for a moment of peace.
“I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.” “I know where you live.”
He was there, and then he wasn’t.
“Did you think I’d just go away?” “When you think you’re free, I’ll be there.”
The police came. They asked me questions I’ll never be able to answer, and I stopped feeling anything. He called, again and again and again, until I was convinced he’d never stop.
It’s been years and I still can’t sleep in April without closing the curtains and triple-checking the locks on my doors and jumping at every sound.

When he comes for me, it will be April.

To the Man For Whom I Wrote My First Poem

I have written so much about you
that I have run out
of poem titles
and writing surfaces
and ink in my pens.
But not words.

You never had enough.
Words. Love. Attention. Commitment.

I hate that I spent that last night in your arms
and everything seemed simple and happy and real,
and knowing that memory is tainted now
because now I realize you were already gone.

I hate that you arrived before I was ready.
All the days I asked you to be somewhere
the jokes you made about how you never got anywhere fast
and for this, to break me, you were early.

I hate that you wore the shirt I bought you.
That I relived the memory of you surprising me at work,
laughing and giving me fuck-me eyes in the dressing rooms
not knowing you would never do it again.

I hate that it took you so little time to say it.
Three years ended in five minutes
when you dropped every flaw I had
onto my floor for me to review when you were finished.

I hate that you stood in the doorway of my bedroom to apologize,
six feet from a wounded animal, but you didn’t dare step closer
because I might get sad, or rage, or go wild,
and you knew you drew first blood.

I hate that I didn’t mean enough to you to bother softening the blow.
You knew the words would sit on my skin like slow-burning acid
but you threw them on me without warning,
because once you’d discarded me, I wouldn’t matter anymore.

I hate how fast you ran,
once I said those steady words to release you,
that only a few seconds clicked by
before you weren’t there anymore.

I hate that you didn’t come back.
I sat perfectly still, listening to that melancholy ticking,
waiting for the sound of your return
and for hours, not allowing the tears to fall.

 

I hate that after everything,
I still seemed “cold” to you,
when all I ever tried to be
was the girl you fell in love with late at night,
who stood on the catwalks and let down her hair for the first time,
who acted like she could take on the world and win,
and who was breathless when you leaned in for that first kiss.

I just tried to be the girl who waited in the shadows covered in paint,
whose spine you traced with your fingertips when no one was looking.
The girl you broke into places with after hours
whose hand you held as you climbed the stairs in the silence.
The girl who laid on the floor and looked right up at you,
who you said you were addicted to.

I hate that I changed for you.
I gave up little pieces, chipped away parts of me,
carving and maneuvering,
making myself smaller,
trying to fit into your life.

I never belonged in your life.
I hate that you didn’t tell me.

About Last Night

Yesterday, I fell off the wagon.

By that, I mean I took a flying leap off the wagon, only to grab on tight by my fingernails at the last second to keep from hitting the ground.

Last night, I drove to the college he teaches at. I don’t know what possessed me to do it. As I sat in traffic waiting to take the exit that would bring me there, a place I used to go so often, I told myself a thousand times not to. I told myself that I should drive past that exit and continue home. To avoid the heartache that going there would inevitably bring. By myself in my car, I said out loud, “Don’t. Go home.”
But I didn’t. I sat through the traffic, and drove onto the campus.

I was surprised to find I still knew all the roads by heart, still knew which turns to make to get to the places I wanted to see. It was like I’d been there just last week, instead of six years ago.
The funny part is, I wasn’t going there to see him. I’d had a bad day, I’d been crying; the last thing I wanted was for him to see me and think I was a mess these days. Running into him personally was not on my list.
I wanted to see his truck.

It’s been so long since I’ve spoken to him, so long since I’ve seen his face or smelled his scent or heard his voice, that sometimes it genuinely feels like I made him up. That he doesn’t even exist anymore, or maybe that he never did. It seems odd that someone who was such an impactful and important and emotional part of my life just….isn’t in it anymore. It’s strange that someone I used to share everything with is now someone that I avoid talking about and most days, avoid even thinking about.

The first place I went was the theatre building. I took a tiny little back road to reach the side door, where the loading dock was. Where he always parked, the back tires of his truck bumped up against the edge of the ramp. I figured at 630pm, he’d probably still be in showtime and would be spending late nights there, so I expected to see his truck where it always used to be.
It wasn’t there, so I turned around in a parking lot and drove up the hill to the scene shop — the workshop where he designed and built set pieces. I approached it slowly, hardly daring to breathe, looking for his truck. I wondered what I would do if I saw it. Drive past it? Get out of my car and touch it? Leave a message on it?
It didn’t matter — the truck wasn’t there, either.

So I sat there for a short moment, looking at the building where he fucked me bent over a table saw and where we had a threesome, the building where I showed up one night when he was working late and surprised him in a trench coat and heels, the building where we laid naked on a futon mattress on the floor and talked about getting married someday.
But the building was dark. He wasn’t there.

I left campus and was relieved that I hadn’t cried. I had expected to, assumed that the rush of emotions would break me down the way thinking of him usually did.
I pulled up to a red light, radio on, and suddenly saw a silver truck two lanes over from me.

My heart stopped. My whole body froze. I felt paralyzed. What if that was him? What if I had just driven around his campus, only to see him at a red light? What if he saw me? What if seeing me made him decide to call? What if he wondered why I was in this area at all?

I couldn’t see into the cab of the truck from the angle I was, and I didn’t move forward. When the light turned green, I drove off and didn’t look back. It probably wasn’t him, to be honest; there are a hundred thousand trucks just like his and the chances are small that he and I would end up next to each other at a light. But after seeing that truck, I was seized by an intense desire to get as far away from there as possible. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else. Far away from this town and this campus and the memories it held. I felt stupid for going in the first place. I felt crazy. I felt like a stalker. I felt dirty. I felt out of control. I felt like I’d failed myself by falling off the wagon and caving to impulse.

I didn’t realize I was driving 95 miles an hour until I was almost home.

I went three years without knowing or asking anything about him, and last night I went to his workplace. I left without making contact with anyone, without anyone seeing me, and without anyone knowing I’d been there.

I still feel like I failed myself.

My knuckles are bloody for the first time in years.

The X Files

There’s this thing, situation, person, that I never quite let go of. And the funny thing is, I didn’t even realize how much of it I was still holding on to until I went digging through past communications and went on such a wild ride of emotions that I suddenly felt totally out of control.

It begins the way a lot of stories do: with a guy. I’ll call him X. There was a way that we used to communicate that I’d all but forgotten about. I’d forgotten the cadence of his speech, the line breaks in the way he wrote, the chaotic subject changes and vague references that made up who he was. I adopted his style when I talked to him, in a way I’ve never matched anyone’s before or since.

I spent a long, long time being angry and depressed and ashamed. Years of trying to bury all of the emotional turmoil, trying to forget and move on, only to have it come up again at unexpected moments. I hated who I’d been when I was with X; was scared that he’d come back into my life; hated him for what he made me into. I was self-righteous and furious and terrified, and every time the subject came up, I felt anxious and enraged all over again.

 

Today, I reread some old communications I had with X; I don’t know why. I do this to myself sometimes. Maybe to remind myself of my past mistakes so I don’t repeat them, don’t fall into the same traps.

Looking back through all the things he said at the time, I believe that he was a genuinely unstable person who desperately needed help. I think that all of his issues — and probably a fair number of mine, that I picked up along the way — stemmed from a depression, a self-hatred, a loneliness, a fear. I think he was truly unhappy and needed someone to love, hate, laugh with, lash out at. I think he needed just one person who would be all of that love and hate and joy and rage for him, all at once. Someone who could take the punches, and care about him anyway. Someone whose buried rage and depressed insecurity could match his, step for step.

I think he found that in me.

 

I was not in a good place emotionally when I met X. I had been involved, for months, with a man who was not allowed to be with me, who was not good for my mental or emotional well-being. I’ll call him P. At the time I would have claimed that I was fine with the status quo, and that everything was just the way I wanted it to stay; at the time, I would have meant it. Looking back, though, I was just trying to convince myself that the way P wanted things was the way I wanted them. That I didn’t want anything more from P even if he had asked me for it.

Truth is, at the end of the day, P was using me, and I was letting him, and I was deeply depressed and insecure and confused about it. I buried it in bravado and detachment, pretended I was in control, pretended none of it mattered. Pretended so much and so often that I really believed it. Fake it until you make it.

 

X was the first person who both knew about P, and called me out on it. I had all this false bravado about the situation, made jokes about it like it didn’t matter, and X would just look at me and know. He knew I was in love with P, knew I hadn’t figured that out yet, knew I’d never admit it even if I had.

 

He and I had what is still, to this day, the strangest relationship I’ve ever had with another person. There was this mutual unspoken agreement not to get attached, not to acknowledge feelings, not to discuss anything too deep or too personal. If something painful or emotional came up, we talked about it in a self-deprecating, aloof kind of way; we were really into irony, and the humor in suffering. We told each other about important things and pretended they meant nothing. We mocked each other if one of us got too emotional about something. Feelings were for the weak; we were too strong for that. I think we loved and hated each other in equal measure, underneath it all. Like we were simultaneously concerned about and disgusted by each other.

 

In rereading our conversations, pages and pages of text, certain lines stand out a lot. Coming from X, the boy who was so detached and cold, some of the phrases made me angry at the time because I thought he was mocking me. If I said something important he’d make fun of me; if he said something important I’d brush it off. Now I wonder if those moments were him searching for a cue, some sign that he could finally be genuine with me. I think maybe he let me lash out at him so that he wouldn’t have to admit he’d said something vulnerable and real. I think he and I spent so much time trying to pretend that we didn’t care about each other that we didn’t know how to emotionally connect by the time we actually wanted to. We got stuck in this emotionless, fearless, loveless trap and we couldn’t get out of it once it snapped shut on us.

And then, much as I’ve blamed him for this over the years, we both spiraled completely out of control.

 

It’s easier to see it now. Now that it’s been years, now that I have some distance. Easy to see how a depressed, confused, lonely girl would fall into step with a depressed, confused, lonely guy. Easy to see how two people who were starved for attention would act out to catch each other’s eye. How they would bond over their mutual bitterness towards people in general, how they would both go out of their way not to get attached to each other. X and I had both suffered enough by that point; I think we felt safe around each other because we were equally cautious and cynical of the other’s motivations.

 

By the time we finally had sex, it was just another thing we did. No emotions attached, no kissing or cuddling. We never talked about sex unless we were in the middle of having it. We never touched each other in public. We never held hands, not once, in the entire time I knew him. We never kissed in front of anyone. It was careful, it was cynical, it was calculated.

Not that it stopped us from talking about it. We had intensely passionate, overwhelming, aggressive sex, and we didn’t hide that. We showed off handprints, hickies, bloody claw marks; let people check out the injuries on our shoulders, hips, backs. (Later, when things got worse, I stopped showing people and made every effort in the world to hide the marks, which was precisely the wrong thing to do; it made people suspicious). We made it obvious that we were sleeping together, but gave vague answers about it whenever someone asked directly. We thought it was funny, I guess. Just looking for attention. Looking for a way to prove to each other, to other people, that we were wanted and desired. Looking for a way to prove it to ourselves, by shoving it in everyone else’s face.

 

I thought I’d buried all my feelings about him. I’ve spent so long being angry at him, being afraid of him, feeling panic setting in when his name is mentioned, that I’d forgotten that I actually did care about him. I strapped down any fond memories of him, such as they were, until they almost didn’t exist anymore. Somehow, reading the words that he had typed all those years ago brought them back out for me to examine. I experienced a rush of overwhelming sadness that I hadn’t been expecting. I don’t know why; if I felt sorry for him, or for myself. Maybe I regret what I did to him, what he did to me; the effect we ultimately had on each other’s lives. Maybe it was the first time I actually looked a the situation and actually took some of the blame. I guess it made me realize that my life wasn’t the only one turned upside down at the catastrophic end of our relationship. I’d known that, in a logical way — but I’d always been so self-righteously angry that I’d never spared a feeling on it before. Maybe I needed distance for that piece.

 

Hidden in the things he wrote are phrases from movies, references to conversations, links to websites I forgot we used to visit. It was like opening up an old photo album and breathing in old memories you forgot you still had. There were the bad ones, obviously; I’ve lived with those in my head for years now, they’re embedded forever. But there were a surprising number of good ones; moments of understanding, moments where he’d make a reference to something I’d told him in an offhand way. His own way of telling me that what I said mattered, that he was listening, that he knew the things I’d mentioned were a bigger deal than they appeared to be — buried under a facade of total indifference. I didn’t see it at the time. I genuinely believed that he hated me, that sex was just this vengeful hate-fuck and nothing emotional. But maybe he cared. Somehow. In his own way.

 

That’s not to say anything he did was right. I feel like it’s been long enough, now, that I should work on forgiving him, but I’m still not quite there. I still can’t bring myself to that point. I don’t forgive him. Maybe I never will.

But I can see my side more clearly now. I can see that I also did damage to him. That when our own personal apocalypse arrived, I also handled it very poorly. I went off the deep end, too — just in a different way. We reacted separately, selfishly, refusing to help each other and in some cases making life more difficult for the other, and that is a perfect summation of our relationship.

the way we were (Part V)

I didn’t know it at the time, but the first time you looked at me, I burned to the ground.

Our last day started like any other. I picked you up and drove us both to campus. It was so routine that we didn’t plan it; I just showed up, as expected, and you’d be sitting on your front steps with your beautiful golden retriever, waiting for me.

When we got to campus I tried to go to class, but you didn’t let me. Also normal. A friend of mine, who hated you, finally agreed to give you a chance. She suggested that we all skip class together, hang out until rehearsal that night. I was already failing my classes, and I didn’t even know if you had any, so I agreed.

I drove us all down to my house by the water, and we relaxed outside for several hours. You disappeared into the house for awhile; I figured you were giving her and I time to catch up, talk about you — girl stuff, conversations I couldn’t have with you even if I’d tried.

When you finally came back outside with your glass bottle of Snapple and a few snarky comments, it was time to head back to campus, time for rehearsal.

I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d drive you there. I didn’t know I was already burning.

We arrived and started rehearsal, everything the way it always was. Our entire cast and crew, warming up together like we always did, and our one high school student who was getting extra credit for joining a college production. I’ll never forget her. She was a wild child, but we all liked her. She was crazy and sweet and fun.

When campus police burst into the room and asked for you, my heart fell to the floor. I had a pit in my stomach — oh god,  you’d hurt someone other than me, and I could have saved them, could have warned them, could have confessed to them that you were a monster and they should get away from you while they still could. I hadn’t told anyone what you really were, and never in my life have I regretted anything so much as I regretted that, in that moment.

They made you gather your things and leave, took your backpack and your Snapple and your beautiful disturbing artwork, and told the rest of us to stay where we were. I waited just long enough for them to leave, and then cut through a back hallway to get to my director’s office. I knew this building like the back of my hand and they couldn’t catch me if I didn’t want them to. I wasn’t thinking, I just knew that I needed an adult, I wasn’t prepared to handle this, I didn’t know what you’d done and I was going down with you because I hadn’t asked for help when I should have.

My director’s office door was closed. He was my lifeline, a person I trusted implicitly. He loved me, trusted me, we’d worked together for several years. He and I had a bond; we understood each other. So I knew that for him to close the door of his office, something bad was happening. My hand shook as I knocked on the door.

When he opened it, just enough for me to see him but not the room behind him, the look on his face scared me. I’d never been scared of him before, but he scared me in that moment. I told him that you were gone, that campus police had taken you away.

He slammed the door in my face.

I found out later that you’d given our only high school student alcohol. Alcohol you’d stolen from my house that afternoon, while my friend and I sat in the sunshine. Alcohol you’d poured into that Snapple so no one would know, and convinced our high school student to down it. My director thought at the time that I had given you the alcohol, thought I was involved, was furious. We were a dry campus, it was during school hours, and above all, she was underage — a criminal offense. You could go to jail for this.

My director forgave me once I told him I hadn’t been involved, and then he sat in on my interview. I don’t think he knew how bad things had gotten for me.

I was interviewed by the police, sitting in the office whose door had slammed in my face just two hours ago. Never in my life have I felt so stupid. I cried the entire interview. I felt numb. I couldn’t understand how I’d gotten here.

I told them about the bruises; the knives, whiskey, blood; your hands around my neck; your hands imprinted on my thighs and the shadows of your teeth down my neck. They saw the dark smudges under my eyes, noticed how detached I sounded from all the horror these past five months had held. All the horror of you.

They asked me simple things. What was your name? Who did you live with? What did you do for a living? What classes were you taking this semester? How old were you?

I couldn’t answer them. You never gave a straight answer, so I couldn’t give them any. Maybe that was your plan all along.

The interview ended with the police telling me that you might be dangerous, as if I didn’t know. They asked me not to contact you in any way. You were banned from campus, so you couldn’t get to me. I promised the police that I’d report it if you tried to contact me, promised that I wouldn’t contact you.

And as soon as the  interview ended, I drove to your house and picked you up.

If nothing else about my relationship with you gives an outsider any indication of how truly, horribly desperate my life had gotten, that sentence should help.

It was the first time I was angry with you. But I didn’t show that; couldn’t show that.

I had to get through this one last thing before I let myself fall apart.

I told you what you wanted to hear, gave you concern and sympathy and validation. I asked you what happened, because I wanted to see if you’d finally tell me the truth. I asked questions, for once, and never, ever let it seem that I disapproved of the answers. I listened, and heard all of the lies you fed me, and then I drove you home one last time.

Then I contacted you and let you know that I never wanted to see you again — contacted, but not in person, because I thought you might kill me for saying the words. You’d come close before.

The months that followed were the most terrifying of my life. There were dozens of incidents. You’d call, repeatedly, for hours. You texted and left facebook messages and countless voicemails, ranging from “you useless cunt I’ll fucking kill you for this how dare you ignore me” all the way to drunken, unintelligible sobbing, begging me to come back and forgive you.

You snuck onto campus, from which you’d been banned, and left messages on the windshield of my car to let me know you’d been there. They couldn’t catch you at it, so they couldn’t stop you.

Then you texted me the address of my house, nothing else. Hours later, you texted, “knock, knock.”

My parents were there at the time and I couldn’t let you hurt them. I snuck out of the house with the 9-1 already dialed on my cell phone, in case you attacked. My heart was pounding as I circled the house.

You weren’t there.

After that, you never contacted me again. I moved away shortly afterward, and was still scared you’d show up, that you’d follow me somehow. I still have nightmares about that chilling text: “knock, knock.” I have dreams sometimes that you’re killing me.

It gets better over time.

You burned me to the ground. Rebuilding from the ashes was nearly impossible; and yet, here I stand.

the way we were (Part IV)

Whenever I brought you with me to see my family, I wished immediately upon arrival that I hadn’t. I never learned.

You were drinking in the car that night. As I drove, I could look over at you and see the open bottle of whiskey in your lap and your open window. I’d made comments before, about how I wasn’t comfortable with you drinking while I was driving (because, hello, it’s illegal, did I need another reason?), but I never actually forbade you from doing it. I never dared give you an order. I knew how quickly that smooth, calm surface of your face could ripple into fury, and I never risked that. I’d seen it often enough to know that I wanted to avoid it at all costs.

You always did take things to extremes. I bit you during sex, so you made a game out of seeing how many impressions of your teeth you could bruise into my neck. I dug my nails into your back, so you bought knives and shredded my skin to pieces. I tugged your hair, and you’d snatch my head backward so hard I thought my neck would break. “You said you liked that.” It was like a big brother smacking a sibling in the shoulder and the sibling saying it didn’t hurt at all, when really their arm is screaming and they know it’ll be bruised purple later. If you admit they hurt you, they have the upper hand; they get to call you stupid and weak.

So you kept drinking and I kept pretending I didn’t notice, hoping we didn’t pass any cops or get pulled over. I couldn’t talk my way out of this one, and antagonizing cops was a favorite hobby of yours. You used to call them pigs, used to oink whenever they came near you. We’d been caught by them several times, fucking in the backseat of my car, and I’d always managed to get us out of trouble. Somehow I couldn’t see you shutting up and letting me handle it with whiskey in your bloodstream. You and alcohol was a wicked combination of fuck and fight, and not much else.

The drive only took twenty minutes, and you mostly seemed okay. But you couldn’t be okay, the whiskey bottle was half empty and it hadn’t been when we’d left. I wondered briefly if you were going to die, and if I would care.

We arrived in a field set back from the highway, surrounded by trees and featuring nothing but a huge dirt pile. It’s where some of my cousins used to smoke, so their parents wouldn’t know. I never bothered smoking myself, but I thought you might, and bringing you with me was the only way you’d let me spend time with my family.

I got out of the car and greeted my cousins, and I remember one of them asking if I was okay. I rolled my eyes and told her you were drunk. I said it before you got out of the car so you wouldn’t hear — you wouldn’t be happy that I’d mentioned it.

Standing up was a bad decision for you. You made it around the car to stand next to me — barely — but you were so incoherent by the time you made it to me that I figured you needed to sit down. You were leaning on me so heavily, just to stay upright, that I thought you might pass out.

I convinced my cousins to sit in the car with the windows open instead of standing outside. You and I were in the backseat, and you kept making rude references to our sex life and a host of other things I wished you wouldn’t share. At some point you weren’t making sense anymore, and one of my cousins passed me a box of crackers for you to eat. Soak up some of that alcohol, buddy, you’ve had too much.

You wouldn’t eat them unless I fed them to you, so I sat with you and tried to get you to stop talking long enough to shove a cracker into your hateful mouth. I managed to get you to eat a few, but after that you’d had enough and would spit crumbs at me whenever you spoke. I gave up.

I eventually took you home once you’d calmed down enough to be quiet, and helped you to your door.

When I got back in the car, I hoped in some dark, twisted part of myself that you wouldn’t be outside when I came to get you in the morning. Tragic accident, they’d say, drank himself to death. And then maybe I could be free.

When I arrived the next morning to pick you up, you stood where you always had, just waiting for me.

Maybe you were too evil to die, like a fairy tale monster that couldn’t be killed.

the way we were (Part III)

Without you, I attended all my classes. I enjoyed them, I did the work, I was passing. Some were better than others, but I was always there.

With you, however, I went to class when I could escape, when you were distracted with other people, when I thought you might not notice that I’d gone until I was already back. I stole hours here and there, trying to attend often enough to pass them all.

But I never withdrew from them, because I was convinced I would go next time. That maybe tomorrow you’d be in a good mood, maybe tomorrow you’d say you didn’t care what I did.

I was much more naive back then. I don’t think you know what a good mood feels like.

You’d always let me almost leave. I would announce that I was going to class, start packing up my things, wait for you to object. When you didn’t, I’d pack up my books, put on my jacket, wait for you to stop me. You’d stay quiet, like you didn’t notice, so I’d walk to the door and almost, almost make it outside before you’d speak.

Only then would you remind me that if you were left alone, you’d drink an entire bottle of whiskey and hope to die — “Choking on my own vomit, that’s poetic, right?”

You’d say you’d climb into the bathtub and slit open your arms — “Don’t cut the wrists. You have to catch an artery. If you’re going to die, you have to die correctly. Don’t die an idiot.”

You’d tell me that once I’d gotten to class and couldn’t stop you, you’d go for a walk in traffic and leap in front of a car — “Best-looking roadkill you’ve ever seen.”

You’d say you had a bottle of pills that you’d been saving for this moment when you had time to yourself. “I’ll make it easy for everyone to forget me — quiet, in my sleep.”

You said you’d hang yourself from the catwalks of the theatre, my favorite place in the world — “You’d see me every time you came here, even after they took my body down.”

I couldn’t tell if you meant it, so I’d sit back down.

I failed every class that semester.

I failed because if I left that room, if I got off that couch where we sat every day, you might go somewhere I couldn’t follow.

You’re still there in my head. When I walk into my old theatre and look up at those catwalks I loved so much, I see you hanging there — your combat boots dangling and your This Is England double-cuffed jeans and your mohawk collapsing over that face I so hated and so loved.

Even though I left you, I still see you up there, every time.

Maybe that was all you wanted.