One time I watched as you leaned against the railing of my back porch. It was the middle of summer then, and the moonlight beamed hazy. All of it – the sound of the crickets, the heaviness of the air, the atmosphere itself – felt alarming, but only in the quietest of ways. It was just too close to perfect, I suppose, and the night seemed carved out of slippery silver. It was late, but not as late as it felt, and you’d just put my lighter into your pocket, a move done purely out of instinct. A few seconds later you’d realize it and you’d laugh and then hand it back over to me, our fingers touching in the kind of light and tempered way so different than how we’d touch each other later. But before – before the bedroom, before the shifted levels of control, before the way your face would go slack as I peeled off my shirt – we stood together in the sloping darkness. I felt my lips relax into an easy smile when your voice settled into that singsong sort of cadence. I recognized that cadence; it meant you’d reached your unfiltered state, the one usually so hard to get to with you. It was a sound that indicated you truly were happy. It was a sound that signaled that maybe I had made you truly happy. We shuffled on our feet – I was in flip-flops, of course with a wedge, and your feet were tan and bare, and we battled ravenous mosquitoes while ideas flew back and forth between us. You and I did a lot of things, but we never once talked small.
Two times I told you stories I never told anyone else – and I haven’t told those stories to anyone since. Was it a feeling of trust that allowed me to confide in you? Unlikely. And if it was the kind of thing that maybe tasted like trust, it certainly didn’t taste like undiluted trust. There was always the aftertaste of something toxic with you so no, trust never reigned supreme in what I’ll go ahead and coin All of My Catalogued Fucked Up Emotions. See, any trust I felt in you was temporary. Any trust I pretended was there always felt too spiky to hold. I knew it, and I knew it always: trusting you was a fool’s game, and I was the fool who felt an emotional intimacy with you. But if I try to chart the journey I took that got me and some person I never actually trusted to a place adjacent to emotional intimacy, I find myself lost every single time. Every. Single. Time. And there’s a moral to all of that and I know full fucking well what the moral is, but even now, I will not deny what was my truth: that you somehow made me feel heard and you somehow made me feel safe at two exact moments when I couldn’t say certain words to anybody besides you. You made me feel lighter, unburdened. You made me laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Three times I realized I was utterly and completely over you, not just as a potential romantic interest, but as a human being. There were more reasons for this kind of epiphany than there were words to describe those reasons, but certain statements settled thud-like into the folds of my mind in ways that were so fully formed that I couldn’t help but see them:
You were a mirror I looked through to find myself. But I don’t require your reflection to see myself anymore.
You were a stage I finally grew out of.
Yes, you made me smile. But far more often you led me to misery.
You were a teacher of some very important lessons and I am now finally and forever tired of taking these notes.
You were the walking human amalgam of Maya Angelou’s famous advice, that one should believe who someone is the very first time that person shows himself.
Those realizations were so obvious and so bold that it was like they’d been scrawled in neon glitter inside my mind. Staring at them – allowing the words to infiltrate every single part of me – made me feel an exquisite release. I finally felt fucking free.
Six other times I had the recognition that I was over you, but the thoughts then filled me only with dread, the kind that stings like bile. Being over you meant a need to cut you from the fabric of my life, and though I knew it was high time to do exactly that, something in me balked. Let’s just say I’ve never been able to cut in a straight line. Let’s also say that being officially done with something or someone is a decree I have a hard time following because I’m a girl who lives so completely inside of all the shades of grey that I even had the walls of my living room painted a color called Silver Springs.
Countless times I prayed for you — for your sanity, for your success, for you to just stop lying already, for you to realize something (anything) that resembles peace. My prayers were sometimes specific and sometimes they were sweeping in their generality. They emanated from the kindest parts of myself, the parts you ultimately used against me. And I prayed while knowing that nothing about you was actually pure, but I guess I just wanted you to experience a moment of contentment. Just once. I wanted you to feel happy even though I knew it would never change you the way legitimate joy should.
Four times I confessed way too much and any semblance of comfort I expected to receive through the bravery of unburdening myself was yanked away instantly. I used the word love a couple of times. Even as my insides burned, I knew a normal man would have been flattered.
Two times I wondered if my emotions were indicative of a particularly female form of rage. I wondered: Do men wander around the house muttering, “This person is seriously fucking pathetic”? Do men light a bunch of candles that smell like peppermint and pomegranate to mentally dull the sharp edges that poke the softest parts of themselves? Do men consider torching undergarments if they once made an appearance in a sexual escapade that now feels exclusively like a meant-to-torture-me sort of memory? I never came to a definitive answer about any of it, but my house did smell minty and just a little bit fruity and I chose to embrace the lack of outside clarity by washing my face until every single pore disappeared and then I squirted Fat Free Reddi Whip directly into my mouth from the can for half and hour straight and all of it – gender specific or not – took the edge off.
Three times I told your that your political views were amongst the most idiotic I’d ever heard, and that was coming from someone who willingly muddles through the opinions of the online masses and watches pundits pontificating about exactly nothing on each of the twenty-four hour news networks. I can’t remember two of the incidents that resulted in me officially calling stupidity, but I do know one was about the tax bill Republicans were about to pass. “If this bill passes,” you said to me, “I will never forgive the Democrats.” This statement befuddled me, probably because total fucking nonsense is often confusing to hear when you’re relatively normal. I asked you why your anger was directed at Democrats – the party who didn’t have the numbers to stop the bill – instead of at the Republicans who were pushing the bill and would surely pass it. “Because they lost,” you told me. “The Democrats allowed this to happen.” “Yes,” I responded. “But it’s the party in power who is creating and passing this. If you want to place blame, blame the ones who are writing and then actively seeking to pass the legislation.” You blame the wrong people. I said that sentence a lot. And there was a ton of stuff I was not right about and I never had a problem announcing when I was wrong, but I was correct in that particular accusation each and every time. It was only later that I realized your predilection for falsely assigning blame must have been very convenient for you. I only realized later that you never once participated in self-blame, not even when you should have been buried beneath it.
Eleven times I was sure I could feel parts of my brain dribbling out of my ears during sex and I didn’t care for one fucking second that I was losing cerebral strength. It just somehow always got better every single time and I finally understood the truest meaning of what it meant to be wanton. I was bold with you; to be bold felt right. Every now and then, splices of song lyrics would enter my mind, usually before the actual sex started, usually while I was splayed on top of you:
When we make
Our passion pictures
You and me twist up
Now, I have no earthly idea why it was mid-90s Dave Matthews that made an appearance in these carnal moments, but I do know that one time I was getting ready to fake it because it had been going on for a while and it hadn’t happened for me yet and faking it convincingly is something I used to do at certain points with certain other men when I realized I was probably not going to get there. But then I realized I wouldn’t actually have to fake it – and that right there is the sort of realization that may as well be accompanied by dancing hot pink hearts, pieces of candy raining down from the ceiling, and Dave Matthews himself strumming his guitar in the corner of my bedroom.
Sixteen times I regretted texts I sent. Not one was a reactionary text. I rarely do those. And when I do send a reactionary text, I never regret a single word because reactionary doesn’t have to mean not fully thought through. No, the texts I regretted sending actually caused me to will Apple to spontaneously disintegrate as a company so my foolishly divvied out words would be part of the implosion. Oh, the times I wished I could take back my texts of kindness to someone who deserved only fury! I blew swiftly onto stray eyelashes while hoping that, somehow, the words of compassion I sent your way would evaporate into the air you couldn’t stop yourself from poisoning. All those breezy texts I typed out with a single shaking finger because I was terrified that you’d forget about me if I didn’t text you at that very second? If I could amputate those memories from my very existence, even if it meant some of my finest memories would also be lost as emotional collateral, I’d still pay any price to just get it all fucking done.
There were approximately sixteen trillion times when I regretted the texts I did not send. Those were the messages made up of equal parts anger and longing and, by then, having either of those emotions existing anywhere within my bloodstream because of you had begun to humiliate me. I wanted to send cruel and cutting words your way, but besides not wanting you to even smell my vulnerability – it smells like Tom Ford perfume, but still – I knew the reaction I’d receive would be one doled out by an emotionally stunted prick. There would be no apology. I wouldn’t receive a response pulsing with compassion. And though I now realize that the total inability (or the complete unwillingness) to engage or to soothe someone who matters is nothing but the mark of a wounded adult, I was the one who was left feeling raw.
Fifteen times I joked that I was searching for the origin story that would explain the man you turned into, but I finally realized two important things:
1. Your story is not all that interesting because you’re just a guy with a garden-variety personality flaw that’s very likely clinical. And there are exactly eight hundred and fifty nine paperback books on Amazon chronicling your ailment and what I think that probably means is you’re not nearly as interesting or complex as I once convinced myself you were.
2. You are also not the first man ruled by this kind of character makeup who I have found myself stunningly transfixed by. In fact, you join a collection of Y-chromosomed human beings who first captivated me and then confounded me and then disappointed me. I guess what I’m saying is that I, too, am at fault here. I think maybe I get charmed for the wrong reasons. I think maybe I look for mental and sexual fireworks when mere firecrackers should suffice.
Three times you did actually allow yourself to apologize for the things you’d done. I believed two of those apologies with my whole heart – but that was then. Now I think it was all just some tactical strategy you were running. Congratulations, I’d sometimes think. You got a smart girl to fall for your shit. You did it over and over again. And you managed such a feat because you picked a person who was rational and kind, someone who figured there had to be a reason for the kind of nonsense you pulled. You needed a woman who would be legitimately puzzled by your sudden absences and shifts in tone. You required someone who actively sought to come up with reasons to explain your behavior. And me? I’m someone who has long existed in life without the answers I wish I had from some very important people, yet I have also somehow managed to continue to love them anyway. I was perfect for you like that.
Ten times I actually wished harm would come your way in exchange for the harm you had so casually inflicted onto me.
Nine times I wished I had never met you, not even in fucking passing.
Eight times I wondered what else I could have possibly done to turn your total ambivalence into total devotion.
Seven times I remembered how you told me you had never really loved anyone.
Six times I wondered if all those books and articles I finally read were correct, that I really had meant nothing to you. It seems so strange and so sad to think such a thing, even in retrospect. It’s even stranger and sadder to know I believe that now entirely.
Five times I wished you back on my porch in the haze of that moonlight. I wished for the heat of the summer and the lyricism of your voice.
Four times I wished you back in my bed as the lyrics of Say Goodbye swirled like the heavens in my ears while your fists tugged at my hair and my brain spilled gloriously from my ears.
Three times I told myself that none of it means anything anymore and it never will again.
Two times I laughed right out loud at the sheer audacity of your cruelty and I heard the words What kind of grown man behaves in this manner? The voice in my head asking that question sounded so much more grown up than my actual voice does. I think there’s maybe a lesson in there somewhere.
And one time? One time I finally managed to forgive myself, and that’s the only time that really matters.