A bunch of years ago, my best friend was muddling her way through a long and tedious stretch of being single. It wasn’t that she was dying to be part of a couple just then, but she was starting to feel like she was slowly being driven mad from all the cavorting she found herself doing with sociopaths and psychopaths as the sun went down, to say nothing of the emotional kleptomaniacs she associated with during daylight hours. Making matters even more trying was the way her vacant relationship status somehow managed to weave its way into every single conversation she had during every single meal she shared with every single member of her rather large family. It happened time and time again. She would arrive home from THE WORST FUCKING BRUNCH IN ALL OF HISTORY (EVEN THOUGH THE WHITEFISH WAS REALLY GOOD) and, emotionally mauled, she would pick up the phone and call me. As a friend, I made it my business to be supportive. I tried to offer her solutions to her very real problems. I suggested, for example, that she put herself up for adoption and maybe find a family that prided itself on its patterns of withholding. I volunteered to take pictures of her twisted into that yoga pose where her ankles end up tucked behind her ears and then post it online because I was certain she’d land a boyfriend in less than an hour. But in the short-run, I encouraged her to maybe keep her dating experiences to herself, to not share them with her mother unless the story involved a guy who might actually end up looming large in her future. I also told her to stop being wooed by the lure of bagels and lox, that she could purchase that shit herself and then enjoy a quiet meal where nobody asked her to pass the cream cheese after guesstimating exactly how many seemingly perfect men she’d allowed to get away from her during her twenties because she’d prioritized sexy stubble over basic human decency back in those hypercrazy days.
Since I too have made several romantic choices that were based almost entirely on some guy having the kind of scruff that caused my knees to buckle whenever I caught a glimpse of it across the room or gazed up at it while I was reclining between his open legs, I maybe wasn’t the best person to turn to for advice. Still, I wanted my friend to be happy and I knew that sometimes she wasn’t even looking for advice or answers; she just really needed to decompress and talk through her stress. I recall particularly how our conversations after holiday dinners tended to be especially long since she would recount every insane comment her mother made over the entire evening. (Passover was always the worst, what with all that time spent at the table before even a fucking bit of food is served. And the Israelites thought they had it rough…) But probably my favorite comment of all time was made by my friend’s mother during one particular Seder and it’s when she asked her daughter, “Aren’t you proud of me for not even bringing up that you’re still boyfriendless? Aren’t I handling your loneliness so well?” To this day, I cannot believe there were knives and electric turkey carvers on that table and nobody ended up in the hospital or in prison.
I listened hard to the hurt in my best friend’s voice as she described her evening of total fucking misery and I understood her struggle. But perhaps even worse than the struggle of being alone was the manner in which her parents could never seem to internalize and accept her very real need to keep them out of that portion of her life. Their steadfast dismissal of her boundaries confused me. It confuses me still. I’m sure there are people who are legitimately invested in both my life and my wellbeing who have some very fair questions they’d like to ask me about some very personal things, but I’ve managed to set up relationships in which I make my own boundaries abundantly clear. I’ve just always subscribed to the notion that there are some things in my life I don’t want to share and you can ask me whatever you want, but by no means does you having posed a question mean that you’re going to get an answer to that question. I’m difficult that way. I will flat out respond, “Yeah, I’m not talking about that,” and then I will watch as the other person appears visibly flustered after being verbally cockblocked and I will feel for that person and his or her internal pangs of embarrassment, but I’ll never feel any of it so strongly that I will seek to soothe them with information about myself I don’t particularly care to share.
There have been moments when my friend has grown so furious and insulted that she has shouted out my signature “I’m not talking about that shit!” line. Unfortunately, her family never reacted to the metaphorical door slam the way mine did. My family would retreat and give me my space. I guess they knew I’d break eventually and inform them about what was emotionally ravaging me, but her family would keep pushing and pressing and, to this day, I find that sort of behavior nothing short of violating. There’s no doubt they are loving and compassionate people who would move the sun and the stars to make their daughter’s life better, but that sort of innate goodness doesn’t cancel out the problems their persistent involvement has created.
Gritty emotional torment aside, some of the hideous situations my friend stumbled into during Those Single Years were nothing short of hilarious. This particular story made me laugh for ten minutes straight: She went to the wedding of a good family friend, the kind of family that’s so close you call the parents “Aunt” and “Uncle.” As she watched the daughter get married, my friend looked around the room to see who was there and one of the people she spotted was a very elderly grandfather who appeared vacant and confused. Later, during the reception, she asked after that grandfather and was told he was in the dire depths of Alzheimer’s and rarely had any idea who he was or where he happened to be anymore. The entire situation seemed awful and my friend kept finding herself looking his way and witnessing people he’d known for scores of decades try to engage with him while he glared at them as though they were dangerous strangers. At some point, she found herself on his side of the room and smiled shyly when he looked her way. This man – who didn’t recognize that his own granddaughter was the bride or what year it was or who was currently the President of the United States or that he had been shoved into a tuxedo for an entire evening – looked right at my friend and asked, “Are you still single?”
Becky laughed when she told me that story because she’s the kind of girl who finds the subversive amusing, but what stays with me even more than the residual hilarity of a man with no memory managing to recall that she was still single and then inquiring about the matter is how fucking awful it feels when you’re put on the spot and must confront the very thing you so desperately want to avoid. I’ve found myself in that position – I’m sure we all have – and something I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I would rather endure the searing pain of a bladder infection than experience any form of mental discomfort. (And just in case you’re the kind of lucky bastard who has never endured the agony of a bladder infection, you should know – for accurate comparison’s sake and all – they hurt like a motherfucker.) I guess the logical side of me just understands that painful peeing cannot possibly last forever, but whatever it is that’s swirling through my mind like the last remnants of Goldschlager after a bout with alcohol poisoning might very well warp me for all of eternity.
I deal with what I most don’t want to deal with by orchestrating my life in a manner I pretend keeps me safe. I avoid certain people and I avoid certain places. I will not show up at a location where I run the risk of seeing someone who would cause my insides to freeze and that means there are places that are off-limits for me. For exactly how long they will remain off-limits is hard to determine – it will not be forever, that much I know – but at various times in my life, I would and could not so much as enter the following places:
· A hockey arena
· East Hampton in August
· An upscale steakhouse on Long Island
· A Pearl Jam concert
I’ve come to terms at this point with most of these temporarily haunted settings. Seeing them in a blur from a car window doesn’t cause my heart to race anymore, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t a little worried last week when I found myself driving to that steakhouse that I knew was filled with ghostlike images from my past. I could feel a sharp pain shooting through my stomach that almost caused me to pull over twice, but once I was there I was perfectly fine. Sure, there was that brief instant when I had to almost gulp my air because I glanced across the room and saw that one table where I’d once sat on that one night when I’d been really happy, but I got over that minor paralyzing flashback the second my appetizer arrived. It’s probably important to note here that I did not arrive at that restaurant with the intention of confronting my past. I did not set the evening’s plan. I would never have selected that restaurant, not ever. It is a place that’s forever compromised in my mind, but I have to admit that the reality of being there was not nearly as excruciating as I’d expected and I ended up having a really lovely evening. The pain and fear really is all in my own head. I should try to remember that more often.
But still I engage in some actions ruled entirely by avoidance. Like, I’ll turn my phone all the way off sometimes while it’s still sunny outside. It’s rare, but there are just some days when I want to slip away into an almost assured state of silence. Since I’m someone who worries when I can’t get in touch with friends and family, I will text a few people right before I momentarily go underground to alert them in advance that I’m fine. I’ll usually announce that I need some uninterrupted sleep – I feel more normal when I offer a reason for my brief bouts of crazy. Maybe they believe me. Maybe they know I’m feeling the need to hide for a little while. Then there are the evenings I find myself on the phone with someone who is important to me and I’m silent while listening to a story – a detailed, disturbing story – and I know I have to keep listening, that I have to force myself, at least until I hear that one final horrifying portion of the tale, the one I think could very well send me spinning over the jagged edge. That’s when the avoidance descends upon me like a spiky clamp. That’s when I make the person stop talking. I will beg for quiet if I have to. I did that just ten days ago when I actually said the words, “Please. I just can’t know anymore,” and the person on the other side of the line blessedly showed me some mercy.
This is not a behavioral pattern of which I’m all that proud. This is not a coping mechanism that offers any sort of long-term comfort. After a while, though, it’s hard not to recognize that there is a temporary emotional deep breath – a swelling of something inside that feels calm and probably smells like vanilla – and you can pretend a problem or a person or a moment can actually disappear if you simply allow yourself to go ahead and imagine that it’s already gone. Avoidance tastes sweet. After a while, you can swallow it fucking whole without a chaser.
Only two nights ago I made the very conscious choice to escape. Perhaps from another person’s perspective, the issue at hand would not be seen as so inherently dramatic, but I could not arrive at that sort of viewpoint no matter how hard I tried to make myself. See, at around 5:00PM, I heard something running inside the ceiling of the bottom floor of my home.
My first thought: It’s just branches scraping the side of the house and the sound is being thrown so it sounds like it’s coming from inside my ceiling.
My second thought: Every idiot horror character who dies early on thinks the strange sounds she’s hearing comes from branches or the wind instead of the revving of a chainsaw already soaked in her boyfriend’s blood and I have taught these fucking movies for way too long to go down like one of those scantily clad morons.
My third thought: Something is definitely living in my ceiling. And it’s either some furry animal or a ghost.
My fourth thought: For the love of all that is holy, please let it be a fucking ghost and not a fleet of mice because, so help me, I will pack my belongings and move out tonight.
My fifth thought: Can an animal – or some spirit – manage to get out of my ceiling and waltz into my bedroom? Should I sleep someplace else for the night?
My sixth thought: Make it all go away…
I called a pest control company and was informed they’d deal with the issue first thing in the morning and I suppose that timeframe worked well for them, but I wanted to deal with all of this never. So I did the kind of thing I sometimes do when things gets complicated and there’s no immediate solution to the problem at hand. I took a bunch of Tylenol PM, closed my bedroom door tightly, and went to sleep the very second the sun went down. I heard nothing the next morning before I left for work and I figured maybe the family of demons or critters was sleeping because I knew I hadn’t imagined what I’d heard the previous evening – but, oh, how I wish I had. I found out later that it was a squirrel and he was caught and the problem has now allegedly been fully rectified and I heard nothing traipsing across my ceiling last night. But with that problem solved, maybe it’s time I confront just how easily I’ve conditioned myself to run away from fear.
I’m getting better, though. I can see what I suppose I should just go ahead and call “growth” and I see it happening in incidents both large and small. Look, I’d rather sit at a table with Phyllis Schlafly in a restaurant located in the bowels of hell where we dine on dehydrated strips of kale while she informs me of all the many reasons why feminism will ultimately annihilate society as a whole than have to spend an afternoon with someone who has personally betrayed me. Still, if my presence in this conflicted environment will soothe the psyche of someone I adore who also has to be there, I will show up. And not only will I be there, but I will arrive on time and I will act like nothing’s wrong and I will keep the conversation flowing in the manner I always do. I will help serve the food and I will help clear the table and I will arrive with a dessert or three and I won’t allow there to be even a second of silence because more truth is spoken in silence than in soliloquies. And when I finally feel like it’s okay to leave, I will briefly kiss the smooth cheek of the person I’d prefer to never see again for as long as I live and I will climb into the car and feel my dimples and my eyes harden the way they’ve been restricted from doing all day long.
I realize, of course, that the act of pretending is just another form of avoidance, but in this kind of situation it’s being done expressly for someone else’s benefit. One thing I’ve never doubted: I’m strong enough to protect the people I love even if I’m not always certain I can protect myself. Another thing I know for sure: laughing hard at what feels ridiculous simultaneously works to lighten my soul and strengthen my stomach muscles without having to do some crunches. That sort of riotous laughter also makes the unknown feel patently less alarming. Take first dates. I don’t know anyone fully sane who actually enjoys a first date. They are like job interviews where booze and food are served and they come with the added awesomeness of some ingrained expectations and I am someone who has broken more first dates than anybody I have ever known. Sometimes I’ll reschedule and sometimes I won’t, but I always consider the way out. But again, something has changed in me a little bit and the changes are in the areas that might really matter. I had a date with a new guy very recently and I didn’t even contemplate not showing up. I chose an outfit, straightened my hair, tossed on some makeup, and then I found I had a little extra time. Back in my days of total avoidance, I would have used those free minutes to come up with a clever and believable excuse for why I would not be showing up to meet him in half an hour, but this time I just texted a friend of mine in L.A.
Me: I’m about to go on a date with a Jewish college professor who has dark hair. Somewhere my father and Freud are laughing their asses off.
Him: He’s Jewish?!
And that comment made me break out into a big smile and that smile completely melted my fear. My friend’s reaction made sense. I expected him to react to the notion that I was all but going on a date with someone just like my dad, but it’s way funnier that he concentrated on the Jewish thing. I mean, I haven’t dated someone from my own religion since I was twenty-one! More than that, it was the lightness of his response – the quickness of our banter – that calmed me and made me remember that of course I could handle a first date. I could even handle the moment when the wine started flowing and the conversation began to get real. And later on, I allowed myself to consider all of those days and all of those minutes and all of those moments I’d sought to escape from because I’d somehow managed to convince myself that the act of avoidance was for my own benefit. I’d hidden from too much over the years – it was time to admit that – so I finally swallowed the truth and when I did, I could taste the white wine from dinner on the way back of my tongue.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter