My girlfriend and I had a fight last night. A big one. This morning, the concern that I will have no one to go home to is forefront on my mind, making me forget little things like my PIN number when I tried to pay for coffee, the fact that I was running late, and even the realization that to get to work on time--as painful as it might have been to stop what might have been our last hug--I just had to let go of her and leave.
But none of these reasons is why I took the time, making my boss that much more impatient, to write this. Last night she and I talked about why I cannot seem to stop talking to a woman I had met years before in high school. And by “talking,” I do not mean chatting; I mean the type of talking that gets men in trouble with their girlfriends and wives. Truthfully, the allure was not her personality or even her person, as I have never enjoyed her company as much as I have enjoyed a text exchange, but rather how easily I could engage her in conversation using a once-exciting language I had begun to forget: “pornspeak,” for lack of an established phrase, as well as other filthy or abhorrent things: cursing my friends and family, admitting the worst parts of myself and the world around me, confessing the inconfessable.
Once I started dating my girlfriend--about whom I have always held the sneaky suspicion was too good for me, not having to struggle with moral decisions, always so sure of her actions--the responsible action would have been to stop talking to the other woman, and either teach my girlfriend pornspeak or let it go altogether. If I had based my decision on the romance I had learned from movies and novels, I would have shared every every part of myself with her, but considering my personal experience, I knew there was no one with whom everything could be shared. Unfortunately, I could not seem to shake the habit. My math-based, morally ambiguous brain could find the value in anything from foot fetishes to genocide, and pornspeak with a person outside of my relationship was no exception. So for months at a time I would imagine flowery phrases that I could use to communicate my love to my girlfriend, wondering all the while how I had developed such a void in my lexicon, and I shoved that pornspeak right back into the depths of my soul where it belonged. Every few months or so, however, I would begin to feel my soul-vomit itching and burning the back of my throat. The nausea that I could normally suppress with internal pep talks, drugs, or projection and judgment of my own sins on my friends would claw its way out, usually in my weakest and/or drunkest moments, often aided by a text message from the woman that was only very thinly veiled with innocence.
After the first, second, and third time I was caught by my girlfriend, I promised every time that I only had eyes for her, that I really only wanted to be with her, that I had simply slipped up and fallen into old habits, that nothing physical had happened, and that if she gave me one more shot, she would not be disappointed again. And I meant every word, every time; always having reached some moment of epiphany where I realized how I had come to do something so stupid, always knowing that I was finally through with the other woman. The fourth time, however, did not sit as well with either of us, though the extent of the usually filthy conversation was much milder, platonic even, than the previous incidences. It troubled me not because I did not feel sorry, or because I did not want to spare her of such intense pain, but because I had begun to fear how little my convictions meant to my behavior. I had meant it every time before when I had said it, yet every time I was forgiven, I ended up playing the role of scumbag again. It felt too familiar. I was too accustomed to the feeling. Confused, I told myself to stay sober for a while to clear my head, and drank heavily that night.
The real reason why I began to write this morning is perhaps even more disturbing. Last night I was so overwhelmed by the life-and-death heavy fight that I feared I would not sleep, but was even more terrified to dream. The reality I found myself drowning in, as I lay in bed, could only be a fraction of the exaggerated terrors that awaited me in my dreams. However, with work in the morning, I popped a melatonin, evaluating my need for sleep as more important than the fear of closing my eyes. In that haze between waking and sleeping, I sequentially imagined the horrors that were sure to confront me later: stabbing my girlfriend in the back repeatedly, the blood spattering on my hands, clothes and bed, pooling on the floor, gagging her as she screamed; my family disowning me, my boss firing me, my friends forsaking me--for who could love a cheater? I imagined being strapped to my bed, the other woman riding me violently, my girlfriend dousing me in gasoline, striking a match, and the two of them laughing as my flesh began to bubble and melt and char, the stench choking me as I clawed to get away.
But when real sleep took over, what I dreamed was far worse. Every morning I bike to work, passing a speed bump on the way that I like to race over to see how high I can get my bike to jump; a remnant of my skateboarding days as a youth. It is never impressive, as I can barely ever get both wheels off the ground, especially since I don’t try very hard in order to avoid popping my tires, but I always imagine, as I pedal faster and faster, approaching the bump, that one day I’ll get that bike a foot off the ground, and maybe someone will even be there to high five me. As I lay in bed last night, assuming I would be haunted by everything I hate about myself, instead of being ridiculed, instead of my life crumbling around me, instead of burning alive, I dreamed I was able to hit the speed bump, perfectly timing my jump, soaring several feet in the air effortlessly, before landing perfectly and seamlessly on the other side.
Two narrow eyes stared at the edge of a cheap, serrated knife, not yet two years removed from the shelves of the nearest Wal-Mart, critically doubting its utility. The rest of the dishes in the sink waited eagerly to be relieved of their burden, straining under the weight of their delicate brethren. Fragile, elegant wine glasses shot nervous glances downward at clumsy pots and pans below, faking a trusting smile while silently offering prayers to Dionysus for a safe return home. The forks and spoons, whose mischief and rivalry were widely discussed and analyzed by all the other dishes--recently the underdog spoons delivered a blow to the forks by cornering the mac n’ cheese market; an important household dish which had undoubtedly been a “fork food” for many years, possibly even implicating an increase in the use of bowls by association--the clever, silver devils shimmied and danced their way to the bottom of the sink, to the dark places, where they could do their business in secret. All around them, dried and decayed meals clung parasitically to their hosts, while bougie carafes complained incessantly about how it "shouldn’t take this long to wipe off a little coffee stain". But as the woman in blue panties held that shitty knife in her hand, neither the political dynamics of the sink, nor the “classic” movie I was watching in the adjacent room, could distract her mind from the mild, transient madness that possessed her, as she pressed her thumb to the edge of the knife, lightly running it from top to bottom.
She waited to feel a sharp burst of pain, for a blood drop to appear and swell; to be surprised at this too-cheap-to-be-good Wal-Mart knife. But nothing happened. She was still unimpressed with the “classic” movie her boyfriend had put on, still not sure whether he was genius or delusional, still not bleeding. Determined not to give up on the knife--in case it was her fault for not pressing hard enough, and not his fault for not doing what he said he would--she pressed harder, scraping with improved motivation. Each time she ran her finger along the edge she expected to feel something, figured there had to be a point where her finger would tell her she had gone too far; each stroke a bit deeper and more willful than the one before, until finally, after her seventh pass, she squealed as a sudden pain forced her to drop the knife. The water continued to run, soap sliding down her forearms, forming new, dark watermarks on her shirt pressed against the wet sink. She stood motionless, watching the blood collect and slide lazily down toward the soft fleshy part of her thumb.
"Wh-What are you doing? Why did you do that?" I implored, eyes wide with desperate concern.
"I--well I--” Her eyes jerked away, darting around the room, searching for an answer reasonable enough to convince me that what I had seen was simply worse than it looked, but finding none, she continued coolly.
“I just didn’t think that knife was sharp enough to hurt me. I guess I wanted to give him a chance to prove me wrong."
Instantly after her confession, her narrowing eyes locked in on mine, mouth forming an almost imperceptible grimace, prepared for defiance, daring me to challenge her sanity or logic. In the moments when she is rational and in control, when she confidently defends her decisions, this look is sturdy and impenetrable, but that day she must have even surprised herself. The steely resolve that usually holds her gaze steady suddenly faltered. During the worst times, when she is irrational and out of control, the only difference is a brief moment that betrays the integrity of her practiced, defiant look. A millisecond-long twitch of her right eye--the result of the minutest moment of indecision--I had come to learn was the only evidence I would ever receive, but also the only evidence I would need, to judge whether she truly believed herself or merely wanted to believe herself. Her self-doubt never lasted long because she could not bear to doubt herself for long--that millisecond was all the self-consciousness she could handle in strange moments like these--but time and time again, that millisecond consistently predicted disaster.
The next morning she did not wake with the alarm, allowing whoever else was around to take care of it, or perhaps allowing it to stop itself--slowly, effortlessly rolled onto her stomach, pulling the blanket off of her legs as she covered her ears. An unpainted still life, wrapped in flowing cloth like the crumbling murals of angels plastered on the ceilings of churches, legs and arms outstretched as if in flight; this image is the first of the day, the image used to calibrate the lenses after a night’s sleep had cleared away the dull tinge of yesterday’s disappointments. Somewhere deeper in my consciousness, in a place inaccessible to my simple morning mind, a feeling of distrust swam around unnoticed; a big fish too clever to break the pristine, even surface of the lake. But the beauty of her form and the freshness of the morning light inspired a profound sensation, joyfully mistaken as the synthesis of some new, great understanding of life.
The excitement of epiphany is an old childhood friend. In those simple days, the pattern of colors on a frog’s back, the sudden understanding that the stars which brightly spot the sky are just like the sun of our planet, the grasping of a new mathematical concept; were all enough to flood the young mind with a special sort of ecstatic sensation. But this old friend, once easily recognizable, steadily becomes more and more difficult to follow in the presence of competing sensations. Hormonal sentiment, drug-induced fallacy, and years of false prophecy all serve to blur the distinction between sentiment and truth, making the difference much more difficult to discern. So unfortunately, as a man with little in the attention department, a lot in the hope department, and a soft spot for beautiful things, I allowed the morning to succeed in deluding me, leaving for work with an unconscious smile and a hopeful outlook reserved for those who know that all will be well in their world.
I dropped three ice cubes in my glass of whiskey, and, sitting in my favorite spot, watched as the oily swirls folded in on each other. Closing my eyes, I sank into a growing sense of security, and I stopped to appreciate the rare moment, one of the fleeting ones when I am able to drop the act I perform for everyone. But as tiresome as my act can get, going off script was entirely out of the question, for the script was what protected my sanity from the waves of chaos crashing at the shoreline of my consciousness. Once I discovered one could be exposed to new ideas through experimenting with one’s consciousness, my penchant for drugs and wild antics in college had earned me the nickname “Moon,” after the notoriously wild rock drummer who had ended up dead by 32. But chaos is exhausting, so I gave up my previous dream of being the crazy, genius recluse, and instead tried to construct a narrative about a confident, efficient young man who was compassionate and interesting, effortlessly offering a joke, a kind word, or silence when appropriate. I developed this character by taking the summation of all the compliments I was ever given and mashing them into an ideal man that I believed I could achieve because in a way, I kind of already had. So while I smiled and rehearsed my lines every day, several years’ worth of failing to live up to the "best self script" did nothing to make the story feel any truer to me.
A sudden, tense silence stopped my train of thought in its tracks. It was a silence that made the hair on my neck stand up, sending a wave of anxiety from my head to my gut, the unsettling kind of silence that does not exist in safe places. Having learned to find comfort in the eternal, cacophonous jazz of city life, played by millions of city-dwellers eking out their existence, I grew uncomfortable in the silence of nature, the silence of the suburbs, the silence of sleep; the silence that was noticed because the music stopped.
“What was that?” I instinctually called out to her in the kitchen behind me, realizing slowly that I had missed something she had said, cursing my brain’s for it's lack of diligence. As I turned to look at her, I was met with a glare, crossed arms, and those eyes, normally a deep, warm brown were dark and penetrating. Suddenly, violently, I felt my calm shaken off like a wet dog ridding itself of the foreign substance.
“Nothing,” I barely heard her mutter.
As I met her gaze again, searching my mind in case I could perform a miracle and somehow recall what she had said, I could feel the anger and irritation radiating from her almost blank stare, like holding my face too close to a campfire.
“Babe, what did you say? I didn’t catch what you said at the beginning. I heard something about Sam and Jess from that show, but I didn’t hear what you were saying about them.”
“Nevermind. I just don’t like repeating myself.” She dropped the sponge and went into the bedroom.
I felt my face deform into a frown. This meant we were in Phase 1 of a meltdown. Utterly familiar with the look I was being given, as well as the fight that was sure to ensue, I could think of nothing but escaping this cycle of hurt and habit which threatened to start fresh tonight. My mind paced as I planned my next move, grasping in all directions in the dark, hoping to find some kind of novel solution that it had not thought to try yet. I would have given anything to be unfamiliar with those fights. With each failed attempt to dismantle the time bomb with the right words, the knowledge that another failure would be added to the list by the end of the night was almost worse than actually experiencing the fight.
Phase 2: Now I could feel the wrath begin to boil deep in my gut. Observing my family over the years had taught me to bury my angry response below more useful mental processes like creativity or critical thinking, and it always worried me when I could feel myself losing control over it. It was no easy task to anger me, but it was at least twice as hard to calm me down. But as I grow older I wonder whether it wasn't justified to respond angrily from time to time. Was it not me who tried, fight after fight, hour after hour, to come to some compromise? To talk through the issues, figuring out real solutions? Even when she was not ready to talk, I would give her space, knowing anger is not conducive to peace negotiations. Perhaps I could have spent more time with her, but it would have been rude to ignore the other house guests. I made a mental note to look up party etiquette later.
I dug my hands into the cushions of the metallic, outdoor swing my housemates and I decided would be more fun and less expensive than a traditional couch. I was in the habit of unconsciously swinging while reading or watching a show, but tonight, the repetitive back-and-forth motion which usually felt like a maternal caress, comforting my body now too large for a mother’s arms, did nothing to alleviate the tension. In fact, the squeak that now accompanied each pass forward or backward only served to irritate me, frustrate me, agitate, infuriate.
The rest of the room was equally disturbing. The entertainment center stood tall in the half-darkness, a jumbled knot of cords and tiny LED lights spilling out of its center like the exposed intestines of a skinny robot, casting shadows across the maze of drinking glasses strewn about the floor. The disarray of books on the cheap bookshelves begged to be straightened, looking like the inside of a board game box after its been shaken up. I wondered how anyone could find comfort living in such an unstable environment.
Which meant Phase 3: trying to distract myself. The room was not the issue, of course, for despite all of its disturbing qualities, the room and its contents were inanimate objects after all, incapable of intention, and utterly defenseless against the will of the people who gathered them. My slippers made a horribly loud scraping sound as I stopped my abnormally unnerving swing session, so, feeling my desperation gaining momentum, still unsure what to say but sure enough that I was right to feel confident, I stood up, smoothed my shirt, habitually checked my pockets, ran fingers through my hair, and walked toward the bedroom, straightening as I walked, holding my head high, fists clenched, ready to squash my problems. But all I found was my lover curled in a ball in the middle of the room, eyes fixed on our dirty floor, tears collecting in a pool under her chin.
My anger evaporated like tears on a hot pan, though it should not have surprised me since it always happened this way, leaving nothing else to distract me from the residual desperation. That desperation crept in from the corners of the room, an unwelcome pest, battling to win control of my behavior and thoughts from the rationality which currently protected me. As her rib cage rose and fell, shuddering with despair on each passing, I knew I had to think of something clever, maybe funny, or even compassionate to say; anything to make her smile again.
Phase 4: Having only a stunted momentum to go on, I reverted to my core strategy for problem solving: find the inconsistencies, explore them, correct them. The new tears welling in her eyes splashed thick and heavy with the weight of their grief, spreading slowly on the floor like a pool of blood. I instinctively examined my oversize hands, massaging the thick fingers too rough for the delicate task required of me, searching for what to say. I sat down on the floor.
“Baby, just tell me what’s wrong,” I begged out of desperation.
Silence. When she spoke, it was to the floor, as she seemed too weak from sadness to turn her head.
“It just seems like you don’t even care I’m around.”
What did that even mean? Not a half hour ago, the smiling faces of their friends filled the house with noise and excitement. On every face a smile, he had thought warmly as he observed the party, pleased with the rhythm of the phrase. Even hers! He had taken special note to make sure she was having a good time all night. What could it be? Was that not caring? Creating an entire environment of goodness: a house full of people, enough drugs and alcohol to go around, and a warm chest to snuggle into after the broken glass had been swept up afterward; did none of it count? Through all the layers of hurt imposed on her by her family over the years, and all the defense mechanisms she had adopted in order to survive with some semblance of sanity, I felt often that something would get mistranslated, and some small negligence on my part would be mistaken for the “coldness of a sociopath."
It worried me, though because "mistranslation" might only be how I interpreted her judgments which were too hard to accept. My ex-girlfriend had told me I should have felt lucky to be with her because girls want to feel and be felt, not challenged and studied. I had always felt detached from other people, able to observe their patterns of behavior but not quite able to relate. It was moments like these which made me worry the most, and I figured if I wasn’t a sociopath, I would be able to tell what the issue was, or at least I would be as upset as my girlfriend. Yet, here she was, spilling her soul all over the floor while I stood, thinking, saying nothing. Perhaps I was a sociopath, and she was unhappy because we were missing some vital emotional connection I did not know how to provide.
Phase 5: Preparing for the worst-case scenario. I could begin to feel it all slipping away again, like every time we fought like this; our love, our life, our future, everything I had been concentrating so hard on changing and building up, was now all for naught if we could not be happy together. There had never been a happier, more stable, or productive time of my life, no one I had ever been more attached to, and I feared the consequences of being unattached to my anchor and trusting my own discipline. And just as I dreaded that the final phase, Phase 6 was approaching, the phase we had never quite been to though we had been as close before, I noticed her bright brown eyes calling out to me. I startled, fumbling around with the tangle of arms and legs under me, and as I finally reached my full height, she held my gaze steadily. She waited a few seconds before speaking.
“I’m sorry. I’m ready for bed. I was just so upset.”
I shut my eyes and exhaled, sinking into bed, wrapping my arms around the most precious thing I had ever touched. Coming to grips with the reality of losing her made the reality of my having her come sharply into perspective. Like an oncoming wave came something I would call bliss, if I had to use a word, filling my entire chest, its intensity swelling past any sensation I ever remembered experiencing, sending electricity through my fingertips and tears to my eyes. I was overpowered by feelings of love for my bed, for my house, for my girlfriend, for my life. The skin under my hair began to tingle as the sensation peaked. I squeezed my lovely little lover tightly to my chest and took a deep breath, realizing for the first time that this feeling of security, safety, and stability was all that I had ever been searching for. All I truly needed and yearned for in life was the ability to close my eyes at night and look forward to waking up. Every other decision in my life was aimed at creating the right environment for this to happen: work everyday to pay for the house we live in, the food that sustains us, and other little things that aid in improving our health and happiness in some way; be it locks on the front door to keep us safe or drugs and a movie for entertainment. Oddly enough, I could see how my mistakes were also result of this desperation for stability, most of them misguided experiments which were just a remnant of methods I had learned to use to cope with feeling "not enough". For the past few years of my life I had been searching feverishly for a sense of balance, unaware that my fever was the main thing throwing me off. It all seemed so simple, if I could just remember this one feeling and how it related to this night, I could stop searching for happiness during the day.
As I began blinking back tears, every bit of my being that had been floating in the sea of love and completeness I had just discovered was inverted, with gut-wrenching force by an intense pang of fear that stabbed through my heart, betraying my desire to float in bliss forever. With a sudden, almost humorous clarity it hit me: I was so fucked up, I would forget most of these thoughts by morning, if not sooner, as was expected when I was this high and drunk. I began to dread the morning, fearing I would roll out of bed the same troubled boy, ignorant to the profundity of the night’s half-dreamed epiphanies. But these thoughts were too important to lose, and perhaps they would still be valuable even if I would forget the general feeling. I wanted desperately to write it all down, my mind racing, mentally locating the nearest pen and paper, but gave up quickly, as moving from this position felt like the last thing possible. As I felt how her warm body fit perfectly in mine, and how the sensation influenced my thoughts, I knew there would be nothing to write down even if I did get up; the feeling would be lost as soon as I was disconnected from her. With bittersweet resolution I dug my face further into her hair, and gave in to the hope that all would not be lost in the morning. With a glance at the clock, I realized it already was morning. And I had not forgotten yet, so perhaps there was hope.