Personal

“I’m exhausted by my heart”

It’s complicated,” she whispered softly the other night. Several nights ago. And I never knew what that meant all those nights ago. In these sleepless nights, I stare at the oblivion unraveling before me. The darkness has crept in, hasn’t it? And I understand what she meant.

“Why do some people insist on staying in a toxic relationship,” I ask my friend one night.

“Because they’re used to being in it and change is hard. And scary,” she responds.

Maybe it’s that I’ve forgotten. Forgotten what it’s like to be in a relationship. In a romantic relationship. The need of having someone who you can wrap yourself to and just let all the heaviness fade away. It’s been eight years since Jeanna, nearly as long apart as we were together. I tried to remember how it was in those days. Feeling empty. Abandonment.

“I miss you,” her text message read. And a part of me wants to respond with a cynical line: It would be hard to miss me if you stopped leaving me behind. But I don’t have the nerve. Because somewhere along the line, I stopped being the self-centered, selfish asshole. And I start thinking that this is some sort of self-issued penance for the years I was a terrible person to those I loved.

“I feel like this a healthy relationship for you,” my friend texts.

And I bite back the tears as I respond: “So I ask again: Why do some people insist on staying in a toxic relationship?”

“I don’t know how you do it,” my supervisor tells me. We’re in her office at work and I just broke the news that I want to leave the library. After everything I’ve been through in the last two years and now COVID-19, I’m feeling less and less content at work. Every morning it’s a fight to convince myself to go in.

“Do what?” I ask. But I know what she’s going to say. Because I ask myself that every day.

“After what you told me about the accident. Your father last year. I think I would have broken down already.”

“And yet I smile,” I say, rolling my eyes at the fact that I just quoted a zombie show. “The smiles aren’t for me. They’re for everyone else. Because if I crumble, the I feel…” and I let that fade into the silence.

“A friend one told me,” I continued, “that I carried the world on my shoulders. That I made everyone’s well being my responsibility. And maybe I do. There’s Jeanna. There’s Shaun. There’s you and there’s Doris. I do it for others and rarely for myself.” And before I go too far into the good guy complex, I fall silent. “I’ve been thinking of seeking someone,” I end my part of the conversation.

Six years later, things are still complicated. And after a lengthy text conversation, she ends it with, “This could be the wine speaking…” And the oblivion wraps its arms arms around me in a welcoming embrace, an old friend falling back in step with me. And as I close my eyes and welcome it, my mind whispers, “Is this all there is?”

Personal

Of the Sea

What the hell am I doing here? I scan the crowd looking for my dance partner, but she’s lost in the sea of tallness. This is the curse of being short. Even the dance instructor is hidden from my sight. I find it difficult to follow someone’s lead when he isn’t visible. The option of following those in front of me brushes my mind, but even their steps are uncertain. It’s the childhood game of Telephone turned to a warped dance routine. A Xerox copy of a copy of a copy.

My eyes go from the men’s clumsy footing back to scanning the class. We’re divided, a middle school dance party. Men on one side; women on the other. I turn to the man beside and crack a smile. “Forgive me,” I say, “but I’m pretty certain by the end of this, I’ll be bumping into you.”

I look again for her face. I see her, catch her attention, and give her a weak smile. She shoots back a what-did-I-get-us-into expression, but she’s enjoying herself. I’m doing the best to not feel overly self-conscious of my profuse sweating. Why didn’t I stick to wearing the black shirt?

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” I tell her when we’re allowed to dance with our partners. It isn’t hard to notice the over-saturation of women without dance partners. If not all, most of the men are here with wives and girlfriends or, in my case, a co-worker.

“Ladies,” the male instructor announces, “if you don’t have a partner, we’ll be swapping during the lessons. So find a couple and stand to their right. That way everyone has a chance to dance with a partner.”

A chill crawls up and slides back down my back. I built the nerve to let her be close to me, but total strangers are a horse of a different color. I shoot her a nervous look, and explain my case. I always wondered how crazy I sound when I tell others about my being touched phobia.

Despite my aversion, I danced with three or four other women that night, apologizing beforehand about lack of dancing skills. “I think that’s why we’re all here,” one lady laughed, “so don’t worry.”

Every so often, I catch her eye and give her a weak smile. This is new to me. All of it. Not even sure what my endgame is in this scenario. There is no hiding the fact that I like this woman. I must because here I am, missing steps and overstepping with a total stranger.

“You focus too much on the relationship,” she tells me during one of our many sessions where we attempt to play the best friend role. Truth of the matter is, we are best friends. We know each other better than we do ourselves. A nine-year relationship will do that to people. It’s one of the many versions of this accusation I hear on the three-year road towards recovery from a major heartbreak. Her relationship is new and thriving. It isn’t the same as the one we had, but that’s the purpose of new relationships. Don’t rehash old ones. “You’re always several steps ahead from where you stand.”

“I don’t want to waste anyone’s time,” I say. “I don’t want to waste my own.”

It’s not untrue. How many times have I planned a series without so much as writing the first sentence of the beginning story? My life is a series of second guessing, over thinking, and missed opportunities. I prefer the one book over the entire library because it’s safer. I know the beginning, middle, and end. It gives me some sense of control over the chaos around me.

“Dance class?” she asks as I fasten Shaun into his car seat. “Like for a quinceanera—“ she trails realizing that we’re no longer in high school. “A wedding,” she adds.

“No,” I shrug. “Just some dance class. She asked if I’d be her partner, and I said yes.” Not exactly the truth. It took some courage building to agree to it. Thankfully she ignored my pronoun game.

She doesn’t dig deeper, which surprises me. We’re finally good. We’re finally at that place where I’m comfortable enough to refer to her as just my friend. Sure the feelings linger. They always will. For nine years, she was the love of my life. But my role in her story has been recast. That chapter in my life, written and edited without room for revision. Still, I enjoy the incredulous look spread across her face.

“It’s not that big a deal,” I say.

I spend last Saturday night watching movies. There isn’t a single thought in my head outside of the going-ons in I Melt With You and, later, High Fidelity. And it hits me. Something dancing on the tip of my nose these last few months. The way she makes me smile. The way she holds this innate power to make me blush. The way I feel this pang of disappointment when she isn’t there. “Sonuva bitch,” I mumble. And because it’s late and my head is spinning at the obvious, I turn to Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. “Aww fuck. I like her, don’t I?” I manage to type.

It’s not a terrible revelation. It’s just that I didn’t see it coming. Didn’t see it when I agreed to partnering up with her for the dance. Didn’t see it when I considered joining her business venture.

I see it now. As I lose track of my steps, hoping my current dance partner doesn’t notice. The way I sit across from her at Whataburger, giving in to her burger offer after opting for only a milkshake. I see it in my attempt to figure out how to create the invitation to her daughter’s birthday. How I found someone who could make them professional looking and later spending an hour at Walmart to get them printed. And I see it when she hugs me, because no one is allowed that close to me. Not for a long time.

I don’t have an endgame. I don’t know what I want out of this. I spent a third of my life trying to control the story, it’s time that I just let things fall where they may. And I got to say: this uncertainty is murder on me. But as I always tell others, go with what makes the better story.