A handful of times, once or twice in college but mostly after, I had found myself on the wrong end of “we need to talk.” It wasn’t always at my house. It wasn’t always at anybody’s house. Often enough I was sitting in someone’s office. Those ones, those particular times, I usually knew what was coming so I wasn’t quite as blindsided by it. Whenever you get a call setting up an actual appointment at the place you work, you may as well go ahead and start looking for another job.
Typically I would just be pissy and make sure the fridge was stocked before my checks stopped coming. It happened more often once I was basically permanently on my own, probably because I didn’t have anyone to pretend I cared in front of. The one’s in “safe” places though, the times I was on a couch, or lying in bed, those were the ones that I usually dealt with by just leaving. Not leaving-leaving. Not throwing a fit and storming out. I usually had stuff wherever I was, and I’d have to get that stuff sooner or later. But at least a walk around the block. Enough time to come up with what I was going to say, enough time to get my head right.
Because, really, that was the worst part of them all. Not that somebody had decided they didn’t need me around anymore. That part was pretty evident. I even tried to bring it up occasionally throughout the relationships so the other person wouldn’t feel so bad when she finally realized I was right. It was sort of like prepping for the last day from the first day. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But at least that way I wasn’t left totally mouth-agape and sputtering nonsense like some kind of broken idiot.
But still, the thing was, when you think about it, it really wasn’t fair. They, the girls, the bosses, whoever, they had the time to think it all through. They had days or weeks or months to make their decision, time to align their points and make their arguments, and I was expected to just gracefully defend and deflect at the drop of a hat.
I suppose on the plus side, nobody knew I’d had the exact same conversation enough times it didn’t really make that much difference to me.
Once, I remember waking up early to go to work. It was a total shit job in a warehouse, just packaging up orders and rolling them down a little conveyor belt for eight or nine hours a day. But it paid decent, and it offered overtime, which everyone kept telling me was amazing. Like I should be so thankful I could spend more time in a hot box, packing pens and highlighters and stapler refills. Sure you make money, but at some point the scales tip and it just becomes stupid. Why am I gonna work my ass off so that I can retire later (assuming I don’t die early, get some disease, get injured on the job and flatline on the way to the hospital), just about the time I’m too old and tired to actually enjoy anything. You work 99% of your life hoping that the very very last 1% will be relaxing. That’s your goal, to get everything out of the way, and then do nothing, and then die. Before the money runs out.
My planning skills aren’t nearly that good.
So that morning, I remember standing in the kitchen, literally throwing sandwiches into a lunch box, already mad that I had to eat them in a breakroom with people I didn’t know and didn’t know how to talk to. In a bar, at my house, I could at least carry a conversation. At this place I fit in even less than anywhere else.
There was a beer stuck down on the bottom of the fridge, in the back. I didn’t even realize I had left it there the night before. I’d read once somewhere that sometimes people drink all the alcohol they have so there isn’t any more to drink and they have to stop for that night. I’d latched onto that, tweaked it a little, and used it as a halfway viable excuse for why I didn’t stop drinking at night. The girl I was with, my new supposedly long-standing, long-suffering girl, didn’t really buy it. But then too, by that point, she was already not caring. I had a pretty sure feeling about that, but she still caught me unawares not too much later.
That morning though, I picked up the beer, looking at it, one scraggly weak bit of my conscience attempting to whimper out a “is this really a good idea?” If I knew anything for sure, it’s that I was a creature of strong habit.
I was also a pathetically dedicated spring of poisoned hope. So I told myself it would be fine, funny really, and downed the beer before I took off.
It became the daily habit, until about two weeks later when I was polishing off a bottle of beer and she came walking out.
“Oh you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” she said.
I was already irritated, and halfway ready for a fight.
She walked back into the bedroom though, robbing me of that tiny vent.
I had the rest of the day to stew and argue and get good and mad, then good and apologetic, then good and logical and wise. By the time I got home, I was halfway confident. She wasn’t back from work yet, so I showered and finely tuned my side of the case. I cracked open a bottle of vodka I’d grabbed on the way home, mixed a drink, turned on the tv, and waited in what I thought was an incredibly cool, relaxed, mature way.
“What the fuck?” she said when she came in, immediately spotting the glass like a damn sniper. “Does anything I say get through to you? Do you even listen?”
I started to talk, but had learned sometimes you just had to let the explosion happen.
“It’s like you don’t even care, like I don’t even matter to you.” Each girl said this, each one seemed baffled, like I hadn’t been telling them all along I was a waste.
“You have a problem,” Janie said.
“You’re going nowhere,” Claire told me.
“I can’t put myself through this,” Elizabeth argued.
“You’ve got to get help,” they harmonized.
On a bed, on a couch, standing in a kitchen, I tried to respond. And by this point, I really was sad, in a way, truth be told.
So,I tried to frame it for them, give them the right perspective.
I’d looked over at Janie from the bed, sunlight slanting through the blinds. It wasn’t even nine am on our day. A Saturday. “I do care about you, which is why I fucking hate myself so much.”
“If you cared, you’d try. I’m not expecting you to suddenly be different, or stop drinking, or whatever. I just want you to at least see what you are doing,” she’d said.
“To me,” Claire said.
“To us,” Elizabeth echoed.
“I never claimed to be good,” I’d said. “I hate who I am, but I don’t know what else to do. You want me to be happy, and you do make me happy.”
“Not as much as this, though,” they’d said.
“This doesn’t make me happy,” I said, motioning to a drink on the kitchen table between us, as if on display. Exhibit A.
I looked down, staring at the knee of my jeans, or my hands, or looking out the window at the perfectly beautiful day. A day when everyone else was getting up and going to get brunch, or going to a park, or just staying in and reading the same book.
“When I think about who I am, who I was before we met, I’m so thankful that you never met him. I want to be different for you, and I try. But you’ve never seen who I used to be, so you can’t really see the change. And I’m not saying it’s your fault you didn’t. I’m just saying, this is better.”
“I can’t imagine this being an improvement on anything.”
“It’s like...okay, so you like when we go out. You like to be out with people. You like to do things. I don’t think you understand how much that horrifies me. I’ve never had friends. I’ve known people; I’ve been in the same places as people a lot of times. But I’ve never understood how you have people like (Insert A, B, or C). People that you talk to, and trust, and enjoy. I don’t know how to do those things.”
“You do those things all the time. I see you do them. You just said, I’m with you when we go out. Besides, we don’t even have to go out. You do this here too.”
“I know,” I would scramble, skulk. “I just don’t know what to do. I know this is stupid, but I know what I have to do to have a personality, to be interesting, to be the kind of guy that is almost halfway good enough to be with you. And I’m willing to do it. I want to be this guy for you all the time. The problem is I have to be this guy, or be ready to be this guy all the time. What am I gonna do? Be some lightweight that makes you drive home because I can’t hold my liquor?”
“No. We call a cab. We stay in. What do you think it’s like to live with you?”
“I think it’s awful,” I told her. “I’ve been doing it my whole life, and it’s awful.”
“So why don’t you get help?” J.
“Why don’t you see somebody?” C.
“If I could just see you were trying, that would be something.” E.
I leaned forward, rubbing my temples with thumb and fingers. I clasped my hands in front of my eyes, willing this to be a dream, to wake up in the bed again with a new resolve. I’d walked around the block, cursing under my breath and trying to hype myself up for something.
“I don’t think it would help,” I’d said. “I’ve read all kinds of stuff about it. And I do actually do things you wouldn’t hate.”
“I don’t hate you.”
By this point, typically, I’d given up. “There’s not really any difference.”
Sometimes I would fight harder. With Janie, laying in bed, I felt like I was actually in a home. I did live there, at least a few more months. It was where we’d spent most of our time. It was where we would always see each other in the evening. We had decorated the place together, for crying out loud. I didn’t want to let all that go. It was the first I’d ever thought things might actually go all right.
If it hadn’t been for the ever-growing lies I had to keep straight, the bottle she didn’t even know about that I kept in the trunk of the car so that I wouldn’t be constantly sneaking one around inside, if I had been able to pull myself up, maybe I would’ve.
But probably not.
I knew how this went. I understood who I was, the inherent, deep flaws in my character, my personality, my psyche. It wasn’t that I was an alcoholic, it’s that I was just broken. I was damaged. I was gasping my way through life, head barely above water, and by this point, I was really just thankful something had lasted. Even if it was just a little bit, and even if it was a little bit shorter each time.
I’d known better from the beginning, with all of them, but sometimes I still tried to hope, tried to see that things could be different. It was like moving, or getting a new job. I could just start all the new things at once. Break habits. Form new habits. Stop thinking one way. Become someone else.
But the problem with all of that was, I needed to keep being the person they had fallen for. And that person needed. Not just alcohol. Confirmation. Compliments. Fawning. He needed someone to be proud of him. He needed to be able to point to items 1, 2, and 3 and say, “Look, see these here? These are the reasons I am a valuable part of society. This is why I am allowed to be liked. These things are what I have done so that you will want to talk with me.”
But I didn’t have them. I had the townhouse with Janie, or Lucas’s and my duplex. I had jobs that were shit, but that I was able to spin as “temporary things, while I work on ________.” I was able to give everyone hope, but that was all I had. And it was a dirty trick to play.
All of them, every single girl, every single job, they had told me that if I would just take some time to work myself out, if I would get some help, things needn’t be this way. They would always be happy to talk to me about another position in the future. They would always love me. They would always want the best for me. They would always be thankful for the good times, “because they really *were* good.”
But they were never that good. What I learned was, I wasn’t the only one lying. They were just the one lying from a more socially acceptable stance. You don’t kick a guy when he’s down. You tell you love him. You tell him he just doesn’t see himself right. You tell him he is amazing and that you wish he could understand that.
But then you don’t text him back. You tell him he needs to get his stuff. Then you drop it off wherever he’s staying some night. But you make sure and do it when he isn’t there. Because nobody needs to deal with that disaster. Nobody wants the porch conversation.
And you both knew, even when it was happening, while she’d planned days before, while you’d laid or stood or sat through those moments of sudden and yet somehow expected change, you knew that this wasn’t a pause. It wasn’t a break.
It was an end. Number whatever on your list.
You take it to heart, and you make sure to build your walls up a little higher next time, because that way each time hurts a little less. The more you expect, the less you can be touched.
Maybe you get a drink, maybe you don’t. But, always, you do. Because it is one thing that allows you to continue hating, hoping, and moving forward with yourself, even if forward is just another lap around the track.
Experience, Strength, Hope