Slow down, you’re doing fine.
The end of my first semester of my senior year of high school is notoriously synonymous with the end of the world as we once knew it. In March of 2020, on a Thursday afternoon, I was teaching an after school program for kids interested in pursuing Stage Production, and by the time I was home my senior prom, senior international trip, and graduation ceremony had been put on hold along with the rest of in-person schooling for the year.
For the first few weeks, I lived in a haze. I mourned the loss of my end-of-year milestones and the time left in school alongside my friends. Even after the haze had broken, the thought of returning to any of my pre-pandemic responsibilities -- homework, classes, college applications, summer employment plans -- seemed completely impossible.
I started to lose track of the date. I had become completely immersed in short-term, immediate satisfaction. I picked up addictions and habits that would take me months, if not years, to kick. I hardly left my bed. On May first, my mother peaked into my room to inform me that in my ignorance of time and space I had completely missed college commitment deadlines.
Something snapped inside of me. I was filled with panic, not only because my once distantly secure future was now blurry at best and completely black at worst, but because I realized that, even if I had gotten together the motivation or executive function to commit to one of the colleges I had been accepted to, I had no idea what I wanted out of my future. Post-high school life had always been something I was so sure of -- so sure that I never bothered to look closely enough at it to see the details.
Frantically, I began looking for plans. Jobs for the fast-approaching summer, a place to live, and a purpose to serve next school year.
Today is Friday afternoon. It has been more than two years since that Thursday. I am sitting in my office across from a seventh grade student who attends the school I work at. He is napping with his head down on the desk. He is here because ten minutes ago another student said something to him that made him so mad he felt like hitting someone. Instead he came to me.
I have just finished setting up my Ithaca College email account. My inbox is filled with messages from the Registrars office telling me what to expect from my freshman year, which starts in a few months. It is sunny outside. I hear an ice cream truck rounding the corner and sixth graders in the courtyard screaming and laughing.
The last two years of my life have been hard. I have had jobs I hated, I have been surrounded with people who hated me, and I have spent almost all that time wondering if I made the right choice waiting two years to attend college. But that time has been mine. Those two years have been mine to fuck up and learn from and fuck up all over again.
I don't remember what it felt like when the world ended. I don't remember what it felt like to be sitting on my bed, high, crying, wishing I was dead because I couldn't imagine the life that laid ahead of me.
I do remember that yesterday one of my students who hadnt turned in a homework assignment this whole year, wrote a three page essay and turned it in early.
I do remember that four days ago I committed to my dream school, and the day after that one of my children brought me a ring she made me out of elastic and beads to celebrate.
I do remember that last week I received a phone call from one of my students' mothers, during which she expressed to me how grateful she is that I have been tutoring her child in math.
The future is still hazy -- but its not black anymore. The future is still unknown -- but I am excited to know it. The future is still distant -- but I'm not looking too hard anymore, because right now the present is pretty sweet.
The last time I felt joy I was moments from death. I was so high I could feel my heartbeat in my eyes and I didn't even care that I was tethering on the line between life and death. I was lying on the floor of my living room, nose caked with cocaine and snot, forehead shining with sweat, body so translucent and bloodless that I couldn't tell where the bruises on my legs stopped and started but none of that mattered. I was praying, I was begging God to let me die because I wanted to die having known joy and I could not think of anything more joyful than a rush of artificial energy, the smell of cigarettes on my hands, and the rough pile of the rug on the back of my neck.
Dear god, if you are wondering whether or not you should kill me right now I am promising you that I won't be mad if you do. There is no one awake to save me. I do not want to be saved. I told myself I would stay alive until I was certain I had known joy and I swear there is no joy greater than knowing this high.
The last time I felt joy I was flickering in and out wondering if I should wake up my roommate and make her take me to the hospital. I knew she was just as high as I was and it even occurred to me that she could be dead and I would never know because for the life of me I could not imagine pulling myself off of the carpet to do anything at all. It occurred to me that she might be sad when she found me the next morning, dead on the living room floor, a smile spread across my face. It occurred to me that it would take several days for someone to tell my boss and that she would spend the first days of my nonexistence thinking I had quit. But none of this mattered to me at all. All I could possibly bring myself to care about was how good the taste of gasoline in the back of my throat was, and how beautiful the rhythm of my shaking hands made as tapped on the floor was. All I could think about was how lovely it would be to live this feeling forever. To have no responsibility other than maintaining this high. To have no bills to pay or job to go to or students to be responsible for or friendships to keep or texts to send or email to keep up with or calls to make. Just this feeling until it kills me.
Joy was being high. Joy was dying high enough not to care about being human.
It felt like dread.
Love wound through my chest, weaving itself through my ribs and around my lungs, squeezing tightly so each breath had to be pushed out and each step felt laborious. It ran through my veins, hot then icy cold, red with passion and just as vital to me as the blood it replaced. All of a sudden I couldn't remember a time when I wasn't in love. Drowning in it, choking on it, breathing it in and out, seeing it everywhere I looked, soaked in it. It was the background of everything I did. It replaced the car horns and street noise on my walk home, the sound of keyboards clicking and tapping at work, instrumentals in my music, chatter on the bus. It was everywhere, it was insidious.
But it wasn't good. It felt like panic. It felt like paranoia, like torture. I told myself love was anxiety, it was fear. Fear that I wasn't good enough, that at any moment he would decide he didn't need me around anymore, fear that he already had, but kept me around because it was fun to watch me break myself apart for him.
Love became knowing that he was using me but finding comfort in the fact that all I needed was a body to be loved by him, even if it was only for a couple of hours. Love became taking god that he texted me after weeks of silence, it became relief in the form of getting naked, it became silently begging him to look me in the eye, to recognize me as a human being, to say my name. Love became wondering if he even remembered my name. Love became wondering if he had ever even saved my number in his phone. Love became solace in a facetime call because at least then I could remind him that I was beautiful. Love became turning pick-up lines into genuine compliments in my mind because that was all I could get from him.
For four years love was turning myself inside out for him because I couldn't imagine waking up every day without him in my life. It was dreadful, it was terrifying, it was lonely. I don't think love is supposed to be lonely. And then, one Tuesday night in January, it became nothing at all. A hole in my chest that I wasn't responsible for but had to heal anyways.
I've come out to my mother a couple of times. I began questioning my sexuality quite young, like many chronically online children born in the early 2000s, so throughout the years, I have used about 30 different labels for myself. First bisexual, then pansexual, then back to straight, then queer, I used he/him pronouns for about 2 hours in the 9th grade, but recently my identity had sort of plateaued. It had been a couple of years since I had come out to my mother, and last she or I had checked I was identifying as queer. Just queer. She was not aware that I used they/them pronouns because the idea of explaining nonbinary pronouns to my know-it-all white liberal mother seemed like some sort of fascinatingly unique form of torture, but she knew enough for me. Queer was easy. It didn't come with any sort of subtext or assumption like bisexual or pansexual. It required absolutely no explanation. But about a month ago I realized it was a lie. After using the word queer as a catch-all identifier to mean that I liked everyone regardless of gender, for 3 years, I realized something: I am a lesbian.
My mother, bless her heart, will swear all day and night that she supports gay people. She will tell you all about her son, my little brother, who is trans and bi, and how he is on hormones and how proud she is of him. and She would be telling the truth. When my brother came out I was genuinely shocked by how quickly both of my parents got on board, starting using his new name, and made the switch to he/him pronouns. But you would never have known how easy it was for my mother to support him from our relationship. When I came out to her the first time she told me she loved me but advised me to keep it quiet when it came to family events or gatherings, because "no one needs to know your personal business."
I thought this time would be different. I don't live with her anymore, it had been years since id updated her on my sexuality, I thought maybe lesbian would be easier for her to understand than queer because it was just one rule: no guys. So I called her. And I told her.
And the line was quiet for a moment, and then she said "why?"
I woke up in a haze, my head pounding, my muscles tight, and my eyes stuck shut with sleep. I stretched hard and forced my eyes open. After a split second of luxuriating in the warmth of the sun rays shining through my window, a wave of anxiety came at me full force as the events of the night before came crashing back into the forefront of my consciousness. It came in bits and pieces, but I remember a weird unshakable desire to talk to someone, anyone, from my past. A sort of ravenous nostalgia. I remember a sickly sweet canned cocktail and a shot or four of Fireball. I remember the ringing of a FaceTime call. I remember his face.
It had been so long since I had seen his face. Almost exactly four months but it had felt like years. I lingered on the memory of his face coming into frame. I remember that a year ago, seeing his face made me feel warm, comfortable, even safe. But Last night I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and I remember the second he picked up, looking at my roommate and saying “oh. This was a mistake.”
I remember a fight. No, not a fight. He was mad, but I was confused. He was hurt. Crying? His cat. I remember now. His cat had died. I remember saying I was sorry for his loss but why was he mad?
I gave up on trying to remember the specific details. I grabbed my phone off the nightstand to see if there were texts to accompany this elusive call, and I saw something I didn’t think was possible.
Me: “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Him: “Fuck you. Don’t ever talk to me again.”
Me: “You got it.”
In four years of knowing this man, I had never definitively ended things with him. Was this the ideal method of doing that? No, not really. Now in his retelling of the events of our relationship, I will always be the bad guy. I will always be the person who drunk dialed him and said something distasteful about his dead cat, and he will always be the pour soul mourning his dead cat and hounded by an evil conniving ex who had been waiting in the wings to abuse his vulnerability. But I didn't care. We were done. We had ended things so many times before but this time was different. It was final. It wasn't accompanied by a sense of overwhelming anxiety that he was going to come back a week later, or a desire to change my phone number to avoid any more contact from him. It was real this time.
Just as I was celebrating my massive win, my triumph over this everpresent but suddenly gone force in my life, this thing which has abused me, ruined my self-esteem, destroyed my relationships, and completely decimated my understanding of my own emotions, I feel my phone buzz in my hand.
I look down, and there is a single text from a number I don’t have saved.
“hey, i’m really devastated, and just needed something to be angry at. I know that y’all didn’t mean anything the way i took it.
i didn’t mean what i said either, and i wanted to reach out so i can just think about my cat rn without anything else attached.
i hope you’re doing ok,
and i told you you could pull off the buzz cut btw lol.”
No Children - The Mountain Goats
there is this very specific kind of rage that you feel when you have spent a long time trying to make someone a good person. When you meet them it seems easy: get them and everyone else to see all of the amazing things you see. Get them to see the way he smiles, the nie things hes capable of saying, get them to see how much love he has inside of him even if its only between you too. But then, slowly, you start to realize that no mount of living omeone can make them into a good person. No amount of pouring your soul into them can make them as good as you, and no matter what anyone else says, loving them wont make them love you back.
I spent four years trying to force a man to be a good person. I remember when we first ogt togther girls would come up to me and warn me that he would hurt me but I was so sure that I had thick enough skin to manage until he became the version of him that existed in my head. But four years later he still isnt a good person and it appears i didnt have thick skin at all. I was just as weak and malliable as all of the other people in his life but the difference is that I ran in head first.
I no sit for hours on end filling up with rage about how long he convicned me to stay and be a toy for him to use and break and put back together again. I curse myself for being so stupid. For wasting four years of my life and walking out with nothing to show for it but a lot of missed opportunities that I traded for nights spent waiting for him to call.
I'm done with this.
I just can't do it anymore.
In October, when we first started talking again, every time you called me it was like falling in love with every world that came out of your mouth. And it was different then, because I could convince myself that you loved me back. That every awful thing you did to me was out of love or confusion, or in my most optimistic moments that you were trying to save me from you. That you knew I was too kind for you, and you were trying to push me away to save me from your darkness. And I know that since you told me you didn't love me things were supposed to get easier. We were supposed to be able to do what you have been doing all along. Sex. just sex with nothing else behind it. But the problem is that once you ripped the idea that maybe we could be in love out from under me all that was left was the truth about what has been going on on and off for the past four years: you hurt me. Over and over and over again and you knew what you were doing and you didn't care. I still fall for you every time you speak to me, every time you call me pretty or tell me you missed me, but it's not falling in love anymore, it’s falling off a cliff. I've realized that even if you told me right now that you have loved me all this time, that all of my hopes were true and that now you were ready to love me back, I wouldn't accept it because even at my weakest, most vulnerable moments where I feel so small and the world feels so big and I worry that you are the only person alive who has any interest in protecting me from it, I know that I can't love someone who hurt me so badly. You watched me break myself into these tiny little pieces and put them back together in the order that you like them, you watched me fall apart in front of you, push other people away, wait around all day long just hoping that you would call when you know better than anyone that that's not who I am. Sex, however good it is, isn’t worth letting you think you can hurt me like that and still have access to me. Sex isnt worth you using me, it isnt worth you hurting me, it isnt worth the shame i feel when you hang up and im left having to acknowledge how far backwards I have stepped and how much more work I have created for myself.
I wish I didn't have to do this. I wish we could have made it work, I wish it hadn't stopped working now, when I am perhaps most poorly equipped to handle a loss like this, I wish you could have just been the good person I tried so hard to turn you into in my head, but it doesn't matter because we do, and we can't, and it did, and its happening now, and much as i might spend the rest of my life trying to convince myself that you are good, a good person would never do this to someone they care about.
Please dont text me, because i promise you this time I will not respond. Don't call me because I wont answer. I am asking you please to let me finally fucking heal from this and move on. I am begging you to let me go and find someone with thicker skin who can handle the things you put me through because it's not me.
I saw a dead man on the side walk today.
I was on my way home from running and errand. It was cold out, so cold that I felt myself losing dexterity in my fingers and I could see my breath in front of my face through my mask. I was walking down 3rd avenue back toward my apartment when I happened upon him.
He was pale - paler than I had ever seen a person be. His eyes were open and his mouth was agape. His teeth were crooked. He looked almost surprised. He was lying in a pile of broken glass. These tiny little crystals reflecting light in every direction. There was a shopping cart over turned and full of gorceries sitting on his chest. There was a puddle of blood behind his head. It stained his silver hair, which was otherwise perfectly quaffed. He looked like the kind of painting you see in a museum that sits in the bottom of your stomach and in the background of your dreams for a while after.
I dont know if I am a terrible person for this, but I kept walking. It didnt even hit me that he was dead until I was twenty paces past him, and there had been a woman walking next to me, and I saw the realization dawn on her at the same moment it dawned on me. She looked to me. I looked down. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her pivot, and go back to him. I wanted to go back too, I knew it was the right thing to do, but then what? Call the police? It didnt look like he had been murdered. Call an ambulence? If he is dead and I call the ambulence do I have to pay for it? I cant afford that. The woman who had gone back to him would know what to do. I would mess it up. It was good that she went back. She would have the strength to look at him while she waited for the paramedics or the police, or a preist, or whoever you call when there's a dead man laying on the sidewalk in a pile of broken glass.
He looked okay. I mean, he was dead, but he was wearing a coat, and some warm pants and a sweater. He looked like maybe he had kids. Or a wife. If they knew that I kept walking, would they hate me for it? If they knew that I trusted that someone else would be better at caring for this man until they found out he was gone, if they knew that I assumed that woman would handle it, would they be hurt? For the rest of the walk home I tried to make sense of what I had seen. He was in the middle of the side walk, but somehow he had been pushing a shopping cart of groceries. Or maybe he hadnt and the groceries were seperate from him. He was surrounded by shattered glass but the windows next to him were compltely intact. It looked like he had been beamed there. It made no sense. How was he dead? How was he just dead? I couldnt wrap my brain around it. I had seen dead people before at funerals, but they never looked like him. The closest thing to this that I could remember was Dwight.
Dwight was a homeless man who would hang out by the bus stop closest to my high school. He loved the kids who went to my school. He was the kindest person I had never met. He was a veteran. He would sit by the bus stop every day and wait for us to gather and aks us each how our days were. He would talk to us about school, he would console us if we had failed a test or had been broken up with. I remember one day I was leaving school early to interview for a job with my local radio station and he intercepted me while I was waiting for my uber. When I told him about the job I remember him jumping up and down and dancing around and screaming "ONE OF MY KIDS MADE IT! SHE MADE IT SHE'S GOING TO BE A STAR!"
Dwight died in January of 2020 of hypothermia. His body was found by the bus stop. All of the kids in my highschool pooled their money to arrange a funeral for him at the church near by. I remember that room filled to the brim of sobbing highchoolers, kids who hadnt said a prayer in their life but sat and listened and sang along as the priests and community members prayed for Dwight's soul to rest in peace.
I thought a lot about Dwight as I climbed the stairs to my apartment today. I thought about who would be there for this man's funeral. I thought about who would be there at mine.
Sometimes I look through our old messages. I dont miss you but I look through them anyways. I dont miss us but still I find myself scrolling through the essays we would send eachother when we were up late, unable to sleep because we were just so in love. Ill read the paragraphs we would send each other, promising that one day we would get married, that one day we would wake up next to each other, and that we were so lucky not have fallen in love so early.
I saw one recently where I told you "I am so happy you decided to let me love you." I was so small. It was just a couple of months ago but I cant remember what it feels like to know with such certainty that I had it all worked out. That I was going to be that happy for the rest of my life as long as I had you.
I saw another that you sent me that said "I knew from the moment we met that we were going to have something so special." did you know that it would end with me living in another state, reading our old messages and wondering how I didnt see the train coming toward us? Did you know it was going to last just two months, and that three months after you left me crying in Penn station I would still be heart broken? Did you know that what you meant when you called me "caring" or "loving" was malleable? Did you know that five months after you sent those texts I would still be trying to figure out what an unbroken person looks like? Still trying to figure out how to replace the pieces of my life that you stole from me? Still trying to wipe your fingerprints off of all of the things in my room that remind me of you?
You fucking ruined me. I know one day this will be over and I wont cry when I think of the night you stayed in my apartment and played with my hair as I told you that you were the only person I ever wanted to be with, and I know that one day I wont feel like throwing my phone out a window and moving to a cave in the woods so no one can hurt me the way that you hurt me again. I know that one day I'll be able to read those messages and not be so angry at you for lying to me when you told me you would never hurt me. I know one day I'll be able to think about hearing the words "I loved you" come out of your mouth and feeling like I turned into cement. I know one day time will start again and I wont be stuck in the brain of that vulnerable little girl who really thought that if she loved you enough she could make you a good person.
I dont miss you. I miss life being as easy as beleiving that being in love could be enough. I dont read over those messages because I want you back, I read over those messages because I want her back.
I don’t trust myself.
It took me three months after he left to realize he never should have stayed. It took me three months to realize that what happened in August wasnt normal. To realize that I didnt know what normal was. It took me three months to the day after he left me to understand that it wasnt love. It was crisis. Two people so desperately needing to be held, to be cared for, to feel safe in a world that was constantly coming down on them so hard that there wasnt and still isnt an end in sight, that they convinced thenselves it was normal for love to make your stomach hurt.
That cant be right, can it? It cant be right that falling in love is supposed to feel the same as being hit by a car. It cant be right that falling in love happens so quickly that you go from sneaking off to your car with him to share an impassioned kiss during work to living together in a matter of weeks. That cant be right. It cant be right that love is supposed to feel like a panic attack. Like driving a box truck off a bridge with your future strapped in behind you.
But now the panic attack is over. Now I'm empty. Sitting in a corner, face wet with tears, but its been three fucking months. You have been sitting in that corner for three fucking months trying everything to just stand up. Just stand up. How am I still here? He was never here. He must not know how bad it was. Or maybe he does and he doesnt care. All of that blows - I mean it feels like my lungs shrunk and my brain is too big for my skull - but the worst part of it is that I miss it.
I dont miss him. He was just a body. Just the person who did the thing. But I would give anything I had to get the thing back. To feel love that strong again. But it wasnt love and I know that. So what do I want? Crisis? In a way, crisis is kind of nice. It's something to focus on, somewhere to put your energy - its something to blame. I'm crying because I'm in crisis. It sounds so much better than I'm crying because I didnt realize I was broken before it was too late in the game to fix myself. Now I have to wait for time to pass. I have to wait to heal the slow way.
But as I'm waiting there are these people that pass me by and kneel down. They offer to help me stand, they offer to wash my face and carry me to the couch so I can finally sleep peacefully. They offer to make me coffee in the morning and brush my hair while I get ready for work. Kind people, people who care for me in a way he never did. I want to go with them. To stand for them. To let them help me. But I dont trust myself to stay away from that truck. I dont trust myself not to drive them off the bridge with me. I dont trust myself not to break thse people. Good people. People who dont deserve what I cant say for sure I wont do to them.
But what do I say? What do I tell these people who see me, a pile of broken glass on the floor, and offer to help me put myself back together? How do I tell them that I'm sorry but I cant accept their help because im pretty sure that some day I'll just magically be unbroken again? And how do I tell them that no matter how hard I try theres a chance that while their putting me back together one of my jagged edges might cut them? How do you look at kind people offering help and tell them you cant take it because if you do you might drag them down into that corner with you?
How do I tell them I dont trust myself not to hurt people the way he hurt me? How do I tell them I dont trust myself not to leave them with a stomach ache in three months wondering how they didnt see where this was going?