Years ago, there was a period of time during which I was still desperately missing Jack and terribly afraid that anyone good and/or decent the universe served up to me would be snatched away from me. But I was also very lonely, and well-meaning friends (who knew nothing of grieving other than mourning grandmothers or cats) convinced me that dating was a grand idea. Of course the thought of dating anyone in Chicago horrified me: What if he suggested going on a date somewhere that triggered a flood of tears and how would I explain that without going into the whole “unmarried widow” thing and looking like a weirdo, which is difficult even when I’m not grieving? Nope. I had to go somewhere that was unmarked by our coupledom.
New York City was the logical choice. While we’d had plans to marry and live here (though I now realize that wouldn’t have happened), Jack had never come with me to New York. I’d been here on one of the many occasions when he’d relapsed, on one of my extended trips that he’d urged me not to cancel on account of his issues. But I didn’t associate anything about the city with him; plus, I’d had boyfriends here before. Or at least I’d taken lovers. The first one was a guy I’d found via Craigslist when I didn’t want to go to CBGBs on my own when I was here my first time; I could have ended up with an axe murderer, but I found a guy I hooked up with for the next couple of years as I visited the city a cumulative 3-4 months a year (as I did during the 5-6 years leading up to my move; I didn’t want the city and I to be strangers upon my arrival, though when I did get here I soon realized we were less familiar than I led myself to believe over all those years—being led around a city by men isn’t quite the same as leading yourself around). I also had random flings, mostly with people I’d met elsewhere, like at academic conferences or concerts in other cities. Or the guy whose ESL class I observed who then became obsessed with me (somehow I collect obsessive followers; this one introduced me to his mother, who became convinced I’d marry her son—never meet the mothers).
But all of those affairs were pre-sobriety. I didn’t really know what it meant to have a long-distance interaction with someone without arriving under the haze of bourbon and leaving smelling like the inside of a tequila bottle. Sure, I had fun. Seeing the New York Dolls from backstage with a music promoter. Meeting the Weinstein brothers with a movie executive at a private screening. Getting drunk with Matt Dillon (by coincidence, because the guy I was seeing heard he’d be at a place). Operas. Galas. All sorts of stuff I can’t remember because I was too drunk. But I’m sure I looked fabulous until I made a fool of myself. I always had the right shoes, I know that, and I never fell down, no matter how much I had to drink.
This time around I was sober, beginning to end. I’ll fictionalize some of the details without being hyperbolic because this person is both recognizable and Google-able. He had a life—has a life—I wanted so badly I could taste it and feel it and dreamed about it in 3-D technicolor. He was one of the reasons I decided moving to NYC would be an inevitability rather than a mere possibility, but only later. I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’d met elsewhere. That’s all I’ll say, to not give away the details. Then came the prodding from my friends. He lived 792 miles away, in a borough that is not Manhattan. He seemed a safe choice. I rented a flat in Chelsea for a week and flew out; the magic began.
One of the most visceral and bittersweet memories is that it was springtime. The windows were open; he’d gotten bagels, coffee, and the Sunday Times. He was listening to a baseball game on the radio. We were happy. I felt it possible that I might have easy companionship again in this life—maybe not the grand romance I had with Jack, but something bright and warm and good and maybe even a little bit comforting. Except I then let myself enter and linger, for a moment longer than I should have, in a room in which I saw the fear of what it would be like if that all were to be taken away.
When you are hurt, again and again; when you feel pain, so many times; when you see the things for which you work so hard yanked out from under you; when you have the things you adore stolen from you; when everyone you have ever loved has disappeared or betrayed you or, worse, had a casket closed atop their cold and lifeless bodies… the instinct which was once to keep trying (maybe it will be different this time, if I only come at it from this angle rather than that one…) fades (what if I close off part of myself and only open up if certain things are said or done or conditions are met or if I look real close and don’t see any red flags?) and slowly disappears (I’m too tired; it hurts too much; how many people do I have to bury? will I be next?).
Even after you heal, after you heal a good deal, after you heal a lot, it is really fucking hard to trust people again. Imagine breaking your leg, having it in a cast for weeks, getting your cast off. Your first move won’t be to run a marathon or leg press 200 pounds. You’ll probably be scared to walk a couple of miles. For a while. And when it comes to your heart (which is really your head which is really you which is really the entire thing we bring to the world every day), it’s a lot harder than doing stretches and going to the gym and finding a trainer to bring your weak leg that got out of a cast back up to par. They don’t make personal trainers for broken hearts. Well, actually, they do. Except we call them “time” and “figure it out already” and “stop running away from yourself.”
Because (and this is what I had to figure out the hard way) what it really comes down to is that no one is going to pat you on the head and tell you nothing bad is never going to happen again. Chances are it might. Maybe it even will. Oh well. You can let that prevent you from having amazing experiences with some equally amazing people or not. Let’s read on to see what I did (though I bet you can guess!).
Things were great with this guy, whom I’ll call Z. He had wonderful parents who had raised him among people whose names you would definitely recognize in NYC in the 1960s and 1970s. He is himself a person whose name you’d probably recognize if you ran in certain circles. He brought me to concerts on my birthday. We went to weddings on the beach that were DJd by musicians who are now internationally famous. He showed me my first moon-set and introduced me to Chinatown and took me all over the city to places that I’m still only now happening upon and thinking to myself, “oh, yeah, that was where…” We had all kinds of wonderful experiences that if I were to recall them would sound boring and mundane because, well, they were just part of two people enjoying being together: cuddling on the couch and going to the Film Forum and playing kickball and bumper-cars on Coney Island and taking naps in Central Park and things that people do. It was more than a year of things people do, stretched out over those visits I would make to the city, a week every couple of months plus three weeks or so every late August/early September.
Except I was a shithead to Z. He was great to me and I was a shithead. I met some stupid guy in Chicago that I used as an excuse to create distance between us (because 792 miles isn’t far enough, amirite?) and I ended things right when he wanted to take them to a more serious level. And I kept creating more and more distance and making up more and more excuses until he was just a tiny, tiny dot way far away in the distance, a million miles away instead of a 3-hour plane ride or an 11-hour drive. And whatever other things people do might have become things we had done, whatever amazing experiences we might have had… well, those, too, became tiny dots far away in the distance until they only made me very, very sad to think about.
Later I would tell myself that I had been in love with his life and not him. That I only wanted his friends and his family, not what he had to offer. I was lying to myself. I really did want him. I really had loved him. I was just really fucking scared. Really, really scared. Scared to be vulnerable, scared to open myself up to someone who lived so far away—do you know how many bad things can happen when you are far away? Jack relapsed when I was far away!—scared, even, to just let him know I was scared and that’s why I was doing all of this confusing stuff and making up these excuses and telling him I neither needed nor wanted him when what I really meant was, “Please, come closer; I need you; I miss you; can we try to make this work, even though you need to be there and I need to be here and ‘there’ and ‘here’ aren’t so very close?”
I don’t know why I couldn’t say those words, other than that no one really can. Or can they? I haven’t heard of anyone. Maybe some people do. I’d like to meet them, shake their hands, congratulate them on their ability to be so stupid and naïve as to rip their hearts open and lay them bare, raw and ready for the devouring by all the vampires and werewolves who would be so kind as to take advantage. Oh, you doubt me? Tell me if you’ve heard anyone who’s still alive who’s been so painfully honest about their fears. I thought so. They’ve all died from being eaten alive.
I am only slightly facetious and only mildly hyperbolic.
I hurt him very badly, and I don’t think he’ll ever forgive me. Even though he is happy now and has a long-time girlfriend, I know he will always look at me and see me as the person who didn’t have the decency to be honest with him about my limitations.
To be fair (to whom? I don’t even know), I can’t think of him—or run into him or his girlfriend, whom I run into with way more frequency—without having a very difficult time forgiving myself. Because I should have known better, damnit! I should have known by then that easy companionship with a good person who makes it a pleasure to engage in the world doesn’t come around every day. I already knew that life was fleeting, that second-guessing choices was a bad idea and that I regretted not spending all the moments I could when moments had ended up being all I had. I knew that being jealous of a person’s life meant you wanted to be part of that person’s life, not a spectator of it. And I damn well already knew what it was like to lose someone, but then I went ahead and lost him before I even fully had him to begin with. I saved myself future pain by giving myself present pain which caused a different kind of future pain, which in the long run caused a lot more pain overall. Which is (and was, and probably will continue to be) painful.
And I just got back from Chicago, where I was meant to be for five days but it got stretched into 11 for reasons called “snow” and “airlines suck.” I’m not going to elaborate on this, because it’s not my story to tell, but the circumstances surrounding my visit remind me of all those years ago when I was frightened of that guy in NYC. Except this time I think I’m the one whose heart has been just a little bit broken (although to be fair I wasn’t promised anything; any rose gardens out there are almost entirely of my own making).
By no means am I comparing myself today to Z. (he’s cooler than I’ll ever be), and I’m not saying that anyone in Chicago wants to be in a relationship with me (pretty much the opposite has been made clear). And I’m not trying to psychologize here about anyone else—moreso I’m brainstorming about my own motives for wanting to go to Chicago. I could have stayed in NYC and had practically an identical experience, which basically turned out to be a 10-night-stand that left me feeling deflated and not really knowing how to respond when presented with “I hope you don’t regret coming out here”—after all, I still don’t know if I do or don’t. It’s 5am and I can’t sleep, I’m so lonely and miss the feeling so much of having had a warm body to fall asleep next to for the first time in months. And for what? To fly 792 miles home, again, except this time in the other direction? I certainly can’t talk to anyone about how I’m feeling. Certainly not him. He doesn’t want a relationship, after all. And I have to wonder whether I’ve really stopped running away from myself or if that’s just a nice story I’ve been telling to convince everyone that enough of the pain and fear are gone?
The short version, I think, is that all of the pain I caused Z. years ago? I’ve made the same bone-headed decisions (in a weirdly different way) this time around and I’ve inflicted the same kind of pain on myself as a result. How’s that for a plot twist? I went all the way back to Chicago (where I felt the worst pain of my life), in an attempt to get close to someone knowing I’d be able to run away but then I got hurt when they pulled away and now that I’m home I’m in a lot of pain because they don’t want me the way that I might want them if I weren’t afraid of being pinned down and/or losing someone.
Hey. No one said I’m fixed. Just better. Better, but still awake at 5am and lonely in bed by myself, my mind wandering to wondering whether I should have just stayed in NYC. Or in Chicago, for that matter, all those years ago.