The first time I caught him swallowing a fistful of pills, he convinced me that they were vitamins. And why wouldn’t I believe him? He spent every morning soaking his clothes at the gym and he was clocking about eighty hours of work a week, so it made sense that he would take extra precautions to stay healthy.
The first time I caught him whispering on the phone to his dealer, I let him explain that he was doing it as a “favor” for a friend. And later that night when his eyes were haunted and red, I let him complain about “jet lag.”
The first time he came home from a work dinner four hours late, I wanted so badly to believe that the tall tale he told — an imaginary co-worker had driven his car home for him and then walked to his own house, nearby. I wanted so badly to believe that this man — who claimed to love this woman (who had already lost a boyfriend to a drunk driver) — wasn’t sick enough to drive home drunk. So I tucked him in and let him gargle about his boss into a deep sleep.
The first time I caught him in front of the refrigerator, head back, pouring a Coors Light down his throat, I decided to clear my throat rather than let him get away with his “I’m going to get a glass of water” alibi.
“Why?” I asked him. Really asking. Begging him to explain to me why he needed the duality of being perfect and being helpless. Begging him to explain to me why he couldn’t bear to let me see him. Begging him to let me love him. Begging him to see himself. Begging him to love himself.
The first time I saw him cry I felt relieved. Happy, almost. Under all of the distractions and chemicals, there was something real brewing, I thought. He was still alive, I hoped. He was going to tell me what it was like to be one of six and what it felt like to not know his father. He was going to tell me why he couldn’t bear to find sleep sober. And I believed those tears to be steps toward a breakthrough. Steps toward honesty. Steps toward hearing him say finally, “I have a problem.” Rather than, “This is the lifestyle. This is what makes me successful.” But they were not steps. They were shields, little pieces of armor disguised as vulnerability. They were not tears that said, “I want to get better,” they were tears that said, “I’m embarrassed.”
His embarrassment was skin deep. It was his confidence that drew me to him because it made him appear free. “I can’t stop smiling,” he’d whisper into the receiver not long after our first date. It would take me a moment to respond because my smile would be so wide, I’d have wait for my cheeks to release my jaw. On one of our first dates he built a fire and made a bed out of blankets in front of it. It was starting to snow and I’d never been so close to a Russian romance novel, I could barely enjoy myself beneath the awe.
After a few glasses of wine, he disappeared into the kitchen to fetch a new bottle. A few minutes later I heard cabinets opening and slamming, and huffing and puffing. I sat uncomfortably, unsure if I was meant to check on him or stay put. A minute later he resurfaced, red-faced with a sheen of sweat across his brow “There’s no more wine” he said, almost out of breath. And after four repetitions of “That’s fine, I don’t need anymore.” I realized it wasn’t me he was concerned about. He wasn’t being a good host, he was being an alcoholic. “I’ll just run out and go to the store, stay put.” “But it’s snowing, it’s not worth it, just come sit back down by the fire,” fell on deaf ears. He was already hooking the zipper of his coat. Worried, I begged gently, stay, stay. He kissed me on the forehead, pivoted on the heels of his weekend shoes and headed towards the door. I was deflated. And suddenly, with his hand in his pocket his posture erect, he jumped in delight and did a reverse pivot to reveal a toothy grin and a joint laying across his palm on display. “Look what I found!” he cheered. His discovery was enough to give up on his wine mission.
Eyes wide, like a child in the night, he lit his joint and savored every breath, feeling less panicked and more silly with every exhale. He believed himself to be free again—giggling, silly, lovely. We rolled around on our makeshift blanket bed tickling each other and blushing. He felt like childhood. He felt like innocence. He made me believe that love could be simple. It didn’t have to be dark and trying, it could be stretched smiles and forehead kisses.
Later I stood in the bathroom, in awe of the flush of my cheeks. I looked happy. I felt happy and light, his playfulness was contagious and I couldn’t help but smirk as I watched it course through my veins and flint a twinkle in my once-dull eyes. On the porcelain ledge of the sink sat three orange pills. A deep stamp reading ad|30 was pressed into each of their otherwise smooth bodies. For whatever reason, I told myself to remember that pill code, so as to look it up later.
I woke up in the morning alone in our half-turned-down pile of blankets. The fire had resolved and he was banging around in the kitchen. “Good morning sweetheart” He said, egg mid-flip in the pan and for a moment I stood squinting thorough my half-awake sleep eyes wondering what I did to deserve him. “Thank you.” I said before heading to the bathroom to splash some water on my face. “Thank you for making me happy,” he retorted over of the sizzle of a runny egg. I bent over the sink and collected icy water in the palms of my hands as I tried to fathom if it was possible that he was happy. But then, I was suddenly distracted by the three orange chalky rings that took the place of the three orange pills the night. “Let’s feast sweetheart!” He shouted over the running water and my crashing optimism. I brought the cool to my face and shook off my sinking suspicion that this was too good to be true. I had been through so much. Surely my mind was trying to make a case of nothing.
The first time I gave up on him was easy. I was trying to barter with him: “What if you try only smoking every other night? What if tonight, you relax with a bath instead?” And then “Instead of taking a Clonazepam every time we have a serious conversation, try taking a deep breath and letting me rub your back.” Not ironically, he passed out in the middle of our argument and I was left with the option of draping his heavy arm around my shoulder and falling asleep next to an almost-corpse, as usual, or leaving knowing he won’t come after me. So I left. I walked across the park to my friend’s apartment in my pajamas at three in the morning. Sheepishly, I crawled into bed with her, embarrassed to admit that I was not capable of fixing him. Him, the one everyone warned me about. Him, the one that I defended against his stereotypes. Him, the one I liked to think worked in finance because he was good at math. Him, the one who convinced me he loved his friends, not their investments. Him, the one who got thank you notes from mysterious women who had received flowers from him. Him, the one who maintained his defense that everything he ingests is a vitamin because it keeps him alive. Him, the one who texted me at seven a.m. having no idea where I was or what happened, asking me if he knew where his Gatorade was.
The first time I took him back was a sign of my weakness.
The first time he didn’t come back was a sign of his.
I never saw him again. But I think of him often, in therapy, in nightmares, in despair. Sometimes I miss the glimpses of him I’d catch, between doses. The puppy-like boy who let his hair flop on weekends. The sheep-like, guttural laughing spells that would sneak up on him and stain his cheeks pink. The way he so humbly marveled at nature when only standing in his front yard. But rather than feel like a failure for not saving him, I remind myself to appreciate saving myself and hopefully bringing him one step closer to the mirror.
Excerpted from The Head, the Heart & The Home © TC Books, 2015
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.