“I read the fate of the village, the deaths, the family trees, the broken headstones. How we will all break.”
–Kazim Ali, Bright Felon
It starts early.
It’s you at seven, sitting on the carpeted floor of your bedroom across from your parents, staring at the space between them, eyes glazed and elsewhere. It’s waking up in the middle of the night, throat parched, climbing down the ladder of your bunk bed, creeping through the bedroom door to ask your father for a glass of water. It’s you at nine, shuffling your things between two apartments, telling your friends you don’t care about it. That frankly, it doesn’t bother you at all.
And later, it’s a separation from self, a duplicity, and a shedding of a shell. Masking. Making out with strangers, with others like you. Others, whose holes protrude and spill like yours. Who find comfort in conflict and solace in a shared bed, both thinking that somehow you can be filled, neatly spackled, and painted-over. That somehow this can all have been someone else’s story.
I was nineteen and basically betrothed, wearing a promise ring and sitting passenger seat in a brand new red Jeep. I was devoted to Daniel who wanted to die, but who never said it quite like that. I declined dates with girlfriends after he said he’d be sad if I left. He couldn’t take it sometimes. He needed me, holding my face close in his hands, saying, “No one will ever love you as much as I love you.” And I believed him. I believed that I could be his medicine when his antidepressants ran out, that I could be his only if I made myself up enough, that if he just went back to school, if he just quit smoking, if he just went to therapy, he could be better. We could be better.
There is breaking, and there is breaking free from the broken.
This is my breaking: Daniel packs his boxes into his red Jeep, moves out of our shared apartment after the screaming and the wine glass at the TV. He moves out to live with his mother. To recuperate. To see his ex-girlfriend. I lie on the carpeted floor of my bedroom and cry like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. I call his phone more than twenty times. The robotic voice of the answering machine lulls me: Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system. Please leave a message after the tone.
It’s here that I start to see the sheer detriment of my needing, and the necessity of the break, how I’ve piled my efforts into a vessel of a person who could take them all away in one swift exit, the slam of a front door.
My eyes are glassy, body numb.
My breathing slows. I’m staring at the popcorn ceiling and I know I can’t need anyone like this ever again.
It gets worse if left untreated. If you go on like you are fine.
Everything is fine.
Everything is not fine.
You are not fine.
The good news: You can grow out of it. But you have to take down the wall you’ve built. Surrender your shield, whatever. It’s out of your hands.
For months I go to therapy, skating around my own faults, avoiding the subjects: family, fathers, mothers, ex-lovers. I don’t want to know how they’re all connected. I don’t want to admit how I’ve always longed for a family unit and realize that I still don’t have one. I exist now separately, stringing along a flat facade that the therapist sees through.
In her office I sit across from her, eyes welling at the edges after she says: “You have this idea that you’re fragile, but what if you’re not?”
Fear does not go away on its own. It tends to slink and morph, until it looks like something else entirely, until it lives in the bottom of your stomach, a gnarled, hungry thing. So here you must get intimate with fear. Hold it close like a newborn. Sleep with your head on the chest of aloneness. And eat breakfast with the idea that you are not special, that you will never be somebody else’s only.
I still have dreams of that night.
It was normal for Daniel to lock himself in his bedroom of our shared apartment, watching every episode of Cheers with large headphones on. It was normal for him to down Klonopin and Ambien in the evenings. But it wasn’t normal for him not to answer when I knocked.
When he didn’t open the bedroom door one night, I knocked lightly saying his name. My heart raced like a rabbit’s when I heard nothing.
“Daniel,” I said “Open. The. Door.” I banged my fists loud.
I paced in front of his room wondering at which point one should call the cops, at which suicidal hint one should finally take it seriously. I looked down at the metal vent at the bottom of the door, the bolts screwed in. I ran to my room to find a screwdriver and quickly unfastened the cheap pieces of metal. Taking the vent off the door, I got down on the ground, my eyes scanning for his body, for anything. I was afraid to look, afraid I would see him hanging, his legs dangling. But there was nothing. No body I could see. Only clumps of worn clothes, plaid flannels piled on the floor.
I continued to bang on the door, yelling his name until I grew tired, until I resigned to my own bed, cat curled at my feet. I still couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t bring myself to call the police, so I waited, eyes growing weary until they finally closed.
The next morning I washed dishes, my eyes heavy and dry. From the stairs he sauntered down, packing his cigarettes against the palm of his hand as if the previous night I wasn’t calling out his name. As if I hadn’t been banging on the door. As if nothing had happened at all.
When you start to break, you realize your capacity, your capabilities and innate resiliency. You may have thought before that you would die if it all ended, that someone would die, that the world would stop. But after the break you see: they continue to live. You continue to live. You do not die and you are okay.
You are okay.
I watched when my parents broke, slow like a drawn-out yawn. I remember my initial hope in the word “separation,” as if there was a way they could bring themselves together again. And actually, I didn’t see much of the breaking itself, but the aftermath: the cart in the grocery store filled with Kid Cuisine TV dinners; the bags my sister and I carried with our hairbrushes, favorite t-shirts, and stuffed puppy dogs in stow. I imagine they tried to seal themselves back up nice and tidy with sorrys, with I should haves. I know, then, that I wanted them to.
When your parents break it’s somehow worse. Here are these people, the only ones you’ve ever known, your mother and your father. When you’re young they are not people outside of these roles, not people with college pasts, ex-loves they’ve let go of in pieces of crumpled notebook paper. They’re not supposed to separate, moving down the street to a newly painted apartment, the smell so stringent the first day you walk in. But they do, and there you are: watching a parent pace with hands on hips, yelling goddammit because it’s pool day and you left your swimsuit at the other’s house. And as a child you absorb everything. You don’t mean to, you just do.
So there you are. Standing on the linoleum floor, consuming the hurt, the heat, and wondering why.
There was another guy I dated who chain-smoked Marlboro reds while sitting on the porch of his broken down house guarded by overgrown ferns and fat alley cats. He was anti-social, like Daniel, and nearly proud of it. He idealized some recluse singer who made his own mixtapes and blew out his brains, leaving a note that said something like “see ya later.”
I didn’t realize it then, but later, how I always pick the same people to love: the ones who have more problems to fix than things to be happy about. The ones who often talk about wanting to disappear completely. And I got to thinking that maybe we were both looking for the same kind of out, though I thought I might find it in love and they seemed to think it might be in death.
You get to a point when you know that this behavior, the trying to save people, the idealization of movie-like love, is not normal. You want it to be. You want to be a hero, a savior, and the apple of their eye. But you know in your heart of hearts where you don’t want to look, that these stories, in reality, have no heroes, saviors, or perfectly timed miracles. You know that these stories are few and far between.
A few years later, yet another guy will tell me he misses me after I’ve left the city where we met. He will say he was dumb, that he should have known that he had something good with me while I was there. And I will tell him that I have loved so many people, him too, and that if I had ten selves I would send them back down their previous paths, and let them all love and be loved. But I will also tell him this isn’t how it works. There is no going back, and there is only one self and there is only one way, which is forward.
Rumpus original art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs.