There are so many strange, inside-out stories and confused afternoons it’s easy to convince myself there’s no need to even start. No need to set out into a landscape that only I know, but even I don’t quite know how to describe.
Halloween at my first apartment in Brooklyn, the first party I’ve ever hosted, and my boyfriend breaks up with me. It’s 2005, I’m twenty-one. As he tells me it’s over, I ask, But who will I learn things from? I mean this. I’m wearing a costume I don’t remember. Of course, now I know the answer to my own question is myself. But then, I had built my self into an identity that would only work if he was still around. I didn’t feel I had intrinsic worth that could rival the worth created when he was my boyfriend. He’s a poet. An artist. All of it is embarrassing, and all of it still surprises me when I least expect it.
I felt romantic when he gave me a small poem written on heavy paper, an intentional smudge of blood adorning the margin. I put it next to my bed, kept it in the plastic bag so as to not harm it. Coupling it with having met him on New Year’s Eve when he almost ran me over with his car wouldn’t spark a twinge in me until years had passed.
But he had been through a lot. He was getting better. I could help.
It’s embarrassing because I put up with a lot of bullshit. I thought it was a rite of passage. I lived out so many tragic story lines in one year without realizing that those storylines never end well. Other people saw me, and I cringe to think of them seeing me— even though I know it’s the wrong thing to cringe about. No matter how many times he would get kicked out of bars, or say the wrong thing to the wrong person at a party, I would help him up, exit with him, and watch him do coke with friends who barely said a word to me. I felt lucky to be acknowledged, to be of service.
Huge swaths of my insides are mine alone. I never tell anyone, I never show. Once I wanted to show the whole city who I was. Once I couldn’t wait to show more. Now I show selectively.
The more time passes between me now and me then, the more rounded the edges of the stories become, the more I question my devotion to someone who didn’t care. A party in Clinton Hill runs too late for me and instead of leaving and just going back to my own apartment, I sleep in his car on the street and wake up to him banging on the window, naked and bleeding. I have no idea what happened while I slept in his car, but I do know that I found him clothes in his trunk, drove us to the emergency room, and stayed the day with him as he sobered up and eventually got the gash on his hand stitched shut.
I learned what persona non grata meant when he tried to get into my dorm with me, but couldn’t. He ended up puking in the dirt around a tree on the sidewalk, and I had to stave away the campus security guards– “No, no— he’s okay; we were just leaving; I am watching him.” Something happened before, something about heroin, something that meant he couldn’t take any more classes for a while.
He proposed with a paper ring at a diner, and then acted as if it never happened.
Eventually, he came to the city less and less and I started to take the NJ Transit bus to his parents’ house, and I kept taking the bus to their house for the weekend, even after he choked me one night in bed without explanation. (Not that there is an explanation that would satisfy; more than the overwhelming isolation I felt when this happened, I felt the most gravity in his silence, the way he never brought it up again.) It was a day, it was a holiday, it was a day I chose to be there because his parents were not. We slept in his parents’ bed, large and luxurious. Usually, he never touched me. I was convinced he knew something I didn’t and wanted to figure out what it was, at my own expense. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I didn’t just say no when he wanted to fuck me over a carriage house’s trashcans in the dark, or in the sculpture garden on campus. I did not want to do those things. But I did not say no. I wanted to be of service. Where does this leave me?
Instead, on the weekend I drove him to Borders in his station wagon and had to prop him up as he looked for a Belle and Sebastian album, because he was too drunk to stand on his own. Later, he’d tell me how I’d never write good poetry, never write anything that mattered.
Oh, get me away from here, I’m dying—
Now I shirk when my husband tries to kiss my neck, because then, in that bed in New Jersey, this other person put his hands around my neck without telling me what was going on, or asking me if it was okay, and kept them there for long enough that I felt my smallness and aloneness in a strange house in a strange town zoom away from me into the clouds.
I fell asleep in the same bed, after.
I began to step away from service on a corner outside of my internship in Park Slope in November, when I called my mother to say that I needed help. All I can tell her is that he did not treat me well. And that’s about as far as I could articulate my experience for at least seven years. Instead of explaining to my doctor what has happened, I rely on the humor of an advertisement for an antidepressant where a little cartoon cloud follows the sad person wherever they go. I tell her I have that cloud, and that I’d like that medication, and I get it. The commercial implores You just shouldn’t have to feel this way anymore.
There are friends from this time in my life who I have lost entirely. I could write them and try to explain what happened, but it’s too far gone. My approach from the beginning was to record over the past with the present. Forget about the stars you saw when you were on your back in the wet grass, the way you zoned on them, to escape the physical realm. Am I the witch, the hunt, the hunter, or the watcher?
I forgot in service to him, and forgot myself entirely.
L. Ann Wheeler is a writer and illustrator in Lawrence, Kansas. Her photo-essay “A Little Hell of Its Own” won the 2013 Bone Bouquet Experimental Prose Contest, and other work has appeared in Omniverse, Forklift, Ohio, and ILK. She studied at the Pratt Institute, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently at the University of Kansas. You can find her at home with her dogs.
Featured Image Credit: L. Ann Wheeler