Being with him was a kick in the head. But I was lonesome and later, complacent. By Julia R. DeStefano
Being with him was a kick in the head. But I was lonesome and later, complacent. If you can’t trust a man who tells you he wants to be with you, what can you trust? And if confessions are shared moments before death, did they really happen?
We sat on a park bench cracking jokes. I was a fledgling music journalist assigned to my first cover story. Andrew* was a celebrity by New England standards. I should have known right then what I’d be in for. My task was to interview Andrew for his latest record that had the Spanish word for “dead” in its title. I didn’t know then that I would be the dead one. Buried alive to the tune of resounding castanets. Because everyone called him a Jekyll-Hyde and remarked on his penchant for sad clown imagery. I didn’t see it, or perhaps I hadn’t wanted to, even when he began referring to himself as Hyde. Andrew symbolized something grandiose if not exactly kosher. He knew people. He knew places. He was the powerhouse to my naïveté and for a long time, the yin to my yang — or so I thought. I didn’t realize that I had become a contortionist in my own life, abandoning my principles, hopes, and desires in favor of new-age relationship philosophies steeped in illusion. Years passed. I went from wanting to keep our metaphorical boat afloat to feeling like it was expected of me and that any less would mean that I failed.
My oars continued to touch water. But my heart suffocated in a sea of unhappiness and dis-ease breeding resentment. I had given control of my life to someone other than myself. Because I had wanted so badly to make it work, I sacrificed my own wants, needs, and the ideas of the peaceful, safe, and passionate partnership that I had desired since girlhood. Others expected me to make it work because I was the “good one.” It only made my death slower. If I had been a cat with nine lives, Andrew would have exhausted me of them and still looked for more. He blew hot and cold, consumed by self-medication and depression, homestead violence and indecision, but still he was familiar. Andrew would tell me that if he didn’t change his life, he would die. He was the self-fulfilling prophecy incarnate. He let his oars fall, but I kept rowing.
Before I knew it, my twenties were fast ending. A thief in the night had stolen them along with my pride. Andrew’s penchant for self-medicating had worsened. His unpredictability and his depressive episodes grew more intense. Proclamations of love and change only left his lips when lubricated with beer of every make and color. His cocktail of pain medication expanded, too. Concerned family members and mutual friends were worried for my own worsening state. Finally, I understood. I had done what I could. I had given my love and my energy, sacrificed my time and put on the facade of happiness. But they all knew the truth I had fought to not let them see — that I had developed a savior complex and had become my own poor sad clown. I believed so strongly that, if I stayed, I could cure Andrew. Even if I no longer felt the way I once did about our relationship, being there would somehow change his behavior and solve our problems. Because it was what I had signed on for, minus the ring. But we were strangers under the guise of a relationship, sometimes making a Herculean effort to hide our dysfunction.
It was a slow unraveling that I had, for too long, averted my eyes from. In my mind, because I had pretended it wasn’t there, it wasn’t. But once I saw it, no longer could I unsee. I didn’t have a partner or even much of a lover. I had a roommate, and we didn’t even live together! Still, I was caught in inner turmoil. A broken record played in my head — that if I ended things, I would be weak — not only in the eyes of myself but in others’ also. I consoled myself with the fact that things weren’t that bad and made similar excuses to those around me — refusing to accept that, sometimes, the relationship “software” just isn’t compatible with our personal “operating system.” We can attempt to download the software, even reinstall new versions over time, but the outcome is the same. Compatibility and emotional attraction cannot be forced where they do not exist, or no longer exist.
When I finally dropped my oars, I released myself from the darkness. Innately, I knew that it was not OK to stay somewhere where I wasn’t happy, valued, or appreciated, let alone fulfilled. But I mourned, feeling like a colossal failure for not being able to make it work while being fearful of what lay ahead. I had no grace to offer myself, even if I had known all along that something had to change. I also had no one to help me through it. Because I had subscribed to the idea of muscling-through the hand I had been dealt, I didn’t know that people can grow out of love — just as they fall in love. I didn’t understand that the passage of time can cause people to grow apart and want different things. With no malicious intent, our oars had fallen. Our own wants and needs had evolved. We didn’t have the decades of a marriage. But I supposed it wasn’t unlike two married individuals realizing they are not as compatible as they once were, or had tried to convince themselves to be. As I made peace with Andrew and I’s relationship ending, I became free from the weight that had nearly crushed me.
Some time later, Andrew left this world for another. We had been on speaking terms when it happened. The night before he passed, he wrote me in solemn regret for not loving me the way I deserved to be loved back then. His words were soft and caring, the way I once remembered them to be, as he “told” me I was the closest thing he had come — and would ever come — to Heaven. He lamented his stubbornness, his unwillingness to listen to what his heart had been telling him about me. They say we know before we pass on, and his words filled me with proof of this. His eyes finally opened before they were shut for good: I should have never treated you like a maybe when I wanted you to be mine.
But he had treated me like a maybe. Every single wound reopened itself when I read the words that I’d so long ago given up on hearing. I thought of all the times I had spent tearful and praying for him to tell me such things unclouded by drug and drink — to the time when I finally dropped the oars and swam to shore. Why do we so often decide to tell someone how we really feel about them when it’s too late? Can it be that hard to tell someone that we love them?
The truth is — you can’t save someone unwilling to participate in their own rescue, just as you cannot keep walking on the shattered glass of a broken relationship. Sometimes, it’s better to leave it broken than hurt yourself trying to put it back together — watching your life go by, as tears go by.
*Name has been changed.