"Am I awake?
The morning star that brings me here
Sees everything between Pluto and God.
All is hell-bent."
--Kenna, Hell Bent
Rewind four years, to a quiet harbor town on the shores of Lake Huron. I'm 19 years old, and I've just completed my sophomore year of college at Northern. I've been planning not to return there, as I've made plans to transfer schools, to a small community college located in southeastern Missouri. The reason for the move has been, as is so often the case, a young woman. Her name is Maria, and she is two years my junior.
Those plans have recently collapsed. Maria and I have been "involved" for about a year and a half, though I won't go so far as to call what we had a "relationship." Ours was an affair of secretive phone calls and lies to my family and friends. I fell in love with her, without having ever seen her face, and this ashamed me. It's hard to admit that sort of thing to people you know.
I'm in the kitchen of my childhood home, washing dishes. The collapse of things with Maria occurred barely two days before, and the fight which led to it was both loud and brutal. Screams, shouts and accusations, tears. The past few days have been some of the worst of my life. I still haven't spoken to my mother.
I'm busy rinsing when, after three days secluded in her bedroom, my mother comes into the kitchen and, without a word, comes over to stand next to me. I don't acknowledge her. She draws a hitched breath as if to speak, but instead simply places a tenative hand on my shoulder. I jerk away from her, picking up clean dishes and slamming them into the dishrack with a force that I'm amazed doesn't break them.
She draws back. "Milo," she interjects.
I look up from my chore, glaring. My teeth are clenched so hard that my head hurts, and in a calm but forced voice, I finally respond to her.
"Get away from me."
Her eyes well up with tears, and she turns to leave.
An hour later, I walk a block down the street, to an antiques shop where my mother has been working during the summers. The guy working the counter, a thirtysomething fellow named Doug, recognizes me immediately and smiles.
"Hey man," he says. "What's up?"
"Hey." The word feels heavy, and seems to drop out of my mouth onto the floor like a lead weight. I walk over, and place my hands on top of the glass counter.
"Look, um... that necklace I bought the other day. I know that I don't have the receipt or anything, but you're the one that sold it to me, and..."
I'm trembling. I take a deep breath to steady myself.
"And, I was... well, I was just wondering if I could just please return it. Can I do that?"
Doug's smile fades. He looks at me, perplexed, and after a moment nods. "Sure, man. No problem." He opens up the till, and I produce from my clenched fist a simple silver-and-copper beaded necklace. I slide it to him across the counter, and as his hand moves to take it, he asks:
"How much did you pay again?"
"'Kay." He counts the bills and changes, and hands them to me. I take them from him with a shaking hand. "Thanks."
"No problem." He's looking right at me, crestfallen, though I don't believe it has to do with the necklace. He's giving me that look that guys sometimes give to one another. He knows without anything being said, and nothing else needs to be said. His eyes tell me wordlessly how sorry he is. I don't even say goodbye, I just turn and head out the wooden screen door. It squeaks and bangs flatly behind me, and as I round the corner past the beverage stop, I feel my eyes grow hot, and my cheeks become wet. I rub a hand at them, and even though my head still hurts, I clench my jaw all the harder, squeezing my eyes shut just to keep control.
A month passes. My wisdom teeth come out, and a fire destroys three buildings downtown. All that remains of Sweetie's, Cap'n's Quarters, and Joe's Pizzeria are a gutted black hole lined with charred wood and bricks. With my father's grudging help, I manage to get myself enrolled back at Northern, and schedule my classes. The upshot is that I get to return to a college where the female-to-male concentration is nearly 4-to-1, and so for a time I'm content to party, drink, smoke weed, and fool around with as many freshman girls as I can handle. It's during this period that I meet my future wife, Anne, a second-year Nursing major.
I like Anne. Our personalities click. But though outwardly I come off as gregarious and witty, I find myself becoming depressed by my lifestyle. I break contact with Anne for weeks at a time. I pick up smoking, and quickly become addicted to the tune of two packs a day. I become an insomniac, sleeping five hours for every forty-eight. My drinking increases, and every week I come home with yet another girl in my bed. Twice Anne interrupts me at my room, and on several occasions I make arrangements to hang out with her, which I later break. I disappear for days at a time, walking all night in the pouring October rainstorms, my leather jacket glistening wet in the headlights and streetlamps of downtown Marquette. When Anne asks me about where I've been, I don't answer. When she berates me furiously for spurning her for other girls, I simply furrow my brow in shame. I know I have no intention of quitting this behavior, and she knows it too. I tell her that what I want and what she wants are mutually exclusive, and we drift apart. She starts seeing other guys.
I cut classes, and I party all night. I continue to see and seduce girls I know, though amazingly my G.P.A. picks up. At this point, I'm moving into the course-required component of my education, and since my major is in English Writing, I do remarkably well. During my insomniac phases, I spend dozens of hours in front of the computer, with a cup of cheap gas-station coffee on one side of me, and a pack of Camel Turkish Royals at another. I drink, and fuck, and chain-smoke, and write, all so I won't have to sleep. When I do sleep, I dream of Maria, hearing her voice and imagining her with the new guy she's got, Andy. Her laughter melts into moans, and her whispers of affection become shouts of dirty talk, screaming for a guy whose name is not my own.
All this, over something that never really happened. Like the old tagline for
"A.I." said, my love for her was real, but "we" were not.
Months pass. Anne and I still hang out, and when we do, the chemistry is still strong. We hang out on the steps of the Peter White Library and chat for hours with take-out from the New York Deli.
"This," I say to her, "is what I consider to be a date. No fancy attempts to impress, no awkward conversation, just two people enjoying each others' company."
We laugh at each other's jokes, and share in each other's love for the outdoors. I like her, but I don't want a relationship with her. I don't want a relationship with anyone. I still back out on dates, and take other girls back to my room. When we're alone, I sometimes ask her to stay the night at my place, and we fall asleep, fully dressed, in each other's arms. She's adamant about withholding sex for the right partner, and I respect her wishes. Our clothes stay on.
Anne keeps a blog. She writes about me on occasion, referring to me as Jack, after the central character in the film version of Fight Club
. She rants about my stupidities and all my small cruelties to her, ranting about in ways that fill me with guilt yet all the same I keep reading. Some evenings, I wake up after three hours' sleep, to find small notes sent to me by Anne over MSN Messenger. Sometimes I ignore her. Sometimes I write back.
One day, while hanging out in the dorm room of a mutual friend, she attempts to show me affection. I all but ignore her. After a while, she leaves without a word, and my buddy Michael, my former roommate, snorts as we bury ourselves in a fierce game of Halo.
"What," I say. I don't look at him. My eyes are too busy scanning the screen for our friend Dustin.
"Dude" he says, "that girl is totally into you."
"Whatever." I shrug. I empty a pistol clip into Michael's avatar, shouting in triumph before Dustin's sniper round takes me out from halfway across Blood Gulch. My jubilation is suddenly gone. The word karma
flashes through my head.
"Fuck," I say, to no one in particular.
Later that night, I go back to my room. I spend an hour on the phone with Maria--again--and then find another set of message windows open on my computer. One of them is Anne. Her tone, even over the screen, is vitriolic, and she proceeds to castigate me for all the ways in which I make her feel invisible. I may be self-absorbed, but I'm not inhuman. We spend several minutes hurling angry words at each other through the network. She says a few things which, even in my detached and drunken state, strike a nerve. My anger disappears, replaced by shame. Seeking to make amends, I ask her to come by my room. She complies, several minutes later, and for the next hour we pace back and forth across my room, arguing.
She accuses me of playing her. I can't deny this, though in truth I never meant to. I accuse her of wanting more than I could give. I accuse her of crowding me. She asks me why I cut myself off all the time. She asks me why I always shut her out. She tells me:
"Christ, I look at you, and it's all red and black. You're like this barely contained tornado. But you're held together by clothes."
I fall silent for a moment. I rub at my temples. Looking up again, I tell her that, regardless of what she thinks, that she doesn't WANT a relationship with me. I tell her that all I do is hurt people--my friends, my family, my lovers. To look at myself, I'm a freak, a monster with a pretty face. I'm down to less than two hours a night of sleep, and the visions of Maria are starting to come to me in the daytime.
I think back to the argument I just had with Maria. We had talked awkwardly for a bit, and then shortly afterward we got to rehashing all the mistakes and lies we had used to hurt each other. I got angry. She got angry. Her voice had raised on the phone, and she started lacing into me with hideous insults. I had tried to calm her down, but her temper was flaring and so was mine. She had railed against my insecurities, my inability to move on, about how much she enjoyed the sex with her new boyfriend, some mook with more brains in his dick than in his head. She was using him for one thing, and I could see it. Her yelling had turned to screaming. The insults were soon flying a mile a minute, a salvo that started to turn my vision red.
I had interrupted her. "Maria."
She didn't stop."Maria."
She'd kept going, her voice crossing the border into shrill."MARIA!"
She fell silent. My temper was close to boiling. I suddenly realized I could hear two sets of breathing on the phone. It was her boyfriend. Something in me broke, like a stopped-up gear. But instead of crushing the embedded object, the drive-train snapped, breaking down the whole machine and leaving the apparatus useless. My anger drained away, replaced by exhaustion and hurt.
"Maria, I'm not doing this anymore."
"No, you don't. You don't get to just say what you want and leave. I--"
"Maria, I'm tired. I'm tired of feeling this way. Don't you get it? You've won
. You left me in the dust, and you've got your new guy now, and I'm out of your life, okay? So please, just go and fuck your new guy, and leave me to hurt. I'm bowing out. I'm giving you what you want. I'm done."
"Goddamn you, I want--"
"Goodbye, Maria." At this point, I hung up the phone. It rang again five seconds later. I didn't answer.
The memories of that exchange cloud my vision. I sit down on the bed, sighing. For reasons I still don't understand, I suddenly tell Anne about the argument. She listens. I end up talking for an hour, talking about everything that happened with Maria, how it began, how I hid it from my family and friends, all the drama, all the bullshit. I tell her about slaving away all summer so I could go and be with her, and I tell her about the fight that finally brought it all down in flames. I tell her about the three-way-fight on the phone between me, Maria, and my mother, and about how my father nearly kicked me out of the house for my behavior on the same day that Maria broke up with me. I tell her how I was to blame for all of it, and how nobody who loved me could ever feel that way for long.
I tell her my secrets, and I tell her my sins, and I wait for her to look at me for who I really was. I wait for her to understand, for her expression to change, for her to leave, disgusted. She doesn't. She just looks at me and sighs. It's okay, she tells me.
All I had wanted was to love her, I tell Anne. All I had wanted was to make it work, make it happen, make it so that it was more than just some pathetic Internet fling. Sure, I might have been imperfect, and sure I might have been needy and insecure. Sure, I may have tricked myself into wanting something I couldn't have. But I loved her, all the same. I had loved Maria, and now she longer loved me. And I had made it so that now not even my family loved me either.
I stop. I clench my jaw again, and my whole body starts to tremble. I can feel the dam starting to break, and I close my eyes and look away, trying to hold the cracks together with my bare hands. My eyes blur up, and my nose starts to run. I'm falling apart.
She takes a step toward me. I'm leaning against the foot of the bed, arms folded.
"You are so beautiful," she says.
I look up. "What?" I shake my head. The cracks are growing bigger, and my mouth falls open, working soundlessly. My cheeks feel wet again.
She comes over to me, taking my hands in hers. She whispers.
"You are so perfect, and you have no idea."
I try to pull away. I keep telling myself don't do this, don't do this
. I try to resist.
"You don't understand."
"No," she says, "I do. I do understand. And it's okay. I love you. Come here."
She hugs me, holding my face against her neck, sitting down on my bed. The beauty of giving up is knowing for certain that it's pointless to keep fighting; It lies in knowing that you can just allow yourself to surrender to those waves and drown. The dam breaks, and suddenly after four months I am lost to The Flood. I fall to my knees, head in her lap, and begin to sob uncontrollably. I am bawling, for the first time in who knows how long, and I don't care, for the waves have claimed me, and they are warm. They are bearing me out to sea, and they whisper to me that I'm ok, that it's all right, that they love me.
"I love you too," I tell them.
"No," they say. "You don't." Anne holds me like that for an hour, and during that time I don't stop crying once. I've never cried that much. I fall asleep in her arms, and when I wake up, she's gone. I find a note slipped under my doorway, and when I read it, I find a poem in pencil, from Anne. Paraphrasing Palahniuk, one of my favorite authors, it contains the line:I am Jack's Broken Heart.