Interlude #11

Dustin~

This is not goodbye.

How could it be, ever? You live on: fueling my heart, shining my eyes, whispering in my head and warming my soul. There is no longer any separation between us.

Your death still weighs on me, but not as much as it did. For all the mistakes you made, for all your missed opportunities, all your regrets, I have forgiven you. For all the things I should have done, should have said, should have seen, I forgive myself.

I can hear you in my head still, telling me I’m worth it when I wonder that I’m not, telling me I’m not alone when I’m cold in the night, telling me not to be so hard on myself when I make a mistake.

I know you heard the conversation he and I had about whether or not I’m a ‘good’ person, as opposed to a decent one. I could feel your anger at my answer, the one that sold myself short, the one that was too harsh.

You are right. I am a good person, after all. My inherent ability to divorce emotion from a situation makes me think I am harder, am colder, than I really am. You knew better, felt the heat of my heart and the warmth of my soul, felt my fears and my pain. You are the one who taught me to love on that grand scale, who took my scarred and beaten heart and broke it wide open.

I have promised you that I won’t date assholes anymore, the ones who use and abuse. I have promised you to only allow those people into my life who are good to me and for me, who give as much as they take. You taught me that I deserve better, and I will honor your dreams for me. 

Now the time has come to try to sort out how we move on together, as two made one. How to rejoin life, how to love again. How to be brave.

Come, love. The road is clear, the light is green. Let’s go.

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My Old, My Familiar Friend

A clouded dream on an earthly night
Hangs upon the crescent moon
A voiceless song in an ageless light
Sings at the coming dawn
Birds in flight are calling there
Where the heart moves the stones
It’s there that my heart is longing for
All for, for the love of you

And so it’s there my homage due
Clutched by the still of the night
And now I feel, feel you move
And every breath, breath is full
So it’s there my homage due
Clutched by the still of the night
Even the distance feels so near
All for, for the love of you.

~”The Mystic’s Dream,” by Loreena McKennitt,
from The Mask and the Mirror

Grief is a damn slippery process.

I went on my getting-to-know-you thing, and it was pretty much perfect, all things considered. He is no more ready or able to date than I am, and that came as a relief. A built-in safety net. He’s a nice guy, smart as hell, a genuinely decent human being, understanding and mature. All great things. A little too great, maybe.

Breathe, woman, breathe.

I spent tonight’s ride home from work feeling loss curl through me like sharpened smoke, sliding around muscle and bone, circling the heart, burning.

I love you. I always will.

This possibility came up on me fast, and now my unprepared inner landscape is shuffling around to make room for it. Some of the broken edges are still sharp, and the rearrangement cuts. It reawakens the ache made dormant by the demands on my time, and now I have come back for another round of the grieving process, another orbit around the black hole where we used to be us.

I wish I could talk to you, one more time.

So here I am, staring at my bottle of sleepy-time medicine, wondering what’s waiting for me in the dream time. Will he come to tell me it’ll be all right? Will it be another nightmare? Soup’s on, subconscious, what’ll it be?

Moonlit Path, by Elyon Freya, via Deviant Art

‘Moonlit Path’ by Elyon Freya, via Deviant Art

The Sins of the Father

Dustin stood in the middle of my bedroom, shaking. Sure, there had been an unpleasant incident with my father a minute ago, but that had been directed at me, not him, and I was confused as to why he was upset. I was not only used to it by now, but I gave as good as I got.
“You told me once your dad was kind of a prick, but I didn’t really get it until now. No one should speak to you that way.”
He was angry – angry that someone would be disrespectful to me, and he resolved then and there that he was going to get me out of that situation, no matter what the cost.

It cost us everything, as it turned out.

I should have written this post last night, when the anger and the disappointment were still fresh, but I didn’t, and had nightmares all night instead. Okay, lesson learned.

I was laid off from my job in 2009, while I was still involved with Neal. As I struggled to find work, Neal continually ran me down until I could hardly function. My savings dwindled, then ran out as Congress played chicken with my unemployment benefits. Eventually, the twin realities of being unemployed and trying to unload an abusive boyfriend who would not leave me alone drove me to give up my apartment and leave the city I loved so much. I went back to my parents’, to try to rebuild my life.

I finally got a job a few months later, and although I have a great employer, my job doesn’t pay a living wage. Subtract the money I give my parents to help them make ends meet and the money I spend on the bills left over from being unemployed for nearly two full years, I don’t have much left over, and it tends to go into my gas tank. Then my car blew up, and life is life, and I’m still here. Unhappily.

Of course I’m not happy with it. I’m too old for this, but I am working to make a better life for myself, to make a living wage. And that’s partly where the rub comes in. My mom works full-time, but my dad is essentially unemployed. He does odd jobs and restoration projects, but it isn’t steady or reliable. Between work and school, I am out of the house more than both my parents combined.

My life is difficult. I am perpetually sleep-deprived and studying constantly, trying to find a moment here and there to create the art that helps keep me going in the first place. I don’t have the time or the money to even hang out with friends back in the city I left. I am a good student and I am doing well so far, but I’m still stressed, and all of this is encompassed by the loss of the one person who would have understood.

Dustin was always loving and supportive. A champion cheerleader, he would always tell me how proud he was of me. So when I come home tired and cold and wrung out, I look for the arms that would have made everything better, reminded me that this is all worth it. I look for the chest to rest my aching head upon, I listen for the words of encouragement, the offers of help and support. I look, I listen, but there’s nothing to see, nothing to hear.

I have cheerleaders among my friends and Inspire Art who are beautifully and enthusiastically supportive. I get notes and messages of encouragement, and they help keep me going. But here…there is very little of that.

My mom is supportive as she can be, considering. She is not emotionally expressive and never was, but she asks how my classes are going, how my grades look. She doesn’t ask me how I’m holding up, however. And Dad…well. Dad just does not care. It doesn’t benefit him in any way, so he got off the Give-A-Shit Bus.

I missed my first class Monday morning due to an alarm clock mishap. I was still going to be able to make my second class and my lab, but that first class wasn’t going to happen. My dad’s response? He called me a ‘fuck-up.’ Pot and kettle, Dad, pot and kettle.

These last few days have been constant grousing about the things around the house I haven’t been able to keep up with thanks to my crazy schedule. I don’t feel bad or guilty about it-I don’t waste time feeling guilty for things I don’t deserve to feel guilty for. What I do feel is angry that he’s being so selfish and insensitive.

I don’t know why it still comes as a surprise. He’s always been this way. Always. He isn’t suddenly going to wake up one day and realize he’s been a jackass for well over 30 years and change his ways. He isn’t going to suddenly understand why it takes me so long to find a Father’s Day card that doesn’t praise him for being the good father he never was. In fact, his selfishness and anger drove me to move to Michigan in 2000, which frankly was not the wisest choice I’d ever made. He had come home drunk, and came over to where I was doing the dishes and poked me rudely in the arm.

“Everyone in this house hates me, and it’s all your fault,” he said.

I moved two months later.

I don’t seek his approval anymore; I really don’t value his opinion. It’s probably much too late for him to become a good father or to ever really repair this relationship. What I really want from him now is to at least get out of the way, because I don’t need any more obstacles. What I really want is Dustin back, to hold me and tell me it’s going to be okay.

As for Dad, he can wash his own damn dishes.

Wish

This one requires a bit of explanation. Many moons ago…oh, 12 years ago now, I was involved in a long-distance relationship that wasn’t going as I would have hoped, and I was stuck in a low-paying job with no prospects of improving my position. I was tired and angsty, and my new eyeglasses prescription had given me a raging migraine that had lasted for days. So I was bitchy, to put it mildly. It also reveals a tendency of mine that probably led to my initial involvement with Dustin, instead of heading for the hills at the first sign of trouble.

These days, the poem perfectly captures the angst and frustration I sometimes feel over Dustin’s loss. I am not currently in such a state, but I stumbled across this in an old box of papers, and I thought I’d share, after a bit of tweaking.

Wish

I’m bored and I’m lonely but after all
it’s all my fault
the days slip past and I don’t even care but
I’m one day closer to you
that should matter, I suppose
I don’t want to go to out, I want
to stay here and whine but
sometimes I annoy myself and I
throw myself to the wolves
so I can say I did something new

There’s a glitter in my eyes lately
The doc says it’s all right but
there’s an empty spot in the lives of my days and I
wish Prince Charming hadn’t been such a prick but
sometimes I don’t want what I wish for
(I’m such a bad girl, you know)

wish…
what a word
all the hopes and dreams rolled into a
dirty
little
four-letter word

I’m sick of insight
my head has hurt for the last three days and
I’m tired of searching my soul and today
I just want to sleep the time away
I’m sick of pretending that
nothing ever hurts and I
wish I could hear you say
just once
that you still love me, that you still need me
right now it’s just an intellectual exercise and I
I’m tired, just too damn tired

Copyright Miss M Photography

Copyright Miss M Photography

Carnival

Stay, stay in me, in my heart
You
I say it again
The way you walk in the door and I know the way you can
The way you’re telling me you’re not a dangerous man
I said it again, I’ll say again
I’m not that kind of woman
What can you do
What can you do to me
What can you do…you
“Carnival” Tori Amos

Dustin never told me he wasn’t a dangerous man-he only said he wasn’t dangerous to me. And I believed him, right down to the bone. I knew enough by then to know the difference. After decades of vicious abuse at the hands of his father, and years of rigorous boxing training and experience, Dustin was capable of great violence. But he would have cut off his own arm before he’d raise a hand to me. Protective without being possessive, he was my defender against the danger in the dark, against the ghosts of my own past. My dark knight.

However, danger comes in many forms, and I think he knew full well the risk he posed to my heart, and hoped against all hell and hope what he feared wouldn’t come to pass. But it did, didn’t it? We knew someone with his past and addictions had a much slimmer chance of dying in his bed of old age. I knew what I was signing up for, may the Gods help me. We rolled the dice, and we lost. Some would say that was illogical, love-blind. So? Sometimes you have to tell logic to take a flying leap. Although I consider myself a strong woman, smart and logical, I had spent three years with a man-which is really too good a word for him-who painfully taught me how much of an illusion that is. Most of us are only strong, smart, and logical when everyone plays by the rules. Neal* didn’t.

I met Neal at a bar, as such things tend to go. The night before I’d decided I didn’t have time for relationships. I was busy, working two jobs, had other goals in mind. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I really had the time and energy for the birthday party I’d been invited to. But at the last minute, I changed my mind, and so it was on the top floor of a Dogtown dive bar called Nick’s Pub, shortly after after midnight, when Neal crashed the party, and my life. So I met him at a party I’d decided not to attend, an hour after I’d already decided to leave, the night after I’d decided not to pursue relationships. I guess I thought it was fate. Maybe that was my first mistake.

He chatted me up, offered to buy me a drink, which I refused. I had been trying to make sure I was well into legally sober territory before heading home, which was why I was still at the pub in the first place. So he let me beat him at pool instead, and I gave him my number before I left. I didn’t realize until much, much too late how much letting me win must have cost him. He was a good pool player, very good, and competitive. Like most men with his tendencies, he only really felt tall when he was standing on someone else.

The first six months passed in a whirlwind of shimmering pink clouds. On paper, he was fantastic. Actually, he looked pretty fantastic in person, too. Five foot ten. Deep blue eyes, dark hair, perfect teeth, full lips made for kissing. Muscular without being muscle bound. An Eagle Scout, he owned his own business, and a very successful one, at that. He bought his house at 20, paid off the mortgage by 21, through his own hard work and financial savvy. He was a mechanical genius, and curious about the world around him. He was scrupulously clean, well-liked and respected by his community and his customers. There were some warning signs, but I was truly in love for the first time in my life, and I put them down to other things, blissfully unaware.

The problems started small, and by the time they blossomed into hiding the bruises, I was already much too far gone. I took too long to realize the man he had been those first six months was a sham. That person didn’t truly exist, but I kept trying to reach him, to break through, to get him back. I thought he was the real Neal, and not just the face he wore to collect someone like me. That mistake very nearly cost me everything I had.

Maybe I knew something was off. Despite his repeated requests, I never moved in with him, refusing to surrender my apartment, mostly because he insisted I’d have to give up my cats. From this, I began to suspect he was the kind of man to abuse power, but at first, he was sweet and caring. At first, he was a lot of things, and that gentleness and caring would sometimes resurface. Just often enough.

My parents were fed up with me, my brother exasperated. Why couldn’t I just leave? What was I thinking? What the hell was the matter with me?

My only answers are things are rarely that simple, so black and white, and if you’ve never stood in my place, trying to make those choices, you have no right to judge. No one really knows where their line in the sand is until they’ve been pushed to it, and some of us only find it once we’re on our hands and knees.

To be fair-since I can be brutal about fairness-the situation would never have reached the point it did if I had been anyone but who I am. He was used to being the smartest person in the room all the time, until I came along. I never made any bones about my intelligence or apologized for it, and that flew in the face of his habit of surrounding himself with people he could dominate easily. Scrappy, opinionated, and self-aware, I was as alien to him as a Men In Black cast reject. Since he was obsessed with appearances, he was thrown by my utter indifference to the opinions of people I didn’t respect-which included most of his friends, the Legion of Misfit Toys. Almost all Neal’s senses of self-esteem and worth were external, only seen when reflected by others. Alone, there almost wasn’t enough of Neal to exist. By comparison, I was the most real person he’d ever met.

So Neal saw me as a challenge, and he knew of only one way to deal with a challenge. He’d push and pull, trying to tear me down, and I’d refuse to budge. He would get angry, I’d resist, and things would escalate. By the time I left, I knew we were one more nasty incident from one of us going to prison for murder. I am not exaggerating for effect. I won’t list the bruises, the verbal abuse, the violence, the humiliations, but we were reaching a tipping point. You would think I would have developed a better sense of self-preservation, but even as I was packing to flee St Louis and his grip, I wouldn’t back down.

“You don’t understand. I’m coming back to St Louis, but I’m never coming back to you.”

To this day, I’m surprised by his shock. I am still surprised he didn’t hit me. I’d pushed him and pushed him for the better part of a year, telling him I didn’t love him, didn’t want to be with him, to leave me alone. I warned him and pushed him, until I knew he’d found someone else. Although the cheating stung and humiliated me, I knew the only way I’d be free would be if he found someone else to prop him up. I sacrificed my own self-respect, played a dirty and underhanded game, but I was only doing what I thought I had to. But even with her company, he still called for the next four months, threatening to show up at my new place well-removed from his St Louis neighborhood. Eventually the calls and threats stopped, but there are still neighborhoods I avoid, bars I won’t set foot in. I know, even now, that I’m only really off the hook as long as he’s not reminded I still exist. For him, it isn’t really over, and I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m the only game he ever lost.

And yes, it does say something about me, and about the icy demands of survival mode, that I hardly spared a thought for the woman I threw under the bus. I warned her. She chose not to believe me. I never lost any sleep over it. The people who understand are a select group, and we all have the scars to prove membership.

So. I spent the winter afterwards reassembling myself, dealing with the nightmares, the jumpiness, the anger that threatened to burn up what was left of my tattered soul. I began casually dating again the following spring, but I was cautious and gunshy. Though the men I met were nice enough in their own ways, they had no idea what they were dealing with. Never a trusting person to begin with, I now trusted absolutely no one. I had always had a kind of hardness to me, but after Neal, it had calcified into something glassy and implacable.

Then the following October, over a year after I’d left Neal, Dustin walked across a parking lot and changed everything.

*Names have been changed to protect myself, as opposed to the most assuredly guilty. He isn’t above suing me into the poorhouse, or using this tale as leverage to come back into my life and make me pay in some way. Of course he’s that much of a bastard. Haven’t you been paying attention?

Where There is Sorrow, There is Holy Ground

Oh, shit. I am in so much trouble.
~My first thought upon seeing Dustin for the first time.

I saw him before he saw me, and I knew, from the second I laid eyes on him, that everything would be different. The sun was shining during an unseasonably warm October day, and it played over his hair, his broad, muscular shoulders, his narrow waist, and the suggestion of a rear end I could already tell was going to cause me heart trouble. Hormones were rocketing around my system, and all the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

We were meeting for coffee, cliche of all cliches. We had met online, and spent the last two weeks getting to know each other on the phone. I had made him wait so long because I had been putting in insane hours at my job, and that first weekend I had available I intended to spend in the fetal position on the couch, and told him so. He found that both frustrating and hilarious.

He didn’t see my initial reaction. I was sitting at an outside table, reading my kindle. Behind my sunglasses, I saw him coming across the parking lot. He didn’t see my eyes widen, my lips part. He didn’t hear my breath catch or the soft swear word I hissed. I let him go into the cafe, let him send me a text to let me know he had arrived. I didn’t get up to meet him, but sent him a text to let him know where I was.

Frankly, I needed a minute. I pretended to read my book, trying to get my breathing under control, struggled for calm. I was in a heap of trouble, but I didn’t yet know if he was.

He took my picture while I was pretending to read. I didn’t realize it, but I was smiling.

We talked for hours. We went from place to place. He helped me pick out my smartphone, phones being an obsession of his. We went to my favorite tavern for lunch. And we went to one of my favorite places on the planet: the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Garden has been special to me for years. My aunt June took me the first time when I was nine or ten. I remember being fascinated by the Japanese Gardens-the largest Japanese garden outside Japan. The Climatron left me amazed-a tropical jungle housed in a geodesic dome. I loved it, and I loved her. She had a childlike wonder for the world that made every experience with her a kind of revelation, a romp, endlessly special.

While I was living outside Detroit, June got sick, diagnosed with breast cancer. I was already working to come back home after my cousin Steve had died in 2002. I got back just as she finished her final rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

For her birthday that summer, I took her back to the Garden. She was still weak and tired from her treatments. We had to make frequent stops, but she loved every minute of it. She hadn’t been to the Garden in years, and she exclaimed over every change and new design, and wondered over the rose gardens, her favorites.

We went back every year for her birthday after that. She got stronger, she got better, and she looked forward to the trip, would talk about it for weeks afterwards. But three years later, she suffered a bad fall, broke her leg. And we discovered her breast cancer, thought to be in remission, had metastasized to her bones.

Bone cancer is terminal. Every time. No get out of jail free card, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. It may take a while, it can be held off – slowed down – delayed – but make no mistake, sooner or later, it’s going to kill you. And it is a horrible, drawn out, terrible way to die.

That year, she was too sick to go back. So I went alone and took as many pictures as I could. The next year, she was gone. And now, the Gardens are sacred to me, hallowed ground. If she is haunting any place on this earth, she is there.

For me to decide to take Dustin to the Garden during our first date was a significant choice. For him to realize how special the place was to me simply by watching my reactions to it was even more so.

I touched him for the first time in the Ottoman Garden, tucking my hand into the crook of his arm.

We held hands for the first time at the tulip beds.

And in the Climatron, buried in a jungle in the middle of the Midwest, beside a waterfall, he kissed me for the first time.

There, we fell in love.

Waterfall at the Missouri Botanical Garden

 

Title quote courtesy of Oscar Wilde.

Interlude #5

Dustin~

In just a few days it will have been four months since I lost you.

I don’t want to believe that you’re gone, that you’ll never hold me again, but it’s hard to win an argument with reality. 

Our anniversary is coming up, and I can already feel the tenuous progress I’ve made so far start to come apart. I’m crying almost every day again, having trouble sleeping despite the trazodone. I don’t know if I can do this, but I don’t really have any other choice.

I am also fast approaching the story of our first meeting, and I’m scared. I have to let it out, let it go, because inside that perfect day has grown thorns. The only way over it is through it, and that journey will be dark, and it will hurt. It will hurt like the beginning, the volcano erupting again, because I am losing you all over again.

You told me a year with me wouldn’t be enough. That a lifetime wouldn’t be enough. We just never had enough time, and that cry beats in my head and my heart like war drums. And now, painfully, ironically, all I have now is time. And I don’t want it, any of it. 

Don’t tell me if you had to choose, if one of us had to go early, that this is the way you would have wanted it to go. I know that. I don’t care. You aren’t the one left behind, left to pay the price. You got the easy part.

So now, on the day that should have been a celebration, I will be alone. On that day, I’m going back to that place. Our first date, our first kiss, our first acknowledgement that something big and beautiful was happening between us. That seismic shift in our souls, making room for the half of ourselves we never even realized had been missing.

And I will try so hard not to cry in public, to not make a spectacle of myself, and I will fail miserably. Some things are too big, too important, to hold inside. And I know you will be there with me, and I’ll know how much you’ll wish you could hold and comfort me. I’ll know.

I’ve always known.