“It’s like other people,” I sob, “are walking along and they get mosquito bites, and it hurts but they can slap the mosquitos away, and then it itches for a while but it goes away. But me,” I try to pause, try to order my thinking, order my breathing, “I’m standing in the middle of a huge hive of bees, and they’re all over me, and I can’t move, can’t breathe or one will sting me, and I’ll wince and then they’ll all start stinging me …”
Chad, soothing as ever, holds me awkwardly where I am sprawled along the upstairs hallway, still in my dingy bathrobe from when I intended to take a shower and get to work. He found me there when he got home: a mess, bathrobe askew, face blank and pale and faintly twitching, staring at the door. A tentative, “What’s wrong?” and I of course had no response, just lifted my eyes and blinked.
“What’s wrong?” is one of those questions that I used to be able to answer. “Oh, work is shitty, the usual,” I could reply with a smirk, and friends could nod and grin and regular chitchat could progress around the topic of “what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” Not that I ever knew; I’m just very good at making answers up. It’s actually fairly entertaining for me to answer (or not-answer) the future-career question, simply because I don’t know what I want to do, and so it’s not scary to talk about it.
So many things are too scary to talk about anymore.
Surface answers for “what’s wrong?” were my salvation for a long, long time. If I could pinpoint my sadness to one specific thing ó work, school when I was in it, lack of friends in the area, writer’s block ó then it meant I could fix those things. I would be okay.
Now “what’s wrong” is nothing. Nothing on the outside is wrong. My job isn’t awful since I’ve learned to cope with stress there. I’m writing, every day these days, and even managing to keep up with this journal. I have a few, very close friends who are a constant source of positive energy and support, and the boardgaming group gives me a tiny, manageable social life every week. Chad is an utterly wonderful partner. I’m smart, funny, pretty, and well-liked.
“I’m too crazy for the counseling office so they’re sending me on to the psychiatric clinic,” I explain on the phone two nights ago. On the other end is Greg, my friend and ex-sweetie, patient as always with my convoluted, inarticulate explanations. “I have to go on February first. Apparently they want to treat this … thing aggressively, so they might prescribe meds first off.”
“Mmh, meds. How’re you feeling about that?” he asks, knowing full well how I feel about medication of any kind.
“Fine, I guess,” I lie, and I know he knows I’m lying. I trust him enough not to call me on it.
Greg and I met when I first moved back to Pennsylvania in the summer of ‘92. In Chicago, where I was living with my mother, everything was falling apart. Later on, I would realize that this was yet another downtime in my glorious cycles of depression. At the time, all I knew is that I wanted to disappear.
And disappear I did, from Chicago, from the Midwest, in favour of the comfort and stability of Meadville, Pennsylvania, home of a small liberal-arts college and some damned fine community theatre. And my dad and stepmom, who welcomed me unconditionally, and my brother Henrik, who tucked me into his current group of friends without a word.
The spring break just before the move I had visited Meadville, and met some of these friends: specifically Luke and Greg, who were, as far as I could tell, two halves of the same person. The only difference was that Luke was flirting with me and Greg wasn’t. I found out much later that Greg really was, too, but in such a quiet, subtle way it was lost on me the way most quiet, subtle things have been lost on me.
After moving that summer, Luke and I started dating. Although that relationship was short-lived, it forged the later bond between Luke, Greg, Dan, and me; that quartet of friendship I will never forget. Greg and I started in the vaguely expected way that some loves start: Mac and I were falling apart, Greg and I were talking more, and boom. The afternoon Mac broke up with me, I drove numbly from Edinboro to Meadville but didn’t bother going home. I drove straight to where Greg worked. He made me a sandwich and watched me bawl all over it and didn’t flinch. Not even once.
Rebound or no, Greg and I lasted through two Tom Stoppard plays, almost a year. The first, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, we worked side-by-side, and well together. Jokingly, I now attribute our breakup to the director-actor relationship; I directed “Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth” in the summer of ‘95 and cast Greg as one of the principals. It was both a no-brainer and a no-winner: Greg is terribly talented … and he was also my sweetie. At the time, I thought I could have both. In retrospect, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have cast him anyway.
The really sad things, I’m convinced, are the ones you wouldn’t change …
”… even if I could,” I tell Shae, blotting my tears with a flimsy coffeehouse napkin. It’s got a big blotch of chai on it and I probably look like the historical society pictures of Indian braves, warpainted with brown and black streaks. I can’t look at him, anyway, warpaint or no; I’m frozen, staring at the mealy wooden coffeetable by our knees, at the miniscule spaces between the wale of my corduroy pants. Shae has his hand on my shoulder, just resting there, not squeezing or patting or any other movement that would agitate me further right now, as if he knew. Perhaps he did; perhaps I did explain that to him as I meant to so long ago. Or perhaps he’s just extra good at guessing when I can’t take any touch, not even from close friends. Either way, his hand is solid and warm, present without being overbearing, and I reach for my mug of chai with the other arm so I won’t have to move from his touch.
“If I touch you right now, I … it’s okay, it’s okay that you’re touching me. That’s okay,” I quickly say, then sip, then pause.
“You’re sure?” he wonders, watching me closely.
“I’m sure. But if I … if I touch you right now, if I hug or hold you, I’m afraid I’ll just … lose it, fall apart and scream and beg you ‘don’t go, don’t go’ and that’s not even what I mean.”
That’s not even what I mean, not even what I want. Shae is leaving in weeks, a few mere collections of bits of time, and yet I wouldn’t want him to stay. He’s moving to Seattle, and in with Karawynn, and I can’t imagine a better move for him. I couldn’t want him to stay. It wouldn’t be right.
But I hadn’t told him yet. I hadn’t told him how important he is to me. I know I hadn’t told him because every time I mention something about how much he’s affected my life, he is incredulous. “Really?” he keeps marveling. “I did?” “I was?” “I am?”
The ashtray is filling; Shae’s cigarette has burned a third of the way down, retaining the delicate, speckled ash in a thin column. My throat is thick from crying and smoking and drinking hot chai. Somehow, my focus has latched onto the pinball game a few feet away from us, and I watch it cycle through the high scorer’s initials, recognizing no one we know. I may be better at talking than I am at playing pinball, but right now, it’s not showing.
Gradually, I calm myself to the point when I can talk again. It’s open-mic night, and a lone guitarist is playing “Sunny Side of the Street” as I clear my throat. “When I used to spend summers and holidays with my dad, when I was younger,” I say softly, “I would take the train between Erie and Chicago. My dad would drive me to Erie at the end of the vacation, and we’d try and cram in so much conversation during that forty-five minute trip. It was like, we had lost the chance to say the important things, so we wanted to get them all in before I left again.” My traitorous throat clumped up again, and I had to finish off my drink to continue. “We’ve gotten better, though. Now we now how to say all the important things during the trip. That’s how I know I’ve had a good time with my dad, see. When all we talk about on the drive to the airport is the weather.”
I hear Shae smile, exhale in a little laugh, and nod.
I say, “I wish … I wish I had learned that lesson better. With this. With you.”
An hour after the coffeehouse, on the phone with Greg, I mention so casually that I’ve just utterly humiliated myself. He snickers and asks, “Oh no. What did you do?”
“Oh, I bawled my head off at Shae, told him I was going to miss him and all. I was pathetic. In the middle of the coffeehouse! My humiliation alarms are just now going off,” I sigh.
“What’s wrong with that? Sounds like a good thing. Isn’t it? That you got the chance to tell him.”
“Yes,” I smile against the receiver. “Yes. I got the chance.”