Ten years ago:
I had spent the previous week working open-to-close shifts at the store. The district manager informed my boss that he would lose his vacation from last year unless he took it before the end of the month, so he gladly wrote himself off of the schedule and left me in charge. I spent the first eight hours of my shift all alone in the store, taking in shipments and begging for a customer to distract me from the prattle my head was spitting out at me. Then a part timer would come in and I would step out for my first break, relishing the five minutes out in the cold air. Then back in for another four hours before we finally threw the gate and went home. But home for me was an empty hole on the south side, so by the time I managed to wrestle the bus into taking me there I had already lost any excitement I may have had. I pushed myself to make something to eat then, maybe a pot of pasta with whatever I had around, and then sat in front of the television. Then off to bed to wake up the next morning and do the run all over again.
This is how I knew that I was in trouble: I was watching television regularly. I was sitting there on the couch chain smoking, letting the cathode glow draw me in. The last time I had done such a thing was when I was living with my parents, and I used it to pass the time before I could finally move out of there. But here I was, four years later and still wasting my life away in some living room, waiting for something to happen. I knew that this was a troublesome set of circumstances, but I didn't have the energy or the motivation do to anything else. The days blurred together, and I went to bed at night thinking that I had to do something to pull myself out of the routine.
I cleaned the apartment from top to bottom again, trying futilely to get those well-worn stains out of the kitchen floor. I found additional plates tucked in the far reaches of the bottom cabinet, old books in a box that had magically appeared under the end table in the living room, and a bunch of store posters jammed into the back of the bedroom closet. I used my newly acquired internet connection to write emails to people that I hadn't reached out to in years. I stood in the kitchen, ashing cigarette after cigarette down the sink drain, hoping that at any moment I would figure out the super-secret combination that would unlock myself from whatever it was that had a grip on me. But these were all pastimes, and there was nothing in them but ritual and panic.
At one point, half asleep on the living room couch, the phone rang. This was an uncommon event at that house, usually startling me and sending my brain into fight or flight mode. I answered, and the woman at the other end was looking for "Joan", whom I certainly was not. After I hung up I spent the following twenty minutes wondering who Joan actually was, and what she was doing that it necessitated a phone call. Although it was logically unlikely I thought that perhaps Joan was the woman who had lived in the apartment before I moved in, which made me wonder what life was like now for her and the baby at this point. I hoped that they had somehow landed well after their flight from the eviction notice. Which would have all been fine thoughts if they occurred in a passing state instead of taking over the brain processes that were already in place. A wrong number shouldn't shatter reality like that.
These days of over-work and restlessness at home were sadly only a preview of the coming months. Maybe there was something that I could have done then if I had the tools to identify and work through issues then. I could have saved a lot of time that was instead spent on disparate thoughts that never resolved. I could have done something other than sit on the couch and wonder what the hell was going on with me as the hours drained past me. Now, I like to think that there was something in those moments that my brain needed. Perhaps it was sorting itself out in those strange hours, and it was a process that needed to happen in order for it to repair damage. Maybe I was losing my shit in order to build a paradigm that could better deal with reality.
I called the Yale kids. Diana and Margie are friends of mine from high school, and at that point were in their junior years at Yale. I dated Diana on and off throughout high school, a relationship in which I was the problem a vast majority of the time. She worked her ass off and got a full ride at Yale while I slacked my ass off and ran out of money in Cortland. Diana met Margie at CTY one summer, and they were making trips up and down the valley to see each other. I dated Margie for a little bit in my junior year of high school, but she was much more intelligent and way too mature for the likes of me.
Most importantly, the two of them dragged me through high school with love and force of will. I was not stable in those days, ignorantly stumbling from one self-actualized moment to another. When I offended someone, or embarrassed myself, or said something ignorant, they were the ones that took me to the curb. But despite my idiocy, they kept inviting me to spend time with them, chipping away at the problems that were within. At least half of the cultural capital I scrapped together while growing up came directly from having them in my life. I hold them as patron saints for my transition into the person I am today.
Much like things are even today, I had not contacted them in a long time. They were unaware of the events of the previous few months, so calling them from Michigan was a hard cold open. I filled them in, but I noticed that the story I told them was different than the one that I would have portrayed even a week before. I wasn't enthusiastic about any of it, and instead dwelt on being broken and lost. I felt like I could open up to them about the reality of things as they were, instead of candy coating it as I had for other people. Whatever instinct they had for protecting me from myself kicked in then, and they told me I should seriously consider moving to New Haven once I felt that I was able.
That idea had never crossed my mind for one important reason: I did not want to be a burden to them. At the time, I felt like so much of my relationship with Diana revolved around waiting for me to quit dawdling and do something with myself. I felt like I was slowing her down, and making it harder for her to escape Schodack and do what she actually wanted. It was part of the reason that I felt terrible in our relationship, which led to acts of sabotage. I shortchanged her with my emotions in a silly attempt to keep her from holding herself back with me. The idea that I would suddenly reverse course on that was ridiculous. But the appeal of the life that I could build out of that was intoxicating. I would have no choice but to shake out who I really was at my core, because they would not tolerate anything else out of me. I would be forced to confront preconceptions simply as a matter of keeping up with them. I would extend knowledge in a way that hanging out with highly educated people tends to do. It would be a lie to think that I wasn't enticed by the idea.
I told them that I would think about it, but also said that I wanted to take a lot of time to figure it out. I didn't want to run from one situation to another, and I didn't want to make any more changes in my life without making sure they were the best for me. I'm not sure that I entirely meant it at the time, or if it just felt like something that I should be saying. I did come to believe those words very strongly in the end, and I think I made the right choice by staying where I was. But sometimes I think about the way things could have been if I had decided on a different path.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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