Ten years ago:
I kept in touch with the kids in New York as best as I could have after I left, but between work and moving I had lost track of them a little bit. I didn't yet have an Internet connection working at the apartment, so I wasn't able to check email or chat with any of them. In fact, I had to convince the phone company that I was an entirely new person at that billing address before they would send someone out to hook up a line, so I didn't even have phone service until just after the new year. What communication I had was through snail mail, or phone calls at my brother's house, or at a 7-Eleven pay phone two blocks from the apartment. When I finally did get a phone, the first few days were used to fill people in on my situation. Some were surprised, others were shocked, but all were happy to see that I had someplace to work and someplace warm of my own. It was nice to hear that kind of reassurance from people that were so concerned when I left, and it made me believe that I had made the right choice by stealing myself away from them.
I delayed talking to the girls in Syracuse as long as I could, because I was anxious about phoning them. I honestly wasn't sure what their reaction would be to my call. It had been more than a month since I had heard from them, and I wasn't sure how their relationship had evolved. I also wasn't sure how my stories of success would lay on them, seeing as they were the most adamant naysayers when I was packing up to leave.
Since this project is about honesty there is an issue here that I feel I must address, even though it is something that I would rather leave alone. There was an aspect to my relationship with them that contributed to my decision to leave New York. There was a period over the previous summer, after they had moved in together in Syracuse and I had gone off to Cortland, where we all tried to make a relationship work for the three of us. There were beautiful aspects to this relationship which I could expound on for quite some time, but the foundation of the whole thing was extremely volatile. There were inherent trust issues, miscommunication, and worries that discussions and best intentions could not shake out. I struggled with my emotions the entire time, sometimes trying to single-handedly hold things together when they were clearly falling apart. This was certainly not helping my feelings of isolation and despair over how my previous relationships with them had crumbled. I was an idiot for trying to build things out of the problems that had already taken my life apart in the first place. In the end, they decided that their relationship would probably work better if I wasn't an intimate part of it, and they were totally right.
But that kind of complicated relationship dies hard, and the feelings that it created didn't fade as quickly as I would have liked. Calling them up was entangled with all of these issues as well, and I didn't know what I would say. Punching the numbers into the phone was difficult. Listening to the ring was difficult. Hearing the click as the phone lifted off the receiver on the other end was a lightning bolt to my brain. And then the words, slow at first but then comfortable and needful. It was nice to open a window to their life again, and see that their world was continuing well.
They wanted to come see me before the spring semester started. I said yes even though I shouldn't have. I should have taken the time to settle into my new world a bit more, or at least be in a place where having them around for a few days wouldn't do as much damage. But I missed them and the familiarity that their presence provided me. I wondered what the dynamic was going to be like once they arrived.
A few days later they were there, and things were good at first. I shuffled the schedule around at work so I could have a few days off, and we went adventuring up to Grand Rapids and Saugatuck. We drank and played Bust-a-Move with militant ambition. We tooled around 8th Street, buying albums, books, and peanut brittle. There were drinks and Christmas gifts and suburban restaurants. It felt good to have friends at hand that had emotional and personal context, and I leached onto that with a fervor that I am now embarrassed to admit.
The couch that I possessed was some wicker hack-job from the previous tenant, and did not lend itself to sleeping, so I pulled out a sleeping bag and tried different positions on the lumpy floors of the apartment. Adding to this was a deeply unsettling desire for the way things were in the past, when we were all happy with each other and it felt like home. They felt bad for making me sleep on the floor, so we did eventually end up sleeping three across the queen size bed just as things had been before. I forced those feelings as far down as I could push them, knowing that it would only make things worse.
But I didn't need to mention any of this because it was the fucking elephant in the room. Instead of simply addressing all of this, we started playing emotional dodgeball again. Little snide comments started popping up in our normal conversation, and it tinted everything else we did. They would duck into another room and argue with each other while I patiently waited for the storm to pass. I would passive-aggressively mention past transgressions in an attempt to raise a response. By the time they were getting ready to leave, I was resentful for having all of the wounds reopened, but was still desperately needful of their attention. What I wanted was to feel the emotional closeness that had existed between us when I was living in their world, but that is a hard thing to try and construct in a few days, even more so when emotions are running that high. It was unrealistic, but I wasn't in the mood for rationality at that point. I handled this breakdown in a melodramatic fashion, and I still feel terrible about it all.
I am an idiot, and I act like a fucking child sometimes. I am putting this sentence in the present tense, because this is a problem I continue to have and it revolts me still. I become unstable and irrational, and then I hide under a cover of alcohol or brooding in dark rooms for hours on end. At worst, I subject other people to my instability, creating awkward conversations and bad feelings. I cause more damage than already exists purely out of some fucked up sense of responsibility or remorse or avoidance. Afterward, I end up confronting myself over how ridiculous I am, and how I may have damaged the perception other people have of me. There was a series of events over this last summer that were a disgusting reminder of how crazy I can actually get when I approach my feelings in this manner, and I wish I could reach into my brain and physically remove that feature.
They left back east for home, and I spent days sulking around my apartment, desperately trying not to feel so broken.
Two days after they left my mother called to inform me that they had decided to move my grandfather into a nursing home. This was not an unexpected move. He had been ill with emphysema for years, tethered by plastic tubing to oxygen since I left home. Living on Maple Hill was becoming more challenging as the years went by, and after the last hospital visit they finally managed to convince him to leave the house he had lived in for more than sixty years.
Maybe this development would have been easier to tackle if I had been there, and actually seen the circumstances that had lead to this change. But as a concept, I had a hard time dealing with the implications. I imagined that house sitting empty for the first time in over a hundred years, creaking to itself in the winter storms. It made me sad to think of a fiercely independent man finally having to accept the limitations of illness and age. I wanted to do something to help, but was in no position to provide any kind of comfort.
This was part of the burden I knew I accepted when I decided that living in that town was an untenable concept, and struck out for a life of my own. Despite how much I wanted to detach myself from that place, I still carried pieces of it around with me. I feel ashamed and hypocritical to have such a relationship with a place I spent so much time trying to distance myself from. I feel like I should have grown a thicker skin to these feelings, or perhaps come up with a better way of coping with them when they do arrive. I want to be able to deconstruct and resolve all of them, one by one.
Instead all I could do was sit seven hundred miles away, and worry.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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