Ten years ago:
There has been a few times in my life where I had expectations that were completely destroyed. I would be breathlessly expecting an event to happen only to have my guts ripped out at the the crowning moment. This happens either when I misunderstand the true circumstances, or when I have blown expectations so completely out of control that it could only result in such a crushing letdown. Seeing Amy come off of the bus was the latter of these.
I don't know what I wanted to happen in that brief moment when she first saw me. Did I want the world to explode into a new shape before my eyes? Did I want her to drop everything and come over and hug me in a way that was so ultimately reassuring that I suddenly achieved enlightenment? Was I looking for some overly romantic sentiment reserved for pop culture legends? Whatever I was waiting for didn't happen. We stared at each other for a brief moment before settling on a hug, and then I started dragging her bags the nine blocks to my apartment.
We were both conflicted and scared and worried about the damage that had been done, so I can understand where she was cautiously distant. We had to talk our way through the knot before we could see what we could make of things. But I couldn't shake the impression that I was critically ignorant about something, and it was going to bite me right in the ass.
So many of my hopes were buried into her in those days. It was unreasonable to expect such things out of our strained relationship, but then I was being unreasonable in all things during that time so this was just another problem I brought on myself. I had thrown the melodramatic blanket over my head, and I was stumbling around trying to bump into her.
We would go around town spending time together, just the two of us and the relationship we were trying to resurrect. The air was constantly thick with things we weren't saying to each other for one reason or another. I would look at her and want to tell her how much I wanted to be with her, but I thought how that might be more than she was willing to take from me right then. Instead I turned it into some kind of game where I was trying show her that I was suddenly wise and strong and show how I had grown to be serious about my relationships. Even in my head I didn't know what the truth of it actually was, so it was just as well that the thoughts jammed themselves before they could even manage to escape.
When we did slide into old habits, it was embarrassing and sharp. She would put her arm around me, and I would look at her and then it would wash over us in a sudden moment and we would retreat to a safe distance away. We would reach for each other across a diner table, fiddling with our jewelry until one of us noticed and burst the bubble we were in. Little moments like this were sprinkled throughout the week, taking us from one sudden moment to another as we didn't say things that needed to be said.
At night I would reach some kind of critical mass and hold her close to me, crying out of frustration and isolation and breaking everything that I was across her back and her shoulders in an attempt to figure everything out. I wonder now what must have been going through her mind while we were laying there in the darkness, trying to hold on to the pathetic soul that left damp marks on her shirt. I wonder if we were both in the same place, or even then we were in our own little shells without any way to truly break though to the other one.
This was the danger of putting myself in her orbit. There was something in her that brought out the worst of my emotions, and played them out all over everything we were together. This reckless compulsion to want her, to want to be with her, intruded on rational thoughts and made me do damaging things to myself. I couldn't see how everything eventually turned to dust in the space between us. While this all seems so obvious now, the circumstances must have been uninterpretable to me when I was in the thick of it all.
She was just starting to get serious about her photography in those days. She would take the camera out wherever we were going, and I would watch her take in the world through the little window in the back of the Nikon and wonder what it was she was trying to do. The entire basis of my knowledge on the subject was a childhood of 110 film and fucking up the sports section in college by not knowing what f-stop meant. She told me it was an SLR and how she had just bought this gizmo or that lens and how it made her feel like she was surrounded by art all of the time. She had me look through the viewfinder and take some pictures, and I would listen and feel like it was just another thing I was going to fuck up anyway.
We spent one day walking along Lake Macatawa, going from the windmill past the scrapyard down to Kollen Park. We stopped so she could take pictures of the metal sculpture and the lines in the parking lot at the civic center. While we were walking together, it felt like I was just another thing that existed somewhere outside of her, and so I was thus a curiosity to be examined and rendered beautiful or interesting or artistic. I was waiting to be given meaning through her interpretation of what I was.
We walked by the small boat docks, and she asked me to walk to the end of the longest one and stand there while she took a picture. I walked out there and stood and waited for her to do her art, hands jammed into my pockets. I looked out on the lake sitting under a cloudy sky, and I wanted more than anything to be whatever she needed at that exact moment. I wanted to be her art, full of something brilliant that she would know on sight but that I would never fully understand. I wanted to embrace that role for her, and be the most interesting or the most beautiful for her. And then I moped back, knowing that I had somehow failed.
Although I didn't know it then, I was captured fully and completely through her lens, surrounded by the landscape and the water and the sky. I was moved onto a negative and then onto paper though little shades of light. I am green matted and framed, hanging in my office. I am on my homenode, contrasted in gray and black. It is me. I am there. It is amazing how those things happen sometimes.
Nothing we did made the week any longer. We used words to describe the hopes we were trying to find a home for, the compromises we were willing to make, the feelings we were trying to fight through. We slept in as much as we could, laying in warm sunlight and trying to extract feelings from each other. We embraced, hoping for something to happen to melt our hesitation. But there was not enough time for that to happen. We were too concerned with what we were feeling, or what we thought the other one was thinking. The task was too great.
She got on the bus, and I stood there watching it leave until it turned the corner out of sight. Then I lit a cigarette, walked back to my apartment, and had a nervous breakdown. I didn't know how to handle what had just happened. I blamed myself completely for all of the awkwardness. I wanted to take back those emotional moments that seemed perfectly reasonable, but quickly turn embarrassing and selfish under the light of perspective. I wanted another attempt at solving these problems, certain that I would totally get it right the second time around.
Of course all of these problems were solely my fault. Any contrary perspective would have been summarily dismissed in the light of what appeared to be irrefutable evidence. Never mind the desperate romantic fallacies my brain kept summoning. Never mind the inability of people to perfectly track the thoughts going on in someone else's head. Clearly I was the one making all of the mistakes. But these lies were so much easier to deal with than the simple truth: things were never going to be the way they had been with her before the breakup, nor should they.
I was nowhere near accepting that. I was too busy stumbling through my emotions.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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