I remember the walls the most. Not quite white, more of a cream, with the divots and spackled-over crevices characteristic of a rental apartment. The hours I spent staring at those walls, dissecting their concealed intricacies in an attempt to reveal my own. Was I here? And if so, what was the point? Like a reprimanded dog, I retreated to those four walls with my tail between my legs, momentarily traumatized but ever eager for the next treat.
Nothing makes me feel anymore. I am a pile of bones and flesh going through the motions while my spirit levitates in an agency-less void a few feet above, helplessly watching her earthly image drill further and further into destruction. I so desperately wanted to connect the dots in my brain between the momentum trapped inside and the invisible cage I presently operated within, but it was like some internal army had erected a wall between Me (the noun) and Myself (the operative force). A civil war that shared a common enemy; an immune response against my own white blood cells. And oh, the white. The blankness.
When the texts dried up and he said that I was just too much for him that weekend. We needed some space, he needed a breather. A breather from what? A breather from me! From me. My very presence was so overwhelming that it needed to be removed completely every once in a while to allow for a reset. Like a detox program, a social media break, a Dry January. Except for I was the object, the experience, the vice, the splinter, to remove. So I got to work on the dismantling, the ignoring, the dulling.
The numbing of my internal truth whose voice became fainter and fainter with each knot I tied in an effort to bond me to him. Stuff it down, stuff it down. Swallow it, sit in it. Stare at the walls to pass the time until Pavlov himself returns and I am, predictably, sitting perfectly still and salivating at the chance to prove myself, again.
This is the last time, I told myself as I pressed my forehead against the cool tile floor after making myself sick. You are a failure, and you’ll never be more than a washed-up big fish in a small pond, always wanting for more and never satisfied with the reality that’s in front of you. I noticed the wrinkles on my forehead for the first time when I stood up from the floor to wash my hands (destroy the evidence, get out damn spot).
I traced my fingers along their indentations like the patterns in my wall.
Where were my friends, you ask? Good question. I always craved them, never seemed to be able to locate them. I would parade myself around as Open for Coffee; I would drive myself to exhaustion penciling in Catch-Ups, Drinks, Brunch, “30 minutes of your time.” They were usually canceled, postponed, “I’m so sorry, work has really been full on!”’ Anyway. If I’m being honest (a luxury which hindsight provides), all I really wanted to do was go on a walk with someone and silently witness the miracle of being here, right now. I wanted to share the sunsets with someone, I wanted a name to readily come to mind when I saw an interesting flower -- “oh, he’d appreciate this!” But all that came up anytime I found myself face-to-face with awe were white walls and a busy signal.
When I did find myself in a group of people, or in acquaintance with another individual (which was more often than my state of emptiness would reflect), the invisible wall in my brain suddenly morphed into a much larger shield, an impenetrable protective casing. Their voices hummed and I floated along, nodding and smiling and accepting compliments.
“He is truly punching!”
“I don’t understand how he landed someone like you.”
“You are way out of his league.”
“Honestly, he’s so lucky to have you.”
Sometimes the compliments veered into the cautionary advice-giving territory, but it was as if I had an allergy to vulnerability. The medicine they offered was not something I wanted to take. You can only meet someone at the level they are willing to meet themselves, I guess.
Maintaining friendships was like circling the drain. Just enough to keep me afloat, but never enough to sustain me. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes life was good. Sometimes it was great. Fantastic, even. There were new experiences and European escapades and pub crawls and live music and balcony barbecues. There was hand-holding, passionate love-making, letter writing, big declarations, midnight races up the concrete steps to the entrance of the Cologne Cathedral.
I’m a smart girl, I told myself. I would never stay in something that bad. Don’t we all have to compromise? I shrunk my dreams down to his size. The exchange felt worth it. Giving up my power meant I didn’t have to look myself in the eyes. I didn’t have to face up to the enormity of my own goals or feel the burn of the rip-roaring ambition that simmered beneath my feet at all times. I just wanted someone, anyone, to tell me what to do. Where to turn. Who to trust. How to live. He was right, I was lost, I needed a shepherd. A broken bird needs a cage so she doesn’t hurt herself trying to fly. Was it symbiotic? Was he getting something out of this too?
I needed self-regulation, a way to manage the incredible levels of uncertainty and change and grief in my life. I needed a way to anesthetize my existence. I should be so grateful he was giving me that, and under the guise of love, no less. This is what all the articles say. There’s give and take, good and bad. You can’t expect too much. Your standards are too high.
“It’s like constantly walking on eggshells around you,” he said. “I’m constantly setting you off.” We’re at a work event, something for The Sun or The Times, I don’t know. He probably didn’t know either. Whatever, open bar. We’re laughing while the warm beer blurs the edges of the day, making it easier to forget our Monday goals and submit to the tedious monotony that is the 21st century ‘work-life balance.’ He goes to the loo, I queue for drinks. A guy approaches me, elevator eyes and all. As disgusting as it feels to be so blatantly objectified, it’s even more horrifying to feel the corners of my mouth cautiously creeping up, my stature shrinking, my dynamism melting. He says something brutishly gauche; I laugh and roll my eyes, chewing on my bottom lip as I grab the two gin & tonics from the bartender.
I just want to go home. Why am I here? Why is the music so loud? Why did I wear this tight skirt? I tug at my tights awkwardly as my eyes shift to the restrooms down the hall and his eyes shift to my ass. In one swift moment, I step away to make my retreat and bump into the one man who is allowed to objectify me, who gets a pass when he makes crude comments because ‘all the other girls think it's fine,’ who now has to flip through his rolodex of Instagram girls in private.
He is hurtling towards the guy at the bar and obviously seeing multiple shades of red. I don’t know who I’m more scared of. Fists are flying, people are shouting, leather jackets are flung to the ground. I blink twice, tucked away in a corner across the room. I slip outside before the fight ends and ignore the inkling that this has nothing to do with me. He spends the rest of the night riding a high, Whatsapping the lads and recounting the fight. I feel so small in a way I can’t articulate. I wish he would talk to me instead of an electronic box, but who am I to make these demands. He was protecting me, after all.
He cares about me. I should be grateful. Our currency wasn’t love, it was shapeshifting. My mind contorted on his behalf, made him fit inside a pocket in my heart that I carved out for ‘Love’ with a capital L.
Turns out, it wasn’t the last time. As the acid from the bile burned my throat and pulsed the blood vessels in my already bulging eyeballs, I surrendered to his opinion of me. He was right, I was crazy. I was too much. If I couldn’t even handle my own life, how the hell was someone else supposed to try to fit into it? I felt bad for him. He tried, he really did. But I just wasn’t making things easy, was I. I needed to do better, feel less, stuff it down. Sit up straight. Do as you’re told. Be nice. Carry on. Anger isn’t very becoming.
“I don’t think couples should ever fight,” he said. “I don’t understand why people say it’s normal. I’d never put up with that.” “Yeah,” I responded, not quite yet knowing where I stood on that topic but doing my best to cover up my hesitation. Something felt off with his assertion, but I cut my thoughts short and closed my mouth.
I remember the first time he called his mother a bitch. It sounded an alarm bell in my very core, in the part of me I thought was rock-solid. “Family is really important to me,” I wrote in my journal, trying to unpack my values as my therapist told me to. “I don’t really believe in ‘blood over everything,’” he said as he rolled down the striped Ikea sheets on his Ikea bed frame. “Family is really just a random group of people you’re associated with by chance, you didn’t choose them. Sometimes they are dickheads. Your friends though, you chose them.”
He had never made a new friend in his life -- everyone he knew he had met either at his posh primary school or his red brick university. All of his bonds were made out of slippery morals and white powder. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
The white walls, the white lies, the snow in April, and the snow every Saturday. As time went on and I descended further into madness (his words, which became mine), he got sloppy. The dog is lured in by the promise of a game, but what happens when you’re tired of playing fetch?
I felt the air leaving my lungs for good with every breath. No more inhales, only raspy exhales and a rapidly swelling throat. As the ER team began to shut the ambulance doors, my HR representative jumped onto the metal platform and poked his head in. “Should I call your emergency contact?” he said, trying his best not to linger too long on my puffy face. I felt the familiar tug of my stomach hitting the floor. “Don’t bother,” I wheezed. “He won’t come.” He was there when it was convenient but never when it mattered. “Do you have someone coming to pick you up, Miss?” The needle from the IV pinched as it slid out from the vein in the crook of my elbow. “No. I’m fine.” I took myself home on the train.
I got too tired for the Brunches, too fed up with the rain checks and “This weekend?”s. I started cracking, like his knuckles before he rolled tobacco. Like the walls. I started to bleed out. I was too tired to bandage myself. He was too bored to pretend to care. The more I let my wounds show, the more I was able to connect with people who interested me, who were interested in me. His exterior began melting away, revealing the con man within. The more I formed my own community, the more books I read, the more I picked up my pen and put it to paper and re-awakened the soft whisper inside, the more contentious our relationship became. Sometimes he would yell, sometimes he would become completely blank. Sometimes he would slam the door, sometimes he would leave me alone with my walls and go silent for days. He could go from stone to rage at the snap of a finger; I never knew which one I was going to get. Maybe I stayed just to find out.
The flecks of amber in his hair picked up the flickering of the setting sun through the train window. Anger boiled up inside my chest as I glared at his sweaty forehead, his bordering on frothy mouth, his eyeballs that rolled around a little too liberally in their sockets. The anger rose like a tidal wave beyond my control; I felt the fire in my chest burning with the earnestness of a persevering prisoner. Who was this man? Why was he in my life? What was I doing? We were on the way to see his family. The only ‘family’ I had within a 6,000 mile radius. The tenuous thread linking me to this reckless, spiteful, wounded man was the only mooring keeping me tethered to my existence. I’m asking who is he, but really, who am I?