It is a time of despair and worry. The man at the socially distanced break room table is energetically talking with a female supervisor. Until recently he was an international sales director for a 5 Star Hotel, a position he frankly admits will never exist again. After decades of rising through the ranks, he now wipes down self-serve checkout counters and is grateful to her for the extra hours that she has allowed him to stay tonight. His dogs will miss him he jokes, but the security of another shift or two assures them of receiving the name brand kibble and chewy treats that they so expectantly crave. In the face of such inoperable, life altering changes, he is surprising resolute, upbeat…and I try to take my cues from him in the days that follow.
For despite it all, people are still celebrating. Our first pandemic dictated Christmas is coming soon and the lights and twinkly stars are disappearing from the shelves in the store’s seasonal boutique. I restock those aisles often, growing less and less surprised at everyone’s insistence on clinging to the predictable joys. I, too, start to take a distant comfort in the comical Santa’s and cheery cartoon elves that are popping up in window displays of the storefronts that I pass on my daily neighborhood jog. All those bright and glorious neon shades of red and green are comforting – but I can still feel something else lurking. Flickering shadows. Hazy specters. Seasonal ghosts.
I am 19 and I am waiting for my boyfriend at his place. He gave me the keys to his apartment earlier and I bustled through the February frost to his one bedroom loft. Now, I am feeling suspiciously adult, like a big city mistress of some high-ranking business exec – although, I do legitimately belong here. I am not a secret. Everyone at work knows about us. They are aware that I am happily anticipating his presence as he finishes up his bartending shift. Anxious for our romantic evening to begin, I pore through his box of VHS tapes, trying to find something to distract myself. It is all porn videos. Well, porn videos and a bootleg copy of The Color Purple. But we have just recently watched that sterling Spielberg-ian example of Oscar bait…and I know better than to throw in a sex tape. I did that last week, and while I tried to resist jerking off to Jeff Stryker pounding some smooth curly haired model-type in an alley, I eventually couldn’t help myself. Thus, making for a less than receptive offering when AJ finally arrived home. I don’t want that to happen again. So, I turn on the television and settle on Saturday Night Live, already in progress. Just after the cast bow, he arrives. I greet him, happily. He receives my kisses mutely, situates himself on the couch, telling me that we have to talk. Valentine’s Day is a week and a half away and I am sure that he wants to make plans. This is the first year in what seems like an incredibly long life that I will have someone to celebrate with and I am thrilled. But instead, after a deep sigh, a Dear John monologue softly peters out of his lips. Murmuring something about needing space and the strange curves of life and time, he breaks up with me. I am shocked, unexpectedly thrust from one extreme, anticipation…happiness. to a totally different one, shock…despair.
Of course, as I write this now, it dawns on me that this was an incredibly heartless way to break up with someone. There had been no clues, no warning shots fired before this moment. Everything had been kept close to the wrist. Therefore, he certainly could have told me in some other space…at some other time. Set a kinder rhythm, bought me coffee and a gourmet cookie as consolation prizes, taken me to some park, dark with leafless trees. The mood should fit the occasion, I believe. Obliterating a weekend dream state seems particularly cruel to me, especially in my secluded COVID state of mind now. Still, I find myself feeling a wispy sorrow for him, somehow, these days. In fact, it almost feels like maybe it is his sad face that wavers down alleys and across those amber corners as I wait for the light to change, walking to work.
I, honestly, don’t blame him for breaking up with me. I was silly, a devastatingly insecure child whose only concept for relationships was my parents frustrated, frequently violent union and soap opera romances. Once during our short time together, I “seductively” ignored him when I saw him unexpectedly at a bar. Our eyes met and I sharply turned away, dancing quickly into the arms of the female friend I was club hopping with. Purposefully calling him the next day, I innocently and insistently claimed that I hadn’t seen him the night before, a classic missed connection turned amusingly wrong. Another time, I pretended the managers at work were horribly upset about our dating, throwing him off balance for a moment until I confessed my senseless, idiotic ruse. Like my favorite daytime divas, I thought I always had to keep him slightly out of tune. To maintain his interest, I had to create drama…intrigue…social unrest.
Of course, I didn’t need to manufacture such moments. Tension was beating there, sharply, all along. There was an ex…another young, blue eyed blonde. We could have been brothers I ascertained, the one time that I saw him picking up his remaining belongings from AJ’s closet. It was unnerving. Months later, I would catch AJ in the restaurant’s staff bathroom, crying…not over me, but him. The other one. The original angel. The truly loved. My twin.
But there was one day. One gloriously perfect day. Its ectoplasmic embers float around me as I move throughout this month. January 1st, 1988. My roommates were still away on their holiday adventures. AJ and I lay in bed, recovering from a joyous night of public reveling, ignoring any burgeoning breakfast hunger pains. Instead, we pawed through my vinyl collection, taking turns deciding what to play. We talked and cuddled…slept…eventually heading down to the neighborhood greasy spoon. Returning with burgers that tasted inordinately of grease and that venue’s overused grill, we watched The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful on someone’s tiny TV. Later, we trekked across town to catch The Running Man at one of the city’s notoriously chilly, ill kept second run theaters. We held hands as Richard Dawson taunted Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Conchita Alonso bravely plotted an escape. We brought in that new year with fries and sex and Stephen King and it felt like a miracle, like the life I had dreamed about for so long was finally beginning. It was the first ideal afternoon I had ever experienced and it seemed to finally confirm my worth to the world. My importance to the universe seemed completely sure. In that moment. I would have never recognized myself as that soon-to-be tremulous lover who needed emotional games to feel in control. And for a moment, perhaps he too, thought his sorrow was over. My doppelganger banished from his mind in that still glittery seasonal glow as the world reset itself…bringing not only a new year, but a new sense of hope…a heart completely reborn.
So, maybe it is not only just his silvery outline that whispers to me slightly out of frame, as of late – but my own, as well. For that momentarily confident version of me belongs to this year, somehow, just as much as that unburdened version of him – though I have not regarded this past self seriously for decades. This year of hopes dashed so unreservedly, a year where light’s dearth has blinded us all, if only for smaller pockets of time, most assuredly would be the one to bring his essence back, unchecked – that past, very wishful, soon to be obliterated self. He worries me again beneath the piped-in carols…besieges me bittersweetly upon restlessly waking.
But perhaps he also teaches me that all this current sorrow, much like that old, old hurt, is survivable. He fills me with understanding, and most beautifully I think, compassion. Compassion for the person that I once was and, perhaps most importantly now, for the person that I am soon about to become.