Do you ever have fever dreams? The kind of dreams that come from a sort of hot and fitful sleep: the kind of sleep that comes from an over-indulgence in afternoon napping, caffeine, or alcohol, and that wakes you at sunrise, though you’ve only been wrestling with the sheets in a consuming sweat for a couple hours; simmering yourself, body and mind. Then, once you do wake, you can wash away the simmering sweat, but your mind continues at a rolling boil; the dream you were wrestling hasn’t stopped lunging for you. Did that really happen? No, no. Yes? I can’t remember. There are select moments in a fever dream that you cling to in more picturesque clarity than you’ve ever clung to in recollections of your reality. Your fever dreams, for the day or two following, drive your thoughts and paranoia. You live only in the reality provided to you by the courtesy of the fever dream; your reality is a fog.
Do you ever have fever dreams? This girl, this all-too-real Girl, was my most consuming fever dream.
I would like to tell you how exactly it is that we met, but that part lives in a fuzzy reality that isn’t a part of this dream, in fact I can honestly say I don’t remember meeting Her. This dream doesn’t even start with meeting the Girl; it starts with meeting an entirely different one, Madi. I met her in a writing class. Fitting, as writing classes were where I spent most of my time while hidden in the hills of a rural Virginia college campus. Madi just sort of picked me. That’s what usually happened with my better friends, they’d pick me. They’d pluck me right out of my hazy, solitary reality and dip me back down in theirs, then I’d be stuck wading those waters for a little while. Madi told me just exactly why it was she picked me: “we’re going to be friends,” she had said, drilling the essence of every startling shade of her blue eyes into mine “good enough friends to make my girl jealous.” That girl sat behind the wheel of Madi’s determinedly gay reality, because they were just so ridiculously in love.
Madi and I were, for a time, nearly inseparable unless she was with the girlfriend. People began to identify Madi and I as a package deal. But then, She picked Madi. I had known Her just casually when She approached me in a damp-smelling communal kitchen as I lounged ankle over knee across two wooden chairs, notably alone, counting my pulse along with the seconds remaining on the microwave.
She stopped in her tracks, letting her perpetually jovial group of friends troop on past the kitchen as she peaked around the threshold, “hey, you know Madi?”
Was that an honest question? I was not sure, but I laughed and said yes.
“You should introduce us, I’d love to make that a thing,” Her eyes shone like a mischievous cartoon martian.
“I’m not against it,” I spoke carefully, “but she has a girlfriend she’s basically obsessed with, just so you know.”
“Bummer, man. But hey, you should introduce us anyway,” and She chuckled as She left. Was that an honest request? I was not sure, but I laughed and texted Madi instantly.
The three of us soon developed a ritual practice where Madi lied underneath her charcoal colored duvet and She and I would sit up on the mattress shoulder to shoulder with our backs against the wall with our legs outstretched over Madi’s. I’d scratch Madi’s head as a gesture of comfort about the girlfriend—who had usually blown her off, or was seeing a boy—and we’d watch horror movies, usually very bad ones. Sometimes we’d talk over the movies, sometimes we wouldn’t. This practice was a near daily one, and one day Madi just blurted out, in the way she almost always blurted things, that She and I should get together. Neither of us acknowledged Madi beyond a giggle, though we looked at each other for a split second; I couldn’t help but be reminded in that moment of those remarkably sheeny eyes I’d seen before, just as full with lighthearted mischievousness. Did they always look like that?
As She did every night when we left Madi’s place, She held the door open for me at the bottom of the dramatically long and awkwardly rhythmed staircase; I walk loudly. I was incredibly tired, and it was bitterly cold, and these things were not lies, but I expressed them at that moment for a reason, if even just the least bit subconsciously.
“Do you want to just stay at my place?” She asked, just exactly as I’d hoped, “I don’t mind cuddling.”
“Oh, I don’t have to do that, it would bug your roommate. I’m just being lazy.”
“It will be easier for you.”
That was the night I first learned that She, too, experienced fever dreams, complete with the cold sweats and irrepressible thrashing. She would awake with sudden starts with what seemed to me, at the times I had experienced the phenomenon, to be a desperate sort of panting. I wasn’t sleeping well, if at all, that night. Though, my restlessness was due to a sort of nervous anxiety rather than to a haunting dream sequence, so I busied myself by attempting to console the inconsolable. I lightly traced my fingernails through Her short and fluffy hair, just exactly like I had done for Madi just a few hours earlier. I focused on keeping my own breaths slow and exaggerated, almost like the breath one takes when instructed by the doctor to do so. Soon, when She awoke panting, it would be only for seconds before Her breathing fell into rhythm with mine. It was one of those nights where moments seemed like hours, but also hours seemed like moments. It was a night full of the same vulnerability I can only liken to sleeping on the floor in a strange place; vulnerability mutually felt. At some point, a point where I was mostly asleep, She stirred half-awake, though peacefully this time, and grazed her lips just briefly against my temple. I don’t know if I felt anything.
My reality slowly became more and more severed from Madi’s reality. Her’s did too, as She and I had become consumed in the realities of each other. Or rather, it was almost as if we’d built a new reality with each other. I did not feel as though She had picked me, but I was also certain it was not the type of relationship where I had picked Her, either. I once laid in Her bed, without Her, staring at stalactites of spackle, thinking of stars, and looked up our astrological compatibility—Aquarius and Aries. This confirmed all my suspicions of our similarities; we were astrologically proven to share several traits: spontaneity, passion to the point of fault.
We went together, that same evening, to a campus film screening, something that I had to attend as a requirement for the class. She wanted to come because she had an immense love for the art of the director, or so she claimed. I was relieved I would not have to face a condensed, crowded room without the comfort of companionship: In case of anxiety, grab hand.
The film was the type with a slow build-up, a rapidly rushed and dark climax, and very few moments of comic relief in-between; perhaps meant to be artistic and inspiring, but with an element of reality-based logic that made the art hauntingly realistic, perhaps to the point of fault. I’m not sure why else I’d been assigned to watch it, other than to see those two elements of a piece clash, but yet create something with impact out of chaos. We were like that film. She was like that film, I thought to myself as I clenched her fingers in the folds of mine, both of us cringing almost to the point of tears at the movie’s graphic inclusion of self-harm. And She was. Just one of those people who’s neither right-brained or left-brained. One of those people who can create art just as well as they can work with numbers. One of those people with the gears turning in their head at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour, and it is a pure wonder to just converse with them and watch them think. Yes, this movie was like that, too. Certainly awe-inspiring, but the viewer is not exactly sure how to channel that awe, mostly because they identify with it without fully comprehending it.
Have you ever seen The Royal Tenenbaums? I think you’d like it.
My musings were brought to a point of interruption as I felt Her entire arm begin rattling. Her eyes were forcefully squinted shut, and that inconsolable fever dream breathing was on the rise. I had felt this experience in reality too, it’s what I had been anticipating as a result of the tightly-packed crowd had she not decided to come with me that night. I jerked her up, with a fierce swiftness that shocked even myself, and we left the screening in favor of the brisk night air and lack of over-stimulating images the outdoors would bring us. We sat on a bench and She smoked a cigarette, maybe more.
Most of the time, a cigarette is not enough. For Her. For me. For anyone. The only thing a cigarette seems to satisfy is the very craving for the cigarette itself. When the craving goes away, the related anger may go away, but when the feelings are not directly tied to the need for a cigarette, the cigarette is not enough. And for the very first time together, we went to get mind-numbingly drunk and just do away with the feelings of panic.
Panic is occasionally necessary, my mother the Type-A personality used to say, panic can create a certain sense of motivation. But so can other things. Those things, too though, have a tendency to induce panic if implemented incorrectly. The cycle is vicious, because the threshold for panic is not something that is often likened to the threshold of motivation. As a socially anxious Type B person, I am constantly in search of something that can increase motivation without an increase in panic. Separation of these aspects is difficult.
At first, our substance use together was occasional and very careful. The first time we purchased a couple Adderall from Her friend, the bubbly senior psychology major, I was given a very explicit explanation of the wide variance of results.
“I might just give you half of one. This is the maximum dosage pill they prescribe for anyone. You’re small,” She said, though we were about the same weight, if not the exact same, “It can just really hit you hard if its not a regular thing. We’re not really using it how it’s supposed to be used. I sometimes grind my teeth. Oh, and it will probably kill your appetite. Please promise me you’ll drink a lot of water after you take it, okay? You won’t want to, but you need to. You probably won’t sleep for awhile either, but when you finally do, you’ll crash hard. I sometimes take a nap immediately after I take it, and then wake up and it will be most effective. It’s like coffee that way. Will you tell me if you feel weird? I don’t want to be the reason you’re hurt or something if anything goes wrong.” I don’t think I heard her that preemptively serious about anything before, “I’m not sure we should be doing this, I’m nervous. But I’m going to look out for you while we do this, okay? You have to let me know if you feel off with, like, your heartbeat or anything.”
The concern went from charming to irritating rather quickly. This wasn’t even truly illegal. This was just straight college culture. People took it all the time. I insisted on taking a whole pill, and we sunk down in her bed for a bizarre nap. I slept for exactly an hour, She lasted a few minutes longer. I got up immediately, started pacing her room, and picking up my scattered belongings and collecting them into my nearly zipper-tearing full backpack. I was chatting busily with Her roommate. I was pacing some more. The Adderall was very clearly working, but I did not feel badly about it. I could tell She would rather just not wake up, because she already felt badly about it.
Once She woke, and prepared and packed Her things, we ventured out to a classroom to camp out for the night and do our work. I was enrolled in an Art History class at the time and as I did the reading for it, I kept reading sections out loud and articulating my thoughts. If my reading was vocal, my writing was a listener’s nightmare. It was as if I could not formulate a thought without talking the entire thing out loud a dozen times; every single adjective and its placement became a point of discussion. The resulting paragraphs were linguistically beautiful, but created at an absolutely glacial pace. I don’t know if that made me feel anything. She would just sort of smile and nod, swallowing my read alouds and think alouds, watching my every move with darting eyes, almost as if she expected me to combust. I did not disappoint her for long.
“Hey,” I said, or more likely rather stuttered, “why aren’t we together?”
She smiled the vaguest, most coy, yet delicately nervous smile. Her eyes had a different shine to them now, perhaps more a glimmer of pity than of mischief. That facial expression is something I cannot get out of my head. Fever dream: whatever it was expressing was so intangible, yet so powerfully picturesque. Scary but comforting all in an overwhelming package. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sure you do.”
“Do your work, Kate.”
It was probably just after five in the morning when the two of us wandered our way back to Her dorm room. We lay in Her bed, mostly silent. Some kissing. Waiting for it to be an acceptable hour of the morning, or perhaps just waiting for Her roommate to wake up leave, or perhaps waiting for the inevitable crash of slumber She had spoken of so long-windedly. I counted Her pulse with movements of the second hand. Her heartbeats seemed normal, but mine seemed way too fast. I was supposed to say something then, but could not bring myself to ruin the fleeting, but dragging, moment of perfect rest.
Her roommate was the one to interrupt the moment, or string of moments, as she awoke, chastising us for lack of sleep. The roommate left. I laughed and stretched, broaching my shoulders forward and back, noting each stage of the much needed bone crack. I arranged myself to hang upside down off Her bed, like a bat, my feet nestled underneath the small of her back as she supported me.
“Hey,” she said suddenly, but so softly, “come up here.”
I swung myself back up to an cross-legged perch on the mattress with little core strength and a lot of assistance. Once I was securely in bed, she leapt from the bed and stood right next to my perch on the edge of the mattress. Cupping my shoulders she turned me toward her with just enough sternness that I was inclined to be curious.
“I know we’ve talked about this but not really talked about it, and I think we should,” she began, a grin creeping across Her face, almost in a gradual manner of left to right, “So hey, do you want to be a thing?”
A thing. My mind unraveled and replayed a whole history, and entire fever dream up to right now. I thought of Her and Madi. That was supposed to be a thing. Then, I thought of nothing. Then, I thought of how legitimately happy I was that this was a real moment. All these thoughts occurred to me in a flash of a couple seconds, or at least in an amount of time that I hoped hadn’t made it seem like I needed to think about the answer. I really didn’t. But at the same time, I don’t even know if I needed to be asked the question either. We were already a thing. We were actually, debatably, one thing. I just had wanted the reassurance of the question more than I wanted the feeling of a pulse.
“Yeah, I really do.”
“Okay, cool,” She kissed my forehead with the most pressure she ever had, and then left for the restroom. She stopped outside to doodle on her white board on her way back to the room. The drawing was in blue expo, one cartoon dog with big eyes asking another: “Hey, do you want to be a thing?”
Are you ever truly sure what intimacy means? Intimacy is a knowledge of someone’s person. It’s a soulfully close relationship, or it might be just sex. Sometimes it’s both. Or it can be both, though words are usually employed with a single definition at a time. Why not people too? Is love the same as intimacy?
She loved to draw. She loved to smoke. I loved to write. I loved to drink. And those were the definite parameters of the ways we pursued excess, which is absolutely something we loved. It became a bit of a dance, one of us recklessly picking the evening’s poison, and the other boiling with anxiety until we couldn’t feel our brains or faces. Most times, the becoming numb from substance was premeditated.
Once, before it was a thing, we had both managed to swing an invitation to the same fraternity formal at a neighboring college. I think She set me up with the ex-boyfriend of an ex-thing. We never ended up making it to the venue with whoever we were with, because the boys had concocted teal and green Jell-o shots and purple and red Jolly Rancher infused vodka in a slew of large mason jars; something for everyone. I use the term Jell-o shots loosely, as they were more half frozen slushie cups just riddled with the comforting sting of Burnett’s. The mason jar liquid was a lot less comforting.
“Hey. Hey, come in here,” my date beckoned me from the apartment living room to the kitchen, which were only separated by a dilapidated doorframe and a three foot hall that was really a coat closet, “Look, I made this. Try some.”
He handed me a lead-heavy mason jar, filled to the brim with the frothy, angry red, which I damn nearly shattered from my wrist quaking. I followed directions, unstable as I already was. As soon as the jar left my lips, he swept in for them. I don’t remember what it felt like, other than I had much preferred the jar there, and I went right back to it. My pulse was strangely dull everywhere but my feet.
I counted Her shots instead of my own, for the while that I could. Fourteen, mostly teal. And she never touched a mason jar.
The next morning, after She and I had wandered around a southern tailgate-weekend packed campus lot and finally collapsed in my car, she told me I had had at least twelve shots in addition to whatever the boys had concocted in the mason jars, but I don’t believe She was counting. I don’t blame Her, there had been other things to mull over.
“We kissed,” She blurted as soon as I slammed the driver’s side door shut. Delivered with no other context but the subdued grin.
“You and I?”
“Yeah. I thought you should know.”
I wanted so badly to be shocked. Instead, relief washed over me that I’d been both showered and dressed to the nines when that had happened, even if perhaps a bit drink-worn with melted makeup, borderline impressive for a first kiss at a blackout party.
“Oh, just in the bathroom. You were getting sick. And then it just kind of happened.”
Isn’t that how all of life happens? You are somewhere, doing something, and then something else happens? Correlation doesn’t prove causation, they say.
Once, only a short time after it became a thing, and a few months past the first kiss, we got drunk of our own volition for no occasion at all; this wasn’t out of character for the relationship. I don’t know what happened this particular time, short of the substance excess, but She grew restlessly anxious, as if reminded of something haunting. She began pacing dormitory stairs and hallways and just expressing her inner-monologue in a babbling half coherency:
“Your colors are green and black. I don’t like them, I don’t like them.”
I chased Her for awhile, trying to keep up with her body and words, then went back to my room, napped for maybe a moment or an hour, and then scoured the four-floor dorm building for her when I was feeling more stirred with worry than with my own dizziness.
She was curled on the floor of an open bathroom stall of the communal restroom just across from her bedroom where we had spent so much time. She was collapsed in a heap of self, tears, vomit and thoughts. This flipped my sober switch, where the care overwhelms the incapacity. I knelt down and scrubbed Her heap clean as best I could with only presence, embrace, and steady breathing, until She needed to wretch her élan vital some more. She expelled herself with the closest thing to physical and spiritual unity I’d seen from anyone so intoxicated, literal spew, followed instantaneously by verbal spew.
“I just love you.”
It just kind of happened. I had no initial response. I don’t know what I felt.
“Can we go to bed, bud?” I rose from a squat and offered her my steady hand.
“No, I can’t move. You don’t believe me,” She insisted.
“Yes, we need to go to bed. You’re very drunk,” I shook my offered hand at Her again.
“Will you stay?”
“Yes, I’m not going to just leave you right now,” I reached out and curled my fingers around Her well-defined wrist.
“Wanna know something dumb? I think it’s really cool I have a toothbrush up here now,” She chuckled as I tilted my neck so I could make eye contact from my head’s perch in Her lap. It was maybe not so much eye contact as it was a search for the simultaneous squint and widen Her eyes did when she was amused: the corners folded upwards and the pupils dilated for the shortest second. The realization itself seemed inconsequential. We lived in the same building, my room was only a staircase’s walk away, so bringing a toothbrush up a staircase required very little effort, and even less intentional thought. She somehow equated her toothbrush’s location in the communal hall bathroom next to my room, as opposed to being located in the communal hall bathroom across the way from her room, with the seriousness of our relationship, a bit of a physical manifestation. Her crinkled eyelids were enough of a physical image for me, so I thought little about the toothbrush and counted crinkles: three on the left, four on the right.
We did stay nights together more often than not, though. We both said it helped us sleep. But more than that, we stirred awake with each other when the other became to consumed in the terrors of anxious, simmering fever dream. Deep and measured breathing became a sensory sedative we each learned to administer for the sake of the other.
On these occasions we did help one another to sleep soundly, it was never at night. The curse of the nocturnal is not necessarily the sleeplessness, it is instead the time the body finds ideal to sleep. Daytime sleeps are often times more feverish than the kind that happen at night. They’re warmer, almost to a point of discomfort, and are less inviting because of light, but are imminently more powerful in terms of the length of REM sleep; the kind that makes nightmares. Perhaps the reason I never understood they are associated with night, rather than with the action of sleep.
Staying together did not help us sleep, it reminded us that the mind-meander of dreaming was only in the mind. Physical body was safe, physical body was in adoring and empathetic company.
I have always been a person who thinks in the most clarity after nightfall, but the world is not socially constructed for the nocturnal introvert. My whole life I have relied upon a series of sedatives, the carefully cultivated combination of the chemical and the natural.
My early childhood bedroom, the one found in my grandmother’s home, was constructed by my grandmother to echo a peaceful dream, a conglomeration of soft pinks and creams, with a bed covered in more blankets and pillows than my parents ever even kept in their house. Grandma’s room, down a long shag carpeted hallway, was arranged the exact same way, though with pastel greens and greys as opposed to pink. I think I inherited my restlessness and undue pensiveness directly from her, and she, in turn, shaped my coping mechanisms. Every night before bed, she and I drank warm milk, and she would read stories to me until I fell asleep. I needed the noise and the presence, and I don’t think Grandma slept a night longer than a couple hours for the half decade I stayed there. She was always worried I was tense. Mom always said that the both of us had psychic tendencies, and that our minds ran too far, too quickly.
Once, I’ve been told, out the canopy curtains surrounding my fit for a fairy tale bed, I was only three and just staring out the window inconsolably and silently. I finally asked Grandma why Debbie—the caddy-corner neighbor of some thirty odd years—was so sad today. Grandma reassured me Debbie was probably not sad, just wanted to stay inside today. My grandma saw Debbie days later, who then reported that her husband of some forty or fifty odd years had left her, out of the blue. Ever since, Grandma and I have been able to discuss the powers of spirit, but we try to keep it just between us two.
For awhile, my parents used to keep melatonin in their house, as a staple for them both: Dad, the insomniac, and Mom, the wired mess. What a formula. But once Dad was prescribed a real sleeping aid, they stopped keeping it around. Four hours was a full night’s sleep for the duration of my adolescence when the melatonin was gone. The other stuff just caused me to sleep-eat.
Have you ever taken Ambien?
I am continually reliant on being talked to sleep, as it’s the only thing I can get to work, even if only sometimes. The Internet has been a godsend for that need. A compact laptop is easy to fit next to you in bed. Type “ASMR” into the YouTube search bar sometime. Someone will appear to talk you to sleep; you can even turn the brightness all the way down, and put your headphones in, and just listen and just drift. Sounds make your dreams for you.
Sometimes even that auditory submersion does not work. You can build a tolerance to the natural, just like you can build a tolerance to anything else that pretends to help.
She used to smoke a joint on especially turbulent nights, sometimes to counteract any stimulants. That method has never helped me, though not for lack of trying. I still can’t sleep when I feel so overwhelmingly parched. Nevertheless, I would sit, most times, shivering on a wrought-iron bench and just watch Her smoke, maybe dragging a time or two on brave or buzzed nights. She didn’t seem to care if I tried it or not. Her focus on the process was enviable.
I don’t believe in nightcaps.
Late nights spent in tandem solidarity are conducive to every kind of intimacy. There are enough uninterrupted clock strikes in the dark that allow for learning someone’s soul with the same veracity and thoroughness that it takes to learn their body. In order to learn any of it, though, there must be room for a question: which element of the person is easier to leave unsettled?
She was the first girl, the first girl for anything. That idea replayed to my consciousness incessantly, and through internal repetition became haunting. Haunting not in the sense of terrifying, but haunting in the sense of always looming and then continuing to exist in my mind without a definitive opinion. Being the first was something She was so proud of. In addition to the companionship, She felt She had things to teach me, both my mind and my body, about pursuing a romance with Her. Though the lessons were not specific to relating to Her as a being, as much as they were about relating to Her as a physical entity, a girl. The label “gay” was everything, and seemed to be employed at every turn.
We lied in bed, tangled tightly in only sheets, and I stared at the ceiling consumed in the quiet of my mind, counting the grooves and thinking of stars, of the nature of the definite unity between Aries and Aquarius: spontaneity, independence.
“Hey,” She poked her the tip of nose into my neck like a dart, “you’re gay now!” She grinned with a little bit of an eye crinkle, that, for perhaps the only time, I wanted to ignore; the moment was slaughtered.
Her words weren’t so much a celebration of discovery, but something more like a pat on the back for Her having converted another one. I had heard Her discuss that with Madi once, how satisfying the power trip was of knowing you’d “turned” a straight girl. It was something they both seemed to make a specific criteria for their romantic pursuits, whether for the physical short term, or spiritual long term, it seemed to me something like searching for a buck with a worthy enough rack before firing a shot.
She’d tell me at a time much later, on a day when I wore a high neck t-shirt and stole Her snapback hat just for flirtatious fun, that She liked when I looked a little more gay. A little more stereotypically gay, I guess. A little more like how people should see me now.
Even later than that, maybe after the thing had come and gone, She’d tell me that She was done with straight girls. It was too complicated and she was frustrated. Except with us, because we had had a pretty good thing going.
Before I had left the ranch strips of Ohio for the mountain country of Virginia for college, I had dinner with my grandma. Despite having spent my early years with her, our relationship was strained after my parents moved our nuclear family hours away; the catch up was a needed supplement to our twice-annual holiday visits. Between those periods, we communicated mostly through emails, which suggested reading material for each other, mostly.
At this sort of last supper, she said something just before we ordered a second round of margaritas that I questioned for only a moment before dismissing. She was cryptic and non-sensical often, as I grew up. Maybe I was just slowly losing my touch with the spirits she knew so well. Regardless, I always seemed to be able to hold on to snapshots of her words, no matter if I found them immediately relevant. But that day, she had said, “No matter who loves you, I just want you to find them. I don’t care who they are as long as they love you like they should.” There was something in the inflection of both the “who” that gave me pause in the moment. What was that implication? Almost like she was expecting it to be someone objectionable in some manner or another. She knew me, and more than anything, I think, she knew mom.
Do you ever find the flaws that disturb you most in others are often times some of the strongest components of your own personality? It can create a lot of tension, thinking about interactions with others while simultaneously augmenting a sense of self-resentment with every building word of an internal dialogue. Perhaps it is a signifier of health, though, to be able to associate yourself with a prevalent flaw. It’s health or it’s madness, anyway. They say you can adopt bits and pieces of your personality from those around you; nature vs. nurture in the most personal way. What does nurture even mean? Maybe it should be examined more broadly: nature vs. nurture, or lack thereof.
My sister, Jane, was the first in the nuclear family to pursue any kind of professional emotional therapy, though “pursue” may be a generous choice of word. Dad finally caved in his biases against it after somehow getting ahold of, and then reading through her college application essay. The entire work was based on a life story that never even happened, not a bit of it. No one ever told me what it said, and I, in turn, knew better than to ask. Dad called it “pathological,” and a major problem, and decided right away to involve a third party.
Dad and Jane have always, for as long as I can recall anyway, fought to a degree near catastrophic, often reducing even those uninvolved with the argument to tears, creating a household vibrating with tensions that would last for weeks at a time. That is not to say they are always fighting, in fact they share the same sense of humor, the same passion for professional athletics, and the same desire to be the point of all entertainment, the center of attention. When they work together, they become indestructible, a great pair to take to a party, that is, if they were ever to prefer the same kind of company.
In Jane’s early elementary school years, she and Dad used to collect baseball cards, and she could recite every single statistic from what seemed to me to be hundreds of cards. Dad would pick a rattle off a random name, and she would fire back instantaneously with team, jersey number, RBI of the last season, and whatever else was etched into those glossy finished cards. I’m not sure what ever became of those cards, I doubt they’re old enough to sell for much profit; but Jane went to therapy, which turned into family therapy, which turned into Dad and Jane being medicated exactly the same.
The first time Jane came home from therapy, she didn’t speak to us the rest of the evening. I don’t believe that Dad was at home that night, so my mother, sister and I ate dinner in a shifty silence, a kind eerily akin to the kind that followed the legendary ravaging arguments, though a gaping hole was left by Dad’s lack of presence, making the feeling remarkably different.
My sister and I have never been particularly close. Our personalities are just markedly different, and we run on high tensions because we are so very opposite. In high school, she used to tell people not to talk about me, that she was embarrassed of her relation me; think something like Quinn and Daria. To this day, she only calls me if she thinks I can help talk her out of trouble with Mom and Dad if she gets a speeding ticket or something like that. She never lived with Grandma, she was born a couple years too late for that, so I imagine our formative years to have been radically different, though I guess I’ll never know, because I can’t imagine we’ll ever discuss it. But the day after her first session of therapy, she actually approached me willingly, for some reason, and was primed for serious discussion
“I told him everything,” was how she began, “You know, just everything. Dad and I have ADHD or whatever, and he thinks Mom is straight psycho, the way she just flips out about everything. He wants us all to go in together sometime. I’d rather fucking die.”
I was disinclined to believe any medical professional ever used anything even remotely as severe a word, if even more clinically correct, as “psycho” to describe my mother. But it surprised me that this idea of imbalance was news to my sister. I’d been told for essentially my entire life that Mom’s side of the family was “predisposed to certain tendencies,” that “they cannot help it,” and that I “shouldn’t be afraid of it, but rather learn to understand that certain situations are very hard for some of the family.” Our great-uncle Randy was diagnosed with schizophrenia at an absurdly early age, and his brother Roger at only a slightly later one. Mom had always clearly struggled with something semblant of anxiety, though mixed occasionally with bouts of what I thought looked like depression. This was all obvious to me, but for the first time in my life I realized I put it all together because I had been explicitly told. It took 18 years and a professional statement for my sister to find this out; Grandma hadn’t raised her, and that was our most fundamental difference.
My father’s mother is a single parent. Her husband, my biological grandfather, died just months before Dad turned thirteen, and his sister was not even nine. Grandma likes to say of herself that she’ll never recover from that, though always claims her second husband, whom I knew and adored in my early childhood, to be the one most influential love of her life, something my Dad always resented. She always said she was not grown up enough to fathom love until the day her first husband died.
“The only way I knew was brutal honesty,” she still recounts to me often, usually verbatim, “I had to raise my kids with that because it’s the only thing I had left. We were broker ‘an shit when he left us, and I told them that on the very day of the funeral.”
Brutal honesty is a lovely, though generous, way to describe the words spoken by my grandmother. She no longer speaks to any of her three siblings—all of whom are still living, because of course “Vance’s don’t die”—because of this penchant for brutal honesty. The honesty is often peppered with curse words, that she picked up as a colloquial habit from dating racehorse jockeys and professional basketball players the entirety of her youth; Dad picked it up right after her, and Jane right after that, and the strong language is perhaps the only trait my sister and I share outside of the biological. The first of my words ever documented somewhere outside of fond parental memory were captured on video-tape; “Goddammit,” in response to having almost reached a glass jar of caramel-cream candies perched on Grandma’s kitchen counter, and my step-grandfather sauntering in at that very moment. Mom and Grandma, as a result, have never gotten along. If she raised my Dad with brutal honesty, Grandma raised me with a fiercely stubborn sense of independence, great for strongly motivated candy swiping, and even more well suited to my natural introversion.
By the time I began college, I’d seen the inside of my fair share of psychologists’ offices and even a single psychiatry office, though only ever for brief couple-of-months-long stints. Never once did I feel comfortable enough to actually allow them to properly do their jobs. I would often lie, exaggerate or diminish my feelings about things, because I just simply did not want the help. I didn’t feel I needed it, and I certainly didn’t feel that these strangers with glorified degrees would be the ones to help me. It was presumptuous, irritating, and I was disinclined to believe in the help.
“People kill people, you know,” I once said to my freshman roommate, Natalie, “I don’t think they need to worry about me,” she had thought I was joking around then. This had been really early on in our living together, when I had said this, before I started sort of pacing the room simply for the sake of pacing, which was my favorite hobby if I wasn’t napping for hours on end, or cleaning my fish’s water out every single day, sometimes twice. Natalie once borrowed my coffee maker, and in trying to remove her cup, sloshed a about half the drink across the floor; I burst into tears instantly, and couldn’t look at her for months afterward without becoming overwhelmed with annoyance and uncomfortable anger that I could physically feel radiating in my lower spine, reducing me to either a hostile silence or a forced saccharinity almost all of the time. The thing about Natalie was that she didn’t hate or avoid me for any of that. I can only think it was because she simply wanted a friend, she even offered to live with me again the following year. I declined.
By the time I met Her, I think most of my close friends—there were really only three of those—had discovered I was a bit dependent on my nervous habits and one of those had become turning to alcohol. For them, it was normal for me to become a shut-in for a matter of days, to sort of recuperate and recharge to become a functional member of society again. I once lied in bed for the better part of two weeks in October of 2014, because the boy I wanted attention from, honestly the only person in general whose attention I fully wanted more often than not at that point in time, had stopped texting me back. The pattern of relationships I established became very all or nothing; I was either fully invested in the reality of another, or I wanted no part of it. At that point, I needed an everything, and She charismatically swooped in, related to my anxieties and habits, and became that everything.
There was only once, in my recollection of our entire time as a thing, that I ever asked her for physical and emotional space; both are things I absolutely cherish. It was shortly after Spring break, the break on which she had decided to kiss someone else. She told me almost immediately upon seeing me, and then broke down crying, shaking something uncomfortably fierce. Even in that moment, I didn’t push back for wanting space or room to contemplate. I shut off my consciousness a little bit and decided not to think about it, because something was clearly very wrong with Her. She was a quaking a puddle that kind of fell down to her knees, and then to her side in the middle of the hallway, there wasn’t time for my own thoughts. She had taken something, too many somethings, because she’d been too nervous about telling me, so the next 24 hours, I dealt only with the physical consequences of that. Even then, I didn’t ask for space, I had never wanted it.
About two or three days after that had ended, and we had talked and mulled over her mistake, we were lying in bed, just with each other, fiddling with hair and looking at the ceiling. I started to get that creep of unsettled discomfort up my spine, the kind that demanded my habit of pacing, or just movement of some kind; the kind of mental irritation that I used to think would always remind me of living with Natalie, but instead reminds me of this. I got a little wiggly in Her arms and tried my best to just be still, to just take comfort. She couldn’t feel the radiations, and just tried to pull me in closer, maybe kiss my temple, and that was it for me. Cut. End scene.
“I need space,” I blurted, in a shocking, matter-of-fact, monotone.
“I don’t know. I need space. Can you leave?”
“What? Yeah, okay.”
She was visibly hurt, maybe even angry, but I couldn’t reflect on that too much in the moment. She left, and I paced around the room, even tried cleaning it up a bit, tried to take a nap, continued pacing, and nothing got rid of the lividness that was clinching my body. I decided on a shower, and as soon as my skin prickled with water, my legs seemed to collapse out from under me and I just lied crumpled in the shower and let the water run over me and sniveled out breathy tears. I was reminded of Her, curled up on the floor in sadness, a thing that had so vividly, dreamedly, happened just a few days before. When I managed to half crawl out of the shower, and shuffle the 200 feet back to my bedroom, and squatted down, still in my bathrobe, still soaking wet, still I texted her:
Can you come back?
No… you need space.
I am not okay right now.
She burst in the door without knocking, as if she hadn’t gone far, and I knew she hadn’t. My once angered body only knew to fall into her, but instead crashed down a little bit to the floor and kept blubbering apologies.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I kept wailing.
“No,” She said, “I’m sorry it took me so long to come back. I’m sorry.”
She scooped my up so my face rested in her lap and began taking deep breaths, the kind we always used, the kind that had nearly always fixed things. I think we slept, mostly together, for the duration of three days.
Whatever happened to She and I, I have never fully resolved. I think just due to distance, due to not having a dependent sort of connection for a slew of a couple summer and early autumn months really did us in. We couldn’t function without the consistent overlap of overly intense realities. We both started seeing other people, and occasionally would see each other; only as friends, only when we had the time. I once took, or drank, or smoked too many somethings on one of these friendly occasions, and became a crumpled mess once again in a dormitory bathroom. I would write the dialogue, but I have no clue about it. I know that I said “love.” I know that I ended up curled and convulsing in a snow bank, that some first-years found me, that the school required me to report to counseling.
I know that about four days after the fact, she came to my room, where I lived alone, and had collected a pile of her things never returned. She showed up at my door with a pile of things of mine She still had: a couple t-shirts, a mug, and a mason-jar styled plastic cup that certainly wasn’t mine, but I guess I’d had it with me the fateful last evening.
I couldn’t say anything.
“Where’s my stuff?”
I cocked my head to the pile on the floor at the foot of my bed, mostly clothing.
She switched out the piles, and then shuffled back over to the door.
“You know bud, no one can help you unless you help yourself.”
“I’m trying now.”
And the door shut quietly.