In another life, I was in love with a girl. By all accounts, I was supposed to marry her, settle in a white house with a picket fence down the street from her parents, work a 9-to-5er, raise 2.3 kids, and, somewhere in that cliche, live happily ever after. Given my ultimate distaste for most of those things listed (I happen to like kids, and white houses, though cliche, can be tastefully done), that is not how "the cookie crumbled." I'm sure this might color me the bad guy, so judge as you see fit.
The first 4 years we were dating were pretty magical. Well, let's be honest, the first 2 years were great, the next 2 1/2 were robotic. We were sort of just like ghosts of ourselves. The crushing weight of expectations that come in a small town in the Bible Belt can destroy whatever semblance of love, or even like, you have for someone. It sometimes felt like you weren't supposed to question your feelings. It was more like you were just supposed to silently slip into costume and take the stage. The laughter changes at a certain point. It isn't real anymore. The smiles are just part of the facade. Honestly, who wants to be trapped in a machine like that?
The month before it all ended, we decided to take some time off. She was in school and only home certain weekends. I was working two jobs so that I could afford to follow the so-called dream. Realistically, we barely had time for each other. I would make the 2-hour drive to Athens, GA to see her (like I was supposed to) every other weekend. She would come home sporadically, somehow attempting to experience college life and be virtually 'engaged' the whole time. None of this was a winning combo. It was taking its toll on us both.
One night, we decided to meet halfway and discuss our waffling relationship. It was the end of November. I remember it well because I compared the chilly night air to the temperature of my heart under my breath on the whole drive over. We met and she had drawn a long note to say what she needed to say. Her hand quivered in anxious tension as she slid it my way. There were no words. Just the sound of her sniffling to hold back the tears and the crinkling of paper as I thumbed through three pages of bubbly letters. I had held the note up where she couldn't see my face as I read. I was afraid she would be able to sense the unrest that was brewing in my soul. Once I looked up from reading, she gave a quick smile and reached out for my hand. Despite the lack of love or any shape of its truth reveling in our disjointed union, she wanted to take a break and see what happened. She wanted to be free and experience college, but she didn't want me to leave. It was like sending the embodiment of us to the gallows, but making him wait a month, shackled, noosed and black-bagged, before we would drop the floor out and wring his decrepit neck.
The next month was one of the better months that I had had in over four years. I didn't worry about how many times to call or text her. I saw her only a few times in those days, every one of which was her either stopping by or asking me to come over. I felt as if I were being mocked by freedom.
As the year drew to a close, she called me over to her parent's house for dinner. We started to make plans for New Year's Eve. At my suggestion, we were making a list of all the friends we could invite to hang out. This was my way of escaping the inevitable ending of us. I consider myself a nice guy. I attempt to be mindful, sometimes too much for my own good, of people's feelings. Up to this point, I had always done what was expected of me. If it was going to hurt someone, then I would contort my life to take the hit so they wouldn't be affected.
If you have ever seen the show Scrubs, there is an episode at the end of season 3 where JD, the main character, has wooed his lady love, Elliot, away from her stable boyfriend. In doing so, he realizes that the chase was more fun than the capture, and begins to hate what he has done. There is a point where, instead of him telling her that he really doesn't love her, he decides that he will "do the right thing....stay with her for the rest of his life." This was how I had felt for over 2 years at this point. No escape. The bed was made, and to keep from hurting someone and, in this case, lots of people with lofty expectations, I was going to fall on the sword of a life sacrificed for someone else's good.
This was when it got real. The plans that we had fashioned shortly after Christmas, slowly crumbled into the sea. Literally, every single friend we had invited to hang out on New Year's Eve cancelled on us. My nerves still flinch at the last phone call that I received from one of my closest friends, who could not get away from prior engagements. I dropped the phone and pulled off the side of the road. The anger made its presence known on my pale face. I quietly exited the vehicle just off a busy highway, stepped towards the wooded side of the street and proceeded to let forth a resounding, guttural scream, the likes of which I probably can not recreate today.
There was no escape now from what must be done. A quiet unrest arose in my chest as I slumped back into my illegally parked car, put it into drive and lugged it back into traffic. That was easily the slowest I ever drove home in my life. And, to make it worse, she called. Just like clockwork. I could hear the excitement in her voice. She was back to her old self. Not the old self I might have loved once. No, she was back to the old pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain self. The veil was drawn and the song and dance routine was back in action.
When I pulled up to her house, she met me at the door with an emphatic kiss. She was dressed for the town. 'I am the scum of the universe,' I thought. Her happiness, false or not, was about to dine with the devil.
We had dwindled our elaborate plans of heading into Atlanta to party, down to just us eating dinner and possibly heading to a movie. It was your standard old-person date. Hell, if we had been married, we would have been passed out in bed watching the festivities fade from the television into our dreams.
Longhorn Steakhouse was the nice place in town to eat, so I had called ahead to get a good table. Regardless of what you believe, things have a way of aligning in the universe just the way they should. Call it God. Call it fate. Whatever it may be, the events of this night were completely set where I had no way out. I had uncomfortably listened to her talk about all the great things we were going to do now that we were 'back on track'. She was planning trips and weekend excursions; I was trying to harness the ferocious lion of destruction raging in my chest. Every syllable that was lovingly uttered my way felt like a barbed club against my head. I was taking on water and, like it or not, my ship of restraint was not going to last the night.
Once we were seated it began — the yelling, the cussing, the blaring silence. Oh, there wasn't a disrespectful word said at our table. The train wreck was occurring at the table immediately behind me (possibly a reason I try to always sit with my back to the wall in restaurants these days). There was a married couple that had just received their food. Evidently, somewhere during the evening they had discussed what was wrong with their marriage. Why it wasn't working. What was missing. We just happened to walk innocently into the gunfight. The husband sat with his head bowed in defeat, both of their hot meals slowly cooling under the barrage of loathing that was coming from her mouth. Then, as soon as he raised his head to speak, it ended. Not because of something he said, because she was done. Viciously, she tossed her napkin into her plate, grabbed her purse, snarled a last cursory remark telling him she would be in the car, and stormed out. He softly told the waiter, who had stepped in behind the chaos, to box up everything and bring the bill. Then, he lowered his head back into the empty void of his thoughts.
That was exactly when our first shots were fired.
Softly, as if it came from the back of my mind, she chokingly whispered, "What about us?" Now, someone tell me exactly how you answer this question. When all is well, this probing query is not even thought about, but when the relationship is in the tank, it is toxic. Her pink lips immediately pursed at the end of the question, as if she almost wished she hadn't asked it. I'm sure that the guilt and horror of what was to come was all over my face by then. I didn't say a word. I could only mimic the defense of the old gentleman behind me and look listlessly into the void. Those knowing blue eyes welled with tears. She choked back a sob and attempted to corral her billowing emotions. She collected herself. With a look of pained regality, she excused herself. The same bloodbath that had occurred over my shoulder was about to be reprised somewhere in my car or at her house. No escaping the truth. I paid the bill, collected our piping-hot dinners and headed for the door. I caught myself patting the older gentleman on the shoulder as I exited. For this New Year's, we were living versions of the same heartbreaking story.
I reached for the door handle with a heavy sigh and prepared myself for the lashings that were to come. Love and its cousin, hate, don't live too far from each other. My heart knew this. The puffiness of her eyes and repeated sniffles told me that she had been attempting to deal with the crushing blow my lack of words had begun to unleash on her. Once again, as she had been raised so well to do, she had collected herself. We rode in silence back to her house. Once I put the car into park in her driveway, the awaited conversation began.
At first, it was slow and paced. She tried to let us both attempt to eat the meals we were prospectively wasting. The torrid pace began with that offer though. We sat. We stood. We were all over that empty house; discussing what went wrong, why it wasn't right, who was at fault. The hardest thing for either of us to come to terms with was that no one was to blame. We just didn't work. We had shared awesome times together. We had memories and friends by the truckload, but those can not be the foundation on which you build something real. Really enjoying spending time together is great, but it is not enough. At the end of every day and every dark night, you have to have an unquenchable love. Now, maybe I am buying into some variant of Hollywood's idealistic stories or I'm falling prey to something unattainable, but I believe that the one you should be with is the one that you can not be without. They are the notes that make the song of your life into a symphony. I realize that is hopeless and romantic and cliche and somewhat hokey, but search yourself, you will find that settling is the one thing the heart is completely uncomfortable with.
After an hour and a half of deliberations, I had a wave of relief come over me. We weren't done, or better told, she wasn't done. Somewhere in her was this thought that, if we talked long enough, it would all go back to the start in the morning. Unfortunately for that plan, my sense of relief lifted me off of her parent's couch and sent me towards the laundry room door. It was my escape. I stopped as I headed into the garage and out into the night air to counter something she said. Instead of meeting her fire with fire, I caught myself saying, 'We don't have to do this anymore. We are free.' This silenced her for the first time since we parked the car outside. She slowly turned to go back inside, defeated and left to put it all together from the shards of our conversation still lying on her living room floor. I whipped around to the chilly night air and let the winds of freedom wrap me in their embrace. I could still feel the smoldering embers of the forced dream we had just set ablaze on my back. But, this time, there was the breeze of the future luring me onward.
It might sound cold to talk about me feeling free and her going back to wallow in the aftermath. Perhaps it is. Perhaps I was wrong. But, I know in my heart that what was done was right. If not for that moment, I wouldn't be where I am today. I would never have fashioned the resolve to seek my own happiness. I would have been a slave to the expectations of others. Is that really any way to live your life?
This is the day I became king.