Chris and Ajax and I liked to spend Saturday mornings in the park. There was a large and elaborate jungle gym, a couple of huge slides, and swings. Chris loved it all. Ajax just liked the open space. While I watched Chris play, I'd toss Ajax a Frisbee, and he was pretty good at snagging it out of midair. One Saturday around noon, we got home after a morning romp in the park, and I found a message on my answering machine. After Chris ran off into his room to play, I decided to listen to it before I fixed us lunch.
Brian's voice came through the receiver. "Hey, I was just checking in. Sorry I missed you. Gimme a call when you get this, okay? It's been a couple of days since we talked, and I just wanted to hear from my Sammy, y'know?"
Who knew things would turn out like this, after all those years where we'd barely talked to each other? Hearing from him almost daily gave me that same warm glow I'd had whenever I spent time with him back in high school. Along with Chris and my work, Brian was one of the few bright places in my life these days, and I needed all the bright places I could get. Sure, there was Brian's pressure, his crazy idea that we should be lovers, but he kept his promise and didn't press too hard. I figured eventually he'd get past all that and we could be the best friends we were meant to be. I'd master any lingering lovesick nonsense I felt for him, and he'd recover his sanity regarding this crazy dream of his. Once in a while I found myself wavering, wondering if maybe I could risk loving him like he said he wanted to love me. But all I had to do then was think about how unfit for intimacy Neal had made me, and about my complicated, messed-up relationship with Jonah, and about Brian's ongoing drinking problem, and then I'd realize that things were just about where they needed to be with him, and that anything beyond that would probably be a recipe for disaster, for both of us.
I had a number of things to do the rest of the day; Jonah used to do the grocery shopping for us, but he wasn't around so much anymore, and the cupboards were getting bare. I needed to get to the store. Beyond that, I had a stack of papers to grade. Chris had joined a recreational soccer team and had a game that afternoon, too. Given everything on my plate, I wouldn't have time to talk to Brian until later that evening.
I finally got around to returning his call around eight-thirty that night.
"Hey, Brian," I said when he picked up.
"Sammy!" he replied. I could hear the delight in his voice.
"Yeah, sorry I didn't call earlier, it's been pretty busy for a Saturday."
"No problem," he said. "But I was just on my way out. Maybe we can set a time to talk tomorrow."
"Out on a Saturday night?" I teased. "Got a hot date?"
"No," he said, quietly. The silence that followed made it clear he didn't want to elaborate.
Brian hadn't thrown up a barrier of any kind since he'd gotten back from his wanderings south of the border. I couldn't help myself from pressing a little, if only to keep me from stuttering to figure out what to say next. "Uhh...where you goin', then?" I asked.
He hesitated, then said, "You know, stuff to do..."
It was obvious he didn't want to talk about it, and when he put me off that second time, I felt like an idiot for having asked. Before I could think of how to respond, though, he said, "Aww, what the fuck, it's no big drama. I...I have a late meeting."
"Oh," I said, and left it at that. I had no intention of badgering him, but he hardly missed a beat before he added, "You know, a...well, an AA meeting."
I was glad he couldn't see my jaw drop. All I could get out was, "You....well, when did...how long...I mean..."
"I went to my first one the day I got back from visiting you," he said.
I'd had no idea.
"But you didn't tell me," I replied.
"No. I didn't. I thought it would seem like a cheap trick to manipulate you," he said. "It's like you said, it's my problem. This is about me."
"Brian," I said, "I wouldn't have thought it was a cheap...I mean, it's a good thing that you're doing...or...well, I'm glad, I guess that's all."
After a moment's hesitation, he said, "Look, Sammy. I didn't want to tell you about all that, but as long as we're talking, you need to know it's only partly about me. I'm not giving up with you. I've told you what I want. I know I can make your life happy. Happier than you have it now. I want you in my life the way I told you I did.
"There are things standing in the way," he continued. "My drinking is a big thing in the way." He paused. "I have a reason to beat it now," he said. "Even if we never...well, if all I ever am is a best friend, I want you to have a best friend who's clean and sober."
"You know that you don't have to do this for me to love you, don't you?" I asked him. "I mean, of course I think it's important. I want you to be healthy and happy. But I'm just saying you'll always be my best friend. You don't have to achieve some standard for me to accept you. If you thought you did...well, all I mean is that this has to be about you if it's gonna work."
"Didn't I just tell you this was my problem? Of course it's about me. And I know you'll always be a best friend no matter what," he said. "But I want more. You know this. Yeah, it's for me. But even if it's for me, it's for you too. You know what I want. You need to know I mean business. I'm serious about this."
I was too overcome with emotion to respond. That whole area was a minefield that I couldn't walk through. But I was so proud of him for taking this step. Finally I said, "That's awesome, Brian."
Neither of us seemed to know what to say next. I broke the silence by saying, "Hey, I know I need to let you get on your way. Can you call me around one tomorrow afternoon?"
"Absolutely," he said. "If you want, I'll even tell you about it."
"Only if you want to," I replied.
"Well, I wanna hear about what's been happening with you, too," he said. "But we can get into this some, if you're interested."
"You have to know I'm interested," I said. "So go. We'll talk tomorrow."
"Bye, Sammy," he said, and hung up.
We talked a long time the next day. It was the highlight of my day. The animation, the life in his voice: I hadn't heard it in years. It took me back to our younger days. Six months ago, in my wildest dreams I hadn't thought I'd ever hear that again.
He told me a little bit about what the AA experience was like for him, and how he felt about starting to manage his drinking. I tried to ask him what it was that caused him to join; all he said was, "I'm gonna be that guy you looked up to once." When I tried to object that I already looked up to him, he said, "We both know that's not true, so let's not tell pretty lies." Before I could think of a response, he said, quietly, "Doesn't matter. I'm gonna beat it, Sammy."
"I know you will, Brian," I said.
The days rolled on. I had plenty of trouble; Neal was out there giving me chronic low-grade grief and panic; Jonah was practically invisible, and nobody was talking about it.
Neal had made me practically unfit to be with a man. He'd taken the extreme trauma I'd experienced from being gang-raped as a kid, and added another layer of hell to it. Now that he was back, harrassing me, scaring me, dominating a large portion of my consciousness, every intimate touch from Jonah threatened to put me into a post-traumatic fugue. I was emotionally and physically unavailable to Jonah, and I was too ashamed to talk about it.
Still, in the face of all that, if I'd had a bad day, I could always count on the daily call from Brian to put a smile on my face and a little warmth into my heart.
* * * * * * * * *
A week or two later I walked over to Jonah's office to meet him for lunch; we usually ate together on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
I'd been distracted on my way to his office; my thoughts were bouncing back and forth between something Chris had said to me at breakfast and Neal's latest breathe-into-the-phone harassing call, and when I got to Jonah's office, I absentmindedly opened the door and walked in without knocking.
As I pushed the door open, I said, "Hey, where do you wanna eat today...." and then froze.
Jonah was bent over his desk with his pants around his ankles. A young, athletic college kid with his pants around his ankles was bent over Jonah, drilling him for all he was worth.
The sound of my voice caught Jonah in mid-groan. He and the jock screwing him froze and turned to look at me, twin expressions of terror on their faces.
"I...I'm sorry, " I said, backing out and slamming the door behind me as I turned and ran.
When I got back to my office, I shut the door, walked behind my desk, and fell into my chair.
I felt as if I'd been punched in the stomach. My mind felt utterly empty; I was completely zoned out.
I sat there for ten minutes, my head in my hands and my elbows resting on my desk, vaguely aware of the sound of my breathing.
When I began to recover some coherence, my first thought was I failed again.
I hadn't been clueless about the trouble between us; but I'd been gutless. Jonah's first bout of screwing-around had been a cry of pain and loneliness, a way of trying to deal with his conviction that I didn't want to be with him anymore. When I confronted him about it, we'd talked, and he'd promised to stop cheating. And for the briefest period, things had gotten warmer between us.
But I was too messed up to let him into my life. The panic over Neal; the flashbacks; the dread I experienced whenever Jonah touched me: I was deeply ashamed of all of it, and I couldn't bring myself to let him into that messed-up emotional hurricane. And then, on top of all that, Brian's return had thrown me for a loop. In one sense, it was wonderful. I'd dreamed of the day we could be best friends again. But he'd completely messed with my head when he returned by kissing me, by telling me he was in love with me and that he wanted for us to be a couple. I couldn't afford to believe in that. If I did--if I gave my heart fully to the man I'd loved since were were in high school, and it didn't work out, that would finish me.
And besides, I really was committed to Jonah, and to his commitment to Chris.
I couldn't share any of that turmoil with Jonah. I was paralyzed with fear and shame over all of it. So I avoided him. After I'd confronted him about cheating the first time, he was ready for us to be closer. But I wouldn't move any closer.
I could only imagine what that had done to him. And I knew that my failure of nerve led directly to what I'd just witnessed.
I skipped lunch and tried to focus on the rest of my day. I gave a lecture in my first afternoon class and afterwards couldn't recall anything I'd said. It wasn't much better the next period, but I hung in and managed to get through it.
I picked Chris up from childcare after school and we drove home. As I listened to him talk about his day in typical Chris fashion--a mile a minute and with enthusiasm--guilt ripped through me: what would happen with Jonah and Chris now?
He came home after I'd sent Chris off to bed. After some very uncomfortable "hellos," we sat down on the couch together.
I was dreading this.
"Let me talk first, okay?" he asked. I nodded.
"Sam," he began..."I don't know what to say. I'm so, so, sorry. That guy...it was just a...I mean, he's not anything to me. It didn't mean anything. Sometimes I just feel so...I mean, he wanted me, and I just...I was just feeling so...so lonely. I couldn't take it that we were over. It hurt so bad, I just needed a little...I don't know, a little warmth."
"We were over?" I said, coolly. "Please. I told you from the beginning I was in this for the long haul. We weren't over. Not until this, anyway. I loved you, Jonah."
"But you never...you seemed like you..." He started crying and couldn't continue.
I waited for him to get control of himself, and finally said, quietly, "I know. This was my fault. There's so much going on with me, and I couldn't let you in."
"I guess it's too broken to fix now," he said with sorrow.
I couldn't reply. I just stared into his eyes.
He was quiet for a moment, then said, "We need to figure out where to go from here, how to handle things now."
"Yeah, we do," I replied.
I tried to think of what to say next. It wasn't easy to sort through the wash of feelings and the questions about what was going to happen next. But regardless of how badly he'd hurt me, I didn't want him to leave this conversation and start beating up on himself. I was the one who caused this.
I looked into his eyes and said,"Jonah, I'm not...I'm not mad. It's not about anger. I'm just so...so sad, so devastated." I blinked hard several times, determined to maintain my control.
"I'm crushed," I continued. "That's what I'm feeling. You told me you were done with all that, and I trusted you." I stared into his eyes, accusing him with mine momentarily. Then I dropped my gaze and said, "But I get it. I accept all the blame. The bulk of it, anyway. I can't be with you anymore, but I want you to know this isn't your fault. Or not mostly, at any rate."
He began crying again, and finally said, quietly, "I didn't mean to lose you. I just thought I already had."
"I know," I said, struggling to keep my composure. "I'm sorry."
I walked over to him and pulled him into an embrace. He kissed me, tenderly, and we cried together for a few minutes, in each other's arms.
After a long time, we pulled back from each other and sat down. "We need to work out what's going to happen," I said.
"I know I should leave," he said. "I'm so ashamed of this, but I can't afford the rent somewhere else."
"I'm not dumping you out on the street, Jonah," I said. "We bought this house together."
"I'm the one who cheated," he said. "And you have a son. The house should be yours."
"Yeah, we did," I said. "And I really do want Chris to grow up in a house, but I can't afford to buy you out."
"Sam," he said, "I...I know I don't have any right to ask, but I...I love Chris so much...please, d...don't cut me off from him."
I looked at him in disbelief. "You can't..." My voice broke a little as I said it, and I had to stop to get control. When I'd recovered some composure, I told him, "This is what I was talking about when we came together as a family. You made promises to Chris, and he loves you. How could you think I'd tell you that you can't see him?"
I put a hand on his shoulder. "I want you in his life. You're important to him." After considering for a minute, I added, "Stay here. You don't need to move out. It's your house, too. I don't hate you, Jonah; it's not like I can't be around you or anything like that. I mean, it hurts bad...but we haven't been very close lately anyway. You can take the upstairs and convert it like you want it. For however long. Until your life takes you in another direction. Or until I can afford to buy your half. Just give me a couple of minutes to move some of my stuff to the empty bedroom downstairs. We can deal with the rest later."
He looked at me uncertainly. "Are you sure?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I am, if you're okay with it."
"Thank you, Sam," he said, as the tears began to flow again.
We sat there together for a while, letting the reality of it all sink in. It was agonizing, but it was important, and I could feel some healing happening there between us in the silence.
There was one other thing we needed to talk about, and as much as I wanted to end this miserable conversation, it couldn't wait. So I took a deep breath and said, "We'll need to sit down with Chris and tell him we're not together anymore."
He sighed. "I know."
"I don't think it'll be bad," I said. "You're not leaving; not for the foreseeable future anyway. You can play with him, cook meals with him--he always likes that--eat with us, help him study, everything you do now...well, used to do," I couldn't keep myself from adding.
He winced when he heard the last part. "I know I've let him down a lot lately. I promise I won't any more."
I looked at him and grimaced. "I believe you. Too bad this is what it took, though. I'm as much to blame as you, but...well, it's too bad."
He stared at his hands. Neither of us knew what to say next; we'd talked about all we could.
"We probably should go to bed," I said. "Let me take a few minutes to move my stuff downstairs, and then you can call the whole top part of the house yours, okay?"
"Okay," he mumbled.
I went over to him and hugged him one more time. After one final tight squeeze, we let go of each other, and began the process of separating our lives.
The end of our relationship was gut-wrenching. I felt like such a failure. I'd made two lifetime commitments and both had ended long before we'd hit "lifetime." I'd always believe that those promises were forever. On the other hand, though, in a weird way, ending things with Jonah was a relief.
Not that I was carefree about it. As a matter of fact, in the aftermath, I found myself shutting down emotionally even more than I had before. Without realizing it, I was becoming even more withdrawn, more numb.
* * * * * * * * *
I was still pretty shaken and disconnected from things when Brian called me the day after the breakup, and he heard it when I answered the phone.
"Sam...what's wrong?" he asked.
"It's over," I heard myself say.
"What? What's over?" I could hear the concern rising in his voice.
"Me and Jonah," I said.
"Why?" he asked. "What happened?"
"He did it again," I said.
After a pause, I heard him half-whisper, "Jesus fuck."
He asked me, "Are you okay?"
I said, "Well, I guess it depends on what you mean."
"What I mean is, how do you feel?"
"Mostly I don't."
It was true.
We got through the conversation, but I don't know that it was particularly comforting to either of us. I know my flat affect must have worried Brian, and for my part, I just couldn't feel the glow I'd come to experience from talking with him lately. It was good to hear from him, but the conversation had made me aware of how dull and devoid of emotion I felt. He tried to pep me up, talking about his work, his twelve-step group, about how he needed to get serious and find a sponsor instead of just attending meetings, about his parents and family. It was a nice distraction from my own troubles, but it all felt curiously distant.
I did notice, though, that he didn't bring up wanting us to be together.
I was struck by this; Brian never thought of himself as a very good person, but as far as I was concerned, he'd just illustrated something about him that I'd always loved: He was always concerned for me, always wanted to protect me. Even through all our missteps and his faulty logic, he'd always wanted the best for me. And I could tell he was thinking that I didn't need to be pressured right now by his dream for us.
Still, as the days went by, I found myself even pulling away from him, at least over the phone. I didn't want to share how I was feeling, how devastated I was, what a failure I was. I didn't want him to hear it in my voice. But true to his word, he called every day. It was hard to feel anything, and I know it couldn't have been pleasant for him to keep dealing with my zombie-like state in our conversations. But it didn't fail to register with me how loyal he was being, how supportive, how caring, never once complaining or talking about his needs. I wasn't a very good friend over the phone, but he never gave me any grief for it, and he never bailed on me.
In the weeks that followed my breakup with Jonah, Brian never once brought up wanting to be with me. Aside from not wanting to pressure me, I figured that he was finally beginning to realize what a foolish fantasy it had been. It was a relief, in a way. And it kept us connected to each other. In the aftermath of my split with Jonah, I relied on his support and on the quiet strength he demonstrated by being there for me every day.
We started emailing more. I found it easier to talk about what was on my mind and heart through emails. I think that made him feel a little better too. I'm not saying I was entirely frank with him, or that I spilled my guts to him via email, but I think he found me at least a little more talkative in emails than I was during phone calls.
I couldn't just throw the doors open, though. For some reason, I was ashamed to talk with him about my failure. He'd watched me fail at so many things over the years; I didn't need to be spilling my guts and plunging myself into any deeper shame by talking to him about what a loser I considered myself. So I began putting a little bit of a barrier between us. I needed his support and his daily phone calls, but I held significant portions of myself back from him. I didn't like it, but I just couldn't be completely open with him. I figured that once I'd healed a little more, I could be a better, truer friend. In the meantime I was grateful for his presence in my life.
There was someone I found I could share all my turmoil with, though. It was my e-friend Duane. Even before Brian had reappeared in my life, I'd been emailing him and chatting with him regularly, telling him things about myself I'd never have dared to tell anyone offline. When Brian came back into my life and scrambled my brain with his announced desire to be my lover, Duane was always there to help me process the upheaval. He always seemed to listen and to care, and at any given moment he always seemed to know the right thing to say.
And that's what took me on my life's next crazy ride.
Note to readers: Sorry for the delay. I
have now finished Dan's story, so it won't be too much longer before
it's all posted. It will be 34 chapters long when it's finished, and he
wrote the last chapter himself some months before he died. If you'd
like to contact me by email, the address is email@example.com.