by: Tom Rau
The fragile glass of first love. The sound it makes when it shatters. And making sense of the fragments.
I know a couple. They are co-owners of a dive bar/Mexican restaurant in a popular college town in Virginia. They have karaoke night; sometimes she steps out from behind the bar and sings an Alison Krauss song. It’s not my thing exactly, but there is no question she always kills it. They have four children, all crazy boys with the big beautiful smile of their mother. They raise their kids, work 100 hours a week, and have been through more shit than most couples twice their age. In fact, their life is sometimes so heavy that they feel like that they being crushed under the weight of it. Despite this, when I see them I get a sense of their happiness, of togetherness. What they have overcome, and the love that they bestow upon their children always gives me the sense that everything is in it’s right place.
I was 20 years old, living in NYC by myself and attending music school. I was going through some fairly typical young-adult emo shit. I had recently discovered a letter to my then girlfriend of four years who had been living with me and recently moved home. The letter was from a mutual friend and was about her feelings for an ex-boyfriend ((Oddly years later him and I had an insane bonding experience over the whole thing. Our jaws didn’t stop moving until the next afternoon)). It was fairly obvious from the letter things had happened on her last trip home between them. She had told me she was moving back to Virginia because she couldn’t cope with the big city life. Either way, Gotham City was dark and I was looking for a place to hide.
For the next couple of weeks I didn’t go to class. I didn’t leave my apartment except to buy cigarettes and an occasional deli sandwich ((Still always my first purchase on trips to NYC)). My best friend was temporarily my delivery guy ((He delivered uppers. Mainly. We hung out every day except for the days when I passed out before his “friendship” was needed)) The amount of sorrow I was feeling for myself was bordering on maniacal ((I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic, this fact is never more clear than when I am depressed, even in situations where it is self-inflicted. It’s kind of fucking embarrassing. C’est La Vie. I’m doing my best.)).
One day the phone rang. I heard that voice. Not the voice of the scared, confused, girl who didn’t think she loved me anymore. Apparently, there had been a mistake. Relief and anger flooded my system simultaneously. There were only two things in this world that 20 year old me wanted; to punish and to love ((In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, one of the central themes in this piece is being stupid when you are young. I’m stupid when I’m old too, but I expect more from my readers)). To that end taking her back was easy. We broke down into sobs over the phone. Through my tears, I said please come back. Through hers she said please take me. And days later with a still openly bleeding heart I let the pain commence.
It couldn’t have been easy for her; to have me love for her one second and to barely be able to look at her the next. We had grown heavy; each, each other’s most burdensome bags. For months we were locked into this holding pattern. When I finished my program I decided to return to my English studies at Virginia Tech. She wanted to join me.
When we were living in NYC I needed too much from her. When she had left I felt abandoned. When she wanted to return to the ship, despite still being super angry, I was more than ecstatic to have her back ((Life is fucked up like that, right?)). In fact I needed her. At VT, I had tons of friends. I knew lots of girls. Loneliness was not a viable option. This was was my chance to leave her at home, thinking of all the same soul crushing variations on a familiar theme I had already subjected myself to. It’s like we had truly broken each other into our smallest pieces in order find out if any of our pieces fit together. It’s amazing, at twenty one how much we think we know ((And I think I’m pretty far ahead of the curve)). I’m pretty sure none of us knew shit.
Months went by with us playing this fucked up game of retribution. She would come hang out on the weekends. We’d stay up all night acting insane, chasing blurry lines across the sky until we crashed into a heap of passion on the floor. It was awesome, some of the best times of my life. But I always knew at some point I would have to give it back.
One night while driving on Highway 460 from Blacksburg, Virginia to Christiansburg I was behind a navy blue gas cylinder truck. It had approximately twenty, five foot tanks on the back, surrounded and held together by a large white rusty cage. ((My first thought was definitely, “I wonder if any of these are nitrous.”)) My mind quickly wandered to the diamond shaped warning signs attached to the back of the truck, “Warning: Explosive Material,” “Danger: Flammable,” “Use Caution.” There were more but I have long since forgotten. I was amazed at how much they applied to life and my current relationship status as a whole. We stopped at a light where I was shaken from my contemplative state by the sound of my cell phone ringing. It was accompanied by an immense feeling of doom. Sometimes you just fucking know. It was one of the most synchronistic moments of my life. My stomach was in my toes and my hands were shaking before I even picked up the phone. By the time I heard her tear choked voice cracking on the other end of the line I already knew she was pregnant.
The sun goes down
I drove the two hours back to my hometown that night. I was in shock. It was moments of hysterical crying followed by moments of complete detachment. Rinse, lather, repeat. I have probably been in a better condition to drive after drinking all of the alcohol in the bar. When I finally showed up to her house we didn’t even skip a beat, just went straight on with the sobbing. I don’t remember if it was the next day, the next night, or a week later, it’s all kind of a blur, but I can remember the gist of the conversation we finally had. She wanted to have the baby and I was willing to drop out of school, get a job and help raise it. We both knew, however, that isn’t what I really wanted. She knew I would resent her for the rest of our lives if I didn’t get a chance to explore my own place in the world. I didn’t even really have a choice. She just knew me. And she was right. Listening to her say it though, hearing it, and then accepting it, was about as an intense life altering moment as I’ve ever had.
At nine, when my dad died I was surrounded by broken hearts, but something about it was gentle, like our tears all flowing through the nostalgic streams of our youth. This, on the other hand was the violent obliteration of two hearts being smashed by the heavy hammer of life, tears pouring out like the blood from multiple stab wounds. She was giving up a dream and forcing me to chase mine. If that’s not love in it’s rawest form then, fuck me. Maybe it’s in moments like these, when our world gets fractured that a new universe is created; our bodies just the fading ghosts of another “you’s” universe. In this, we splintered and drifted exceedingly far apart; in another we planted a seed that grew into a jungle. ((One day we’ll probably have the technology to watch all of this. Imagine Inter-Universe “Reality” TV. You can watch yourself as a rich billionaire, a man in prison, a transgender cab driver living in Sacramento, or just another person like you. We could probably learn a lot from ourselves.))
I don’t remember much over the next few days aside from breaking down trying to tell my best friend what I was going through. ((That must have been a shitty conversation for him.Thanks Old Man)). Over the next week I collected the required $400. She made the appointment. I drove her there. We waited in a cold, dead room with off-white walls. There were copious amounts of pamphlets arranged neatly in a vertical pamphlet tray like you find in most quasi-shitty hotel lobbies . They were there to help. They only served to accentuate the negative. Eventually, someone came and took her away. I sat there, as dead as dead could be. My mind briefly came to and I wondered what the middle-aged woman in the excessively plain green sweater was doing. Was she a patient, was she just waiting? It didn’t much matter. And I returned to the land of the dead.
Time didn’t pass. It was more like wading through a sea of tar. When they finally brought her back out she was hysterical. And in that moment, when she saw me, when we first made eye contact, I was again sure that in saving ourselves, we had managed to kill both us, and any piece of a future “us” that might have been hiding in the dark.
And there it remains
We had the foresight to get a hotel that night. On the way there, I stopped to pick up her prescription from the doctor and get some things for the night. In the store I saw a giant stuffed bear. I had the bright idea it might cheer her up so I bought it. It went over about as well as it should have. Like if someone knocked on your door one afternoon you answered and they said, “I accidentally just shot all of your children. Would you like a free subscription to Highlight Magazine?” Again, we cried all night, but there wasn’t any holding; the six inches between us now more like an ocean.
She basically cut me out of her life shortly thereafter. I think I had become too painful of a memory. I went back to school, went from class to class in a fuzzy cloud of self-loathing ((Depsite the fact I was 21 in looking back my emotional state feels very much like I was 14)). For a long time was basically either fucked up or crying. ((Probably both)) I called, wrote letters, and basically begged her to come back ((Hi Sadomasochism!!!)). Her mom ((Who always loved me like a son and is both amazing and extremely frightening)) told me to give her time. So, time I gave.
In my sorrow, I discovered anger. Creative Destructionism is what we called it ((I think)). Most people would probably just call it being an asshole. ((I even shaved my head and grew a long goatee to match. That’s a super asshole thing to do btw!!!)). I got closer to my like-minded friends. It was like being in a club. Nobody asked questions, nobody made me talk about it. We all just got fucked up and destroyed shit for a few years. It was highly therapeutic and in the end what helped me discover fun again. I know why I was there. But looking back on it, I want to know, why were they? Should we have just talked about it?
Despite living in different places over the next few years I would sometimes see her. When I was in her town, or she mine, we would sometimes get together for a night of the rawest kind of life. It was like running your heart across a cheese grater. Those nights ended in a violent ocean of tears. A couple of times there was sweat. But despite the realness, and the rawness, it was never the same. It was love in full body armor.
At some point I was home and she introduced me to a guy she was dating. I knew that it was trouble because I immediately liked him ((Plus he was dreamy)). He seemed to genuinely like me. And he was obviously in love with her. It was a heart breaker but at the same time in a new and completely refreshing kind of way. It was like the sun had been frozen for two years and was finally allowed to set. A few months later she called me and told me she was pregnant. It was a rough night. But I was happy for her. It was what she had always wanted, to be in love, and to be a mother. I was genuinely pumped about that. She deserved it.
It finally comes back up
I see her/them rarely. But when I do it’s always great. One year she had a Christmas party for our whole group of high school friends. I remember it well. It was in that same popular college town in Virginia, at a bar owned by her and her husband. They closed down the up stairs to the public so we could all go crazy. Two little boys, aged one and two, were omnipresent throughout the evening doing everything in their power to keep us all in stitches. There lives simple in the best possible ways; eat, drink, and cause chaos. They didn’t know how close they came to never being a part of this world. I’m glad they will never have to. They are everything that is incredible about the universe. That for every piece of sadness there can be a much greater good. We just have to let the universe plant it’s seed, let the flowers run wild, and then bathe in the chaos of the jungle.
Eventually, worn out and exhausted, their dad took the boys home. The rest of us continued to hang out until it was finally time to throw in the towel. As we dropped her off back at their house I remember thinking what an incredible night it had been. We still loved each other. It was still special, but different. Better. Like we finally let each other be free. I got dropped off next at my mom’s farm and headed straight for the backyard to contemplate under the watch of the stars. I thought about everything that could have been and everything that was. I thought about a lot of beautiful lives that night. And I was still thinking about them when the sun finally began to rise.
A month or two later I was in an airport on the way back from a poker tournament. My phone rang. It was her. She was beaming. “Guess what?” she said. I laughed. “You don’t have to say anything, I already know. You’re pregnant. Congratulations.”