A Good Man, Drowning



I’ve started this story about fifteen times.


The first draft was scribbled in the back of a book I was reading because I was desperate for paper. I imagined dropping the book off at a used bookstore one day and someone finding my scattered words and wondering if they were looking at the ravings of someone lost in her twilight years.


Around the seventh draft, I got closer to the truth. My anger at William had faded, and mainly I just see the beauty of God gave me for six, seven months. I wanted to treasure him, hold him close, and protect him. At first, my rantings in the back of a book made this a story about a breakup.


But as I worked on it, tweaked it, and processed more, it became clear what I was trying to say. Everything we do in life is a choice, including refusing to act.

This sixteenth try is written in salty disdain of tears and the gorgeous glow of grace. Because the first draft was accurate, yet so was the seventh. The world is filled with nuisance — love in the midst of heartbreak, sorrow in the time of freedom, and the cloudy motivation of self-preservation. This sixteenth draft might be the most complicated of them all, but the closest to the tenor of humanity.


This is all to say — I wish I could sum up William in a polite thesis.


I wish things were easier to explain and softer on my soul. I wish this story would have a linear structure and a full conclusion. There are times when I wonder if I was nothing more than collateral damage in his journey. Or maybe I offered myself as a sacrificial lamb.

But only more time will tell on that part.


The first wave of many hits of acceptance rolled over me so hard while driving one day that I pulled over to cry in a parking lot.

He’s gone, I thought to myself. And he’s going to stay gone.

Then the most melancholic thought of all hit next.

What if that’s okay?


Even knowing the ending now, I can say that loving him felt different. It was like the universe was cut open for my understanding, and I finally understood what the fuss was about.


II

William came to me in a haze. I was not quite myself.


Coming back from a rough liaison with a man in the middle of a divorce and a tenuous work environment, I was learning a lot about the world — and quickly. And being set-up with William just felt organic at the moment, responding to the rapid of amounts of changes that life was throwing me.


It was like we sank into each over, starting with our words via text. We’re both writers, so it was like it had to start that way. I shared with him my writing that was published under a pseudonym and we talked about the books we loved. When I was preparing to fly out for a bachelorette party this past summer, I was restless, so I texted William about my fears of flying at about 2:00 am.

As a bartender, he was still up during the early morning he tried to talk me down from my fears. Then that same weekend, I was a few vodka tonics in and I sent him a text that felt a little presumptuous. But something in me felt like I knew him already, a steady beat that I just tried to be in tune with, despite only seen him once at an awkward set-up brunch.


You know, you’re not going to be a bartender forever, I texted him.

Without missing a beat he told me, Thank you for saying that because sometimes, that’s what I feel like all I’ll ever be.

From there, we figured things out.


Our first date went from one hour to three hours. We filled it with talk of Alan Dershowitz and William studying for the LSAT. We went out to the patio so that he could smoke and he looked at me, sullenly, and said, “I think you’re one of the only people I can talk to.” And with that, I reached for his hands. Later that evening, a loud group of guys came up to where we were sitting so I reached for his hand again. He looked surprised when I touched him, and then fell right into the moment with me.


Nothing is going to happen to you while I’m here,” he told me. And I believed him.

He turned away for a moment, but I pulled him back to me with that phrase, needing to feel him more. He slowly lifted his hand to touch my face as we had our first kiss.


Our second date was more intense than our first. We played trivia with my MENSA friends, after everyone left, we hung back and I opened up to him more about my recent work situation.

“All I want to do is help toddlers and they won’t let me do it anymore,” I told him, as I sobbed into his chest. We shared a rough kiss, and I sat there crying into his shirt as he held me.


He stayed. On my drive home, that’s all that played in my head. It was only our second date, and I sobbed, ruining his shirt. But he stayed. And not only that, when I got home, he asked me if I wanted a picnic for lunch or dinner the next time we went out.


It was moments like those that just deepened my affection for him and make it hard for me to hate him now. He just rang of genuine care and precious use of words. This was not an act with him. He’s not crafty enough to be Don Juan. He’s a radiant sun, bursting of love and carnivorous energy, that he used to keep me warm. Whether he was reassuring me that I was beautiful after having shingles, or sending me flowers while he was sitting in traffic and our first fight was unfolding, he tried his best to care for me. And it made me feel like a different person, reborn under a new courageous light.


He started becoming more open with me too, explaining that he was unfulfilled in his career, and was desperately searching for what would fill that void. He’s very smart, in a classic sense, loving the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald and studying Irish history from every angle. He loves theater — it’s what makes him feel connected and alive.


He didn’t get to do any of this as a bartender. He could memorize every drink available and he worked incredibly hard at his job, despite being frustrated. I respect him ardently to this day for that. The more I was with him, hanging out with him on his work nights at his bar, the more I could see how being a bartender chipped away at his spirit. One night in particular felt like a punch in the gut — I looked at him, 10 minutes before closing, and saw that he looked beaten up. And it made me want to cry, to see what a job could take from someone.


I tried to encourage him, explain that many are in his situation. I wanted him to not only know but feel this — he was going to get out of everything he was afraid of. It was just taking a little longer than he wanted to find a career as opposed to job. And there was no shame in his job, he should be proud of how hard he works.


When he didn’t do well on the LSAT, I bought him a Catholic medallion necklace of Sir Thomas Moore. In my note to him, I wrote, “Whether you are a writer of a work like Utopia, an actor in A Man for All Seasons, or a lawyer in the future, whatever it is, you are going to be good at it.”

I don’t think I ever saw him without that around his neck afterwards.


I was falling in love, foolishly and haphazardly. I could feel it within about four months on a very particular night. I was waiting for him at the front of a bar and my cell phone wasn’t working. I thought he was late by twenty minutes. While waiting, a man approached me, a few beers in, and came so close that I could feel him breathe onto my neck as he tried to slur out a sloppy come-on. He moved on pretty quickly, sensing my repulsion. But when I think of that moment, I can still unnervingly feel the warmth of his voice on my neck. Then William appeared from the back where he had been waiting for me, and I shouted out, “Oh thank God.”


When I got home that night, I sent my typical “got home safe” and explained what happened — that someone had approached me, and I was scared, and once I saw him, I felt safe. William is abrasive and foul-mouthed, but he always seemed to have kindness to spare for me, and I knew he always try to watch over me. His response was burned into me, another genuine authentication that he wasn’t as broken as he said he was.

I am so sorry. I am sorry for you, that you thought I was late and for women everywhere who have to put up with things like that. I’m so sorry.


I think I wrote back something to the effect of, “I think you’re beautiful.” What I really wanted to say was something much more complex.


You don’t get it, do you? I think I would look for you if I had never met you. And if you were crashing and burning, I would come and find you.

If heaven is anywhere, it was the night we shared at the Adolphus Hotel. It was kind of terrible, but kind of beautiful at the same time, a secret for only us to share. But I gush lovingly at this part. It was at about 2 am, and I had to explain to him that after a few months of dating, at her request, I gave my mother his cell phone number in case she couldn’t find me. I explained that she’s done this before, and she’s never called any man I’ve ever dated, because I stay in regular contact with her. So he didn’t need to worry that he was going to start having daily conversations with her.


“Put me in the nice dumpster after you kill me,” I said, bursting out laughing.

He thought I was going to get us kicked out of the hotel for laughing so hard. After a few minutes of nervous chatter, he told me, “I’m going to try to go to sleep now.”

“Was that a nice way of asking me to shut the hell up?” I asked and burst out laughing even harder.


As he fell asleep, I reached out to trace the outline of his face. He just felt so right, I wanted to savor the moment.


Just for a little longer.



III

Along each heaven, there is an adjacent Hell.


If William’s heart was painted for the world to see, it would be golden and bruised, from how deeply and vibrantly he feels things. He loves his friends loyally, and is moved by the struggle of those falsely incarcerated. He yearns for a higher purpose, to connect his education and big brain with doing good for the world. But something was bruising my own heart as our months progressed, which was knowing he was using cocaine.


When we were set up, my friend had this idea that I would help get William in line and that William would get me out of line a little. So I headed into this unchartered territory, willingly, knowing I would never use cocaine. But I’m hyper-organized, career driven, and an overthinker. I sometimes wondered if I could loosen up a little.


Without a doubt, the cocaine bothered me, every step of the way. Photos of William in high-school showed the physique of a rugby player, muscular and defined. The William of today, in comparison, shows a noticeable loss of weight. I think he’s beautiful in whatever shape he came in, based on that golden heart alone, but it’s not a stretch to think he lost weight because of cocaine.


But I just pushed the concern deep down, listening to stories about how he might use less as he matures and anecdotal stories of how people stop using cocaine when the time is right.


“A friend of a friend uses once a year, and is fine in between,” I’ve been told, on several different occasions.


I wanted to believe those stories and ignore the science that applies to the majority. I wanted to believe that William was an exception.


None of his friends seemed as concerned as I was, and I thought I was just overthinking things, like I do. Because he wasn’t an addict, or didn’t seem to fit into the broad category. He exhausted himself through his job, treated me with kindness, and didn’t steal to fund his habit. But there was a dependency there that I sensed, making this an unprecedented gray, with qualifications stacked on qualifications.


I wanted to protect William. And showing him love, without speaking my vivid objections, I thought I was. But what I was doing was ignoring a siren call within myself. When he told me about a waitress he used to date that did cocaine with him, I was upset. I wasn’t jealous of her, but the idea that he had accomplices in his life that helped him get high tore at me.

How could anyone, likely having seen what I’ve seen in his heart, simply sit back and let him hurt himself through hard drugs?


But really, in shining the light on my own darkness, how could I have sat back and done so little? Sure, I tried to love him hard but I was afraid of crossing the line. He’s prideful and independent, and didn’t like the sense I was coddling him. Bringing him a dinner to make sure he ate, reading his favorite books so that I could talk to him about them, and agreeing to go axe throwing with him because he wanted to do it — I thought I was keeping him in the present. I thought I was creating a world he wanted to stay in. But maybe I too, was enabling him.

He’s his own man. No one was pushing his head down into lines of cocaine. And outside of the first night when I told him that I was scared the next time he used it was going to be his last, I stayed pretty quiet on the subject. He knew I didn’t like it. And I knew he was going to keep on using. We just cared about each other, and it was awful. I couldn’t change it, and I listened to useless proverbs about how if I really loved him, I wouldn’t want to change him. I can’t believe how easily persuaded I was against the value this was compromising within me — that life has value, that moments matter, and people should take care of each other.


Freewill is on my mind a lot these days. I’ve become a prattling philosopher, lost in endless circles about choices and love. Because I believe that I was a bystander in a good man, drowning. But yet, he brought parts of the storm on himself. So I do not pity him. He is not beyond help. It’s just a heavy weight, to think of his gorgeous heart, in pursuit of fleeting moments over his potential.


We progressed onward for about seven months. Then one night, around Valentine’s Day, he told me of his plan to move to Knoxville, Tennessee. He made it known that he wanted out from the very things thought were going to kill him and that he was going to try to move, even though he didn’t get into law school. I twisted myself into knots over this impending move, knowing that I loved him, but I’m glad I didn’t say anything to him in critique of the move. He worked so hard at his current job, a job that drained him, that it was nice to see him so excited about something again.


I started crying when he told me — and he reached out for my hand. He told me I didn’t need to tell him what was wrong. If I wanted to leave, we could.

“What’s going to happen to us when you move?” I asked him, in a quivering voice.

He didn’t have an answer.

“I love you,” I said, quivering even more.

He didn’t say anything. So I left the restaurant alone that night. That was the first night he didn’t walk me to my car to make sure I got in safely.


That was the night of our last kiss. When he was in the bathroom, I sneakily got up to buy my drink in retribution for the week before when paid for our bill under the guise of going to the restroom. So when he came out of the bathroom, he saw my devious look on my face at the bar, he knew what I was doing and laughed, wrapped his arm behind my waist, and brought me in for a quick kiss. I’m glad our last kiss was something so playful, warm, and so organic to what we were. He always tried to provide for me, and I always tried to show him that he was so much more to me that the man who picked up my bar tab.


Just like my mom who wanted his phone number in case something happened, I’m starting to believe that a part of loving someone is saying, “I want you to help me if I’m lost. If I’m not physically here, look for me. And if I lose the thread of who I am, then help me find it again.”

But how can you ask this of someone if they are lost themselves?

And what if they don’t want your help to come back?


IV

I spent a month waiting for the end to come. But still — I wasn’t prepared to lose him in the depth of love I felt for his beautiful heart. I was done being at his mercy for the amount of space we were taking, and told him that we needed things to be resolved because I had no desire to hold onto something that was no longer there. So he broke up with me over Facebook Messenger, with every endeavor to be kind — the long thoughts, filled with interjections about my character.

Something inside me has changed…

I wish it could continue….

You made me a better person….

I know it’s going to be hard, but I hope we find a way to stay in each other’s lives….

I allowed myself to grieve heavily for one weekend, then I became focused on acceptance and healing, which is always so much easier said than done. I didn’t want to be home, so I kept going out to write my multiple versions of this essay. When I wasn’t writing, I was numb, distracted by the way the candlelight illuminated the vodka bottles at the bars I went to — their flickering flames, the dancing light, the shimmering façade.

I wanted to hurt him back. I wanted him to feel small, a mere footnote in my life. But reluctantly, I admit, that’s not him. Maybe he’s not even a full a chapter, but his presence in my life was not inconsequential. And even though I would sob randomly and quietly for a few weeks, I knew his break-up came from a genuine place and that throwing than genuineness back at him would be almost an act of violence. It would be cruel, and out of a place of being heartbroken. I am far from perfect, but this breakup was ultimately not about me. It was him, needing to do things without me, needing freedom to grow whichever way the sun’s rays cause his branches to grow.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was slowly moving on. When I mentally decided that my direction was forward, everything else eventually caught up. But at the time, I was just re-reliving the break-up for weeks. Telling friends that a month of space had led to a breakup, was starting to get a little less painful as I was able to regurgitate answers to their questions.


What was his reason?

Well — he told me — in essence — he needed to get his shit together and he can’t worry about me.

How are you doing?

Well, it was really bad for the first weekend, but I’m getting better.

Maybe he’ll come back.

I think for now I’m not going to worry about what he does or does not do.


That last part about not worrying about him — well, it was all talk. I did feel a pull forward and no desire to wallow, but love doesn’t diminish when someone decides to leave. What a more peaceful world that would be if it did. I tried to put up a brave face but he was in my heart and I couldn’t shake him, even as I went out with other guys.


After about two months, I knew William was going to be bartending at this wedding I had to be at — I hadn’t responded to him at all when he broke up with me over messenger.

I approached the bar at the end of the night. I actually felt pretty calm as I said goodbye to William. Surprisingly — I found out that he was no longer moving. And I could sense he was clearly different. He could barely look me in the eye. Compared to that night when he told me about Knoxville and there was a spark in his eye, his disappointment registered hard with me. This what not the William I hoped for.


When I was walking out of the wedding, I ran into his friend, a woman who calls William her little brother. I shared a cigarette with her, and talked to her about her own guy problems. This fierce little blue-haired girl let me know just what was on her mind when it came to William. “I love him, but he’s a jackass. You think I don’t know about you, but no, I heard all about you and you’re a dumbass.”


I had to laugh at the last part. It’s probably true.

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not beautiful…look out for him.”


I left wondering about his friend group — calling him names, offering him lines of cocaine and sometimes neither encouraging or discouraging his drug use. I thought about my dad’s words, about thinking William was reaching out for help when he broke up with me. The more I sat with it, the more I realized that purticanal dogma was not my concern nor did I have any desire to go backward. He was my concern — his mental, physical and emotional health. While many things aren’t simple, that is. He looked so disappointed when he told me he wasn’t moving, I was worried about what was going up his nose.


I tried not to think about it. I tried to push it down, and follow thoughts instead of my heart.

He broke up with you. He doesn’t want your attention. Don’t reach out. Don’t do it.


I shouldn’t have — but internally, I was fighting too hard against what I wanted to do. I needed to try to extend a hand one last time. When I messaged him after an uneasy peace was reached, and my opening statement into conveying concern was met with what felt like indifference, I burst into tears.


I missed the window. The words “I need help” never came out of his mouth, so I never would have had a right to help. I would have been overbearing, a nag, an annoyance. It’s his life, and he doesn’t want me in it. But most of all now, he terrifies me. It was such an unexpected shift to realize that I am truly frightened of him and his world. I’m frightened of being an object of his ire, of being destroyed in the pursuit of his own warmth. and that even if we tried to be friends, he would give me up just as easily as he did before. I’m scared of drowning too, and in getting lost, no one comes to find me.


Our bond was shattered into a million pieces on the floor, and the shards were cutting my feet when I tried to pick them up. The more I looked at the nicks, the more I surrendered to the inevitable. I was never going to be able to love him hard enough to keep him in the present. And my introspective, deliberative nature that leads me to overthink — it’s not a flaw. It’s a strength. It’s what made love feel like this, so potent and terrible to carry. And so reflective of what I would have done differently.


I wish I would have forsaken my desire for him to love me back while we were at our peak, and I would have crawled on my knees, and ask him to consider getting help. With all his immaturity, his impunity, I don’t think I’ve ever met a more loveable man.


I think about the simple moments, like seeing him after he didn’t pass the LSAT. We held each other in the rain in a parking lot, and I started crying, because I couldn’t get a hold of him for three days, and I knew what he was doing while he was ignoring me. I tried everything — a general check-in, then a raunchy text, and then I cut to the chase and told him I was scared.

Then I was holding him, and he seemed fine.

“I’m okay, I’m always going to be okay,” he told me, trying to comfort me, as I softly cried into him.

I could have just said, “No, you may not always be okay.”

But I said nothing.


What’s more regretful is how relieved I feel, because I love hard enough as is, that deep, unrelenting worry about his drug use was exhaustive. I didn’t realize it for awhile after he left. I spent our time together looking for signs of how his drug use might have shown up in his health, of wondering how high his tolerance was, and worried about how things might escalate. I had read so much about this unchartered territory that I was becoming an expert in things like cocaethylene, a toxic metabolite that forms in the liver when cocaine and alcohol are consumed at the same time. All the nights we went out, and had a few drinks, I wondered how much cocaethylene was in his system.


I don’t want to be in that world, so this is like being set free, and now the only thing I do for him is pray.

God — I hope he gets out of everything that makes his spirit cold. I hope he finds what he’s looking for. I hope that one day, he sees his value like I did. I hope he finds the true weight those hands of his can carry.


Those hands I loved to hold.


I had this dream when I was with William, and mourning its death publically means accepting I will never have what I wished for. We’re driving in a car, heading to Walden Pond, because we wanted inspiration. The morning was foggy, the trees were evergreen, and he was asleep in the front seat because we had been taking turns driving throughout the night. I wasn’t listening to music, I was enjoying the sound of him breathing. It meant he was alive, that his indulgences into destruction didn’t take him over. He was okay.


From the day of that first awkward set-up brunch, the worst was yet to come — the deepest heartbreak I’ve ever known, from a kind-hearted gentleman who undervalues his worth and coats that low self-esteem in high-risk behavior to self-medicate. It’s such a melancholy to live with — knowing that’s his status, and finally removing myself to such a degree where I just have to live without knowing his fate. I don’t cry anymore but he’s there, and I’m wondering if his memory will every leave me.


I take it day by day.

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