“Empathy,” I texted him. Just that one word.
“Breathe,” he responded immediately.
It was the loneliest time of night when the crickets had gone to bed and the birds had yet to rise.
I didn’t ask why he was up too, and that was our epic downfall; our love wasn’t a two-way street but instead a series of sporadic back roads where we often found ourselves lost and alone.
Yet we were alone together, and that was a force we couldn’t quite explain.
“I can’t,” I texted.
Curled up in bed I went on to tell him all the things I couldn’t get off my mind. Like the trivial looks of disappointment on the faces long lost to the past, and how the pain that the inflicted didn’t even remember was weighing heavy on my chest.
“I know,” he told me, because he understood.
That’s what made it cruel.
I wasn’t just sharing stories; I was sharing the agony of not being able to let go. I was making him cling to my demons the way he had me latch on to his.
“Bury it,” he advised.
Unhealthy threads like this one worked tirelessly to string us together.
Seven months we’ve been going like this. It wasn’t a slow, inevitable crash, but, rather, heartfelt ups and violent downs. It was “I’m ready” and “I’m scared”; it was “don’t leave me” and “we need to stop doing this to ourselves.”
It was ugly and it was beautiful.
It was something neither of us had ever experienced and it was that wondrous misgiving that kept us close.
We ignored the clear foreboding for the thrill of something new.
“I need someone stronger” said the pot.
“That hurts,” said the kettle.
Still, I was around two months later when he asked me to hold him because he couldn’t stand up on his own. I wrapped my arms tightly around him because I knew well the fear of disappearing into oblivion.
“Go to sleep,” he texted me.
“You go to sleep,” I said, becoming aware that he shouldn’t have to share this terrible consciousness with me.
With that we came to one of the hundreds of forks in our roads.
I could picture the contours of his back as I felt him walk away.
I’d see him again.
Our goodbyes were shallow lies that would always come back and taunt us.
Neither of us would admit we were wasting our time and that we were preventing each other from finding the people who could actually lift us up instead of reinforcing all the things that kept us down.
Chemicals, we’d always say to one another. Our pain is not weakness, it’s just the chemicals.
At first we found solace in one another as two broken beings belonging to a different time who had somehow found themselves in the same place.
We were so similar. Our shared, isolated darkness was desperate for company.
It seemed perfect, but, instead of coming together to form a shield against the nightmares that haunted us, we inadvertently helped them all merge together.
We had created a monster.
We didn’t know how to fight it separately so we clung to each other for dear life.
Tell me, how strong could our defense have been while it was guarding something neither of us had ever cherished?
“It’s just the chemicals talking,” he’d tell me when I could barely find the energy to pull a brush through my hair.
“It’s just the chemicals talking,” I’d tell him when his anxiety kept him from leaving the house.
My brain finally turned off as the rest of the world turned on. I slept for maybe three hours before the harsh summer sun strangled me through my bedroom window.
I wanted to lay there and encourage myself to be human today. I told myself that today I could be all right. I’ve learned to take things just one day at a time, making these morning pep talks crucial. But I was entirely consumed by the need to apologize.
I needed to tell him that I was sorry for burdening him last night, that I was sorry that the very act of opening up to him was a burden. That we couldn’t be a normal couple who grew stronger once we let each other in. I wanted to tell him I was sorry that I had to be sorry for the things I felt but couldn’t control.
I wanted to tell him I loved him, and that I was sorry for that too.
Before I got the chance, my phone started to ring.
There were too many unspoken words between us and he knew it.
“I’m moving,” he told me.
“I’m going to live with my cousin down south.”
He sighed. “I need to go somewhere where no one knows my name. I need to start over.”
I tried to ignore the ripping in my chest and angrily shut my eyes.
I wanted to tell him it wouldn’t work and that he’d be too scared to throw himself into a fresh start. I wanted to tell him that I knew him, and, because of that, I knew that things would be no different there than they were here.
It would have been ruthless, so I kept my mouth closed.
With that I unintentionally began to let him go.
“When?” I managed to stutter.
“Okay,” I whispered.
I could hear him breathing on the other line. He was already so far away.
My body had begun to shake as countless emotions rocked their way through me. I didn’t want him to know the torment I was in because it would only make things worse.
Which was a farce if there ever was one because he knew exactly what I was feeling. He felt everything I felt. Just by the sound of my voice he was connected to every tear, every hitched breath, and every tremble that chilled my bones.
“I love you,” he told me.
I believed it, because I felt him too.
I thought of our roads. While we never seemed to take the same route, we were always on the same map.
“Say something,” he begged.
“Remember our first date?” I asked, “How I was so overcome with social anxiety that I couldn’t get out of my car to go and meet you?”
“So I texted you and told you it was a bad idea, and that we should both go home.”
“I told you no.”
“You found my car and sat with me in the parking lot,” I said, “We were there for five hours.”
“We just talked.”
He took a deep breath. “It’s time to get out of the car.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“Maybe you should try to forget me,” I mumbled.
The sudden heart palpitation told me he nodded.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You should start over too,” he suggested.
I sat in silence for a hair short of eternity, trying to catch my breath just to set it free.
My fingertips were numb and I fixated on how odd that was. How strange it was for feeling to temporarily vacate a particular area. Then, as suddenly as black stains white, I understood. All my senses had collected in my core, coming together so they were at their strongest.
And before I could brace myself, they exploded.
It was one of the more painful things I had ever experienced.
“Empathy,” I pleaded.
“But I won’t.”
With that our roads diverged onto separate planes, unable to run side by side.
Perhaps I knew all along that our demons would never be able to coexist. But that didn’t mean I didn’t secretly wish we’d find the courage to ditch them and run away together.
I was at an intersection with conflicting stop signs. No road would let me wander over its pavement.
At times like this I would usually follow the sound of his footsteps, knowing that wherever his road was that he was taking the same strides; hitting the ground just as hard.
I knew, despite everything, that our roads would eventually lead back to each other.
This time was different.
He had gotten out of the car.
This was uncharted territory without established roads.
“I love you,” he said one last time.
“I love you too,” I told him, then let my phone fall to the mattress.
I know I was supposed to feel sad, but all I could feel was the panic surging through my veins. What now?
Who do I call when I can’t see past the curtains over my eyes? How do I go to sleep on the first night of every night without him? Who will collect my bad dreams and hide them from me? Who will hide his?
I laid back down, extending my limbs like a starfish. I let the world rest itself on my body, slowly taking all the air from my lungs.
It pressed its weight against me until I could swear I heard my ribs start to crack. I wanted to turn to rubble; to a fine dust carried off by the wind.
It was then it dawned on me that I didn’t know how to grow.
I had only learned how to shrink comfortably in a shadow that kept me safe.
He was my shadow as I was his.
Why was it he who first took the initiative to break away? After all the time I spent telling myself I was brave in the quiet of my own corner? If a tree falls in the forest when no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Have I ever made a sound?
If bravery is not bravery when silent, then I’d better warm up my vocal chords, because this was it. This was the test of all tests: stand up and be my own person, or sit around and wait for a new shadow for which to sacrifice my light.
It’s the chemicals talking, we’d always say.
Now it was my turn to talk. If my audience couldn’t find me then I’d have to find them.
I got out of bed and stretched my heels. Somewhere was a road to be traveled, deep within a forest where I would find my sound.
Even if my ears were the only ones to hear it, it’d be enough.
I was enough.
I am enough.