It’s evening, and I can smell the rain in the air. My jacket was left in the car, as I didn’t expect that I would be here long. I see that there is a light on in the kitchen. The sounds of the neighborhood remind me of everything I have run away from. It’s quiet, and even in winter you can hear the bugs, the buzzing of electrical lights, and the breeze feels cloying, thick with the pollen of many kinds of trees. Because that’s where I am right now, Sacramento, the city of trees, according to the painted words on the water tower that welcomes you into town.
If I think about it, I can call Seattle back into my mind. I can smell the salt on the air, and feel the crispness of the breeze off the sound. I can feel the damp and smell the evergreens. I can see my turquoise house up my gravel driveway and the way everything looks grey. I can hear the traffic, smell downtown and the way cream cheese melts on caramelized onions and hot dogs. I can see the crowds of aggressively stylish kids crowding together outside for a cigarette before last call where they will drink their beer standing amongst bar stools and say things that don’t matter to anyone but them. I can summon that world to mind with ease, and it’s now that I do it, if only to remind myself that my time here in Sacramento, smug city of trees, isn’t permanent.
But here I am, and on the other side of this door is him. The boy that broke my heart many times before he broke me, someone so like razor wire I ran all the way to Seattle to forget him. And I am in this city that I have left behind so casually, on a Saturday morning, where little has changed other than the fact that I’m not in it. So, in fact, everything has changed. I am here, and our daughter is here, and this boy is here on the other side of the door that suddenly looms large in front of me. Kyle. How many times have I held his name so selfishly in my mouth? Both endlessly fascinated and bitterly angry? His name so sacred to me, I have said it as a curse and a prayer. I have whispered it in my sleep and between tears. Kyle. The stranger on the other side of the door, and yet I’d know him anywhere. My soul is always reaching for his from 700 miles away, despite my repeated efforts to soothe it to sleep. My soul would reach for him when I was a mile down the street, 10 miles down the freeway. No matter the distance, there has always been a piece of me that is only quiet when he is near me.
And he is near now, on the other side of both architecture and our lives that lie between us. It’s a door, Kelly, just a door. For a few moments, I stand before it, knowing that whatever interaction lay after he opens it will be so disappointing. Because we will be oddly polite to each other, he will avoid looking at me, and I will pretend to not be looking at him. But I am always looking at him. I suspect that he keeps his eyes averted because of the pain associated with looking at me, but I’m always inclined to suspect too much. I have spent so many years loving the Kyle that I suspected was there and loathing the many facets Kyle has revealed to me. Do we ever fall in love with the person who is real when we are young?
I am postponing the moment we inevitably speak, because there is always something I need to say, something I need him to say, but this never happens because he is trying as hard as he can to pretend that I am not real, and he even convinces me that this is true. So I am standing on his stoop, hating the city he lives in, and summoning my happy place in the Pacific Northwest to mind. When I am there, he is not real to me the same way I am not real to him when I am around. He didn’t want to see me before I left, but I made him, had him drop off our daughter at my mother’s house where he couldn’t so easily run. Where the long periods of silence wouldn’t allow him to simply close a door and be back in his Kelly-free life and home. I wrapped my arms around him and hoped so hard to feel something back from him, the way I always am, and he was holding me as if I had something contagious and he didn’t want to catch. His body was softer than I remembered, his muscles more slack, but his green eyes were very much the same as he wore that famous Kyle smirk of indifference. How many times has he looked at me this way? Usually when my pain is evident, and I can now recognize that my emotions were the worst thing I could show in his eyes. In Kyle’s world, you would die before you let anyone see how much they meant to you.
In my head, Seattle was my place. A place that Kyle and I had visited together a long time ago. But that Seattle wasn’t the Seattle I now lived in. I was native to the city now, and knew my way across complicated freeways, what bars had the best drinks, and I never had an umbrella, just as all the locals. Seattle meant Sam, my job where I made more money that I ever have in my life, and that comforting world of being a stranger to most people who met me, and how none of them knew Kyle or knew who I was when I belonged to him. That world a million light years away from this muggy stoop in the town that had become the bane of my existence until I left it, I missed it the way people miss a lover. Seattle is my sanctuary. This door a symbol of the life that he edged me out of and I ran away from.
I knock, and it takes him a few minutes to answer the door. On the other side of the door is a wall, and I can’t help but feel that he chose this house with my presence on the doorstep in mind. This way he can open the door and I cannot see inside. He has told me before that he wants to keep me as far away from his life and the things in it as he can. He has no fond memories of me the way I have come to romanticize him as my first love. But here I am, waiting again at the door and our daughter is elsewhere. I am wondering what I am doing here. But I am prepared for this to go in our usual unsatisfying way. I am wanting, and he is avoiding. I am staring, and he is looking away from me. This has become the ballet of our interactions. My mind is filled with the memories of us together, and his is filled with a fear that comes from something I never really understood.
He opens the door, and there he is before me. Kyle. The Kyle. My Kyle. And My Kyle No Longer. He is all of these people, and I am standing in front of him. I am searching for a connection, some common thread among these boys who in their own way have hurt me, and I am not able to tie any of them to this person in front of me. In my head, this has gone so many ways.
In the most common one, he will smile at me awkwardly and warmly as he welcomes me into his house. I have never seen in before so I will wrap my arms around myself as he welcomes me in. I will walk past him and feel my arm brush against his sweater. He will let his hand hover somewhere in the air around my back, but I will feel it all the same. He will usher me to his couch and make a gesture.
“Sit,” he will say, with that Kyle trying to be friendly smile. “Have a seat.” Maybe there will be child paraphernalia on the couch that he will have to move out of the way for me, after all, we do have her together. Maybe he will simply gesture, and I will take off my sweater and lay it across the back of the couch that used to belong to us equally but he has decided is his.
He will sit beside me, but facing me. I will nervously touch my hair, and look up at him quizzically. I will automatically angle my body toward him, because I have never been able to not adjust my position according to him. We do it even when we are not speaking; we used to do it in our sleep. Whenever he would shift in his sleep, I would peel myself away from him long enough for him to settle, and then I would curl myself around him. If it was me that moved, he would curl around me, and I would adjust to compensate for his weight.
“Kelly,” he will say my name and really look at me for the first time. “I’m glad you’re here.” I want to tell you that he’d say I look great, although that doesn’t seem like Kyle or necessarily what I want to hear. I think him expressing how he feels about me being there would be exactly what I would want to hear, because he knows that I am always uncomfortable with the level at which he explains, or rather, doesn’t explain, how he feels about me and my whereabouts. I am always waiting for a queue from him.
“Thanks,” I will say. I will look down and smile and then I will allow myself eye contact. I will be thin, and fabulous, and probably wearing something very Seattle hipster and chic. He will notice that I look different, and he will suddenly be hit with the knowledge that I have this entire other life. He will see me and realize that the entire time he was building a world that didn’t include me, I was out there building a world without him in it.
“Why did you ask me to come over Kyle?” I will ask him.
“I wanted to talk to you,” he will answer. “I know you’ve always wanted to have a real conversation before we really did get divorced, and I wanted to invite you over to have that conversation.” He will not be looking at me expectantly. In my fantasy, Kyle will look like someone who has something to say. In this scenario, I will be the quiet one instead of the one who always feels the need to break the silence. I will sit quietly.
“I did, but I sort of gave up on that a long time ago,” I will say. Lies, this is still a lie. I have fantasized about this or something like this ever since he made me the promise to deliver it when we were early in our separation.
“I’m sure,” he will say. He knows me too well. “Well, either way, I wanted us to sit down and try to be sort of pleasant to each other. I’m not angry anymore, and I hope that you aren’t.”
“No, I stopped being angry a long time ago.” I will settle into the couch, figuring that this conversation will take some time. I will cross my ankles and curl my knees up beneath me. I will flip my hair in the way that all those girls in movies do, and I will look up at him with a smile. In that moment, he will see the girl that used to stay up all night talking with him. The girl that had that high-pitched giggle that comes out when something is really funny, the girl that he knows. It will melt his previously chilly reactions at the memories that we have together.
“I know that you think I’m callous and uncaring,” he will say to me. “But I’m not really that guy, you know that. I just felt that I had to act that way. Its sort of hard, you know what I mean?”
“Not really, Kyle. And I’m not sure at all that I can say that I know what kind of guy you are,” I will say with a charming smile to take the sting from the words. “It’s been almost two years. I’m not sure who you are anymore.”
“I think that you’ll always know me, Kel,” he will say. His nickname for me. He will say Kel, and there will be that softness that comes into his face that used to only come when he was looking at me. “We were together almost ten years.”
“That’s true,” I’ll say, because on some level I am sure about that. I have seen him at his worst and his best, that leaves you with a distinct impression of someone that no one, not even that person, can allow you to change. We have known each other a long time; we have been the source of both joy and pain in each other’s lives. We are the alpha and omega of our own suffering and success.
In this moment he will reach across the distance between us and grab my hand. I will curve my palm towards him in the way I always have when he was reaching for me after an argument. This is something he does when what he wants is eye contact. I will give him this. I will look up and meet his gaze with something in between caution and pain, hope and desire. He will be smiling.
“I really think I owe you an apology,” he will say. He will say this with sincerity. I will make me look confused and this will cause him to laugh. He will drop my hands and scoot closer to me on the couch. “No, really. I really feel the need to apologize.”
“For what?” I will ask. Not because I think that he is blameless and shouldn’t apologize, but because there are so many things to apologize for that I am confused as to what exactly he is sorry for.
“For everything,” he will say, but he will know that I am never satisfied with vague explanations. He will know that I require so much knowledge that it would almost be easier to just let me inside of his head for a few moments. I will request so many words and ways of explanation that he will not know what to say after awhile. As I am writing this, I am beginning to see how difficult it was for him to be with me.
“Can you be a bit more specific?” I will ask, wrinkling my brow and inflecting my voice in what I hope is a friendly way.
“I’m so sorry I hurt you as much as I did,” he will say. And in this, I will not allow a million questions to fly from my mouth. I will bite my teeth against them and nod, allowing him to go on. “I know how much you loved me, how hard you tried. Everyone knew that. I knew it too. And I acted like an asshole 90% of the time.”
I will not ask why aloud, but my face will say it so clearly that he will continue.
“I don’t know why I did it really, it’s just that I felt that I couldn’t do it anymore. And I couldn’t find a way to tell you about it. You loved me, you always loved me, and I loved you too, but I didn’t know how to be someone who deserved for you to love me so much. Please don’t think that I’m placing this on you, I’m not. This is my fault.”
At this point he will lean slightly away from me so he can throw up his hands and run them through his hair. This isn’t something I have seen him do, but he will do it in this moment. Not because he is mad at me, but because he is trying to say something that he doesn’t know how to say.
“I’m sorry, Kel. I’m so fucking sorry. You weren’t as horrible as I treated you, you never deserved that. You deserved for me to be honest with you, and I couldn’t. I remember thinking, you know, ‘oh well. She’ll get over it.’ And you know what? You did, but you left me in the process. And part of me fucking saluted you over that. ‘get out,’ I thought. You deserve to get out while you still could.”
He will get up and pace as he is speaking. I will stay seated and watch him.
“And you thought that’s why I left Ky?” I’ll ask. If we are using nicknames then I will use the one I have for him. “You think I left because you’re an asshole? You’ve always been an asshole, and I always stayed because I LOVED you. You could have been an asshole for the rest of our lives and I still would have loved you. I didn’t love the person I needed you to be, although that would have been nice. And I didn’t love the person you pretended to be to placate me although that would have been nice too. I loved YOU, I loved you when you were gentlemen, I loved you when you were an asshole, I loved you when you were apologizing, and when you were lying to me. I loved you through all of that, Ky.”
He will stop pacing and look at me. He will rush over toward the couch to sit beside me and grab my hand, but I will scoot away, out of his reach the way emotionally he has always been out of mine. I will be fighting tears, because I am always fighting tears when I talk about my feelings for Kyle. It’s as if the words cannot come out fast enough and my entire body cannot handle the emotion so the tears come out explosively and with anger, a forceful release of everything I am holding on to.
“I know that Kel, I know,” he will say soothingly. Because too much emotion out of me has way of bringing out the emotion in him. And his emotions are something he works so hard to conceal. But this time he will welcome the release, he will be ready to say it all, even if it hurts me, because he will know that I can handle the pain, I can handle whatever it is he throws at me, because in my leaving he has seen the proof of my strength. “But you deserved better. I should have been able to be better. But you were never satisfied, I thought. Now I can see what it really was.”
“And what was it really Kyle?”
“You were just begging me, begging me to be honest about what I wanted. I was trying to tell you, I was trying to tell you how much I wanted you and how much I wanted us to have a normal life together, but when ever you pointed out the way for that, I couldn’t see how I could follow the steps. I know now that you were just trying to show me how to get what I wanted, but the climb seemed impossible. I remember you sitting on the edge of the bed, silent, and your silence scared me because I couldn’t see it Kel.”
“Couldn’t see what?”
“Couldn’t see how the person I am was going to become the person you wanted me to be.”
“I could have taken you there. You could have done it.”
“I couldn’t have done it without you, and that fucking terrified me. I couldn’t be the person that I wanted to be without you. And I always knew you were right. I knew that you knew. I knew that there was no me without you, and I resented the hell out of that.”
“You resented me.” This isn’t a question. I am stating this.
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Imagine this from my point of view for a moment. My whole adult life, you were there. You were there, and I was letting you down. If there’s one thing I was always good at, it was being the constant disappointment in your life. Because you always knew, you always knew what I was, what I could be, what I never could be. You were waiting on me, sitting on the edge of our bed, crying while I pretended to be asleep.”
This is painful, this is unbearable, but I keep silent and wait for him to continue. Because I have waited for so many hours for exactly this, for him to lose it enough to be honest. For the walls to crash down and for the real him to be revealed for even a moment. Because I have been chasing this from the moment I met him. Break me, Kyle. Say everything you ever withheld because that was the only way you wouldn’t hurt me. You hurt me every other way. Let this be the last and final time I hurt over you.
“What did you expect me to do Kyle?”
“I expected you to stay. Because you always stayed. I figured that we’d somehow make our way out of misery because you always found small ways to make everything work. I couldn’t see how, in that moment, but I knew that you could. And I needed you to, I was so unhappy, so confused by my own misery when you were everything I knew and the only way I knew how to live.” He looks exhausted, older. It suddenly dawns on me how old he is. He and I are working our way toward 30 with each passing day, and I can see how the past two years have worked on him. I look exactly the same, but feel so different. He looks older, but underneath it all I think he is exactly the same.
“But you asked me to leave,” I say. Suddenly I am tired, I don’t want to be having this conversation. It suddenly dawns on me that there was a good reason for him to avoid having this conversation at all costs. I may get the answers I crave, but to what avail? This isn’t going to change anything. He’s not suddenly going to reveal how much he loves me and how much he misses me. He’s not going to try to win me back, or suddenly become my best friend. Why exactly have I wanted this so much?
“I left, Kyle, because you asked me to leave. You told me that you had to get away from me; that the only thing that kept you going was the hope that I would die first so you could finally get away from me. You wanted me gone,” and with this message, I finally realize that this conversation has little to do with what I’m hoping he will say to me. I don’t really want to have this argument again, but on some level it has been very important to me that I say this to him.
In the early days of our separation, I wrote him letters. I think there were more than 10 of them, I’m not sure. I don’t even recall exactly what was in those letters, probably just random memories of the two of us, and my side of arguments that really don’t matter anymore. I do remember that the last one I wrote was a heartbreaking letter of goodbye, and how I would love him for the rest of my life, regardless of what happened, and how if he ever needed me, I would do my damnedest to be there for him. I know for a fact that he kept these letters, but I also know that he never read them. This seemed the cruelest way for Kyle to deal with my emotions, but also not at all surprising. He didn’t mind knowing that they were there, but he also couldn’t find it in himself to deal with them. Easier to just lock them away and wait until he felt like throwing them away. In my head, he kept them because he knew that they contained the random ramblings of someone who loved him more than anything, and he drew some sense of comfort from knowing that someone once loved him so much, loved him enough to sacrifice her entire life to making him happy, both by being there for him for ten years, and then leaving when he asked her to.
So this has become important that I see that he knows this. I know that this won’t change anything; I know that, I knew that in the beginning, but it will make a huge difference for me to tell him this and for him to know it.
“Kel,” he begins. He isn’t looking at me. He is looking at the television that isn’t on, at the wii we bought together, here on the couch that was given to the both of us. So much of his life is holding on to pieces of me, while he ignores anything that which might make him really regret the way it ended. In this moment I will realize that he does miss me. He really does. He has kept the photos, not out of indifference, but because he cannot let go of them. It’s the same with the letters; he keeps them because he cannot bear to throw them away, the same way he cannot bear to read them. So much of Kyle’s veneer of happiness depends on staying in this unending limbo. It isn’t that he has put off divorcing me for 2 years without making a move to file because he is broke, but because he cannot bear to sever something he can’t even think about. So he stays married to me, but not around me, with my photos and letters hidden in a box he can’t look at, with my pictures on his Facebook that he never signs on to.
I stop him by looking at him, and for once he doesn’t try to ignore my stare. I am seeing him in this way, and he can feel it.
“You asked me to leave you, so I left you. I didn’t abandon you; I left because I couldn’t make you happy. Underneath the asshole exterior I always thought you had some sort of grudging respect for me, being the person you could always run to, the person who would never let you sleep on the street, someone who would give you everything you ever asked for in the hope that someday you would turn to me and finally see me. But you asked me to leave, so I left. You told me I trapped you, that you didn’t want to marry me, and only did so because the invitations were sent out. But I know that isn’t true, you begged me. I can see now that you did that because you were afraid you’d lose me, and our relationship was always about how much effort you had to put into it to make me stay. What’s really sad, Ky is that you never really had to put in much. You never had to try because I would try for the both of us. So when you told me that you didn’t want me anymore, I left. If the person you love asks for your absence, how could you not give it to them? How could I deny you something I knew I could give to you?”
He is looking at me strangely, his lips pursed. He isn’t wearing that smirk of indifference that he has so carefully sculpted from years of practice because he is suddenly forced to deal with something I know he has suspected for a long time, but never wanted to face. He is seeing that he has made this decision, and it isn’t something he can blame me for. In this moment, I do not have to tell him how hard I cried, because he knows that. I do not have to tell him that I thought I would die because I missed him so much, or how broken I was for such a long time that I never thought I would recover, because he will know. I won’t tell him how sometimes I wake up after dreaming about him and the heartache is fresh for a few hours, or how I have lamented about whether I should have done the whole thing differently and if there was any possible way I could have kept him and made him happy. The stories and words of my letters and tears will be etched on my face and forever carved into his memory in that moment.
He will reach toward me as the tears spill over and gently brush the tear from my cheek. This isn’t something Kyle would do in real life, and something so like what Sam would do I will look up at him startled. In this moment, his eyes will be so close to mine, that I cannot see his smile; but I will know that he is smiling because I can see it in his eyes. He will be thinking about me, about all of my pain, but because of his simple and sweet gesture, I will be thinking about Sam. His smile is gentle, but I know that he is still simply keeping true to form by smiling at my tears. My worst always brought out the best in him. It’s so easy to play the role of the wounded when you never have to tell the truth.
I want to tell you that he will kiss me, but I know that’s not what I want him to do. That would be easy, because it’s the only way Kyle has ever really understood how to placate me, but I’m not looking to be comforted now; I am on the edge of an abyss and I am ready to jump.
“Don’t kiss me Kyle,” I say in almost a whisper. “You still don’t want me.”
“Of course I want you,” he will say, exasperated. “That has been the constant in my life, only drowned out by the constant needing to get away from you. I will always want you. I will always love you.” And with his tears, I will finally get the answers that I have always wanted.
“When will you believe me, Kel?” He will look at me, crying, finally robbed of his walls.
Now. I will believe it now. Now that he loves me but knows that he cannot have me. Now that he has made the ultimate sacrifice in letting me go. During a tear filled and passionate moment when we first separated, he tried to kiss me. I pushed him from me. I was upset, he was confused. This was how he used to calm me, how he could force that connection between us that has been severed by the knives of his words.
“If you ever cared about me at all,” I began, “Don’t try to come back.”
“I won’t,” he promised me, but I could see something die in his eyes.
“Promise me,” I had asked, I had demanded.
“I promise,” he said.
“Kyle,” I said to him, not convinced.
“I promise, Kel.”
It is this conversation that drifts back to me now as I am looking at him, his eyes filled with tears, his frustration and get-back demeanor broken. He has promised me, and he has kept that promise. Have I been waiting for him to break it? Was it a single promise that he has attempted to keep?
Without his saying anything I will know that this is true. He has stayed away because he has known the damage he has done to me. He has stepped away because, like me, he knew that I would only fly when he uncaged me. I have left because I loved him so much, and he has stayed away because of how much he loved me.
My reverie is shattered because Kyle is looking at expectantly, and I am still standing there on his stoop.
“I’m sorry, what?” I ask. I am still shaking the daydream from my head, and he is standing in front of me with a manila envelope in his hand.
“I wanted to talk to you,” he says, sheepishly. I am suddenly aware by the way he is glancing in the living room to his right that he isn’t alone. I make movements to come inside, but he stands in front of me, blocking my entrance as he looks nervously to who ever is in his house that isn’t me.
“So, talk,” I say.
“Um….,” he is hesitant.
“Just say it, Kyle.” There will be no nicknames now. No tender caresses, no truths to comfort me, just him in his basketball shorts and the audience that I cannot see.
“Margaret is pregnant,” he says. I can see the happiness flush his cheeks. Oh, it’s his girlfriend in the house. I pretend that this isn’t a blow. I smile awkwardly, and wrap my arms around myself in an attempt to keep from shattering.
“Congratulations,” I say awkwardly. All I can think is how this time he will not walk away from her, but will be at every doctor’s appointment. He will see the ultrasound and be profoundly moved, not like the way I saw Riley for the first time in a hospital 3,000 miles away and he wouldn’t even answer my phone call.
“Yeah, it’s great news,” he says. “We are going to tell Riley tonight.”
“I’m sure she’ll be excited,” I am trying to sound cheerful and pretending that I am not here right now.
“So, I didn’t want to do this in front of Riley,” he says, holding the manila envelope toward me. I am suddenly aware of our audience, aware that she is on the other side of him so that he can see the both of us, but we cannot see each other. He is looking at his past, and his future. He is seeing the way to correct all of the ways he has wronged me, and I am standing alone on his stoop.
I grasp the envelope before my mind puts it all together.
“I filed for divorce,” he says.
“Oh,” I say glancing at the envelope that contains the dissolution of our marriage. “Good.”
I can’t breathe. I am too far away from Puget Sound and everything that is my safe haven. I am in Sacramento and he is having a baby with someone who will see the best sides of him, the sides that he has chosen to conceal from me.
“Ok then,” he says smiling at me, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Ok,” I say. “Bye.”
I walk to my car in a cloud. I will drive as far away as I can tonight. I will spend the evening counting the miles in between us as he tells our daughter the happiest news of his life. I will fall into Sam’s arms and I will not explain myself as I cry myself to sleep. But it won’t matter, none of it will matter. Because I am a million miles away and he cannot touch me here.
I arrive at home and see that Sam is up with the kitchen light on. The sound of the waves crashing against the rocky beach of the sound and the smell of evergreens welcomes me home. I am far away from Sacramento now, and the gravel of my driveway, the grey closeness of the sky, and Sam will envelop me as I fall asleep saying goodbye to this life and wait to wake up to a new one.