His name was Craig, though he told me I could call him CC. I met him in a honky tonk - Robert's Western World I think - in Nashville, the same city where I met T almost six years ago. I was with a couple of friends and I went to the bar to get a refill. I was drinking Red Bull and vodka, an insane beverage that if you're not careful can make you blackout drunk while you're still, more or less, walking and talking. I drink them when I'm exhausted but refuse to concede defeat. Or I did - before that night it had been years since I'd had one. I wasn't precisely intoxicated, but I was on my way. I was having fun. The joint was crowded, the band was good and I wasn't thinking about T. I wasn't sad, or fearful, or feeling guilty about something I couldn't quite name. I was feeling like the woman I once was - carefree, bold, even joyous - before pain came into my life and pulled up a chair, deciding to stay for a spell.
And then, drink in hand, I turned to head back to my table and there was CC. We looked at each other. And there was never any doubt what was going to happen. Because in that moment, quicksilver fast and white hot, like a lightning strike on a deserted beach, we recognized each other. It wasn't that we'd ever met before. I think that CC and I simply saw the same wild in each other that dwells within ourselves. That's the only way I can explain it. It's happened before to me, most recently in Ireland, the night I met Thomas. It's an attraction that goes beyond appearance, and maybe even chemistry. I think it's really more of an unconscious acknowledgement that you've just met one of your tribe.
CC was beautiful, though. I can't say that didn't matter. Only about my height, but packed with sinewy muscle that spoke less of time in the gym than long days of physical labor and intense dedication to play in the sun and fresh air. He had wispy silver hair, big fierce green eyes, a huge smile that revealed a mouthful of straight, white teeth and a laidback, laconic speaking style. He looked and sounded like the surfer he soon told me was. He'd lived in Hawaii, he said, for seven years, and skiied most of the big mountains in Colorado. I don't know if even five minutes passed before he kissed me.
When we returned to the table we found my friends gone. That was okay. CC and I spent the rest of the night making our way between honky tonks. I know Tooties was a stop, and maybe Legends, where my life had changed when T pulled me to my feet for a dance. T, who had broken my heart badly enough I feared it might never be made intact again. T, who I didn't stop to ponder once that whole long, sweet evening. Instead, CC and I kissed and laughed, buying each other drinks and telling tales about our lives. At 51 he was just a bit older than me - and he had my energy, too, like most of the rebels and madmen who have shared my bed over the years.
I took CC home with me that night, as I knew I would, and the next night, too. He was a skilled lover, ardent. We used our fingers and mouths to pleasure each other. His hands were roughened from carpentry and contracting work. His tongue, hot and seeking. It had been so long - going on four years - since I'd been with anyone but T. I was tense, a little shy, at least at first. But running my hands over CC's strong chest, pinning my mouth, tender from his kisses, to his hard abdomen, I felt something unmooring inside me. Perhaps it was the woman I once was, before T. She wasn't gone, I was discovering. She just been tucked up inside me, hidden away from criticism. From judgment. And now she was coming free.
When we'd finished, CC curled himself to me like we were two cats in a patch of sunlight. We slept like that, easefully.
We spent much of our second night talking. CC was a loner, living in a van he drove around the country anywhere he chose. A brawler, he had practiced Buddhism for years as a way to control his temper and still meditated every day. He smoked weed but seldom drank, was estranged from his family and had been in prison in his youth for dealing coke. He'd never married and was largely self-educated in the service of "freeing his mind." I was the first woman he'd been with in more than a year. He was kind to me, sharing himself freely, without hesitation. He told me of his youth growing up poor in Ohio with an alcoholic father. I told him my brother died of a heroin overdose.
Somewhere along the way, in between bouts of lovemaking, perhaps while we were talking, or maybe even sleeping, it came to me that I was more relaxed with this near-stranger than I think I ever truly felt with the man who I believed was the love of my life. With CC I could be utterly, completely myself.
When morning came, I suggested he pick up a copy of "On the Road." "You remind me of Dean Moriarty," I told him. Then, with a lingering kiss, he was out the door. He texted me later, asking again the name of the book I wanted him to read, but I haven't heard from him since. Maybe I'll call him on Christmas, maybe not. It's possible our paths may cross again, the way those of inveterate wanderers often do. Either way, he's nicked out a little space for himself in my heart. Not only for his fearless individualism and lively mind but for the part he played in healing me.
Because that's what happened in Nashville. I feel as if I've shed a cloak of iron. So free I might as well be floating. For the first time in months, maybe even years, I feel happy. I know the afterglow will dim, but I'm hoping it remains just bright enough to show me the way forward.
I should be asleep. It's nearly three in the morning and I leave for Nashville at six. But I'm a night person - my usual bedtime is 2 a.m. or later - and I'm completely amped, anyway. My brain is whirling and swirling like a carnival ride and if I had my own theme music right now it would be very loud calliope, like the kind you hear on a Merry-Go-Round, only sped up about a million times.
A little less than six years ago I met T in Nashville. It was during a press trip, exactly like the one I'm leaving for in a few hours. Until tonight I hadn't been thinking about what this might do to me emotionally, being in the place where we began, where we danced and drank and fucked, not for a moment suspecting that it would change our lives. Hell, I was halfway living with someone else when I met T. Had been for a long time, though we were a couple at that point only in theory. I never told T that. I'm no innocent. Haven't been for a long time.
But I started to get anxious tonight, and pretty soon I was wondering if this trip was going to put me right over the edge. I've been a mess for the past month. I'm not sure anyone knows exactly how close I've been to breaking down. I guess I don't really, either. I've been having bouts of real panic and despair, mostly late at night, when I'm alone. When I feel like I'm the last bit of flesh and bone left on the planet. Like only ghosts surround me anymore. The ghost of my brother. The ghosts of my parents, the way they used to be when they didn't hurt so bad in pretty much every way possible. The ghost of T, too.
Thing is, I'm starting to come around to the realization that T's abandonment - really, there's no other way to put it when someone who's pledged to spend the rest of his life with you leaves you with barely a word to care for your failing parents alone and disappears, never to be heard from again - so, yes, T's abandonment (and God, does that word make me feel like a loser) isn't the issue. Or, it's less of it than I believed. It's everything else: Gunnar's death, and my parents decline and my friends all leaving this town. Turning 50, too. The fear that I just might never really amount to much. That I'll never fall in love again.
I actually think I'm getting over him. Because I'm sick to death of missing him, and I wonder how much of it is me just torturing myself, anyway. Maybe I haven't completely let go because holding on feels so good in the very worst way. My self-esteem is lower than its ever been in my life. Do I think about him because I feel like I deserve to be punished? Or because I need to build the whole thing up in my mind to justify staying in a relationship that nearly erased me? Or simply because, for better or worse, I loved him more than I've ever loved anyone in my life?
I've been thinking about something a friend of mine recently wrote me. She was in an abusive relationship throughout her 20s; it took her most of her 30s to heal from it. "Remember, you are free," she wrote to me. "You have YOUR LIFE."
Tonight, as I was packing for Nashville, I started trying on clothes. They were things - dresses, pants - that I haven't been able to wear in years, because I gained so much weight when I was with T. (As much as it hurts and embarrasses me to say it, I have a feeling that's part of why he left. That and because it's no fun living with someone trying, and failing, to fight her way out of depression.) These clothes, almost all of them, they hang baggy on me now, enough so that I won't be able to wear them. I've got muscles where I never did before and more energy, even with the fear and sadness I fight every day, than I have...maybe ever. I've got the kind of energy that can climb mountains.
Which is exactly what I'm going to do. I haven't forgotten. I just haven't been mouthing off about it as much.
Because I have MY life. MINE. And not only can I climb mountains if I want to, I can go on a press trip and not feel guilty about it. not fret about making it back to the room in time for a phone call. And during that press trip - say this one to Nashville - I can wear short, short skirts and show off my long, long legs and go honky tonkin' in my damn cowboy boots. I can drink and dance with anyone I want to, or no one. I can wear some of the drawerfulls of lingerie I have for myself...or for someone I haven't yet met.
I can live.
Or. Or maybe it's all just bullshit and bravado - which I've been accused of more than once - and I'm simply settling in to my loss. Maybe this is it. What if there isn't more? What if this is who I am now? Someone more than a little broken?
Either way, look out Nashville. Here I come.
I'm grateful for my mom and dad. They're old and difficult and broken in a way that can't ever heal by my brother's death. We fight. I'm not nearly as patient as I should be with them. I want to do better, but I haven't. And it kills me to see their health degrade, to see them sick and in pain. But they love me unquestionably in their imperfect way, the way I love them unquestionably in my imperfect way. We do the best we can, the three of us. And for that I'm grateful.
I'm grateful for my brother. I'm grateful that he lived, if I regret every day the way he died. I still sense him here, can nearly hear his great, booming voice and feel the way he he would wrap me in a hug, putting his whole big body and sprawling soul into it. Every once in while I still miss him so much it doubles me over. But how very, very lucky I am that I was Gunnar Shroyer's sister. I'm so grateful for that.
I'm grateful for my friends. The ones who've come into my life after the end of my relationship with T, the ones I'd lost touch with have who re-entered it since and the ones who have been here forever, it seems, helping me navigate the crests and troughs of healing. This is one of the most difficult stretches of my life and it's because of you that I'm making it through. I hope you know how much I love you. For each of you I'm so very grateful.
I'm grateful for the wild. For the mountains and forests and streams. For the paths that cross them, where I've felt a peace I've found nowhere else. Those three days last month I spent hiking the Appalachian Trail were some of the best of my life. How is possible that at 50 I've discovered this lust for the wild, this strong, steady need to wander it, to explore it, to pull it close it around me, like a lover or a gown of silk? I think this love, like all great loves, will take me somewhere I couldn't imagine when I first started to fall.
I'm grateful for writing. It's hard. It hurts. But every once in a while, when I know that I've written something of beauty that might make someone feel not quite as alone as they did before they read it, I think there's a chance my life might just have meaning.
I'm grateful for every single fucked up man I ever lowered myself to let inside my heart and head, because you've shown me what I don't want ever again. I'm grateful to every single man I've hurt, because you deserved better, and you've shown me who I don't want to be. I'm grateful for the sound of a train coming slow on the tracks, for good vodka and fast cars with stick shifts, for the candles I've lit in the cathedrals around the world for my brother, for hot sunshine and cool sheets, for the scents of lemongrass and lavender, and patchouli, too.
I'm grateful for high heels, even though I shouldn't be, and great jazz, for the taste of dark chocolate speckled with sea salt, and the feel of champagne tickling my tongue. I'm grateful for sex, hot and fast or long and slow, and how my appreciation and need for it has only deepened with age. I'm grateful for the pleasure I'm discovering in working my body, in feeling it sweat and stretch, and that it's still healthy enough to do everything I ask of it.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I've still got a little bit of shine left in me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I still got a great love ahead of me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe life still holds the magic of sweet surprise.
I can't make this poetic. I can't make this beautiful. I probably can't even make this especially well-written. I'm so tired. It's a quarter after 11 on a Friday night. I've been crying pretty hard for a while now. The kind of crying that I can't really see through, that clogs my nose and makes my head hurt. The kind of crying that feels like it burns. Like the tears are so hot they scald the skin.
I guess I'm bottoming out. It's nowhere I haven't been but it's someplace I never wanted to return. It's been a long time since I felt this kind of isolation and pain - since back in the bad old days, back when anybody who knew me well probably wondered if I was going to make it. Would I see 25? Would I see 30? Would it be an overdose, a suicide, murdered by a lover? There was a time when I was a Class V tornado tearing through the lives of those around me, though I was as treacherous to myself as anyone else. Almost.
I haven't been that girl, wild and reckless, driven nearly mad by an emotional pain that I could never name, in a decade, almost two. I'm still moody, probably always will be. I have a terrible temper. An Irish temper, actually. I've been named a spitfire only recently, and once upon a time, back when we met in Nashville, T called me "a handful." It wasn't so very long ago that a man in a bar took one admiring, appraising look at me and dubbed me "dangerous." It didn't displease me, exactly, though it was in front of a lover who ended our relationship soon after. I intimidated him, he told me.
I've been told I glow and shine and pull people to me, almost like T pulled me to my feet and on to the dance floor without even asking that first night in Nashville. Those are good things. But like my brother, my poor lost brother, there is a price I pay for this bit of allure and it's the dark little speckle on my soul I carry, like a burn mark, maybe, or a cold spot. It's smaller than it's ever been. But it's still there and I'm feeling it more acutely than I have in years.
I think I know what's going on. I think I know why I'm struggling so much, have been, for a couple of weeks. It's the comedown I always get when I return after a long run of travel - and this time I was out on the road, with just a few days home here and there, for almost two months. It's the goddamn holidays, too, which I dread this year almost with the intensity I dreaded writing my brother's eulogy. It's wrapping up my 60 page book proposal, as well, and the postpartum crash that comes inevitably after the conclusion of a big project. And it's the election, of course. Because I'm afraid, really afraid, of what's already happening to this country.
I'm not easily frightened, at least not of men in dark alleys and low-lit parking lots. I've always walked where I wanted, when I wanted. I'm 5'9", I'm strong, and I move with assurance. It's protected me so far - or perhaps it's just been thanks to the same kind of fortune that safeguards drunks and small children - but I'm wondering if that blissful carelessness must now end. A friend of mine, a lover off and on through the years, messaged me the other night, concerned for my safety in the light of recent attacks on women. He was conflicted, but in the end advised me to get a gun and learn how to use it.
But it's not really the possibility of physical violence that scares me. It's the vulnerability of my parents and me. We are so alone. I'm 50 years old, now partner-less, and doing my best to take care for them without any help at all, while working very long hours as an independent journalist. I make little money doing this, though I'm good at it. I am starting to see a little daylight; I've been getting better paying assignments and more of them. I hope to be making a decent living eventually from journalism, but in the meantime I supplement my income by working part-time seasonally in Penn State's Office of Admissions.
My parents have outlived most of their savings, which was gutted by the market crash after 9/11. My dad has an unhealed fracture of his C1 and C2 vertebrae. My mother has COPD and is in severe pain from back issues; the two conditions have nearly rendered her bedridden. I take medication for various ailments, including diabetes, although I'm working hard to get in shape with the hope I can greatly alleviate these conditions. I see a therapist weekly. I believe if it weren't for her I might have been hospitalized. It's been a horrific few years.
If it weren't for Medicare and Medicaid my parents and I wouldn't have health care. If it weren't for Social Security we might not have a place to live. I wonder, if the new administration has its way, how we're going to survive.
And in the midst of all of this, two weeks ago, my therapist left the practice I use, one of the few that takes my insurance. She wasn't happy there, and told me during our last session that she had only stayed as long as she did so she could continue to counsel me. Laura understood me, saw me clearly and without judgment in a way few people ever have. I told her everything. Everything. I would walk into her office, terrified and sobbing, and she'd had me a tissue, patch up my psyche and send me on my way. Me thinking I just might be able to make until the next appointment.
The last time I saw her she told that I give her faith in humanity. She actually said that. Faith in humanity. How do you respond to something like that? I just thanked her. Told her she might have saved my life.
My new therapist is different. She wants me to fill out some kind of worksheet. Say affirming things to myself in the mirror. Write a goodbye letter to T, for God's sake. She says I'm in denial about the end of our relationship. I have trouble with that. The last thing in the world I want to be is some sad woman pining for a man who doesn't deserve her. It is possible to be in denial when I know that my life will be far, far better without him? I know we could never be together again. I don't know that I even still love him. I'm...processing.
It would be so much goddamn easier to process if I could just be in another relationship. Although, I suppose the processing would stop, and that's the problem, isn't it? I hate being alone. I'm as terrible at it as I am terrified by it. I love love. And sex. And romance. I've been married once, engaged three times, and lived with I don't know how many men. But I'm trying to change my life, to heal that dark little speckle inside of me. And as Laura once said to me, "If you want a different result, why don't you try to do things differently?"
And so that's what I'm doing, but the result is nights like this. Nights when I want to give up, but somehow manage to hold on, believing in the morning I'll feel just a little bit better.
I'm unlovable, aren't I? That's what I've hearing in my head since T left. To be more specific, I am a crazy nightmare bitch. Unstable. And, it follows, unlovable. I'm too much, was certainly too much for him. I'm too emotional, too needy, too loud, too demanding. I get too angry. Too often. I wear dresses that are too short, or dresses that are too low-cut. I stay up too late. I wake up too late. I'm too disorganized, too self-centered, too flirty. I'm too much.
That's why T left, right? After all, he told me not infrequently I was too much in various ways, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not. And I believed him - still do, actually. Because a long time ago, several lifetimes away from the one in which I currently feel imprisoned, I was diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. Maybe a bit of manic-depression thrown in for good measure.
BPD, currently all the rage with the mental health community as the personality disorder du jour, is basically crazy nightmare bitch syndrome. It affects mostly women and hits in early adulthood. It's diagnostic criteria include fear of abandonment, impulsive behavior, unstable and intense relationships and mood swings. About 10 percent of people diagnosed with it commit suicide. If you make it to middle age, you're in luck. The crazy usually burns itself out by then. Your life smooths out, the emotional pain - that nearly constant companion that's hitched a ride on your back, happily digging it's needle claws into your heart - finally abets.
Up until that point it's a fairly hellish ride. I half-heartedly tried to kill myself a few times. Left my husband, who loved me more than anyone might ever again, for a drug addict. Sabotaged success every time I got close to it. Was hospitalized for 10 days on a lockdown ward. And through it all I experienced bright, shiny highs akin to the feeling I expect to earn standing on my summits next year. They alternated with a distress so deep that on those days when I bottomed out I wistfully wished for death the way a child yearns for ice cream on a sultry summer day.
And then, about in my mid-30s, all that angst and upheaval, all that chaos and suffering, the feeling that at my core was nothing but an icy, yawning hole, all that shit just started to dissipate. I stopped using drugs and began writing. I got into a long-term relationship. It wasn't really love, and D had plenty of issues himself, but he brought an odd security to my life. Under my doctor's guidance I went off all the psych meds I'd been taking. There were a lot, including an anti-psychotic, and the doses were heavy. I began to travel, sublimating my need for excitement into a socially acceptable activity that I figured probably wouldn't kill me. I found stability. I found peace. For years, five, six, even more, I was happy.
And then I met T, a man who hadn't lived with a woman in some three decades. A man who never saw his family, who had no friends - who had largely cut himself off from the rest of humanity. We collided with the impact of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. He broke up with me three times in two years, always with the same reason: We were too different. We'd been apart for about six months and I'd more or less moved to Ireland when we ran into each other at a conference. We slept together. It made me realize I didn't want him anymore. It made him realize he still wanted me. By the time I returned to Ireland a few days later he'd gone mad. He called and called and called until I finally picked up.
He told me, "You are the most remarkable woman I've ever met."
Exasperated, I asked him, flatly, "Do you love me?"
"Yes, Jill. Yes, I love you," he'd answered, saying those words for the first time. He told me it over and over again in the following weeks, describing the life we would make together, as he wooed me from across the Atlantic. He was as desperate as I've ever heard a human being in my life. I succumbed.
I left Ireland a few weeks earlier than I'd planned so I could spend a fortnight with him before I went on to Peru, on a trip with some friends I'd already scheduled. We made love endlessly, whispering to each as we lay entwined when our bodies were too spent to move. After I came home from South America, without another thought, I moved in with him. We loved each other. Despite the ending, the callousness, coldness, of how T left, we loved each other. It was never easy, it was always a roller coaster, but we loved each other. And yet, he judged me. He found me wanting. Or rather, he found me too much.
When I wanted intimacy, to punch through that big barrier he'd built around himself, I was too needy. When I wanted to travel, to take the press trips I worked so hard to be offered, I was too selfish. When I wanted to walk at night in Knoxville for exercise, I was too reckless. When I asked him to visit a couples counselor with me, so we could fix the communication problems that threatened to destroy our relationship, I was too demanding. When I lost patience with his ingrained, unacknowledged sexism, with a statement like "I let you walk at night" - he actually said that to me - I was too angry.
I was too angry, actually. I was angry at something I struggled to name. At the idea that when I behaved, when I acted in a way T approved of, I would be rewarded with intimacy, with good humor, with affection. I told him once, "I feel like I'm your puppy dog and when I'm good you toss me a biscuit." He shrugged off the comment.
Or maybe that anger was just the dregs of my illness, the last little residue, still more than enough to kill a relationship that both participants swore would last a lifetime.
So, he's gone. I tell myself over and over again that I'm not toxic, that I didn't push away the great love of my life with my instability. That I'm not unlovable. But after telling me he was ending it - a brief conversation in which he was breathtakingly indifferent - T departed without saying goodbye to me, without so much as a farewell note. Without even leaving a forwarding address. I have a stack of mail sitting beside me and nowhere to send it. I haven't heard from him since the day before he rolled a moving truck from my parent's driveway and headed back down south.
This is the man who held me, staring into my eyes, keeping me upright, when my father called to tell me my brother died. This is the man who got up in middle of the night to help my father to the bathroom when his fractured neck was healing. This is the man who promised me he knew how to love, when I'd told him over the phone, back in Ireland, that he didn't. I know this man, despite all his spiky armor, better than anyone in the world knows him. I know his faults, the ones he can't bear to look at himself, and I have always, for five goddamn years, loved him despite them.
This is the man who didn't even give me his forwarding address.
It is very, very hard to not believe in my lowest moments, and maybe even in my best, too, that I am not unlovable.
But I'm trying.
Since T left I hurt sometimes. More profoundly and deeply and hopelessly than I ever have in my life. When this hurt comes on, sidling slowly up to me, whispering slyly at first and then shouting and finally screaming, it’s from someplace I can’t name. Some primal place, where everything I am and all I will be lives. I think of my brother, whose death this anguish encompasses but is not limited to, and I wonder if he is waiting somewhere for me. I think about what it might mean to join him. When and how I might join him.
I hurt sometimes, you see. The force of it may be my birthright, a result of rowdy brain chemistry and an unkempt personality structure passed on to me through generations on both sides of my bloodline. I’m emotional, upon occasion intensely so, and this latest heartbreak, on top of all the others of the past few years means that every once in a while I feel for a bit like someone set fire to my soul. Like I’m burning to death from within. It’s awful. But it passes. It always passes.
And I’m strong. Everyone tells me that and I suppose it’s true. T told me I was a strong woman right before he left, as if to say, “I know I’m gutting you, but you’ll be alright. You’ll be just fine.” This casual reassurance – one of the few declarations he made before leaving with no explanation other than “Didn’t you see this coming?” – was perhaps the cruelest thing he ever said to me. But here’s the thing…he’s right. I will be alright, eventually. I’m far too stubborn and way too prideful to let any man, not matter how great my love for him, wound me permanently. All this vulnerability I’m showing, the soft, surrendering white of my belly I’ve displayed to all? I’m able to do it because I know I will emerge from the nightmare of the past few years someplace amazing. Like the roof of the world.
This is not a suicide note. Hell, no.
I’ve been accused lately of bravado, specifically I believe for a Facebook post I made bemoaning the forgotten push-up bras I’d neglected to pack for my Acapulco trip. Or maybe it was my last blog piece, the list of lovers I in no way regret. Is it bravado or is it simply a piece of me, submerged by anguish and loving a man who despised that piece as much as he desired it, fighting its way to the surface?
There is a part of me, always has been, which yearns to live fast and big and hard. That loves push-up bras and loud laughter, flirting and dancing and blazing down the Cross Bronx Expressway hellbent for Queens in a Mini Cooper I can handle like I was born with a stick shift in my right hand and a steering wheel in my left. That drive, which I undertook for the first time in my life Monday – solo, with only a stressed GPS spitting out mind-bending directions every 20 seconds – brought me back to myself like nothing else since T left.
I had forgotten in the years I lived with him that I am a capable woman. I can drive. I can write. I can travel the world. I can fuck. And I can climb mountains. I think I spent so long downplaying my power, diluting my charisma, listening to innuendo, subtle and not, that I was difficult, dangerous, a mess, unworthy – all true to some degree but the last – that I began to believe it. I am a lesson, I suppose. A cautionary tale, that even a woman who is capable, who is strong, might attempt to subvert the deepest part of herself to suit her lover.
I knew a week, maybe two, after I moved in with T what would be required of me. We were staying at a very tony resort in Georgia. It was a press trip he’d arranged, one I tagged along on as a guest. We were having dinner with the PR representative, as well as an editor at Travel Weekly and his wife. Everyone was getting drunk on good wine except for me. I didn’t feel much like drinking though I was having fun chatting with the editor, who was intrigued by me and my column. We were in no way flirting, just discussing my work, and at the end of the night he handed me his card, asking me to contact him. He just might be interested, he’d said, in publishing my column.
When T and I returned to our suite he wouldn’t touch me. I forced myself into his arms, trying to charm him, to make him smile, telling him about the amazing life we had ahead of us. After all, we were going to spend the rest of our lives together, traveling, writing, loving each other madly, weren’t we?
“Maybe,” he’d said.
Stunned and hurt I told him, “That was mean. Really mean.”
“I’m sorry,” he’d replied, not looking at me. “I’m just not used to the women I’m with outshining me.”
And I’d answered in a comment I still regret, that was perhaps the last full gasp of the woman I would soon no longer be, “Get used to it.”
My therapist is insisting that I stay, in a word - a big scary word that I never, ever thought I'd use with regard to myself - celibate. According to her, I have too much to do. Too much else to focus on, what with training to climb mountains and traveling thither and yonder and writing articles and ripping myself open and revealing all the broken bits inside on this blog. Moonlighting at Penn State, too. And trying to take care of my parents, which I haven't done the best, bang-up job of lately. It is a lot.
She wants me to stay away from not only carnal knowledge but also casual dating and, from the sound of it, any unchaperoned visits with anyone between roughly the ages of 16 and 104. She says that if I want a different life, I need to do things differently. Which would be not jumping into bed, a relationship or anything in between with anyone. For I don't know how long.
It's already been too long. The last time I made love was early June. I refuse to look up the exact date because if I do I'll start thinking of that last time and it will begin anew, the sorrow and regret, the guilt and pain. And I'm just starting to be able to take a deep breath without feeling as though my chest is lined with shattered concrete. But, it was Paris. Paris was the last time. It's like a song, isn't it? A scene from a film, or a book. It was damp and chill and dim in our tiny garret, with it's view of Montmatre and, when the fog finally cleared on our last day, the Eiffel Tower. The bed was cold. I don't think we warmed it much. Perhaps I suspected what was coming. Perhaps T knew. Did he know it was our last time? How did he bear it?
I can't write about us right now, not like that. We were extraordinary. All my fire, all his cool. It was the first time I'd ever been entirely monogamous with anyone. It was the first time I wanted to be. I've had so many lovers. I've lost track, lost count, forgotten along the way their names and faces. In the first couple years before T and I committed wholly to each other they were everywhere, such exquisite men. Perfect distractions. Because even though I fought it like hell, all I really wanted was him. And he could never admit all he really wanted was me. Not until I was lost to him, swallowed by Ireland. In the grasp of another lover, a brawling, Black Irish madman who rescued orphaned kittens and old men who had fallen into rivers.
Before then, back when T and I were trying so hard to believe we didn't want to be together, there were the others. The cowboy in Wyoming, 6.5" and massively built, who guided me on horseback through the foothills of the Tetons, pulling me off the animal when the rain came hard and fast, tucking us beneath the branches of an evergreen. He took me across swollen rivers, asking me not to tell anyone - it was dangerous, he said, fording these waters, but he could see by the way my eyes shone even in the grey light that I wanted it. Later, as we lay in bed, the valley spread out below my cabin window, the mountains rising eternal beyond, he showed me scars from his years in rodeo, told me stories about sleeping in the outback, where he was awoken once by the sound of a grizzly snuffling though his camp. I felt tiny under him, enveloped.
There was the half-Sicilian high-fashion photographer in Milano, gorgeous, sleepy-eyed Fabrizio. I met him in a tiny club in the Navigli, saw his eyes follow me as I danced and drank, moist with sweat in the steamy Italian night. We went back to my hotel, playing songs for each other on my laptop - Jeff Buckley, I remember. Hallelujah. He was enormous. That night, fueled by champagne we pulled out of the minibar and coke we bought on the street, seemed endless. I was to attend a matinee at Teatro alla Scala that day. I never made it to the opera, instead laying spent in creased sheets half the day.
And the 19-year-old Swedish-Croatian boy I met in a village I can no longer recall the name of along the Adriatic Sea. There was a carnival that night, a live band playing American rock-n-roll songs in the square. We danced, drunk and giddy and kissing in an open-air club, and I took off my shoes as we walked back to my hotel. We fucked on the lobby bathroom's marble floor, cool against my sun-reddened back. He was sweet. Adorable. He wore braces. We're still friends on Facebook, though I stopped trading messages with him when I moved in with T.
I loved them all, these men, in my fashion. Freely, for a few nights, or a few hours, unbound from worries of past, future or anything at all but desire. I sampled them like the cuisine of the exotic lands through which I rambled. eyes closed in satisfaction, lips wet and gleaming. But in those first months that I lived with T I found myself mourning that we hadn't met earlier in life. Sooner, so we could have more time together. I would have traded them all, all my other lovers for T. And now he's gone. He's branded my heart, seared it black, and left me alone.
And what do I do now? How does a once-wild heart, cruelly tamed and tossed aside, continue on?
Have some advice for me? I'd very much love to hear it. Feel free to comment below or use the email icon above.
I didn't want to train today. I'm exhausted. I'm moonlighting at Penn State, full time for this month, in the Office of Admissions. Working at 8 a.m. - that ain't me, babe. I'm also semi-crushed with assignments and trying to keep this blog going and I had a couple of disappointments happen last night with work. Nothing huge, but when you're this lowdown, it doesn't take much to sink you completely, at least temporarily. Especially when you're averaging five hours of sleep a night.
So, I didn't want to go to Victory. Hell, all I really wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed and cry. I'm crying all the time. In my car, at the grocery store, on the phone with my über-patient friends, at the office, too - I try to sniffle quietly there. (I really don't want to be the weird temp girl crying at the corner desk.) It started two years ago, this crying, when my brother died. It's increased in frequency and violence, the way summer begets thunderstorms, since T left. Since my birthday it's gotten worse.
When I feel it coming on I just go with it. Sometimes I don't have a choice. Today I wept almost continuously in my therapist's office. Big, scalding tears. Tears of pain and fear and regret and shame. A salty cocktail made of emotions I'm beginning to worry have taken up permanent residence within me. My therapist tells me to be patient, that I've been through much in these past few years. I know she's right. I have to honor this pain, lean into it, let it have its way with me. I've never done this before. I've always pushed pain away, numbed it, neglected it. Let it starve, a chained dog whose teeth no longer menace. But I can't, don't want to live my life like this anymore. I want to heal, not hide.
So anyway, I didn't want to go to Victory. But I did. I started my program and as I sweated and worked I noticed something fantastic. I noticed that I actually began to feel better. I still started crying right as I was doing my hip hikes when Green Day's "Missing You" began blaring out of the speakers - I mean that's how far gone I am, I'm actually crying over Green Day songs. But I kept on going and I kept on feeling better. It wasn't easy, of course. But maybe that's part of the pleasure. Why not try to hurt as much physically as you do emotionally?
Steve's got me doing enough different exercises now that I'm rotating two routines. For my core, I lay flat on the floor, inhaling deeply and then pulling my stomach muscles tight as I exhale. It must be working, because my abdomen always aches afterward. I also use a six-pound medicine ball a lot, swinging that thing in circles and figures eights, doing diagonal chops and "wood" chops with it. I think I look like a complete idiot, but I keep swinging it because I'll be damned if my arms aren't clearly developing muscle.
But I need special training to climb mountains and Steve, since he's ascended Kilimanjaro himself, understands precisely what will be required of my body as I trudge up and up and up first Kili and then later in the year Aconcagua's nearly 23,000 feet. I'm spending a lot of time balancing on one leg, and making "eagle" claws of my toes as I stand, flexing and unflexing them over and over. I'm doing assisted pull ups and something called cervical retractions. Which is not at all, not even close, what you might suspect it to be. Basically, I'm simply drawing my chin in toward my neck, and then jutting it back out. This strengthens my spine. I'm going to be asking a lot of my spine next year.
I feel myself getting stronger - I actually see myself getting stronger - but tackling Mount Nittany on Sunday still got my blood throbbing and my breath coming hot and quick. Tamar and I hiked the White Trail, which ascends sharply for a half-mile. Only a half-mile, but it's a steep-ish half-mile. There's also a whole five-mile loop trail over and down the mountain I'm going to start trekking, hopefully this weekend. I know I've got a long, long way to go. In many ways. But I'm not stopping, not now, not ever. Because this is the way I save myself. There's a new life ahead, there has to be, filled with passion and joy, love and maybe even some peace, too. I just have to keep walking toward it.
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Last week, the day after my 50th birthday, I went to see my friend Shaie speak at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist church in Warrington, outside of Philly. I occasionally attend services when I'm traveling, like the achingly beautiful mass given in Irish I witnessed on St. Paddy's Day in my beloved Dingle, Ireland a couple years back. But the habit is more about honoring and exploring the local culture than anything else. I'm not at all religious, though I guess you could call me spiritual. I'm uncertain of what comes next after this life, but I believe, or at least I very much want to, that something does. I've lost too many people I loved too much in the past few years to long consider any other possibility.
Though I attended the Unitarian service simply to support my friend, the sermon nonetheless worked it's way into me. Shaie, who is currently seeking her master's degree in divinity at Vanderbilt, spoke in her soft, sweet voice about the times in life, as she described, "that feel simultaneously empty and full, containing both endings and beginnings, moving the experience of life from what is known to what is new." She titled her sermon "The Blank Rune," after the stone in the ancient set of divinatory symbols that represents contact with true destiny, which may hold our highest good and yet brings to the surface our deepest fears.
This space between that Shaie spoke of, where all is uncertain, filled with equal parts panic and potential, is where I live now. My past life, with a love I thought would last forever, with a younger brother I thought would live forever - Gunnar always seemed simply too vital, too big and filled with energy to ever die - and with healthy parents who could tend to themselves, is over. My new life, with its quest to ascend Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua next year, has barely begun. There is little I know with any sureness. Instead, there are only questions.
Will I be able to make my body, mind and spirit strong enough to climb Kili, let alone the nearly 23,000-foot behemoth that is Aconcagua? Will I find the support from sponsors I need to make these trips happen? Will I have it within me to write a book about it all? Will I have it within me to care for my mom and dad with the compassion and diligence they deserve? Will I find great love again? And will I finally, finally make of my life something I can be proud?
I have underachieved my entire adulthood, veering close to big, traditional success upon occasion, like the time I was one of a half-dozen women under consideration for the sidekick position on mega-star Mancow's syndicated radio show. But I never quite made it, always distracted by fallout from my chaotic life, or the next novelty to catch my easily unfocused attention. Often a man. Often a man broken and unworthy. The drug addict. The rage-aholic. The commitment-phobe incapable of intimacy. I used to joke that, given my choices in previous companions, my next lover would be a serial killer. It's not a joke I make anymore. I'm leaving these loves, and whatever emptiness within them that called to the hole in my soul, forever behind.
No matter if its a place of healing, the space between is uncomfortable - it often hurts like hell, actually. It's terrifying to have no real idea what the future holds, only plans and intentions, dreams and desires. Living in the space between requires faith, a faith I find myself struggling to capture. It's like stepping off a precipice, trusting you will float rather than fall. But trust is really the only option, because when you start to fret about the future, to worry it, like rosary beads between the alabaster fingertips of an ancient cleric, you stop living. Trepidation sets in. Dread. And before you know it, you are immobilized. You become one of those people beaten by life, unsatisfied, unhappy, but incapable of reaching for better. More than anything I fear this surrender.
So I'm trying to trust in the process, as Shaie suggested in her lovely sermon. To breath deeply and exist in the still, small moments - as yet rare and all the more precious for that paucity - when I am able to let go of doubt. I've set my goals and I'm working toward them. I will work toward them with more diligence, passion and focus than I've ever worked toward anything in my life. That's really all I can do, anyway. Work hard. Trust big. Trust that there is beauty and love and adventure and joy, too - real joy - ahead. Trust that all this pain and fear will one day dissipate, leaving just a distant, disquieting recollection, an ashy smudge of a memory of the time when I thought I just might not make it.
I'm not there yet. I'm nowhere close to there. My heart remains unhealed, a battered, worthless thing...but. But today I felt real joy, the kind that sings, that makes the blood beat a little faster, the eyes tear in gratitude for the moment. It's been a long time since I felt this way. Alive and awake and aware; every cell, it seemed, humming, on alert. That it occurred on a mountain makes me believe in the mad magic of my dream to climb those big, big peaks next year. I think perhaps I'd forgotten how the wild soothes and centers me, how testing my legs against steepest slope makes me believe, if only for a time, that I am capable. Strong.
I've spent the past few days at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia, which is located within a 6,000-acre state park, in an oval basin that sits at 3,200 feet. It's the second-highest inland wetland area in the United States and it is filled with creatures great and small, from ever-present groundhogs to mountain lions the rangers swear up and down don't exist. They have a lot of room to roam; there's a nearly 17,000-acre wildlife refuge next door, along with a 10,215-acre wilderness area. It's green and lush here, peaceful. I've brought along my confident and long-time friend Serafice, who soothes and centers me almost as much as the wild.
I'm thankful for her presence, this mystical and healing woman, because this is the first time I've traveled without T since he left me, fleeing back to the South he loves, it must be said, more than me. It's one day after my 50th birthday. Somehow it didn't occur to me that this journey would have its emotional difficulties and it's not until the door to our room has closed behind us and we are setting our bags down that I realize I'm on the verge of a panic attack. I suppose it is borne of the renewed recognition that all my future, the trips I will take, the love I will make, all my best and worst moments to come, will be without him. Each time this recognition slithers into my consciousness I'm torn apart again. When, when, when will this pain and fear end?
"Because he left," Serafice tells me, "you can be who you are meant to become. You could not have attempted this with him in your life, Jill. You never would have been allowed near those mountains. You know that. You are free now."
The panic waxes and wanes over the next few days and is finally lost as I ascend through bright, breezy meadow and shadowed forest to Bald Knob, a rocky protuberance rising 4,308 feet over the valley floor. It's a short hike - just 2.5 miles in total - but for a time, in between encounters with chattering, happy families, I'm alone. There is only the wind and the sun and the mountains in the distance, hazy and eternal. Butterflies, too, and dragonflies that dart before me on the path, as if to guide me onward. I feel tiny, dwarfed by these timeless hills, and at the same time tall and powerful, like each stride I take is that of a giant. I imagine my footfalls are making great booming sounds, that they leave deep fissures in the earth. I don't think about my age, or that, just six weeks after T and I parted, I am already yearning for a lover's touch. Already lonely. I don't think about fear.
I realize that this is the first climb I've made, small and tender though it is, since swearing my oath to ascend Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua next year.
Nearly without acknowledging it, I've begun.
is a journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Her new column about travel, adventure, love, loss, heartbreak and healing can be found on the Woman's Day website. She has contributed to Country Living, Gothamist, Washingtonian, EDGE Media Network, Canadian Traveller, Country, Country Woman, and a host of other festive publications and websites. She is the travel editor for the nation's most beautiful publication, Faerie Magazine. Her column, Rebooted, is published across Pennsylvania. She does not have a death wish.