As long as I can remember I've avoided achievement. I left Penn State - more precisely, I simply stopped going to classes much - midway through my last semester. I was a University Scholar. I think I ended up about nine credits short of my theater degree. About six years later I left my husband, Sean, whose last name I still carry with me (I suppose some might say like penitence), though he loved me more than I'm afraid any man ever will love me again. I loved him just about as much.
I actually left Sean twice. The second time it was for a drug addict.
I walked away from radio, too, just as I was on the cusp of breaking big, after I'd come close to snaring a gig as big-deal shock jock Mancow's sidekick.
I'm not sure what short circuit in my brain accounted for this kind of behavior. Fear of success, fear of failure, a fascination with self-destruction, simply an inability to focus on the long view, or to maybe handle routine, it could be all of these things. Or none of them. But at the very least it's made for an interesting life - sometime I'll have to write the story of the time a crack dealer put a gun to my head - and until recently there wasn't much I regretted about it. Certainly not the degree and not even radio. Sean. I regret Sean. Still, two decades later.
Sometimes I wonder if T is some kind of cosmic payback for the way I treated my husband. He was the best man I ever knew. Brilliant. T was so proud of his intellect but Sean, he was scary smart. Got a perfect score on his SATs. Johns Hopkins tried to recruit him at 14 for med school and throughout our marriage he'd periodically get literature from MENSA. They were trying to recruit him, too. Brilliant and funny and creative and handsome and kind and he loved me exactly as I was.
So, of course I left him.
I don't want to live this way anymore. I'm ready to see exactly what I can do when I put my mind to it and keep it there. I don't want to be that woman, the smart and talented one - oh, no genius, to be sure - who just never really seems to get it together. Which is why I'm so afraid. Terrified that I've fucked up so badly this time there's no putting it right.
I had this amazing thing started, didn't I? I'd announced to the world that to heal my broken heart and take back my life after a lot of terrifically horrible events I was going to climb two of the Seven Summits of the world next year. I was going to detail my training and my emotional as well as physical transformation right here, on this blog, with brutal honesty and hopefully even a bit of poetry. I started training, remaking my body with the help of my supremely talented trainer Steve Jury, at Victory Sports and Fitness. Other people stepped forward to help, like Tamar London, who took such incredible "before" photographs of me.
And in the first month 11,000 people read this blog. 11,000 people. I still can't quite believe it.
And then I started traveling and the assignments, big ones, from national magazines, started coming, so fast I could barely keep up with them, and I even got invited to submit a book proposal. I couldn't do it all, I couldn't. I tried. I worked very hard, but something had to give and that something was this blog. This blog, and training. It's been weeks and weeks since I've been to the gym. I've gained at least five pounds, probably more, even though a lot of that traveling involved arduous physical activity, like when I hiked 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. God, I loved that. Those three days on the AT to me proved that I wasn't crazy, that Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua were calling to me because I belong there. I belong to those mountains.
I loved training, loved how my body was becoming so much stronger than its ever been. And I loved this blog. In a very real way it saved my life, along with the people who followed it, the readers who reached out to tell me that my writing actually meant something to them. That it helped them. What a fine thing. The finest thing, I think, any writer could ask. I loved it all and I left it and I'm ashamed because I'm afriad that this is more of the same kind of behavior I've been doing forever.
But all I can do now is try to do better. I'm going back to Victory this weekend. Training begins afresh. I guess I'll have to ask Tamar to take pictures of my new body - instead of leaner and more muscular, even rounder than it was. Honesty, right? Even when that honesty includes failure.
At least I've got a lot of new stories to tell. I've not only hiked the AT, I've been skydiving and doing something called body rafting in the wilds of primal Puerto Rico. I've actually been to Puerto Rico twice, and to Memphis, and Richmond, also, where I was nearly abducted from a lesbian bar by a former lineman for Penn State. That was a strange night. Along the way I've healed a little bit and had a few epiphanies and continued to cry and, upon occasion, to smile.
I hope you forgive my absence. I hope you'll return to gleesonreboots, the way I have, invigorated and damn curious to see what's next.
Whatever it is, I can promise you it won't be boring.
I'm visiting my oldest friend tonight. We're sitting at her dining room table in companionable silence, each of us on our computers. I'm editing a story - actually a column, the socio-political one I write for EDGE. It's about the Log Cabin Republicans, the lobbyist group for LGBT conservatives. (Yes, LGBT conservatives actually exist.) I'm fiddling with a section about Donald Trump. I'm absorbed in my work, but I hear her mutter under her breath.
"What's up?" I ask.
She tells me about the post she's reading on Facebook. It was made by an acquaintance, someone she knew years ago through work. The woman has started a Go Fund Me account to help her pay for a month's worth of anti-retroviral medication, the treatment recommended for rape victims to prevent HIV, which costs thousands of dollars. It seems she woke up the other morning in her bed, bruised and scraped, her car no where to be found, her clothes dirty and torn, bra missing. She couldn't remember how she got there, what happened to her or how she got home.
The thread below the post is filled with supportive responses. "I'll be fine," she's replied. "This isn't the worst I've been through." Underneath her comment is an old picture she's posted of herself, of the side of her face. She's got a large bite mark on her cheek. The teeth didn't break the skin, but the wound is inflamed, red and swollen. It's one of the ugliest things I've ever seen.
I burst into tears.
Hours later, I'm still crying. I'm crying with horror and empathy, disgust and grief and, most of all, rage. I'm filled with it, and I've got nowhere to put it, nothing to do with it except write about it.
Because seeing that picture, reading that woman's story after the last couple weeks, after hearing that narcissistic fascist brag about sexual assault and then watching, dumbfounded and filled with revulsion, as his legion of supporters defended him - it's just too goddamn much. It's too goddamn much after seeing Trump creep after Clinton across the debate stage, predatory, threatening. Is there a woman alive who can honestly say she didn't feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, even afraid for her? Because we've all felt a similar presence behind us at one time or another, haven't we? In the parking garage maybe, or walking home after a late night out? We've all wondered at least once in our lives "Is this it? Is this when it happens?"
It's too goddamn much after the eleven - at last count - women who have come forward claiming Trump assaulted them. And still he leads in 16 states, from Montana to Nebraska, Louisiana to Kentucky. It's too much after Bill Cosby and Brock Turner. It's too much after hearing the calls at Trump rallies and beyond: "Hang the bitch," "Kill her," "Shoot her" - and still there are men who insist that this reaction isn't based in misogyny, that somehow she deserves it.
She's asking for it, I guess. Right?
And it's too goddamn much after reading just a few of the stories posted online by women as a response to that Access Hollywood video. Stories of sexual assault. Rape. Humiliation.
It's too goddamn much because I've got my own. The first time I was young - 8, 1o? - in a babysitter's pool. A man, I don't know who he was, sat me on his lap and put his hand down my bikini bottoms. I don't remember if he put his fingers inside me. The second time I was in my 30s, at a house somewhere. I was drunk, I think. Maybe high. There were two of them and they put their fingers in me. But I was strong, able to protest, to push them away.
There are so many other, quieter moments that hurt. Smaller indignities, that came from loving a man once upon a time who didn't really like women. Who maybe, in some dark, sad place, even hated us a little. The time I was told, clinically, "You have really firm breasts. For a woman your age." The time he came home from work and I didn't get up from my computer to open the door for him. Furious, he'd looked at me and said "You know, I don't expect the women I'm with to wear makeup every day, but why don't you clean yourself up?" The time I was called a "fucking bitch." It wasn't the words. It wasn't even the words. It was the venom behind them.
What I don't understand is, what I want to ask men who rape and assault, who demean and threaten, who beat us, or simply can't see our value beyond our appearance and what's between our legs...what I want to ask them is why? Why do you hate us?
But I can't. I'm too angry. It's too goddamn much.
Want to know what it was like battling the big, big water of West Virginia's Gauley River during dam release season? Check out the video below, which shows me and dozens of others getting mercilessly pummeled by this rocking and raging river. Thanks to Adventures on the Gorge for the awesome video - and the images here and elsewhere on the site.
Sometimes a picture really IS worth a thousand words. Especially when it's midnight, you're squirreled away inside the Laurel Oasis Travel Plaza in Laurel, Delaware, sucking up wifi while some deeply shady miscreants watch football across the room while debating whether or not you'd put up too big a fight to make it worth the trouble when they try to shove you in their license plate-less white rental van out in the parking lot. Okay, maybe I'm being a BIT dramatic, but it's late, I'm exhausted and I have to be up at 8 tomorrow morning to go hiking. There is no way I can effectively string together a sentence describing my experience rafting the Gauley tonight so instead, here are some killer pictures. I gently encourage you to check out MY TOTALLY RIPPED RIGHT ARM IN THAT FIRST PHOTO. It would be epically badass if not for the image following it, which kind of negates the whole effect - you know, the one of me getting face-hugged by a giant freaking wave.
I'm bruised, cut, scraped and sunburned. I have so many mosquito bites I honestly can't count them all, although I know they number far less than the freckles that have spread across my shoulders and back, arms and chest. There are blisters dotting the palms of my hands from holding my paddle a total of, as best I can figure it, about 12 hours in two days. My hair has faded to a coppery blonde from submersion in sun and river water and the cuticles of my toenails, despite a good scrubbing in the shower this evening, are still encrusted with grime from the banks of the Gauley. I'm eight hours out of the New River Gorge area of West Virginia and I still feel feral - unkempt, untamed, powerful and maybe even a bit dangerous. I've been to where the real wild things are, to the real rumpus, and I've brought it back with me. Within me.
I've spent the past day and a half rafting the Gauley River with Adventures on the Gorge, the premiere outfitter/guide service/resort in not just New River Gorge but maybe the entire eastern half of the United States. They know the Gorge like no other company, including the infamous Gauley. During the five weeks or so in September and October when the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from the Summersville Dam into the Gauley, it becomes one of the top ten whitewater rivers in the world. Only experienced paddlers in good physical condition are encouraged to tackle its more than 100 rapids. Five of those rapids - all located on the Upper Gauley - are designated Class V, the most extreme whitewater commercial rafting companies are permitted to navigate. The Gauley is not to be trifled with; guides don't joke about this river and they won't let their clients make light of it, either. They know it has terrible lessons to teach those who don't respect it.
Before sitting down in our raft's right front position I didn't just respect the Gauley. I was more or less scared to death of it. I'd paddled the New the day before as a practice run for the Gauley and even offered to sit up front when no one else in my group volunteered. The New was far lower and slower than the spring day seven years ago when it ejected me out of my raft - twice - as casually as a sun-addled lion flicking a flea from its fur. I'd done well paddling the mostly Class IIIs and a few IVs this go-round, which had helped relieve a bit of my anxiety. But I knew the Gauley was a far different beast than the New.
But when the time came to put into the Gauley I still jumped in the front of raft, the spot where the water would hit hardest and where I'd have to work hardest, too. (There's no draft in this position - the front paddler actually provides the draft for the people behind them, so to do well here you need not only a certain bit of fortitude but also no small amount of strength.) I took that seat because it wasn't enough for me to simply face my fear of wild water, an unwelcome hangover from that first trip on the New and the strange hesitancy that seemed to infect my life during the years I lived with T. I needed to eradicate it. If I could take on the Gauley, if I could actually beat that raging, churning, thrashing, bashing utterly savage slice of water, maybe I could start to win back my self-esteem, which had evaporated so slowly during my relationship with the man I once believed was the love of my life that at the time I never took note of its departure.
And so I got in the front of the raft. I didn't pause, didn't stop to ponder just what in the hell I was thinking, didn't ask myself if I was sure I wanted to do this. I just got in, sat down, gripped my paddle and started to push it through the water. It's difficult to remember with any cohesion what happened the rest of the afternoon. My memories are still photographs, blurry and waterlogged, simple, ragged snapshots of the beauty which surrounded our raft - the magnificent forest which crept to the river's edge, prickly with broken trees and vegetation so dense I imagined creatures long extinct peering at me through the leaves. And the river itself, glinting in the sunlight, a deep and mysterious green in the calm expanses, where butterflies danced above our heads and flirting damselflies alighted on our still paddles, on our knees and outstretched wrists.
These moments come back with far greater clarity than the time in the rapids, when the world becomes water. You lose your ability to think there, or even process emotion. There is only the Gauley's roar, the feel of it - a living thing, you are later sure, something this ruthless must be sentient - pounding your body. There are seconds. perhaps when the raft crests a wave, when you're able to take a breath, to clearly hear your guide's screams to paddle forward, or reverse, or stop, stop STOP paddling. But then you are back down in the trough and you are a thing, a creature as primal as the river itself, whose only instinct is to remain in this boat that is swirling and twirling and soaring and crashing through as much air as water.
Rafting the Gauley was perhaps the most purely fun thing I have ever done in my life.
Want to read more? Hang on tight, Part II is on its way!
I'm getting stronger. At least physically. Emotionally...well, hell. If every day isn't a battle, it's a skirmish. But my body is changing. I feel it in the way I move, with an ease and pleasure I haven't experienced in years, since I stopped walking regularly. That almost daily, two mile stomp lost to depression and then inertia after I moved in with T. He hated me out in Knoxville at night, alone. But I'd long loved walking under the stars, did it in the quiet of my parents' neighborhood before I moved down south. Sometimes 10, 11 o'clock, I'd venture out, just me and the moon and the sound of the trees ticking in the breeze. The whole world felt like a secret then, whispered just to me.
But Knoxville's concrete didn't have any mysteries - at least none I cared to solve - and the walking fell away. I still don't walk at night, though now there is no one to tsk-tsk at me over its risks. To do so might remind me too much of T, of all the ways I frustrated and disappointed him, and besides, I don't need to - my training at Victory with Steve is returning fitness to me.
I recently hiked five miles of local Appalachian forest, the trail taking me alongside mossy, chuckling streams and through glens where ancient mountain laurel loomed overhead, twining together, dense and fearsome. Graceful snakes slithered here and there, peeking out from under slender ferns, while butterflies gamboled overhead. And not one muscle in my body twinged. Nothing ached that day, or the one after, but my eyes, tender from crying, and fragile heart.
On Tuesday I begin a two-week ramble through West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. We'll soon see exactly how much my body has evolved under Steve's guidance. I'll be rock climbing, paddle boarding and zip lining with Adventures on the Gorge in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia, a place I adore, that I've to returned to over and over again. It was where I discovered my love of adventure sports, and where I nearly drowned my first time white water rafting, when I was swept out of and then under the boat in a Class V rapid on the New River.
Since that day my response to any body of water bigger than than a swimming pool has ranged from mild unease to outright terror, depending on its tranquility. I honestly have no idea how I'm going to cope on the two-day paddle we're taking down the Gauley River, the New's angrier, more brutal sister. One of the world's most violent waterways during dam release season, as it is now, the Gauley's been dubbed by river rats the Beast of the East.
I am taking this trip because it is no longer only water which frightens me. It's the fear of living out the rest of my life never feeling again the way I did with T. Of never loving again, and being loved. It's the fear of losing my parents, the last of my family. Sometimes I wonder, daring myself to ponder the inconceivable, how long I have left with them. I live with them. What will happen to me when they're gone? How will I endure their loss? How will I survive adding it to the collection of mean little tragedies I'm too quickly amassing? There is only me left to pack up the house, to get it ready to turn over to the bank. When I try to think about doing that alone, my mind skitters to a stop. I think it's to prevent me from going mad.
I'm taking this trip because I'm already drowning. I'm taking this trip because there is no one left to save me but me. I'm taking this trip because I believe it will help return a small, precious part of myself I lost, or, more precisely, abandoned these last few years. This trip is what I believe they call in rafting a self-rescue, the first of many I'll attempt.
T famously rafted the Gauley once, during his long-ago grad school days. He had a couple posters of the river pinned up in our kitchen in Knoxville. We had the opportunity to tackle it together a few years ago, when two spots opened up on a rafting trip while we were visiting the area. We didn't do it. It would be too exhausting we said, to raft for hours and then drive home to Tennessee. And T told me - as he had told me many times before that day and would tell me many times after - that he worried about me on the Gauley.
"It's big water, baby girl," he said. "It's dangerous."
I told him that I needed to raft it, that I wanted to get over my fear. But I tucked his concern away inside me, thrilled and touched that he loved me so much he was afraid for my safety, each time we discussed the Gauley growing a bit more at ease with the idea that rafting it was a challenge I shouldn't face - much like skydiving.
A few birthdays ago, when we were still in Knoxville, T had given me a certificate to parachute out of a plane as a present. He'd done it once upon a time, and he knew that I wanted to try it, too. When I opened the card holding the certificate he said, "Now, I'm not really comfortable with this. I'm not sure I want you doing it." And again I thrilled to hear the love, the apprehension in his voice. And somehow that skydiving trip never quite materialized.
I don't really know what happened to me in those years with T, why my nerve increasingly failed me, why I began to believe myself weak, incapable. The answer isn't as simple as his coddling concern for me, which, though it rankled a bit, also made me feel protected. Cherished. But I am no longer willing to live my life an eroded version of the woman I used to be. In West Virginia, I'll be rafting some of the nastiest white water in the world. In Delaware, I'll be skydiving. And I'll have stepped a bit further down the path leading to Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua. They're still waiting for me, my mountains, quietly, with terrible patience.
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.
This is a story I've never told. This is the story of how, a little over two years ago, my brother died of a heroin overdose. I've hidden the truth from most people about Gunnar's death - even his friends, even our extended family - at the request of my parents. But I'm not ashamed of how he died, I never have been, and I think we dishonor him by hiding behind half-facts like "His heart failed." Yes, Gunnar's heart failed. His big, beautiful heart - strong, if never wise - failed because a few days after his college graduation he injected a dose of heroin into a vein in his belly. And it killed him. And he laid there, in his bed, for we're not sure how long. Perhaps a day. Perhaps - more likely - as many as three. While his cell phone rang and rang and rang, his hordes of friends wondering where he'd gotten to, and me and my parents thinking he was still alive. Thinking life would go on like it always had. Thinking we had time, still, to be a family instead of the weary, worn little band of survivors we've become.
About a year before he died my brother called me one night. I was living in Knoxville with T, had been for about three months. Gunnar told me that he'd been shooting heroin, been smoking crack. But he was several months clean. He was seeing an addiction counselor, a therapist, a nutritionist. He was working out; the gym was his new addiction. Not, I think, that he was ever precisely addicted to heroin. He wasn't a longtime user...it hadn't yet eaten away at all that was good in him. He was, at 42, entering his last year at the University of Colorado and maintaining a high G.P.A. as a philosophy major. He was, not to overstate it, beloved by his professors and fellow students. So many of them called and wrote us after his death. They sobbed when they talked to us, even his advisor.
Gunnar was the single most magnetic human being I've ever met. I once called my brother the only person I knew who was a celebrity without being famous. He had hundreds of friends - and not just social media friends, but people he'd met over the years and drawn into his always-widening army of cohorts and admirers. Many of them modern-day hippies like him, whose best days were the ones spent inside a venue, at a Dead or Widespread Panic show. Everyone who knew him has a story. Rich, a friend to both my brother and me, talks about the time he casually mentioned to Gunnar that he liked his coat. My brother literally gave it to him off his back. "No, Richie, you have it," he'd insisted when Rich had objected. "Please, I want you to have it."
Gunnar was equally generous with me, hitchhiking from Colorado to Oklahoma to help pack a moving truck and whisk me away from a toxic boyfriend. I was in the Memphis airport once with that same boyfriend, in a long line of travelers stranded by a storm at Christmastime, when I mentioned that I hoped Gunnar, at least, had made it home. "Gunnar??!!" hollered a girl in line behind me. "Did you say GUNNAR?? Do you know Gunnar??" After I nodded, told her yep, he was my brother, the little group around her cheered. Stranded at the damned Memphis airport at Christmas and there's a half-dozen people who know Gunnar. Do you know that two years after his death one of his friends is still making buttons with his picture on them, spreading them far and wide so my brother can still go to shows and travel the world?
But Gunnar had something inky-black and hungry tucked inside of him, a cruel, sharp-toothed little beast that ate, ate, ate away at him, gnawing at any contentment he found, any peace. He hurt. I know it, because I recognized it. It was the same hurt I've felt within myself, only Gunnar had it in greater measure. I suspect that's why I'm still alive and he's dead. The worst part of it for me, the saddest, most terrible thing of all, is that he fought so hard to heal himself. So very hard. But he didn't quite make it.
That night that Gunnar told me he'd been using heroin I didn't get angry. I think mostly I was just...dazed. I remember parts of my face feeling numb, my lips and fingertips going cold. I'm sure I said the most supportive things I could. After I finally hung up I went to T, crawled into bed beside him. "My brother," I said, "is going to die. He's clean now, but he'll relapse and overdose or get sent to prison. And then my parents will die. I'm going to lose them all. And then I'll be alone." T didn't say what I needed to hear. "I'm your family now, baby girl," he didn't say. "You'll never be alone, " he didn't say. He was probably even then wondering what he'd gotten himself into. As ferverishly as I loved him, a part of me was, too. I was wondering what I was doing with a man who often seemed as if encased in glass, under a bell jar. Unreachable.
I didn't go out to Colorado to see my brother, to support him in his quest to keep sober. I was so overwhelmed, so depressed, my life in such upheaval after leaving my friends and family and moving down South to be with T. I couldn't muster the will or the energy necessary to make that trip. I don't kid myself that I would have saved him. That a year later he wouldn't have died, alone in his room. But he would have, at least, known how very, very much I loved him.
Do you have a story about my brother? Please share it in the comments below, or if privacy is necessary, use the link above to email me. I'd really like to hear it.
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.