Storytime: Grief (Lies)

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: being consumed by the things we are and the things we can’t be. CN: Death, suicide, grief.

In a restaurant at the corner of two busy intersections, he is seated across the table from me. He is strung out sighs, darting eyes, and a pair of jittering, nervous hands. Moving pieces of lettuce around his plate while he stubbornly tells me that he wants to be friends but he refuses to share his pain with me. I’m insulted by the assumption. That anyone would think I want their pain. That someone else’s pain would just stack neatly on top of mine like a pile of presents full of rotting sentimentality. That’s insulting to both of us. As if his existence alone wasn’t enough for me. He looks me dead in the eyes, as if to challenge and then backs away telling me that he prefers to swallow his dynamite in private.

A laugh escapes my throat – barked out harsh and cut off as the tension bleeds off my shoulders because I already knew we had this in common. It’s not exact but it’s close enough because I keep a bomb inside my heart and I’m not about to let anyone else get blown up by it again.

His surprise at my reaction colors every inch of his face. He mistakes my candor for ribbing the same way that he sometimes mistakes minuscule shavings of my heart for an entire portion. Or my clever words for the truth. I know it’s only that he’s so walled off from others and from his own emotions that even a slice of honesty looks like an open book. Looks like a field he could frolic in. Somewhere, someone you could grow into.

I don’t correct him. Instead I swallow visibly. Just a little lie by omission.

A few years later, it’s 2am and we’re sitting in silence on my white couch starring into the middle distance at the TV which has been turned off for nearly 10 minutes. It’s pitch black outside but all the lights are on in the house, as if we were haunted from the inside out. The silence is a deafening noise but he’s not even trying to stand up and go to sleep, instead he’s playing chicken with me.

He moves closer, but not close enough. Stops halfway on the couch and goes stock still again. His face working over an unreadable emotion but he gave away the game. He’s going to be the one to break the silence so I resign myself to waiting. He switches tactics and starts to play chicken with himself, leaning in and then pulling away abruptly. I worry he might lunge at me, gutting me. Ripping me apart with his teeth. He swallows heavily and finally turns to face me. Despite our drinking he looks far too sober, eyes soft and brimming. His throat chokes around a noise until it forms a sentence. “She’s dead” he finally says.

Blood rushes through my ears and I know instantly how she died because he looks too guilty for the simple kind of devastated. For the first time in a long time, or maybe ever, he looks just like me.

“She hung herself”, is all I hear when he starts talking again. The words are pushing out over his tongue like they are bile burning up his throat. He gets a few more words out before he clamps his teeth firmly around them. These thoughts were acid in the pit of his heart and yet he clung to them. He’s not even breathing now, holding his body so tight and straight it might snap. He waited until I was drunk to tell me, waited until I might forget this. Waited in hopes that I’d be quiet and still and dispassionate around the red hot brand of his pain.

I reel back and try to focus on what he’s said. I didn’t really know her well but I know he loved her. Loved her the way I love him. He loved her the way I had loved him before too. He starts talking again while I try to decipher his face. I feel the acid filling me up but I can’t hear a thing. His face is too resigned and soft and I realize he sat with this for days, shoveling fistful after fistful of explosives into himself praying his body would hold the explosion in. That skin and flesh could be a prison capable of quelling the riot of feelings. Sat with this dark knowledge for days before he came here filled with sadness and rage like he is a near-bursting balloon. Days spent raking back and forth over the wound, perpetually opening it so that it would keep fresh. So that it would scar.

I’m not stupid enough to try and touch him. I sit on the edge of the couch – caught somewhere between wrapping him desperately in my arms and running away screaming. I want to fix it but I know I can’t. I know because I have the same scar, ripped open so many times that I can’t tell the difference. Can’t tell who is bleeding right now.

His shoulders sink and his entire body slides down, boneless and empty, onto the floor.

I want to remember this (remember him) so I don’t move at all. I hold my breath and I look him in the eyes but I don’t think he is seeing me anymore. He doesn’t see the couch. Or the room. Or the blank face of the TV. Maybe he’s seeing her in his minds eye. Maybe she is looking at him and smiling. Saying something sweet. Or maybe she is swinging from a rope in her room. With her hands at her sides and an unnatural curve in her neck. Worse still, maybe he’s seeing the hundreds of things he should have done and hearing all of the things he should have said before. When she was whole. When she was here. When she was alive.

But instead, I’m alive. I’m here.

I move my body, slow and sure as not to spook him. I am trying to figure him out. It’s just like always, I want to know so much of what he thinks. I want to crack his skull on the ground and root around until I understand. I want to find the words that disarm him, the spells that seal the cracks around his heart. I want to speak the correct order of syllables that put the sadness to rest and remind him that he still has everything he needs. As if nothing was ever taken from him. (Things were taken from him).

When I finally say something, it’s not that. I say what you’re supposed to say. But he hasn’t talked to anyone else, so my meager words still bring relief. He melts, as if someone has lifted a weight off his shoulders, when I tell him the things I don’t believe. He has always been better than me and he accepts comfort when it’s given. The comfort I can’t quite live with.

I cruelly tell myself that it’s probably because he wasn’t really that close to her anymore. Because he hadn’t seen her in months, maybe years. She didn’t kiss him and tell him she loved him last week. I bite my tongue around my uncharitable feelings but the jealousy swelters deep down inside me. He’ll be absolved properly by the distance and I never will. But I love him and I don’t share my pain. I swallow my dynamite in private. I put on my good face and my soft words and pretend to be strong for him.

Another lie by omission.

It slips out of his mouth nearly two years later when we’re alone and drunk again. This time we’re hanging upside down over the edge of a different couch, lazily letting a movie slip by on the screen in front of us. He just starts crying. He silently cries and then – to both of our surprise – he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even have to say anything because I know exactly what is happening. The acid trapped inside him has bubbled up again. The dynamite on its ever silent timer, has finally gone off. I had thought of this moment for two years but it still catches me by surprise. I decide to dole out some fire. He needs me to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, even if he didn’t stop it.

In another timeline things are different but he’s here now, in this one. He’s here with me and it’s all over. She is dead. There is nothing more to do and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s only human, and he has to live with that, just like the rest of us.

Maybe this isn’t what he wants to hear because he still worries he did something wrong. I tell him he doesn’t control other peoples actions. That he won’t get closure for the fact that he isn’t her. All you get is hard facts now. She stopped and everything else kept going. So now what’s left is for you to keep going.

He looks at me, challenging for a moment before turning soft and compliant. This final explosion he’s been holding inside for so long has finally completely burnt through him. His house has been so destroyed from the inside by grief that he has no choice but to rebuild.

I don’t mention that I can’t stand to watch him burn or that the fire in him sparks the fire in me because the desperate secret is that I need him to rebuild. I need him to be okay in the way I am not okay. And I certainly don’t tell him it’s possible to burn unendingly. That it is possible to hold that flame so close to your heart that it warms you more than burning. That I keep my house, my heart, smoldering and glowing, so alive with the threat of rekindling from any small spark. I don’t tell him there is no rebuilding for me despite how desperately I would build a new home for him in my heart.

I don’t tell him these things in the same way I never tell him anything but he should be used to that by now, just a few more lies by omission.

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