Coming Undone (a story in three parts) Pt. 2
(wherein we see the darkness)
Every bad decision I’ve ever made began with a need to breathe.
Have you ever noticed how things can go from completely normal to an utter shitshow in a matter of moments when you can’t find the air to fill your lungs?
The day my world changed, oxygen was low and anxiety rising.
I’ve tried to remember exactly what was happening. I replay the exact events that led up to that moment. I remember feeling lost and alone, but the memories themselves seemed to have disappeared. As perfectly as I remember the following few days, the ones which led to the consumption of the air in my lungs have ceased to exist. There’s a blank space until that moment in the sunlight, running my hands over the warped wooden table in front of me.
“Maybe I’ll go to Vegas for a few days. I can write there,” I spoke the words quietly, almost to myself. Some part of me must have been looking for permission, because I followed them up with, “It’s probably a terrible idea.”
“Everyone should make poor choices sometimes,” the man sitting next to me replied.
If I’d been seeking approval for my decision, I had found it. My better angels were nowhere to be seen, only a nice man letting me know there were no rules I had to follow.
This was new to me. Because of the way I was raised, rules were a I’d lived for my entire life. Even as an adult when I’d chosen a new way of living, I’d made up new rules for myself so everything would make sense.
When I chose Vegas, I hadn’t consciously thought about everything which might transpire. When your lungs are seeking air, your main focus is finding it. You don’t think about the future. You don’t consider all the consequences. Your only goal is survival.
An hour later, I was throwing clothes in a bag and texting the man I was married to — telling him I’d be gone for a couple days. I’d never done anything like that. The small act of rebellion felt right. “Hi, I’m heading to Vegas. Hope you don’t mind.” I didn’t ask for permission. I just left.
Hopping into the car, I remembered an acquaintance saying he would be visiting there soon. “You should come up. We’d have so much fun,” he had said. I couldn’t remember the dates of his visit, so I sent him a text to see if he would be around.
My unconscious mind was probably aware of what was happening when I decided to go but on the surface I put no thought into it. My friend Joelle says, “Part of you was marching toward the edge of the cliff without being willing to admit it to yourself. Who says, “I’m jumping off a cliff,” when you don’t have a chance in hell of landing safely at the bottom? No one admits that.”
My toes dangled out over the edge. I jumped.
Pointing my car towards Vegas, I drove in the direction of bright lights, poor choices, and my inevitable demise.
“I just arrived. Are you here? Are you coming?” his words made me feel seen for the first time in ages, as I began my trek towards destiny. Of course this was the week he was going and of course he was already there.
Let’s call him Jude. History calls Jude the patron saint of lost causes. Fitting.
“Where are you staying? Stay with me if you haven’t already booked a place,” the text from Jude read. I was driving around the curve of a dusty mountain when I received the next one. “I’ll get two double beds in my room. Check with your husband.”
And so I did. For a long time I made excuses. I look back now and am appalled that I agreed to the arrangement he suggested. I was raised with mostly male cousins and was always one of the guys growing up. It will sound naive or intentionally stupid to say it didn’t seem that odd of a suggestion to me, but it didn’t. My husband hadn’t seemed to find me attractive in a long time so the thought that another man could was incomprehensible. I assumed that this would be like when I was younger — a sleepover with some of my buddies. Sharing secrets in the dark with a pal.
The utter innocence of my brain at thirty-one is astonishing and painful.
It shattered something in my soul to know that upon telling the man I was married to about my plans and asking if he was okay with them, he said, “sure.” I’m not sneaky. I’m not a great liar and don’t like lying. I’m honest to the point of bluntness. My need for oxygen was the most pressing intention I had that week. Up until the point when the lights went out in the room much later that evening, I had never thought of Jude in any romantic way.
Environment will contribute to your actions. Don’t be naive like I was. I assumed marriage was a protective shield around my heart. That was utter nonsense. The reality of what my marriage had become left my heart vulnerable, bleeding, and open to whatever or whoever might try to move into it.
There were a multitude of factors which should have led me to an understanding of what was going down that evening. But my absolute faith in the ultimate goodness of all humans kept me blinded to reality.
I came out of the bathroom in my pjs.
Giant grey sweats swallowed my legs, a tank, and a huge long sleeve t-shirt kept falling off my left shoulder. I hadn’t planned for a seduction; these were sleeping clothes. “Prepare yourself,” I said from the corner sink as I pulled out my contacts, “You’re getting ready to see something few men and only a couple of my women have seen.”
The unintentional innuendo bent it’s way through the words as I turned the corner in my glasses and began laughing. “Ta-DAA.” I’ve always felt like any beauty I may possess was hidden when I wore their thick lenses and dark rims. I was at ease. The thought that he might find me attractive wasn’t a worry. This man was my friend and I was married.
“Shit,” he said, “I don’t know how to do this with a married woman.” He sat on the edge of his bed. Long legs encased in warm-up pants, he fidgeted uncomfortably. His right hand went up to tug at his hair and I stared at him, unsure of what he meant. “Do what?” I laughed, “You get under the covers, turn out the light, and go to sleep. It’s that simple.” My stomach churns now as I think about the assumptions he must have been making.
I climbed beneath the sheets of the bed closest to the window. Taking off the glasses and putting them on the table between us, I pulled the covers up tight and turned towards where he sat. “You’ll have to turn out the light. I’m already in bed.” He looked confused as he stood up to pull back the covers on his bed.
With a flick of his hand, he plunged the room into darkness. We were lit only by the tiniest hint of moonlight peeking through the rain and thick curtains.
It was there in the darkness that he said it. He said the thing that would change all the things.
His words whispered across the darkness and landed in the longing of my heart.
The feeling of being unable to breathe which I’d carried around with me was replaced by not wanting to breathe. For so long I had been trying to catch my breath and in that moment, I wasn’t sure if I ever want to breath again. I needed everything to be still. Real life had ceased to exist.
My mind went silent. Blank.
Then it was racing. At first I wasn’t even sure if he had really said it. He had. It wasn’t the most eloquent line I’d ever heard, and it was a line. I knew that, but it had been years since anyone had spoken to me about my body. My whole life I’d assumed men weren’t attracted to me. I wasn’t perfect enough to be beautiful or sexy and when I got married, this belief solidified. I was no longer a woman. I was a wife.
His words changed that.
It continued on from there. He’d say something and I’d parry it with clever words. Soon I grew tired and told him the truth; my marriage was over. I’d known it for a long time. I didn’t know how to fix it. I’d tried everything I knew to do and nothing was working. It was cowardly of me, to admit this truth to another human, before myself; to use the shelter of darkness to tell the truth I’d been too afraid to say out loud.
He already knew.
He had known when I told him I was coming to Vegas, even before I knew. He kept coming with his words. Sentences layered upon paragraphs about my beauty, my body, my soul. Emotion spilled out from the other side of the room, awakening my heart which had lay dormant for so long. I could feel his loneliness and recognized it as a reflection of my own. The shadows grew deeper as the night grew longer. I needed sleep but began to crave the solace his words promised. Part of me wanted him to quit speaking. The things his words were doing to my heart were unsafe. I knew this. I had to make him stop. His silence was the only thing that could undo what was being done.
I stepped out of my bed. Carefully. The road he’d choose wasn’t a mystery to me. He’d spent the entire evening showing me the inside of his soul. Here in the cold khaki colored hotel room, just as he’d known my brokenness before I arrived, I knew his choice before he did.
I walked the two feet over to him. “Scoot over.” He did, his breaths coming in quick bursts. I climbed up into his warm bed and sat down, back ramrod straight against the headboard. Wrapping both arms around my knees, I looked over at the man who now looked like a scared little boy. He was silent, flat on his back, heart pounding so loudly it shook the bed where I sat. All bravado gone, he stared at me in a mixture of terror and wonder. “What do you want from me?” he whispered. I didn’t know this was a question we’d continue to echo back and forth for a very long time.
“Do it.” I demanded defiantly. “Do the things you’ve said. Show me what you’ve got.” I’d never played chicken with another human, but it was the only way I knew to get him to shut up. All the while my knees were pressed to my chest. My arms wrapped tightly around them as my feet trembled, frozen to the bed, barely under the sheet. I was shaking but determined to stand my ground.
The minutes stretched out before us as the pounding of his heart counted them off. He remained perfectly still, paralyzed by my closeness. Finally, I turned back to him, held his gaze and said, “And that — that is who you are.” I returned to my bed and pulled the covers up over me. “Don’t forget who you are, Jude. Now, go the fuck to sleep.” I turned over, closed my eyes, and fell into a deep sleep, awakening an hour later as I heard him returning to his bed from the bathroom.
“You okay?” I asked, fighting to stay awake long enough to hear his answer. “Yeah, baby. I’m fine. Go back to sleep,” his words lingered in my sleepy brain as I drifted back into the dreamlessness.
I still can’t stand for anyone to call me baby. I only ever hear his voice in that word.
The next morning I awoke to a rain-soaked grey sky and a freezing room.
My toes were ice cubes and there weren’t any socks in my suitcase. I tried burrowing deeper into my hotel bed. He was still fast asleep in his, so I pulled out my phone and went to work writing in Evernote. I needed to put words to the previous evening.
“You have to make choices. The painful, terrifying, “my heart is beating out of my chest” choices. You know which is the right one. Don’t hesitate. Say it out loud. Be ruthless.”
I lay there. Some twisted form of pride rose up in my heart as I thought about what hadn’t happened the night before. A sleepy voice from a few feet away spoke, “Shit. You freaked me out last night. I couldn’t even breathe.”
I stared at him. We’d survived the previous night in the trenches and had made it out alive.
I assumed we were mostly unscathed. I was wrong.
The room had reached a temperature where I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. As I complained about the icicles forming where they once had been, he beckoned. “Come over here. Get under the covers. I promise I won’t touch.” A situation will become normalized the longer you remain inside of it. Things that were once unseemly will become comfortable if you stay.
Maybe some part of my heart believed him. Maybe it knew those words spoken in the darkness had been planted deep in it’s cracked parts and were growing. Maybe it no longer cared. I slipped under the covers and my frozen toes found the warmth of his thigh, digging in.
He looked over at me lazily and I was gone; completely and utterly done. I could hear his heart again beating so loudly. There wasn’t a single thought in my head as I reached up my hand and traced a finger along his jaw. He smiled — scared and excited. It was heartbreaking. I dropped the hand and pulled the covers tight around me, curling so my body was right next to his but only my feet touched his leg.
We didn’t have sex. It was a betrayal that in some ways felt far worse.
My heart connected beneath the warmth of those sheets as we talked. Life. His future. My future. Our pasts. We recounted our histories and were surprised to find the similarities outweighed the differences. As the heat from his body began to warm me, I sat up, pulling the sheets with me. And found that at some point in the night he’d stripped down to his shorts.
I should have climbed out of that bed then. I should have grabbed my stuff and ran. I should have…there are too many of those. My therapist hates shoulds. “There are no shoulds, Melissa,” she says, “only what was and what is.” That’s true. Regardless of the shoulds, I didn’t. I stayed, and tried to walk the border between testing the waters and crossing the line; tiptoeing carefully, so as not to go too far. As if my heart wasn’t already gone. As if it wasn’t torn from my chest the moment he first spoke in the dark the night before.
I remember every detail of the next few hours. They are unnecessary, because the only truth that needs described is that a piece of my soul got tangled with his and something I had longed for was present; intimacy. I always understood betrayal to be sharing my handing my body with someone else while committed to another, but your body and it’s desires aren’t the thing that capture you. I placed something else in his hands that day, my heart.
I handed over the knowledge of who I was, the ugliest parts of me, and he called it beautiful.
Eventually I got up to shower and change.
A cloud of steam followed me out of the bathroom and into the chilly room where he curled tightly into a ball at the center of the bed. There were purple shadows under his long lashes from lack of sleep the night before. He opened his eyes as I neared the bed and reached out a hand to me. As he pulled me down next to him, I spoke. “Did you know it’s possible to put someone to sleep just by touching their eyebrows?” The exhaustion of body and soul in his eyes were evident as he said, “Show me.” I took a single finger with its cherry red nail and stroked lightly over his right eyebrow, then the left. Then the cleft in between.
And he was out. Asleep. Finally at rest. My head on the pillow next to his and my hand on his chest, I tried to sleep too. The rain pounded against the window outside and greyness filled the room. It would have completely infiltrated my body if it hadn’t been for the warmth of his, stilling me, leaving me calmed and centered.
In that moment, he felt like home. I could breathe.
It would take a long time for me to get over that feeling. My heart was awakened from it’s slumber and looking for somewhere to belong. It assumed that he was that place.
From the safety of his arms, I stared out at the apocalyptic rain storms battering the windows. I knew I couldn’t drive through the mountains back to Phoenix that morning. The thought of returning was unbearable. I also knew I couldn’t stay another night with him. Regardless of what had happened, was happening, I had things to address with the man I was still married to. In my mind, Jude was only a symptom of the problems at home; the final tipping point in a scale which had been weighted towards done for far too long.
Heading downstairs, I went in search of food while he took a shower. He wanted donuts, but it was 2:00 pm. Donuts were nowhere to be found. Instead I found a quiet back corner with leather couch big enough to envelope me completely. Tucked up into it, I pulled out my phone and dialed the first number that came to my mind. The weight of what had just occurred landed on me like an elephant.
“Are you safe? Are you okay?” those were her first words. They caused the tears which had just began to flow to echo the torrential rains outside.
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Nothing will ever be okay again, Ronne.” As I spoke, one of the bellhops brought me a Kleenex to mop up my soul making itself known by running down my face. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation, just the feeling of knowing my entire world had changed. I wandered back upstairs to find him showered and waiting for me, wanting to know where I had been, why I hadn’t answered his call. “Let’s grab lunch,” he said, his hand on my back steering me toward the door. We headed out into the downpour to face the world.
It felt right and wrong and exhilarating and traumatizing. It was all the things and nothing. As we sat down at the table, I knew I wouldn’t be able to swallow a single bite. The huge floor to ceiling window at our table looked out onto the Strip and we watched the streams of humanity pass us as the inevitable question came from his mouth. “What will you do?”
I had an idea, but wasn’t sure if I was prepared for the consequences it would bring. “It will be interesting to see what the next few months hold,” he said, downing his lunch as if none of it affected him. I pushed the food around on my plate and thought I knew what they would bring. I had googled it that morning before he woke up.
Search: how to get a divorce in Arizona.
As we stared out the window, a truck came by pulling a billboard. Flashing lights and the glittering all caps word, GIRLS, covered it.
“It’s incredible how fast you can ruin your life, isn’t it?” he said. “A momentary choice can take you down so quickly.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. Was he talking about us? Our choices in the past 24 hours? Our almost choices? “That sign,” he continued, “I think about the men who come into this town. Men with huge platforms. Christians. Family men. Men who have it all and one bad decision, one moment of weakness can destroy them.” I asked him what that meant in the context of our choices or lack thereof. “They affect us. Your husband and us. No one else.”
If only that were true. Was he really that naive? Was I? Was it an unformed understanding of the world around us to believe that even the small choices we’d made in those few hours prior wouldn’t continue to inform both of our lives in some way throughout the course of them?
That afternoon I reserved my own room. I knew if I stayed with him for another evening it would go further. There would be no battling what was building between us. We parted ways early that evening and I spent it writing. Knowing he was just a few doors down was hell. Part of me wanted to see his face and the other part of me was horrified at the idea. Who was I? Who was this woman contemplating cheating, desiring another man she had not pledged forever to? I stared in the mirror and didn’t recognize her. Her cheeks were hollow and her eyes sad. I couldn’t understand why she was making the choices she was. She couldn’t be me.
She, a curious picture of what it meant to be viscerally wounded yet finally alive. The ever present phone in my hand moved on it’s own. A mirror selfie. Something I had never done but this moment needed to be remembered. No posing, just a button push, exactly as she was.
Remember who you are. Remember what you’ve done. What you almost did. Remember what you are capable of.
As I looked at myself, I was full of morbid fascination. Who was the woman in the mirror? This one I thought I’d known so well. My stomach threatened to return the nothing that I had eaten the past two days. I grabbed my water bottle and took a sip. There’d be time for contemplation of my actions once I could put some distance between me and him.
The writing was thick and black against the creamy stock. “I believe in you, Jude.” There were other words I wrote for him too, but I don’t remember them. The words had to be tangible. I needed to leave something behind that said, “this happened” — something that wouldn’t disappear with the deletion of digital data. That night was full of dark dreams and constant waking to every noise.
Early the next morning I pulled my suitcase out of the room, slid the envelope under his door, knocked twice and began the walk down the long hallway, leaving him behind.
I didn’t look back. Out in the rain soaked parking garage, my heart twisted into an ugly shape as the tears came. I scrubbed my face with the back of my hand as I tossed my bags in the front seat, heading to the nearest gas station.
It was there I met another her.
A wild blonde fro stuck out in all directions surrounding the dusky skin of her doll-like face. A black eye and tear smeared makeup kept it from complete perfect. Platform heels, a tiny black skirt, and a sheer leopard print blouse tied up under her breasts were her uniform. She looked like a more beautiful real life version of one of the women on the GIRLS sign we’d seen the day before on the Strip. “I can pay you,” she said, “I just need a ride back to my car. I’ll even sit in the backseat.” I shook my head at her offer of payment. I could feel her pain. It echoed my own.
“No way, sister, get in. A girl’s gotta help a girl out. You’re riding up here with me.” Through the haze of my own tears, I tossed my bag in the backseat.
“That last one I was with was a real dick,” she said looking in the flip down mirror at her eye. She told me a little bit of the story. He’d spent a majority of their time together smacking her head into the TV. At the time, I couldn’t identify why her pain resonated with me but the moment of shared sisterhood hung in the air between us.
She talked about wanting to get out and go home to San Jose. “It’s up to us, baby,” I remember saying, “we have to choose wiser. We have to choose better.” Someone later asked why I didn’t try to help her, why I didn’t try to rescue her from “that life.” I couldn’t have. I was drowning. Some days you can only make one good choice in the midst of a dozen awful ones. Some days you can’t rescue someone else. Some days you can not even rescue yourself.
And some days the voice of redemption comes from the most unlikely of sources.
My cup holders had already become a refugee camp for used Kleenex. Between that and my puffy eyes, it wasn’t hard for her to see me, “And what about you? What will you do?” her question mirrored Jude’s but her voice was gentle and I could tell she cared about the answer.
And the tears began again. For a marriage that was dead. For a divorce that was inevitable. For the piece of me which had taken up residence in another soul and was still laying back in that hotel.
When we reached her car, she leaned over, her perfume overwhelming me as she wrapped her arms around me. She kissed my cheek and our smeared mascara met, leaving traces on the other’s face. Looking in my eyes she said, “We’re gonna make it, girl. We’re gonna be alright.” Then she stepped out of the car and off the stage of my life.
I drove off thinking about our shared moment of brokenness and her words. I think that’s what love does in the face of broken. It doesn’t look away. It holds the face of pain in its hands and says, “you’re not too much for me.”
The ride back to Phoenix was dreary. Storm clouds followed me, as did words from my childhood, spoken when it rained, “You made God cry.” I wondered aloud to myself if that was what we’d done — I had done. Had I made God cry? I felt empty and full and devastated and alive.
It had been so long since I had felt alive.
“I promise I’ll leave you alone,” a text from Jude said, “I know you have things to figure out, but we’ll always have Vegas.” My stomach turned over and nausea settled in. I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted. I didn’t know if I wanted to “always have Vegas” — the memory. I also didn’t know if I wanted him to leave me alone, but I knew it was a wise idea. I sent back the mirror selfie from earlier, “Vegas did a number on her, she’s kind of a mess.”
“I’d take her like that or really any way.”
Vegas would represent the greyness, the moments in the darkness. But also, the beginning of me coming alive. And there were other dark things in my life I’d been long afraid to look at. The events of these previous days were beginning to bring clarity. The only relief was Sleeping at Last’s Ryan O’Neal and his song Emphasis, which I kept on repeat. A reminder that though I couldn’t see the next few hours or days or weeks, there was light.
“The sweetest thing I’ve ever heard/Is that I don’t have to have the answers./Just a little light to call my own./Though it pales in comparison/To the overarching shadows,/A speck of light can reignite the sun/And swallow darkness whole.”
Eventually I’d find it. And when I did…I knew darkness didn’t stand a chance.
If you appreciated this piece, please click the little green heart below 💚 so someone else will see and read it too. Thank you.
This piece can also be heard at Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/melissa-hawks-906313350/coming-undone-pt-2