don’t tell…(a memoir in progress)
“You shouldn’t have told me. I wish you hadn’t told me,” he said to me.
Those words would haunt me. I thought I was doing the right thing…I mean, I would want to know. But he said I shouldn’t have told him. He put a bubble in front of me and popped it. If I hadn’t have told him, things could just go on? We would have been happy and in love and nothing else would matter?
I tried to recant. God help me. I tried. I tried to tell the story in another way. A way in which I wouldn’t be guilty. It got so I couldn’t even remember for sure. What came first? I broke up with Pete…I slept with Jeff. But in what order? The wrong order. I can’t remember specifics, but I am pretty sure it was the wrong order. Something completely out of character for me. I am an honest person. A loyal person. So what the fuck went wrong with my story?
I can find him on social media today. Twenty-two years after I told him what I guess I shouldn’t have told him. He will even be my friend on Facebook…but I had to stop. I still find myself visiting his Instagram though. And I notice names, words, phrases that he uses that I also use. And I think, see — I am still in his head. But then I stop…I wonder…did he come up with that nickname — or did I? Am I still in his head, or is it just that he is still so much in mine? Maybe he has moved on. I mean, yeah, of course he has. But maybe he has forgotten me. Maybe he did come up with the nickname…or maybe I did but he believes he did.
It’s not a conscious choice. My obsession with him. It’s not like I am just refusing to get over him. I can’t fucking get over him. I can’t. I have tried for twenty-two years. Now I am just stopping. Not stopping my obsession, my longing for him. That’s apparently not an option. Instead I am stopping my fight against it. I am accepting that for some reason — hey, maybe there is such a thing as true love & soul mates…or maybe I have serious mental issues — but for some reason, there is only one man in the world I want to grow old with. And he has chosen a different life than one with me.
When we were together, we believed we were a split-apart, two halves of the same being. Or did I just believe it? Anyway, there were times when I would think, “No wonder I split-apart from you,” as he would be driving me crazy. Not with something awful, not like the succession of abusive narcissists I rebounded to. No…just something that I was grumpy about…intolerant of…like a weird rant about the Post Office. He never did anything awful to me…not until the end…after I had done it first. And he then did it worse. But…we were talking about split-aparts.
Does he feel it to? The missing part? For so many years now? We found each other. And then we lost each other again. Does he still feel it? When he would sometimes text me, sometimes message me, before I became too much for him to even do that anymore…when he did contact me, he would say little things — give me little hints of it. Little things he would say, like a song made him think of me. Or telling me what color my eyes are. Little things made me think he could still feel it.
I feel profoundly sad when I think of Pete. Other times I feel profoundly happy, believing we will be together again. I have never missed a person like I miss him. I am the queen of ghosting. I leave entire towns of people without looking back. But he has somehow moved into my heart…and has never left again. Maybe it’s the tattoo? On my wrist is a claddagh tattoo with the sun in the middle of it. The sun is for Pete. He is a Leo. His has a moon in it. A moon for me. I am a Cancer. We got these tattoos after the first time we broke up and ended up back together again. We were apart for a summer. We both dated other people. Then we ended up in each other’s arms again. I felt guilty for it because neither of us had really broken up with the others we were dating. I felt like we were cheating. Pete said to me, “It’s okay if we get married. We are doing nothing wrong if this is what’s meant to be.” Or something like that. Something that made me cry, made me love him more, and convinced me to get engagement tattoos with him.
The tattoo guy talked us out of getting our names in the middle of the hearts. I don’t know who came up with the sun & the moon, but it was something we always joked about — that he was the sun and I was the moon. That is how different we were. He was the outgoing one. The sweet-tempered friend to everyone. I was the moody one. The dark but shiny one. So we went with that. The sun & the moon.
My tattoo is on my wrist. His is on his upper arm. After they were done, my wrist swelled up painfully, trying to heal. We were about to get in a car with my parents to drive me, Pete, and all our stuff out to Roanoke, VA because I had gotten it into my head that I should attend an all girl’s college there. To become a writer. A weird Southern style school where everyone lived on campus…well, not Pete.
So I spent the entirety of the late August car ride wearing long sleeves so my parents would not see the tattoo. I was afraid they would be angry at my spending the money. Also…I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing. I woke up the morning after and looked at that tattoo and had a panic attack. Sort of like the panic attack I had right after Pete and I slept together the first time. Okay, I mean, had sex. We had actually been sleeping together for awhile. You know, as friends…but then he finally broke up with his girlfriend and we made it official by having sex. Okay, after he got over the remorse he felt about breaking up with his girlfriend. He did feel bad about it. He didn’t feel bad about being in love with me…but he felt bad about breaking her heart. He felt so bad that he went out and got shitfaced. Then he came home and went into insulin shock on our living room floor. I called the paramedics, because that’s what I had seen other people do when Pete went into insulin shock (something he did at least once a week.) When the paramedics got there, they dumped sucrose down his throat & left again. I thought, “Well, I could have done that.”
Tattoos. And an all-girl college in Virginia.
Twelve years later, you have had your first child with your second husband. You thought you were over Pete. You had tried so hard to be over Pete. But just like when things started getting rough in your first marriage, you cope by thinking of Pete. You did that in 1999. You thought of Pete when you realized Mike did not love you and that the marriage was doomed. You packed up every portrait you had drawn of him and drove from Lexington, Kentucky to a suburb of Chicago to leave a package for Pete on him mom’s doorstep. You hadn’t actually had contact with Pete since 1996 when you hopped on a Greyhound bus out of Austin Texas when you found out he was in love with someone else. Someone you had never met. Someone you would never meet. But in 1999 you found him again, with a road trip to his mom’s house and a note left with your phone number. He called a few days later. His first marriage was over, and now he lived in Philadelphia.
In 2006, you call him again. You text him flirty things…mostly innocent, but flirty. You email him to let him know you will be in Philadelphia for a minute on your way to New Jersey and wouldn’t it be fun to get coffee?
You plan on telling Nate. You are going to tell Nate. But he finds the texts. He finds the emails. He goes through your phone & your email and finds what he is looking for. Proof that you are a bad person.
You try to explain that you are just lonely and trying to reconnect with someone who you once felt close to, but he just lets you know you are a bad, bad person.
Thanks to the tattoo, Nate had already had ammunition for his attack. He didn’t have a great lost love…why did you? You were supposed to be his one & only — and he was supposed to be his? Why were you letting him down? Why were you ruining his fantasy?
You had no way of knowing, but you would be with Nate for three more children…for eleven more years. You had no way of knowing, but your second marriage was already doomed. Doomed & dying a slow…slow death.
You would try to save it. You would convince yourself that you could forget Pete. You would love Nate. He would be your one and only…but as soon as he pushed you away, your thoughts would return to Pete.
In all that time, you would only see Pete the one time in 2006 for coffee in Philadelphia, but every argument about who’s fault it was, Nate would blame you for cheating on him by texting an ex. By having a cup of coffee with an ex. There. See? It was your fault Nate fucked a housemate while you lived together in a co-op with your three children. It was your fault he used another woman to emotionally fuck with you during your fourth pregnancy and the four years after. Your fault, because you sent a flirty text to an ex while feeling lost & lonely. Your fault because you still loved Pete. Did he even know you still loved Pete?
You wonder what atrocity you would have earned had Nate known you actually were still in love with Pete.
Maybe he would have just gone ahead and fucked someone on the hood of your car while you tried to leave him.
It seems like every song on the radio reminds me of him. Every song is either a song he would sing & shuffle along to in that old black man white kid from the suburbs way of his, pointing & winking. Or the song describes exactly the way I feel. Holy fuck there are so many loved ’em & lost ’em songs out there. It gets so I am afraid to turn on the radio because I am going to cry. Think of him and cry.
Here is a story I have told a million times. The story of how I met Pete. Do you want the long version…or the short one? The one where fate brought me to Normal, Illinois? Or just cut to the chase and hear about the night I first noticed him standing behind the bar of the Gallery, where I drank nightly after finding myself and my life detoured to Normal.
I have a terrible memory, but the memory of his standing there, cleaning his freshly pierced belly button behind the bar where he worked…that memory is like it happened yesterday. I looked at him, and there was no conscious thought process. I saw how fucking pretty he was and my subconscious evaluated my chances as slim to none, “he’s out of your league,” said the little voices in my head. And I never gave a single thought to us ever being together. Instead, I approached him like someone I did not want to sleep with. I approached him with confidence. Nothing to lose.
“I just got mine pierced too!” and I pulled up my plain white t-shirt to show him.
Did my dismissal of him as a potential mate carry over to our future romance, always tainting it with my disbelief? My low self-esteem? My never believing someone like him could be into someone like me?
I was a damaged & awkward girl dressed as a boy, hiding in my own skin from the entire world. Emotionally abused and expecting more of the same.
He was a kid who the worst thing to ever happen to him was his parents getting divorced. Fighting the normal life he lived by embracing his weirdness.
Did my dismissal of him incite in him a desire? Did he only pursue me because I was the only girl who didn’t chase him? Did he stop wanting me so much when I finally started wanting him? After I had lost him.
You talk to him while you are doing dishes. Like a ghost…no like an imaginary friend. Because it’s not the him from when you were 24…it’s the him now…hundreds of miles away in Philadelphia. Him today. Right now. You talk to him; you imagine he can hear you. Just like when you get a rare chance to masturbate. You think of him. You imagine he can feel what you imagine you are doing to him. You imagine he can feel you coming.
Every song on the radio reminds you of him. Realizing this you think, your whole relationship was a song. All of it. Just like every song on the radio is part of your feelings for him. Every moment of your history with him could have been a song.
You keep remembering when you were at Hollin’s University together. He was the only guy on an all-girl campus. He was your guy. You can’t remember, but you hope you took every opportunity possible to kiss him…to hold him…to fuck him silly.
You remember that autumn in the foot hills of the Appalachian Mountains. You smoked Pall Malls with him. You smoked Lucky Strikes with him. Sometimes he rolled his own. You painted your chewed off fingernails white, but your right hand’s polish would turn yellow from the cigarettes shared with him, cold hand to cold hand. Cold mouth becoming warm.
You used to have a photograph of one night in the dorms when all the girls played dress up with each other’s clothes. Pete was dressed up too. Your big doll. He wore girl clothes and looked beautiful and whenever you here that song by the band James, you think of him. “Messed around with gender roles, dressed me up in women’s clothes…” The photograph is you in a dark green fairy dress, looking at him. Gazing at him. Smiling at him. The whole big group of you & your dorm mates & Pete dressed up in each other’s clothes. A picture someone should save forever.
Of course you cut the photo to pieces one night under a full moon in an effort to cleanse yourself of your past. You silly fucking twat. You never understood that he was never the problem. You burned all of your photos of him. All of your love letters. For what?
You wonder if one of the others has a copy of the photograph.
You wonder how you go about finding out. You imagine contacting your entire dorm, 24 years later, “Hey, how’s it going. Say, not to sound pathetic & sad…but do you have any pictures of Pete? You remember Pete…always by my side?”
Always by your side…which you found annoying as a punk little 20-something. Now you wish for that. You so took it for granted that he would always be there. You so took him for granted. He went from always by your side to always on your mind.
Did I tell you all my stories? When we were together? Did I tell you all my stories? I know after we broke up, written in my journals, I am still talking to you. Still telling you my stories. My every day. Still believing you would want to hear.
The lot of us that hung out at the Gallery in Normal in 1993…it was like a weird post high school existence. More like high school than I had ever experienced in high school as an outcast. The Gallery, it was a bunch of circles overlapping. But you had the cool crowd. You had the prom kings & queens. Pete was definitely part of the cool crowd. Pete was a prom king. Me? Even though I was much more included than I had ever been in highschool, I was still on the fringe. My reputation was helped by living in a party house and being liked by the alpha bartender at the Gallery, but a girl who cuts off her hair and wears boys’ clothes and doesn’t know how to make appropriate small talk…that girl gets comfortable on the fringe.
So I was as surprised as anyone else that Pete was paying so much attention to me. Most surprised was probably his girlfriend, Amy, and her queen bee party girls. They kind of ruled the Gallery. One of them had actually already stolen one of my boyfriends — or, rather, righted a wrong by getting him to dump me and date her. So I was not popular with the popular girls. I hung out with the more bawdy of the party girls. The less refined. I was definitely not a suitable match for Pete.
However, unbeknownst to all, Pete did not want to be prom king to Amy’s prom queen.
So he moved to Montana.
I thought nothing of it when I went to his going away party. I mean, he was a nice guy, but I had no thoughts of any future with him. He was just a nice guy — someone fun to people watch with at parties.
So Pete moved to Montana.
However, he did not break up with Amy. He thought moving to Montana would encourage a natural separation. It did not.
When it snowed in Montana’s August, Pete moved back to Illinois. I saw him on the street the day he returned. We were walking towards each other down a street in Normal. We ran into each other, and our relationship began. Just like that.
He later told me that he had a dream about me, and that is why he came back.
Amy took their relationship up where it had left off as if he had never left…and Pete did not challenge her…but he kept returning to me. He would show up at the apartment where I lived with two other friends, and we would just hang out, goof off, and talk. We hatched all kinds of plans for making money. We tried to think of everything. I don’t know which of us suggested it, but one of us decided we should get married…for the tax breaks.
So I planned a trip for us to Vegas. Pete backed out at the last minute. Amy had said, “no.”
“I already asked for the time off,” I explained. “I guess I will go to Texas and visit my sister.”
Pete said he would go with me.
We roadtripped to Texas. Just friends despite what Amy & her cronies must have thought. Just friends. My face hurt so bad from laughing. My car stunk of Lucky Strikes. He was by far the best time I had ever had. He met my sister and her boyfriend. He was charming, thoughtful, and sweet. He was the best time I had ever had. Which made me all that much more certain he was not meant for me. He was way too good to be true. As Pete liked to say, “I don’t have to look in a mirror, I know I look good.” He would be the first to tell you he was perfect. And he wasn’t lying.
You have spent the past twenty-something years waiting for him to have another dream that will put him on the path to you again.
No, wait, that’s not exactly true. After all, you have gotten married twice since then — and fallen in love once. You have had a short marriage and a longer one. You have had four children. You have had an on-again/off-again relationship that lasted fifteen years and almost cost you your sanity. You haven’t had a lot of time to pine for him. But you still have. Especially when your heart is breaking from another failed relationship. Especially when you are alone again and imagining the time when you never thought you would be alone again. Especially when you are just longing for someone — someone to please god understand you the way he understood you.
And you reach out to him.
And depending on his mood…depending on if he is in the middle of a marriage or a relationship…sometimes he reaches back. Just a little. Just enough to keep you hungry. And at first it feels good, but then it is not enough. You start to wonder if you are just fodder for his ego. You start to resent him. You vow never to contact him again. You delete his phone number and forget his email and burn his address out of your address book.
But when loneliness creeps back into your life, you yearn for him in a way that only someone two days without water would know.
And the cycle repeats.
Maybe he is a coping mechanism…like when you used to date dead celebrities to ease your loneliness. Maybe he is just something to think about when thoughts would otherwise turn grim.
You can’t believe that. You can’t believe he is just a way to fall asleep at night when all you want to do is scream & run away from your life. It has to be more than that. Or, think about it, why does thinking about him calm you down? There has to be something to that…right?
You are desperate to believe there is a reason your thoughts & your heart keep returning to him. Desperate. You find solace in Hollywood movies and love songs and Bronte novels. See — it’s real. True love is real. Not letting go isn’t always a bad thing. Having devotion is admirable.
We met on the street that day as if not an hour had passed since we last saw each other. The day he returned from Montana. The very same day.
“I was just thinking about you,” I told him.
“I was just thinking about you,” he agreed.
And then I changed direction to walk with him…or he changed direction to walk with me. And our life together started.
I wasn’t confused or skeptical of times like these in my life. Times when I seem to know things that I couldn’t possibly know. Except I do know them. Like the whole reason I was even in Normal, Illinois at that time in my life. I was supposed to be in Washington DC. I had lived in Iowa City for four years after growing up in a small town in Illinois, and I was sick of the Midwest. I was sure that the east coast was where I belonged. So as 1992 turned into 1992 I was bound for Washington DC where I was to be a nanny for my politician brother. However, I first stopped by home for Christmas. While there, my younger sister, Elizabeth the young Republican, wanted to show us that she was hip. So she took myself and my two other sisters to a college bar in Normal, Illinois. The Gallery. I instantly fell in love with the place and the wall to wall cute boys.
And then it was New Year’s Eve. I woke up with one thought in my head, “Tonight you will meet the man you are going to marry.”
That night, Elizabeth took us to the Gallery once more. That night, Tim Bradstreet decided he liked me. He wasn’t at all my type. Too tall, too heavy, too hairy…but due to the premonition, I decided to give him a chance. If I squinted, he looked a little like John Cusack. Plus he was some kind of big deal comic book artist. Being that I wanted someday to break into that field, I thought maybe it really was kismit.
I decided to stay in Normal and see where it would take me.
Tim dumped me about a month later.
But by this time, I had a place to live. I had a job. I had friends. I was even popular in my own fringey way.
So I stayed.
“See,” I would say to Pete. “I was supposed to stay so I could meet you.”
“We would have met either way,” he insisted. His father lived in D.C. and he
visited there regularly. He said we were destiny. He said we were fate.
Your dream began as you arrived in town. It was 2:30-something in the morning. You were driving a scooter to get home to him. A Clydesdale trotted by in the empty city streets. You said hello and wished the horse well. Do you call him to meet you? You know he is worried and still awake waiting for you. Somehow you get home without finding him, so you go back out. When you see him, it is like a miracle. He has a beard. His arm is in a cast. You rush to him and hug him as tight as you can. He pulls you even closer and kisses you deeply, passionately. He kisses you as if he is starving to death and you are the only thing that will keep him alive. You feel overwhelmed by the kiss, but you crave it. This feeling. After all, you are starving for him as well.
And he didn’t even seem to mind that you’ve gotten fat…or, rather, fattish.
Then, this being a dream, you lose your job for being involved in a public display of affection. Apparently your job included being a fluffer of sorts for the Tremont Turks highschool football team. You argue with your now ex-boss that that was not in the job description therefor she cannot fire you.
But none of it matters really. Pete is by your side. That is all that matters.
You wake up like you always do after a dream about Pete. Feeling peaceful and happy. Feeling like you got a chance to spend time with him. In one realm or another.
When you go back to sleep, you have a dream about your dead brother. It feels like Christmas in your subconscious.
The second time we got back together wasn’t quite as magical as the first time. We were living in Austin Texas. We both worked in separate bars. He worked a morning shift while I worked nights. We had drifted apart. I was tired of finding him in insulin shock. He had even driven his truck into a utility pole while in insulin shock. I had developed an anxiety about coming home and finding him dead. I didn’t like pancakes or pancake syrup, but I kept us stocked on bottles of it for times i would have to pour it down his throat and get him to revive. Pete didn’t even seem to notice it was wrecking me.
I started fucking around with a skinny neurotic co-worker that I didn’t even really like. But, he was broken, like me. Not like perfect Pete.
I broke up with him after I started fucking around with Jeff. I knew it was wrong to fuck around. However, I missed Pete like crazy. We had been living separately, but we went out together that night. We were on a bus coming home from an Oktoberfest where we had polka-ed the night away.
Pete didn’t know I had been fucking around. He thought I was just living with Jeff because I needed a place to stay when he & I broke up. He didn’t know that, in effect, I had left him for Jeff.
But on that bus, Pete & I fell into each other’s arms…drunken arms. Too many beers and too much fun left us giddy and love-struck again.
I thought I had to come clean. I thought he should know. So I told him about Jeff.
I remember being scared after I did it. I remember running away. I also remember being very drunk. I don’t think Pete wanted to hurt me…but he was extremely pissed off.
And, also, very drunk.
I don’t really remember the weeks after though. I know we got back together. I know I bought Christmas presents for him at Urban Outfitter — a large, bowl-sized coffee cup. I know he got me pajamas. I wore them as I drove from Austin to Illinois without him for Christmas at my folks.
I don’t remember why he didn’t come.
There is a picture of me in those pajamas on my parent’s couch, talking to Pete on the phone.
We were trying to make it magical again.
We didn’t succeed.
First off, there was the problem of Jeff having herpes. I didn’t know until after he & I were intimate, but I did know before having sex again with Pete. I did not contract herpes from Jeff, but Pete was pissed off even more when he found out I may or may not have exposed him.
Next was the fact that Pete still wasn’t taking care of his diabetes. I remember being angry enough to punch him while he was in insulin shock before banging my own head into the wall. I felt completely alone as he lay convulsing in our bed. I hated him for doing that to me. It didn’t seem to affect him at all. He just rolled out of it after I dosed him with pancake syrup. But it was killing me. I was terrified of being left behind. And he always seemed to be one foot out the door.
On Valentine’s day, I knew it was over. Part of me knew anyway…or in retrospect. Pete got me the white pair of wing-tip Doc Martins I had been wanting. Not a cheap present for someone living on cook’s wages in Austin Texas. It was uncharacteristically extravagant for him. Something, I soon realized, men do when they feel guilty. And he told me again how much he loved me and how our tattoos meant we were married whether we made it official or not.
But he stopped coming home.
The last time we had sex, I could tell he just wanted to get it over with. He had the same angry sex face he would have on whenever I accidentally walked in on him masturbating. Like I was intruding. Like I shouldn’t be there.
I chased him. The last time I ever saw him in Austin. I chased him and demanded answers. He seemed happy to tell me that it was over and he didn’t want to see me anymore. He seemed happy to hurt me.
It was his co-worker, Becky, who told me about Judith. I never met her, but apparently she was beautiful and had been doting on Pete for awhile.
It was Becky who helped me trash Pete’s apartment one drunken night. She peed in his coffee cup I’d gotten him for Christmas. I hid eggs around the apartment, one in the boots I had gotten for him. I drew my self-portrait, red paint of me in a red bra, right over his bed.
He married Judith after I left Austin on a Greyhound bus. He went on with his life as if I had never even existed. He didn’t even think twice about those tattoos of ours.
While I have spent so much of my life apologizing to him in one way or another. For one thing or another.
He has never once said he was sorry.
I don’t believe his is sorry.