Curveballs

Jeff Brutlag
Jun 24 · 11 min read
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I opened my eyes, saw the morning glow across the white ceiling, and felt knots tightening in my stomach. I remembered crying the night before, and I wondered why I didn’t feel better, that morning. I always felt better the morning after I cried, or at least like weight had evaporated off of my body, but this time, everything was still heavy. I had to force myself out of bed even though felt like I had to push a car off of me, first. The good day I had planned couldn’t continue from under my covers, though I wished it could have.

While showering and getting myself ready to go to my niece’s kindergarten graduation, I was only thinking about the guy who was coming over to my house that night for dinner. I was going to make garlic pasta and sautéed brussel sprouts for this bald, ginger-bearded man who made me feel invisible, and I couldn’t possibly be more excited.

I had convinced myself for so long that I wasn’t invisible with him, a debate I started with myself after sinking into the background the first time we met. His expression was cold the whole time we were at that bar, even when talking about his own hopes and dreams of opening his own psychiatry practice. I thought I found visibility in being warm and encouraging, telling him that it’ll happen some day because he had the drive to accomplish it, but the warmth must have just dissipated around him. I told him that I wanted to make a living off of my writing, and maybe I didn’t say it in a convincing enough voice while I fiddled with my drink, because there were still no cracks in the ice. I didn’t get the sense that he cared, and I think he only ever told me once that he thought I was a good writer. Maybe he thought it was the only time he needed to say it. Maybe he thought it was the only thing he ever needed to say, about it.

It was always ice among quiet flames. I only saw him melt from heat that wasn’t my own.

While I was thrilled about him coming over, I also mildly nauseous for most of the day. We went from seeing each other two times a week, holding hands at our local Pride festival, going on a trip to Hollywood together, and staying overnight at his condo more often than not. This eventually transitioned into going days without hearing from him. The anticipation of when I’d see him next quickly melted and sizzled into anxiety, and I was desperate to find out if I was doing something wrong. I must have been doing something wrong.

So I invited him to have dinner at my place. I would cook all the food, provide all of the pinot noir (his favorite), and we would sit on the couch, drinking our wine while closing the distance between us. The perfect day, albeit nerve-wracking, was going to unfold in front of me. I was sure of it.

And I would remain sure of it, even after an unexpected interaction with my older brother’s aunt (from his dad’s side) after my niece’s kindergarten graduation. We were leaning against a wall, waist-deep in a sea of children, waiting for my brother and my sister-in-law to come back after grabbing my niece’s graduation photos. She asked me how I was doing, and it wasn’t the gentle “how are you” that keeps a conversation going. It felt heavy, and I knew why it did.

My mother had passed away about six months prior to the graduation due to the progression of her stage 4 breast cancer. I was functional, but I often had to remind myself that she wasn’t there, anymore. I was still living in her house, using her appliances, sleeping on a bed that she bought for me, sleeping in a room I had known for twenty-two years. I was pretending all of it was normal, which was exhausting. I wasn’t fine, but I told people I was. I was always under the impression that I had to stop letting it get to me. Admitting that it still hurt meant that I hadn’t moved on, and not moving on felt like being stuck. Still living in my mom’s house, being single for 8 years prior to simply “seeing someone,” and being so early in my career endeavors, I wanted to convince myself that I was anything but stuck.

I don’t remember exactly what I told my brother’s aunt, but I remember it being neutral. It was probably along the lines of “every day is different,” because it was the only thing that felt true without having to say that I was the personification of a head-on collision.

I knew she was in the midst of her own traumatic experiences, as her husband’s health was getting worse, so I remember asking how she was doing. She’s a woman who works full time and comes home to take care of her husband full time, as his condition makes walking around the house a dangerous process. Through all of this, she wears a smile, though I often wonder if it’s a smile that she slaps on her face before anyone has the chance to look. But maybe she was genuinely happy. She might be good at finding the bits of light in her darkening world. It was hard to be entirely sure. I just know that my mom, on every drive home from an event where we would see her, would ask me “where does she get her energy?”

Knowing the stamina and positivity I’ve seen her have, I didn’t immediately feel the weight of her words when she said “life really does throw you some curveballs, doesn’t it?”

I had to laugh. It felt like the universe was speaking through her.

I never expected my mom to die when I was twenty-five. I was too hopeful to see that her time would come before I could even move out of her house. I’m not sure that I ever would have been ready to lose her, but I sure wasn’t ready to lose her when I had just gotten laid off from my social media job, when I was scrambling to figure out where to go from there, and when I decided to chase my dreams full-time. These thoughts ricocheted in my head while I watched her slowly whither away. The fact that I could never share these thoughts with her made the noise even louder.

I didn’t have time to dwell on all of that, though; I was going to have the best at-home dinner date with a man who may have found me to be irrelevant.

I didn’t dress up, but I wanted to look like I put some effort in. I cooked my garlic pasta with hot Italian sausage and brussel sprouts with bacon in a polo and some nice shorts, feeling like I looked the part, and like the food would taste just right. However, the only thing that was wrong was how just a half an hour before he was supposed to be on his way is when he decided that texting me about the annoyances of his job was a good idea. Mind you, I had pasta to boil, brussel sprouts to chop and sauté, bacon and sausage to cook, and garlic bread to slice and toast, but that was the moment he would finally ask for a conversation. And of course, with my desperation for approval, I went right for it. I managed to finish everything on time, but only because I panicked through the rest of the process.

Everything was ready when the doorbell rang, just as I planned. Just how I imagined the pitch.

I opened the door and immediately felt off-balance. He was wearing a t-shirt from the college he went to, and a look on his face that said he didn’t want to be there. Maybe this was just him being natural. We had definitely been on several dates before, so the facades and need to impress may have started to fade. I guess I did’t get that memo. Maybe I should have worn a graphic tee, too. Maybe I started the curve.

He complained immediately upon walking into the house. I had warned him about the roadwork happening in the neighborhood, but a warning wasn’t the same as helping him out of it, entirely. He seemed more readily available for the wine that I offered after his tirade than he was for a kiss from me when he walked through the door. I felt that my company was only secondary. I wondered if it was always a second thought.

The only highlight of the night was when he told me he thought the food was delicious shortly after we started eating. The night would only spiral downward, from there.

We ate, we drank red wine, we watched a Netflix comedy special, and he dealt with me searching desperately for a home in his arms on the couch. I felt the dissonance scratching at the walls of my stomach every time I tried to get closer to him. It hurt more when I tried to ignore it. Nothing was aligning with the fantasy I crafted about the night. I was feeling lost, fueled only by desperation for another good feeling.

I picked up the dishes from the coffee table and brought them into the kitchen. I had to move, to put some kind of order into the space because the longer I waited, the more the words bottlenecked on my tongue. I don’t remember what he was trying to talk to me about while I loaded the dishwasher, but I remembered it being mindless, so I was only thinking about how to close the distance. When I imagined the trajectory of the night, I pictured a scene out of a movie where we learned about each other’s insecurities and faults, and how they would make us see the words between our lines. Almost none of the night prior to putting plates in the dishwasher went according to what played out in my head, yet it still didn’t didn’t occur to me that the night wasn’t supposed to go my way.

I don’t recall how it transitioned into this, but I leaned against the kitchen island, and soon after, he said that he had something to tell me. He took a long pause, and so did the air around us. It was the only moment where I expected absolutely nothing. It felt liberating, because I, for one moment, didn’t feel controlled by a fantasy. The fantasy took its nails out of my back, and though I felt the air sting, I was finally free of expectation.

He told me he decided to move to Seattle due to his career.

Like watching a paper towel soak up a spilled drink, I watched my hope for the night get absorbed into something that would eventually be garbage. I knew immediately what it meant. All that time we were seeing each other, I was so desperate to just feel seen by him. To feel like he actually heard what I would say to him. The news of him moving to Seattle only tainted my fantasies with desperation; I was scrambling to think about how to keep this from becoming an ending. He would have to hear me at least once.

“This must be why you were so distant,” I said, not making eye contact. But it was powerless, at that point.

He had to think about it, for a bit.

“Maybe not intentionally,” he said. “But maybe on some subconscious level.”

His words hung in the air around us, making breaths stagnant and thoughts rampant. I don’t know how long we were standing there, but time was no longer measured in moments. It was measured in the speed of the fire growing in my gut. I wanted to ask him to leave; I could only say “I don’t know what else to say” so many times. He beat me to it by deciding to leave me alone.

He asked for a hug, and I gave him one even though I didn’t want to. It felt like windchill. The chill intensified when he had his arm around me before he walked out the door, and I saw a smirk on his face out of the corner of my eye. That may have been the biggest twist of the night. I called him out on it, and he apologized, making it the only curveball I actually hit, that night. It may have been the only time he really heard my voice.

After that, I watched him walk out of sight, where he would remain. I spent the rest of my night crying, and wondering what I could have done better.

I only saw him for three months, and I hated that him moving away felt like a break-up. I tried to put the shattered pieces back together, but I could feel the pieces drawing blood. The correct solution was not to be found in getting him to agree to talk on the phone about the status of…whatever we were, but that’s the only solution I could see through tear-soaked eyes. I wasn’t ready to see our ending. I wasn’t ready to see another ending.

At the time, I was still living in my mother’s old house. I had lived in the house for over 22 years, and the emotional weight was abundantly present, after she passed away. I wanted so badly to destroy the chains that kept me there. Anywhere else was better than the house where I watched her go from the woman who couldn’t be stopped, to asking her friend if he had a gun so she could put herself out of her misery.

Anywhere could be Seattle. The universe must have been telling me to move to Seattle.

So I talked to him on the phone, and I asked him about the possibility. Logically, it wasn’t sound. If I had moved out to Seattle for him, and things still went wrong, I would have moved out there just to get my heart broken, again. I argued that it wouldn’t for him, but for me to escape where I felt trapped. He said that was my journey to figure out myself, and that I couldn’t let this situation be the driving factor. I mean, to hell with what the universe was telling me, right? The guy who barely seemed to hear me for three months knew best for me.

But he knew better for a certain reason. It was a reason he chose to omit, and had I not gone chasing signs from the universe, I may never have seen a very important one. So I asked if he even saw some sort of a future with us. At that point, it was getting hard to tell which signs were real, and which ones I hand-crafted.

I already felt the answer in the pause that he took before he gave me the real one. He said he thought I was fun to talk to, and smart, even though I felt he always undermined my intelligence, and it felt undermined yet again when he told me he didn’t see a romantic future for us. I couldn’t even say that I didn’t see that one coming. I was smart enough to know better, but I just needed to hear it. I saw it from the way the look in his eyes died every time I talked about anything at all that sparked passion within me.

And maybe he never meant to look that way when he listened, but all I know is that every time I saw it, I felt incompetence inflate within me, squeezing and displacing everything else to make room, and I never tried to let it out. I pushed that feeling so far away, because everything else about being with him just felt so good. Laying on his couch while we watched movies, making spontaneous choices to get shaved ice, and occasionally being affectionate in public like two gays who didn’t care what society thought made the clouds in my head dissipate, even when the incompetence continued to tear parts of me away. I was never worried about how bad this curveball would hurt because I convinced myself that I always saw it coming.

Jeff Brutlag

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Fiction/Nonfiction Writer | Twitch Streamer focused on story driven games | VERY gay | Loves Sailor Moon and cozy vibes ☕️ He/Him