5, 4, 3, 2, 1 — watch for the flash
When Todd and I were going through the bad time I would listen to The Mountain Goats’ “Tallahassee” (the album and the song) a lot. He would later tell me that he should have seen it as the over-obvious portent that it was.
The album is devoted to a recurring couple in John Darnielle’s music, full of dysfunction and teetering on the edge of divorce.
I have, in the eight years since, floated away from the album. When its tracks pop up on my playlists, I listen, but they don’t thrum in my bones anymore. The feeling I get now is more akin to that of someone walking over your grave; like a fiery car crash you narrowly avoided.
But there’s one song that still burns.
I don’t have friends.
That sounds weird. There are plenty of people in the world who would say we were friends. By their standards, we probably are, at least until we’re not. At this moment, I could probably count all of the friends I have in the world on a single hand, not accounting for blood or marriage and even accounting for partial credit for a half dozen or so individuals.
I have a lot of acquaintances. I’m friendly with tons of people (that’s what a lifetime spent in retail will get you). I know how it works but it doesn’t look like anything to me.
Because I have a secret.
I went home for a weekend, during the bad time, for a girls weekend with my mom and older sister. It was fun but also awkward, in that way that only family interactions can be. My sister is 10 years older than me, so it’ll only be at the very end that we’ll really be able to relate to each other, until then, we just love each other rabidly to make up for it.
My mother told me a story from her old life during that weekend. The time before I was born, when she was a different woman with a different husband and a different family. She told me about an incident that left her sitting on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere consumed with a white hot rage. A fury that she’d fought her entire life to bury, that I’d only seen once, maybe twice in the decades I’d known her. An anger that frightened her to her core.
I learned a lot that weekend.
Once, when I was little, like eight, I was losing a board game to my little brother so I hit him in the nuts. My grandma, who was watching us, (poorly, apparently) was horrified and I got a stern talking to because jesus christ, what is the matter with me?
I don’t know.
Let’s talk about anger.
That’s gross though, right? It’s a gross thing to talk about because it’s a gross thing to feel.
It’s one thing to feel angry about Donald Trump or capitalism or HBO or, god, La La Land, but it’s another to feel it about people. Real people. People who matter in your day-to-day life, that you would bloody yourself trying to defend from others but who ultimately don’t realize that the real threat is coming from inside the house.
Todd says I don’t know how to fight fair.
I’ll give him that one.
I’ve had people who love me, people who are friends, who have steeled themselves for the worst and experienced it and stayed anyway (so, idiots, basically) tell me that the thing they fear most in their entire lives is my anger.
There is no sparring. There is no warm-up. There is no warning. It’s stumbling into a boss fight you didn’t see coming and getting hit in the jugular.
You’re dead before you hit the ground.
Man, that sounded so cool, right? I’m so good with words and being mean and exploiting people’s weaknesses. What a cool thing to do. What a cool person to be. Cool, cool, cool, that’s me.
In Lev Grossman’s Magicians series of novels, there’s a creature called a niffin. It happens when a magician fails to maintain their emotions while casting.
When a magician is transformed into a niffin, they are consumed by blue flames. It burns away everything recognizable and leaves them a shell, devoid of their humanity.
She said she couldn’t believe how angry I was.
This is how you adult: You struggle. You make mistakes. You learn from them. You make new mistakes. You grow. You make new mistakes. You do better.
When I was 22, I broke up with a friend. She’d been doing things that bothered me for awhile, but that I couldn’t find a way to express.
Despite all that I’ve told you, I actually don’t like conflict. I don’t like yelling. I don’t like anger. I want everyone to be happy. I want everyone to get along. I know what can happen.
So I sat on it. I sat and it festered. It turned into something acrid and eventually that was it.
She sent an email forward about friendship. I told her that I didn’t think I liked her brand of friendship and then it was done. I recited a list of her sins that I’d silently catalogued for months, seething, while she was unaware.
She never spoke to me again.
She was a bridesmaid in my wedding six months earlier.
She’s in all my wedding photos.
This has happened before. It happened again.
For a long time, I let myself believe that the reason that I didn’t cultivate friendships is because I didn’t want to be let down. That people couldn’t possibly meet my expectations so it was better not to put anyone in a position for disappointment.
That was a lie.
I just didn’t want anyone to get hurt.
But I let down my guard and I let people in and when I tell this story I sound like the victim but I know I’m the villain. Bruce Banner doesn’t live here anymore.
When you’re nice to me, I appreciate it, even if I seem distant. It’s not you, it’s me. But as long as this lives inside of me, it will burn. Bridges, relationships, they’re all tinder for something that after 35 years I still don’t know how to control.
“The stage is set//Someone’s gonna do something someone else will regret”