- 2011 -
Last summer, at the same time Ashleigh was packing her things up to leave for Colorado, I worked at a department store in the mall.
I remember watching customers wander through the aisles, me a lifeless statue behind my checkout desk. All sorts of people came in and out while I stood there.
But the place, or at least it seemed, mostly attracted a more specific demographic: old married couples. They were everywhere –– or maybe I’d just notice them everywhere. Pairs would walk by together slowly and smiling, wrinkled all over, still gripping hands after years of struggle and reconciliation. I decided I hated them.
I also hated that woman who worked over in perfume, who always bragged about the elaborate gifts her husband bought her. Or the men’s clothing manager, gliding around the sales floor with her protruding belly under maternity dress. In the end, it got hard to look at or talk to anyone without twinges of hate –– without the constant reminder of my spiraling marriage.
A man came in one day pushing a stroller. He couldn’t have been much older than me, maybe only a few years, wearing clothes that I would wear, sporting a shiny gold wedding ring on his finger (that’s the sort of thing you start noticing when your marriage is falling apart — whether other peoples’ marriages are working). He stopped a few feet short of my register to browse through a new t-shirt display, and as he stepped away from the stroller, the baby inside immediately started to cry.
He dropped the shirt and returned, peering down into the folds of blankets.
“What’s wrong, buddy?” he said amidst whimpers from his son.
He smiled and reached a hand in, his brows softening, his eyes glowing. The child had his full attention. And when the baby refused to be comforted by his father’s touch, the man lifted his son into his arms and held him so close to his face that their noses touched. The boy stopped crying.
The boy giggled. I hurried to the stockroom before the man could notice me weeping.
I had never truly taken the idea of suicide serious before that day. It had always existed as some distant notion in the back of my mind — a feasible means of escape if things got really bad, but nothing I actually figured I had the balls to go through with. The stockroom changed that.
I began to spend a lot of company time there, in the back between the tall metal shelves and stacks of clothes. It became the only place I felt safe from the watching eyes of people, and where people were safe from me. See, those were the lies I kept hearing inside my head: you screw everything up for everyone. Who would ever want to be close to you? You’re alone, alone, alone.
Eventually my eyes were drawn up to those water pipes that snaked along that sterile ceiling, and a dark kind of longing fell upon me. What could I do with a strong enough belt? Or the shelves — if I jumped off the tallest ones, could I land in just such a way that might make it painless?
Days blurred by like this, I guess, too high on those siren fantasies to care how long I spent in the stockroom. I gave Father Time the bird, then the rest of the world. And I kept going back.
Eventually the hunger grew until suddenly one day in early July I found myself grasping at those iron rails along the walls, ready to hoist myself upward, upward, forever upward, never to come down. Before that moment when my fingers clasped around the cold metal, I had only ever flirted with the idea. But all at once that season was over; the time had come to either commit or run.
So I left the room and turned in my two-weeks’ notice. I ran.
When I came back from my manager’s office, I took a picture of those lonely snake pipes with my phone and set it as my background. I added the caption: “God is bigger than this.”
I hear a lot of debate about things like free will and people becoming God’s robots or whatever. I can’t help but think that if my decision whether or not to leave the stockroom had been completely up to me, I’d be dead.
One morning not long after turning in my two-weeks’, a strange sort of conviction fell over me, not at all unlike the one in the stockroom, though much different in principle. Somehow, I thought I might find a kind of relief if I told someone about our problems, about those thoughts in the stockroom and all the tumultuous mountains of junk I’d been collecting my whole life that I’d tried so hard to sweep under the rug of my marriage.
I went to Jared’s house after work and walked around the rooms a while, trying to gather up the gumption to say something. It got late.
Eventually I lost my nerve and decided to leave, but the conviction weighed heavier than ever. I made it a few blocks down the street before calling to ask if I could come back.
“Why?” Jared asked.
“I think I need to get some things off my chest.”
“Alright, man,” he replied. “Yeah, come on back.”
We moved to the back porch and sat on the wood banisters in silence there for a while. I had never realized before how an exceptionally private person I had become over the years. I guarded my stone heart in a safe with many layers, unwilling to allow anyone to see the grime and mold that had built up there in the dark. I became an actor by trade, and my favorite dialogue: you choose.
If I never voiced my desires or dreams, my heart stayed safe.
If I never revealed my fears or disappointments, I couldn’t be hurt by anyone.
If I kept my darkest recesses concealed, nobody — not even me — would have to see who I really was, so I could morph into exactly what each person wanted me to be.
No one could reject me then. So I could never end up alone, right? It’s strange how you can go your whole life not knowing how scared you are of rejection until you actually are rejected.
On that back porch, that first time I began to let the dawn break over the surface of my squinting heart, I had to hold my breath. To speak even the most ordinary words required courageous abandon. The unordinary ones — the words I had never suspected to hear uttered from my own lips to any other living human being — literally required miracles.
“I don’t know if I love her,” I wept. “I think…I think it’s over.”
Jared listened without condemnation or even surprise. I couldn’t understand it. Two days later, I confessed all the same things to Tim, who reacted just as gracefully, encouraging me to fight against failing hope for the marriage.
And suddenly all the relational paradigms I’d been operating under were turned completely on their heads. The secrets I thought would make friends scatter actually ushered me into a kind of friendship I’d never known before. I found myself irrevocably tied up in the lives of two guys I’d barely known at all; like David and Jonathan in the Bible stories, the loose frays on the edges of our stories — the deep, exposed threads of our souls — were being knit together.
Jared and Tim aren’t any more perfect than the rest of us, of course. And ultimately, it wasn’t them who blinded me with the searing light that forced me to spit up that poison I’d been feeding myself for years. I’m not sure, however, that without their simple willingness to hear me out, their open ears and eyes, I wouldn’t have ended up in another stockroom somewhere, cold and alone, lifeless on a concrete floor as hard as my heart.
- 1999 -
An electric breeze swept over us as we clung to the sides of Jesse’s dad’s pickup truck bed, our jerseys ruffling and wrapping around us like waving flags. Our ball caps threatened to fly off, but we didn’t care. Tyler had already taken his off and thrown it into the air and before long most of us followed suit like it was graduation day.
We laughed and cheered, and the mid-summer sun shone down happy on us as we raised our fingers to it. We Are the Champions came on the radio inside the cab. Jesse’s dad turned it up and we sang along as loud as we could, filling Main Street with news of our victory.
A kind of magic buzzed in the summer heat that day.
Some people wandered out onto the curb when they heard us coming, standing in front of their storefront windows painted for the tournament; they knew the games ended today, and when they looked at us, we saw victory on their faces, too. We were one of the first 10-year-old baseball teams to win the state championship in Lamar. Our names would be etched on the sign at Jim Earl Field for what might as well have been eternity. This was how people became legends.
From my seat on the edge of a spare tire, I looked around at the other boys laughing around me
“No time for losers, ‘cause we are the champions of the world!” they screamed. Little John stood there beside me. I gave him one of at least a dozen high fives.
On the other side stood Jordan, who could yell louder than just about anyone else on the team without even trying. We’d spent a good deal of time during the tournament working the concession stand together and becoming good friends, scooping sliced jalapeños out of the condiment jar to nibble. We’d see who could eat the most without getting sick or taking a drink of water.
Clay sat nearby, too, cheering in his own calm, humble way. He’d pitched the championship game, even though he normally played catcher. He was good enough to do that; he had his hand on every pitch of the tournament in one way or another. If anyone had the right to scream loud about our victory, it was Clay.
I’d been on the same little-league team with that kid as long as I could remember, and he’d always been like that. That was one of the reasons he’d become one of my best friends over the years. We’d shared hotel rooms during previous tournaments. We once watched all the Lethal Weapon movies while sitting upside down on the hotel couch, laughing, our legs propped up against the wall above us while Mel Gibson ran around upside-down on the screen.
I mostly played shortstop and outfield those early years, and had an okay batting average compared to everyone else. But when I watched Clay at bat or behind the plate, I knew I wanted to be a real player, like him.
Cars passed us and honked; some rolled their windows down to applaud, some to shout their congratulations over blaring music. Seeing them, Jason held the trophy out while policemen flashed their lights in royal procession — and maybe it was just the ring of triumph in the air, but all at once I got the distinct feeling that I wasn’t just looking around at mere teammates with matching jerseys. I saw a band of soldiers from the same army, returning home together from war. I saw fellow laborers coming in after a long day’s work. I saw brothers.
Somehow, I don’t think I was the only one who noticed a change between us that day. The folks on Main saw, along with our parents and coaches: the story of our team, our brotherhood, could only just be beginning.