- 2007 -
Mom drove me out to Tennessee after I graduated high school. She ferried me around while I prepared myself for welcome week at the university. Nashville stood exactly 1030 interstate miles away from Lamar –– a great distance from the only house I’d ever lived in, and from Ashleigh.
But I had decided fairly early on in my life that I wanted to be a musician of some sort –– or in the least, a creative person. Even before I began looking at colleges, I had my sights on Music City.
I remember staring at the skyline as we passed through the suburbs, feeling the first strands of those ties that bound me to Colorado being snipped away. Most of my possessions stayed home, my friends scattered themselves across the country for school, and Ashleigh remained behind. But so much lay ahead. A new, irreversible life was beginning.
Mom watched me close that week. Collecting the final glimpses of her son as she’d always known him, she said words that meant more, gave hugs that lasted longer. She knew a change was happening, too.
We were turning onto Wedgewood Avenue when she started talking in her walking-on-eggshells voice — that kind she used when she suspected she might be breaching personal boundaries.
“So, bud,” she began slowly, “are you and Ashleigh still together?”
The question took me by surprise.
Sure, the distance between us would be great, but I hadn’t even thought about splitting ties with Ashleigh before moving. Because of her, I’d gotten on track towards the life I thought everyone wanted for me — being successful, marrying a wife, having children, finding happiness.
“Yeah, we are,” I said.
I studied my mother’s face. Her expression seemed troubled.
“Well, it’s quite a distance.”
“I just think it might be healthy to…if you want to, I don’t know…try some new things, since you’re out here. Have a new start.”
I just nodded.
She questioned me no further. I’d always suspected that Mom had been skeptical of our relationship; after all, she probably never saw any visible sign of love between us. Friends of ours would laugh at how Ashleigh and I rarely held hands or showed any sort of public affection. I think most people who knew us just assumed that we were private people, the kind who saved such things for each other until behind closed doors. But that wasn’t the case, either.
We never showed affection, no matter where we were. And we never talked about it.
For the majority of our time together, we only operated out of a sense of duty, it seemed. Like one of Grandpa’s calves during branding, we let ourselves be herded through corrals and chutes to the only foreseeable outcome we knew. Or perhaps like the Clydesdales that pull tourists along the streets of Nashville, we wore those large black blinders to close out our peripherals. I went through periods feeling sure that I wanted to be with Ashleigh, and other times I felt terrified, because I didn’t want it at all.
But one thing seemed to sift through the mess: I should be with Ashleigh. I was the right thing to do. I thought everyone wanted me to marry her, and I always tried very hard to give those around me what they desired.
I followed my life mantra: you choose.
It might sound strange, but if you think arranged marriages don’t happen that often in the United States today, try looking closer. Maybe more than any other country, we get prodded around by fears and desires trying to become what people expect of us. We arrange our own marriages all the time. And we’re not very good at it.
College turned me into a recluse. Aside from occasional weekly visits to a couple of close friends, I mostly locked myself in my dorm room, completed homework, wrote depressing music, and downloaded television shows on my computer.
I eventually had to admit to myself that I’d really never learned how to properly make new friends. I didn’t get very many chances in Lamar, after all. I’d had many of the same friends since birth; I rarely got the chance to make any new acquaintances. That, coupled with a growing timidity around large groups, crippled me in most of my awkward attempts to make friends. I would rather just keep to myself.
And with all that time to alone, my mind went haywire.
The theme of our standard Freshman Seminar classes that year posed the question, “How do you know what you know?” For the first time ever, I found myself deconstructing my own thought life, tracing over the timeline of my experience with a microscope, rethinking, redoubting, rebelieving everything. As a result, many things I’d kept long stuffed away began to surface.
One night, on a whim, I found a review for the children’s book Bridge to Terabithia online and decided to rent the movie. I watched alone in my dark room as the protagonist, a young boy in a rural American town, struggled under the approval of his father and found refuge in a blooming friendship with his new neighbor — a girl his age named Leslie. As a means to escape my loneliness, I became swept away in their adventures.
I went with them across a creek to the forest near their homes, where they found that they could imagine anything, dreaming up solutions to problems that they faced every day. I laughed and ran and built tree houses with them.
I held my breath when the young boy learned that Leslie had drowned in the creek. And although I had made a resolution long ago not to cry about such things, I found myself losing all composure when he confessed in his father’s arms that he held himself responsible for her death, and that she must have gone to Hell because of him.
The whole movie, I couldn’t stop thinking of Clay.
Suddenly, the finishing crack sprung in some ancient dam within me. It crumbled to ruin. Every feeling I’d refused to wrestle with since Clay’s death came pouring out in stagnant streams of four-year-old tears and I had no place left to run, and nothing to do but let it run its course. I barely slept that night.
Two months went by in an emotional stupor. I felt as if he’d only just died, as if I had only just then began grappling with the horrors of mortality and questions of the afterlife. The rose-colored veils I grew up looking through to protect myself from reality were now being pulled away.
Certain events — death, divorce — have a way of making us into new people, I think. That first semester at college changed me permanently, propelling me to some new level of feeling altogether, almost like a super power being bestowed. Once you experience those unexplored ranges of human emotion and anxiety, I suspect you never forget them, and like an open wound, they stay tender for a while.
But eventually, things got better.
My final paper in my Freshman Seminar class was about Leslie, the girl who died in Bridge to Terabithia. I arranged interviews with professors in the Religion department and poured through literary critiques and theological commentaries for some clue: was Leslie in Heaven, or Hell? And who sent her there?
Of course, everything I said about Leslie was only a thinly veiled stand-in for the person really at the core of my search: Clay. I think my professor realized this. A mentor of mine once told me that any search for truth probably began as a wound you’re seeking justice or penance for.
In her response to my paper, my professor told me she suspected there was a reason I chose such a deeply emotional topic. And though it had only been her job to edit my papers and hand them back, she felt compelled to write in red ink that I didn’t have any power at all to save or condemn anyone. And to believe as much was the same as believing that I could be God Himself.
Clay was gone, and that was that. The best or worst I could do for him depended simply on how I treated his memory. At last, I began to wipe my hands of his fate.
- 2008 -
Ashleigh flew out to visit me in Nashville the spring of my freshman year. I picked her up from the airport and we cruised around in the rain, talking about how green things were turning outside and how we’d missed each other.
She updated me on the goings-on in Colorado; she’d moved back in with her parents after I left. While in Lamar, she began attending community college for an education degree, though she said she wasn’t sure she really wanted to be a teacher.
“What do you want to be?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I remember sensing that she might have been going through a rough time, but I didn’t ask. I guess I assumed she wouldn’t want to talk about it anyway.
Instead we chatted excitedly about the end of semester and how I would return home for the summer. Eventually she told me what I’d been suspecting for a while during past conversations — that she planned to move to Nashville in the fall.
“Will you still go to school?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably.”
“What will you do if you don’t have school?”
“Work, I guess. And be with you.”
Just for fun, we used one of the days during her visit to look at apartments and condominiums for her, dreaming of future times. She flew home at the end of the week.
Since I couldn’t stand the thought of her living alone in a one-bedroom apartment somewhere, I started seeking out someone she might like to live with. My roommate and I were looking for a place for ourselves at the same time, and somewhere along the lines, the search for two separate places became a search for only one. Living with one other roommate turned into living with three.
By late April, our search still hadn’t turned up anything. Feeling rather desperate, my roommate and I went to his wealthy father for help and advice. He’d been considering buying property in the Nashville area anyway, so we figured he could purchase, and then rent to us; it would be the perfect opportunity.
I remember walking into his home office and explaining our proposal to him while my roommate stepped out to go to the bathroom.
“So,” he said, “you’re thinking about a two-bedroom?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“One for you two to share, and another for…”
“…my girlfriend. And her roommate.”
I tried to gauge his reaction. I was obviously aware of the social mores — especially Southern social mores — that Ashleigh and I were intending to cross by living together. But did that matter to this man, whose history I knew (via his son) was ridden with similar encroachments? To be fair, I had objected to living with her at first as well. But my roommate and I had decided that it could work if we kept each other level-headed and accountable.
“How long have you all been together?” he asked me.
A strange cynicism shimmered behind his eyes, as if he knew everything about me already. “High school sweethearts…”
“Those things never work out.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Those things never work out. High school sweethearts never make it in the end, trust me.”
It was strange, the way he said it. Powerful. I found my breath stolen away while silence flooded in behind his words like a death sentence. Although I had considered the inevitability that Ashleigh and I would go through difficulties, I had never actually believed that we might not make it at all. Not until then.
“Why do you say that?”
The man shrugged. “I’ve never seen it work. Not for anyone. Not for me.”
I didn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what to say. I sat in his office, gazing at the clouds outside the window, until my roommate returned and my mind trailed away to some place on the far horizon.
I loved reading fiction growing up. One of my favorite books in the fourth grade (and even now) was called Prince Caspian, a story describing a fantastical world full of fawns and witches and magical portals. In this world, animals had the ability to speak plainly with humans, and for centuries the two lived together in near-paradise.
But not all animals talked. In the adapted movie version, the main characters encounter a bear who has apparently lost its ability to communicate. When they ask about the poor beast, they’re met with a somber explanation: over the years, certain talking animals had become dumb, not because of misfortune or magic, but because humans had begun calling them just that — dumb. And after hearing for long enough that they just weren’t worthy of speech, they began to believe it. And it changed them.
Looking back on the conversation in that stifling office, I can’t help wonder that maybe our words have a kind of magic about them, too.
Maybe, just by speaking someone’s name, you can reach down to the very place a person houses their identity — to that place where they wrestle with who they really are. And once it’s breached, that deep place, could it be that any words you use in close proximity find their way in also?
And if God, who made all things, chose words as the method by which he brought everything into existence, and we who are created in his image speak words also, is it wildly possible that what we say has the power to bring certain things into existence, especially in other people’s lives? What if “Blake, you’re a fool,” isn’t simply an accusation, but an act of creation?
And what happens when we begin speaking those things to ourselves?
My roommate and his father continued to discuss property and rent until the man changed the subject and we left. The idea ended up falling through. At the end of semester, Ashleigh flew out again to help me drive my things home, and things went on like always; I kept hidden from her the poisonous new doubt that had been planted within me.