- 2011 -
I guess you could say I saw it coming.
At no point in our marriage did I remotely consider the possibility that one day we might find ourselves living in different states, surrounded by different people, our wedding vows reduced to mere pinky promises.
But I couldn’t deny the growing discontent; the way she stared out of the kitchen windows like a caged bird, or her affinity for losing herself completely (and very often) in a book. Or the way she’d pull away if my toes happened to brush hers underneath the covers.
I wasn’t any better, though. I gave myself to my music, dreaming up projects to spend my time with instead of her. Later on, after my many attempts to contact Ashleigh when she moved back to Colorado, she told me that the two years we were married were the most miserable years of her life.
The worst part was, I think I may have suspected it the whole time. All the signposts had been erected in plain sight; I just couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge them for fear of disappointing our families, our friends, and worst of all, ourselves, with the plain truth that our marriage wasn’t as perfect as everyone thought.
By the time I went out on the road with the guys in Yours Truly, just before she left, I had grown quite accomplished at burying that growing tension between us, tucking it down deep in a place where I could pretend it simply didn’t exist.
But all that became a different story out on the road, with the guys. We were locked up in a suburban together for hundreds of miles, after all.
In Austin, during that childish skirmish in the park about me not getting to play, I found yet more of that inescapable tension I’d spent my life running from: shouting and name-calling, cursing, argument and compromise. It took all of it to begin to pry me from the shell of timidity.
But raised voices was hardly the worst of it. The next day, Tim found me alone in my room and knocked on the door. Back then, I barely knew who he was.
“Do you have a minute to talk?” he asked, peeking his head in the door. Like a practiced professional, I picked out the strain in his voice and instinctively braced myself for whatever might follow.
He stepped in and came to stand uncomfortably close. Was he angry? Would there be more yelling?
He took a deep breath.
“I just wanted to apologize for yesterday,” he said. “I didn’t think things through, and I didn’t think you wouldn’t get to play. It’s my fault. And I’m sorry.”
A soft and sincere word always seemed to pierce the heart deeper than loud ones, but I refused to be affected — that would mean having to really unearth the conflict again, and by doing so, come face to face with it.
I nodded casually. “No worries, man.”
But Tim wasn’t done.
“Well, good…I hope you forgive me. You’re my brother in Christ,” he continued, extending his arm towards me. “And I want to get to know you.”
That part seemed to disarm me.
Get to know you?
I’d become used to granting an instinctual sort of forgiveness — the kind you just get on with quickly before the real problems start coming out. For instance, I might have become used to forgiving Ashleigh of something like shaming me in a public setting, but always quickly and indirectly enough to avoid having to investigate why she might have wanted to shame me in the first place, or even why I felt the shame at all.
Something about Tim’s apology didn’t allow for retreat. He was saying: “If there’s still any junk here, I want it sorted out.” And all this was coming from a person I barely knew.
After tour ended and I came back home to Ashleigh, I found that I’d brought with me a certain prodding unlike anything I’d never known. Everywhere I turned, I encountered little bumps in the rugs where we’d buried the junk we hoped we’d never have to talk about. I couldn’t escape them. And if I continued running, I knew it would only make them grow bigger.
A few days after tour, Ashleigh and I drove across town to our favorite restaurant — a Mexican food place called Cinco De Mayo. We visited the place often, especially when we couldn’t decide where to eat.
Like so many times before, the evening passed unnoticed around us. Once we arrived, we sat down in the usual booth, ate our food, and paid our bill without saying one word to each other. Without even making eye contact. We’d become statues, robots.
What good did it do to talk, anyway? We used to chat about making a home in Colorado, dreaming together about how we might return there someday. But about a year into our marriage, I told her that I thought Nashville finally felt more like home, and we stopped discussing it.
I used to convince myself that we didn’t need to communicate with each other all the time — we just knew each other that well.
That was a lie. We only knew a very small outline of each others’ lives –– only the safe things that we chose to share. By revealing so little, it became easy to believe that we had each other figured out, all the while ignoring the infinite, unexplored regions of darkness and beauty within each others’ hearts. We refused to go exploring. And good lovers must be good pioneers.
We left Cinco De Mayo during the setting sun. Ashleigh pulled her purse around her shoulder softly and followed me to the Jeep. The music was turned down, though I don’t remember why, and neither of us statues bothered to turn it on. We started the drive home in complete silence.
About the time we got on the interstate, I began to quietly hyperventilate. That strange prodding — that new demand for honesty I’d returned from tour with — had become so violent within me that any anxiousness I’d experienced before, like my very first show, or the engagement, or the wedding, or the state baseball tournament, all paled in comparison. I knew with a horrible sense of dread that it was going to happen, right there on the interstate, and that I could do little to help it.
We were exiting onto I-24 when I turned to her, shaking, and asked, “Are you happy?”
It was all I could muster. She seemed to know exactly what I meant, too, because by the time we merged back onto the freeway, she was crying like I’d never seen her cry before.
She said that she didn’t feel loved or known or attractive. And I admitted that I didn’t know if I loved or knew or was attracted to her, or ever was. That devastated her; that’s when the floodgates opened. Everything we’d ever kept concealed came bursting out in barrages of hurts and weaknesses and insults. We blamed ourselves, each other, our families, our society, and everything else for shepherding us to a place we didn’t want to be, and turning us into people we could barely recognize.
We made it home and emailed our pastor, and met with him later that week, and the week after. Ashleigh began talking to her parents after that. And at the end of our third session at the church, she announced that her family had made arrangements to pick her up and take her back to Colorado by the end of the coming week. I had seven days. She said that when they came, I needed to be clear of the house.
That’s when things started to crumble. I met with the pastor alone the next week. I asked Ashleigh if she ever planned on returning — if this was a temporary separation or something more. She assured me that she had no intention of ever coming back.
We did a half-hearted job at divvying up the possessions. In the end, she had the final say anyway.
The morning I was to be out of the house, I hugged our two dogs, harboring a wretched feeling that I’d never see them again, and then hugged Ashleigh and told her that she was beautiful. She sat motionless on the corner of the couch.
I stopped in the doorway before leaving.
“I love you,” I said. And meant it.
She was crying. Her mouth opened, as if trying to form a response, but nothing came. Her eyes held nothing in them but dead things. I hoisted my bags up and closed the door behind me.
- 2002 -
Not long after I started attending First Baptist in the spring of my seventh grade year, the youth staff there persuaded me to attend a summer camp in the Rockies. I said I wanted to think about it at first, which was really just a cowardly thing I did that just meant the same as “no.” I waited until the deadline was up and then told my youth pastor that although I’d really hoped I could go, I simply couldn’t anymore.
To my dismay, he informed me that he was on good terms with the folks there — that they wouldn’t have any problem accepting my forms late. And that’s how I found myself in a van full of campers on our way to Colorado Springs.
The camp stood in the middle of Black Forest, on the side of a mountain opposite the valley from Pike’s Peak. The air blew crisp up there; the pines stood tall and fragrant, framing a watercolor landscape of the city below and the purple ranges beyond. A certain magic buzzed about the place; I could feel it as soon as we first stepped out of the van for registration.
Despite my lingering skepticism of any place where Christians got together, I found myself becoming more and more captivated by camp. Within the first few days, I’d tried to do everything possible to experience it — climbing, hiking, mountain boarding, zip-lining, walking the high ropes coarse. For a kid with an overactive imagination and a love of the outdoors, Black Forest camp was perfect.
Each day, they set aside a designated gap in our schedule for resting, free time, and snacking. The snack shop was a little shack underneath the sanctuary, and during the hottest hours of the day, they’d crack their large paned windows outward to let the sugar-air drift off into the woods like syrup.
During one such break near the beginning of the week, I visited the candy shop for some chocolate and stepped out into the afternoon, weaving among dozens of other campers crowded on the wooden porch. I spotted my friends at a picnic table near the tetherball courts and headed their direction.
As I stepped around a group of chatty eighth-graders, a girl camper rose from the picnic table beside me and simultaneously tripped. We collided perfectly; she stumbled, throwing her whole weight into my shoulder, and our combined momentum put the side of my head on a collision course with the corner of the open snack bar window. Stars filled my vision.
I found my bearings again quickly, bearing in mind that everyone had now turned their heads to watch my reaction. After turning a thorough shade of red, the girl apologized and disappeared in the crowd before I could say another word.
I shook my head, avoiding eye contact, trying my best not to feel terribly embarrassed myself (in middle school, I was very concerned about that sort of thing). I started back towards my friends, stubborn to show any visible sign that the window had shaken me a bit.
I had no idea. When I found my friends, one of the girls gasped and the rest swarmed around me, peering up at me like a zombie had just asked to join them for snack time. I placed my hand on the lump, which had grown to a rather impressive size, and pulled it away. Nearly all my palm was stained with blood.
“Oh, well…” I said, trying to sound like this happened all the time. I glanced back at the porch and caught dozens of eyes gawking at me. Taking a blow to my pride and tending to the wound properly at the window would have turned out to be far less embarrassing than walking around all those campers with bloody hair. “I guess I should go…somewhere…”
“The nurse’s cabin is down the hill,” one of my friends said. Their eyes were still wide, their jaws still slack. I decided I had to de-zombify myself, and quick.
“Alright,” I said, trying to sound as human as possible, and then hurried down the hill as urgently as possible.
The nurse had a weathered face, the sort you’d expect an experienced nurse to have — kind enough, so you trust her with your care, and stern enough to convince you her diagnosis and treatment was legit. She took a quiet glance at the side of my head and retrieved a wet rag.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Ran into a window.”
“Well, that’s no good.”
She began to dab along the side of my head. I watched her nimble hands in the mirror as she pulled the red rag away, washed it in the sink, and brought it back.
“It’s bleeding a lot,” I said.
“Yes, head wounds generally do. I’ll give you some medicine for the pain here in a minute.”
“I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt.”
“It will later.” She rinsed the rag again. There was less blood this time. “Now, I’m going to put a little bit of pressure on it this time, alright?”
She pressed along the wound. I had been honest when I said that it didn’t hurt — it really didn’t. But as soon as she began to press, a feverish sensation washed over me and the outer ring of my vision turned to strange gray fuzzies.
Even still, I refused to give any signal that anything was happening. Weakness could be so embarrassing.
The feeling worsened, and it occurred to me that I’d felt these things at some point before — the shortness of breath, the narrowing tunnel around the edges of my eyesight. I just couldn’t quite place it.
And then very suddenly it came back to me; I had felt this way once before, on a snowy day, in a Catholic sanctuary adorned with those ghostly glowing lamps.
I opened my mouth to warn the nurse, and hit the ground.
Like last time, flames engulfed me, wrapping, suffocating. Shadows danced behind the fury — and they seemed familiar too. I’d see them in the dark corners of my room at night ever since Alexia had moved away.
Ugly, terrible faces appeared in sequence before me. They lashed out and called me things, one after another, with increasing savagery until I wasn’t sure I could even imagine a more terrible face. And then even worse ones would fall in.
But Just as a real sense of hopelessness set in, a vision of the nurse’s face replaced them all and I nearly reached up and tore it with my fingernails before I realized that I’d woken up and lay on the cold tile floor, facing the cieling.
“Breathe,” she commanded. I did. The chocolate, the window, the blood, it all came rushing back to me; my brain was a dry sponge thrown under a faucet.
I sat up, running my finders along the wound. She’d applied some sort of bandage.
“Slowly,” she said, setting a soft hand on my shoulder. “Once you’re able, you’ll go lie down on the cot and I’ll bring you some water.”
After she gave me permission to stand, I did as I was told, afraid to embarrass myself any further by opening my mouth. She stepped outside the back door and returned with a bottle of water and a couple of pills in her wrinkled palm.
“Take these,” she said. “A little at a time.”
I studied her face. The dream had been so violent. I couldn’t shake a sick feeling that I’d tried to hurt her while I was out. Would she tell me if I had?
I took the water, but hesitated before sipping it.
“Ma’am, did anything—?”
“I’d like to keep you here for another fifteen minutes or so,” she interrupted, turning now to wash her hands in the sink. Perhaps she hadn’t heard me over the running water. “I reckon you need stitches, but we don’t have any. What you have on now will do. Just lie down and relax for a bit. You should be fine after that.”
After a few sips of water, I turned and rested my head on the pillow. On the injured side. Just to prove to myself that it really didn’t hurt.