THE FIRST TIME I went to see her, T cried when I went home.
In retrospect I should have known something was fishy then. We were sitting in her 4-Runner, hanging out before I left. Back then I was driving from Georgia to see her in Oxford, Alabama, every weekend, a drive of about an hour and a half. I looked over to her and realized that her eyes were absolutely swimming with tears. Don’t remember exactly what she said now, other than that she really liked me and didn’t want me to go. She was afraid that I wasn’t going to come back.
Goddamn, it was heartbreaking. It blew my mind. Never in my life had I considered myself, or thought that anyone else would consider me, somebody worth crying over.
That was the day I understood that I was going to have to come back—nobody had ever so much as asked me to come back and see them, much less cried when I left. How could I not? “Oh, sweetie,” I said, thumbing the tears off her cheeks. My voice got thick as I assured her, “I’m not going to leave you. I’ll come back, I promise. Please don’t cry. You’re gonna have me crying!”
To this day I don’t know if it appealed to my ego, my own need for love, or to my sense of sympathy.
Several weekends later, my car broke down in the parking lot of Western Sizzlin’ and we had to pull it back to her parents’ house down the road, where she was living at the time, leaving me with no way home.
We decided (aided by how touched I was that she’d cried over me) I should stick around instead of trying to find a way back to Georgia, and we would make a go of it. I ended up getting a job at Lowe’s and started attending drill at the local Reserve center in Anniston instead of driving all the way to Chattanooga, which I couldn’t do by myself with no car of my own.
Thus was the beginning of our live-in relationship.
The issues sprang up fairly early—not long after I started working at Lowe’s.
* * *
At some point during the night she got up out of bed, gave a disconsolate sigh, and left the room.
What the heck? I thought.
I got up and went into the cold living room, where she was lying on the sofa with no blanket. I stood over her in my underwear, goose-bumps prickling my skin. “What are you doing?” I asked, confused.
“Sleeping. Go away.”
My confusion only deepened. “Why are you sleeping in the living room? With no blanket? Instead of in there in the bed? It’s cold out here.”
“Fuck you. I’m sleeping out here.”
“Fuck me? What happened?”
She said nothing.
“What happened?” I persisted. “Why did you come out here? Did I do something?”
“No. I don’t know.”
I stood there, hugging myself against the chill, trying to think. “Come on back to bed, baby,” I said, “I don’t know what I did, but we can talk about it in the morning or something.”
She said nothing.
“Come on, it’s cold out here. You’ll freeze.”
She was lying directly on the couch, without so much as a cushion or pillow, facing the back of it, on her side. “You don’t have a pillow or anything.” I told her, trying to keep a bright tone. “Come back in here and get under the covers with me where it’s warm!”
“No. Go away.”
This sort of thing continued on for a good twenty or thirty minutes of pleading, refusal, and awkward silences. I had to work in the morning and I needed to go to sleep, so finally, in desperation, I knelt by the couch, slid my hands under her back and knees, and prepared to lift her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“If you won’t come back to bed where it’s warm, I’m going to carry you. I can’t let you lay out here and freeze. What kind of asshole would I be?”
She has PCOS and at the time outweighed me by about forty or fifty pounds, a lot of it muscle. Even at my middling Army fitness level, I got her about six inches off the couch before I had to put her back down. It was like trying to pick up an obstinate housecat—she had become, like Bruce Lee always espoused, ‘water in the teapot.’
If nothing else, the exertion was warming me up; my shivering had stopped. I pleaded with her once more. “Come on back to bed where it’s warm, please.”
“No! Leave me alone!”
I tried to pick her up again, and failed, again, and a fourth time. “Goddammit!” she said, getting up off the couch. “Fine.”
She went back into the bedroom and flounced down on the mattress, but she didn’t pull the covers over her, in some odd passive form of resistance. I stood in the doorway, looking at her in confusion, and then crawled onto the bed and covered her, tucked her in. She didn’t resist, and just lay there quietly until the both of us had drifted off.
This middle-of-the-night vignette became at least a twice-weekly show, brief interludes in an otherwise cheerful and loving experience. When she wasn’t throwing random tantrums, she was my best friend in the world.
We would grab a pizza and eat it at the drive-in movie theater, or drive out to Tennessee for the day, or the Birmingham Zoo. I had some of the best times of my life on our excursions. We petted stingrays at the Tennessee Aquarium and discovered pineapple chicken curry at the Thai place nearby. On days we couldn’t make long trips, we’d go to the pet store and hang out with the parrots and cockatiels. Once we went down and they had a tiny $3,000 monkey in a cage on the sales counter.
Over time, T’s fits of pique started showing up in broad daylight. She would become unresponsive and sullen for an hour or so, and then it would evaporate and she was back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened. In sheer frustration and puzzlement, I confided her bizarre Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior to my coworkers. “Why are you still with her?” they would ask. “Why are you putting up with it? There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
I would remember the day she cried as I was going home and it broke my heart all over again. How could you walk away from that?
“Because I love her,” I would tell them.
And I did. Like I said, when she wasn’t throwing a fit, she was my best friend in the whole world and I loved her with all my heart. She was an amazing cook, insatiable in the bed, an amazing kisser, and when we put our foreheads together and I looked into her eyes, her irises were this amazing sand-and-ocean color—soft brown around the edges, fading to an aquatic turquoise toward the middle. I thought it was one of the most beautiful facial features I’d ever seen on a living human being.
Eventually T left her job as a desk clerk at a hotel out on the interstate and we moved a town north to Jacksonville, where we took up in an apartment that had been converted from a Talladega racecar garage in some lady’s back yard. It wasn’t that bad, except for the bedroom, where the floor was painted like a car—black with sparkles and speckles—and the walls were lime-green plywood.
It wasn’t a bad period of time, decor notwithstanding. The apartment had a janky washing machine that boom-banged and danced around the kitchen when we ran it. We watched a lot of movies and got a pet dog, a toy poodle named Dudley. There was a patch of spearmint growing right outside the door and I loved to pick it from time to time and smell it.
Our relationship seemed to even out—I don’t recall any fits, but the Good Times cooled off a little bit.
Then Dudley got out of the house one day and got into some parvo down the hill. He eventually died of it one day while I was at work and T showed up at Lowe’s with her mother, crying hysterically. I took a break and held her until she had cried it all out.
* * *
Drug dealers and hookers were a neighborhood fixture, as were random drive-bys and neighbors that shot squirrels out of the trees (to eat, as far as I could tell). Someone had spray-painted a big crown and the word BLOODS on the street directly in front of our house. One day I looked out the kitchen window and caught a barefoot hooker copping a squat in our back yard. On Halloween I was sitting in the TV room watching a horror marathon and the signal went out. Someone had cut our cable with a knife.
Our house was straight-up bullshit. The inside looked like it had been painted with a firehose full of white cake icing and the outside had shingles for siding, and whenever you got the kitchen wall wet, black soot would leak between the clapboards. The floor in literally every room was tiled with linoleum kitchen tile, and the kitchen sink was clogged with dried paint. If you opened the cupboard below the sink, there was a hole in the bottom of the cabinet through which you could see the ground under the house. The bathtub was a clawfoot with no shower—we ended up buying a sort of rubber showerhead with a plunger coupling that went onto the faucet, a piece of medical gear meant for giving invalids a bath. I found a porno magazine wadded up behind the toilet.
One night we were sitting in the living room watching TV and one of the lino tiles started bobbing up and down. I peeled it back and discovered an alley cat climbing up into the house through a hole underneath.
About this time we made a new friend—a healthy-looking stray dog that looked like it had a lot of Rottweiler in it, almost totally black. We named her Penny because of the penny markings over her eyes. She was the most well-behaved dog I’d ever seen; she was very respectful and happy, never barked at anything, only came into the house when you gave her permission, and sat mildly on the couch when she did. I think she was just grateful for the chance to be in a warm house and eat something that wasn’t garbage.
She ended up having puppies under the house. I crawled underneath and handed them up to T through the hole in the bottom of the kitchen cabinet.
I don’t recall any fits in this stretch of time, or when we had to move out and into her parents’ place down the block. I think we were both so afraid of the neighborhood and so stressed out by first our own tract house and then her parents’ tract house—which was full of dogs and cats, because her mother was an animal-hoarder—that we naturally bonded, postponing any issues in our relationship in the name of sheer survival.
That was the year a bum knocked on the back door on Christmas Day and asked for beer money, and someone in a Crown Vic with the Pillsbury Dough Boy painted on it did a drive-by on our house with a shotgun.
I left the pest control place and got a job with T’s mother at the convenience store down the road, where I dealt with weekly beer thieves and a big doofy old third-shift security guard that carried a .357 and kept his bullets in his shirt pocket. I finally got tired of that shit and left, getting a job with a survey team out on Fort McClellan. Carrying a 50lb golf bag full of three-foot stakes and a layman rod, I tromped around the woods with a couple of other guys laying out a topological grid for the EOD guys, who would come along behind us and use the grid to dig up unexploded Civil War and WWII munitions, and blow them up.
Around this time T’s grandparents went to Idaho to visit family for a while, and we house-sat for them in their little cottage on the outside of town. Their house was small and frumpy, but a hell of a lot better than the ghetto, and in a very quiet, wooded part of town.
Our stress levels plummeted. Something about this must have triggered T, because she started having fits again—and they came back with a vengeance. There was one night, I remember, that she got so bad that I waited for her to take a shower and found a rope in her grandparents’ garage. I looped it around my neck, threw it over the kitchen door, and put my weight on it to see how much it would hurt to hang myself.
Ultimately this psychological shit wore me down and I got tired of my douche foreman, who had a tendency to throw tantrums at the team and sling equipment out into the woods, and I told him I was going to kick his ass if he didn’t shape up.
So they escorted me off of Fort McClellan and banned me from the base.
After a while, T’s mother transferred to another Kangaroo store in Jacksonville, I got my old job back under her, and T and I moved back there, into an apartment complex near the gas station. Other than an incident where I got held up at gunpoint one night, the new location was a hell of a lot easier on me since Jacksonville was a college town instead of a ghetto. Our apartment complex was fantastic compared to our tract house in Anniston—everything was clean, in good repair, we had plenty of room, and we didn’t have to worry about gunfire at two in the morning. We had asshole neighbors upstairs, a couple of frat bros that liked to party on the weekends, but otherwise it was a damn nice place.
No, let me back up a little: it was fuckin’ Shangri-La. I worked third shift and slept all day while T was at work, so if she was getting up in the middle of the night in a huff, she did it while I was at work.
But she still did it during the day. In fact, I’d say it was during this period that it got as bad as it would ever get. If she had trouble serving herself dinner—maybe she would drop a little on the counter, or if a piece of pizza wouldn’t tear off—she would give up on it and refuse to eat. A few times I got so frustrated at having cooked a dinner that wouldn’t be eaten I took it out back and slung the whole thing into the trees.
Nights on third shift at the gas station, I would sit behind the sales counter and stare out the window at the highway, daydreaming about lying down on the asphalt where someone could run over me. Some local college kid got hit by a speeder and they said it knocked him a quarter of a mile and out of his shoes. I fantasized about being that guy. Other times I wished the guy that had held me up at work had shot and killed me.
I blamed myself. I thought maybe I was crazy, that maybe somehow I was doing horrible things to make T mad at me and I had no idea I was doing it, and maybe I even deserved what I was getting, like maybe either I was slipping into a fugue state where Another Me was a huge asshole, or there was some subtle asshole vibes I didn’t realize I was giving off. I went into a psychological rabbit-hole of suicidal ideations, self-blaming, and confusion. I even thought the gas station where I worked was haunted.
To prevent myself from saying something that might set her off, I started forcing myself to keep my mouth shut. Whenever I slipped up and said something stupid (which would literally get me called “stupid”), I would berate myself for talking and renew my secret vow to shut the fuck up and stay that way.
Overall I wanted to either die or make it end, but I had neither the guts to kill myself, the wisdom to fix whatever was going on between us, or the resolve to leave her.
I found out much later that this is called “gaslighting.”