Maybe I could make the sad girl happy. Perhaps she could make the happy boy less a stranger to himself. (Part 2)
This is the second in a 3-part series. Read part 1 here.
I’ll call her Paige. She was my type: brunette, petite and athletic. She was a graduate student at Amherst, studying Occupational Therapy, and I admired her academic excellence, ambition, and intelligence. She was sincere, funny and intense, and I liked how she could bounce from sarcasm to sweetness without a glitch. To me, she was beautiful. More than an attractive figure and a pretty face, beauty is an air, in my opinion. Perhaps I’m referring to femininity or an elegance, but what I find most beautiful is equanimity, a calmness of mind.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” Jade once asked me. While I’ve always given her credit for being a vixen, I had never used the word “beautiful,” I think because she was missing the composure that I found so attractive in Paige. Jade’s mind was ever on fire, her body always following her brain, like a pinball in the drama of her own thoughts. As corny as it sounds, Jade is most “beautiful” when she’s rubbing her dog’s face. How could her mind possibly be anywhere else in that moment?
“What I am going to say may seem … offensive,” I said in response to Jade’s question on beauty, but it was in the spirit of The Hate Game. I told her she reminded me of Naomi Watts’s character at the beginning of the film, The Painted Veil. Watts plays an immature, spoiled Englishwoman named Kitty Fane. By likening Jade to Kitty, I was telling her that she still had some growing up to do. Jade hadn’t seen the movie, thank God. “Watch it, though, something to think about.”
Paige and I went headlong into a love affair. The kind of romance where you stare at each other as you walk away in parting, and then jog back for one last kiss. I like you … I love you … I want to marry you … let’s make a baby. A year into our relationship, Paige had our names etched onto a padlock, which we attached to the Pont des Arts Bridge (“The Love Bridge”) in Paris. We took a picture of us holding the keys over the railing, and then tossed them into the Seine River.
When Paige first met Jade, she said it seemed like the two of us were a couple. Paige saw the obvious chemistry. The giggles. The inside jokes. She watched me work around Jade’s moods. And Jade and I were living together, after all. I remember Jade delicately addressing the idea that Paige might be, well, sort of dull, perhaps not dynamic enough for me. There was a plainness, I agreed, but I thought she was wholesome, and I was romanced by her formal values, traditional upbringing, and exceedingly kind family. After several months of living with Jade, perhaps I was in need of a woman less dramatic, more “normal.”
Whenever the three of us spent time together, Paige would tiptoe around Jade, who was often hard to predict. Like when Jade might shout “bored,” if a conversation wasn’t stimulating enough. Over time, I began to see similarities between the two women, an early suspicion of mine. Though cheerful, Paige’s moods occasionally sunk to surprising lows. Sudden cries in the passenger seat of my car. I just want to sleep longer on a Sunday morning. Silence for no discernable reason. It was all of Jade’s darkness without the oddities and weirdness.
The lease on the apartment with the porch expired, and Jade and I found new homes. She bought a condo downtown. I found a place to share in the suburbs, less than a mile from Paige. As luck would have it, Jade and I were both promoted into the executive building at the company, where we sat in cubicles fifteen feet apart, allowing the giggle parties to continue.
Months later for Jade’s birthday, we saw a Queen tribute band. Over familiar tunes, we shared stories of the good ole days. We mourned the loss of the porch. She was thriving, with a puppy and a chic condo. Nearly finished with grad school, she had also joined a gym, and had a steamy fling with a twenty-something who was “so cute, but sort of boring,” and importantly not a dweeb. That night, I gave her a birthday card that sang Queen’s “You’re my best friend” when opened.
Much to Jade’s disappointment, Paige and I made plans to move. We went state shopping—Colorado, California, Washington—and let the job applications fly. Paige got a job offer in Seattle, Washington, and I got an offer down the block from where I lived. She poured champagne. We became bicoastal. We’d make it.
I began psychotherapy, avoiding conversations about the obvious difficulties Paige and I faced, and instead addressed the detritus Jade and I had churned up during The Hate Game. The therapist was a kind, intelligent social worker. He listened with rapt attention, never judging. With him as a guide, I became a cartographer, mapping the shadowed places of my life, mostly early life.
As I racked up sessions, I realized that life’s struggles had their ways of leaving cuts in our psyches. These cuts are usually narrow, but occasionally gaping, and if they aren’t cleaned, dressed and bandaged, can fester and threaten the integrity of the whole. Jade was the first who urged me to look at the cuts I had endured when I was young. My therapist kept the ball rolling. Divorce. Mom splitting for a while. Substance abuse. Depression. I questioned the virtue of The Stick, a slim piece of wood my dad retrieved when, for example, I accidently tossed a shoe through a bay window, aiming for my brother.
My only real breakdown in therapy was over the loss of my grandmother who had helped raise me in the turmoil of divorce. She would always slice the crust from my grilled cheese sandwiches, and each Halloween transformed her porch into an elaborate haunted house. I can still hear her Siamese cat’s meow, a low, achy cry from her bedroom. I was seventeen years old when she died of lung cancer. I had never dealt with it.
Making a map of an amnesic childhood takes a village, and my parents had all the keys to locked doors. I ambushed them on fact-finding missions, sometimes with the harmless air of curiosity, other times with the fierceness of a prosecutor. The exercise was as foreign to them as The Hate Game had been to me, but they entertained my questions. Knowing the tumultuous history and my inquisitive nature, I think they both half-expected me to circle back at some point.
Six months into therapy, I began to realize that a “healthy” family environment might look a lot like Paige’s—safe, predictable, nurturing. When I was young each parent would move every few years. Just when I had memorized the contours of a backyard, I had to pack up my ball and play somewhere else. If my brother or I acted out – perhaps by destroying the inner workings of our father’s well by dropping rocks down it – there was The Stick. In our household, love wasn’t discussed. And rarely felt.
I started to build a shiny new vocabulary. Repression, shame, guilt, denial. I learned psychological theories such as Attachment Disorder, and made a hobby out of researching “adverse childhood experiences.” A week after a six-hour long psychological assessment, a psychiatrist delivered her conclusion: Repressed anger and sadness. “That’s really heavy,” I told her, my eyes unexpectedly welling up. She crossed her legs and tried to sound sympathetic as she continued. I brought my report to the social worker and slowly, over time, we processed its findings and began applying Band-Aids to opened wounds.
After a year of therapy, I noticed that I could see things clearer. I was being more honest with myself. My long-distance relationship with Paige had become dysfunctional. I realized that I been lonely when I met her and had become even more so since she moved away. I had fallen for her wholesome upbringing because it was the opposite of mine. I also think there was some truth to the notion that perhaps she had been acting out the depressive aspects of my grandiosity, a side of my personality that I had been steadily trying to erode. And so the foundation of our relationship began to crumble. We called each other less. Planned fewer visits. I would cry spontaneously. Things went to pieces. We both strayed. And then it was over.
Part II of a Three-Part Series