The Walls We Build:
“There is loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock.”
“What are you doing after work?” Lexi asked.
“What I do every night,” I replied. “Going home to drink whiskey by myself.”
I clocked out and walked to my truck, lighting a cigarette on the way. Speeding out of the parking lot, windows down, old school Bad Religion blared from the speakers “we’re only gonna die!” Looming live oaks old as this Carolina city lined the road, their branches dropping long and heavy with Spanish moss. The cool March air billowed into the open windows and flowed through the long curly hair hanging out from under my hat. I had an hour commute back home, weaving in and out of traffic, accelerating through yellow lights, all in a hurry to get home to the bottle and the computer. Halfway down the road I lit another cigarette just before my one and only detour.
As the city drowned into swamps and fields plowed for the next crop of cotton and the traffic faded, a small town appeared. I slowed down at the traffic light and hung a right into the ABC store. I flicked my cigarette out the window and walked inside.
“Aiden!” Said a large, older man with a thin gray-speckled beard. “How was work?”
“It was alright, I guess.” I replied. “How you doin’, Chuck?”
“Good. Good. Got me one of them tomahawk ribeyes for the grill this weekend.”
“Man, that sounds good.”
“You want your usual?”
“Yes, sir. Pint of bourbon.”
“Comin’ up, bossman.”
“How you gonna cook that steak? Just grill it?” I asked.
“Sear it on the grill then finish it in the oven until it’s about medium rare.”
He placed a pint bottle in a paper bag and set it on the counter, typed a few numbers into the register with a ding or beep here and there coming from the machine. I paid and grabbed my whiskey.
“Let me know when you got those turkey wings on sale!” Chuck said.
“You’ll be the first to know.” I replied. “See you tomorrow, Chuck.”
“Bye now, Aiden.”
I sat in the truck and pulled the bottle out of the paper bag and threw the bag in the backseat onto the pile of empty brown sacks I’d accumulated since I last cleaned my truck. I tucked the whiskey in the pocket of my jeans and headed back down the road. I arrived at my house a little after four in the afternoon. My cat greeted me at the door. I had a routine. I took off my boots, all covered in the blood and meat scraps of a butcher’s day, fed my beta fish, fed my cat, loosened the cap of my whiskey and took a long swig. I stepped outside and smoked another cigarette. Beneath the bushes lay clusters of cigarette butts I’d been too lazy to clean up. I just didn’t care. After the last drag I dubbed out the cherry and flicked the butt into the bush.
I ordered supper from DoorDash so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone. Working with the public seven days a week does something to your psyche and your soul where you crave solitude and harbor a strong disdain for other human beings. I just wanted my whiskey, my smokes, my cat, and my computer. I was writing a novel about college, back when I had friends and love interests, massive parties, and a social life that would make a movie star blush. I was reliving my youth at 35 years old and doing what I had always done to curb the pangs of existence—writing. I never wrote when I was happy, and it had been a long time since I was happy. But I wasn’t unhappy either. Long ago I had reached that pinnacle where I did not feel lonely while by myself. I was content. I didn’t need other people. As those thoughts permeated my brain, I took another swig of whiskey.
My phone dinged. A text message from my assistant, Ava.
“Are you coming out for my birthday on Thursday?”
I stared at it for a second and took another swig.
The doorbell rang and I waited a few minutes until the DoorDash driver was gone before I walked outside to retrieve my supper. I texted Ava back.
“No. I’m a manager. I can’t fraternize with my employees.”
A few minutes later another ding.
“We’re more than just your employees, Aiden. We’re your friends, too.”
“I have friends.” I replied.
“Yeah, and they live in a different state and you never get to see them because you work every damn day. We’re all you got.”
“I’m still not coming.”
The dings stopped. I ate my supper and returned to writing. Around eight o’clock I started to feel drowsy. I finished the last swig from the bottle and smoked a final cigarette then curled up in the bed with my cat. Before I knew it, my 5:30AM alarm was going off and it was time to start the routine all over again.
I arrived at the store around 7:00AM and Lexi pulled in beside me. Her blue eyes were half-closed and her green and black hair a mess.
“You missed a fun time at Lindsey’s last night.” Lexi said, groggily.
“HOW DO YOU LIKE LOUD NOISES!?” I screamed.
She shirked and covered her ears.
“Not feeling well today, huh?” I asked. “You’ll get no pity from me.”
“Yeah, yeah, you used to party when you were younger. Not your first rodeo and all that stuff.”
“Drink a Gatorade, an energy drink, take a nap on your lunch break. But first, GET TO WORK!”
We walked inside and clocked in. I bought an energy drink for myself and one for her. In the back I handed her the Red Bull.
“See,” she said. “You Do care.”
“No!” I argued. “I just want you to be productive.”
We went to work, Lexi and I, organizing pallets of beef, pork, and chicken. At 5’3” she was surprisingly strong and could lift 100 pound boxes of pork loins just as well as me. We had grown close over the last few weeks. I had known her for four years. She was in her early 20’s and we had become each other’s closest confidants. She was hardworking and focused, brilliant and dedicated. She was my favorite employee and the one I held to the highest of standards and depended on the most. I wanted to make her into a Market Manager like myself, but first she had to learn to cut meat. After we stacked the truck and organized the cooler, I put her on the block and showed her how to break down a beef shoulder clod.
“You’re coming out for Ava’s birthday, right?” She asked.
“No. I live an hour away.”
“Just crash at Lindsey’s house like the rest of us. There’s plenty of couches and they have an air mattress.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure about the policy.”
“Come on, Aiden. You’re 35. We make friends at work now. That’s all you and I do is work. Come out with us…PLEASE!???”
“So that’s a yes!?”
“Ava! Aiden is coming out for your birthday!”
Ava was excited but something seemed wrong about her. She had been quiet all morning and I didn’t know what was going on. But I had work to do and didn’t have time to deal with drama. Lexi and I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and when we returned, Ava was gone. Lexi’s phone rang. It was Ava. She disappeared for 15 minutes and I kept on cutting meat. When she returned I asked “Is Ava alright? If it’s personal you don’t have to tell me, I just want to know she’s ok.”
“No, Aiden.” She said anxiously, “I need to tell you. Let’s go back outside. Ava left.”
We walked outside and walked down the side of the building out of earshot of fellow smokers. I lit a cigarette.
“So…” Lexi started. “Ava is upset because you and I are so close.”
“I don’t understand.” I replied.
“See the thing is, she’s had some bad experiences in the past with her Market Managers and women in the market. She was screwed over out of a promotion because her manager was fucking the meat wrapper.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Goddamnit, Aiden! She’s upset because she knows I like you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just got really quiet and took another drag from my cigarette.
“Don’t let this be awkward, please!” Lexi begged. “You were never supposed to know but after all this, I had to tell you.”
“I could lose my job.” I told her.
“I know! And that’s the last thing I want.”
“Let’s get back to work.” I said, flicking my cigarette butt onto the sidewalk.
After work it was the same routine. I saw Chuck for my bottle of whiskey and went home, fed my fish and my cat, drank, smoked cigarettes, and wrote about all the fun times I used to have. My phone dinged. A text message from Lexi. I was half-drunk and feeling my feelings pretty good.
“I hope I didn’t make everything awkward between us.” She texted.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just like everything else in my life. What I want, I can’t have.”
“I understand that feeling.” She replied.
“You still coming out on Thursday?”
“Yeah, I guess. If I can crash at Lindsey’s house.”
Thursday came and Ava was in a better mood. She was talking and joking and all excited about her big 35th birthday. After work I met Lexi at her apartment. Her roommate Alana was there. She also worked for me as a seafood clerk. Ava and her husband came to pick us all up and drive us to the bar. She was already tipsy. At the bar I made it a point to buy her first birthday shot. Everyone egged me on to do shots, and I relented. “Only a few.” I affirmed. “I don’t want y’all to see me drunk.” Everyone from work was there and I made a big deal about “Y’all never saw me here!” Everyone agreed. It was to be our secret. They drunkenly sang karaoke, and we did more shots. The whole bar was a gaming themed joint with arcade games and air hockey, pinball—if you could think of the game, they had it.
I wasn’t into games and mostly sat outside with a beer and smoked cigarettes. I felt happy, like I had friends again. Deep down I knew I had to keep up a wall because while they might be friends tonight, tomorrow they were my employees. It was a fine line to walk. But I was actually having fun. I’d forgotten what it felt like. I hadn’t been to a bar in over a year since the last time I went to visit my friends. We were all laughing and joking and having a good time. When last call came, we all went across the street to Waffle House. Lexi and I were drunk and throwing salt at each other. Ava and her husband drove us back to Lindsey’s house. Lexi and I did more shots. Ava, Lexi, and I went outside to smoke.
“Let me tell you what my funk has been lately, Aiden.”
“The thing is…” she slurred. “Lexi likes you.”
Lexi’s face turned red and she rolled her eyes. I pretended like I was hearing this for the first time.
“I’ve been screwed over in similar situations and it really got to me. I’m sorry. If y’all want to get together, I think y’all would be good for each other. She really likes you, Aiden.”
I took a long drag from cigarette.
“I feel the same.” I said.
Lexi’s face lit up, not expecting that reply.
“You do?” Ava asked.
“Yes. The feeling is mutual. But I can’t do anything about it.”
“Come on, Aiden. This is a family company. They’ll understand.”
I forget what else she said. She was heavily intoxicated and could barely finish her cigarette. She went inside and curled up on one of the couches, leaving Lexi and I outside to talk. I had liked Lexi for a long time. But I always told myself: who could love an overweight, chain-smoking alcoholic?
“You feel same?” Lexi asked.
“I do. But I’m a manager.”
“I know. That’s why you weren’t supposed to ever find out. I never thought my feelings would be reciprocated. You’re so closed off and distant. But I told you I could tell that you cared whenever you bought me a Red Bull.”
“I wish I never knew.” I added.
“Because what can I do about it? I could lose my job. We could hide it. But for how long?”
We talked for a while and I just sat there in my thoughts chain-smoking cigarettes until we grew tired.
By the time we went back inside, all that was afforded us was the air mattress. I hadn’t planned on sleeping in the same bed with her but we had little choice. I laid down fully clothed and she went into the bathroom and took a shower. She came out in shorts and a top and asked “are you going to sleep in all that?”
“Scoot over. Don’t by weirded out if I touch you.”
I fell asleep pretty quick but always had trouble sleeping all the way through the night. I woke up to her leg over top of me and I felt something keep pecking my cheek. I realized she was kissing me. Everything changed in that moment. I could no longer control myself and all the concern over my job vanished. I leaned over and kissed her. The rest of the night I held her in my arms and I felt this overwhelming sense of wholeness. As if I had found the one thing missing from my life: her. I was happy and at peace and I didn’t want the night to end. In the morning I kissed her again and we left. We didn’t talk about it at work the next day and just went back to our usual routine of picking on each other. But I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I asked her out on a date.
“Come to me. If you’re willing to drive an hour to spend time with me I know you really care. None of my friends come visit me. Drive to me this once and I’ll go anywhere for you.”
She came. We went out to the nicest restaurant my small, country town had to offer—sushi. She felt out of place with her tattoos and facial piercings while I fit right in with my flannel shirt, boots, and a camouflage hat. We didn’t know what to do after eating, there was really nothing to do in my town and I was a relatively boring person so there was nothing to do at my house either. I kissed her. “Did you just blush?” I asked. “Um, no…” she replied sheepishly. “Goodbye, Aiden. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I texted Ava.
“Lexi makes me so happy. Just being around her puts a smile on my face.”
“I’m happy for you two.” She texted back.
The next day at work Lexi and I acted as if nothing had changed between us. I had something smart-ass to say to each of her questions and she fussed back and ended every sentence with the quintessential “Goddamnit, Aiden!” But something had changed. Every time I saw her I smiled. She could tell. I told her after work I had trouble expressing my emotions. “You don’t have to. I have all I need from the way you look at me.” She said. She mentioned that she wished she had a place to grill some burgers. “I have a grill” I told her. We invited Ava that weekend to come down to my place, grill out, have some drinks and crash on the couch. After six years of being alone I finally had a social life again. Lexi made me feel young again. I was full of energy and happy, truly happy. I had friends and a love interest, parties and hangouts, dates and someone to confide in—someone I trusted.
That weekend I pulled out the deer burgers from my freezer, bought a party bucket of mini-bottles of whiskey, a case of beer, and some girly liquor for Lexi. We had corn and potatoes and Ava was bringing Asian-inspired pork ribs she’d been marinating for two days. Lexi arrived first. We took a few shots and curled up on the couch. We were still a bit awkward around each other; everything was new and exciting and uncertain. She flipped through the channels on the television and found a movie. “Is it a scary movie?” I asked. She nodded her head. “Well then come here.” I said, putting my arm around her. She rested her head on my chest as the movie began to roll. When she looked up at me, I kissed her. We just lost ourselves in each other, making out on the couch until Ava called lost. I directed her to my house and she arrived already tipsy, taking long swigs out of a bottle of rum.
“You ruined everything!” I yelled at her.
“What?” She questioned. “I feel really out of place here. Come here, Aiden. I need a white guy.”
Like Lexi she had dyed hair, facial piercings, tattoos…plus an added insecurity about being Asian in a small Southern town full of presumed ignorance. I walked over to her and lit a cigarette.
“It’s not that bad, is it?” I asked.
“Your neighbors are staring at me. Have they not seen someone Thai before?”
“Ava, they are Asian. The neighbors behind us are Asian, too. The neighbors over there,” I said, pointing, “are an interracial couple. This isn’t 1860.”
She calmed down and we finished our cigarettes while Lexi vaped. She handed me the bottle of rum and I took a swig.
“Let’s go inside and do shots,” I demanded.
We each took a mini-bottle out of the bucket and made a cheers: “Good times, good peoples,” as my old roommate always said. Lexi and I patted out the deer burgers and seasoned them. “Want me to season them like a white person or like I season food?” I rolled my eyes. “I like a lot of seasoning too. You do realize white people literally subjugated the whole of India for spices, right?” I laughed. Ava leaned on the counter and swigged her rum. She was already lit after about 15 minutes. Lexi knew her better than me and whispered in my ear “She’s about to start fussing about her husband.” She was right. Ava just went on some twenty minute rant about how unhappy she was in her marriage. The only thing good that came out of it was her daughter. I changed the subject. “Let’s get the grill going!” I yelled. We all walked outside and Ava and I lit cigarettes.
Lexi placed the burgers and corn on the grill along with diced potatoes seasoned with spices and butter and wrapped in foil she called “Girl Scout potatoes.” Ava placed her head in her lap and passed out drunk. When the food was done, Lexi and I went back inside and fixed everyone a plate. I carried Ava inside and covered her up with a blanket on the couch. She wouldn’t move. Lexi and I finished eating and went into the living room to finish watching our movie. She sat on my lap and we made out. Ava began to stir. Suddenly we could hear crying. “What the fuck you two! This is why I didn’t want to come. I didn’t want to be a goddamn third wheel.”
“We thought you were asleep.” I said. “Let’s go outside and smoke. Talk to me.”
We went outside and Ava just cried. She wanted to transfer to a different store because, she said, the relationship between Lexi and I was affecting our work. I didn’t see how it was. She was just jealous. Ava had made comments before about wanting to sleep with Lexi and now that Lexi and I were together, she couldn’t handle the situation. We never even spoke about our relationship at work, not even when we were outside alone smoking together. Everything between us we kept outside of those four walls. Finally Ava stood up and tried to leave. She fell down the steps and into the bush where I flicked my cigarette butts. I took her keys and carried her back inside to the living room.
The next hour she dozed in and out, coming to to rant and cuss all full of rage and hurt about Lexi and me. I finally had enough and told Lexi “Goddamnit, I’m giving her the keys. I can’t deal with her anymore.” Ava left and texted me when she got home. Lexi and I took a few more shots before I grew tired and told her I was going to bed. “You want me to sleep on the couch?” She asked. “No.” She followed me to my room. I held her and we made out. I was nervous taking this too far as she was, after all, my employee. But I let my emotions get the best of me, and we slept together. When the alarm clock buzzed the next morning I didn’t want to leave her side. We just laid there in each other’s arms, snoozing through the alarms. Finally I told her we had to get up. We showered together and went to work. Ava hugged us both when she came in that morning and apologized. “We’re not talking to Ava about us anymore.” Lexi warned. I agreed. Lexi came over the next night and we drank and watched movies and slept together. We made each other happy and for once I wasn’t so full of melancholy and distant. I began to open up to her and her to me.
She talked to me about her ex-boyfriend and all the trauma he caused her. When she was pregnant two years before, she was alone in the hospital having a miscarriage while he was off cheating on her with another woman. For six years his drug and alcohol abuse spiraled out of control and he abused her physically, mentally, and sexually until she filed a restraining order on him. I told her that was all over now. I would show her what a healthy relationship was like. I would treat her how she deserved to be treated. I talked to her about my ex-girlfriend and how she stopped taking her psych meds and went crazy, cheated on me, and took out all her mental issues on me. She promised me those days were done, that she would never cheat on me or hurt me. “You make me so happy.” She said. “Every time I see you, I smile.” I told her.
Lexi and I worked every day, but any time we were off together we met up. We went out to supper, went to the fair, I introduced her to fishing and bowling, we went to the movies. I lost my routine of going home and drinking by myself every night. I stopped writing. I wasn’t sad or depressed anymore; in her I found solace and comfort, someone to brave and share in the vicissitudes of life. I hadn’t had a day off in over a month, so I decided to take four days of vacation and go to the beach. I invited Lexi. She had two days off and I scheduled every other employee two days off in a row in the department so nothing looked suspicious. She met me at my house after work the next day and off we went on our first vacation together.
She never had a guy treat her before. In all her past relationships she was the bread winner. She paid the rent and took care of a guy that provided nothing to the relationship. They just used her. I refused to let her pay for her meals when we went out to eat and she felt this was strange. “It’s not that I don’t like it,” she said. “I’m just not used to it.” I told her to get used to it. We rented a nice hotel overlooking the beach. I couldn’t smoke on the patio or face a $250 fine. It was alright. I could manage. I didn’t need to smoke as long as I had her. She was my new addiction and I obsessed over ways to make her feel happy and smile. I introduced her to my friends and we spent the next three days being tourists in a town I used to live in.
We rode the Sky Wheel which lifted us 150 feet into the air. She was terrified of heights. I held her and kissed her and she felt proud of herself for facing her fears when the ride ended. We went to bars and nice restaurants, breweries, swam in the pool and the ocean, laid on the beach. We didn’t want to leave. “We could run away and start a new life here.” She said facetiously. I wouldn’t have minded. Everything was perfect and beautiful. I found in her my sense of happiness and peace, a warmth I hadn’t felt in a long time. And she found in me her bliss. “You make me so happy.” She told me. “The happiest I have ever been.”
We talked and she said “I want more. I want to be the one you can count on on your good days and bad. I want to be your girlfriend.” I told her that’s what I wanted too. I had had a few drinks and was in my feelings and I finally verbalized to her everything I felt, everything that was in my heart and soul. I felt embarrassed. I wasn’t used to being open and honest, confessing things I always told others I didn’t feel. At work I was stoic and hid behind a veil of sarcasm and jokes. But I could be real with her and I told her as long as I had her I would be happy, no matter what we were doing or where we were, I just needed her. “You have me, Aiden.”
In the blink of an eye we were back at work and our beach trip was but a memory. My department was a wreck and I depended on Lexi to help me put it back together. We worked seven days a week for two weeks straight before I felt I could take a day off. Lexi was off that day too. I planned a whole day for us: brunch, bowling, a movie she wanted to see and one that I wanted to see, then supper. I had looked forward to it for a solid week. When the day finally arrived I was woken with a text from one of my employees calling out sick. I didn’t want to let him ruin my day, but I got up and dressed and went to work anyhow. I called Lexi and asked her to come in and help. She agreed.
She worked the trucks and organized the cooler while I filled the counter and did all the orders. The pork section was full so I told Ava all she needed to do was cut beef. “How long are you staying?” She asked as we stepped outside to smoke. “I’m fixing to leave. You’ll be alright.” She was the only cutter but she had clerks for all the odds and ends. All she had to do was cut. I left and Lexi met me at my house and we jumped in my truck and headed for the city. She loved the brunch spot I chose. I had shrimp and grits with a Bloody Mary. Everything was going well except we had to skip the bowling on account of work. We made it to the movie and it turned out to be this really nice upscale theater with reclining seats. She curled up next to me and rested her head on my chest and I held her in my arms. About 45 minutes into the movie my phone vibrated. It was my boss. I excused myself and stepped outside to answer the call.
“Where are you?” He asked.
“Out of town.”
“You coming back up here?”
“I hadn’t planned on it.”
“Ava is stressing out. You know she’s here by herself, right?”
“Pork was full. She just had to cut beef.”
“You need to come back up here.”
I went back in the theater and told Lexi we had to go. I was mad. So angry that my hands shook. “Stop shaking, Aiden.” Lexi said. “It’s alright. I understand.”
“No you don’t!” I told her. “I’ve sacrificed all my relationships, my family and my friends for this job. I don’t want to sacrifice you.”
“Work is a priority.”
“So are you. I’ve been all alone for six years because I let this job consume my life.”
I ranted all the way home and she listened. I dropped her off at her car and went inside my house and changed, drove an hour to work, and when I got there completely lost my shit. Ava was leaving. The case was full. There was literally nothing for me to do. I stepped outside and smoked a cigarette. My boss was there and he “helped.” He cut a bunch of stuff we didn’t need to prove that he had done something. I was full of rage. I went off on everyone and anyone who crossed my path. After an hour I left. By the time I got home, I had to fill my truck up with gas even though I had just filled it up that morning.
“Don’t be so upset about today.” Lexi texted.
But I was. I pulled out my computer but I didn’t write. I filled out job applications for every company hiring in a 50 mile radius. I drank my pint of whiskey then drove out to the store for beer. I got drunk and continued filling out application with the vigor of a coked-out novelist. I was Jack Kerouac on bennies. I was Hunter Thompson on mescaline. I couldn’t sleep that night for all my anger. And then the 5:30AM alarm went off and I started my morning routine. I was late that morning but I didn’t care. Ava wouldn’t speak to me. But when I saw Lexi I smiled.
My boss showed up and called Lexi and I into the office. The store manager was there and the assistant manager. I was nervous and shaking. I didn’t know what was going on but I had an idea. They sat us down and the store manager asked us a very direct question.
“Are you two dating?”
“No.” Lexi and I both replied.
They excused Lexi and talked to me. My boss said I was no longer allowed to make schedules, that the assistant store manager was in charge of all scheduling in my department. I never treated Lexi differently. We kept everything outside of work.
I walked back to the department and the look on Lexi’s face was all rage. She pointed at Ava. “I’m not cool with HER anymore.” Ava was the only one who knew anything about us, even though she knew very little. She got pissed at me for the day before and tried to get me fired. I had enough of this job, these people, this place. Everything. That night I left and stopped by to see Chuck for a pint of whiskey. But this time I bought a little extra. Around 7PM I was drunk when I received a call from a strange number. Knowing this could very well be a job offer, I answered. It was. I had an interview. Then an email came. Another interview. And another. My loathing turned into hope and I called Lexi and told her all about it. She was happy for me. I was finally getting out.
The interviews went well and I chose the job that offered me the most money. I turned in my notice and felt good about everything. Lexi was there to support me along the way and now we could finally be open about our relationship. She wanted to meet my parents, something I had not wanted to do until we were officially dating. She came to my mother’s birthday party and I introduced her to both my parents and my brother. She was so nervous she trembled. “Let’s go outside and smoke” I told her. Most of the night I kept excusing ourselves to go smoke so she could calm down. When asked questions her replies were short and anxious “Uh huh” or “Yeah.”
She left to go to work and now it was my turn to meet her father. I already knew her mother. She was a customer at the store for the last four years. Her father lived in Maine. She had a rocky relationship with him. He ran off with the babysitter when she was 11 years old and was never around for her through her defining moments in life—graduation, holidays, birthdays. She held mixed emotions of hurt and love, longing for him to be there in her life to make up for all the times he was absent. Lexi had a hole in her soul she was desperately looking to fill; searching for that sense of happiness she had never felt in her childhood or past relationships. I thought she had found that with me. She always told me “you make me so happy. The happiest I’ve ever felt.”
Her father came down a few days later and after working my new job I drove over to her brother’s house and met the whole family—father, stepmother, and three brothers. I already knew her sister-in-law. She used to work for me as a seafood clerk. We played darts and I drank a few beers. I was nervous and shy and didn’t know what to talk about until I mentioned hunting and fishing to her father. We talked for almost an hour…me about catfish and deer, and him about ice-fishing for salmon. We got along just fine. To my surprise he was a lot like me. Lexi spent most of the night finishing a paper for school. She was studying to be a teacher. We went to bed on a chair after midnight in the living room. It was far too small for me but I was just happy to be with her. I fell asleep on her shoulder as she ran her fingers through my long, curly hair. I kissed her goodbye in the morning and went to work around 5:30AM.
When I got home I texted her thanking her for introducing me to her family. I received no reply. I texted her the line I sent her every night “Goodnight, beautiful.” When I checked my phone in the morning there was still no reply. I didn’t hear from her until the following night at midnight. “I’m upset they left. I’m just going through it. Sorry. I should have texted you.” I left her alone and she finally started talking to me again the next evening about stuff at work. She was unhappy with Ava running the department in my absence. “The whole atmosphere is different,” she said. There was out of date meat in the case that hadn’t been pulled and they were over-ordering product and the cooler that she and I had been so keen to organize and keep clean was filthy and in disarray.
The next day I texted her asking how she was feeling about her family being gone. I wanted to know all about her and be there for her. I wanted her to be open and honest with me and not hide her darkness. I wanted her in her entirety, even when she was feeling down or when she was angry. I wanted her to hide nothing from me as I held nothing from her. I was in a rough patch that day because it was my uncle’s birthday. He had passed away two years before. I was off work, drunk, and in my feelings. I wanted someone to talk to so I turned to my girlfriend who promised to be there “for the good days and the bad.” But she wasn’t there. She wouldn’t talk to me. I left her alone until that evening. I asked if I had done something to upset her because she seemed distant. “I just want to make you happy,” I told her. Still no reply. Then at 2AM I woke up to a lengthy text message.
“I’m not upset with you. More myself. In the last week I’ve seen not only my dad but I ran into my ex at the gas station. It was probably the most scared I’ve been in a while. It brought up a lot of memories that nobody knows. Things I didn’t want to remember. I finally realized just how bad I am struggling mentally. I want you to be happy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. I just don’t think I’m the one who can provide you with that happiness when I cannot find happiness within myself as a person. Throughout my relationship with my ex and even now I have used people to find that short term happiness that I’ve always desired. And I can’t do that to you. I have a lot of issues. Some will pass with time and some won’t. I can understand most of my emotions and hide the worst of them. I just don’t think it would be fair to continue this when I can’t get my anger and depression under control. I know you want to see the good and the bad. You want me in my entirety. But I can’t let you see the bad. You wouldn’t like what you see. I feel like I need to save you from the worst sides of me. I’m so sorry.”
I tried to call her but she wouldn’t answer. I texted her.
“Lexi. Call me.”
“I can’t, Aiden.” She replied. “I can’t hear your voice. I don’t want to leave but I can’t stand to see you hurt. I know I make you happy but one day I will say or do something to hurt you. I can’t hurt you. I’m sorry, but it’s the right thing for me to do.”
I was left staring at my phone in the darkness of my room, sober and overcome with grief. My first emotion was anger. I was good to her. I had known her for four years. Before all this we were friends. I felt I deserved more than a text at 2AM. I deserved for her to talk to me face-to-face or at least talk to me over the phone so I could say what I needed to say. And I couldn’t say it with a text message. I had too much in my heart and on my mind. I didn’t understand. How did we go from getting serious and meeting each other’s families to nothing? She had even asked me to come to Maine to meet the rest of her family in August just the week before. She had been so proud about the fact the night I met her father that she finally told someone else about our relationship. She was excited about being open about us. Her friends knew now. We all hung out together. I was confused and after that final text she completely shut me out and stopped talking to me. She ghosted me.
I was off for three days in a row and did not know what to do with myself. I couldn’t ignore my problems and lose myself in work like I always had. Hunting season was over so I couldn’t retreat to the woods where I always went to find my center. My sole friend in this whole state was gone now. So I went to see Chuck. My orders for the next three days were heavy. I drank from 10am until I went to sleep at night. My one pint of whiskey quickly escalated to much, much more. It didn’t help. I just became more and more depressed. I chain-smoked cigarettes and re-read her message over and over hoping somehow it would change. But it never did. I waited for her to text me or call, explain everything to me about how she came to her decision. She never contacted me again. She was just over and done with it all. After knowing her for four years, I became nothing more than a memory in one night. I was angry and hurt. Bitter.
I had been so closed off and distant for years because I didn’t want to get close to anyone. I was afraid of getting hurt again. I distrusted people. But I had let my guard down. I let someone into my life who pushed me to be open and honest, express my feelings, and count on her when I was feeling down. Now she was gone. She was like a deer who heard a twig snap and she flicked her tail and ran. Something had snapped and I couldn’t mend the pieces. I couldn’t fix her. Only she could do that for herself. We were the same in how we reacted to our past and our trauma. Both of our coping mechanisms were to push others away and isolate ourselves. There we could be safe, away from the dreaded “other”—those who would disappoint us or we would let down. We lost ourselves in work, in relationships; I lost myself in alcohol and cigarettes. I never wanted to be open or vulnerable again. I wanted to close myself off from the world and drown in the bottle.
For three days I drank. My usual pack a day of Camels turned into two. My friends and family grew concerned. But I couldn’t shake my demons. I put them on full display for the world to see. Lexi had noticed things about herself when she came face-to-face with her demons but it took me longer before I gradually started noticing things about myself. Everything was right there in my novel about college. I reacted the same way to a bad situation at 35 as I had at 21. I just dove into the bottle and never came up for air. I talked to my friends but never listened to their advice. I just wanted to talk. I wanted to not be alone with myself.
After hitting rock bottom with the 17th shot of bourbon on my last night off, I realized that Lexi was right. Not about her but about me. I wasn’t happy with myself. I had found happiness in her because I couldn’t find it within. That’s why her leaving hurt so much. Because I was just left with me. That’s why I drank and smoked to avoid having to confront the sad truth that I simply couldn’t deal with myself. I didn’t love myself. That’s why I relived my past in writing because I didn’t like who I was now. I was lonely suddenly because I couldn’t find contentment in myself. I never could, as a matter of fact. I hid inside the bottle and thought I was fine. I needed to make changes if I ever was going to have healthy relationships again. Next time I would be the one sending out a break-up text at 2AM because I was so afraid of getting close to someone or I would be so closed off and bitter that I would never open up to anyone again. As I sat on my porch drunk and smoking a cigarette I thought to myself: how could two people so broken ever hope to make it in a relationship? I needed to work on myself.
The next day I went back to work. My new bossman asked “how were your days off?”
“Don’t give me three days off anymore!” I snapped at him.
“My girlfriend broke up with me.”
“Didn’t you just meet her father?”
“Yeah. I’m just as confused as you are.”
“What would happen if I gave you four days off?” He joked.
“I’m afraid my parents would die.”
That night I drove home after work without lighting a cigarette, determined to get control of my life. When the city drowned into swamps and the cotton fields now abloom with the milky white specks of summer, I thought about Chuck. I didn’t stop to see him. I kept on driving. I was going to spend the evening getting to know myself better.
I felt terrible when I was home alone. I went through my routine. I took off my boots, fed my fish, fed my cat, but I had no bottle of whiskey to keep me company. I thought about going outside for a cigarette but I had no cigarettes. I was just alone with my thoughts. I thought about Lexi. I wondered if she was hurting like I was or if she just didn’t care? I wondered if she ever felt for me what I felt for her? I felt no sense of pleasure or joy in anything in my life anymore. My friend’s words didn’t console me. I wanted to make changes but I couldn’t be alone with myself yet.
On my next day off I drove to the beach to visit my friends. We went fishing. The entire time I was overwhelmed with thoughts of the beach trip with Lexi and the whole time I kept thinking: we ate there, we stayed there, we drank there, we met my friends there. She was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, plaguing my mind. I just wanted to talk to her one last time. I wanted to hold her and kiss her and tell her everything she meant to me. She made me so happy, the happiest I had ever been with someone. But I had to face the fact that she was gone. I could no longer find my happiness in another person. I had to face myself.
I returned home just as empty as before. I went to work and the daily grind helped me to get out of my head. But then I had to go home to my empty house. I had finished my novel. I had nothing to do. I started running. I felt something that the alcohol never made me feel. My mind was clear. I started meditating. I finally put work into myself. I started going to the gym, going fishing, writing short stories. I read books and wrote poetry. I visited my friend from college who had moved to a new house in the country two years prior and I never had the time to see it until now. We went fishing. I started to focus on everything I had gained and not what I had lost. I had friends who I could visit now. I had time to cook elaborate dishes when I never had the time for before. I focused on my health and went to the gym three days a week. I ran every day. I lost weight and felt better about my self-image. I was beginning to accept myself. Not in who I was or how I was but in what I could become. I could be a better person. I could finally see that now. I had a long way to go and I knew I wasn’t there yet, but I was on the right path. I had to take each day at a time and move forward.
On my way home from work one night I saw Chuck. His blue truck took a left in front of me when I was stopped at a red light in the city. I wondered what he was cooking that evening or if his turkey wings ever went on sale. I hadn’t stopped to see him in over a month. I hoped he was doing alright.