The next day, Jonathan walked around the house on the cordless phone, telling his parents, talking to his agent, telling a college friend who worked in film but was in London for a movie shoot for the next two months, all while he wrapped his cups and plates in newspaper and stacked them in a box.
“Can I ask you a huge favor?” he said, when he was between phone calls.
“You can always ask. What is it?”
“Would you go to the grocery store and see if you can get more cardboard boxes from them? I’d go, but I’m waiting for a call back…”
“Of course.” I kissed him on the cheek and headed out the door.
It was weird, I admit it, that part of me couldn’t wait for the relationship to be over already, and yet part of me was enjoying it the most I ever had. Because I wasn’t holding anything back now. Because now that I knew it was over, there didn’t seem to be any reason to hold back.
Which brings up the question, of course, what was the reason I was holding back in the first place? Was it really that I was holding my breath waiting for Ziggy to waltz through the door? Or was it my own fear of commitment (or whatever Lacey called it)?
Or was it that deep down I simply was not committed to the relationship and so somewhere in the back of my mind I had my foot on the brakes all the time?
I brought this up to Jonathan after I got back from the store with a couple of sturdy fruit boxes. I haven’t even told you half the relationship processing talks we had because I can’t even remember them as separate conversations now, they were coming so fast and thick in those final days. But we had gotten into this thing where, since we were breaking up, we each wanted to tell the other things that would be helpful in our next relationship. He asked me what I thought he could’ve done differently, and I asked him the same.
So I asked him what he thought of my theory.
By that point he was in the office rearranging the books by size and shape, but not yet putting them in boxes. He sat down in the chair in front of the computer. “You know, that’s a good question. It’s hard to say, Daron. I mean, on the one hand you say you were holding me at arm’s length, and yet you wanted to have sex more often and you were bending over backwards to make sure everything was going smoothly.”
“I was just trying to do it right.”
“Oh, you dear thing.” He hugged me. His chin hit me in the sternum since I was standing up and he was still in the chair. He looked up into my face. “You did as right as you could. I’m going to say something now though that I don’t want you to take the wrong way.”
“I think if, after you walk out that door, you’re still holding your breath for Ziggy–?”
“Don’t,” I said. I didn’t even know what he was going to say. I wasn’t ready to hear it.
“It’s okay,” he said, changing tack. “Even without him hanging over you, it… it wasn’t the right time for you and me.”
I leaned down and kissed him. He was really a handsome fella, that Jonathan McCabe. I was already thinking of him as fondly in my past even though he was still in the room. And I know that’s weird, but there was some way in which it was working for me. It took that breakup, maybe, that “learning experience,” for me to really start to see the ways that affection and friendship and affinity and sexual attraction actually can fit together.
I had never realized how huge affection is. I’d never ever realized WHAT it is, really, before that. And yeah, Ziggy was still haunting me, because I would have one of these revelations about how I felt about Jonathan… and then a few seconds later some memory of something Ziggy said or did to me would roll through my head and give me goosebumps or make me feel like I had to sit down for a second. When Ziggy held my hand or touched my hair, maybe he wasn’t trying to manipulate me or arouse me. Maybe he just LIKED me. What a concept.
I think, in my head, I was trying to break up with Ziggy, too. But it wasn’t working. Not the least of which reasons was because he WASN’T THERE.
I think Jonathan had hoped, when he first asked me to stick around for another month, that maybe a month with cleared air and cards on the table would lead to a renewed relationship. I’ll tell you the truth: I wanted to keep an open mind. I wanted to be open to discovering the key to happiness, to staying together if sudden clarity showed that to be the way, but I was also open to using that grace period together as my last chance to learn a bunch of shit I still hadn’t figured out.
So I wasn’t falling in love with Jonathan all over again. Through all the talks, the sex, the feeling like we were “on vacation” again, I was giving myself a very full sort of closure with him. Great. But the by-propduct of it was dredging up all the raw unprocessed emotions I had about Ziggy, which had been lying there under the surface ever since New York.
“Hey,” Jonathan said, nothing more than a whisper of breath, but it brought me back to reality. He still has his arms around my back. We were still in the office.
“You were a million miles away.”
“They’re only ten thousand miles away,” I said, one of my lame jokes. “Right? How big is the Pacific Ocean? Wait, they might not have even left yet. I’ve lost track.”
“I’ll admit I don’t know the distance from here to Tokyo.” Jonathan loosened his grip on me. “It’s your turn to tell me something.”
“You haven’t told me yet what I could have done differently.”
I had come close to telling him once or twice, actually, about the one time I came close, so close, to falling for him. Not merely loving him, but falling IN love with him. There was one moment. Do you remember it? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t because it had only happened a few months before that and I got it wrong when I tried to remember when it was.
“I’m not sure there was anything you could’ve done differently,” I said. “You remember the day I went to get Ziggy?” Yeah, that day where I nearly gave myself heat prostration and cried so much that I had to replenish water and minerals in Gatorade form at every exit?
“Of course I do,” he said gently, like he knew how painful it was for me to think about.
“And you were having a meltdown about your story, and afraid to talk to your agent–”
“Those weren’t on the same day,” he said with small frown.
I paused to think. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. You came home and I had been on the phone trying to figure out where he was.”
“Right.” I pressed the heel of one of my hands to my eye, like that could help me see into my memory. “When was your meltdown?”
“Admittedly, it was right before that.”
“Ah, okay. I guess it’s blurred in my head.” I’d somehow mixed Jonathan’s emotional crash with my own. “Anyway. You’d had this total collapse of your artistic confidence, and we were on the couch at Remo’s talking, and it turned into sex, and I just… I just–” I started to hyperventilate instead of finish the sentence because I couldn’t even figure out the words for what I was trying to say. I settled for: “I almost fell for you right then.” I remembered the moment with great clarity, even if I had forgotten which day it had happened on. It was the absolute closest we had ever been… until the past few days, anyway.
“Why almost?” Jonathan whispered, like it was something we should be afraid to speak of aloud.
It took me a moment to connect the memory with the correct day. But once I did, the rest of it came rushing back, too. “We had a fight right after that. Don’t you remember? The time you bit my head off because I was done with my project and you weren’t?”
The look in his eyes was the most crushed I’d ever seen him as what I was saying sank in.
“The ’24-hour sex dispenser’ comment,” I said, to make sure he was thinking of the same thing.
He was. His eyes filled with tears. “I’m an idiot. Did I ever apologize for saying that?”
“Many times. But you never really stopped acting like you felt that way,” I pointed out calmly. “Like you had to withhold sex because someone had to, and like you were drowning in your creative world while I excelled in mine and you couldn’t really come to terms with it. It’s been all downhill since that moment, J. And everything I’ve tried to do to make it up to you has failed.”
He blinked hard and it made the tears spill. “Wait, why would you be trying to make it up to me?”
“You want to know Lacey’s theory?”
“Lacey knows about it?”
“No, she doesn’t, but she spouted a lot of theories at me and when I couldn’t escape from her I actually listened to some of them, and maybe one of them was even right.”
He took a deep breath. “I’m listening.”
“What happened that night? When got irrational and blamed me for stuff that was really yours… Part of me stopped trusting you. The part of me that hid behind an amplifier without even thinking.”
A glimmer of light came in his eyes like maybe he understood. Jonathan was always getting one step ahead of me.
“The same part of me that only knows two ways to handle an adult who’s acting crazy and unpredictable.”
“Oh, Daron.” He knew what I was going to say.
That only obligated me to say it. “The traumatized kid part. The two ways are run away and hide, or just try to be the absolute best little boy I can be so there won’t be any more trouble.”
“Oh, shit, Daron.” Now he was sobbing openly. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right. It’s all right. I’m not hurt.” I wiped the tears off his cheeks with my thumbs and looked down into his cradled face with my own, wide, dry eyes. “I wish I had figured out a little sooner what was going on, but I don’t know if it would have made a difference.”
He nodded. “I can’t believe I was such a self-centered shit not to see it sooner. The fight we had at Remo’s over Thanksgiving…” He trailed off.
Yeah, I’d ended up hiding in the same spot, hadn’t I. I hadn’t even made that connection. When I go into survival mode apparently I don’t even register what I do or why half the time.
“Listen to me,” I said, as earnest and serious as I could be. “Enough with the self pity. This is why I said you had to get out of that job. You have to get back to your real self, J. I bet it’s not just me who probably can’t stand to have a relationship with you when you’re like this. You’ve been emotionally crippled by the whole thing.”
“You’re right.” He let out a long breath. “And you keep being right about that. You want to know my big underlying fear? It’s that writing a novel is the most self-indulgent thing a person can do. As if doing it makes me a complete waste of space on the Earth.”
“You don’t seriously believe that?” I asked with some alarm.
“No. Not at all. But I think a lot of people want writers to feel that way. Like we don’t even deserve to live. While you’re writing the novel… it’s not like music where you can stand on the street corner and play and people actually enjoy hearing it. This is… you go in a room by yourself, don’t answer the phone, don’t talk to your family, don’t pay attention to your boyfriend’s emotional trauma–”
“I told you, I’m fine now.”
“–isolate yourself from all the voices of people in the world so you can listen to the voices in your head. I’ve been raised to believe literary pursuits are acceptable, at least partly.”
My turn to be one step ahead. “Is this why you’re so hung up on writing The Great American Novel? Because if it doesn’t win a Pulitzer the naysayers might have been right? Or… your father might be right?”
He slumped. “Maybe.”
“Is that how you give yourself writers block, then? Trying to write for the critics instead of yourself?”
He nodded. “And I know it so well. The first thing every writing teacher tells you is you have to shut off the internal censor. But it’s so hard!”
“Especially here! This is the most judgmental place in the country, Jonathan! People here will get on you for wearing the wrong brand of shoe-laces here, for fuck’s sake! Even our gay neighbors judge us! And you’ve just spent what, three months trapped in committees and meetings day after day trying to get approval from one another, from advertisers, from the networks, from the parent company, being judged at every fucking turn, for an idea that is going to fucking DIE if it doesn’t please the one person it actually needs to, which is YOU.”
“I know. I know. And thank god you were here to pull my head out of my ass.”
“Well, I’ll take the credit, but then again, they did can the project, so maybe you would’ve escaped without my help.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I would have lost my sanity a while back and by now I’d never write again.”
“Jeezus, don’t say that.” The idea gave me chills. “Now, seriously, when are you getting back to work on the real thing, the novel thing.”
“Soon as I get back East,” he said, starting to smile. “I’m going to do it the classic way. From my mother’s basement like a real novelist!”
That set us both chuckling. Then he went on. “Well, or possibly from a coffee shop, which sounds at least a little more dignified. But I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“Two things actually. The first one is what else can I do to help your sanity, Daron, given that you’ve done so much for mine? And the second one is, what do you think about…” He hesitated and I knew he was about to bring up something he thought was land-mine. “About clearing out of here tomorrow.”
I was so surprised I think he took my shock for dismay because he added quickly, “Or maybe after the weekend.”
I overreacted a little, because that’s how much I wanted him to NOT get the wrong idea. “Shit, no! Tomorrow’s great. I thought it was you who really wanted me to hang on as long as possible.”
He took one of my hands in his and kissed my calloused fingertips. “Letting go of you is very, very, very hard. And I cherish every moment with you. Even the ones where we’re fighting.”
“But you’ve been right about everything. I don’t want to put you behind me. But it’s definitely time to put L.A. and this whole… episode behind me.”
I hugged him so hard right then I think I actually pulled a muscle in his neck. He was way too polite to say anything about it, though. “I can totally go to Remo’s.”
“My mother said she’d fly standby to Las Vegas and I could pick her up there.”
“Did you rent a truck?”
“They’ve got one down at the depot on Western Ave., but they’re still trying to get the tow hitch for my car. Good chance they’ll get it tomorrow, though.”
“Okay, well, shit, we better get packing!” I kissed him hard, but quickly, and then broke away to start taping back together some of the boxes he had flattened but kept when he’d moved in.
After we’d packed the whole office together except for the computer itself, we had moved to the bedroom and were filling our suitcases, and I said, “There’s only one regret I have to this plan.”
“We’re going to be packing all night. I would kind of like our last night together to be memorable.”
He laughed. “I’ll make it as memorable as you want, Daron. If it takes a little longer to pack, that’s all right.”
“All right.” I was grinning like a fool and I didn’t even mind.
A little while later I took a break and tried to call Remo, to be sure it was okay if I went to his house. For one thing, a) I didn’t want to surprise the pool cleaners or anything like that, and b) for all I knew it was possible he had someone else crashing there right now. I didn’t get him, left a message, and figured it would be another day before I heard from him.
But I got a call pretty shortly after that, while I was putting all of J’s CDs–plus a few of mine I’d decided he needed more than I did–into a box.
“Daron, everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine. I wanted to ask, I mean I’m pretty sure it’s okay but in case it wasn’t, you know, if you have somebody…”
“Hang on, hang on. The line’s a bit noisy. Can you get to the point? It’s a little hard to hear you.”
“Is it okay if I go to your house for a while? Couple of days, maybe a week?”
“Why? I thought you were–”
“He’s leaving. Tomorrow. Back to Jersey. So I’m–”
“Jeezus fucking Christ that is the best news I’ve heard all day!” He sounded positively ecstatic. Then he sobered to add, “Not that, I mean, condolences on the relationship and all that.”
“So I can stay at your place?”
“No, doofus, you can get your butt on a plane to Japan!”
“No buts! Are you kidding me? If he’s cut you loose, if you’re done, get the hell over here. I need you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Hell, yes. You rescue me this time. Which guitars do you have?”
“An Ovation and a Fender Strat.”
“You won’t need the Strat. Or, well, maybe you will, Bring ’em both. You’ll have to carry them. The gear left Tuesday. My people will book you a flight. Shit, I can’t wait until you get here. This place makes New York look like a podunk town.”
“Wait, did I say yes I’m coming?” I said just to jerk his chain a little.
“Daron. If you have a good reason not to, don’t. But give me one good reason why you can’t.”
“Just tell me when to be on the plane. And which airport. For fuck’s sake there are too many of them around here.”
“You got it. See you soon.”
So that’s how I ended up having to tell Carynne to cancel my plans to come home for Christmas. She was disappointed, and so was Courtney, but right then, getting on a jet plane across the ocean sounded real good. Exciting and different and a fresh start and all that. I know I said I wanted to go home and lick my wounds, but you know, the three? four? however many days it had been since the epic breakup conversation had really given me a lot of perspective and made me feel good about myself.
I mean, I did it. I wanted to come up with a way for me and Jonathan to split up without leaving each other in bloody tatters. Given how abandoned I felt by Ziggy, there was no way I was inflicting that on someone else, and in the end I didn’t have to. To use an L.A. analogy, I rode it out until the wave came all the way to shore. Cue Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as I coast majestically onto the beach, sunglasses on, a guitar in one hand and the Trophy of Intact Friendship in the other.
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