Hello, San Francisco, Goodbye: Part 5

 

This story is much too much to be one blog post, so it’s broken into parts. Here are the links:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

I’m going to stop apologizing for how long it has taken me to get here. Each of these parts has been painstaking. It’s a lot of untangling, trying to separate the threads of hurt from my actual experience and then from the place I am now, hindsight. There is so much floating around in my head that I need to un-puzzle, to understand, to get out of my fucking body. You know?

Have you ever had company coming, and without time to clean, you just shove everything into the nearest closet? It’s a temporary solution. I mean, some of us are really good at forgetting about the mess behind the door. It’s easier to keep the door shut. But the longer you wait to confront the closet chaos, the scarier it gets, the harder it is to deal with the mess.

So here I am, opening the door to the monster that’s been living in my closet for the last year plus.

***

 

People show you who they are.

Whether it’s through their actions, inactions or reactions, people will always present themselves… eventually. The problem is that we don’t want to see them. We want people to be who want them to be, who we need them to be. It sounds gross, but it’s actually a very human thing that we do. Why wouldn’t we? In this world, we find ways to cope. We are survivors.

And maybe this is too much of an aside, but it’s something I need to say for others just as much as myself. If this is too much for you, just skip to the next section (the bolded date)—like a choose your own adventure. haha. I just couldn’t find a way to not say this.

For those of us raised by people who didn’t/couldn’t give us what we needed emotionally, we are especially good at shaping those around us into what is lacking. It’s all so confusing growing up this way. Everyone disappoints you or leaves you or “turns into” someone else. If this sounds like you too, don’t be hard on yourself. You made it! You are here. Your brain did what it needed to do to get by. And we all do this to cope to varying degrees.

Anyway, the good news is that once we become aware of it, we can better avoid The Big Hurts. For most of us, our 30s are when we hopefully get good at sniffing out the people and things we want in our lives. We only have so much energy and time, so we have to ration it out carefully. (Oregon Trail, anyone?) This isn’t to say that The Big Hurts won’t come knocking ever again. I guess that is my lesson here. I really thought no one would get by my bullshit sniffer ever again. Who do I think I am? 

No one is invincible. See, it’s tricky. Sometimes you find people whose actions do not align with their words. They are good at knowing what you want to hear, but not so good with the follow-through. This makes people sound malicious, but I don’t think they are 95% of the time… just careless. Most of us genuinely want to be good, to do right by others—right? I’m sure they want to live up to this potential, but just fall short. Malicious or not, it still hurts. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we let them hurt us again and again. Even if they “didn’t mean to.” Even if they apologize (but especially if they don’t.)

What you go through with careless people is pretty much always the same bullshit. You find someone you connect with. The beginning is good. But then, the tension arrives. They ditch plans, offend you, forget your birthday—whatever it is. And before long, you find yourself questioning everything and putting up with crap you’d never dream of swallowing before. But then, at some point, something they do (or don’t do) knocks the rosy glasses off of our faces and it’s like we are seeing them for the first time.

That feeling is the worst.

But is that person really to blame? Who are you even mad at? Sad at? It’s a confusing twist cone of emotions that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Friday, July 29th —9:00 a.m. PST

When K told me she had COVID, my first reaction was relief.

It seems so silly now, but I thought that maybe I could just file the whole unfortunate event in that thick, ever-growing folder labeled “COVID: Collateral Damage.” If only I could just forget the last 24 hours or so of weird and disappointing communications with her. If only I could just erase her carelessness and avoidance and tell myself that we didn’t connect this trip because she got COVID. It would be so much easier to blame the virus.

But I wasn’t giving up yet. This was my second reaction. Hey, I came all this way and if it meant I might catch COVID (after avoiding it for 2 years), it was worth it—wasn’t it? It would ruin my writing workshop days and I might not be able to get back on a plane to go home, but fuck it.

Me:  Damn, dude. Well, I will go outside and masked with ya anywhere. So.

Me:  How’d ya get it?!

Me:  Hope you don’t feel too bad… ugh. What a nightmare.

She got it from an event, she said.

K:  And I feel super icky but thought it was just in my head.

K:  I’m so annoyed.

Annoyed?

First, she was “bummed” and then “annoyed.” I, on the other hand, was devastated.

The tears ran from my eyes, some soaking into the black fabric of my n95 mask, while others cascaded around the top of the mask and down each side spilling onto my cheeks. I sat there, alone and unmoving, a sad-face fountain at a six-top table surrounded by plates of cold, uneaten breakfast foods. My phone was laid in front of me like a sword. The blue-bubbled text conversation stalled out.

K never responded to my proposition of meeting outdoors. In fact, she never said another word to me that day—oh, except when I accidentally texted her instead of Abbie. I was at Trader Joe’s (less than a mile from her house). It was benign, something about the color of Crocs, because believe it or not, I still didn’t tell Abbie what was happening. I mean, what if this was all some big misunderstanding and I’d unjustly ruin Abbie’s opinion of her? I didn’t want her to worry about me either. Besides all that, I was so so embarrassed.

Why am I including this accidental text in the story? Because. Even though I didn’t plan on it, the text let K know I was there at Trader Joe’s, a 5-minute walk to her house. Her response was another painful dose of avoidance, which should’ve been predictable at that point.

K:  I love Trader Joe’s!

What?

I drove to TJ’s after the sad hotel brunch, because I had planned to pick up some sick people stuff for K (crackers, soup, ginger ale, etc.), and then plop it on her doorstep. But in my twist cone of mad and sad, I talked myself out of it. I already felt stupid for coming this far, giving this much. I mean, she hadn’t even asked me if I was okay or if I found something to do or to eat or whatever. I stopped myself from doing more. Giving her another ounce of vulnerability just wasn’t an option.

Instead of that, I sat directionless in the hot black car with the windows up taking part in some seriously obnoxious sobbing. You know the kind that sounds like you’re coming up for air after touching the bottom of the deep end? Like that.

This was a me I didn’t recognize.

Friday, July 29th — the rest of the day

Sooo… I didn’t stop crying.

I don’t know what to tell you. I wish my story was different, about how I sucked it up and made the most of it in the Bay. But I didn’t. I did find one stationery store in Berkeley, because I always try to find postcards and things to send when I am away. It just made me sadder, though, wondering if this was the stationery store that K told me about in her letters. She loves Berkeley. As I read her words, I always imagined that some day I’d be there to experience all the things with her in person. She would show me around. And then, she would come here and I could show her my spots and all the places I find beautiful in my dirty little city of Pittsburgh. Saying this now, I feel like  an idiot. After 10 years without a proper visit, maybe I should’ve taken the hint? Maybe this was just another red flag that I missed.

Stationery Store -Berkeley, CA

The rest of the day, I drove around aimlessly, crying, talking to myself, frantically trying to piece together how I got where I was.

What was I doing? 

I wanted so badly to be with someone who cared about me. I was a new level of alone. Like, the kind you can’t just trick your brain out of. So I drove around, found a pensive spot by the water and watched the sun drop. It was the most exquisite pity party ever.

 

That night, I ate a Lunchable in bed and watched TV. I wrote out postcards to my friends back home, pretending things weren’t this bad. In the small rectangle of postcard space, I joked about corny hotel decor, the surprising chill of July in San Fransisco, the long masked plane ride here. What was I going to write about? How I came all this way to cry in parking lots, to chase geese around the lagoon behind the hotel, to eat a Ham & Swiss Lunchable alone in my hotel room?

If someone could see me now, I thought, as I dusted the cracker crumbs from my chest onto the pristine white sheets.

 

Friday, July 30th —morning and afternoon

Still, nothing.

Checking my phone became a ritual that I resented. I watched K switch on and off the “Silence Notifications” setting on her iPhone. (Yes, you can see this in the chat conversation.)

It was the day before my birthday, I reminded myself. Get your shit together. I got to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror: puffy eyes punched into a splotchy red face. The salty tears had burnt the skin around my eyes and it hurt to touch them.

Today would be different.

I made plans to meet up with Christine for brunch. Who is Christine? Our orbits bumped years ago on Instagram, where we ended up chatting in DMs, until eventually, snail mail. Abbie and I met her IRL in 2017, when we were in SF. I know people say this corny shit all the time, but it was like we had known her for forever, like family.

When I planned this trip, I had messaged Christine to tell her that I was coming to the area and that I hoped we could meet up, even if it was just to squeeze in a coffee. Honestly, it felt tentative. I didn’t have hour-by-hour plans with K, but I assumed we’d be spending most of my time there together. After over a decade of knowing her, I was dedicating this portion of my trip to our friendship, you know? That’s what it felt like.

I wasn’t sure how to talk about Christine in this story or if I should at all. She wasn’t part of the nightmare. Instead, she was the reality check I needed, a flash of brightness in this dark weird drain I had been circling for days. But I did (and still do) feel guilty about it somehow. I hope she didn’t feel like some runner-up to K. I also didn’t want her to feel like I was her problem or that she had to pick up the pieces to my shattered hopes and ego.

Christine and I met for brunch. It was chilly, almost winter-like, and the fog was thick in the distance. She greeted me on the sidewalk in front of her place, open arms. I remember her hugging me and how fucking amazing it felt. The tears formed a baseball in my throat (and even now as I recall this.)

“Oh, am I the first person to give you a hug? …or even touch you since you’ve been here?”

I don’t think I’d ever needed to be seen so badly. She didn’t treat me like I was being dramatic or foolish, but she got it totally. I just have no words for how much that meant to me, still means. I got to tell someone what was going on, to tell the story (finally) and to someone who I knew would give it to me straight. What was going on? What was I missing?

But even after telling the story, we never came to any great realization about what was going on. It was kind of a relief to know that Christine was just as confused.

“What can you do?” Christine asked. 

It was a rhetorical question, but I answered it anyway.

“I don’t plan on ever speaking to her again,” I said.

I don’t know if that makes me cold or crazy or a bad person, but I had come to this realization before meeting up with Christine, on the drive down. First, how can you make this up to someone? Some things you just can’t make right—especially with 5,000 miles in between. But the big reason for feeling completely donezo with K is kind of simple: she is not the type of person I want or need in my life.

If you’ve read up to here, I’m sure you don’t need me to clarify but…  it’s not that she got COVID. This shit happened to so many people during the pandemic. It’s how she handled it. It’s how she did not show a lick of concern for me and refused to take any type of ownership. Instead, she played dumb and bypassed all of my hurt. Fuck, she didn’t even call me. She texted me (barely)… and I flew across the country to be 5 minutes from her house. Instead of asking if I was ok, she silenced her phone at 7 p.m., hours after I arrived, alone.

Pssst: The insecure and forever-unlovable kid part of me still feels somewhat guilty for having expectations of a friend like that. Am I being too demanding? Do I deserve it?

 

After brunch, Christine let me hang a bit with her and her kiddo. The little one’s first day of school was approaching and she needed a haircut and a trip to the library. It was sweet and I could’ve followed them around all day, really.

This is about when I first spotted a footless pigeon. What you need to know is that I love pigeons. A lot. And so when I found it sitting like a little clump of bird on some steps, I got closer. Why wasn’t it running away?

Oh no, did you find an injured animal even on vacation? I could hear Abbie say.

I’m really good at this. I get myself into some real situations because I can’t just leave something hurt like that, you know? But as I moved closer, the scared bird stood up on two stunted legs and quickly wobbled a few feet away, where it fell again into a frightened clump. When I asked Christine if she saw it, she hardly seemed phased. Apparently this is a thing. Feetless pigeons. Later, I would cry about this too.

 

Friday, July 30th — 4:30 p.m.

I began my drive back up 101 to San Rafael, back to my strange hotel room. Just days before, I was flying up this same route, sleepy and mesmerized, with a dumb heart so full it could’ve split. It was just moments ago or else years. Thoughts like these burned now. Remembering that excitement, that overzealous fool that I was. It made me so angry with K. How could she? Why would she? Who was she?

Did I really plan to never say another word to her? Even if she texted me? …like I told Christine?

This time, as the inevitable tears plopped onto my cheeks, I sucked in the sadness and blew it out of the open window like a goodbye kiss. It was my last night in the Bay, in San Rafael. The next day, my birthday, I would leave for the writing workshop in Pebble Beach. Despite the grief, the homesickness and the plight of my pigeon friends, I felt a little lighter after my visit with Christine, a little less unlovable. Maybe I could actually do something tonight—you know, other than eating a Lunchable in a hotel bed while crying intermittently during the commercial breaks of a Forensic Files marathon.

Just as I had the thought, it was interrupted by the sharp ding of my phone: a text message. I waited a few minutes before checking the screen—partly out of defiance and partly out of self-preservation. I wanted to sit in that moment of ambiguity for as long as I could. I held my breath as I picked up the phone to read the screen. It was K. 

K:  Hey, I hope you’re enjoying your time today in SF with your friend…

How did she know where I was? Who I was with?

K:  …I wanted to acknowledge our conversation yesterday because it didn’t really sit well with me for a couple of reasons.

There was a large block of text glaring up at me. I only looked briefly since I was driving, but it didn’t take much skimming to realize the slippery tone of her message. As I looked for the next exit to pull over, the heat rose from my chest to my cheeks.

Would this be the stuff her silence was saying, her explanation? Coming through the night before I was leaving? In my mind, there was nothing left to salvage. I was done holding back. I pulled into a random plaza parking lot, unbuckled my seatbelt and conjured as much courage as I could. I knew it was going to hurt. I pulled out my pocket bandana and laid it on my thigh, anticipating the tears that I could feel inside of my chest filling buckets.