He Doesn’t Know


“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas


This emotional unrest is like fresh into a break up or like right after Trump was elected or a few weeks into postpartum depression or notice of a bounced paycheck. A disturbance and its ripple effect, a virtual stranglehold on anything settling or peaceful, the pit in the stomach, the inability to keep food down, the constant hiccup of words regretted on repeat.

A couple weeks ago, he had a stroke. My life is far removed from his. We went our separate ways after ripping each other’s hearts out, and did our best to not keep in touch.

First loves. Young and foolish, invincible, constantly self-medicated with food, and deep inhalations of life beyond mirrors and repercussions; we were escapists together, perpetually stuck. We were miserable. We were miserable as individuals. We were miserable in life. We loved each other in ways we could not love ourselves.

Now his eyes are blank, whitewashed, as if their creator took some glue or milk and a soapy sponge and wiped most of it away. Empty, ghostly, devoid of life.

Rounding the halls as they twisted and turned, and eventually led to his room down the way, past a few nurse’s stations, the expectation was of contortion, distortion, undeniable brokenness, a pile of rubble, an unmistakable bad landing, proof all is unwell. Shockingly, the shell looks the same.

We were married young, knew before he proposed it would not work out. Not one for the story books, except maybe fairy tales. Happily ever after is never too fleshed out. Our bond was intense but skewed, dependent and tainted, an unhealthy draw, a pull, a sanctioned hypnosis, a routine woven into the foundation of the day. Feet to the cold hard floor, each step felt like the last, but closer to the next wave of consciousness. We hungered for more, but could not get enough. We wanted to grow old together, but how? Bonds like those are destined to break, but not completely, only enough to move on.

The last time we spoke in person was about two and a half years ago, a coffee date in his neighborhood. Been years since then, and the time before that, enough to feel awkward, too distanced, too far from each other’s present tense for real connection. Not strangers, exactly. Not friends, but not without love or remorse or a yearning to stay in touch. Ever sit across from a former lover, with lifetimes worth of chapters written that neither of you knew about, neither of you thumbed through, earmarked by loved ones, but barely touched upon, tiptoed across by the leads actually living it? Breaths in, and breaths out, gone.

We frayed for many reasons other than incompatibility and total nonchalance. We were barely grown-up enough to pay rent. I wanted to excel in school, and to find myself before being grounded to housewife status, before committing to children and a cottage. He wanted to fade, to skip around and ignore adulthood, board down the slopes, inhale deeply, melt away until the naps faded, and do it all over again. Once we were married, the thrill receded. The sex wasn’t dirty. The play wasn’t fun. The bond was way too legal. We ended bitterly, turned our backs and never rewound. Done.

The day we broke-up for good was the darkest day of my life, at least until then. We had taken other lovers, broken our vows, and never really apologized. I begged him not to go. Down on my knees, pathetic desperation bellowed from my body, a final plea, a dig, a last-ditch effort to get him to stay. Love and escapism were not enough, and there we were, crumbs on the floor, nowhere to go—but away.

We had lives to get on with. How to resurrect when the living are still throwing dirt? When the roses haven’t dried? When the black shrouded shuffle still wanes in the distance? How to move on when life is not life anymore? One foot in front of the other, one breath at a time, one minute, then one hour, then one day, then one week, and it all blends together, and before you know it he has kids and is remarried and you are walking the edges of the earth with mortal angels, juggling your own mortality as if it could boomerang right back. So much life has been crammed into the chapters between then and now, so much he doesn’t know.

Now. Now his body is a shell. He breathes on his own, but his brain will never allow him back, not the way he’s grown accustomed. Even in the depths of despair and depression, even the days he almost drowned in loneliness, almost ripped his skin off from sheer frustration of being stuck and being sad, those days would be heaven compared to now. I want to tell him about all he’s missed, all the stories, all the color from all the chapters he never knew about. My first love, my first devotion, my first escape artist, my first lover, my first very best friend beyond the bounds of my childhood constraints, my first everything, and our final chance to exchange words is now a one-sided conversation.

He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know about the couches I slept on, the heroin addicts, and the near fatal overdose. He doesn’t know about the Beatles and Radiohead at ear splitting volume in the wee hours, and the pink intravenous cocktail, and the bottles of vodka. He doesn’t know about the 5am walks through Interlaken, a start on my daily journey to the Pike Place Market, to my first restaurant job. He doesn’t know about the ghosts playing with coffee cups or the near horizontal walks up those dark wooden stairs after the kitchen closed. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know about Bruce and the car accident. He doesn’t know about the trip Bruce and I took from Seattle to Vegas and back, and all the altered states we visited. Oregon Sand Dunes, the mighty Redwoods, Zion, Bryce, Flagstaff, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, he doesn’t know about the night Bruce grew wings on the cliff-side where we camped illegally, and watched UFOs, and played drums. He doesn’t know that the Grand Canyon harbors my soul from another lifetime, and the reunion I had with myself for a split second, a burst of what was, nearly subdued me.

He doesn’t know about South Dakota, and being pulled over, and my little sundress he’d bought for me on Haight, flapping in the wind while the K-9 searched the van and the officer put Bruce in handcuffs. He doesn’t know about the police station, and the bail money, and the beers in Wall, and the full orange moon, and the overturned van after we collided with a pick-up truck on reservation land at 60 mph. He doesn’t know about Bruce’s flat-line in the ER and the nice Irish social worker who took me home with her so I wouldn’t be forced onto the street. He doesn’t know she sent me to Vegas to be with my grandmother, which led me back to the twilight zone I’d worked so hard to escape those years when the two of us were together. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know I made amends with my family, and got my own apartment above Portage Bay. He dwoesn’t know I used to stare at the UW campus every night and dream about what I’d study. He doesn’t know that when I moved out of that apartment, I vowed to come back, and I did. He doesn’t know that I left for Portland and ended up going to culinary school, and served my externship on Kauai, and graduated with honors, and then moved back into that very same apartment and got accepted into the UW. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know I met someone worth marrying, and that while he courted me, this man helped put me through school, and sent me to study in Prague for a quarter, and visited me, and whisked me away to Krakow for the weekend. He doesn’t know about the amber engagement ring and the plate of perogis and pitcher of beer we shared before walking through the narrow park on the way back to the youth hostel. He doesn’t know about the bench, and where this man proposed to me, and he doesn’t know we got up early the next morning and drove to Auschwitz.

He doesn’t know about how disturbingly clean the camp was, how devoid of life it felt, how much guilt weighed on me for not being able to commune with the souls whose bodies had died there. He doesn’t know it’s a museum in the middle of a town called Auschwitz, and it was not in black and white, and we arrived on a tour bus, not on a train. He doesn’t know about the skinheads I saw with SS thunderbolts on their suspenders, their rolled up skinny jeans, and their Doc Martens. He doesn’t know about Birkenau either, and the stark difference between the two camps or about the dilapidated cabin I walked into, how uninsulated it was, dirt floor, one tiny cast iron stove for a hundred and fifty feet worth of length. He doesn’t know about the wooden slats that were supposed to be beds, and the holes in the walls where bits of sunrays poked through. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know I was so hungry while visiting Auschwitz that I actually ate lunch in the cafeteria, and it was the best damn schnitzel I’ve ever had, and that made me feel guiltier than anything. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know I graduated with honors but skipped the ceremonies to see Tom Petty and the Steve Miller Band at the Gorge. Then after the hangover, became my own wedding coordinator.

He doesn’t know about my dear friend Michael who I met while working in the Pike Place Market, and the hours and hours Michael and I spent drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and talking about everything we could possibly think of. He doesn’t know that Michael was the best friend I’ve ever had, the one person I could talk to with no shame. He doesn’t know that Michael was more than twice my age, and wanted me as his lover, but settled for deep, soul enriching, life-changing conversations instead. He doesn’t know Michael served in the Korean War. He doesn’t know that Michael passed away from complications due to prostate cancer and the last conversation I had with him was awkward and tense because the depression and isolation had affected his emotional stability, and it was the first argument we’d ever had. He doesn’t know it was the last time I saw Michael alive, and the day I found out Michael had died was the day I’d returned from an epic one-month trip to Puerto Vallarta. I’d missed the funeral by an hour, and because of that I hopped a train to Vancouver BC, checked myself into a youth hostel, made a bunch of friends, let one of them get me wasted and drag me to the skydiving office, and signed a waiver after handing the nice man behind the counter $200 so I could jump out of a perfectly good airplane. He doesn’t know how close I came to bowing out, but realized the worst that could happen was death. The jump changed everything about my life, and inspired me to write a poem that won me a video camera. He doesn’t know.

The worst that could happen was death.

My ex had a major stroke a couple weeks ago. It’s the kind of stroke he can never recover from. He has four kids and two sick parents. I’ve been to see him five times since he was admitted. First time, a crash reintroduction to the life I left all those chapters ago, friends I hadn’t seen in twenty years. He looked so peaceful though, aside from the ventilator and the wrist restraints.

He is unable to speak, but tries. All we hear are rumbles and mumbles under his breath, slight whispers, gags, and the occasional cough, which doesn’t sound like his. He, as he was, will no longer be.

The brutal brow beats of reality keep coming in waves. I believe the body and soul are connected, but are mutually exclusive. He exists whether his body does or not, which brings me comfort, but death is death, and there is no turning back the clock, no white-out editing, no rewind. He and I will never engage in awkward, past-tense, coffee-induced reminiscence again, no side stories on Facebook, no out-of-the-blue texts. He’s gone. We are gone. His body is barely functioning. We will never be a “we” again.

The bond of love, of real love may bend, but never truly breaks. So my husband watches as I mourn while my first love dies in a hospital bed, while the memories sputter like fearful, forgotten popcorn kernels stuck in the back of the cabinet, finally in a hot oil bath, finally able to break free.

His brain is broken. Beyond broken. I sit with his cold hand in mine, trying to crack the code of the mumbled words, cheering his every move, his every attempt at progress, a cough, a raised arm, a furrowed brow. It’s all a tease, hopeful torture, teetering on the brink of the end.

Recently, a mentor of mine suggested Fear and Loathing as choice reading material. My ex was never much of a reader, not in the times we were together, but he seemed to love to live life by the balls: fast cars, loose women, gluttony and excess, debauchery, late-night antics until the wee hours. We’ve only gotten through chapter two so far, but the first night I read to him, he seemed to understand. This was my description.

“I started reading Fear and Loathing to him last night. He’s still buried under the stroke. It’s hard to tell what I’m really seeing and what I’m projecting, but there was a moment when he let out a muffled,“heh, heh,” a sinister nod to this already twisted, colorful story.”

The end, for real.