[The Space You Take] Chapt. 1: Something Always Breaking Us In Two, Part 1
“OI! OI! OI! Oi!”
“See me riiiide out of the sunset!” Grayson sang. “On yourrrr…color TV screen!”
“Out for all that I can get! If ya know what I mean!”
“Me singing by myself this time!” Grayson yelled over the music.
“Alright, do it!” I mock-yelled back.
“Ain’t got no gun, ain’t got no knife, don’t you start no fight!”
“Cause I’m T-N-T! I’m dyno-mite! T-N-T-”
“NO, Amber! ME singing!”
“I can’t even do the chorus?! Not even the oi’s?!”
“I’m a power load…”
“Oi! Oi! Oi!”
“AMBERRR! ME! SINGING!”
“But when’s it my turn!” I pretended to whine.
“Never! It’s never your turn! Only I get to sing!”
Smirking to myself, I returned my attention to the wintery streets of sucktastic Rice Lake, Wisconsin, while Grayson swayed and sang along to one of our favorite songs. He had memorized all the lyrics from playing Tony Hawk, and - being the super cool behavior therapist that I was - I decided to encourage this little 4 year old’s budding love for solid music by always having the CD in my car whenever I drove him someplace. Which, honestly, was a lot. Every day, in fact…to preschool and back…except for the past week, when a ferocious strep throat had laid me out, making me mute and achey and useless for anything else but camping out on my couch, watching old episodes of South Park and The Daily Show. Today was my first day back, and Grayson had practically sprinted out to my car, his backpack swinging from side to side on his back, when I had pulled into his driveway to take him to school earlier this morning.
“Hi Amber!” he had yelled cheerfully, yanking open the car door and sliding in. “Can you put on TNT by AC/DC?”
It reminded me of when we had first started working together, back in late spring. I’d brought a big box of NERDS with me the first time we met, and gave him one every time he listened to directions or looked me in the eye. By the third day, he was pressing his chubby little face to the window screens in the kitchen, watching me pull in and greeting me with a “Hi Amber! Did you bring NERDS with you today?” What can I say…sometimes artificial flavoring can be good for something.
I grinned at him. “Already got it queued up, buddy,” I replied, as I reversed out of the drive.
“But only me singing this time.”
“Fine,” I sighed. It was a favorite game - him being bossy, me pretending to whine like a little kid until he finally granted me permission to sing along to my own music. I don’t remember exactly when we first came up with it. Probably when I realized that it could be pretty tiring to be a 4 year old who was constantly told what to do all day long.
“You going to see Hansel tonight?” I heard him say, now.
I looked over at him in surprise. Reaching over to the radio dock, I quickly turned down the volume on the CD player. “No, sweetie, I’m not,” I said, looking over at him again. “Hansel and I aren’t friends anymore, remember?”
He looked down at his legs, which he had folded up on the seat, and then looked up at me, his eyes bright. “Yeah, you’re going to see Hansel tonight.”
I turned my eyes back the main drag, trying to ignore the drop in the pit of my stomach. Where was this coming from? We haven’t talked about Hansel in weeks.
It was so weird, how attached a kid could get to someone they had hung out with maybe four times. Though, to be fair, Grayson had been fascinated with Hansel from the moment he met him. At first I think it was because he was so tall, and then it was because Hansel cut down actual trees and drove a real live logging truck (which I totally got, since I was obsessed with almost all of my babysitters, especially the one who looked like Ali Mills from The Karate Kid AND was an actual cheerleader)…but mostly, I think it was because Hansel didn’t talk to him in that gross way that most adults did when they found out about Grayson. Do you ever notice that? How all of a sudden, it’s like they’re starring in some Hallmark Movie where the protagonist is just so good with kids, especially ones “with special needs?” So they kneel in front of them - you know, to get down to their level - and talk to them with wide eyes and high voices, and act like literally every word they say is a miracle? It’s disgusting. And Hansel didn’t do that. He talked to Grayson almost like Grayson was a peer, an adult. Which, not to star in a Hallmark Movie of my own, was the fastest way to win that kid’s heart (besides candy, of course).
So when Hansel and I broke up, I made a point to tell Grayson about it, because nothing feels worse as a kid than sensing something is different or wrong but no one will be honest with you about what’s going on. So I sat him down and told him simply and plainly that Hansel and I had decided to stop being friends.
“Hansel won’t be coming over to play anymore?” Grayson had asked, his bespectacled eyes round and wondering.
“Yep. Even though he still thinks you’re the coolest,” I said, gently tapping Grayson’s tummy, “He won’t be coming over to play anymore.
“Because it’d be weird?”
“Yeah, buddy. Because it’d be weird.”
Three days after that conversation, though, Munchkin had stared at me as I was getting to leave. “Hansel’s coming over to play?” He had asked, pushing his round little glasses further up his nose as he watched me sling my brown suede messenger bag over my shoulder.
The therapist in me had flippantly assumed that this just his way of trying to process a swift change in his carefully-ordered world. So I just shook my head no and told him goodbye and then I walked out of his house and to my car to find Hansel waiting for me to get off work so we could talk.
Connie, Grayson’s mom, often liked to say that Grayson was an “Indigo Kid”…there had been repeated and noted instances of him relaying messages from dreams to Connie or saying things out the blue that later would end up coming true. We all kind of breezily brushed it off, but…it was odd and more than a little creepy, when it happened. Grayson was a blabbermouth to the people he knew, but as part of his PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified…which is basically just a cool way of saying, “He doesn’t technically have autism, but it’s close!”), he had a hard time expressing himself. But in these instances…he would communicate clear as a bell, and with a knowing firmness that one couldn’t easily dismiss.
Like right now.
“Yeah, you’re going to see Hansel tonight.”
God, I hope not, I told myself, mentally sweeping the prediction away.
“Play T.N.T. again, Amber,” Grayson demanded, as he reached over and turned the volume back up. “And me singing by myself this time!”
“Do you still love me?”
A few weeks earlier, I had been holding the phone to my ear as I paced around my new living room, wondering how much longer this was going to take, when his question stopped me in my tracks. I closed my eyes. I wanted to lie. But I knew he would never believe me. I had tried once, during a fit of panic…after grappling for anything that would make this easier, that would cut this off totally and finally, I had angrily declared that I didn’t love him anymore, that I didn’t even know if I ever really had. The emotional uproar that resulted was like that slow-motion film they showed in 7th grade science class once, of a bullet being shot into an apple. For the rest of my life, I would never, ever forget the naked pain that passed through his hazel eyes, right before it transformed into disgusted disbelief, and then roaring fury. I was lying, he declared. And I was. But you won’t let me go, I remember thinking. I have to try and hurt you enough so you will finally just let me go.
And so now this.
But I couldn’t lie this time. That, at least, I knew.
“Yes,” I told him. I did, I do, I probably always will. “That’s the whole point.” The whole point of leaving, the whole point of not answering his calls, the whole point of trying to make him hate me. The whole point of every gut-wrenching, heartbreaking moment that had transpired between the two of us in the last few brutal months.
I love you, but I don’t make you happy, and I never will.
I love you, so I’m leaving.
I love you, I hope you can find someone else who can do that better than me.
I love you, so please just leave me alone.
I thought I found a way. A way out, a way to leave for good, a way to give us both a clean break.
It had never worked before. I had tried countless times to pry myself away from him…tear-soaked, dramatic, tragic scenes; long, drawn-out, knock-down, drag-out fights; and one huge, hours-long, panic-stricken, screaming, sobbing, borderline-violent episode. Yet, even if I managed to keep my resolve long enough to watch him leave - literally biting my tongue so I couldn’t call out to him, wait, stay, I made a mistake - I always crumbled the moment I saw his face again. I loved him…I didn’t want to be without him, and so I knew I would never be able to summon up the strength I needed to stay gone if he stayed in my sights.
So I decided to disappear. A note on his pillow, all of my stuff gone, a plea for him to not try and find me. I thought it would be easier that way. For both of us.
But it wasn’t, in the end. It just made everything worse. He deserved an explanation. “You don’t just end a three-year, serious relationship with a note and think that I’m not going to try and find you,” he told me, the night he waited for me after work so he could confront me, three days after I had left him. And he was right - I hadn’t expected him not to try. I had just hoped he wouldn’t ever be successful.
So in the end, I agreed to give him my new phone number if he would finally just go home. But it was a mistake. A poorly thought-out treaty, a misguided attempt to retreat from battle. It only opened the door to three long months of tortuous conversations, endless loops through the same reasons and explanations and arguments and accusations.
“I just don’t think I want to live if you’re not in my life,” he tearfully declared, later. I listened helplessly to the sound of his voice breaking, tears already streaming down my own cheeks. Hansel - this tall handsome logger, always such the strong, confident type - never cried.
Except when it came to me.
Except when I made him.
“You’re the only girl I’ve ever really loved,” he pleaded. “I don’t want to love anyone else if she’s not you.”
I closed my eyes against those words, tried hard to shut them out. How do I tell you that you’re wrong. It was the same question I had been grappling with since I first left him the beginning of that November. How do you tell someone you love that they don’t know what they’re talking about, that they’ll actually be much better off without you in the long run? That someday he’ll look back and wonder why he had ever thought that, had ever even felt that way, had wasted so much of his life on someone who was never even right for him from the start.
But I couldn’t tell him any of that, because it only start another fight, another long drawn-out round of both of us trying to talk enough sense into other until we felt like we were losing our minds. He wanted to hear that I was coming back, that I was willing to give him - us - another chance. “And I will never do that, Hansel,” I told him, quietly, during yet another phone call. No matter how much I wanted to, no matter how much I missed him, no matter how many times I sat on the edge of my bed in the middle of the night, my body racked with sobs, one movement away from shooting out the door and flying through the woods back to his house so I could slip under the covers next to him in our old bed and finally put myself out of this misery. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that doing all of that would feel so good and so right at first, but I knew eventually it would all start to feel wrong again…that the dead-end feeling would return, resurfacing until the quiet panic started flooding the shores. And then I would have to try to do all of this all over again, and I couldn’t keep doing that to him or to me. For once in my goddamn life, I had to stick with playing the long game. And even though it hurt me more than he’ll ever now to force myself to stay away with him, I did it so that, eventually, I would stop hurting him. “It’s over,” I told him. “I love you, but I’m never coming back. And if you love me, you have to let me go.”
After that, the calls had slowly started tapering off. He had called earlier that week, and, not wanting him to think I was just blowing him off, I had called him back the night before last, explaining that I was sick and it hurt too much to really talk.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Just feel better, we can talk later.”
I told him I would call him again when I was feeling back to normal…though I doubt either of us really believed that I would.