Flashbacks and relapses, though, completely different animals, I considered, until it finally dawned on me: this wasn’t about me at all. At sunset we talked about anger and complaining, but only briefly. The fear and vulnerability we never discussed. Now I felt as if we were standing near the edge of the railing outside the truck and we could go over the edge any minute. We were physically safe in the truck, but on pretty fragile footing emotionally.
I didn’t want to push him if he was that close to losing control or even shutting down, but I wanted to know how close he was to the brink. “Has this happened before? That you felt this way?”
“I’ve felt this angst before, yeah.”
“In situations like this?”
“When you are asleep?”
“Sometimes when I sleep, which isn’t often. And sometimes when I’m awake, when I’m in the shower, driving, shaving, working. But never like this. Never with someone else.”
I possessed no skills to be walking along this precipice with him. Yet suddenly here we were, and I wanted to be able to help and listen. He kept to himself, and that I certainly understood; I never let anyone know about how Jason treated me, especially those who knew the other side of him. Isolating myself, revealing to no one how horrible he treated me shrouded my life until now, and the only other soul who knew sat inches from me, equally isolated.
“Is this why you are so solitary? Why you keep to yourself?”
“People say that a lot. They talk about me. I know. They call me ‘Ted the Unabomber.’”
Is that what Ted meant? I never put that together.
“People say lots of things. I don’t care about that stuff. I care that you close yourself off because you are afraid of hurting people, of hurting me. Or maybe being hurt, like me. I understand. You internalize. I see it. I do it, too.
“But I don’t need someone else to tell me that about you. I’ve seen so much more in you since this weekend started. Don’t listen to any of that garbage that others say.” Dwelling on life’s disappointments described the past two decades of my own life, and for the first time I finally accepted goodness and beauty and contentment into my life. My job, my surroundings, even the Lumberjack all reminded me that a change was beginning for me and I wasn’t seeing my world through the eyes of others. Opening myself up even meant wanting to be more thoughtful and reflective and compassionate like him, and now I was discovering he was just like me.
“I am solitary,” he admitted, finally pulling away from me. “I didn’t use to be that way, but you know, life changes you.”
“Life, or death?” Again, he said nothing. I decided to go all in – put the cards on the table as I did with him yesterday. I planted my feet firmly between him and the proverbial edge on which he teetered, and if I got pushed off in the process and he was still standing safely on the cliff, maybe that was how we would end our weekend. I wasn’t going to let him think he was alone, even if that’s how everyone else treated him.
“You don’t have to ever tell me anything if you don’t want, but if you changed from who you once were, something obviously changed you. And I know how easy it is to close the doors inside yourself, to block off rooms in your mind and in your heart, and just stop using them like an old, empty house. But when you close those doors, when you lock them, people can no longer get in.”
“People don’t want in, they just want to pound on the door, come in, look around, make fun of what they see, and leave.” Anger emanated from him; the outside looked identical, but inside he seethed.
“And so we become solitary people. I get that.” I really did, I needed him to know I understood his anger and his solitude. The drawbridge was rising, closing me out and I refused to let him hunker down alone.
He reached for the car keys. Using my hand, I pressed softly against his attempt and using my words, I refused to let that door slam.
“No. You are not closing me out.” His arm blocked me, and he could have pushed his elbow into my chest and thrust the keys in the ignition before I even caught my breath. By his own words, he was not a man to betray a woman’s trust, and he earned mine. Now if only I could gain his.
“I want to help you open those doors. It may take a long time to explore them all, but I am not looking to find something inside to take from you. I just want to be inside, and see what’s in all of these rooms, because I have a feeling what I find in there will be miraculous.”
So what if I carried the analogy too far. His pain and anger were palpable, and I recognized their familiar taste. He pulled his hand away, leaving the keys on the dash.
“Is there one door, any door, you would open and let me inside?”
I left his familiar silence to dominate the space between us and now we both knew we weren’t going anywhere until something changed. His response would not be violent since it didn’t exist inside him, at least as far as I knew. But I couldn’t guarantee that last night’s manifestation of passion could also be the same wellspring of anger. His command of the unspoken word became my tool of choice and my new and growing ability to wield it leveled the field at this moment.
“It’s too overwhelming for you,” he finally offered. “I know you don’t want to relive what’s already buried. You want to put the painful parts of life behind you and ignore them.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Isn’t that why you are in Wyoming? You’re escaping the ugliness of your life, of the experiences and memories that are too overwhelming for you.” How did this get turned around back to me again? Another technique he mastered, and his assertion, while accurate, varied just enough that I felt capable of keeping my feet embedded on the edge of his struggle.
“Maybe. I don’t think you’re wrong, and I didn’t tell you the details about Jason, maybe for that very reason, but what is overwhelming for me isn’t causing me to have flashbacks. Maybe because my ugliness is still so recent, or maybe because I may have given hope for something beautiful to someone else and I have found the peace I need.
“But for right now, here, it’s just you and me, and for at least a little while, I’m not thinking about my own past and my own painful moments. I’m thinking about you, because I think you are desperately trying to find peace, whether it is in the splitting of wood, or the kindness to others, or the solemnity of a perfect sunset, and all that kindness and solemnity isn’t enough to heal the pain you are carrying around with you.” I grasped him around the wrist. He didn’t respond in kind.
“You know in the movies, when someone is hanging off the edge of a cliff, or a building or a bridge, this is how they hold on to each other until help arrives? Well, I’m holding on to you and I’m not going to let you fall right now.” He slowly wrapped his fingers around my wrist covering the bruise. He didn’t hold on very tight.
How different his clutch felt from last night, weaker, as if I was the one conveying all the strength into him. Minutes passed in silence, and to my word I didn’t let go of his hand, or my commitment to stay with him until his words emerged. He didn’t refuse to speak; the words’ journey to come out of his mind and his memories took nearly an ocean to cross, and I was content to wait for them.