I’ve been thinking a lot about how people tend to sabotage themselves in wild, ruinous decisions, and what the root cause of these melt-downs really are — and if we should really be more mad about it or sad about the whole thing. When someone goes crazy, I’m wondering how we can dig to the bottom and change the ugliness inside.
I was thinking about this girl I used to know back in college who tried to cheat on her boyfriend with me. The girl had gotten into a huge fight with her boyfriend and they weren’t sure if they were staying together, and she called me for “comfort.” I went over to her place, alone, which was already a bad idea, and simple-minded me had no clue that I was the “other guy.”
It started kind of slow; she opened up her fold-out couch, we put on a movie, and she kept edging closer. The movie was actually good. I got genuinely interested in the plot and cinematography and I started thinking about popcorn and I looked over at the girl to ask for some, and she batted her eyes really big and leaned in to kiss me. At that second, I understood everything, like one of those epiphany plot-twists that re-arrange the entire story, and I almost kissed back — except her breath smelled really, really bad. Like shrimp skins and a refrigerator after a power outage. I probably would’ve kissed her even though I knew it wasn’t right, but her breath sobered me up and I pushed her away.
She suddenly threw me off the couch and cussed me out and just about drop-kicked me in embarrassment. I was so confused and bewildered. I apologized and left; I didn’t have time to collect my shoes, and she probably still has them. Driving home, barefoot, my stomach felt sick and I was kind of mad at her, but mostly mad at myself. I got home and I looked at my cat trying to jump out a closed window and I suddenly fell over with laughter. Whooping, cringing laughter. I didn’t know why, but it was better than being mad.
Later I found out that the girl went back to her boyfriend and she told him everything, and apparently I was the realization she needed that she only wanted to be with him. I saw them somewhere at some church event (of all places), and they both glared at me, the other guy, and I ran to the restroom and left out the back door. I felt that same sort of confused anger, the laughing and cringing, the twisted knot in my guts that I had done something terrible and stupid but was also violated somehow. Driving home, I felt flustered, and just as barefoot as the day she took my shoes.
I keep thinking today about this weird turn of events. I’m trying to understand that strange feeling of being mad and perplexed. I want to stay angry, you know, because that’s the obvious reaction — cheating is wrong; she tried to use me, she could’ve used mouthwash at least — and now they’re married and I was the dirty evil catalyst in their revisionist history of romance. It was humiliating.
But there’s this other thought. This deeper, softer, quieter whisper. I thought about this girl’s position, her precarious, uncertain spiral of anxiety, her life suddenly exploded. I thought about how lonely she must’ve felt, in her apartment, after her huge knockdown drag-out fight with her boyfriend.
And that was it maybe: that we all live with this intense, tragic, melancholic fear of loneliness and abandonment and disconnection, and we so often don’t know how to cope with it. We act out, we lash out, we cheat and lie and use and steal and absorb. Of course, that doesn’t make any of it right, but I understand it more today than I did then. We must somehow cope with this knowledge that life has launched into being like an irreversible hourglass and we are headed into a permanent dark, the lights shutting off behind us down a hallway of irretrievable nostalgia, and we ultimately walk this hall alone, with a few chances at connection, and then we’re gone. Everyone leaves, including you and me. No one stays because no one can.
She didn’t know how to deal with it, so she called me out of some misguided attempt to feel whole again. Like a pair of shoes, I was tried and tossed out, because I didn’t get with the program — and I get it. I had only exposed what was already inside, this terrible fear that no one wants us and that everything is future dust.
This is why we’re so crazy and irrational. We feel the weight of this loneliness pressing in our lungs, squeezing our breath in an increasingly tightening choke-hold, and it’s unbearable sometimes. The silence is haunting, crushing. So we grab onto anything for wholeness, for healing. We expect an ideal day when life finally settles, when life catches up to the romantic picture in our heads, when we get a grip on control so that people won’t leave and our success won’t be fleeting. But that day never, ever comes. It’s all fleeting. It’s all dying. Nothing is really in our control, not our riches or poverty and certainly not people. We live alone and we die alone. We exist in our own heads, not really knowing each other or being fully known, and for a few seconds we might catch a glimpse of one another, and then the lights go out.
It explains, maybe, why we’re so angry all the time, or why we cry randomly, or why we need to be on our phones all day, or keep busy with our hands, or avoid tough conversations: because we’re constantly reminded of this bottomless abyss, this chasm where each human soul becomes extinct and extinguished for good. I get disproportionately angry when things don’t go my way, because it taps into this basement-truth that life never goes our way, and so I lash out, hoping to fight against the unfairness of the world by flailing against an existence I didn’t ask for, only to exhaust more time that I didn’t have. It feels like so many of our efforts are wasted into a singularity, a vacuum where no one notices, where years are spent on relationships and projects and children and charities and it all crumbles on a bad day. It is, as Shakespeare said, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I could tell you that God and faith and legacy and love are eternal, that they leave some kind of stamp on the earth beyond us. But it doesn’t always feel that way. I don’t have that sort of bow-tie wrap-up right now.
But I guess I’m trying to be less mad. At her, at myself, at the slow crawl down the tunnel. I understand more. I feel more, for the girl who tried to use me, because even though it was wrong, it was a way to make things right, a way to correct the disorder in her own universe, a way to shore up the loneliness that breaks in on us all. If I had to be the “other guy” for her to be happy somewhere else, then I guess it went the best way it could have.
And I think now, there must be better ways to shout against the dark, better ways than beating my fists and pulling from people what they cannot give me. There must be ways to cope with the shattered glass that do not leave us worse than how we got here. There is a path against the current. I suppose we must learn to live with the echo of silence inside, together, even if it’s only for a few moments before we return to dust. I suppose we must go, anyway. We cherish these falling grains of sand, somehow, you and I.